I wanted to write a nice newsletter for all members and interested people of The Turn Club
, my network of artists and creative change makers. It was the end of March and the lockdown had just started. I didn’t want to write about the pain that brought all our meetings, gatherings, lectures, trainings to a standstill, but was looking for optimistic, creative ideas. So I collected examples of artists who continued to speak to their public, sing to them or praise them from a distance.
It started quietly, but within a few days it really started to flood in. Messages were shared from everywhere about creative, social and artistic corona actions. It was too much to keep track of. When I saw that even the NOS Journal
had begun covering all the ingenious initiatives, I understood that the newsletter was superfluous.
Now we’re two months on. It’s clear that this situation is going to take some time. The public is hard to find online. The YouTube videos from spaces that normally attract thousands of visitors a week are stuck around a hundred views. Netflix is stronger. The ideas and optimism have given way to deep unrest. The money is gone. Even at my office we constantly mull over various financial scenarios, checking for new data, shifting the musicians’ availability around, and worrying about alternative sources of income. In this way, cultural Netherlands is trying to organize what might be possible – in June, in September? At one and a half meters distance and with a maximum of thirty people? Everywhere we will go into survival mode and see what can be saved.
Is that the only option? To stand in the starting blocks and hope that the shot goes off before we fall over from dehydration? Or do we dare to ask ourselves whether the race is even relevant, whether we are nothing more than a tiny shard of the economy fighting for its existence, a collection of professionals trying to save a corner of the market of ideas and experiences from terrible damage?
We know: our work can engage, transform or captivate emotions, ideas or impressions that would otherwise evaporate. But how can we plan when familiar structures become fluid and uncertainty and confusion strike everywhere? Or is this the moment we realize that we, artists, are just as obsessed with the idea of constant growth as everyone else, and that our model of existence is completely intertwined with the economic machine of attention and success?
We, as a society, have fallen into collective burn-out. This is the derailment of a system that was dragging on for years and could no longer brake. I too feel disrupted, I miss performances, concerts and encounters, and I feel how the loss of income and contracts is making my organisation falter. But it is also spectacular that we are able to experience this.
The world has become a laboratory in which an unprecedented experiment is being carried out. Everyone participates. But who’s asking the questions? Who thinks about what this experiment might prove, who gets to formulate a hypothesis?
Art is the research and development
of society. What drives artists are not quarterly figures or numbers of sales, not solving a problem or formulating policy. No, what drives them are deep questions for which there are often no words and yet, inevitably, must be raised. We have the ability to explore the outside world with fresh eyes, associations and playfulness. Over the last hundred years we have celebrated the unprecedented freedom that had been wrested from church, rulers and the wealthy. We were allowed to follow our ideas to the fullest, cherishing or ignoring our audience, as long as art could flourish.
That time is over.
The world needs us.
I don’t want to take anything away from the autonomy of art. Our unbounded nature, our freedom to follow inexplicable signals or to choose our own path, is our strength. And it is precisely this power that is needed to give us a foothold as a collective, as a society. By claiming space for feelings of beauty, value and connection, by weaving stories and thereby giving shape to what is still elusive, the coherence we need can be created now that the certainties of the old world are dissolving.
Let us transform our own personal turmoil and confusion into action. It sounds a bit biblical, but still: let us acknowledge that we are being called on now. Now that the prosperity euphoria of endless economic growth has come to a standstill, there is room for another story. And the question of who can tell that story is being asked of us.
It is a strange feeling. The economy gave everything a price. Science had an answer to everything. But now we wonder what has real value, and what certainties remain. It’s strange and that’s good. Let’s share our experiences of this strangeness, let’s create a place where we can feel the confusion. Maybe that’s why the life we once saw as normal, we now feel to have been so strange and extreme. Wasn’t it bizarre how we got stuck in suffocating chains of work and production, in contracts and agreements? We could only move onward, move onward, move onward. There was no way out. Now that everything squeaks to a halt, it becomes clear how trapped the world was in chronic stress. And that it’s not strange that things went wrong.
There is no process in nature that only always grows. No day without night, no summer without winter. But slowing down, letting go and becoming quiet are not things that fit with the world we have constructed over the past centuries. As long as we grow economically, as long as prosperity increased, the promises and prognoses were correct and we could repay our loans with interest. Now that we come to a standstill, none of that will work anymore. That is shocking. But also logical.
There are endless numbers of people who are really smart and sensible yet still burn out. In spite of all the prosperity, burn-outs have become much more frequent in recent years. The workload, the efficiency, the social pressure; it’s hard to resist. Even as human beings, we could not resist the economic laws that were forced upon us by powerful countries, investors and multinationals, at full strength and carried through to distant corners of the world.
Someone on the verge of burn-out often can’t help themselves. They urgently need a doctor’s advice to calm down. Our economy couldn’t slow itself down either. They call it growth, but the mechanics of our economic model actually functions on the basis of destruction, exhaustion. Radical forms are required in order to be able to stop, like the Sunday’s rest in Staphorst is enforced by the churchgoers walking in the middle of the road.
Covid-19 is one such radical form. And we suddenly stand still. It has surprising aspects. The inhabitants of Venice discover each other for the first time and the people of Punjab actually see the Himalayas. But it wasn’t our decision. We didn’t have the insight to step on the brakes. This came in the form of an invisible creature. And because it is understandably seen as the enemy, all efforts are focused on fighting it. The bigger message is ignored in the agitation to get back to the ‘normal’ world as soon as possible.
That is why we, artists, are needed. If we, image-makers and storytellers, can listen to what this crash is trying to tell us. If we listen to the people around us and understand what is valuable in this disorder, if we shape an image of a world we really want, there is the possibility of another, new normal.
For decades we have been told in every possible way what was nice, pretty and beautiful about having more things, bigger houses, cars, air travel and new clothes. Now it’s time to show what’s nice, fine and beautiful about... less. And that’s not easy. Because what’s nice about not
having something? There aren’t billions in the budget for that message. It’s important, though. Less is pretty much the only medicine that can still protect us against the next crisis that is already looming and will be even more dramatic: the climate crisis.
We therefore need the best, most experienced and driven professionals who can sing, shape and share the beauty and value of less
in the world. People who don’t want to sell us anything, but have the ability to create silence, create oases of attention and create shared experiences that slow us down, connect us and amaze us. Can we be those guides who do not represent just another piece of economy, but an autonomous, free spirit that invites society to put the beauty and appreciation of life at the heart of what is important? Only in this way can we become resilient and no longer need to panic in the event of an economic downturn. There is an alternative, free of all ruthless economic laws and obsessions, and the crisis is nothing more than painful withdrawal symptoms in a global withdrawal process.
is a composer, founder of The Turn Club
and started the Academy for Uncertainty Skills
during the coronation period. Together with the Biblical Museum
he launched the Open Call for artists: share a vision of a New Earth. Read more on: www.turnclub.org
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.