The stage is unlit. The wooden floor hasn’t been moped for weeks and a thin layer of dust is darkening the creases of the red curtains — the janitor has not come to the theater in a long time. In the corner a small spider has spun its web and hangs upside down, waiting. The theater stage is in Brussels but it could be in Paris, Rome, Berlin or London. How is the pandemic hitting the cultural sector in Europe and beyond?
For three days at the end of October, the Goethe-Institut organized the Freiraum Festival, which consisted of live and pre-recorded discussions, talks, artistic interventions and performances. On the last day of the festival, culture and arts professionals from Europe and the United States addressed some of the challenges the art world is facing due to pandemic including difficulties linked to the production, distribution, marketing and reception of works of art.
Lydia Chatziiakovou is one of the artistic co-directors of the Freiraum Festival. She directs and curates Common Lab, a program by Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki and ArtBOX in the context of Goethe-Institut’s Excellency Initiatives 2020. She conceives, curates and coordinates projects that emphasis on art for social change and the relationship between art and technology, bringing together communities, artists and institutions from Greece and abroad.
She speaks with Travel Tomorrow about the cultural sector in Greece, the behavioral changes that are being seen across Europe, the questions that remained unsolved about the relationship between spectator and performer, and more.
1. How has the pandemic affected the cultural sector in Europe? How are theater and dance companies, visual artists, etc. coping with it?
The situation differs from country to country, depending on how the sector operates. For sure, art and creative professionals are significantly affected by the closing down of cultural spaces -museums, galleries, theatres, concert and nightlife venues- and the pausing or cancellation of most productions because of the lockdowns. Apart from the apparent financial repercussions, artistic creativity is also greatly affected: the urgency of the situation itself can be experienced both as a motivation to produce more and as a source of inactivity. One thing that is common is the overabundance of online content -previously or currently produced- as a means to stay connected, reflect collectively, work collaboratively and present publicly, when offline possibilities are close to non-existent. The conception, production and circulation of digital content however is not necessarily something that we were all prepared for or that can respond to the work of any artist/project. The situation therefore brings a lot of stress and uncertainty.
2. How is the EU and Member States offering aid and support to the cultural sector? What have been the main challenges to getting access to that aid?
I could not speak for all European countries but in Greece, where I’m based, the conservative, neoliberal government has unfortunately not taken any serious measures to support the cultural sector. As a result, most artists are struggling.
3. How have artists adapted (financially) and reacted (creatively) to the challenges posed by the pandemic?
It’s a situation that eliminates one’s possibility to earn a living, especially in a sector in which precarious labour is a widespread reality already. Especially in Greece, artists “adapt” to this reality by often doing jobs on the side to earn a living. This is in any case a problematic starting point. When side jobs have a certain stability, one might stand a chance; when even your side job is threatened -as many jobs currently are- how can you adapt? Of course, it is not only about artists; work patterns are undergoing transformations bringing changes that will shape our future. The pandemic itself is not the cause, but a springboard for these transformations, which are rooted deeply in our financial and political system.
4. Will the cultural scene in Europe look different when/if and effective vaccine is delivered? How?
Less travel, more online meetings, more local collaborations, less but more meaningful content, combining the physical and the analogue with the digital; the online with the offline. I sure hope that all museums, galleries, theatres and venues survive and manage to respond to the new situation, whatever that may be, and continue to function as platforms for artists to produce and present their work for audiences to enjoy.
5. How will the lack of cultural expressions (except online) affect society?
Venues may be closed and artistic production is surely affected; but culture, art and artistic reflection are everywhere. Even though I am a firm believer that the digital cannot, under any circumstance, substitute the physical, I must say that the huge online offering of high quality cultural content during the lockdowns is a huge comfort for audiences worldwide. When the world suddenly paused, we gained access to cultural productions that had not been available before. For the audience this is a fantastic opportunity. On the opposite side of the coin of course, what we need to consider is the cost of this for the authors – not only financially, but also conceptually. How does a work transform when it is shown in a different medium, especially when it was not adapted to the specifics of the new medium? Does an excellent theatre performance remain excellent when we watch a single-camera-wide-shot documentation of it? Can you really digitally simulate the space of a gallery and “hang” paintings on digital walls?
6. What lessons could the cultural sector draw from the crisis?
I’d prefer to talk about challenges, rather than lessons. Lessons would presuppose that a situation is complete and it has been specific enough. However I don’t believe that the pandemic, as accelerator of developments that have been underway for decades and revealer of systemic social and political pathogenesis, will come to one specified and identified end-point. In any case, the tension between the digital and the physical that I mentioned before is a huge field to explore. What does remediation mean? How does one experience an art work, alone at home, without the correlations that can happen only in public space? And what is the new public space? How can the art economy transform to a more fair system? Finally, what is our responsibility towards the huge impact that accumulating online data has on the environment? The internet is not immaterial; data storage farms claim more and more natural resources. What is the footprint of all the data we produce and upload?
* Commissioned by Common Lab – State of the Arts project by Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki and ArtBOX. Premiered on 1/11/2020 at Freiraum hybrid Festival 2020. .
** Created as a result of the online workshop series “How to Build a Community in 10 days” (April-June 2020), in the context of the project Common Lab by Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki and ArtBOX. Premiered on 1/11/2020 at Freiraum hybrid Festival 2020