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East: Austria Stages Landmark Central European Festival

London, 11 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Austria is organizing the largest festival of Central European culture ever to be held in western Europe in a bid to encourage a better understanding of a region that hopes soon to be part of the European Union.

The three-week London festival -- featuring work from nine Central European countries -- is one of the centerpieces of Austria's six-month presidency of the EU that begins next month.

The Festival of Central European Culture, opening on June 21, will include 120 events at 40 different London venues. Some 1,000 artists, writers and intellectuals are expected from the participating countries -- Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The festival was the idea of Dr. Emil Brix, director of the Austrian Cultural Institute in London, who says the two halves of Europe need to better understand each other. Brix says Austria, which is providing much of the funding for the festival, sees it as a symbol of the cultural enlargement of Europe:

"For us, the festival is a signal that the Central European area has to be made better known within the EU. We regard this as one of our most important projects for Austria's EU presidency which begins on July 1."

The organizers say almost 10 years after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the artistic life of cities like Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Zagreb, Bratislava and Sarajevo, is no longer "on the other side." Now Europe is no longer divided between East and West, and it is possible for western audiences to appreciate the fascinating plurality of Central Europe -- the cultural landscape that nurtured figures such as Schoenberg, Bartok, Kafka and Wittgenstein.

The festival will include music, theater, dance, film, literature, visual arts, conferences, and debates. The festival will look back to the legacy of Freud and Mozart but also focus on the contemporary arts scene, including graffiti artists, "rave" clubs, and internet art.

The conference opens on June 21 with a debate on the "implications of the Central European experience for European integration." Speakers will include Gyorgy Konrad, from Hungary; Adam Michnik, Poland; and Jacques Rupnik, Czech Republic.

At the formal opening on June 22, Hungarian President Arpad Goncz will lecture on "the plurality of Central European Culture."

RFE/RL asked Dr. Brix if the festival aims to remove Central Europe's image among western audiences as "terra incognito," or unknown territory, at the outer margins of Europe.

Brix responded, "Absolutely! First this area was regarded as being east, and then it was forgotten. We think this festival will overcome both perceptions, both ideas of Central Europe. There is still in the mind of westerners that this area is very much to the east and very much on the borderlands of Europe."

A major highlight will be a concert July 1 to mark the handover of the EU presidency from Britain to Austria. It will feature Poland's Simfonia Varsovia and the Austrian cellist Lilia Shultz-Bayrova.

The festival will include a week of Central European films; a major exhibition of contemporary art; and a series of concerts and recitals featuring the work of Central European composers.

The three weeks of events will include formal discussions on Art and Society in the new Democracies of Eastern/Central Europe; the role of Borders in Central Europe; and the historical experience of small magazines and publishing houses in Central Europe.

One discussion will focus on the writers and academics who took political responsibility after the demise of communism in 1989. It will pose the question: What were the consequences of recruiting new political elites drawn from the academic world who had little experience of politics?

RFE/RL asked Brix if there is a central characteristic that defines Central European culture.

He said, "The main thing is that there is this strong feeling that living in Central Europe is a fate, really, that you always have to deal with history and the past in a way that is unknown in the west. The past is always present. You live in a situation of permanent ambiguities. What more and more people in Central Europe understand is that ambiguity, which is seen in the west as something rather awkward, was really one of the strengths of Central Europe in history."

Brix said the festival is sure to have a substantial impact on the London cultural scene, and will put Central European culture "on the map."