Sunday morning. Sitting at Kavarna Sem, the closest coffee place to Stara Elektrana, where I spent a couple of hours each day since I came to Ljubljana. It’s 7:35am, and it’s the first day after Mladi Levi Performance Art Festival. I got up too early in the morning, skipping the festival’s afterparty, due to my lack of energy and a feeling of dizziness that lasted for some hours after I had attended the Polka Chinata workshop (a Bolognian folk dance brought back to stage by Alessandro Sciarroni) last evening. Also, my train back to Innsbruck leaves in about an hour. It’s not that far of a distance. The ride takes around six hours, despite that, this was my first visit to Ljubljana, the capital city of our neighboring country. (And if it wasn’t for the organizers of Mladi Levi Festival, who knows, if I’d have ever made it there).
The invitation followed the interview with performance artist Lea Kukovičič whom I met at Kunstraum Innsbruck and who is involved in the festival organization. I was invited there to cover the closing event of the EU-co-funded project Create to Connect -> Create to Impact (CtC -> CtI) that was held during the Mladi Levi festival, as it was also initiated by the Slovenian festival organization Bunker. The project CtC -> CtI was established nine years ago as a joint effort of sixteen European cultural and research organizations to create impact in the society through building long-lasting connections between artists, cultural workers, researchers, and the audience.
My first day at the festival, August 25th, started at 10:30 at Stara Elektrana, the old power station, which is the central point of Bunker and Mladi Levi Festival. A presentation of the book “Social Impact in Arts and Culture : The Diverse Lives of a Concept” edited by Iva Kosmos and Martin Pogačar (researchers at Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts) was held there. The publication documents the results of the CtC -> CtI project, it presents further research and reflections on social impact in the field of culture and arts, involving all partner institutions and various actors. In this article, I will focus on this publication and its topic. Why? Because within its research, everything is connected: It opens up a meta level – to the festival, to the organizers and even to the reason why I am here writing about it.
the „problem“ with social impact
“What are we talking about when we talk about social impact in the arts?”, a question raised by the book editor Iva Kosmos who refers to this term as one of the most dominant ones in the context of project writing and EU funding – despite its popularity, however, there is a lack of sources that clarify what it actually means. She states that social impact in the field of the arts originates in the British discourse of cultural politics and is closely connected to its policies. With public funding processes, culture and art had become a tool for controlled policy making. “Europe does not fund projects, but finances its policies through projects”, as it can be often heard in workshops for writing EU funding applications. It even seems, the importance for including social impact in project goals makes actors in the field of culture and art responsible for fixing society’s problems (e. g. inequality, inclusion, empowerment) that the political system – which also decides about distribution of cultural funding – caused or maintains. Hence, when projects need to be written according to policy agendas, are we in culture and arts still working for society or for the system?
Involved in the round table discussion on the book was Istvan Szakats, cultural worker and head of the independent foundation Alt Art in Cluj, Romania, which was also part of CtC -> CtI. Working close together with the Roma-community in the Transylvanian ghetto Pata-Rât, Szakats has been advocating for empowerment through culture, socially engaged art and active citizenship for the past 20 years. He presented to us the aftermovie of the festival Khetane that was carried out by the Roma-community with support from Alt Art, mentioning the fact, that this video was made for white people to watch – it doesn’t show the dirt, the toxicity, the poverty, and oppression that this community, which counts more than 1.500 people, is faced with in every-day-life. “This ghetto is really the bottom”, so Szakats, who is constantly confronted with questioning his own position and responsibility towards this highly oppressed community. “We are trying to give space to the people, without putting our structures on them”. While his organization is supposed to create Excel sheets, calculating the impact their cultural work has on society, the community living in Pata-Rât can’t count on any hope for a better future.
“if you start quantifying life, you miss life”
How to measure social impact – is it even possible? Another debate that is risen in the publication and addressed by editors Iva Kosmos and Martin Pogačar in the discussion. Often, social impact is tried to be determined through interviews with the involved actors and the audience immediately after an event had happened, but in many cases, it takes years until an impact can be grasped, also, it is not possible to clearly trace back impact to one single event or project. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t measure anything”, Kosmos states, “but it can’t be measured in the way social impact is now conceptualized”.
“The wish to have an effect on society is deeply ingrained in artistic practice, although it might not be easily framed as a measurable and predictable ‘impact’. The source of motivation for this book was precisely this dynamic between social impact as defined by funders – especially its neoliberal version (of art being used as a quick solution for social problems while disregarding their structural sources) – and social impact as understood and practiced in the actual field of practice”
– Iva Kosmos
How to take responsibility?
In order to reach the broader society and enhance social impact, Bunker invites its audience in participation and uses public spaces for their events. During the festival, Debatna kafana/Discussion cafés were held in the park of Tabor district over a cup of (widely known as) Turkish coffee. There, “the discussions are placed in life itself”, between the sports center, children playing, passengers walking by.
At 5pm, I attended the discussion ART – FUTURE – SOCIAL IMPACT with the Belgian artist duo Silke Huysmans and Hannes Derrere and Slovenian artist Lea Kukovičič (FORSALE). A recurring term of this debate was “responsibility” – while a bunch of army helicopters kept flying over our heads, Kukovičič raised the question how we could take responsibility for not knowing what was going on. And this implies further questions: Where does the abstract concept of capitalism lead us? Is it in our responsibility to control it? How can we control something we don’t understand anymore? Huysmans and Dereere are at Mladi Levi to present their documentary performance OUT OF THE BLUE. It’s a field research project on the controverse industry of deep sea mining and its possibilities which are currently tested by a robot of the Belgian company Deme-Gsr.
“In our theater performances, we bring together various aspects on the topic of mining and let the contrast between different opinions speak for themselves. We leave the task of seeing what lies underneath our research to the spectators”
as Dereere describes their critical, but at the same time objective approach to a complex topic. In both examples, theater is used as a vehicle, not necessarily to share a certain knowledge, but to engage the audience in making their own thoughts.
Reflecting the impact
Towards the end of Mladi Levi festival, all the debates and performances evoked in me one more time the big question of the meaning behind all the culture and art production – and with it my role in reporting about it. The presented book opens with the question of social impact in the field of culture and arts and ends in the afterword by Martin Pogačar with the question of art itself. By concluding ten pages of paragraphs, trying to define art and its role for society, one of them seems essential in the context of the given debates:
“art is what denies and defies the imposed limits. It is essentially uncontrollable as a practice and force that drives engagement, participation, collaboration, and change …that questions and moves. It cannot be thought of in terms of input and output”
– Martin Pogačar
We live in a society that is controlled by a system which demands more and more for measurability and calculation than giving space to abstract parameters as values or emotions. Bureaucracy asks from the field of culture and arts – a field that originates in the latter –, to keep up in terms of calculations with the fields of natural sciences and economics, instead of trusting the actors that there will be an outcome with impact, even if it is not proofed and predicted in presenting numbers. If there isn’t allowed space for the non-predictable in the arts anymore, does it still belong to the arts?
When it comes to the reflection of my role, journalistic coverage is important for the proof of the project, the work of the organizers, as well as the publication to be brought in circulation. Around 15 international journalists were invited on behalf of the project CtC -> CtI, not only to report on the events that were happening in this context, but also for building a stronger international network between artists, cultural workers and freelancing journalists. If you consider all the actors that were involved in the fact that you are reading this article now – for me it started with Kunstraum Innsbruck hosting a production by Bunker, but it could be traced back much further (the similar can be applied when trying to map out the social impact of a cultural event – it’s in accordance to a butterfly effect).
Coming back to one of the key ideas of the CtC -> CtI project, the impact is bound to connections and networking between people. And at the same time: In bringing people together, there will always be an impact, as individuals influence each other. For me personally, the impact of the festival was not only in making new connections, but also in walking the streets of Ljubljana, in encountering its everyday life, the vendors in the supermarkets, the waiters in the coffee places, figuring out the local words for “hello” (dober dan), “thank you” (hvala), or “enjoy the meal” (dober tek)… impact is also about the life that visitors are confronted with during Mladi Levi festival, the life that happens outside the bubble of culture and arts.
As a conclusion of CtC -> CtI, the organizers could say about themselves: “It had for sure a strong impact on us, we all learned something during the period of this project” – from organizing and problem-solving skills to collective decision-making processes. “But the beauty for us lies especially in the new friendships and the sustainable international network we built”. And at the end, there is to say: This project probably couldn’t have been carried out the same way – and for sure, I wouldn’t have been to Mladi Levi festival this year – if it wasn’t for the EU-funding.
| Brigitte Egger
 Stara Elektrana – The Old Power Station is a space for contemporary performing arts and workshops, which range from cultural management to dance techniques, various contemporary performances and other events curated by the non-profit-organization Bunker.