Social and religious tension, surface and electrical tension, muscular and sexual tension, aesthetic and creative tension: these are but some examples for the many uses and contexts of the term ‘tension/Spannung’. They indicate the ambiguity and internal tension of this deceptively simple term. Tension usually refers to a static but unstable state. It arguably provides the condition, energy, and direction for dynamic transformations, but the process dissipating tension can be productive as well as destructive. States of tension are thus undecided in multiple ways, but they do not leave us indifferent. On the contrary, the indecision in tension promises us the possibility – and often therefore also duty – to intervene. At the same time, tension commonly demands attention on account of its aesthetic qualities. Tension thus unfolds or elicits a pragmatic, even ethical, as well as aesthetic response that can easily appear self-evident in any particular context: tension is something to be avoided and reduced (politics), to be worked through and resolved (therapy, science), to be endured and sustained (modern art, much postmodern theory), or to be sought after and enjoyed (criticism, media).

The ICI’s inaugural core project sought to explore the critical role of tension within and between different cultures. Taking ‘culture’ in a deliberately broad sense, the institute supported fellows from different cultures who linked their individual projects to the topic of Tension/Spannung. They were asked to articulate the role and conception of tension within their projects and to engage in a common, comparative project among fellows at the institute. While an extensive and systematic classification of the manifold notions and uses of ‘tension’ would privilege a particular mode of resolving tensions, the aim of the core project was to see how far one can go in thinking different conceptions together, asking, for instance, what happens if one uses physical or aesthetic models for political tensions or for the tensions between science and the humanities.

The ICI is conceived as a place for such negotiations, bringing together different approaches so that they may cross-fertilise each other. This implies fostering also intellectual confrontations, placing tension at the centre of the institute’s praxis regardless of the specific thematic focus. The inaugural core project thus reflected upon the institute’s mission in an experimental manner by way of examples provided both by the individual projects focusing on tension as a theme and by the confrontation of their underlying attitudes towards tension. It thereby sought to test the institute’s premise that tensions have a productive potential and to address the problem of how one can achieve an intercultural engagement that includes also those cultures favouring alternative modes of tension. Here, the institute’s working hypothesis is that cultures are built upon tensions that not only stem from confrontations with other cultures, but also constitute an internal driving force; and that such internal tensions constitute a (formal) common ground between cultures that may be better suited for constructive dialogue and negotiation than any positively defined common denominator.

The project was pursued in several ways. On the one hand, the ICI Berlin announced fellowships for emerging individuals and selected fellows who contributed to the core project through their individual projects. Weekly colloquia and internal workshops elaborated upon the core project’s conceptual framework, enhancing the cross-fertilization among the fellows’ projects and working towards a common publication (the first collected volume developed in this way appeared in 2010). On the other hand, ICI Berlin pursued its core project  through a variety of public events – lectures, performances, workshops, symposia etc. – hosted at the Institute and ideally organized in collaboration with other institutions and partners.

The core project Tension/Spannung began in October 2007 and continued to be pursued with varying yearly foci from 2010 to July 2014.

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