Editorial: The magazine in times of the Corona crisis

Hortensia Völckers, Kirsten Haß - Executive Board of the German Federal Cultural Foundation

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How will you be read this issue? As a written echo from another time? We don’t know. The coronavirus promises to make our present crisis a watershed moment in history. In view of the continuing consequences of the coronavirus crisis and the probability of further pandemics down the road, it appears that a return to the pre-pandemic status quo is just as unlikely as a continuation of life in shutdown. It is no wonder that artists and many cultural institutions have felt the unavoidable but painful effects of social distancing as an existential threat of unprecedented magnitude.

If we are to believe the coronavirus crisis will create such a severe rupture to divide our history into a before and after, then one of the most dramatic cultural effects may be the challenge of forming a new relationship to the dimension of time. We could describe it as a change in perspective with significant repercussions for cultural production. The time “before” was firmly situated in the context of digitalisation and globalisation, a time characterised by the dominance of thinking in spatial dimensions. The focus of many cultural producers, along with that of cultural funding providers, used to be on expanding the space and radius of cultural activities, initiating international and intercontinental exchange, laying claim to digital territory and generally promoting more culture “across the board”.

As if the dimension of time were demanding its social rehabilitation, it has brought us to a screeching halt as the pandemic unfolded – and this time, globally. The coronavirus crisis has forced us all to adopt a different sense of time, one that calls into question our social safety nets and our individual habits and certainties. It is likely that the coronavirus will create a new unit for measuring time which some are now calling “driving by sight”. Translated into the language of culture, it means living life “on the fly”. We are only now getting a vague idea of what challenges this lifestyle poses to the cultural sector. The time “after” will be characterised by the realisation that not only space, but also time requires planning. For artists and cultural producers, planning security is an important resource which has become exceedingly scarce and shall likely remain so for the foreseeable future. It is almost impossible to determine the half-life of ideas and projects in an undefined period of pandemic, and the validity of predictions has shrunk down to just days.

The production of this issue was directly swept up in this tidal change. In a matter of weeks, many of the articles we commissioned before the outbreak of the coronavirus appeared outdated – at least with respect to their relevance and urgency. When suddenly faced with the potential collapse of the cultural sector and the existential threat to freelance artists, was it possible to discuss topics that seemed urgent before the coronavirus crisis? Could we simply continue as planned? Or should we start from scratch and publish an issue focused solely on the corona-related calamities facing cultural producers? And what half-life would it have?

We eventually decided to keep our thematic focus of “dilemmas”. We believe this to be emblematic of our present day. No matter what social area we look at, the decision-making process has become more difficult and decisions always appear to lead to subjective dilemmas. It seems that the reasons “for” and “against” balance each other out, that obvious solutions and easy outcomes are nowhere in sight. Nowadays encountering a dilemma is no more and no less than admitting “we don’t (yet) know the path to take.”

Perhaps it is the other way around – perhaps what we call a dilemma is actually a construct, a defence mechanism, an excuse we use for the sake of convenience, for avoiding the unpleasant, time-consuming task of rethinking our views. In his article “Consequence Paralysis”, Till Briegleb shares his thoughts on the dilemma between the principle of promoting international cultural exchange and meeting the requirements of climate protection.

This issue begins with what is possibly the greatest dilemma in Western discourse. We asked the sociologist Stephan Lessenich whether saving the planet can only be achieved at the price of limiting our democratically guaranteed right to social participation. In his analysis, he contends that democracy itself is not completely innocent when it comes to environmental protection. The theatre artist Milo Rau gained a reputation in his stage and film productions for presenting audiences with the misery caused by capitalism and war, the humanitarian catastrophes in the Congo and Mosul, and most recently, the desperate situation of landless farmers in the Amazon. We asked him to share his view of the dilemma between ethics and aesthetics. When we give the disenfranchised a leading role in a theatre production, letting them play the artist, are we merely allowing them to have their 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol once said? Interestingly, Milo Rau doesn’t regard this as a dilemma, but rather an example of social contradictions which necessarily express themselves in art. We asked María Berríos, one of the curators of the 11th Berlin Biennale and Rita Segato, a prominent feminist anthropologist in Latin America, how they view the dilemma of the post-colonial strategy of avoiding Eurocentric perspectives by “giving others a voice”. They both reject the trend in their own way. “Taking instead of giving” is Berríos’ motto, while Segato proposes a friendly takeover, protecting indigenous cultural assets from neo-colonial appropriation, robbing Europeans of the illusion that they could ever comprehend their original meaning.

It is no coincidence we selected photos from the exceptional Brazilian artist Leonilson for the insert between these two Latin American-themed articles. In his treatment of identity-political issues and the relationship of the body and politics, Leonilson, who passed away in 1993, was a pioneer of an art movement that resisted the socio-political reprisals of the Brazilian military dictatorship in an unyielding and highly imaginative manner. A comprehensive solo exhibition of his multifaceted works will be presented for the first time in Europe this fall at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. On the reverse page of the insert, art historian Cathrin Mayer introduces this outstanding artist who is still relatively unknown to German audiences. In view of the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus crisis, one cannot help but recall Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines from the “Threepenny Opera”: “Aye, make yourself a plan // They need you at the top! // Then make yourself a second plan // Then let the whole thing drop.” May the curators come up with a clever solution to prove Brecht’s dismal prediction wrong!

Alexander Koch examines the dilemma of representation as exemplified by the New Patrons programme. A comparatively small group of community-oriented citizens are working to initiate changes to their social environment which affect everyone. Where do these draw their legitimation when developing their projects? And Lyn Gardner addresses the heatedly discussed question – and not only in the theatre scene – of how artists can avoid the circulus vitiosus, the vicious cycle, of often presenting mind-altering art to audiences which already have the “right” state of mind.

The literary contribution in this issue by Senthuran Varatharajah focuses on the fundamental dilemma: the existential drama of love. In the language of love, this dilemma is often expressed in metaphors of consumption. The desire for maximum closeness, to be indistinguishable from the other, can result in cannibalistic annihilation.

What will happen when you hold this issue in your hands? We don’t know. Will this editorial already be superseded by new events and developments? Old thinking obviously manifests itself in past perfect. What we need is a language with a new future tense.

Executive Board

The Artistic Director, Hortensia Völckers, and the Administrative Director, Kirsten Haß, constitute the Executive Board of the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

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