‘If this lockdown continues for a few more weeks, I can play games every day,’ Eric says. We’ve known each other since elementary school. We still meet regularly with other friends from back in the day to play the some of the better specialty board games. A few weeks ago, our arena shifted from Eric’s workspace to Table Top Simulator, an online platform that mimics tables filled with all kinds of game boards and pieces (and at the end of a game, the winner can flip the virtual table over).
Eric and his brother are the directors of a small printing house that has been in the family for over a century. This industry is going through tough times anyway, still, in recent decades, with great inventiveness, they were always able to regain their place in an increasingly difficult market. Even now there are still enough orders to keep running. But these are supposed to be the months which get them through the rest of the year, and it’s going to be difficult. Undoubtedly, the company is not the only family-run business facing dramatic cash flow problems.
Many of my Amsterdam friends are freelance performing artists. They’re not going to have any work during the coming months. I see people on Facebook wondering anxiously how to pay the rent. If that question is so general, I think it’s a small step to questions about why you still have to pay the rent.
The first friends and acquaintances of friends and acquaintances, i.e. the first people in my environment, so to speak, who I hear have the virus are people in the homeless shelter, people who’d wish they had a rent to worry about. Not to mention how their economic condition, in a broad sense, their housekeeping, how they get through the day, make use of space, stay alive, get completely shaken up in the one-point-five-meter society.
All that is solid melts into air and people are at last compelled to face with sober senses their real conditions of life, and their relations with their kind. What is art supposed to do here? Imagine other worlds yet again? Maybe not for a while. Save all that for when everyone begins shouting that another world is ‘unrealistic’. But now, with this final launch of the twenty-first century, it is the other world that is clawing its way towards us. It takes the initiative. Then let art do what else it can do: perceive and make that becoming world visible. Be the sober senses for the people.
‘Community art, uhh, so how?’ says Elke, a friend who makes political art and who I remember from Occupy. We talk over the phone about the meter and a half. Community art has always been a magic expression signifying social relevance. Governments love to see artists create harmony, and Elke was just invited to a project somewhere this summer, but what is a community if you can’t even hold on to each other?
She has a lot of contact with people from the action group for undocumented people, We Are Here; some of whom are now in the homeless shelter, and so it was through Elke that I heard about the infections there. Recently she was in Cairo with Wouter, with whom she did a community art project ten years ago. This time, they had been in Cairo to more or less complete that earlier project in the politically much more impossible circumstances of today’s Egypt. But this objective was thwarted by the fact that they both became ill. COVID-19? Not sure, but the symptoms were there. Wouter could have brought it with him from Germany. But it will reign in Cairo anyway. There are no reliable figures on that. The Egyptian government doesn’t think it’s chic to keep proper track of such things. However, the Sudanese with whom Elke works here in the Netherlands do know: in Egypt, the disease is raging! They know that through the grapevine, apparently many people in Sudan return sick from the North. It seems that the Sudanese with their informal networks do not have a less reliable picture of the situation than Egyptians or international organizations that only have vague statistics and official news. Your State can only be so absolute, it can never be everything.
Start the ‘sober sensing’ with your own, direct practice; notice how the world responds to it.
I tell Elke about a session with the Master composition students at the Royal Conservatoire. They’re all at home now and can’t organize concerts. I had asked if this would change their perception of music. No-one had an immediate answer. According to my fellow teacher Peter, students who are relying on commissions from ensembles or orchestras are like lost souls. Other students adapt more easily and find work online for example. Arie, a student, said he was now only sending out scores for solo instruments - great idea.
nd Elke, in turn, says she’s been zooming in more and more over the last few years anyway. She had chosen not to have to move around too much for her work but rather to make a longer term commitment to fewer people and places. Small networks, but scattered all over the world.
We, the frail
stuck in our houses
check the news
to no avail.
For weeks I have been sharing with my friends and acquaintances and the friends and acquaintances of my friends and acquaintances and... insights on Facebook. I drop my resistance and just share, analyze and write. We all lag behind what’s happening, every insight is constantly adjusted. There is an irreducible interval between what we say and what happens in the real world, but the professional experts also have to deal with that, so it’s not so embarrassing.
Apparently Lisanne, who I know from our time at the editorial board of Stichting Perdu and who is now editor of the Dutch Review of Books, gets my drift and asks me if I wouldn’t want to write an article – needn’t be the definitive corona article, it can be a hot take - about the politics of corona? I don’t know why I would know anything about that, but if I think about it for a day I don’t know why I would know less about it than anyone else, so I agree.
I consider the proper form, start writing, and see myself integrating numerous analyses and opinions, scientific and philosophical insights into one essay. Nothing of what I write comes across as particularly new to me. No breakthroughs. But the form works, the piece goes in all directions but remains a whole, I cleverly braid the motifs, make connections, and when I’m finished, to my amazement, I recognize in it a typical Samuel piece. For example, if I replaced ‘coronavirus’ by ‘poetry’ and ‘logistics’ by ‘internet’ throughout the piece, it would fit seamlessly into my book of essays Network in Eclipse. It is as if I had blogged and theorized about poetry for over a decade just to prepare for this pandemic. And once published, to my surprise, the article is shared at least a hundred times. (Is that actually a lot? For me it is. No essay of mine on poetic debate and experimental literature on the internet has ever been shared a hundred times).
The piece argues for ‘new conjunctions between distance and connection’, connection with the unknown. I’m slightly surprised that it’s a lot about logistics, but that’s what everything is about during the pandemic: from the availability of tests, masks and hospital equipment to the toilet paper on supermarket shelves.
About ten years ago we also experienced a systemic crisis, the credit crisis leading to Indignados and Occupy. At that time the problem was more abstract, it was about financial instruments and institutions. Now it’s about travelling, transporting medical goods, going to work. This time it hits Main Street before it hits Wall Street. I want to know more about logistics and call Patrick, who has a lot of experience with production processes in the book world and in catering, and is also one of my old board game friends. Our conversations have always been about systems, about game mechanics, about model techniques, about what kind of worlds, choices and stories these render possible. He explains the thinking behind Just In Time and Six Sigma production processes: maximally reliable, minimally redundant supply chains that ensure your car is delivered exactly when you need it, so there’s no need to keep unnecessary stock anywhere. Everything is optimised for a world where everything is optimised. And there are certainly techniques for dealing with the inevitable contingencies within any particular supply chain. But the system as a whole? No company or agency has the complete overview, and in a crisis strange systemic effects can arise.
Patrick gives the example of a hypothetical company that supplies hospital equipment, but only generates 10% from its sales to hospitals, and 90% from the consumer market. If the consumer market then collapses and the company goes bankrupt, hospitals suddenly have no supplies. Everything is interwoven in this way, and you can count on almost every profession sooner or later being declared an essential profession.
These supply chains are the rationally perfect form of a completely irrational assumption: that finely tuned material flows can always continue to run. If that is so, and all the points in the chains are flexible enough to accommodate contingencies, you can almost completely reduce annoying factors such as production errors, time intervals and distances. As long as everything in a system fits perfectly, it works at infinite speed. That’s why we live in a world that leaves no time or place for anything and imposes the demand of infinite agility on everyone. But if, for example, a pandemic everywhere introduces the need for distance in the connection or for a delay in time, then that world can crash.
Christiaan contacts me to see if I would like to contribute an essay to a series on the role of art in times when the virus changes everything. The essay I’m typing right now – despite reservations about the possibilities of art, I accept the commission. Christiaan himself launched the series, with co-author Akiem. A line in their text is an important trope of 20th century experimental art: the abolition of the separation between art and life.
A remark about – well he’s a friend of a friend of a friend so I’ll call him Marcel – excites me: ‘Duchamp sees the implicit creative dimension in man’. Here my doubts get focus and I also see a way out. I see Marcel differently. Not as someone who wanted to celebrate creativity in everyday life, but as someone who cultivated indifference as an aesthetic attitude, who had to do this precisely to protect life, more specifically, desire, from art.
His work consists almost entirely of feints, puzzles and secrets. The sophisticated indifference evoked by a coal shovel or a comb focuses the aesthetic sense on almost nothing in such a way that every liberating expression, every chance for a sublime experience, is definitively kept at a distance, thus unaffected, thus preserved. For the last twenty years of his life he worked in secret on an installation, Étants Donnés, in which (((traditionally) male) sexual) desire is central, but in such a way that everything revolves around distance. Only through a peephole in a doorway can one see a hyper-realistic idyllic landscape, and within it, peek right between the legs of an unreal woman. It is a complex, dark, disturbing work, which is precisely about untouchability, about absolute and frozen desire, more than about creativity in daily life. But perhaps that is precisely why Duchamp, the master of distance and the deferral of touch, is the ice-cold artist for the time of COVID-19.
Should there be doors with peepholes in the supply chains?
The real artist behind Marcel’s Fountain is probably a friend of his, the poet Elsa, whose poetic work has intrigued me for a long time. Dagmar, editor at Stichting Perdu, organized an evening about her work. I’ve known Dagmar for five years, since This Progress, one of Tino’s installation/performances during his retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, a work where life and art appear to coincide. We were hired there as freelance workers supposed to have ‘real’ conversations with the public as we walked through a programmed sequence with them, an artistic production chain with Just-In-Time precision. Rarely did the conversations I had feel unforced.
Now Dagmar asks me to contribute to the evening about Elsa and I’m looking forward to that. I translate the overwhelming long poem Mineself – Minesoul – And – Mine – Cast-Iron Lover, a tirade about a thwarted desire to touch. The poem screams and rages and demands sensuality like a birthright, to put an end to the cast-iron lover’s unbearable detachment.
However, once the evening came that I was to present the translation, all cultural events were cancelled. Instead, I read it to an audience hidden behind screens. This is how we try to preserve the desire. When Dagmar asks me about the chat afterwards, how it felt, after such an intense recitation, I notice that it was heavy. There was no audience present, not even a producer, and nevertheless I addressed the reading as if to someone there, investing myself physically, but without feeling anything physical coming back in return. Though there are thumbs and hearts, signs that something has been experienced behind the scenes, the tension lingers around me.
The art world needs to be supported, but our minister does not get any further than offering extra support for ‘important cultural institutions’. What individual artists may expect from the state, in order to keep their practices afloat, remains obscure. A trifling short-lived stipend, that’s about it. The pandemic is like the neutron bomb: art itself is dying, but hurray for the important institutions, they remain standing!
Pavlos, Facebook friend and pianist, refuses all invitations for online performances if he is not paid for them. He’s worried: if this new mode of online concert (nice and flexible and cheap) becomes the new normal, shouldn’t we make it normal to have to pay for such performances? Pavlos lives in France and not in the Netherlands, where pianists playing new music already rarely count on earning any money for recitals. Whoever can play the piano is not alone. Playing the piano with ten fingers is octopus thinking anyway. Under lockdown I myself take the time to rehearse Frédéric’s four Ballads. In every loop and every seemingly simple accompaniment figure I discover new voices incessantly, and as I hear more of them, I start to play lighter and lighter. These ballads are exciting and sexy but at the same time they are fragile tissues, vibrant communities that live only, briefly, under your hands.
I’m very lucky to have more exceptionally good pianists among my friends. Keiko, who plays pianoforte and modern piano and who is as much at home in Ludwig’s work as in Galina’s, occasionally records short clips these days. Federico, Komitas, Erik. Pieces from half a minute to three minutes long. They are always surprising, fresh and vital sounding recordings, made spontaneously, always in one take. She comes to bring me her latest CD (music by Erik) and we drink tea, one and a half meters away from each other.
‘Why should you always do your best to make the perfect recording?’ she says. Indeed, this seems like an idea from an earlier era of the music industry. I mean, when money was still being made there. Making a spontaneous recording, one that works, may not be perfect, but is alive, is perhaps more the music of our time and circumstances. Rather than statements, signs of life: I’m still here, the music’s still here, are you still here?
Dante, pianist and composer with whom I have worked a lot, has been playing a short recital every Saturday since the beginning of the ‘intelligent lockdown’. He used to write about political issues on social media, I haven’t seen him post a single word about the pandemic. I realize that this is very conscious. His recitals are what he has to say about, or in reaction to, the disease. Every Saturday I attend his concerts through the imperfect medium of my iPhone. I see him play, as if it were a concert he might have played, only a month ago, anywhere in the world in small halls, but today from his living room. In this setting, the pieces reflect on the pandemic situation.
The first recital ends with Eriks ‘Désespoir agréable’ which seems to me a nice description of the lockdown. At least, for those who have a roof over their heads. Otherwise the first part of the second recital might be applicable: Darya’s ‘there is no place for me on this map’, a static and meditative piece, with an unimaginably noisy field recording of urban life that rages through it. A superposition of the daily economy from ‘normal’ times, and a silent core - but it is as if in pandemic times the meaning of this combination is reversed, and the stasis disturbs the raging just as much as vice versa. In the fourth recital Dante plays a piece by Eva-Maria called ‘lose verbunden’, and that’s how I feel, and that’s how the recital feels, and that’s how listening via a Facebook watch party feels. Dante plays work by friends, they are scattered, confined everywhere in their houses, behind the scenes, loosely connected.
In this recital he also plays my piece ‘Linking’, a card game in which player(s) have to connect motifs on cards according to rules I thought up. And while listening, it penetrates me, as if for the first time, how fragile my own work is, how much it is about probing, about searching for a connection that is never given just like that. Somehow it is important that this happens live. Or semi-live: the Facebook interface builds in small delays, sometimes you can even ‘rewind’, you can certainly see the performance again afterwards. But I know that the probing happens exactly then and there, in a house like mine, with a friend and his family in it who are also, just like me, keeping their distance.
The students I supervise through their master’s research at the conservatory have had their year-end festival cancelled. But there is one force of nature stronger than the virus, and that is the composition student. Danya investigates what he calls ‘temporal authorities’ in music, and what happens when you have to change from one way of feeling (counting, measuring) to another within one piece. We have a tutoring session, and I clearly don’t have to tell him that the pandemic situation is exactly what his work is about. Danya had been counting on being able to present a piece about the paradoxes of an ensemble that tries maintain unison with music boxes slowly played by hand. This recital will not happen - now he has to realize an online version. We are talking about which technique to use for this. Is ensemble playing, as it is taught in academic classical music practice these days, really possible using a medium that first has to send the signal around the earth and thus always inserts perceptible delays? Inevitably this condition will become part of the new version of the piece.
Then comes the date of the festival. I join the live stream. First I hear a beautiful piece by Eva, which directly incorporates current events. A quartet of streaming musicians responds to key words from the ‘historical speech’ Mark gave to the Dutchmen - so there’s still some beautiful music coming out of that man who once wanted to become a pianist! In Danya’s piece I see an ensemble, everyone in their own window, streamed from living rooms from The Hague to Russia. The musicians play the same melody and try to stay together, but they can’t coordinate precisely. Time can only be tentative. The interface is audibly present, I hear glitches in the channels of the players. But the ensemble plays on, together, distorted, fragile, note by note. Nothing here is Just In Time. What I hear is the music of uncertain distant connections, and it’s a miraculous harmony. Music of a world coming towards us.
Samuel Vriezen (1973) is a composer, poet, essayist, editor and translator.
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts.
Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.