FREIRAUM FESTIVAL 2020
Online Conference - Rationale
The Freiraum online summit tackles the subject of the ‘state of freedom’ in Europe today, broadly defined. We invite scholars and practitioners to think along the lines of the following three themes and present their questions, knowledge, ideas, and solutions.
The ongoing biopolitical demo-crisis
In February, philosopher of the exception Gorgio Agamben asked why governments and media propagated panic in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and criticised the generalised mobility restrictions and suspension of daily life in entire regions. This unprecedented “state of exception” is not just a matter of scientific evidence, he noted, but part of an ongoing illiberal shift where the ‘emergency’ becomes the ‘normal’ paradigm for government, at the cost of people’s democratic process and opportunities to hold leaders accountable. For Foucault, modernity began with the ‘Great Confinement’; and the emergence of medical institutions and asylums in the mid-17th century to separate the mad/undesirables from the rest of society- a move guised in morality but motivated by social and economic problems such as wage regulation. In this age of biopolitics, administrative and monitoring techniques, such as demography and statistics, are the key “to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order”. As Deleuze noted at the time, this ordering goes beyond institutional structures, such as the prison, the hospital, or even the state, diffused through new mobile technologies of surveillance, leading to ‘control societies’ that suppress freedom and subjectivity. What these 20th century philosophers also noted with alarm is that such forms of surveillance increasingly enjoy the consent of those who are tracked, since they gain in exchange a sense of safety and security.
The Covid-19 intervention is a clear case of a ‘state of emergency’ that suspended fundamental citizen’s rights ‘for hygiene and public safety reasons’, while taking further existing neoliberal and surveillance capitalism agendas. There exist today numerous applications developed by multinational companies that can track individuals in time and space (for example long-term biomonitoring in smart watches), while social media like Facebook engineer ambiguous forms of consent and acceptability. The virus has been an opportunity to massively scale-up such projects. On 10/4/2020 Google and Apple joined forces to create an ambitious contact-tracing smartphone project: a system that creates a map of a user’s contacts by logging nearby phones and alerts the user for potential virus exposure, while the map remains visible only to the companies running the system. As these techniques merge with a continuous exception, renewed in the fears and preparations for future pandemics, a global biopolitical demo-crisis, appears to lie ahead. Citizens rightfully want to know: who benefits, who decides, who decides who decides? The large-scale ‘migration’ to various interfaces for work, leisure, and communication, the turn to digitised lifestyles, and the proliferation of wireless infrastructure that substitutes physical interaction and presence, seriously risk corroding vital connections to nature and to each other. The climate crisis and the imminent environmental collapse are linked to individuals’ estrangement from their habitat. How can societies respond to the coming schisms of the anthropo-centric world, which has been causally linked to pandemic outbreaks? How will individuals navigate the constant connectivity the future holds and the wish to unplug?
Social movements and emerging solidarities
The pandemic has also highlighted persistent ongoing inequalities and racism, including on how the adverse effects of multiple crises, like job and income losses, are being shared. Towards the end of a global pause meant to protect the lungs of the world’s most vulnerable, the racist murder via asphyxiation of black man George Floyd at the hands of the US police reminded us that there are groups deemed undeserving of such protections. The ‘hygienic and monitored’ world under construction is not the same for all. During the months of confinement millions of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants were put at risk of hunger and disease, while the impact on people with disabilities and mental illness was particularly harsh, given the increased psychological distress and loss of supportive networks. At home and in the frontlines, women were disproportionately affected, over-represented among exposed care-workers, over-burdened with child-care and housework, and deprived of exit strategies from domestic violence. As Judith Butler observed “The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism. It seems likely that we will come to see in the next year a painful scenario in which some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others.” What can be the future of open and cohesive societies after this experience? Closed borders and limited travel, restrictions on public gatherings and no-touch imperatives could all feed a culture of indifference and social disengagement, including disinvestment from global society.
Is an empathic vision for global democracy possible, where the actual needs of people are put ahead of the neoliberalisation of social life? In this gloomy picture, hope emerges in a nomadic but growing fashion, whenever hegemonic notions, such as the universalist image of ‘Man’ and human exceptionalism, are being challenged, and new alliances are formed. In the world of ideas, from black feminism to post-humanism, critical scholarship is re-inventing subjectivity not only as a transcendental consciousness, but as a relational, embodied and embedded entity. In the streets, solidarities are fleshed out, asserting their rights and amplifying their gains. One of the most positive things to come out of the pandemic was the mutual support communities people formed to be there for each other. In France, the wave of anti-racism protests sparked by the death of George Floyd met those who want justice for Adama Traoré’s death in 2016 under similar circumstances of police brutality. Their voices are getting louder together, negotiating more open identities and inventing new ways of co-existing.
State of the Arts/ inclusive audiences/representation & resistance/new formats
Finally, the summit wants to consider how arts and culture practitioners could support such strategies of affirmative resistance, while re-inventing their own practices and institutions. During the confinement, with galleries locked, art events cancelled, and audiences becoming more comfortable with consuming culture online, the art world, considered one of the most exclusive spheres of public life, has been forced to rethink the ways visual arts are produced, presented and received. Museums and galleries showed resilient new ways to engage with art and more democratic access to art production - Art Basel’s viewing room, replacing its March Hong Kong fair, was so popular that the site crashed. At the same time, as illustrated by the #SupportArtWorkers campaign in Greece, individual artists’ already precarious working conditions put them in a particularly vulnerable position, with diminishing physical exposure of their work and setbacks in sales. Jobs have been lost across the gallery field, and there are few organisations who could financially sustain another lockdown.
New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz recently wrote that we are living through ‘The Last Days of the Art World’ as we know it, while France Morris, Director of Tate Modern spoke of “a pivotal moment.” If that is the case, how could this moment of change be leveraged towards better social outcomes in/through art? The hegemonic globalized art world, with its winner-takes-all economy, and culture of mega-galleries and art as asset investment, is better protected by business, but less legitimate in the hearts of artists and art lovers. Can the art world reflect an inclusive attitude in its aims without pretending to be all things to all people? Can we give political life to the notions of the precarious art worker, the inclusive audience, and critical ephemeral art for social change?