#3 Wired differently
This week, congratulations to Minem Sezgin and her team at No Seat At The Table on the publication of their graphic novel about residential displacement and gentrification in Turkey and The Netherlands. I met Minem years ago when she was involved in a restaurant that offered employment (and cultural) opportunities to refugees. One of the places she visits on the No Seat At The Table website is my old street, the Kanaalstraat in Utrecht.
The Kanaalstraat is the main artery of a small working-class neighborhood ‘on the wrong side of the tracks.’ I lived above a vegetable shop where the owner was my landlord. During my first weekend, there was a fatal shooting right in front of my house. I lived in the Kanaalstraat in between stints in Lima and Madrid, so I hardly noticed. When I was asked by my employer to take a candidate running for the mayor’s office on a campaign tour through town, he took one look at my street and turned around. He lost the election.
In the decidedly middle-class, middle-of-the-road city of Utrecht, I always appreciated the chaotic Kanaalstraat. Needless to say, this cannot last. In the No Seat At the Table article, the municipality’s view on the future of the street is presented: a brick road, concrete benches around flower beds, and neatly parked bicycles. Or, in the words of Minem’s colleague Bob:
“It made us feel as if the municipality were brewing a multicultural concept, and try to put it on the market as a product, instead of really stimulate a multicultural neighborhood. A kind of place where consumers can go and get the feeling of walking around in an unearthly world where everything is slightly different. After this day, they will probably think; ‘That was a wonderful day! I’ve seen so many new things in my own city!’”
Housing is a human right, and — as a recent report of the Young Foundation found — the quality of the physical space people live in has a positive impact on people’s ability to cope with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. More about that report below. That said, I think the Kanaalstraat deserves better than bland street architecture and predictable urban design. Neighborhoods are not airports, and the homogeneity of much of the built environment (in Holland) cannot be conducive to human creativity and inspiration. Maybe it is time to reread Richard Sennett.
In their report How COVID-19 changed community life in the UK, the Young Foundation presents a week-by-week analysis of the impact of the crisis on people’s lives. The report is filled with insights that cultural organizations could act upon. The report also, once again, highlights how COVID-19 affects different people differently,
“We now know with certainty that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups are at a much higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, particularly if they come from poorer households. We also know that ‘people living in deprived areas have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas.’”
In conversations I’ve had over the months, it has also been clear almost immediately that the effects of the pandemic are amplified (or not) by national differences between countries. The situation for cultural professionals in Europe is by and large, considerably better than the case for our colleagues in many other parts of the world. I’m reminded of this when I read Ed Rodley’s moving blog post this week, in which he describes the first half of his ‘annus horribilis’: Where to now, friends? If you haven’t read it, do so now. While in Europe we pack for the holidays, I hope some of the tough questions Ed asks will be part of our luggage for the coming weeks:
“I already feel deep in my bones that lightness that comes from separation and loss. So much has been taken away; the need to try to “fix” an organization that doesn’t care to be fixed, and the burden of being complicit in the violence the industry inflicts on its workers, especially those least able to resist.
“I wonder “What next?” How do we make the next world better than the one we are leaving?”
The Young Foundation’s report gives clear recommendations for what is next. They read like strategic recommendations for a cultural organization that cares, e.g.:
1/ Recognise that people do not necessarily want things to return to how they were before. (…) Focusing on ‘getting life back to how it was’ fails to acknowledge the positive impacts of a crisis on our collective experiences. Are there different ways of building community and sustaining community life, and can these help build a strong case for a ‘new normal’ that puts community at its heart?
4 / Explore ways to sustain community strength and engagement outside of times of crisis. (…) What can be learned and sustained into the future without asking communities to step in where formal services should be providing support?
6/ Take steps to build trust now and respond to the need for positive stories about the future. (…) Community involvement by the public sector and other institutions which influence local economies and wellbeing should be a central pillar of any strategy for renewal.
Every community will have to find their unique response to the crisis and these recommendations. Ed quotes a tweet by Blaire Moskowitz: “If you took all the people laid off in #Musetech and made one department, that department would be pretty awesome.” I think if all the people working in culture, laid off or not, working in their communities to make a change, many communities will be pretty awesome.
Max pointed me to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. Starting from the question of why an institution with millions of artworks with a total worth into the billions charges admission and has to lay off staff to make ends meet, Gladwell dives into the ‘dragon’s lair’ of museums. His hypothesis: Art museums are modern-day versions of the dragon named Smaug from Lord of the Rings.
What happens is that while the art and heritage museums acquire have monetary value, this value disappears when they become part of a collection. On a museum’s balance sheet, the collection (its prime asset) has no value assigned to it. Gladwell teases apart the accounting tricks and controversies that enable this bookkeeping miracle. His customary broad perspective helps the podcast avoid the simplistic conclusion that we need to assign a monetary value to the art. Instead, he says, it is not that art has no value, but that the way it is valuable is different. “We cannot tell you what we have in our collections, that is not how our imagination is wired.”
While listening to the podcast, I cycled underneath Amsterdam’s A10 ring road. Leone Schröder, an Amsterdam-based artist, was painting colorful flowers on the concrete pillars of the motorway. Her work is commissioned by the municipality. Given the size of the paintings and the fact that Schröder will work on them for over four months, this involves a considerable monetary investment. But once it’s finished, her work is valuable in many different ways.
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This week, I didn’t write about a hopeful report about sustainability from Capgemini, preparing for student work, subscribing to the New York Times, the House of European History, statues, Nemo’s research into digitization, or hate. As I’m on holiday next week, don’t expect it, but instead an update on running and plants and the latest book I read. See you then!