The minute you set foot inside the Goethe Institute in Kensington you are confronted with a startling cacophony of colours running riot over the hallway and stairs. It’s hardly typical of the muted decoration found in the public spaces of many of the neighbouring buildings, as the choice of hues has been dictated by random throws of a dice. Each colour represents one of the seven Goethe Institutes in north-western Europe which are are linked to the regional headquarters in London.
The scheme is actually part of an artwork that Gloria Zein was commissioned to produce last year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Goethe Institute in London. Angela Kaya, who took over as Director a month ago having spent 24 years working for Goethe Institutes in other countries, tells me how those Institutes came into being: ‘As you know, the Nazis misused culture for their own purposes, so when the new German government was formed after the Second World War it decided to establish a new kind of cultural institute that was independent of politicians. We’re funded by government but we’re not part of the Embassy’.
So how have things changed since those early days? ‘Cultural activities are more competitive nowadays. Now it’s a very big field of players and actors. Fifty years ago, when the Goethe Institute was set up in London, there were no networks and our job was to build them up, to increase trust. Nowadays, especially in Europe, there are lots of fantastic running relationships and networks. There are also new players. Where creative groups are not funded by anyone they need help, they need a network. We’re trying to find out where our knowledge and capacity should be based, and I think it’s in the smaller fields.’
Typical of the kind of project she means is the recent series entitled ‘Performing Documentary’, which was run in collaboration with the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Swiss Embassy. It focused on experimental performative documentary films that go beyond traditional documentary practice. ‘We brought some directors over and they showed their films and we had discussions. The audience were all experts on film’, says Angela. ‘It’s important, and we will keep on doing this kind of thing, but we also need to ask ourselves “Is this enough?”. We need to do some things that are more visible once or twice a year to let people know that we are here, and that as well as being interested in small specialist groups we’re aiming at a broader public.’
As well as initiating its own events, the Institute often has an input into programmes run by other institutions. Next February the Strange Beauty exhibition will open at the National Gallery, focusing on the collecting of German Renaissance art, and the Institute will be involved in the education programme.
2014 also marks 25 years since of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the British Museum will be taking the opportunity of this major anniversary to address a gap in the UK’s knowledge about German history and culture in an important exhibition in October. On show will be objects spanning 600 years, including the work of some of Germany’s greatest artists, from Dürer and Holbein to Kollwitz and Baselitz. There’ll be a particular link to Goethe too. ‘One aspect will be Goethe not only as a playwright but also as a politician and researcher and scientist’, says Angela. ‘There will also be a modern focus. The BM is a big player, but they run interesting educational programmes and we can develop them with them’.
The Institute focuses many of its efforts on the contemporary arena, where it can make the biggest difference by supporting artists and performers. ‘A good example is the dancer Pina Bausch’, says Angela. ‘We supported her for many years before she became a superstar. At the very beginning nobody knew her but we believed in her, we found worldwide partners and theatres where she could perform. She was known in Germany but her international career started with the Goethe Institute.’ So are there any performers that the Institute is currently supporting that we should be looking out for? ‘Yes, Sasha Waltz from Bremen. We like her choreography and dance, and her artistic expression is very international and accessible to everyone.’ The Institute also supports music festivals, such as the one in Huddersfield, as well as staging its own concerts in its auditorium.
Of course, language is an important key to understanding any culture, and teaching German remains at the heart of the Institute’s mission. If you log on to its website you’ll find an amusing film shot 50 years ago telling the story of a young woman – Lida – who goes off to Germany under the Institute’s auspices to learn the language. The grainy black-and-white footage shows her and fellow students from all over the world sitting at their desks while the teacher gets them to repeat their vocabulary and simple phrases. Half a century later the methods of teaching German may have changed, but the commitment to it hasn’t. As Angela explains: ‘We are the best specialists in German language teaching. We run courses for all levels throughout the year and we teach with the same methods worldwide, so there’s no gap if you change location.’
But ever aware of the needs of those of us who don’t read German, the Institute also collaborates with its Austrian and Swiss counterparts to promote literary translation. I ask Angela which recently translated books she has particularly enjoyed, and high on her list is 1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies: ‘He’s a historian but he describes what important and well-known people were doing in small chapters and scenes’. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War next year is hardly a cause for celebration, she feels, but it will certainly be a time for a reflection. This book, which presents a subtle picture of a world on the brink of conflict, makes a refined contribution to our understanding of a momentous period in European history.