Pilsen to kick off year as European City of Culture in spectacular style

Video mapping test in Plzeň, photo: CTK

This Saturday, Pilsen will officially become 2015 European City of Culture. The project will kick off with a grand opening ceremony, featuring more than 150 artists from the Czech Republic and abroad, the largest video mapping in the country and the sound of new bells from the local cathedral. I spoke to Jiří Sulženko, the head of the project's Programme Department, and started by asking about the spectacular opening event.

Video mapping test in Plzeň, photo: CTK
"The main event will take place on Saturday 17 in the afternoon and in the evening. The main point of the evening programme is directed by our artistic director Petr Forman.

"The highlight of the night will be the first ringing of the new bells on the cathedral on the main square, which have been missing for the last 70 years. I think it will be a hugely emotional moment for all the people who have contributed to the collection, but also for all the people who will be celebrating the European capital of culture.

"This moment will be highlighted by specially composed music, a large-scale mapping on all the houses around the main square, with 150 acrobats, performers, musicians, who will be on stage and on the square.

"Petr Forman has put together an international team of musicians, new-circus artists, local artists and the Pilsner Philharmonic Orchestra, who will all participate in this event, that will take about 40 or 50 minutes."

How many people do you expect to come to the opening ceremony on Saturday?

"We are prepared for 50,000 people. The main square can take up to 15,000 people. We have also prepared five large screens in the side streets for people to watch the event in case they don't manage to get on the main square.

"The main Square will be only accessible to those, who took part in the parades. There is four large parades from four different corners of the city. Each of them is organised by local community, such as schools or administration, so it is a big contribution of the Pilseners themselves to the celebrations."

The opening ceremony seems like a grand event. Will you have anything left in stock for the rest of the year?

Petr Forman, photo: YouTube / Plzeň 2015
"There is altogether about 600 events during the year. Every month there will be a large-scale event for the public, usually for free. That will usually take place during the weekend.

"Content-wise we have eight flagship projects that cover the main topics that of Pilsen 2015. We are speaking about art and technologies, stories and sources, and transitions and minorities. And these general topics are actually narrated through artistic and creative projects."

One of the main themes is new circus. Why have you chosen this particular topic?

"The new circus is one of the eight flagship projects and there are several reasons why we have decided for the new circus. First of all it's the world of Petr Forman. It was his idea to bring the best-quality performances for the audiences in Pilsen.

"The second reason is that the form of the new circus is very accessible for general audiences. The main feature of the new circus season will be that the tents will travel around the city for the whole year, so you can find a show on the main Square as well as in the suburbs, which again increases the accessibility."

“And the last reason is that Pilsen is a city with the history of puppeteering and it creates a nice link with the new circus because it also works with material, imagination and illustrations, just like the puppeteers do.“

Talking about puppets – one of the big events will be an exhibition devoted to the illustrator and puppet maker Jiří Trnka. When will that be open?

Puppets by Jiří Trnka, photo: CTK
"The exhibition has its official opening on Friday and it will be open to the public from Saturday until May 10. It is one of our biggest exhibitions. We wanted to bring the native of Pilsen, Jiří Trnka, who made a huge contribution to the world of arts, animation and illustration, back to his birthplace. There never was such a large-scale exhibition devoted to his work, covering all the fields from sculptures to paintings, puppets, illustration and film animation."

The slogan of Pilsen 2015 is 'open up'. How do you want to open up the city and will you involve the people living here?

"We have a lot of activities that invite people to participate on different levels, from volunteering to contributing family pictures to a special exhibition about identity of Pilsen or sending their memories and stories to a special mobile application called Hidden City."

"'Open up' means that we want to show how the society has developed from totality to creativity over the last 25 years since the Velvet revolution. So opening up means that this beautiful city which Pilsen is for Pilseners, need to open the doors and bring in a little bit of fresh air.

"We want to be inspired but also find topics that can inspire Europe, with the stories of the natives of Pilsen, such as Jiří Trnka, Ladislav Sutnar, Škoda or František Křižík. So this project gives us the opportunity to bring up these topics and to discuss how the society should be open. It is also about the use of public space, about hospitality – because this is a great opportunity to welcome lots of guests from abroad."

Do you expect lots of foreign guests? And where do you think they will be mostly coming from?

Puppets by Jiří Trnka, photo: CTK
"We have made a goal to increase over-night stays in Pilsen by 35 percent above the average and we would like to keep their numbers 10 percent above the average in the future. We know that it is possible because last year we have had 16 percent more coming to Pilsen last year, bringing also some considerable economic effect to the city."

"Of course that we have made this circle of 300 km around Pilsen. 60 percent of this area is in Germany and Austria so of course we expect Germans and Austrians to come, also because the European capital of Culture brand is very strong in these countries.

"But we would also like to encourage domestic tourists to discover Pilsen. If you ask Czechs about Pilsen, all they can think of is beer and brewery. Thanks to our projects, which are bringing up lots of strong stories connected to Pilsen, I think there are lots of reasons to come.“

As you said many people regard Pilsen as the city of industry and beer. Obviously you want to change this and turn it into a city of culture. Do you think it will manage to keep the status even after 2015?

„Of course that the legacy of the European City of Culture is a key issue. We are trying to develop projects that will be easily sustainable in the future. There are infrastructural investments, such as the new theatre building or the centre for creative industries – Depo 2015, which is the main legacy project of Pilsen 2015.

"But we are also developing small-scale community projects, which are helping to professionalize the institutions and the players in the field. We established arts management courses which have already trained 300 people. We have set up a website for crowdfunding which helps people raise money for their small creative projects. So we are really trying to make sure that sustainability is teh main issue."

You told me that you have spent the past two years living mainly in Pilsen. What are your favourite venues in the city and what would you recommend to people visiting Pilsen?

"I very much like the West Bohemian gallery that is doing really fantastic exhibitions. I have been many times with my daughter to the puppet museum, which is very nicely done, interactive and fun. And I like the venue Papírna, located in a former paper mill, programming contemporary popular music.

"Pilsen 2015 will open its own venue, Depo 2015, in a former garage of the public transportation company, which will be a centre for creative industries, for graphic designers. There will be a shop with creative goods, but there will also be a maker space, where you will be able to make your own products. There will be a co-working centre for creatives to work together and there is also a nice cafe.

"And there is also a beautiful new theatre building, which opened only last September, so it would definitely be nice to see some of the shows of the European season of contemporary dance and theatre."