Crumbling Grounds, Cloudy Horizons
If COVID19 had a face, it might be like the Greek mythical figure Hydra, a serpentine water monster that surfaces a concatenation of problems, symptoms of problems and crisis management tactics to get rid of problems. Problems growing out of problems; systemic mindfuck. With regards to problems for artistic and cultural production, the longer-term, infrastructural implications of COVID19 will revolve around the acknowledgement, engagement and political mobilization of vulnerability. After some initial reflections (1), I am now shifting attention to the meso-level implications of vulnerability, understood as modes of political agency and resistance, for cultural institutions during and after this crisis.
Briefly, I want to discuss not only cultural infrastructures of vulnerability, which are individually or collectively experienced, but wrestle, for a moment, with the notion of vulnerability as infrastructure. COVID19 has certainly exposed ‘us’ extremely differently depending on our jobs (or lack thereof), places of residency (or lack thereof), genders and access to health care. Briefly, our bodies, bureaucratic systems, normalized global flows of goods, services, news, have turned into health-, money-, or mood-related states of vulnerability. But haven’t we all been vulnerable long before this virus? It is almost visceral knowledge to feel the everyday effects resulting from ‘working from home’, or rather now ‘living at work’, as somebody recently tweeted. Having lived through these times, can we even go back to individual and organizational mindsets that negate vulnerability? Or else, how could we think cultural institutions’ recovery, future development and connectivity with communities post-COVID19 (whenever that is) through a framework of vulnerability rather than without it?
In the thicket of organizational innovation, distress and the death of small cultural venues, shops, cafés, bars and clubs, my understanding of infrastructure encompasses pessimistic and hopeful accounts about what infrastructure is, or rather, can do. Overall, I want to advance the term ‘infrastructure’ rather than ‘institution’ to capture the multi-dimensional, mobile and malleable nature of socio-technical, materialized, discursive and affective infrastructural nodes we usually refer to as ‘cultural institutions’. Infrastructures might better expose and help fight against systemic invisibilities engrained in cultural institutions that continue to overwrite voices, stories and artistic practices of, for example BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), ALANA (African, Latino, Asian, Native American), LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and other) folks and people with disabilities. An analytic of infrastructures might help attend to the multiple, conflictual temporalities negotiated within cultural institutions, knit between pasts, presents and futures.
Cultural infrastructures oscillate between constituting apparatuses of governmentality and promises for better futures. Oliver Barstow’s ‘fluid institutions’ (2), or infrastructures, might assist to put to work a notion of vulnerable institutions during and after COVID19:
What is lost in the absence of a clear hierarchy and what is gained where no hierarchy exists? The difficulty with fluid institutions, in attempting to answer these questions, is that they resist documentation. In the pursuit of openness, they are ‘made’ precisely in the absence of formulas, rules and methods that can be tracked and evaluated.
With the second wave of COVID19 lingering yet not quite crashing upon us, we might find ourselves precisely in a time that resists, defies or challenges documentation. It is hard to grasp what’s going on, what will be happening in the pretty near future or how to plan for the next months. In the face of this irreducible uncertainty, Barstow argues that one strategy for institutions/infrastructures “could be to work towards reinstating difference; learning to live with difference as difference, rather than reconciling differences for the sake of participation.” To live with difference as difference unravels the undeniably conflictual nature of political life. Taking difference as a crucial driver to build vulnerable yet equitable societies, I explore how vulnerabilities interconnect (Butler et al. 2016) (3), and how vulnerability might unleash opportunities for different cultural infrastructures after COVID19. Following Judith Butler’s (4) (2015: 123) claim of vulnerability “as a form of activism”, vulnerability might unlock unknown ways to share, sense and survive uncertainty together, providing tools for political change and survival. Although we know that survival cannot be the end goal of life, the pandemic might have given new relevancy to existential questions to a myriad of artist-run galleries, theaters, museums, and performance venues (i.e., cultural infrastructures) facing cloudy futures. Yet, as Butler (2015: 127) states, “the demand for infrastructure is a demand for a certain kind of inhabitable ground.” Hence, the question of post-pandemic cultural infrastructures is also a question of searching for an inhabitable ground, a place to live a livable life, work workable work. Incorporating vulnerability as a systemic factor in cultural production and funding would transform its very logic (e.g., whose art is shown, awarded or digitized).
"The question of post-pandemic cultural infrastructures is also a question of searching for an inhabitable ground, a place to live a livable life, work workable work."
Being Exposed, Being Vulnerable
Keller Easterling (2016) understands infrastructure space as a realm of extra statecraft, going beyond the political power of elected representatives (5). Infrastructure space appeals to the complexly entangled social, technical, managerial and emancipatory twists, folds, crumples, twitches, and dark underbellies of infrastructures. Timely in the pandemic context, Easterling speaks of the ‘contagious’ effects of standardization, or institutional rigidity. Transplanted to the context of cultural institutions or infrastructures, be they small or large, high-tech cooled collections full of flatscreens, plushy-stuffy rehearsal spaces, or storage units, cultural infrastructures would be bendable rather than static, permeable for change rather than allergic to it. Infrastructures would accept alternatives of almost anything because they are constantly other than they were just a minute ago. This exposure (I’d rather not further fetishize the term flexibility) might bring cultural infrastructures to question themselves: Who is continuously exploited, reset, who never gets a say in decisions despite their lived experience and professional background? Who is working overtime, beyond their mandate, below their title or pay, running the show without getting credit for it? Butler (2015: 210) writes:
We are, as ̶b̶o̶d̶i̶e̶s̶cultural infrastructures, vulnerable to others and to institutions, and this vulnerability constitutes one aspect of the s̶o̶c̶i̶a̶l̶ cultural political modality through which b̶o̶d̶i̶e̶s̶ infrastructures persist.
By replacing ‘bodies’ with ‘cultural infrastructure’, the mutual interdependence of cultural institutions becomes apparent. If we think exposure as the “deliberate or willed mobilizations of vulnerability” (Butler 2015: 184-85), vulnerability might emerge as central and potentially generative organizational value and resource to create infrastructures that matter after the crisis. As AbdouMaliq Simone (6) (2019: 3) argues:
exposure is a multifaceted intersection of vulnerability and opportunity; it is a by-product of precarity but also a way of dealing with that precarity…exposure is also a way to handle time, keeping memories alive about what worked in the past.
Simone’s reference to time, or the temporality of vulnerability, speaks to the current context of re-opening cultural institutions. Taking the museum as one modality of cultural infrastructures (whose challenges and post-pandemic coping mechanisms might however be applicable to other cultural formations and venues), I wonder, could this be the moment to enjoy having more space and time of one’s own, and less gazes of people looking at you looking at art? Might this be the time to envision a ‘slow museum’? (7) Will we move differently in post-pandemic museums?
Digital and Analogue Lockdown Exposures
In the midst of COVID19, the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) conducted a survey amongst almost 1,000 museums from over 48 countries worldwide (with a majority of European responses) about their dealing with the lockdown. 60% of responding museums indicated to have lost an average of over 20,000 Euros per week (!) due to closure and travel halt. To respond to this gliding decay, after three weeks of shutdown, about 80% of museums had enhanced digital offers and online activities “reacting to the general increased visibility of digital cultural heritage” – making collections digitally accessible, transferring cultural mediation or programming for children online (8). Under #openorclosed, museum communities, including scholars and practitioners, debated whether and how to imagine and manage the re-opening of museums, leaving some skeptical, others enthusiastic about new opportunities. While many museums reflect positively on their sudden digital aperture, and many have physically re-opened by now, museums’ long-term reconciliation of digital and analogue availability and exposure remain to be negotiated. Emily McKibbon, Senior Curator at MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, cautions against heightened barriers to be erected due to COVID19:
We’re being asked to reintroduce some barriers to access that we’ve spent years removing…We must create new metrics of success to replace those that once seemed so inevitable…What’s most important is that we don’t recreate what wasn’t working. (19)
In other words, post-COVID museums will face not only already existing challenges of inclusion and exclusion, but will have to deal with new, externally imposed distances that might further keep certain social groups from visiting museums. While the crisis has jumpstarted some cultural infrastructures’ reflections on their institutional openness (or lack thereof in the case a pandemic breaks out), how exactly to fuse digital and analogue offers for cultural experiences and encounters remains to be seen.
While conversations about mandatory hygiene concepts and security standards brought terms such as ‘care’ into the context of cultural infrastructures, what kind of care, or care for whom, is actually implied? How can we generate understandings of care that cultivate and institutionalize vulnerability rather than neglect it? Beyond paternalistic approaches of taking care of somebody, I propose to think care along the lines of ‘deliberate or willed mobilizations’ of vulnerability and exposure.
New Alliances of Care in Post-Pandemic Cultural Infrastructures
While warnings about the commodification of care are timely, thinkers and makers of cultural infrastructures have centrally placed care in discussions about how to deal with the pandemic. Certainly, cultural infrastructures are not necessarily a place for group therapy sessions (but what if it were?) nor direct providers of mental health resources. However, in the museum context, there are already partnerships with initiatives such as the US National Alliance on Mental Illness, working to advance and destigmatize mental health, and “make way for healing,” (10) paving the way to literally consider museums as places of care. Maybe, we need to expand advances such as the Manifesto for a Mentally Healthy Cultural Sector (11) (2019), which stresses to provide first aid, remove stigma, be vigilant, reduce risk and support vulnerable groups? Beyond medical connotations, how could cultural institutions or infrastructures provide care, both within and beyond the crisis? What is the purpose of care (12)? Why should care be considered as ‘something extra’? Do we feel vulnerable (only) because our vulnerability has now been exposed? If care is relational, the purpose of care, respectively, needs to be determined collectively. Avni Sethi, founder and curator of the Conflictorium – Museum of Conflict in Ahmedabad, India, argues (13):
Museums have anxiety of now being inclusive. But you can’t build an inclusive practice one day when crisis hits. You build a practice of care every single day. It cannot be a strategy, no blueprint. Are we going to need crises of this nature and scale to reflect on what our practices of engagement have meant?
In other words, we need to develop new cultures of concern and care, especially together with vulnerable groups - be they active audiences or not - for example, with urban dwellers, for whom museum lockdowns had unanticipated negative impacts because they couldn’t use free and clean gender-neutral bathrooms, rest, recharge. Thinking about these purposes of care might change the ways cultural infrastructures are accessible and open after the pandemic. In addition, in the slipstream of the global resurgence of Black Lives Matter movements, and many museums’ institutional statements of solidarity and support to fight Anti-Blackness and racism, the exact shapes of this commitment remain nebulous (14). The framework of trauma-informed care (15) might indicate future directions to consider safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment, ensuring that individuals have options and control in physically and emotionally safe environments of cultural infrastructures to suggest and participate in making institutional change.
Conclusion: Vulnerability as Infrastructure
In summary, being exposed means to actualize vulnerability. Being exposed makes always-already vulnerable bodies, institutions, infrastructures tangible and open to productive conflict and change. Because we all won’t forget COVID19, and the instinctive irritations, excitements, dreams and disappointments we experienced because and amidst of it, post-COVID19 cultural infrastructures might become more committed to engage in reflexive and collective discussions about their always-already entangled relations with one other, their shared yet asymmetrical vulnerability. As Christine Hentschel and Susanne Krasmann argue (16), acknowledging shared vulnerability and exposure might bring about new forms of ‘the political’, and help the cultural field to fight for working conditions that acknowledge rather than repress vulnerability. Maybe, we don’t only need a cultural infrastructural fund (17), but also a cultural vulnerability fund? Then, the commitment and open engagement with vulnerability would culminate in thinking, funding and making art considering vulnerability as (cultural) infrastructure.