Arts Festivals Summit Usedom Portrait

12 June 2024

The Baltic Sea is not a calm lake, nor are its winds warm. That was the discovery made by the delegates from landlocked countries to the Arts Festivals Summit in 2024. Those from Armenia, Hungary, Switzerland and Czechia clambered aboard the little ferry that pootles for an hour between the German island of Usedom and the Polish one of Wolin expecting a gentle voyage, with a couple of beers along the way. Newly elected board members from Belgium and Scotland, who should have known better, celebrated with bubbly wine. Their comfort was short lived. As the lines were cast off and the boat swung round against the waves, the choppy swell caught and tossed it around like a beach ball. Beer spilled, shrill voices shrieked. A colleague from Malta, not as much of a sailor as one might have thought, sat on deck, eyes fixed on the horizon, gradually turning an ominous shade of grey. Those of us with salt water in our veins loved it, of course, and wandered about the ship, legs braced against the waves, looking smug and offering unhelpful advice. 

The short passage across the sea could have been an apt metaphor for Europe itself this turbulent spring. At the other end of the Baltic all were nervous of belligerent Russia. In the Mediterranean, Israel's destruction of Gaza was reshaping old assumptions of how democracies should be allowed to behave. In central and western Europe, citizens, exasperated by the lack of prosperity, seem prepared to accept corrupt autocrats in furious rejection of liberal politicians. Incomers, the autocrats and would-be dictators rage, are responsible for all ills. It is a refrain that echoes down the ages - unfair but strident.

Against this, festivals do their best to keep spirits up and communities together. They keep going when everything else feels desperate, as we heard from the KharkivMusicFest, operating still (albeit in basement and metro bomb shelters), letting music console, even as Russian troops create destruction around them. Kateryna Botanova, the Ukrainian who co-curates with Juriaan Cooiman the Culturescapes Festival in Basel, reminded us that 'to care is action', that standing together in public is better than passive. It demonstrates solidarity, and that was a word that resonated throughout the summit, pinpointed by the session with Lech Wałęsa, the founder of the Solidarity movement itself in Poland in 1980 that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union's empire, which Vladimir Putin is trying to reconquer.

Wałęsa talked to us in a poignant and disconcerting setting: the museum fashioned out of the power station buildings of the demolished rocket testing site that the Nazis built in Peenemünde, at the northern tip of Usedom. It was the base, staffed by forced labour, where they developed the V2 rocket that devastated London at the end of World War II. Now it houses a conference and concert hall, while in adjacent rooms photographs and rusty remnants of the viciousness unleashed from there are displayed in stark unfurnished rooms. In the bare old turbine hall, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic performs, bringing together musicians from all around that sea, including those exiled from Russia; their programmes mashing up traditional and contemporary classical with rock with exhilarating optimism.

Perhaps the best way to resist the political doom was to adopt that old British wartime motto of 'keep calm and carry on'; in the case of EFA carry on discussing the role and inventiveness of the festival sector. These sessions happened in the now genteel resort of Heringsdorf, the sort of place where Germans over middle age who want sea air without leaving the country can avoid without worry the chance of late-night clubbing. The 230 attendees from EFA were probably the youngest and most multinational invaders for decades. At least we came bearing invitations to concerts and theatre. Certainly the staff in the few restaurants, mostly from Poland and Ukraine, regarded us as welcome relief from the descendants of the Teutonic knights.

There's never a shortage of topics for festival people to chew over - from the need to become as friendly to the climate as they are to artists, via the necessity of widening and deepening the social pool of audiences, to persuading politicians and administrators that festivals are worth every penny and a few pennies more. Being in the arts, those present do not bother with easy topics at least not formally. Luckily there was plenty of time for informality too. After the speeches, workshops and debates were over there was time to gather in the covered terrace bar of the summit hotel and mingle properly. At international conferences there is always a tendency for language groups to gravitate together, partly because of familiarity, partly out of tiredness at having to concentrate on English, when that is their second, third or fourth language, and partly because there is domestic business to be done.

At EFA, though, it rarely takes long for the invisible fences to be broken down. In Heringsdorf the wine helped, and soon the friendship groups expanded, the bright ideas hatched and invitations were flourished. This was the point (and over lunches in the sun) when those fabled culture without borders projects started: full of artistic excitement, not yet dampened by bureaucratic application forms.

On the long bus ride from Usedom to Berlin's new (and less than user-friendly) airport, however, I could not get out of my mind the impact of Penderecki's Third String Quartet, a deeply intense meditation, played the night before at the summit's close. The Kateryna Supran Quartet was brought together through the European Festivals Fund for Emerging Artists (EFFEA), which links three festivals from different countries - in this case Usedom Music Festival, the Walden Festival in Belgium, and importantly, the KharkivMusicFest. The purpose was clear. Two violinists and a viola player from Ukraine added a cellist from Belgium to perform a recital that included Ukrainian music but, on Wolin, had Polish Krsysztof Penderecki's music at its core. It demonstrated without words what Europe's festivals have always been for - the advocation of peace and empathy.

By Simon Mundy