Capital Culture

Warsaw is bidding to be the 2016 European Capital of Culture. Keep your fingers crossed for Wawa. I interviewed Grzegorz Piątek, the Artistic Director for the Warsaw team. You know he’s cool because he’s not one of those who rants on about tearing down the Central Station but supports the action to give the commie-era building a good scrub (read about it here; in Polish only). Read the write-up of the interview here or scroll down. 

The (Cultural) Case for Warsaw

The Insider is rooting for Warsaw to bag the title of the European Capital of Culture 2016. Go, Warsaw, Go!

“We need this title. And we want this title,” declares Grzegorz Piątek, the Artistic Director heading the Warsaw’s team competing to be the European Capital of Culture 2016.

In a program that started in 1985, the EU designates two cities annually with the yearlong duty as the focal points of culture. One city is picked from Old Europe, and the other, a representative from the new EU recruits. Poland’s 2016 arts-and-culture counterpart will be in Spain. Athens was the first European City of Culture. By the time Kraków took the honour in 2000, the name has morphed into European Capital of Culture.

Based on a rotation system, the countries hosting the title are known in advance, allowing time for the cities within the host-countries that are vying for big time cultural recognition to slug it out for this sought-after gig.

The competition is stiff. After the first round, Bialystok, Bydgoszcz, Łódź, Poznań, Szczecin and Toruń were booted out from the contest. Together with Warsaw, the last five standing are Gdańsk, Katowice, Lublin and Wrocław. Each has unique selling points to justify their claim to the title.

By now, the paperwork is done. The deadline for submitting the final proposal was May 13. Smooth-talking (or writing) alone won’t clinch the deal. A team of judges will be in Poland this month for on-site inspections before handing out their verdict on June 21. The judges will want to find implemented and ongoing cultural and social initiatives showing that the candidate can walk the talk.

Grzegorz, an architect by education, has a track record of walking the talk. Only in his 30s, he has under his belt the Golden Lion for the best exhibit at the 2008 Venice Biennale of Architecture plus an active engagement in local and international urban design programs.

The ECoC-holder is expected to roll out a packed agenda of music and performance arts do’s. But it’s not just about playing impresario. Grzegorz explains what it takes to bring home the title, “This isn’t about increasing ticket sales to museums and concerts. Culture isn’t just events. It’s about people being in public places and having dialogues. It’s about improving public spaces, transportation, how simple things that surround us, for example tram tickets, are designed. It’s about bringing quality and beauty into everyday life.”

To hear public voices, the team has been actively hooking up with the residents and artistic communities. One such dialogue-driven culture is the Warsaw Under Construction (WUC) festival, founded in 2009, where participants can just grab the mike and speak up on the evolving cityscape. The exercise has already made tangible impacts. “The Świętokrzyska street will be dug up for the construction of the second metro line. The city initially wanted to just re-lay the road after the work is done. But during a WUC workshop with NGO’s, suggestions came up on how to use the space differently. The city is now willing to listen to these ideas,” says Grzegorz.

If you want to talk right into the ears of Warsaw’s ECoC2016 team, drop in at their office at Pl. Konstytucji. The ground floor workshop is one of the numerous open spaces for idea swapping. Under the flyer of “City of Talent”, vacant properties that cannot be put on the resale market are leased out at lower rents to NGO’s or cafes. “‘City of Talent’ is not the X-Factor game show,” says the talented architect with a laugh.  “It’s about access to culture, opportunities for creative minds. The Nowy Wyspaniały Świat Café is an outcome of such an approach. It’s a prominent location offered by the city to NGOs for cultural and social life. With ECoC2016, such initiatives will move to beyond the center.”

The urban-living specialist is pleased with the ongoing effort to breathe cultural and social life into the “forgotten” districts. The Warsaw Music Week (May 2011) did just that with venues spread out and tickets at affordable figures. The 28th International Film Festival Up To 21 (also in May 2011) saw young talents, local and foreign, filming in the Bemowo, Bielany, Żoliborz and Ursus – districts not widely considered as arty hotspots. On the Warszawa2016 website, you will find more records detailing the “walk the talk” achievements to date.

Being the nation’s capital, Warsaw’s has an infrastructural competition advantage. Stationed in Warsaw are the major art and entertainment powerhouses, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the National Opera, as well as foreign national reps such as the Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise and Instituto Cervantes. Over 1000 institutions, big and small, have pledged allegiance to Warsaw’s 2016 bid by responding to an open call for projects. You might ask if Warsaw is doing so well on its own steam, why be bothered with the ECoC at all?

“We want to join the ranks of Copenhagen, Barcelona; cities known as cultural hubs,” answers Grzegorz decisively. “Warsaw has the Parliament and the skyscrapers. We are in the shadow of politics and business. The title will let Warsaw shine as a major cultural center.” The ECoC tag secures international limelight but it isn’t hitting the jackpot in that the winning city has to raise the funds to finance the projects. However, the clout of the title will open doors and galvanise the public. “Many of the things wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t bidding,” says Grzegorz. “Just imagine how much is still ahead of us that we can achieve with the title.”

While there are infrastructural pluses, there are also the flipsides. “In a city of this size and diversity, it’s harder to get the message across. Warsaw is a melting pot. It’s hard to play on loyalty and local patriotismsince half of the residents are not born here. Sometimes they are more attached to their hometowns,” the architect points out. Just as capitals cities like Paris and Madrid are subjected to jibes from their citizens, it’s no secret that it’s a national pastime for non-native Varsovians to poke fun at the country’s HQ. Grzegorz believes that the ECoC title can help establish common ground, saying, “The city’s slogan is ‘Fall in Love with Warsaw’. Culture unites. We can create reasons for falling in love with Warsaw. With the ECoC2016, we can give back [to the whole nation].”

In the spirits of giving back, Warsaw’s ECoC2016 team was the first to make their Round One bid proposal available online, while some other finalists are still holding the cards close to the chest.

Another ECoC requirement is to highlight the common aspects of the European culture. Grzegorz relishes having the next four years to discover and redefine a common European cultural ID since it has evolved after the expansion. He notes that Warsaw’s genetic strength is its ability to reinvent and rejuvenate. Despite the city’s tumultuous history, it has always got back up on its feet. “We want to give this spirit to Europe. The courage, energy and the forward-looking stance,” he adds.

“We have the biggest challenge [among the 5 contenders]. Regional winners can get away with just promoting their city and region. We have to prove that we can deliver for the city and the country,” Grzegorz continues. So, if Warsaw wins, it is committed to stringing all the bidding cities into the 2016 social and cultural benefits package. “The river splits Warsaw into two. The ‘Vistula, A River That Connects’ project aims at uniting the two Warsaw’s. It’s also symbolic for uniting the two Polands, urban and rural; the two Europes, Old and New; and uniting EU with non-EU states. We have big ideas. But they are realistic.”

The man leading Warsaw’s bid is optimistic that the ECoC2016 title will be awarded to Warsaw. Order your champagne…or vodka, now.

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About kitfchung

Experienced food and travel journalist based in Warsaw, Poland.
This entry was posted in Interviews, Poland, Published articles, Warsaw and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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