Expert: Art and culture must remain accessible to all despite the coronavirus crisis
University of Bayreuth, Press release No. 075/2020, 14 May 2020
In this interview, Dr. Katharina Fink, deputy director and curator at the Iwalewahaus of the University of Bayreuth, reports on the challenges for artists in the midst of pandemic. The Iwalewahaus is finding digital ways to maintain access to culture, and to mitigate the restrictions currently in place. Fink sees great opportunities in this and says: "As a public institution, we have a duty to the public, which has suddenly become a lot more significant.
Empty museums, closed theatres and concert halls, frustrated people at home ... since this week, people have at least been allowed back into the museums.
Yes, we are realizing what privileges we have long enjoyed, and how exclusive our cultural world actually is, although we often describe it as being so open and accessible. Because what we are feeling right now, is what many people feel all the time: that culture is not always accessible to everyone, but often incomprehensible, expensive, and unattainable. Now we are learning that art and cultural offerings cannot be taken for granted. Changing this is an important task.
Are the State’s emergency assistance measures of any real help?
Even with these, massive problems have come up, especially for the artists, due to cancelled commissions, cancelled exhibitions, etc. The museums have had to forego their visitors. Newspapers have lost advertisers - and subscribers. We must now all prop up the cultural environment we value so much, with all the means at our disposal, both locally and globally, for example, by giving restaurant vouchers and supporting the local bookbinding trade. And registering as a Friend of the Museum - the Iwalewahaus has such a programme too – is another way. In institutional terms, this means finding alternative forms for agreed projects. As institutions, we must now be partners for artists and cultural workers. It is, after all, part of the definition of our profession, "curation", that we to take care of, take responsibility for, everything from objects and works, to houses and institutions, and above all people and our relationships.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
We must ensure that remuneration occurs promptly and smoothly, that our joint projects can be digitally controlled and implemented for the time being, and that things not only keep going, but do so in a better and fairer way. We have long had an international approach, and have gained a great deal of experience, but now we must make sure the right infrastructure is in place. At this point, we can learn from institutions that are permanently in what we call "exceptional" circumstances. In Palestine, for example, in terms of access outright denied. In South Africa, for example, in the matter of overpriced Internet access, out of the reach of so many people. At the same time - and we have learned this in recent weeks - we must not succumb to the digital hype. Some of the elements that make up the magic of our work cannot be done digitally. They require us there in person, as people with very different senses, part of a living, breathing space.
What are the essential challenges faced by the Iwalewahaus?
We are responsible for raising public awareness of the exhibitions, works, collections, and research projects. As a public institution, we have a duty to the public, which has now suddenly grown in significance. And of course, we at the Iwalewahaus have to develop procedures for regulating admission, cues for maintaining physical distancing, and measures for increased hygiene.
How are you facing up to the digital challenges?
After we have finished with these questions, for example, there will be a video chat with the artist Stacey Gillian Abe and my colleagues Lena Naumann and Felicia Nitsche, on how can we design an exhibition when production work in Kampala, where Stacey Gillian Abe lives, is at a standstill, and travel is not possible? We’ve come up with some good ideas. Then, for the first time we are set to present our summer exhibitions digitally on the app "Artivive". We are currently working on that. Until that is inaugurated, we will continue sharing virtual insights into our work at regular intervals via our platforms on Facebook, Vimeo, and Instagram. Some of these are live, some more mediated. International Museum Day on 17 May will also take place digitally. Here we can draw on the already very process-oriented approach of the Iwalewahaus, and this time we are conducting a digital "laboratory". The leitmotifs of archive - art - utopia are definitely trend-setting in this regard. And here, again, we are learning from our African partners, in whose institutions digitisation has been playing a key role in terms of accessibility for much longer. This opens up an enormous number of new opportunities for intensifying cooperation. We don't want to go back to the pre-crisis situation, we want to become better - in our work and in our relationships.
Will people's reception of art change? How?
We can already see now that there is enormous interest in digital formats, but above all something is developing that I would describe as ‘blended’ art experience: tremendous hybrids of the digital and analogue, in which people, stimulated by art, create memes, ironize the art canon by re-enacting it in lockdown - and use platforms with much more verve and self-confidence for themselves and their work. I’m convinced these hybrids will even survive the digital fatigue that will surely set in. But all of this is based on a privileged situation - that of access to the Internet and a basic supply of data that is not a reality for everyone. Here we must be very careful not to perpetuate old patterns of exclusion - or celebrate new ones as some sort of innovation.
Haven’t sensual art experiences come off badly in particular?
The sensual experience will have a revival, I'm sure. We’re already dreaming about touching things. About marvelling at things in the company of strangers. About surprising encounters at an exhibition being possible again. To smell, to feel, to see, to hear. To taste. One of our upcoming artists in residence, Sanza Sandile, whenever it becomes possible, will work with pan-African taste experiments in his curated dinner encounters: https://www.yeovilledinnerclub.com/ - ensuring mistrust and prejudices won't even have a chance to come up. Robert Machiri, whose 'sonic research' in our music archive we are very much looking forward to, will invite us to discursive sessions, Pungwe, which are DJ events, lectures, and discussion. We are literally itching for these celebrations of the sensual, we can almost feel them ahead of the event. When exactly we can actually experience them, however, remains to be seen.
What changes do you expect in the presentation and mediation of art?
New approaches are required for curation and mediation right now. We have gone down those paths before - but often rather cautiously. Curation must now be courageous and visionary - above all courageous. And sometimes resist the demand for quick solutions, and insist that we cannot always deliver. There is a lot at stake, actually everything. Because among other things, art has always been the art of survival, it anticipates catastrophes and revolutions, it can heal and inspire through experience, and completely change world views through its poetic power. And this is what it is all about, in the literal and figurative sense of the phrase, “life goes on”. How can museums provide meaningful, sensual experiences, create moments of happiness in turbulent times, be stimulating? How can we apply our core functions described above to this time, and defend them? It is also a good time to admit that we need help, and that our indispensable museum technicians are now not only the great carpenters, but also the data architects.
Your personal hope?
I am also concerned about our students from all over the world: they are now in a difficult situation, often far away from home, perhaps worried about their families, and need our attention and support more than ever. Here too, that combination of aesthetics and solidarity helps. Most importantly, to incorporate, together, all these processes in what our artist in residence and ethical advisor at Goldendean describes as #radicalsharing: Sharing concerns, sharing disorientation, finding solutions together. This is sharing and caring in the sense of a contemporary, future-oriented understanding of curation. I hope we do ourselves justice.
The Iwalewahaus is making its next exhibition "Summer Laboratory" a digital experience. It comprises several projects, including five independent exhibition areas: Stacey Gillian Abe, Odin's Singing, Life Classes, Enchasing Yoruba, and Hidden Persuaders. The curators of the Iwalewahaus have walked through the "Summer Lab" with a cameraman and put together one to two-minute sequences on the artworks and artists. These become visible when you look at the exhibition poster with the ARTIVIVE augmented reality app. This technique is normally used in museums themselves, and certainly makes an impression. Yet because the current situation only allows a limited number of visitors inside the museum, the art is coming outside. Making sure that visiting the museum poster will never be boring, new sequences are added at regular intervals to provide variety.
On the work of Sanza Sandile: https://www.yeovilledinnerclub.com/
On the work of Robert Machiri: https://savvy-contemporary.com/en/events/2019/untraining-the-ear-listening-session-pungwe/
Dr. Katharina Fink
Deputy Director of the Iwalewahaus of the University of Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-5433
Press & PR Manager
University of Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-5300