Giuliana Ciancio - June 2020
The last decade has been characterized by a succession of events of a global nature that have affected our notion of freedom and democracy. Just to mention a few: the crisis of 2008, Austerity and the proliferation of protests in 2011; terrorism; Brexit; the emergence of safe havens for refugees and the rise of populist forms based on nationalism. In a global context that was already greatly transformed by significant political and economic changes, entered the global crisis generated by the pandemic emergency which rendered the contradictions of our times more evident than ever. First and foremost, the conflict that emerged was that between a strongly interconnected global space and the opposing drive of nation states to reaffirm their hegemony. We clearly saw how difficult it is to cooperate for the common good and, consequently, to circulate economic resources and information. Secondly, the widespread economic and political precariousness faced by various sectors became evident, including the cultural sector, which, unlike other sectors, provided a panacea for the social trauma we are all experiencing.
It isn't easy to tell what will remain of this time, but we have certainly gone through several 'emotional' states, from the first contagions initially recorded in China (last January 2020) to this new phase of partial recovery (in May 2020), which can perhaps give us some indication as to the social climate.
The pandemic crisis is part of an already complex relationship between institutions (national, European, international) and citizens. On the one hand, a first phase was characterized by the widespread fear of being infected, followed by various manifestations of solidarity (the many artists who gifted their work to the community in order to go through the trauma together or the many different forms of mutualism that arose in condominiums and in various neighborhoods around cities). Today, some 3 months later, following a series of decrees and measures taken by the government to deal with the crisis, fear is starting to be replaced by frustration and the consequent anger, especially among those social groups and classes that were already characterized by widespread precariousness or intermittent work, as in the case of the cultural and performing arts sector (live and otherwise). The latter has been strongly affected as it is both the space reserved for sociality as well as the place that embodies the charms and distortions of the recent political history of Italy.
Probably while on the one hand, we will remember the empty streets of our cities, the queues at the supermarkets, the singing on the balconies, the clear skies and the scent of spring, which we didn't see, being so disruptive; on the other hand, this suspension to which we have all been exposed (and which also led us to forced co-habitations), has now been overcome by a difficult recovery and by a ( at times striking) gap between the government decrees, drafted to address the health and economic emergency, and the actual needs of the citizens. Zygmut Bauman accurately defined 'the crisis of confidence' which, following the 2008 crisis and the Austerity programs, established the disconnection between policymakers and civil society. This gave rise to a widespread state of disaffection towards the Res Publica and, at the same time, to the spread of the protests in 2011 that were globally linked yet strongly rooted in local contexts and that called for civil participation, which is one of the pillars of our democracies. We are in a very different economic, political and social context compared to 2008, but observing the social climate (and the paradigm shifts of our recent past) can help us understand what might be the processes of negotiation that must be undertaken in order to find concrete answers to this difficult transition.
The online has been a supportive resource against the forced absence of sociality. The platforms have multiplied, the online has offered itself as a place of meeting, study, artistic experimentation, a new space that we must now relocate into our new offline life. In the 'pre-Covid' era, many of us were already used to working remotely, and thus gathering, having meetings with colleagues scattered in other places. With the pandemic emergency, online has replaced the travels and journeys that we were already viewing as no longer sustainable due to their environmental impact. Personally, dealing with cultural cooperation, I have been able to participate in networking activities with European networks that connected many professionals scattered throughout Europe (and beyond), follow debates organized by the most diverse cultural organizations, and, at the same time, to meet colleagues with whom it wouldn't have been easy to share public arenas.
At the same time, this two-dimensional space has accentuated the digital divide, putting a major emphasis on accessibility and the question of class within our society. To live online means to have a fast and reliable connection, to have a computer at our disposal, a large enough house where we can alternate personal and professional lives and, in the case of big families, to be equipped with more computers and spaces necessary to conduct our digital lives. We have seen how accessibility was severely reduced for the underprivileged, the elderly, those with degenerative diseases (such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's), or for a large part of our illiterate society. Moreover, we observed that the online, if it isn't continuously contaminated, limits the coexistence of diverse social contexts, favors processes of homophilia (i.e. creating dialogue only among similar people) and therefore, while we are convinced that we are operating in a wider world, we are in fact in a small digital village that is, at times, very self-referential.
In the case of cultural production, the online posed an important problem, namely the acknowledgement of the economic dimension of artistic output which, as previously mentioned, were initially gifts to communities, but soon could not continue in this dimension of being for free. I believe that everything we learned, for better or for worse, will remain as an important capital that can help us imagine a different kind of sustainability for our future lives. Alternating online and offline life in a more structured and mindful way could help us have a more sustainable approach (reducing travel, enhancing remote communication technologies, providing a dimension to cultural and artistic experimentation that is also economic). It is clearly unavoidable that sociality remains as a substantial part of cultural work (and of our lives) and that it clearly cannot be called into question in the near future.
In processes of regeneration, culture, as we have already seen in the past (and especially in times of major transformation), plays a crucial role. Among the many events that we are witnessing and participating in nowadays, there are those actions which arise from the sharing of ideas and that are developing tools for imagining 'a better future' together.
Among these are the many workbenches and informal networks that emerged throughout the cultural sector in Italy (with a particular vitality within the live entertainment sector), which are protesting and elaborating proposals to defend the sector and the many cultural workers not taken into account by the recent governmental decrees.
Another example is the IETM network (International network for contemporary performing arts) which since 2019, with its 'Re-writing the network' , launched a collective decision making process regarding its own future with its more than 400 members (scattered over 50 countries). By rethinking its objectives, the European network is working towards providing guidance on the sustainability (human, political, economic) of performing arts.
I would also like to mention the Asilo in Naples which, besides its many activities, is conducting a think-tank as part of the European project Cultural and Creative Spaces and Cities with the aim of developing guidelines for policy-making and policy advice in the field of cultural policies through a bottom-up approach.
All these efforts, be they European, international, national or local, are currently vital for the regeneration of our sociality and common spaces, and, most importantly (bearing in mind the crisis generated by the pandemic emergency as well), they are once again bringing back civil participation to the centre, which, as already mentioned, is a fundamental part of our democracies. These places, as in the past, can be prime arenas for launching the negotiations that are necessary for the creation of future policies.
Another issue related to the lockdown period was that of nature and just how much we missed it, but probably nature didn't miss us at all. As our lives began to slowly resume, even if only partially, the color of our skies changed. Probably what we are learning now is that there is no environmental sustainability without political sustainability. This means having accessible and inclusive societies, provided with public services and cultural, health, social and transportation infrastructures. It means favoring those practices that operate with respect for the environment, while not penalizing the more vulnerable groups in society.
And ultimately: What are we learning from this time?
The context of Italian culture is a rich ecosystem characterized by a variety of artistic practices, associative systems, organizational models, institutions. All the practices and their actors are neither traceable to one single productive model nor to a singular type of contract. It is precisely the rich archipelago of contractual forms, initially created in response to the variety in the professional services offered, that over time has instead created a fragmentation within the sector and a progressive precariousness. For example, the abuse of freelance professionals (or the contractors who are more or less continuously employed) has become often a weapon for reducing costs resulting from the continuous cuts in the cultural spending. A lot of literature has been written on the subject recently but what we are interested in underlining here is that one of the side effects of this progressive discrepancy between cultural work and its normative framework (and its progressive precarization) has led to a dramatic decline in the 'bargaining power' of the sector (partly due to representation that has failed to develop tools for interpreting a changing world) and, therefore, to difficulty in cooperating, consorting and, at the same time, proposing change.
This state of affairs hasn't allowed, and continues to limit, the building of a system of trust.
Today, we are once again learning that trusting each other is difficult, but that being together is crucial and can open a door to new possible models of civil co-existence. We are learning that in order to cooperate we have to lose something so that we can gain much more together afterwards, and thus make the transition from an ego-systemic approach to an eco-system of community . We are seeing how the cultural space can be a place where artists, civil society and policy-makers can meet to imagine possible futures together, but that this cannot disregard the knowledge that the precariousness in which we live has been a long time coming and so, we cannot delay more concrete answers.
During this process that confidence referred to by Bauman is indispensable, especially at a time when we need to rebuild and genuinely redesign our society. We are rediscovering that building a system of trust means operating within a territory where the rules are inclusive and clear for all, where the redistribution of resources is transparent, and where the political objective underpins the creation of the community. This is the biggest challenge we are all facing today and against which we could state what we have actually learned in the future.
Giuliana Ciancio - Cultural manager, researcher and lecturer in the cultural sector