Contactless Communities

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Author of the text/moderator: Matúš Benža (SK) / Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava
Miroslav Paulíček (CZ) / University of Ostrava
Joshua Edelman (GB) / Manchester School of Theatre
Alicja Czyczel (PL) / Common Space

Roman Černík (CZ) / Johan Centrum

On a global scale, the pandemic had a disastrous impact on social bonds and communities. New social distancing measures and public health provisions erected new barriers between artists and their audiences. The contactless reality of the pandemic highlighted many inequalities already present within the society, exposed vulnerable working and economic conditions and aggravated associated mental health issues, with performing artists often bearing the brunt.
This podcast is a reflection of discussion of four theatre practitioners and researchers about how performing arts can change and rework some of its practices for a better, more empathic, and sustainable practice.

Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:
University of Ostrava
Manchester School of Theatre
Common Space (Przestrzeń Wspólna)
Johan Centrum

#07_Contactless Communities

Matúš Benža

For the March edition of The Show Must Go On/Offline, the Arts and Theatre Institute organised an online discussion titled Contactless Communities, which focused on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on artistic communities and audiences alike. 

Theatre helps us to see perspectives that differ from our own. Theatre encourages us to take risks and to advocate for new voices. It is a cultural phenomenon that often shines light on uncomfortable topics and demands that society take a hard look at itself in the mirror. But theatre can also bring us joy and remind us that we are not alone. Not only are we sharing space and an experience with the artists on stage, but we are also sharing the experience with fellow audience members and strengthening our sense of community and belonging. This desire for a shared experience has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21.

Those discussing the topic included sociologist Miroslav Paulíček and theatre maker and educator Roman Černík, both from Czech Republic; choreographer and performer Alicja Czyczel from Poland, and researcher Joshua Edelman from the United Kingdom. Matúš Benža from the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia, was in the moderator’s chair. 

Like the previous episodes in this series, Contactless Communities also focuses on how the performing arts might change and rework some of their practices towards a more empathic and sustainable practice in the future. This series aims to bring theatre makers together to share their experiences, find common ground, and learn from each other’s approaches.

Globally, the pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life, caused economic disruptions and had a disastrous impact on social bonds and communities. New social distancing measures and public health provisions erected new barriers not only between family members and friends, but also between artists and their audiences. We can say that COVID-19 has disrupted our sense of normal in every way imaginable, influencing almost every single aspect of our lives. It has highlighted many inequalities already present within society, exposed vulnerable working and economic conditions and aggravated associated mental health issues, with performing artists often bearing the brunt. 

Right from the outset, sociologist Miroslav Paulíček introduced a controversial notion into the discussion. He holds that the pandemic represents a risk that is democratic: “Rich people, educated people, and people with PhDs are afraid in exactly the same way as poor people. The virus is democratic.” This idea was vocally challenged by others during the discussion. A disease may be “democratic” on a cellular level, but its impact on the health, jobs and financial security of various communities is hardly equalising. Alicja Czyczel, Polish choreographer and performer said: “As a freelance artist in Poland, my situation is very different to someone working at a large corporation with a full-time contract. Our opportunities and working conditions are vastly different and so is our sense of security.” 

It is evident that certain communities are clearly more affected by the pandemic than others. Josh Edelman represented Manchester Metropolitan University and the “Freelancers in the Dark” initiative. He confirmed that, in the United Kingdom, Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities were disproportionately hit by the pandemic. Their COVID-19 incidence rates were four times those of white British communities and their economic security was also at greater risk. 

The pandemic also greatly affected the elderly, single-parent families and those working in service industries, but also those with careers in the performing arts. Freelancers in the Dark’s main goal is to investigate the social, cultural and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic for independent arts workers across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland through surveys and interviews.  

Edelman continued: “The insecurity of freelance workers in Britain is huge. Effectively all artistic, but also many of the non-artistic professions in British theatre work as freelancers. It is not only about the economic hit they have taken, but their own sense of what it means to be an artist, their sense of their career and their calling as somebody who wants to do this weird, wonderful thing that theatre is, has been shattered.” 

The isolation and the loss of a sense of community were among the hardest to bear. However, he started to witness many local, peer-to-peer, artist-to-artist initiatives cropping up. These “communities of care” are unofficial, often lacking resources or any kind of formal organisational structures. Yet the work they do is crucial, giving people a sense of belonging, and making them feel that their work is valid and recognized. Formal institutions often have nothing to offer the independent artists with whom they have regularly worked for years or even decades. As Edelman explained, the message artists often receive is: “We’ve got nothing. We have no work for you, we have no money, because we had to shut our doors.” 

This sentiment was also echoed by Alicja Czyczel: “The dynamic between freelance artists and cultural institutions in Poland is currently very ambivalent. Many theatres continue to exist as phantom institutions, but they are meant for us – the artists and the audiences. Due to the uncertainty and lack of funding they are maintaining a very ambivalent position towards the artists.“ 

In Poland, the pandemic also exacerbated existing inequalities between the fields of theatre and dance. Dancers and choreographers are often paid less than their counterparts in theatre and less than the national average. With many of them working as independent artists, their livelihood was wiped out virtually overnight in the wake of social distancing measures. In the absence of formal institutions to shelter dance practitioners, the community felt alone and left to its own devices. 

Every speaker confirmed that the social security programmes established by governments are often insufficient; they arrive late and rarely allow artists to plan for the future in a sustainable manner. Freelancers have often been left in the dark to fend for themselves. Still, one could argue that even the darkest of clouds can have a silver lining – the newly established “communities of care” and their response to the situation. In contrast to the official responses, Edelman states, interventions from this sector have “been faster and more nimble. That’s the main advantage of these grassroots initiatives. They can be faster and more responsive to the many issues artists have been facing.” 

Often, these groups serve as important sources of information, sharing opportunities that were not readily available to everyone. There is also a certain feeling of obligation on the part of the lucky ones that are privileged enough to continue their work and create visibility for those who had to give up their career in the arts to put bread on the table for themselves and their families. Edelman believes “this low to the ground solidarity is a good sign for the theatre. It is a productive form of people helping one another.”

One artist collective created during the pandemic is Common Space, a grassroots, non-profit initiative from Poland that brings together artists from the fields of dance, choreography, and the visual arts through the medium of fortnightly ZOOM meetings. 

Performer and choreographer Alicja Czyczel represented the collective in the discussion. The pandemic served as something of a catalyst for the establishment of Common Space, which is organised in a non-hierarchical way, with its decision-making largely based on consensus. It primarily aims to share, showcase and discuss the work of practitioners and researchers of body movement. In the collective’s own words, the initiative sprung from “a deep need for social solidarity and the transition from an individual to a collective search for tools of creative cooperation, generating and sharing the knowledge and discourse around dance, performance art, and good practice in the ‘choreography of organising from the bottom up’.”

For Czyczel it was important to have a platform to develop artistic research in the field of movement and dance in a country without any formal institutions to do so. As she explained, “There are five academies where you can study choreography or dance, but there are no departments dedicated to dance. So, we’re often considered to be the weirdos of the academic world and most of the time we don’t even want to do academic research, we want to do artistic research. Where can we do it? Let’s meet, let’s read texts, let’s talk about what we are doing, let’s show our practices. Let’s invent a new language to talk about what we are doing.”

Czyczel thinks about how the field of art could look in the future and how it could be redefined with more solidarity and empathy in mind. She asks herself whether formal institutions are observing and taking note of what is happening on the ground and whether or not they can embrace new ideas and innovative ways of doing things. Thanks to its flexible structure, Common Space can be very responsive, creating bespoke programmes crafted to the needs of its stakeholders and serving as a role model for formal, funded institutions. 

Josh Edelman reacted, encouraging others to try to think in this way: “The structure of how you make the art cannot be separated from the art itself. The institutional structure of the art is not a totally separate thing. One influences the other. If you want to make open-minded, inclusive art, you need open-minded, inclusive and democratic organisations. If you want to make non-hierarchical art, you need a non-hierarchical institution to do it.”

With Roman Černík, the focus of the discussion shifted slightly from artists and practitioners to their audiences. Černík, a theatre maker and educator, has served as artistic director of JOHAN, a centre for cultural and social projects, for over 20 years. JOHAN operates out of an old railway station building in Pilsen, Czech Republic. It serves as an independent space for alternative culture but has an important place within the local community. Its activities are centred around three main areas: artistic and creative projects, social work and education targeted at children and youth from Pilsen. It presents theatre and contemporary dance but also organises artistic residencies. JOHAN focuses its efforts on “interconnection” and building bridges between artists and between communities. 

The pandemic has been hard on JOHAN’s finances as well. The centre is a multidisciplinary venue supported by various income streams, including the local government. However almost half of JOHAN’s income is self-generated through cultural events and educational activities, none of which have been able to continue.

As an educator, Černík stressed the fact that some children in the Czech Republic haven’t been able to properly attend school for over a year: “It’s government practice in our country. Culture and education were the first victims of the anti-pandemic measures, while football or ice hockey leagues often continued.”

Černík divided the pandemic into two distinctive periods. Spring 2020 was marked by a certain fear of the unknown. Still, at the same time, one could see a great desire to take art and culture out from behind the locked doors of closed venues to bring it to new and old audiences. Looser public health measures brought much needed rest and allowed for smaller outdoor events during the summer. However, when the pandemic situation deteriorated in the fall, everything came to a screeching halt once again.  

The new situation also allowed for the faster formation of partnerships and ad hoc collaborations, often between organisations that, under normal circumstances, would be competing with one another.  He hopes that these will carry on even after the pandemic ends. If the situation permits, Černík and his colleagues hope to bring their work to the countryside and support children and youth groups around Pilsen. He also feels privileged to have a good working relationship between JOHAN and Pilsen city hall. A 4-year grant from the city helped the centre to weather the storm. Even so, JOHAN still established its own “community of care”,  fundraising part-time salaries for its independent collaborators. This helped to fill the initial vacuum created by the lack of government support for cultural workers. 

Unsurprisingly, as the talk progressed, it often echoed the topics and concerns of some of the previous discussions in the Green Thursdays cycle, especially the response to the climate crisis, the impact of the performing arts on the environment and the desire for more sustainable art. Commending efforts by some resource-sharing communities, both Czyczel and Edelman agreed on the need to enact environmental policies at the national and international level. Speakers also touched on the topic of theatre going digital during the pandemic. For some, it meant showing your existing work through a new channel or creating new, auxiliary work, while, for others, it meant creating new, often experimental stage works tailored specifically to the digital medium. At the same time, streaming can be seen as a way of making the performing arts more accessible to those communities that currently lack the means to access the live arts. One can be almost certain that these different forms of delivery are here to stay; we can now reach global audiences, not just local ones. 

For artists, theatre makers, performers and audiences alike, these have been and still are trying times. Even when the pandemic is over and measures are lifted, our communities will be facing feelings of grief and loss. As Czyczel explained, “It is hard to imagine what it will be like. But thinking about now, there is no future. There is just now. And decisions that I make now will influence the future. Life under the state of emergency gives me some agency to create a future I want to be part of.” 

Still, amid all the doom and gloom, the discussion ended on a high note. As we emerge from the shutdown, we feel that our “old” sense of normal is being restored. One can feel the yearning for shared physical presence, for the collective experience of our art spaces and venues, for the proximity and contact with others. There are positive stories, positive messages, opportunities and reasons to remain hopeful. With so many of our certainties now shattered, we should increase our ambitions to confront the inequalities of our word and our industry. One can only hope that the shared experience of living under a pandemic, along with our ingenuity and perseverance,  brings us together in ways that help us to better recognize our commonalities, share our resources, listen to each other and preserve this newly found solidarity and creativity for a better and more exciting future for the performing arts – arts that are more sustainable, accessible, diverse and empathetic.