Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Anti-hiatus: Art as prevention

As the depleted health systems of developed economies attempt to deal with the unfolding crisis surrounding COVID-19, media ramp up the rhetoric, and the state necessarily intervenes where the private sector can no longer make a profit, it may seem like things shut down. But where economic activity may disappear, it's important to recognise the different types of activity that may continue, or even flourish.

Indeed, for better or worse, right now is a peak time for internet traffic and journalism. As is commonly acknowledged within the media industry, individuals have become primary broadcasters of information. I know I'm not alone in being more than usually frustrated with the corresponding amount of misinformation and amplification happening on the internet, often broadcast or amplified by well-meaning people with no media training and who do not understand the importance of the process discerning truth, as complex (and necessarily contested) as that concept is. There is, in general, a pervasive lack of accountability, which runs directly against the principles of broadcasting and journalism. The amplification of dystopian, shocking and inaccurate headlines are having a noticable effect on people, repeating the fears generated by the - also often questionable - dystopian and apocalyptic narratives common to contemporary fiction. Normally, this is irritating - right now it can be dangerous. To this end, I have proposed a little checklist (see under) for those interested in broadcasting during this period.

Although the role of theatre and art criticism may seem to take a back seat during times of crisis, in my view, nothing could be further from the truth. The former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill is often falsely quoted here when, in response to a suggestion to stop arts funding in a time of crisis, he supposedly replies "Then what are we fighting for?". Such an understanding, veracity of the attribution aside, undermines the arts significantly whilst appearing to defend it. As a creator of culture and discourse, art has not only an active symbolic function of cultural heritage and continuity - as a fuel for a cultural protectionist narrative - but an active role in shaping community, and therefore resisting the pitfalls of crisis. Significant military conflict is inevitably preceded by an equally significant propaganda foundation, defeating critical thought - our best cultural defense against atrocity and state violence. Similarly, crisis management in non-military scenarios benefits considerably from a community engaging with culture and the discourses that surround it.

Admittedly, much of that work is done preceding the actual crisis event, and by people who generated conversation, community, and connection through happenings, shows, discussions and so forth. As much as there is media focus on the dystopian elements of crisis - empty supermarket shelves, particularly - the good things that are happening in neighbourhoods across the world occur through the nurturing of cultural connection and our artistic selves.

After Microsoft (Goldin+Senneby, 2007)

The creation of artistic discourse, as an offshoot of art but not its lesser, is one of the foundations of effective community, and when that community is put under significant stress, it re-emphasises, and not de-emphasises, the need for critical thinking. Furthermore, amid a large perceived threat, quick decisions are made which are often wrong. Bubbles appear and disappear as the crowd moves on to the next headline, creating a cumulative effect of a society losing control and going out of its mind in fear, which can be a more destructive force than any virus.

Now is the time, therefore, to really stop and think.

From that perspective, I will be doing as much as I can to support the creation of culture, in a non-contact sort of way, through the next period. In practice, this will involve going through the back catalogue and finding old interviews which I never completed, and finishing other pieces I never found the time to finish. I'll do some tidying up of this platform as well, categorising things and making them easier to find. I've long secretly enjoyed how unweildy and sporadic this platform is - still, I acknowledge that sometimes scrawling through 5 years worth of writing looking for that elusive review presents practical hurdles.

Cultures exist within families, within neighbourhoods, within online communities, and across borders. One area where Churchill's attributed comment rings true is that culture is often the bottom of people's priority list in times of crisis. This is not helped by the excessively commodified direction of the arts in developed economies, where engagement through the internet replicates the 'experience economy', a plethora of voices share their emotions, manufactured for your enjoyment and with an underlying, unstated objective of profit.

There are truths beyond this paradigm, and this period of shock seems as good a time as any to try and find them.

Before you share or broadcast something...
1. Check the source. Is the publication credible?
2. Who is the journalist or writer? What's their background? If they are presenting themselves as an expert, or making claims as an expert, are they actually one?
3. If you read the article before sharing (preferable that you did), does it make any incorrect claims? If it did, you can still share it, but flag those claims in a comment, so that people know about it. For example "This article about data modelling makes some claims about the virus that are obviously false, but is anyway of interest to those into data modelling" or even "This article is probably alarmist, but I am sharing it because____".
4. Is the type of article clearly labled or presented (opinion, provocative argument, hard news)? Could readers misinterpret the type of article it is?
5. Even if it is accurate, what is the effect of people reading it likely to be?
6. Do people actually need to know about it? Will it help them?
In all cases, just because something doesn't meet these criteria, doesn't mean you shouldn't share it. But a responsible broadcaster would flag anything for readers that might be false or misleading, not just share it.

When you share an article, you are broadcasting, and so take responsibility, as much as possible, for the things you share and the content in them.

Further reading Public Service Broadcasting: A best practices sourcebook (UNESCO)

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