In February, ten European Cultural Institutes in New York launched UN/MUTE, an online residency, with the goal to facilitate collaborations and connections between European and New York City artists. The initiative aims at filling the void created by the COVID-19 pandemic and a general lack of international cultural exchange. The project received financial support from EUNIC in Brussels and is also endorsed by the European Union Delegation to the United Nations.
At the outset, the twelve-week program randomly paired twenty artists — ten from New York City and ten from participating EU countries and regions — into teams of two. Over the course of three months, each team collaborated on a joint digital artwork which will be unveiled online on May 9th, celebrating Europe Day. Their collaborations were documented in nearly forty hours of Zoom sessions, offering audiences a unique insight into the creative process between two strangers from different geographic and cultural backgrounds, age and racial groups, gender identities and digital proficiencies.
No3 Magazine talked to Christian J. Ebner, Deputy Director at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York representing one of the project’s institutional partners, about the initiative to create cross-cultural collaborations in time of the pandemic, and the message of hope such initiatives may offer.
No3: Can you share how the idea for this unique pandemic project came about?
C.E.: It was almost exactly a year ago, at the peak of the pandemic in NYC, when Jaanika and Gražina, our colleagues from the Estonian and Lithuanian Cultural Institutes kick-started an initiative that gave European artists with some sort of connection to the city the opportunity to engage in a cross-over cultural project. Initially, it was more spontaneous, rather than a long-term, multi-dimensional strategy, as we were asking ourselves and each other: “How do we deal with this challenge that locks us up, takes away jobs, makes people sick and takes lives? What can we do for artists under these circumstances?” In its initial phase last year, two artists from different disciplines and countries would collaborate and create something new, obviously all online via weekly video sessions. Through new technologies, creative minds who had not known each other before and who were randomly paired by lottery, cooperated over distance, and in most cases, quite successfully. With our venues closed, it was our chance to offer a program for our audiences, a unique “behind the scenes” experience where they could actually observe creative process over a longer period of time. The final works from the first project were presented in a Zoom event on 9/11, a painful and symbolic date for New Yorkers and the world, as a message of connection and hope.
No3: How is the UN/MUTE -10002 different from the initial initiative?
C.E: Last fall, as the pandemic and lockdowns throughout the globe, unfortunately, continued, we felt the need to keep going and we asked the Undercurrent team, who does an amazing job in pulling this all together - recording and editing hundreds of hours of conversations - to come up with a slightly modified concept. In Phase Two, we tried to make an even stronger transatlantic connection between European artists and NYC-based artists and developed “UN/MUTE”, as an online residency. We used a lottery-based system again to create ten teams of two strangers from different creative disciplines, and different digital generations, and invited them to work on new projects over a 3-month period. This time, the presentation of the works of art that have been created is scheduled for Europe Day, May 9th. In 80% of the cases, the collaborative experiences these artists have had, are great. They appreciate the challenge of working with a complete stranger, over distance, remotely, and they fully immersed themselves into an intensive creative process. In many cases, these collaborative sessions led to close personal relationships and friendship, and some artists cannot wait to meet in person. This project also brought us –project partners and organizers—closer. Some of us had been living in NYC for years, and never met before. And now we are friends!
No3: What are your plans for the future? Now that the city is gradually starting to open and we can see a return to in-person interaction, can there be an off-line version of UN/MUTE?
C.E: The exhibition is planned for this fall and it will be presented at Undercurrent gallery in DUMBO and at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Midtown, thus building another symbolic bridge. This will be an interesting yet challenging Third Phase, getting a dozen partners and over 30 artists on board, raise the necessary funds, and turn a digital project into an analog exhibition at two very different venues. The general message will remain one of hope. Opening during a high-level week of the annual United Nations General Assembly, the exhibition will mark the end of an over-a-year-long crisis and lockdown, and, in a way, it will be a statement of “unmuting” our societies, and the start of another beginning.