Ernesto Orellana G.
Critical Reflection on the New Cultural Normality
In Chile, it is turning out to be very difficult for workers in the performing arts to think past the present moment. We have been immersed in political and social events that have altered our cultural practice and our goals. We are reinventing ourselves as we face the social indifference of the State and respond to the collective, urgent need to continue pressuring it. Exercising critical thought in this context implies not only the aesthetic deconstruction of existing artistic creations and theatrical productions, but also mobilising critical thought with regards to our modes of artistic production in the current moment.
Since October 2019, currents of political thought in the country have irreversibly shifted. What is happening to us is a tragic contradiction, with countless invisible heroes struggling against death –the ultimate destiny neoliberalism has in store for us. We were in the midst of mass public protests, of streets overflowing with people demanding a just society, of collective happiness over the social awakening of a political Spring that saw millions saying: 'Enough of the violence accumulated over four decades of neoliberal experimentation that has consecrated inequality and made our lives precarious!' We were preparing for a plebiscite that should have taken place in April, a vote that would have put an end to the neoliberal constitution of 1980 written and signed into law by the civilian-military dictatorship headed by Augusto Pinochet.
Six months into the October Uprising in Chile, which successfully resisted months of intense and often lethal police violence organised by a government which has systematically violated our human rights, the global pandemic of Covid-19 erupted in our territory. The fear of imminent death that spread around the globe obliged us to quickly implement social distancing. Those of us who could confined ourselves in our homes, from one day to the next normalising a mode of being that was controlled and monitored by the State. This situation gave the government of Chile the opportunity to suspend the prevailing revolutionary impulses in the people, through a false and heavily publicized rhetoric that urged people to prioritise saving lives and to attune themselves to the ‘new normal.’ The state took charge of the crisis and exploited it, planning for a future that would not threaten neoliberal normalisation. We went from a massive presence in the streets to individual confinement, almost overnight.
And as we approach Winter, deaths from Covid continue to mount, thanks to the arrogance of a president who governs for elites and abandons the poor, threatening with armed soldiers those who dare go out in the streets, implementing—as in the worst moments of the dictatorship—'states of exception’ and military-enforced curfews. In the meantime, the social uprising lives on, waiting for the moment to erupt and transform everything.
In the world of the performing arts in Chile, we are living with the inflamed political imagination that our social revolution has inspired, the cultural indifference of the neoliberal State, and the new social paradigm that has emerged as a response to the risk of deadly infection. It is an extreme and extremely complicated situation. Not only have we closed theatres and suspended tours, festivals and premieres; the modes of production of cultural work have been gravely affected, worsening the already precarious situation of cultural workers, including dramatic rises in unemployment and uncertainty.
We need more politicized criticism of the performing arts, criticism that takes into account its conditions and modes of production as well as the needs and demands of the cultural workers who produce it.
In this context of rapid adaptation to new working conditions, it is important to critically deconstruct the new mechanisms of production governed by social distancing and remote work. It is fundamental that criticism be attentive to the analysis of aesthetic experimentation on virtual ‘online’ and ‘live’ platforms, and that it valorises archives that circulate freely on the web. But it should also suspect the new normal that capitalism wants to impose post-Covid. A rapid and comfortable normalisation of the effects that remote work might generate could obscure the precariousness that such a mode of labour implies, as it reduces the number of jobs, and makes surveillance of the remaining ones easier. A future highly profitable for capitalists is being prepared for us, one with fewer physical contact between workers. I don’t mean we should focus only on how many people can safely fill a theatre, nor merely question a priori aesthetic experimentation with new formats. I am inviting us to critically reflect on the fact that the new modes of artistic production for the performing arts are weakening our collective position as workers, and to observe that capitalist cultural hegemony wants to take advantage of the pandemic to continue profiting on our work even as we maintain social distancing. If we normalise this mode of production in the world of performing arts, we will be contributing to their imminent demise.
Can the performing arts survive without shared physical presence? Is it not the ephemeral character of the live happening that makes performing arts unique and special in relation to plastic artforms? Will we surrender so easily to ‘online’ cultural capitalism even as we witness how it makes us more precarious? Are our ways of thinking about audience participation in performing arts not important? Is it not important that even as capitalism seeks to impose new limits on sociality, new social movements explode all over the world attempting to stop it?
Theatre is in crisis – it’s never not been in crisis, and never more so than today. We should organise to defend it. In the current context, festivals should prioritise the support of local artists and the most vulnerable artists, generating new modes of democratic audience participation and, in making their selection, they should privilege critical artistic proposals that deconstruct the reality of our exploitation and point the way toward paradigmatic change.
It is urgent that we contribute to the burgeoning political imagination propelled by social movements. And that we contribute to producing spaces for international and national dialogues among artists, theatre tech, producers, critics, researchers, cultural organisers, educators, and spectators about defending the performing arts against capitalist abuses. We need to reflect on the profound differences that separate us across the geopolitical map. And we must strengthen our resistance to the new normality that is devastating us.
Why not envision anti-capitalist critiques in the intensity of this extreme present?
Maybe it’s time for criticism to implicate itself politically and socially in the construction of new, utopian situations that abandon the legacies of capitalist, racist, masculine, and heterosexual supremacies. Maybe it’s time to stop navel-gazing. For the Global North to stop thinking it’s the ‘First World.’ Maybe it’s time for Europe and North America to pay reparations. Maybe it’s time to modify cultural geopolitics.
It is time for the performing arts to transform themselves.
Criticism has the opportunity to propel the defence of physical presence in the performing arts, that they may survive this catastrophe. And it can generate alliances between the Global North and South, helping to produce dialogues and generate critical thought that problematize the ‘new normal’ and propose desirable alternatives.
Ernesto Orellana G (38) is a Chilean cultural worker, stage researcher, teacher, director and playwright. He collaborates in the alternative cultural press. He graduated from the Theatre School of the University of Chile. He received his master’s degree in Theatre Studies from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He has also studied audiovisual narrative, semiotics of culture and critical studies.