Košice 2013: A year of culture, construction and legacy-building

kosice tearAt the end of a short residential street near to the south-western corner of Košice’s historical centre is a walled enclosure of warehouse-like buildings, scattered around an area of sparse woodland. In early March this year, whatever stretches of the walls that were not tumbling down were topped by tangled and rusted barbed wire. A small team of workmen assaulted an outlying property with a digger, while visitors were greeted at the gate by a barking German shepherd dog and gruff caretaker.

According to visualisations attached to detailed architectural plans, however, by mid-2013 the area of scrubland beyond the gate will be unrecognisable. There will be an underground car park and a sculpture-scattered courtyard, around which will stroll a smattering of youthful visitors. Some will even be break-dancing or roller-blading, and all will be absorbing a distinctive cultural vibe. The central building, which in March was vast and imposing and empty, like a desolate Victorian asylum, will be transformed into a thrilling cultural centre, home of dance and artists’ studios, gallery space, theatre auditoriums and a café.

This is Kasarne, or Kulturpark, a former military barracks that is one of the key locations in the transformation of Košice into the 2013 European Capital of Culture (ECoC). The ECoC project not only aims to train all cultural eyes on the east of Slovakia for 12 months – attracting artists, musicians, craftspeople, theatre groups and thousands of tourists – but also it will revitalise Košice itself.

Parks and buildings, such as the Kasarne, will be refreshed and repurposed, while schoolchildren and pensioners alike will be immersed in culture throughout their daily lives. Even after the EU’s prestigious mantle has moved on to the three cities in Sweden, Latvia and Bosnia that will take over in 2014, a cultural infrastructure will remain in Slovakia, offering Slovaks the tools and facilities to continue their education.

Košice will become a permanent city of the arts, attached to European cultural networks and with representatives on international discussion panels and ideas-sharing committees. Košice 2013 will put Košice of any given year firmly on the map.

The ECoC initiative dates from 1985, when the Greek and French ministers of culture, Melina Mercouri and Jack Lang, hatched a plan to focus continent-wide cultural celebrations on a single city each year. Athens became Europe’s first designated cultural hub, eight years before the current iteration of the European Union, which now decides the ECoC, even came into being.

The stated purpose of the project has been continually tinkered with, but by 2007, when the EU offered its newest member state Slovakia the chance to host the cultural showpiece (in cooperation with Marseille, in France), the intentions were clearly defined. The initiative now is designed to “highlight the richness and diversity of European cultures; celebrate the cultural ties that link Europeans together; bring people from different European countries into contact with each other’s culture and promote mutual understanding; and foster a feeling of European citizenship.”

This in turn offers a “valuable opportunity to regenerate cities; raise their international profile and enhance their image in the eyes of their own inhabitants; give new vitality to their cultural life; and boost tourism.”

It earns a winning city an initial injection of €63m of EU funds, with various performance related add-ons as the revitalisation progresses. The subsequent boost in revenue from tourism is seemingly limitless.

For many in Slovakia, the obvious choice of host city was always Košice, the cultural hub of the east. It is a city of art and letters positioned in one of the most culturally varied regions of central Europe. Its proud history combines with a huge appetite for industry and modernity, which is underpinned by a population that is diverse, multicultural and intellectual.

But procuring the right to be the official focal point of cultural Europe is a more complicated business than just picking up the phone and offering your availability. It takes organisation and dedication, endless enthusiasm and serious commitment. And above all it needs a concept: a coherent plan around which to build a bid. This needs to be formal and serious, yet inspiring, and must convince judging panels from stuffy Brussels to consider a city it may never have heard of before. In Košice’s case, it also needed to defeat bids from Presov, Nitra and Martin, all of which had grand designs of their own.

“It was around three in the morning when the ‘Interface’ idea came,” said Michal Hladky, an architect who was in his 20s when he became one of the key instigators in what would become Košice’s successful nomination. “I remember the moment when Alena Vachnova, one of the three members of the initial team of the bid, came into the room when she heard ‘Interface’ and she said, ‘Yes! This is it!’”

An “interface” is defined as “a point where two systems, subjects, organisations, etc. meet and interact” and Hladky’s concept for Košice would present the whole city as a kind of cultural node. Instead of focusing only on a handful of galleries and museums (of which there are many), the city itself would become a vast artist’s canvass, taking culture to the streets and to the boroughs, injecting it into everyday life.

Locations for transformation would include series of former heat transistor stations in the city’s sprawling Communist-era housing estates, which would become community cultural hubs, named SPOTs. A dilapidated swimming pool would find a new life as a unique gallery and concert hall. City parks would suddenly be revitalised and residents would be encouraged to “Use the City” in a series of urban artworks and events. Then in October, all would be treated to a spectacular “White Night”, in which culture transcends even the spinning of the Earth. Hours of darkness will be soaked in wondrous artistic light.

After numerous meetings and discussions, Hladky and team formalised their bristling imaginations into a 120-page document, submitted to Brussels. It was headed by a stirring speech from the then major of Košice, Frantisek Knapik, who talked proudly of the “innovative and valuable projects” planned for what he called a “marathon run” to win the nomination.

In the cultural utopia described in the bid document, Košice 2013 would engage natives in a way previously unknown in Slovakia. “We wish to overcome all stereotyped beliefs and prejudice in order to promote openness in thinking and acting,” read one soundbite. Another suggested that by “using Košice, each user becomes an active player in the course of cultural, artistic, and social events…Culture is no longer locked inside the traditional institutions, but appears wherever its users and creators are.”

Hladky said, “You can imagine when we first came to with the word ‘interface’ to, say, a 70-year-old woman from the state theatre. It was a totally different world…We were all 30-year-old kids changing entire strategies.”

But Brussels was swayed and Košice was officially handed the title in 2008. And then the real work began.

I visited Košice in March, four years since the bid was accepted and still nine months until the city officially fell under the ECoC spotlight.

Not all had gone perfectly smoothly: there had been some typically Slovak administrative issues that had dominated recent media reports and resulted in a change of personnel in key positions. There had also been some mumblings of discontent among displaced staff about a perceived shift in emphasis of the project – in particular a slight friction between those favouring a more progressive approach to cultural presentation and those conscious of maintaining and promoting traditional values.

As ever, money played a part. With vast sums come countless opinions on how to spend it, and the population of Košice – residents and administrators alike – each apparently had their own views. “It is a huge project and the people have big expectations,” said Jan Sudzina, a relatively new appointment as overall director of the Košice 2013 team. “Maybe the expectations are higher than the possible result.”

Nevertheless, Hladky remained attached to the project (in a consultant’s role) and he was confident that at least three of the very earliest ideas would be realised precisely as envisaged. Meanwhile Sudzina and his present staff were happy to talk up the scope of the project, often in almost precisely the same words as one another. Their repetition suggested a tight unity of purpose, even if it had been born out of rehearsal.

“My goal is the transformation of the whole city to prepare the city and the region for the new century,” said Sudzina. “It is not about 2013, it is about beyond 2013. We are building infrastructure.”

The obvious layman’s assumption concerning ECoC projects is that the focus is the specific year in question; six years of planning for a 12-month cultural jamboree. But although a busy programme of events is scheduled for 2013, the buzzword is “legacy” with almost all projects required to be sustainable even beyond a mandatory five years dictated by the EU.

“Two thousand thirteen is just the beginning, a stopover,” said Peter Germuska, the Košice 2013 project co-ordinator, who trained in tourism at university in the United Kingdom. “Seventy per cent of the project is focused on developing infrastructure. ‘2013+’ is a sustainability project designed to see us beyond 2013.”

We were talking inside the old municipal swimming bath, built in 1969, a structure that would soon become known as the Kunsthalle and host ambitious water-themed artistic events and concerts. The Kunsthalle will open with an exhibition of the work of the émigré artist Gyula Kosice (b. 1924), whose family fled from Slovakia to Argentina when he was a child. Kosice adopted the name of his city of birth (albeit without the accent on the “s”) and has worked his entire career in Latin America’s abstract art movement with this permanent reminder of his European origins.

Kosice is one of the “headline” attractions of the 2013 schedule through whom organisers hope to generate wider interest in lesser known, fringe performers and artists. He certainly has what should become one of the most inspiring stages: official visualisations of the completed Kunsthalle picture an orchestra on a platform floating in the middle of the pool.

In March, the baths showed no signs of having been visited since they closed in the mid 1980s. Anyone leaping from one of the starting blocks or three-tiered diving platforms would have landed with a nasty thump in a waterless pool, whose floor was visibly subsiding and cracked from end to end. What were once plunge pools, changing rooms and saunas were filled with leaves, while former viewing galleries were now perilous crumbling shelves clinging to the inside of the dramatically arched roof.

Reconstruction is not due to be finished here until mid-2013—and demonstrates another way in which public perception of the ECoC project differs from actual plans. I had assumed that venues must be ready for January 1(ie, the start of Košice’s big year), but in fact construction deadlines stretch until the end of December. Although cultural programmers confessed despair at the difficulty in scheduling events without certain knowledge of when venues will be available, the emphasis on legacy was once again apparent. Some works nominally for 2013 will only be utilised from 2014 onwards.

Nevertheless, some other key strands of the project are already well established. The museum in the former family home of Sandor Marai (1900-89), Košice’s most celebrated novelist, has undergone a thorough sprucing up. Staff at the museum have also produced a new documentary about the writer’s life, works and links to the city. “What Kafka is for Prague, Marai is for Košice,” runs the tagline of the initiative to bring further international attention to Marai. Ten novels will be translated and re-released in 2012-13.

Further storytelling will be provided by a team named Terra Incognita, which aims to lure visitors out of the city centre and into the wilds of eastern Slovakia – to the locations of vivid folk stories, myths and legends. Meanwhile the Košice Artist in Residence programme, already up and running, invites artists from abroad to work and study in Košice for periods of up to six months.

I met four of the visiting artists (two each from Germany and Poland) in their studios housed in a former tobacco factory, and all were enthusiastic about their time spent in Košice. “We can have a very big impact in a small place,” said Monika Dro?y?ska, who is in Košice in cooperation with the International Visegrad Fund.

Ludwig Henne, the administrator of the Artist in Residence programme, agreed that Košice helps its artists form much closer links to like-minded individuals and with influential figures in the industry. “We reach less people but we meet them more intensely,” Henne said. “We can talk to directors [of galleries]. It is easy to reach the top people.”

Arguably the most successful strand of the entire Košice 2013 project are the SPOTs, the heat exchanger stations that have become cultural centres spread through the suburban housing estates. Some SPOTs have been open for more than a year already and have been an unqualified success. They provide workspace, community centre, meeting point and art studio all in one, and have infiltrated city spaces that might otherwise feel removed from most high-minded cultural initiatives.

Many local leaders have keys to the buildings and community projects take place every day: from neighbourhood meetings to children’s theatre performances, displays of art from Košice’s Roma population, to educational lectures by university scientists. The SPOTs community even got together for a guerrilla knitting project earlier this year, covering city landmarks in woollen “graffiti”.

“This type of project is the most meaningful for me because it’s what people need the most,” said Christian Potiron, who is in charge of the SPOTs. “For many years in Slovakia, it was about forced participation, now you can get involved if you like…Because it’s small, people feel like home.”

“Home” may yet welcome the world. Negotiations are under way to re-open more flight-paths into Košice’s international airport (including direct flights from the UK), and swarms of the world’s press will likely live it up on Košice’s hospitality budget next year, introducing their readers to this hitherto unknown dynamic city.

The 2013 project has so far reached all of the expectations demanded by the periodic EU inspections, earning bonus money, and Hladky (among others) is now involved in a project to build “creative clusters” in Košice and then to have the city designated a UNESCO city of media and arts.

The year 2013 may not have even started but its legacy is already well established.