Perspectives | Culture

At a safe distance

By - 19.04.2020

Our culture critic chooses the best online regional events.

Daily cultural and artistic practice have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis has had the biggest impact on the performing arts because every form of mass cultural event has been brought to a halt during the ongoing lockdown. 

However, as we live in a time marked by the prevalence of the internet and corresponding social media, the outbreak has opened up numerous opportunities for cultural and artistic production to continue, though now online.

A significant number of regional cultural institutions, art collectives and media platforms have decided to carry on with their activities in the virtual space, and have provided a copious amount of cultural content to become widely available free of charge. 

Theaters are streaming their performances on online platforms, galleries and museums are putting on virtual exhibitions, film festivals and production houses are sharing their films, musicians are performing their compositions, authors are reading their fiction pieces and poetry. Such a vivacious cultural life shows that cultural production has found a way to endure — in spite of everything. 

All of the aforementioned has created room for many to reconsider the available media and forms of artistic expression, substantially increasing the availability of cultural and artistic output while at the same time democratizing it.

On the other hand, this crisis has brought to attention a considerable level of solidarity fostered between artists and people across the region, which is most certainly one of the more important premises of creative effort.

Here is some of the most compelling regional content available online, free of charge.

Regional theater online

A Facebook group called Theater at Home 2020 was recently set up by playwright Almir Imširević and his colleagues from the world of theater. It garnered about 800 followers in less than ten days with content coming in from various parts of the region every day.

“I filmed myself reading an excerpt from my manuscript and then invited my friends to do the same — to recite their verses, to sing, to dance, to speak.The response has been comforting and inspirational. Theater — as I’ve always believed — is much more than here and now,” Imširević says.

"These days I feel like Dylan Dog [a cult comic book protagonist] in one of his weaker episodes."

Almir Imširević, writer

When it comes to working in extraordinary circumstances, he suggests that for him as a writer this world does not differ so much from the one he grew used to.

“Unfortunately, I try to pass on my knowledge of “loneliness” to others, to teach them not to be afraid,” he adds.

“These days I feel like Dylan Dog [a cult comic book protagonist] in one of his weaker episodes. Luckily, I’m in my flat with my daughter Hanan and our husky. We sing, talk, read, cook, and we retire to our rooms from time to time,” the author and scriptwriter says about his isolation routine.

“I suppose it was Anton Chekhov who wrote this great story about a man who willingly agrees to become a prisoner just for a bet, and then — after years of solitude — he gives up the prize. You can learn marvellous things in solitary, you can meet the wisest of minds.”

Speaking of Theater at Home 2020, he says it is an important group since people do not need reading as much as they need speaking, human speech.

As one of the longest-running theater festivals in the region, MESS has decided to upload some of the best pieces from the previous 59 editions to its official YouTube channel.

The initiative was announced at a press conference for World Theatre Day, held every year on March 27. Later that day, they revealed that the festival’s 60th edition was taking place in Sarajevo in early October. The central theme of this year’s edition is “Nostalgia for the Future,” a desire to “achieve a dream of security, peace and solidarity,” according to MESS.

Another virtual project carried out by MESS is Memory Module. It is an online exhibition by the photographer Velija Hasanbegović titled “Migrant Abas.” The exhibition follows a 9-year-old boy currently living in one of the [migrant] centers in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“In spite of the pandemic, fear and troubles that the year 2020 is going to be remembered for, there is no doubt that we will do everything to make MESS the positive side of the story — the story of good people, solidarity, empathy, the significance that art and freedom bring to every society,” festival director Nihad Kreševljaković said at the World Theatre Day press conference.

“Our experience also serves as an impetus for what is bound to happen in order for us to go beyond the eventful past and the beginning of the new century. Looking ahead is indeed akin to a spark of new life, a nostalgic quest for something unreal.” 

The Heartefact Fund has launched Heartrospective, an online program that streams their most interesting plays every Friday.

Some of the plays produced by the Heartefact Fund have had a lasting impact on the regional cultural scene over the last 20 years; the online program it has now launched began with “Hipermnezija” [Hypermnesia], directed by Selma Spahić.

A similar program has been kicked off by the Yugoslav Drama Theater, running every Thursday on its website and YouTube channel. Apart from streaming performances, the theater calls for the audience to stay home and spend some quality time to help themselves get through the outbreak-related isolation more easily.

Another noteworthy project is run by the Croatian Writers’ Society. As part of its Diary from the Quarantine series, written pieces and/or video contributions — created for this occasion by writers, members of the Society, but above all by independent artists — are posted online daily.

The submitted texts comprise diary entries, poetry and fiction thematically linked with the current circumstances of life either directly or indirectly.

The project has been joined by actors from the Zagreb Youth Theatre who film and share their renditions of Diary pieces under the title “Actors from Quarantine.”

Prishtina’s National Theatre of Kosovo, along with other theaters in Kosovo are teaming up to stream their plays every weekend in April. Announcing an exciting program, the National Theater’s artistic director, Adrian Morina, pointed out that he personally wished the online performances to stop as soon as possible, “so we can get our normal lives back and citizens get the freedom they deserve.”

Concert season on the internet

The virus even stopped Dubioza Kolektiv, one of the most popular bands in the region.They began their musical Quarantine Show in response.Going live every Monday at 8:30 p.m, each of their 20-minute-long performances is followed by tens of thousands of people across the globe.

“In an attempt to find a way to make these long days spent in self-isolation much shorter and more interesting both for ourselves and other people, we have decided to create the Dubioza Kolektiv Quarantine Show series,” the band members say on their Facebook profile.

“Every band member will play from their home and people will be able to watch it on our YouTube channel and other social media. If we can’t come to your town for a gig — we’ll come to your computers, tablets and mobile phones,” they explain, inviting everyone to turn the volume up so they can dance, jump and sing along.

“If your neighbors make a fuss about it, send them a link and ask them to join,” they add.

Having adopted a somewhat different approach, Sarajevan band Letu Štuke have kicked off an isolation program called Quarantine Antenna, where they aim to breathe new life into their most appealing music videos created during this self-isolation period.

“In this time of pandemic and quarantine, we feel the need to communicate with our fans,” Letu Štuke frontman Dino Šaran says.

“Hence, we lift our antennas to broadcast some older songs with more recent videos. Let’s take a moment to reflect on our world and ourselves and then turn toward life and its essence. Everything comes to pass, so will the pandemic. Let’s take care of ourselves and others. Let’s be responsible.”

The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra (BGF) streams its concerts as well, with the online repertoire updated daily. The concert schedule is available on their Facebook page, where it is accompanied by a wide variety of additional content.

"Corona has separated us from each other, but just imagine what isolation would look like if we didn’t have the internet."

Ivan Tasovac, Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra

There is specially featured content daily, so the online visitor can see different performers, but they also have the chance — every Tuesday — to talk to BGF guests: Musicians and conductors now unable to join the Philharmonic for previously scheduled concerts.

“Only a couple months ago if someone told me that the first thing to come to mind at the mention of “corona” [B/C/M/S and Italian for “fermata, hold, pause”] would be the epidemic rather than a form of musical notation indicating that a note or pause should be prolonged, or even having a beer after a concert, I wouldn’t have believed them,” BGF director Ivan Tasovac said.

“This corona has separated us from each other, but just imagine what our isolation would look like if we didn’t have the internet. So, in this sea of readily available quality content, we’re in a position to offer you things that music is listened to for and the Belgrade Philharmonic is loved for. That is our mission,” Tasovac adds. 

Isolation film program

Restart — a Zagreb-based “organization focused on the production, education, distribution and exhibition of creative documentary films” — has decided to post 20 documentaries from the region and beyond online; the films will remain free to watch until the end of April but possibly longer if the lockdown continues.

“Since we believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark on the world we live in and most likely to such an extent that it will never be the same, Restart has decided to make it easier for everyone to persevere through the lockdown as we are waiting for the future to come and make the outbreak a thing of the past,” they said.

Some of the available titles are the North Macedonian cinematographic miracle “Honeyland,” “Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire,” and “Citizenfour,” a documentary on Edward Snowden.

Free-to-watch films are also offered by the Motovun Film Festival (MFF) as one of the partners of the online festival My Darling Quarantine. The latter has been launched at the initiative of Enrico Vannucci, a short film curator at the Venice International Film Festival.

As a part of their program, MFF selects and uploads seven dystopian shorts each week, providing viewers with an opportunity to vote for their favorites.

A crowdfunding campaign has been set up as well — half of the funds raised will be set aside for support to the independent cultural scene and the other half will go to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The organization works tirelessly to contain the spread of the virus in refugee camps and among vulnerable populations across Greece and the Balkan route.

"It will be interesting and a real challenge for us to try out a whole series of new opportunities"

Marina Burić, ZagrebDox

Pula Film Factory has joined MFF, continuing its program without relying on public gatherings. Rather, the Pula crew have introduced Digital Film Quarantine, a new concept that allows for film screenings, mediations and discussions about films dealing with pressing topics to be held online or via social media interaction.

The 16th edition of the ZagrebDox International Documentary Film Festival has been postponed due to the outbreak, but it’s ZagrebDox Pro program aimed at film professionals has been held online since March 15.

“Although we were forced to change the festival format because of this unfortunate turn of events, it will be interesting and a real challenge for us to try out a whole series of new opportunities that will come as a result of this innovative approach and expand on these tools and formats even further,” ZagrebDox Pro producer Marina Burić said. 

Even DokuFest — the largest film festival in Kosovo — followed suit with the Sweet and Short Quarantine program, where one film produced by the DokuFest Documentary Film Center is shown every day.

Sweet and Short Quarantine Film Day 22: ALL ABOUT EGO

Meanwhile, the Kosovo Cinematography Centre (QKK) streams Kosovo-made films on their Facebook profile in cooperation with RTK, Kosovo’s public broadcaster.

Virtual museum travels

Museums are very much keeping up with other cultural institutions in this online reaction against the pandemic.

A campaign called “Let’s Live Culture #stayhome” has been started by the Montenegrin Ministry of Culture with the aim of providing the people of Montenegro with cultural and artistic content through communication channels available from home during this isolation period.

“The Ministry of Culture has joined the #stayhome campaign in full capacity, having created a platform consisting of several communication channels where all citizens will be able to access media pertaining to Montenegrin cinematography, theater, music and art as well as a plethora of dedicated programs,” the ministry announced.

The National Museum of Montenegro also takes part by organizing virtual tours through four of its museums: King Nikola’s Museum, the Art Museum, the Museum of History and Njegoš’s Bijarda.

Taking it a step further, the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina decided to commemorate  April 6 — the day of Sarajevan liberation in World War II — by opening an online exhibition titled “Was Ist Walter?” The title is an allusion to a search for contemporary heroes reminiscent of Vladimir Perić Valter, who partook in liberating the city.

Announced as “a critical voyage through the history of Sarajevo,” the exhibition was to be held in the museum’s garden, but this was subsequently changed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The exhibition will not help us find a vaccine or cure for the coronavirus disease. Hopefully, however, it will help us remind ourselves of all the values that have kept up the spirit of Sarajevo throughout history in spite of all the crises. A spirit of solidarity and resistance, the personification of that is Valter himself,” the museum board said.

Rijeka band Let 3’s bassist Damir Martinović Mrle and Ivanka Mazurkijević teamed up under the alias Mr. Lee & IvaneSky to author “Rain Jollies,” a children’s album published both in audio format and as a coloring book.

Their YouTube channel contains short videos where Mrle reads bedtime stories like “Muha, Muhičica i Muhačak” [“Fly, Little Fly and Mr. Fly].

And something uniquely interesting comes from Albania. Albanian graphic arts designer Renato Tata along with his creative partner Stefania Esposito designed a series of screensavers that remind you to clean your phones and hands. The #AntiCOVID19 screensaver is an example of art doing it’s part to help but also putting art directly into the hands of the audience.

This is just a small part of a substantial amount of content offered to the regional public by cultural and art institutions and individual artists alike.

The inevitable question is whether seeing a theatrical play from home or a concert from your own balcony is the same as being in a theater or attending a concert with other people?

Of course it is not, and of course there is no substitute for the specific atmosphere of sharing a theatrical or concert experience. Still — owing to the swift response of cultural institutions and artists — this content is now available to us at least in part. This will play an important role during the idle days of isolation.

However, one crucial question remains: How are cultural institutions to carry on with their activities following the end of the pandemic? Some ministries of culture in the region have already promised to support culture and the arts during this difficult period, but it is yet to be seen whether they will deliver.

Regardless of the extent of the turbulence caused by the current economic situation, we should bear in mind that without cultural and artistic production, every society is doomed to darkness and is devoid of hope.

Additional reporting by Edona Kryeziu.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.