Mutual Aid

Introduced by Beyond the Now

Monday, 15 February, 2021
Bernadette Wolbring Reform 75-100 performance. Photo: Jaime Culebro
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‘Beyond the Now’ is a syndicated social practice platform, founded in 2020 by partners based and working in locations across the globe. It aims to open new creative, cultural and political affinities for a post-pandemic world.

In our first Season, entitled ‘Interdependence’, we invited contributors to respond to a question that arose from the strange conditions of lockdown: ‘where and what is the social in a post-pandemic world?’ In Season 2, we continue this enquiry by exploring ‘mutual aid’, an idea that is increasingly discussed in relation to art in the context of Covid-19.

Mutual aid is an activist tradition of reciprocal care that fosters community and solidarity by responding to fundamental needs. It describes an idea of grassroots self-management that empowers people to draw on their own capacities, and to build the resources of their communities. The events of the last year have provided compelling evidence of the potential for new political solidarities to emerge from mutual aid. Where the state has failed with centralised, top-down administration of public health measures, grassroots responses have often emerged spontaneously and shown themselves to be effective.

But does mutual aid really have anything to do with art? This is a question that is not easy to answer. Admittedly, some kinds of art seem a long way from this ideal. But, on the other hand, community art, ‘social practice’ and art activism do draw on ideas and methods that resonate with mutual aid, because they envisage art’s potential to prefigure new forms of community. The contributors to this season approach the possible affinities between art and mutual aid, drawing on these traditions and on experience developed in diverse contexts.

One role for art, perhaps, would be to explore and acknowledge the effects of the pandemic, so that they cannot be covered up and forgotten. The roll-out of vaccines gives some hope for an end to the crisis. Even so, this surely cannot mean a return to ‘normal’. The pandemic has intensified existing inequalities, with the worst damage afflicting already vulnerable communities. It has laid bare the economic and political systems that create an unequal world.

Although artists and art institutions are themselves hit hard by the economic effects of the pandemic, the crisis has given new impetus to demands for changes in governance and a reckoning with the artworld’s legacies of empire and histories of enslavement. Perhaps this political situation provides another kind of opportunity: to bring to light the expertise and leadership of artists and activists, often working in the global South, who continue their work despite the instability or, in some cases, the collapse of cultural institutions.

Beyond the Now seeks a progressive transnational dialogue to examine these conditions as an opportunity to foster critical understanding and an expanded field of solidarity.  In this spirit, Season 2 invites voices from diverse sectors and communities to explore, share ideas and respond to these questions:

  • How might arts organisations and artists learn from models of mutual aid, long practiced and implemented within community and civic sectors?
  • What are the models and constructive tensions between local and virtual space when viewed in terms of the practice of mutual aid?
  • How is the post-pandemic situation to be understood and what is its political, generative and participatory potential?

 

The first two contributors to the Season address mutual aid in different but complementary ways, both drawing on feminist approaches to economics in order to do so. Digital anthropologist Dr. Kit Braybrooke sees ‘mutual aid’ as a way of ‘building collective worlds’, with capacity to resist the dangerous mutations of capitalist society that an intensification of digital interaction has revealed. Curator and writer Kuba Szreder depicts the social economies that create ‘art worlds’. The networks that precarious artworkers use to sustain themselves are like spiderwebs, connections of mutual care. They tend to be invisible, though they form the greatest mass of the ‘iceberg’ that is contemporary art. From this perspective, art already depends on informal networks of mutual aid, which have been needed to absorb the shock of the pandemic.

In the coming weeks these perspectives will be joined by others, some of them shared as films, others as personal reflections, still others as interviews. Each of them explores the social role of art and its potential to point a way ‘beyond the now’.

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‘Beyond the Now’ is a syndicated social practice platform, founded by partners based and working in locations across the globe, which aims to open up new creative, cultural and political affinities for a post-pandemic world.

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