Cultural Bridge ends with lifelong partners
13th February 2024
Following a summer of busy youth activity and performances with our partners VILLA Leipzig and Beyond Skin, we were delighted to embrace a new addition to the second year of our Cultural Bridge project – the organisational exchanges.
Sheena Kelly, our Community Engagement Artist, was part of this exchange and has written about the experience and learning outcomes below:
VILLA Leipzig hosted first and after a very early morning journey (1am to be precise!) from Belfast to Dublin to Berlin to Leipzig we arrived hungry but excited to learn all about VILLA. Having spent time getting to know their participants and create artistically together in the summertime, it was great to have a chance to delve into the organisational structures and practices of this art charity based in a city not dissimilar in size to Belfast. VILLA, the socio-cultural centre of Leipzig, encourages people to participate in society on an equal, self-determined and committed basis. Over a great cup of coffee in the VILLA cafe we met the board members and learnt of the history of the organisation, as well as the big boss and wider team. This gave us a clear sense of just how large the reach of the organisation is and how each department works together and separately.
(Sheena and Mags arrive at Leipzig Train Station)
Breadth of knowledge
The energy as you walk through the VILLA doors is infectious! From one side of the building you hear music being practiced, created and mixed and from another you can smell the coffee brewing in the café. The diversity of groups, people and artforms using the building demonstrates lots of possibilities for future collaborations.
We were invited to join the youth theatre group as they devised their new show based around stories of witches and spoke to them about some similar devising projects we do back in Belfast. We enjoyed a presentation from the Tanzlabor group who spoke to us about their aim to increase cultural participation for disabled people in Leipzig and connected them with some friends and colleagues of our own across the globe. Finally following an entertaining evening at the weekly Open Mic night we got a chance to try out some digital music making in the music lab.
(Youth Theatre rehearsals)
The ripple effect
One of the many areas of expertise VILLA brought to the partnership was their knowledge and skills around social activism. Philipp and his team delivered a thought-provoking workshop around politics and the environment which was based on how they deliver to secondary schools in the area. It was interesting to see how these informal methods are used to offer young people a platform and an opportunity to discuss politics and social issues in a safe environment. The aim was to support young people in engaging with their society more which in turn can ripple out into the wider society. This itself created a lot of conversation as within Northern Ireland we tend to shy away from direct conversations around politics due to the challenging political landscape here. Our experience is that hitting these hard topics straight on can create tension and barriers which may in turn be detrimental to the project aims and the engagement with the young people. This was a clear cultural difference and an interesting one at that.
(Social Activism workshop)
Next stop: Belfast
Then it was our turn. Predictably the rain poured down on Philipp and Dirk as they got off the bus from Dublin, so we headed first for a coffee and a catch up at DU Dance NI’s home at the Crescent Arts Centre. Similar in some ways to VILLA’s building, with different classes and events happening, we had a “wee” tour and then a chat about the structures and strategic plans for DU Dance over the next few years.
Out of the city
About 20 minutes outside of Belfast, we joined Beyond Skin as they delivered a cultural workshop celebrating Chinese culture and the impending Chinese New Year. Matcha tea, Chinese calligraphy and music from the GuZheng were all on the menu for the children at this Primary School. Darren shared the importance of children meeting people from diverse cultures to celebrate diversity and strengthen community relations. The workshop sparked new ideas for VILLA and their volunteer programme made up of young adults from a range of countries. Later that day, we were welcomed in the studio with Beyond Skin as a mix of musicians from diverse backgrounds created a brand new song having just met that same morning.
(Chinese Cultural workshop at a Primary School)
(Meeting Beyond Skin artists in the studio)
Take your space
The afternoon was spent in the Helen Lewis dance studio in the Crescent Arts Centre where DU Dance Artistic Director Mags delivered a movement workshop with much laughter, a bit of sweat and an increased heart rate. After devising a dance together, we spoke about the diverse range of young people we work with and how dance and performance is used as a tool for change for the young people. Philipp and Dirk were particularly interested to hear about the specific projects where the young people do not feel they are important enough to take up space in a room and how dance as a physical and cognitive artform can raise confidence and self-esteem which brings them to the point of standing onstage.
Whilst this part of our journey with Cultural Bridge has come to an end, we finish knowing we have lifelong partners who we can connect with in the future. It was great to finish the project celebrating the highlights of the last two years over a Guinness in Belfast, chatting about the impact it made on us as organisations and the young participants involved.
It has demonstrated the importance of international connections such as these to reinforce best practices and challenge us to move outside of our comfort zone as well as ensuring young people from Belfast feel connected to the wider European community. Overall it has shown us the power of the arts in tackling difficult conversations in a safe environment to offer young people their rightful place in their society.