Redefinition of Space

Published June 20, 2022

Prague Studio Alta hosted at the end of May the conference Trans Europe Halles 93#, named Cultivation.

The conference programme explored on multiple levels new approaches to the work in cultural sphere, emphasizing innovativeness, social responsibility and sustainability and the role of culture and art in dealing with the current socio-ecological crisis.

The recent experience of the Covid pandemic – both individual and societal – has led to a global shift in thinking and priorities in various areas. One of the consequences of this limiting condition that caught us off guard is that it has awakened in people and society the need for certain forgotten values, like slowdown, care, stability, sustainability, solidarity, and mutual aid, as opposed to aggressive growth.

This trend reflects in many different local and international initiatives and movements. The concept of “nerůst” (no growth) – originally born in Brno’s experimental theatre HaDivadlo – is one of them. Nerůst was an important topic of an open letter recently sent to the Minister of Culture, signed by representatives of various Czech cultural institutions. The aim was to initiate a public debate about the need to transform the current exhausted system that has not been creating a suitable environment for innovative and socially responsible culture for many years. The culture evaluated only by economic and quantitative indicators, ceases to serve as a quality tool for reflection and becomes just another source for reporting quantity. To create is not only to produce, as the current system of financing and managing culture implies, but also to explore, question, prepare, rest, and reflect – the letter says.

This new way of thinking, not only in the culture and art areas, became the main topic of the four-day international conference Trans Europe Halles 93# named Cultivation. Cultivation, as a process that – simply put – favours the preservation and enhancement of the existing over the creation or search for the new. It is a long-term and slow process that requires a holistic approach and the results won´t show immediately.

The conference brought together the interests of two groups – one represented by cultural centres, often in need of resources and access to affordable spaces – and the other – focused on occupation of empty and unused buildings across Europe. The conference was thus attended by artists, curators, and dramaturgs on the one hand, and urban planners, architects, and analysts on the other. In recent years, it has become even clearer how the synergy of thinking and acting between these two groups is beneficial and necessary for both sides as well as for the outside world.

Tiffany Fukuma, CEO of TEH (Trans Europe Halles), a company that breathes new life into abandoned buildings in major European cities, said right at the beginning of the conference that TEH is today the future of cultural centres. With 40 years of experience, a wealth of know-how in various fields and an international structure, TEH can help to make even challenging cultural projects happen and facilitate access to space and funding. On the other hand, TEH understands the indispensable role of art and culture in transformation and cultivation of spaces and supports their diverse forms.

TEH is also an active part of the New European Bauhaus, an EU platform focusing on sustainable development and environmental improvement, connecting individuals and organisations interested to actively enter the public space and influence the environment.

The conference took place in the premises of Studio ALTA in Prague’s Invalidovna, an almost unused and neglected but beautiful historic building with a wonderful atmosphere. It was an inspiring experience for the participants, a practical demonstration of the topics discussed in the debates and workshops of the conference and relevant to many other cultural centres based on non-commercial foundations.

Studio director Lída Vacková outlined the current situation: “Studio ALTA will soon be moving again. This will be the second time we will have to deal with renovations, redefine the structure of our program, raise funds for the necessary investments, negotiate with sponsors, and establish ourselves in the community of our new location. The conference is a means for us to seek alternative approaches and to establish new norms for the functioning of a cultural centre to avoid repeating old patterns… Cultivation for us means listening and learning to think about our activities within the existing ecosystems, learning to discuss sustainability while keeping in mind that a healthy environment for each of its components is an integral part of it…”

The conference focused on 4 main topics reflecting the current situation as well as long-term efforts:

– Symbiotic Programming

– Space

– Caring for self and others

– Crisis of Imagination

In terms of transformation of thinking, it is necessary to start with the core of the cultural centres’ own activities, the programme, and methods they use to organise their activities. The goal should be a symbiotic programming that takes into account the sustainable use of human and natural resources and the needs and interests of the diverse communities involved, including the artistic one. It is important and useful to map and cultivate the resources already available in different areas, to find a balance between quality and quantity, between the values we ourselves recognise and those of the (artistic) market, and to learn how to communicate these values correctly.

A special section was dedicated to cultivation of the often-neglected relationships within the team, with colleagues with whom we spend most of our time, with whom we collaborate, who inspire us and who make our work possible in the first place. It opened up the questions such as: How much attention do we pay to our work, to administrative duties, and how much to ourselves? How do we keep the spark in the system? How to return the energy invested in the work back to the team? The participants of the debates were searching for possible pillars for building local and international structures capable of facing ever stronger crises, than the one we are going through right now, as well as exploring the potential of friendship and its ability to create support structures and boundaries that help to create a safe space.

At the meeting FocalPoint: Redefining Space, organised by the Creative Europe Desk Czechia, 12 cultural organisations presented their visions and current practices connected to space and its potential for building a healthy environment. The event sought answers to questions such as: How should we create financially sustainable spaces? What should an environmentally sustainable space look like? How can we involve local communities in programme design? What is our social responsibility as a cultural organisation? The presented projects are examples of sustainable practices and can serve as an inspiration for challenging times. The organizers of the event decided to employ the PechaKucha format of 7-minute presentations.

Simona Rybová from Studio Alta used the example of the studio’s history to show that it was possible and necessary to adapt your programming to the circumstances and conditions. A few years ago, the studio had to move from a large space to the Invalidovna, where the team had rather a lot of small rooms available. The new space was not suitable for physical and dance theatre, which the studio was mainly involved in, so it had to change its programme and dramaturgy. Consequently, the studio started to offer more exhibitions, workshops, and residency programmes for artists. This change proved to be beneficial especially in the time of the epidemic, when, due to the anti-pandemic measures, a programme for a smaller number of people became more suitable. The studio also appreciated the adjacent garden where events for larger audiences could take place. In the end, Alta proved to be more a matter of idea than space. “We will be moving again, but we are ready for it. We have to go on – it’s a new challenge to take the idea elsewhere and bring it to life in other spaces,” said Simona Rybová in conclusion.

Other Czech projects included the presentation by Aleš Roziak from the Hraničář association, which is working on the restoration of the historic cinema building in Ústí nad Labem, but also deals with light pollution in cities. Yvona Kreuzmannová presented the brand new Křenovka art and community centre, where thanks to the generous investment of the owner of the building, a beautiful new space for the dance theatre Ponec and other cultural activities were created.

Tomáš Kozelský, from the Brno-based architectural studio Kooga, introduced the audience to a project that used material from a design exhibition in Brno to create a multifunctional space in Prague. Anna Gümplová, from the Prague City Hall, spoke about an initiative to systematically support art in Prague public space.

Adam Langer, from the Sladovna Písek association, presented the already functioning creative hub for children, which is a popular space for education and artistic experimentation. The Kinedok project, presented by Dominik Vontor from IDF (Institute of Documentary Film) focuses on charm of shared artistic experience. Kinedok is an alternative film distribution platform that brings and screens interesting documentaries from all over Europe in unconventional places.