Three people each wearing a harness lie on the floor of the exhibition hall. Ropes running from the ceiling are attached to the harnesses, linking the bodies of each. Any person moving a body part affects in turn the others, whose parts are barely, but noticeably, raised or lowered. Together, the bodies form a communicating system of equilibrium and motion. The work Tyngdspegel System (Weight Mirrors – System)—which is currently on display at Accelerator, an exhibition space at Stockholm University—was created by Adèle Essle Zeiss, a graduate in 2018 from the Royal Institute of Art. Her equally magnificent and low-key performance work stages bodies’ presence in space, revealing how they are linked to each other in mutual physical and emotional dependencies. The delicacy of these systems grows apparent as you stand for a while and contemplate the work. The slightest shift in one of the performers has repercussions for the others. A telling image of the sensitivity of our relationships and our mutual dependence.
The works of Adèle Essle Zeiss can also be viewed against the backdrop of systems larger than this interpersonal system in a specified space. They touch on how every system, whether natural or created, is susceptible to internal and external influences. This systemic interdependence and susceptibility became painfully manifest in cultural life in the pandemic, during which sectors of the cultural ecosystem were shuttered. Art was still being created, but without the opportunities to present itself to an audience. And art that arises out of the performance itself—such as the in works of Adéle Essle Zeiss—found itself in a void. Many artists had to seek other means of subsistence and abandon their art, and many smaller institutions were forced to close down. Presently, with the experience of the pandemic behind us, we see a scarred cultural ecosystem. The pandemic resulted in artworks, artistic knowledge and artistic experiences being forfeited in a way that has branded culture for the present and the future. The ordeal of the pandemic is still with us, significantly shaping how artists reimagine their future terms and conditions. Now, at barely some months’ distance from a closed cultural life, artistic representations are reflecting on how we have been affected and what it all means. One aspect of this experience, persuasively articulated by Adèle Essle Zeiss, is the perception that we are, to an individual, interdependent.
This delicacy of the systems of the arts and culture—that we do not exist independently—must be considered by any functioning system in their support. Bear in mind the domino effect. This sensibility is the premise of the government inquiry on culture after the COVID-19 pandemic, Restarting the Arts and Culture in Sweden, which State Investigator Linda Zachrisson recently delivered to Minister for Culture Amanda Lind. The report proposes measures to create conditions for the restart, recovery and development of the arts and culture in the wake of the pandemic’s detrimental effects, and to identify what we can expect of the future. I have had the privilege of following the inquiry as special advisor and, alongside knowledgeable colleagues, of reflecting on how the culture sector must be improved in light of what we have learned. I would like to highlight how the inquiry maps the ecology and support systems of culture, clearly revealing their structural problems and how they were worsened by the pandemic. Here we can see precisely how those parts of cultural life with a weaker infrastructure—such as smaller institutions or institutions and practitioners outside the big cities—are placed in an increasingly precarious situation and in many cases are forced to close or embark on other career paths. A situation that brings a huge loss to the individual artist and institution and to cultural life in general. The inquiry also makes explicit how most artists stand outside the social provisions systems granted to most other groups in our society: basic social guard rails for artists deteriorated during the pandemic. The inquiry shows how artists’ precarious working conditions are linked to the short-term projectification of artistic work that makes it difficult to be sustainably active as an artist across a professional life. I believe this is also fundamentally related to the marginalization of art and the myth of artistic work as separate from other professions. In our society, we have not sufficiently articulated the importance of artistic work and how it is intertwined with the development of our society as a whole.
The proposals advanced in the government report can be said to be similarly low-key and magnificent. Low-key, since they are generally less about radically rebuilding the system and more about bolstering and expanding the support systems for artists that already exist. Magnificent, since they recommend the scope of these subsidies to be dramatically broadened. The report’s standpoint is in many ways an attempt to rectify the distortions in the support systems that exist today and to roundly strengthen them. Here I see from my vantage point in contemporary art that proposals to augment the scholarship system for artists are cardinal; but important, too, is the aim that freelance curators be lent support for arranging exhibitions at art institutions. A support that reaps rewards onto practitioners, institutions and the public, as well. I also believe that the proposal to build a national platform for sharing knowledge among the more modest art institutions can be valuable for the development of operations in the long term.
What is compelling from the perspective of an art academy is understanding where in the system we are located and what affects us in the current support systems for art and artists. As Vice-Chancellor, it is crucial that our educational goals prepare students for a life-long professional engagement. Social sustainability can exist only if artists are included in our social provisions systems. It is, therefore, gratifying that the government response is to draw attention to the weaknesses in the social provisions of artists and to now appoint a commission to look specifically at sickness insurance from an artist’s perspective. And crucial—if we are to have a broad base of students and not just those economically privileged—is that we work towards financial feasibility for artists across an entire professional life.