Danielle Hoefler, an artist and advocate, came to Gorlitz six years ago and is the main organizing force behind Bohemian Crossings. She is a strong, passionate and compassionate presence who believes that the depression weighing down some in the community is rooted in a lack of hope. She shares, “the inhabitants who were born in Gorlitz don’t necessarily see the beauty that exists here.” The city is largely comprised of an aging population, many of whom spent large portions of their lives living under communist-rule and even before that, for some, the Nazi regime. “Then one day,” she continues, “completely out of the blue the wall comes down and their lives were entirely different, changed overnight. They suddenly found themselves in a world they just didn’t know and understand. Everything was lost.”
With the fall of the wall came a mass exodus of 1/3 of Gorlitz’s population, the closure of most all the factories and major regional industries. For a time, the area became almost lawless and developed into a large center for the drug market and home to Russian and Polish mafias. Today alcoholism, drug addiction and poverty continue to feed the despair.
As more of our days unfold here in Gorlitz, it becomes easier to sense the melancholy; there is a feeling of reticence on the streets. We begin to see beyond the initial delight of relatively quiet and peaceful streets, wondering instead what loneliness and emptiness this might convey. A large part of the vision of Bohemian Crossings is to create a safe and free space for people to express themselves, not in isolation but in community. Yet the challenges inherent to building community can quickly and easily disperse energy and positive intention. Many of us know the frustration expressed in the phrase “herding cats.” In Germany, as we learned within just a few days of our arrival, the phrase is “herding a bag of fleas.”
In community-building it is often important to give people open and free space for expression; certainly here there seems to be a strong need for feelings and experiences to be given shape and form. To succeed in working together, we need to listen to each other’s stories; but we also need to elevate these to another level, channeling the energy, moods and voices into a harmonious chorus. Choreographing the cats or fleas, as it were, somehow creating a cohesive art piece, for instance, that represents the collective vision. With the poles we try to find a rhythm, simplicity and repetitive pattern that can serve this purpose – a common language in color, shapes and lines which express diverse emotions and experiences.
When this doesn’t happen, when the beauty we might have imagined is not achieved, it is easy to feel disappointment. Certainly this has been the experience of Barefoot Artists in many of our efforts. We understand that there are powerful art forms that are provocative and confrontational to existing systems, relying often on strong, individualistic voices. The goal of Barefoot Artists, however, is to create a cohesive expression that includes the individual voices of all participants.
The intention of Bohemian Crossings is to provide and open space in which every person, through arts and creativity, can discover the potential and the beauty within. It is their hope that the energy and joy created through the process can help transform the mood and inertia of the city. Working with this group of talented, courageous and open individuals is providing us with an amazing opportunity to explore the potent dance between the individual and the collective. It is a chance to ask more questions, understand the process better and learn together how to take the next step.