An interview with Hannah Kaip, Library, Science, Education and Dance Project Coordinator, Austrian Cultural Forum London
Sheridan Marshall: The Austrian Cultural Forum comes across as a warm and welcoming hub of Austrian cultural activity in the heart of London, a venue for diverse events from right across the arts. Can you tell me more about the institution’s history and the significance of 28 Rutland Gate as a cultural venue?
Hannah Kaip: Of course! The Austrian Cultural Forum started out as a first point of contact between Austria and the world, at a time when Austria struggled with its image after the Second World War. The Austrian Institute, as it was called back then, was created in 1956 and provided a space for émigrés and exiles, many of which were Jewish, to talk about Austrian literature, play music and get to know each other.
Their presence was a crucial factor in programming – and remains as such to this day – and also in building up the library. Back then, the Institute answered to the Ministry of Education and focussed predominantly on academic exchange. Once the Foreign Ministry (Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs) took over, objectives shifted towards providing more space for discussion and in 2001, the name was changed to Austrian Cultural Forum London. I imagine it to have been the sort of Viennese coffee house atmosphere of laid-back intellectual exchange, perhaps in the library, and with piano tunes in the background.
Some of the most influential people of their time were featured on the programme such as Erich Fried and Ingeborg Bachmann. There were events on the making of The Third Man, lectures by Hans Keller on string quartets and more. Today, the Austrian Cultural Forum London promotes cultural contacts between the UK and Austria by organising events and supporting artists and projects in the fields of music, performing arts, visual arts, literature, film and science.
Are there Austrian Cultural Forums in other cities around the world?
Yes, there are. Contrary to the Goethe-Institut or the Institut Français, the Austrian Cultural Forums are the cultural departments of the Austrian Embassies. Currently, there are thirty Austrian Cultural Forums in twenty-eight countries around the world; from Peking to New York, Teheran, New Delhi, Zagreb to Paris and many more!
The ACF London aims to be a link between Austrian and UK artists and culture in general. The way I see it, it provides a safe space for Austrian, UK and international artists and visitors alike and is there to foster inter- and transcultural exchange.
What are the ACF London’s aims and how do you see the ACF’s role in bringing Austrian culture to UK audiences?
The ACF London aims to be a link between Austrian and UK artists and culture in general. The way I see it, it provides a safe space for Austrian, UK and international artists and visitors alike and is there to foster inter- and transcultural exchange. We provide a venue in central London for recitals, lectures, readings, film screenings, conferences and exhibitions, while also cooperating with various partners throughout the UK.
As the cultural section of the Austrian Embassy in London, the ACF London arranges, initiates, facilitates and supports about 150 events per year, half of which take place at the ACF’s own premises at 28 Rutland Gate, in the heart of Knightsbridge.
You have such a rich programme of events, so I am not sure whether this is possible, but can you describe a typical month in the calendar of the ACF London?
This is indeed a difficult question, as our programme is packed each month, especially after a back-log of events due to Covid-19. In general, we offer a variety of different events over various fields which target diverse audiences. A typical month could consist of the following: several concerts (we have our lunchtime concert series with the Royal College of Music), readings (contemporary Austrian literature often in cooperation with the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre), as well as the European Poetry Festival, scientific lectures, theatre plays, the ACF Translation Prize, film screenings (twice a month under the label CineClub), exhibition openings both inhouse and in other London/UK locations. You can check out our programme here.
At the moment, we are in the midst of the watchAUT film festival 2023, we are also preparing for the Austrian Riveter magazine launch at the British Library, and a photography exhibition in the Natural History Museum about the Polar Silk Road focussing on the climate crisis. We are focussing thematically on AI and digital humanism, which is also reflected in contemporary literature (Raphaela Edelbauer at the European Writers’ Festival).
Is there such a thing as a typical audience for your events?
I think we have an audience of so-called ‘regulars’ who enjoy coming to our events, but the demographic varies significantly, depending on the type of event, but we are always looking to expand our audience and are looking forward to welcoming new faces to the ACF!
How do you spread the word about the ACF’s programme?
The best way to keep up to date is to sign up to our newsletter where you receive monthly updates about our programme. We also have Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts where we regularly share our events and activities.
How long has the ACF London had its own library?
The library was brought to life around fifty-six years ago by Austrian émigrés who wanted to share their love for Austrian literature with each other and the world. Many of the books were private donations that formed the starting point for the range of titles that stack the shelves in Rutland Gate today.
How does membership of the library work?
It’s really easy! You are a member as soon as you borrow a book. I simply add your personal details to our online system and you are free to go! Come by during opening hours (Monday-Thursday from 10 am to 4:30 pm) and it’s best to write an email, so I can make sure I will be there to help you find what you are looking for.
What sort of books do you have on your shelves?
You can find books covering all fields but all relating in some way to Austria, from literature to poetry, to dictionaries and music. We also have a big section of non-fiction books (history, natural sciences, philosophy, psychology, etc.) in our archive. Additionally, we have a small section of children’s books that we are looking to expand further. An important thing to add, about 1/3 of our books is in English, so you can also discover Austrian literature in translation! You can access our full online catalogue here.
Does the library have any particular initiatives to promote and celebrate Austrian literature?
Absolutely! We have the ‘EXPLORE OUR LIBRARY’ initiative, where we ask contributors to write a short review about a book in our library in English and put it on our website and social media. This is an excellent way to get to know our library and Austrian literature and earn a reward as well! We will offer £100 in exchange for a 500-word review.
With the London Book Fair on the horizon, and Austria as the guest country at this year’s Leipzig Book Fair too, can you tell us anything about Austria’s presence at international book fairs?
Well, there are a lot of Austrian authors represented at the Leipzig Book Fair. The reason for that is that firstly, a lot of Austrian authors have German publishers and, secondly, it has to do with the important status of literature at the heart of Austrian culture in general.
This can be traced back to the multi-faceted cultural heritage and the reflection thereof: First, the rise and fall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, a world empire with highs and lows and then its complete disintegration, followed by a challenging inter-war period and the quest of building a new nation.
Then, of course, the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, followed by the search for a new identity. Many Austrian authors interact with their heritage, often motivated by personal family history, which is reflected in literature. This broad field is also reflected in the Austrian Riveter magazine which will be presented at the Leipzig Book Fair.
We are confident that, together with NBG, we will manage to achieve many more English-language translations in the near future, which is crucial to be able to introduce some of the best books and writers in recent Austrian literature to the English literary scene.
New Books in German has had a long and fruitful partnership with the ACF London, promoting Austrian authors and literature in the UK. How do you see this partnership developing in the future?
The ACF is looking forward to continuing our collaboration with New Books in German, promoting and supporting contemporary Austrian literature for translation into English here in the UK. We are confident that, together with NBG, we will manage to achieve many more English-language translations in the near future, which is crucial to be able to introduce some of the best books and writers in recent Austrian literature to the English literary scene.
From a librarian’s perspective, I have been focussing on adding contemporary authors and their works to the library, especially those featured in NBG. I think there is still more room for further exchange, as many interested people might not know that the ACF has these resources and offers them for free. So please feel free to spread the word!
It has been a pleasure talking to you, Hannah. Looking forward to seeing you at an ACF event very soon!