Panorama Czech cultural centre head in London: we don’t ignore the legends, but we love working with newcomers
This week the heads of Czech cultural centers from around the world met in Prague to exchange ideas and discuss joint projects. The head of the Czech centre in London Tereza Porybná visited Radio Prague’s studio to talk about the centre’s past achievements and future projects. I began by asking her about this year’s cultural highlights.
“The Edinburg Fringe Festival was probably our biggest project since February, but I would I also like to mention European literature night which was established by the Czech centre five years ago and has been going on ever since. It is extremely successful. We basically managed to sell out the British Library four days before the actual event, which is a huge success in London given that one is presenting translated literature by authors who most people have never heard of.”
Who were they?
“The Czechs were represented by Jáchym Topol, there was Norbert Gstrein from Austria, we had a German author, a Swiss author, Jordi Punti, a charming Catalan author came to present his novel, and Rosie Goldsmith from the BBC was moderating the event which received quite a lot of media coverage. “
Who read the excerpts?
“The authors themselves did. Apart from Jáchym who read part of the extract in Czech and there was an English lady reading the English translation. We actually think that it is good when the authors represent their own work with their voice and their presence – it is more intriguing for the audience.”
I understand you also screened Czech films in London over a period of two months?
“Yes, what we decided to do this year was to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the One World human rights film festival, which coincidentally I used to work for some years ago, and we created a collection of documentary films related to human rights that were not only Czech - there was a Cuban film, a Russian film and so on and we managed to get a partnership with the Frontline Club which is a rather prestigious war journalist club which is always very well attended and we screened films there from March till June.”
“Oh, it was always full and we had really nice debates. Among the Czech films we screened was a film called Fortress by Lukáš Kokeš which is a rather interesting look at the current situation in Transnistria, a shadow, break-away country near Moldova, and the people who attended were extremely educated so the debate was a challenge for the director himself. It was a completely British audience, no Czechs there at all.”
How do you reach the British public? How do you let them know what you are offering?
“We have a newsletter, we have a website, the social media etc. but mostly through our partners. The Czech centre in London has no space, we don’t have a screening room, we don’t have an exhibition room, so everything we do has to be in line with one of our partner’s programming strategies and we have to get partners who are able to attract an audience even for such a –not unpopular, but not downright popular- article as is Czech culture. As you can imagine London is extremely competitive so we try to choose locations that already have their audience and who will come because they trust the programming of the institution.”
You appear to have made a great choice in picking contemporary dance for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival …
“Yes, it was a very interesting journey and project for everyone. We started working on it even before I took over the London centre, way back in October. I approached several companies, I approached our main partner which was Nova Sit, a networking dance and theatre agency residing here in Prague, and we managed to get some funding. We chose companies that are quite edgy and our logic was that there is enough mainstream stuff at the Fringe. We decided to experiment in bringing something that is maybe a little more radical, more edgy, more “raw” in a sense and it worked out, fortunately. We got two prizes for two companies –the Herald Angel Award, which is a very prestigious award given by the Herald newspaper and they chose from 2,500 performances –the Czech companies Spitfire Company and Tantehorse got two of these awards which is absolutely incredible.”
Is that what the British public wants from Prague –cutting edge, young, fresh talent?
“To be honest I don’t think they want anything from us –it is really more about each individual piece. I don’t think the national aspect is something that is interesting for the Brits –I think they are looking for interesting dance or interesting writing, which is why I think Jáchym Topol was so popular during European literature night because it was suddenly something very different, the whole cultural- historical context was something novel for the Brits and it was the same with these dance companies. So that’s what we are looking for. We try to promote the originality of the work rather than the national aspect.”
I understand that you are planning to organize a fashion showcase on London which is somewhat surprising given that London is perceived as one of the big fashion capitals. What can Prague offer London in terms of fashion?
“We found this project that is called International Fashion Showcase which is part of the London Fashion Week and what we are doing is helping young Czech designers to get exposure abroad. We will focus on young designers fresh out of school who have an artistic approach to fashion. We are not looking for big brands, we want people with a clear vision and we are hoping that through the fashion show we will get them some attention. This is a new project, I don’t think the Czech centre has ever done anything in this scope so we are learning in the process and hoping that it will work out.”
You are also working on a charity event. Can you tell us about that?
“Yes, that is basically the brainchild of my very talented predecessor, Ladislav Pflimpfl, who left London in February. He created several successful projects for the Olympics and one of these projects was this Disorient Express London-Prague. The idea behind it was to do something that animates the vivid connections between the Prague and London scenes and the train model is a symbol of this connection –something that moves and is connected by the rails. They approached 30 artists from the UK and the Czech Republic who each designed a small train carriage and formed this Disorient Express train set which we are now auctioning in cooperation with the Red Gallery and are hoping to raise some money for the Access to Sports charity which through sports and educational activities tries to integrate children and youth from disadvantaged social environments in London.”
Do you cooperate with other cultural centres in London or are you basically on your own planning projects?
“We have to cooperate – a small institute, a small country, we have to cooperate whether we like it or not. There is the UNIC platform which is a grouping of all cultural institutes from all European countries and we are actually taking over the presidency in 2014 so our cooperation will be even stronger. We cooperate a lot with the Slovaks, obviously, with the Polish institute, with the French.”
“I think it is a mix. As I said, we always do our events with a local partner whether it is the Edinburg Fringe or the Frontline Club or an art school. So our audience always depends on the event. But, generally speaking, it would either be people interested in the subject or else there is always the stable percentage of people interested in anything Czech who follow us on our website and Facebook and who come to all these events. We have a lot of young people as well, students, people studying Czech, but mainly people interested in art.”
I know you operate on a fairly restricted budget, but what are you ambitions for the future? Any big projects in the pipeline or something that you really want to achieve while you are in London?
“I have big hopes for the fashion project and I really want to focus on design which I plan to do in 2014. We have a lot of design events coming up in September but for me 2014 will be a year of design and music. It is the 110th Dvorak anniversary so we are planning an experimental Dvorak project which would combine not only music but also other forms of art and artistic expression inspired by Dvorak’s music. So I hope we will achieve this in terms of quality and in terms of fundraising to support it.”
How do you select the authors/artists that you are going to highlight in Britain? Do you pick established artists in the Czech Republic or do you put your money on newcomers?
“I think we work quite a lot with newcomers because we like it and because it is fun. Also because I think a lot of people still see the Czech centre as an institution which takes ready-made Czech products and displays them in a different country, but I do not think that is true of any of the centres now. Czech centres are creative institutions who really try to work with the contemporary cultural scene. That said, obviously when you have people like Jan Švankmajer you want to bring him to Britain and work with him, because it is such an astonishing body of work that you want to present it because you are proud of it. So we are not ignoring the legends but we really like to work with new talent as well.”
You’ve already partly answered this question, but do you feel that the mission of Czech cultural centres has changed over the years –and how has it changed?
“I believe it has changed. I am fairly new within the structure, but we have been discussing this a lot during our meeting of culture centre heads in Prague this week and I think what is happening is that everybody is more aware of the networking capacity of the Czech centres, and everybody is more aware that the directors of these centres are not officials but people with various interesting backgrounds who have their vision and I think this is staring to be accepted. There is also a new strategy to focus on the contemporary rather than on the traditional and when I talk to my colleagues I think we all share the same hope of really being a bridge between our native country and the territory we work in so I think many of us see ourselves as animators or mediators of the Czech culture. “