“What is very unique is that we live a collective experience that is not shared. It is a second violence after the sanitary one. Because despite the communication tools at hand to keep a connection with our closed ones, we are living the impossibility to be together. For the first time, the future of each of us is completely uncertain. It forces us to forget our agendas, our plans, everything that helped to control our time. We have to accept that tomorrow is now an exercise of imagination.”
So Vooruit is currently closed. Through its windows, one can observe the slowed down life imposed by the current sanitary situation. Crisis scenarios have been imagined hundreds of times by artists, potentially also on the stages of Vooruit. But what we experience today is not fiction anymore but a very palpable reality. This extraordinary moment, on many levels, asks us to think about the world we have created and most importantly about the one we would like to live in, in the future.
It also forces us to make priorities. The first one being, of course, the health care needed by all communities, locally and around the world. But then, can we use this exceptional period to ask ourselves essential questions? How can this lockdown become an opportunity to rethink our narratives and actions? How can we understand and acknowledge that our social organisation is actually fragile and full of inequalities? Can the virus help us imagine another future?
If and when the current viral episode will be behind us, new challenges will arise: on a geopolitical, ecological, or else, economic level. Artists, activists and whistleblowers have been shouting in our ears for decades that turmoil was coming up. The virus might be only the beginning of a story already written: ecological catastrophes, polarisation, individualisation, mass consumerism - in random orders. When we will be forced to degrow, most certainly in a brutal and chaotic way, the consequences will be the further development of inequalities and world conflicts. And what one could call a “selective demographic degrowth”. In other words, survival of the fittest and of the luckiest.
One could say that none of this is actually new information. Artistic projects have offered us many times the opportunity to think about a collapsing world, for example at Vooruit with artists and students of KASK Arts school in Ghent, who ran futurology workshops3. It is not strange that we could adapt to the current lockdown so fast, as if the idea of a “catastrophe to come” was, like the virus, in the air. What we are currently experiencing is not only the management of a pandemic, it is also looking at the world we made and at ourselves in a mirror, collectively. The time to question our past responsibilities and actions might be over. Who was right, who was wrong, who predicted it before. All irrelevant.
But the game is up4. Time has come to stop being paralysed by the fear of losing what we have. We can observe the first steps towards the future world with another bailout of the economy before a bailout of the people5. If this vision does not work for us, we need to imagine other ones. Even though they lead to more questions, they will still be alternatives to the current dead end.
What if what we experience at the moment would be a sort of general rehearsal of the creation of a new world or a new normal? The pandemic acts as a sort of accelerator and experimental lab, on a global level. It is pretty clear that digital tools will play a fundamental role in the future. Now, thanks to those tools, a large number of us are able to remain in connection with our friends and families. Telework has become a reality for many employees that had to commute to work and sit in front of a computer for hours, sometimes unnecessarily. Streaming of online artistic content is being experimented with every day. Kids start to e-learn.
Technology also brings another way to look at our relationship to time, to work and can create new creativity and, to some extent, new solidarities. But we need to make sure that, in the current crisis, these new digital opportunities are reachable to everyone. Let us add to the to do list this: to provide free unlimited online access to the less digitally privileged.
One of our responsibilities will be to decide for ourselves if this is the kind of relationship to technology and control we want in the future. Of course, digital tools are useful in many ways. But let us not fall naively into the success stories of virtuality, telework and other digital cultural formats. For the performing arts, for example, which mainly propose a time-based collective experience, the challenge is huge. How will artists respond to these new conditions? Arts centres need to be aware and supportive of new and existing initiatives that will allow us to continue being artistically creative and socially engaged. Let us also not fool ourselves and rush, as many arts organisations do at the moment - Vooruit included - to create online content and continue our business as usual. Nothing is less usual than the current period.
Let’s consider for a moment a world, more or less far from ours, where individuals would be forced to live in confinement at home, because of a too hostile climate. Meals would be delivered at the door. Work would happen without physical contact with others. Education would be the responsibility of artificial intelligence bots. Exits outside would be fiercely controlled and connection with family members could only happen via social networks. This scenario was written many times in anticipation literature. And we have indeed more or less tested its prefiguration. Our capacity to adapt to the new normal is, in a way, being evaluated. Without knowing what it would mean to pass or fail the test.
We have no idea how long this situation will last. But we do know many of us will come out of it with emotional and psychological traumas and economic difficulties. We should be angry at the lack of politically structured care for the most fragile communities around us, the homeless and in general the ones not able to make ends meet. We should be afraid of the future call by our leaders to work twice as hard to support the economy and return to the economic structures that took us there in the first place.
That is why we need a new and radical definition of solidarity. This word is currently used in all kinds of ways, also for when we clap every night at our windows. Solidarity needs to find its initial sense: that the ones who have the most share their resources with the ones who have less. All the time. Everywhere. Call it utopic but if we do not manage to agree on such a basic principle while we have all been locked down for weeks and the world as we know is falling apart, then we are in absolute trouble.
One particular community will be able to provide alternative scenarios and hope in the dark6: the artists. This is not an attempt to defend the importance of our sector. It is very clear that we need artists to help us write new scenarios and imagine possible futures. For this, they need to get a voice in security councils and exit scenario meetings. They also need proper social and financial support to develop their work now and in the future. They need an acknowledgement of their importance in society. Seriously, what would we spend our time doing at the moment without access to music, film, and books? It does not mean that artists should have the responsibility to save the world, but they can most certainly contribute to the reflection and balance the points of view of economics, politicians and other experts.
Let us not be naive: this will not happen by itself. But we can use the current momentum to provoke a debate, and hopefully a shift. We can impose that the voices of the artists are heard. Because they predicted the present and they are able to write the future.
In a recent online meeting with artists and partners of the potentially upcoming festival NO(W)WORRIES7, several questions and remarks brought us to think about future solidarities:
How do we organise coming together post virus? How will we be able to physically come closer again?
Can the digital experiments that will happen be a way to create in the long term more accessibility and inclusion? Can the digital space contribute to future redistribution of means?
How can we continue collaborating internationally, among others with the Global South, in a world post virus? How can we make sure we do not end up, more or less consciously, withdrawing ourselves and forget about international solidarity?
This text is an invitation to think all together, with artists, about first possible answers. Because for the moment, we, at Vooruit, are at the same loss as everyone.
Matthieu Goeury, artistic coordinator Vooruit
1 'Possible Futures' (2013) and '(IM)Possible Futures' (2015) are festivals organised by arts centres Vooruit and CAMPO in collaboration with University of Ghent
2 read the full text by Tiago Rodriguez here
3 Workshops lead by artists Diederik Peeters, Anna Czapski, Hans Bryssinck, Adva Zakai, among others
4 'The Game is Up' was a festival organised by Vooruit in 2007
5 Read the full text by Rachida Aziz here
6 cfr Rebecca Solnit’s book 'Hope in the Dark'
7 NO(W)WORRIES Festival is still planned to take place at the end of October 2020