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The dearth of encounters creates a palpable vacuum

A few weeks ago, Ester Eriksson, a degree programme student at the Royal Institute of Art, received the August Prize for her darkly humoristic illustrations for Humlan Hanssons hemligheter in the category Children and Young Adult. A wonderful example among many of our students’ artistic pluck and versatility, as they make their way with ease across a blank artistic field in which the former boundaries between genres and techniques have been razed.

Like most events these days, the award ceremony was held digitally. We have begun to grow accustomed to digital imitations of cultural places, events and conversations. Even the normally intense colloquy between the Royal Institute and the outside world has been hushed by the corona pandemic. The exhibitions at Galleri Mejan continued to stay open as long as we could manage, but are now forced to close alongside all our other open activities, such as lecture programs, Mejan Encounters, the Rundgång open studios, Mellanrummet and Rutiga golvet’s exhibitions and talks, as well as our research exhibitions at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, are currently in mothballs, waiting for better times.

The dearth of lively encounters between audience and art creates a palpable vacuum. A void that shows how crucial dialog with the outside world is for the soul of a university. Likewise, the exhibition has always been a key component of the university’s pedagogical model. The Academy’s outreach programs generate unique occasions for a larger circle to get to know what is happening at the university. But they are equally an opportunity for us to learn more in conversation with a wider world; and a school needs adequate space for these meetings. It requires an interface with the world to keep from becoming a sealed, asphyxiated system. As soon as ever we can, we will breathe life into that conversation again. By the end of March, the corona situation permitting, we will launch a larger exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts to display several of our research projects. Whereupon follows our usual graduation exhibition, slated to take place at both the Academy and Marabou Park.

The pandemic has made us tangibly cognizant of the vulnerability of our social and cultural systems. We have faced the fragility of our common spaces and heard the silence when they lock down. Despite all the utopian notions that digitization might completely surmount  the limitations of the body, forced social distancing has recently made us aware of how dependent art is on bodily presence. An open public space for art also spawns encounters with the unknown, with things we never knew or never chose to see. Despite the practicality of digitization for meetings, the closure of our societies has spelled confinement, exclusion and a perilous polarization. We meet in closed groups with select people and pick our own subjects.

I believe that our experience of the pandemic, with its social isolation and closure of whole societies, even in the long run, will alter the conditions for the entire field of art and its vast canopy of institutions, biennials, publications, artists, curators and audiences. A system for  which art education is an operative cog. We have learned a lot during the shutdown. Meeting without traveling has been normalized, our skill in communicating and displaying art digitally has been honed to sophistication. Closure has further educated our university in a distance education which offers greater accessibility to students and the opportunity to work without needlessly consuming the earth’s resources. At the same time, we are now endowed with the experience of involuntarily existing apart, the insight of our dependence on one another and the realization that working together works. Therefore, it is meaningful to insist that teaching, in particular at an art school, demands physical presence.

Driving a lance through the membrane of an art world inflated by hyperactivity and hypermobility has left a wakeful silence. What happens now? We cannot return to that feverishly overheated state; I hope this is obvious to all of us. This slowdown and downsizing open up for new models and methods, applicable even to an art school. Here, I believe that in the future we will need to place greater emphasis on sustainability and local contexts. For me, it is paramount that this does not lead to greater provincialism and confinement. It is at this juncture crucial for the Royal Institute of Art to keep navigable the roads to a larger world and to welcome frank conversation where varied experiences and views can be aired.