28 – January 2021
Freiraum I: The Ongoing Biopolitical Demo-Crisis

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Online Summit Rationale

Freiraum Festival

The Freiraum online conference tackles the subject of the ‘state of freedom’ in Europe today, broadly defined. Invited scholars and practitioners discuss 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 - new formats and audiences

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 Frances 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?

And furthermore: What is the novel role that museums and art institutions have to play? Do novel audiences and a more democratic access to art production play a more important role in these developments? In which ways does art adapt to the challenges of the 4th industrial revolution? Do resilient alternative art economies emerge?

The Goethe-Institut’s "Freiraum" project, launched in 2017, works with 53 partners in culture and the arts, the research community and civil society in 42 different countries to assess the state of freedom in Europe. The hybrid pan-european Freiraum Festival 2020 has been co-organized by a team of curators from our partner network under the artistic direction of ArtBOX Creative Arts Management and the Goethe-Institut. The last day of the festival involved the collaboration of Common Lab, an “excellence project” of the Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki & ArtBOX and TIF-Helexpo (GR). It took place on 30.10.-01.11.2020. See more on http://www.freiraumfestival.eu


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Sight Unseen

Eric Ellingsen


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Wo ist die Freiheit unter dem Regime von Corona?

Andreas Weber

Das Denken überschlägt sich, wenn die Wirklichkeit die Theorie überholt. Was eine biopolitische Krise ist, beginnen die Menschen auf der Erde erst in diesen Monaten zu ermessen, denn eine solche findet gerade in Echtzeit statt. Die Fragen, die das vom Goethe-Institut organisierte Freiraum-Festival stellt, sind für alle Teilnehmenden ganz persönlich und konkret: Wen darf ich noch treffen? Wen besuchen? Wo mich ohne Maske zeigen? Was ist der Stand der Freiheit in Europa, jetzt, heute, unter dem Regime von Covid-19?

Schon vor dem Ausbruch der Covid-19-Pandemie standen Themen wie die biopolitische Krise der Demokratie, das Scheitern fairer Beziehungen unter den Bedingungen des weltumspannenden und digital konsolidierten Spätkapitalismus usw. im Zentrum kritischer Diskurse. Doch konnten sie für die meisten Theorie bleiben, weil sich die Konsequenzen verdrängen ließen. Diese Möglichkeit hat die Pandemie eliminiert. Mit Covid ist, was vielen verstiegene Kritik schien, zur Tagespolitik geworden. Ähnlich brechen derzeit auch Klimawandel und das ökologische Desaster in die Gesellschaft ein. Die Krise ist nicht länger Unterstellung einer kritischen Minderheit, sondern ein Monster, das den Alltag umklammert. Diskurs wird so unmittelbar zu einer Frage des Handelns. Der Stand der Freiheit in Europa ist eine Überlebensfrage geworden.

Corona ist freilich kein Ereignis, das sich einer politischen Argumentationslinie zuschlagen lässt. Unsere Gesellschaft steckt in einer biopolitischen Krise – aber deren Umrisse und entsprechend die Fronten einer Verteidigung sind alles andere als eindeutig. Gefahr ist auf allen Seiten: ein hochansteckendes Virus, der Verlusts menschlicher Ungezwungenheit im Umgang miteinander – und eine sich immer stärker ausweitende biopolitische Kontrolle. Doch diese Bedrohungen müssen sich nicht unbedingt sinnfällig überlappen. Pandemiebekämpfung kann Freiheit retten, oder sie kann an ihr nagen. Auf dem persönlichen Freiraum gegenüber der Bedrohung einer ansteckenden Seuche zu beharren, kann menschenverachtend sein, wie die gewalttätiger werdenden Anti-Corona-Demos vor Augen führen.

Im Einbruch des Virus in unseren Alltag drängen schwer berechenbare, widersprüchliche Freiheitseinschränkungen von allen Seiten an. Es ist darin nicht die Verschwörung einer Tätergruppe auszumachen, sondern ein Zivilisationsthema, nämlich das der fair geführten Beziehung. Die Pandemie selbst ist ja bereits eine ökologische Katastrophe, geschuldet dem Vordringen von immer mehr Menschen in die Lebensräume nichtmenschlicher Wesen. Sie ist also eine Folge verkrachter Beziehungen.

Das ökopolitische Desaster zeigt somit entsprechend der Idee von Terranova die Versklavung der unsichtbaren Vielen (nämlich der gesamten nichtmenschlichen Biosphäre), welche nur so die Expansion des Humanen trägt. Diese Versklavung explodiert jetzt in einer subjektlosen Revolte der nichtmenschlichen Anderen. Das Virus ist der sprichwörtliche anthropozänische Agent – ohne Bewusstein, aber nicht ohne Handlungsraison.

Corona zielt, ohne zu planen, auf die Wiederherstellung der Gegenseitigkeit. Es zielt auf eine Korrektur des Semio-Kapitalismus (Franco Berardi), nämlich der alle Menschen beherrschenden abstrakten Semiosen, die Code, Daten, Effizienz vor das Konkrete, also vor Ausdruck, Erfahrung, Poesie und Beziehung stellen. Corona aber rückt Beziehung ins Zentrum, die Seuche legt den Finger darauf, dass alles, was wir von der Welt und voneinander halten und daraus machen, darauf beruht, dass wir beziehungsfähig bleiben.

Der Kapitalismus ist die organisierte und systematisierte Ablehnung von Beziehung. Sein theoretischer Keim liegt in der falschen Behauptung, dass der Erfolg voraussetze, Beziehungen zu kappen, andere aus dem Felde zu schlagen. Der Freiraum des Kapitalismus ist exklusiv: Wo ich bin, kannst du nicht sein. Der Freiraum des Lebens schließt im Gegenteil dazu alle ein: Er beruht auf radikalem Teilen. Interessanterweise ergibt sich diese Lektion nicht aus unserem Denken oder unserer Moral. Sondern die Ökologie selbst erteilt sie uns, zum Akteur ermächtigt.


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Hide and seek for the control room

Matteo Locci & Basak Tuna


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A Glossary

Liam Gillick

Corona Virus Covid 19 Sars-Cov 2 Novel Corona Virus 2019 Ncov Acute Respiratory Disease Loss of taste Loss of smell Lysol Lockdown Symptoms Swab Quarantine Isolation Sanitizer Face Mask Spring Peak Dashboard Self-isolation Household Bubble Asymptomatic Long Term Positive App Spending Review Extension Model Circulation Mortality Inquiry ICU Social Distance First Wave Second Wave China Virus Wuhan Flu Covidiot Flouting Tiered Restrictions First Spike Second Spike Monitoring Proportionate Capacity Vulnerable Old Young Virus Denial Anti-Vaxxer Anti-Masker Resurgence Drastic Action National Shutdown Sombrero Curve Dromedary Hump Lampshade Curve Darkest Spell Projection Epidemiologist Raft of statistics Lull in transmission Succumbing Death Toll Tracking Tracing Monitoring Surveillance Grim Winter PPE Uptick Surge Police Riot Revel Fireworks Chokehold Neck Compression