Carmen Salas

Shifting Paradigms

Systems thinking in the arts in pandemic times: How can the arts reinvent themselves and how can they help to catalyse a shift to more eco-social ways of being, thinking, and doing?


The Covid-19 epidemic has dealt a massive blow to every facet of the art world, from live events and exhibitions to funding and creativity. But it is also an opportunity to take stock of our current situation; a chance for institutions and creators of all stripes to re-examine their role in society and their contribution to the world.
Everything is connected. Everything we do, no matter how small, has an impact on the world and on all existing systems, whether personal, socio-cultural, or environmental. Acknowledging this viewpoint provides a new lens through which to view the arts, culture, economy and everyday life, especially at a time of uncertainty, complexity and profound socio-ecological transformations.
How often do we apply this knowledge when creating, producing, programming and exhibiting art and culture? I wonder if we have been stuck in a spiral of individualism and short-term thinking, in which the end result, the artworks, projects and exhibitions we wanted to put out there in the world, were much more important than the context and the state of the systems we are entirely dependent on. Our linear way of thinking and doing, and our way of addressing societal challenges in isolation, is keeping us from having harmonious/balanced systems, and from developing resilient structures.
The art and cultural sector is not an isolated system; it is nested within society, which is itself a fundamental and intrinsic part of the planet and all its interconnected systems, which continuously influence each other. But to what extent can we trust the way our current human systems operate? Covid-19 didn't break our systems, it exposed what was already broken. The reality is that our sector has been facing a systematic, structural and deep-rooted problem for decades. So the question is: how do we design more intelligent and thriving systems? How can we make the existing systems function more harmoniously? And how do we continue making art in the current global context?

Systems Thinking in the Arts

Systems thinking is a powerful principle that can be applied to all aspects of life. Two key aspects in systems thinking that provide us with different ways of viewing and interpreting the world around us are holism and reductionism. Holism places an emphasis on the whole system, while reductionism focuses on the constituent parts of a system. For a complex system to function in harmony, there needs to be a balance between both sides of the spectrum, “one favoring individuality, and the other favoring totality. The former will make creativity and renewal possible, whereas the latter will guarantee the system’s own subsistence.” (Source)
The power of art to foster systems thinking and systems change is immense. Thinking of art as a system is also very powerful. In doing so, artists, art institutions and art and cultural professionals can better identify where the system may be failing and redesign it accordingly. This also helps understand the interconnectedness of different systems.
In many capitalist Western societies, our worldview is biased towards a model of society based on individualism, materialism and disconnection from nature. A culture that refuses to look at life as a whole, and that undermines the value of collectivism and connectedness, feeds the imbalance in eco-social systems, causing issues like climate change and polarisation. To restore the balance of our systems, whether social, cultural, political, economic or environmental, we need a radical shift in mindset; a shift in paradigm, from individualism, materialism and separateness to interconnectedness, interdependence and interrelatedness. 
Improving our capacity to think and act long-term is also fundamental, especially due to the many challenges that lie ahead of us. This reasoning also applies to the art and culture sector. We need a shift in focus from individual thinking and creation to acting, behaving and creating as part of a larger and interconnected system. We need to expand the notion of art and culture so that it includes new meanings and new ways of exploring our relationship with the world.
It is time to create with the system(s) in mind, and to take context into account when designing, creating, producing, exhibiting and distributing. The focus shouldn't be so much about what we create, but why we are creating it and for whom. The value of what we create, our intentions, the message we want to put out there in the world and the impact our creations have on the environment, should be top of our priorities. This approach does not imply that we cannot continue being creative, or expressing our creativity freely, but that instead we shift our priorities, opting for expressing our creativity, imagination and determination with an eco-social approach in mind. In other words, taking the state of the world into account when we design/create/produce, and work together towards one goal: keeping the system that sustains us healthy and balanced.
“We all know the causes of climate change, but most people find it difficult to change their habits, especially because they are immersed in the system that operates solely on economic logic, nullifying the possibility of acting in a harmonious relationship with the environment. The main driver of this problem is our anthropocentric vision, which has generated a disconnection from our symbiotic relationship with the environment. The only possibility to reverse the damages and guarantee the prosperity of life that we know is to renounce our current system and use all our creative potential to reconfigure the system based on respect and love for our planet, which allows us to restore harmony and find true wellness.” 
                                                                     Mexican artist Gilberto Esparza

When thinking about the future, where do we want to place value? What are our priorities for the years to come? Do we want to continue operating on an “infinite growth” mindset, or are we willing to put a temporary pause on things to reevaluate and rethink them, and to push for a reconfiguration of our old structures and operating systems for ones that are better adapted to the reality of the world we live in?

Reconfiguring Art and Culture

The current state of the world requires a change in paradigm in the arts and in society as a whole. It asks for a re-evaluation and reconfiguration of the ways art and cultural institutions, art practices and artists operate. It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot continue doing business as usual. Creating, producing, exhibiting and distributing at the pace and in the formats we used to work with a decade ago isn’t realistic anymore. Many things will need to change. It is already happening in other sectors. All sectors are having to adapt to climate change and will have to adapt to the long-term consequences of Covid-19 and the effects of future pandemics. On December 27th2020, the EU kicked off its Covid-19 vaccine campaign. That same day, the director of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged nations to prepare for future pandemics. (Source). 
This scenario forces us to think more radically about what we do, where we place value, how we measure success and the ways we want to continue operating in the future. Our projects, festivals, exhibitions and even the work of museums and galleries, will also need to adapt to the pandemic, its long-term consequences and to the climate crisis. Only the initiatives, projects and organisations that take the time and resources to shift their ways of working and producing and those who build stronger, fairer and more resilient operating systems will be able to survive in the long term.

Resilience and Adaptation

Last year, I counted more than 15 art and culture events (festivals, exhibitions, etc.) addressing the topic of art and sustainability. I wonder how many of them had a resilience and adaptation strategy, and/or a sustainability manifesto in place to drive their actions and activities. In the last two years, I have been involved in a couple of art projects where climate change was at the core of their agendas. I found it challenging to work in a context without clear sustainability objectives in mind. 
On both occasions, I pushed for opening up a discussion about mobility and the sustainability of cultural production. I also proposed to explore alternative ways of putting on exhibitions, to re-evaluate, redefine and reinvent what an exhibition is about and what the purpose of it is in such challenging times. We are all concerned about the climate and the impact our travelling has on the environment, but we keep inviting too many international artists to our weeklong events, or even worse, to a single talk. And we keep using expensive and outdated technology to showcase artworks that consume a great deal of electricity.
Raising awareness is no longer enough. Considering environmental sustainability is not only a matter of artistic/curatorial content, but also about the impact and entire life cycle of artworks and means of production and distribution. I am aware there is nothing new about this reflection, but I believe it is time to take urgent and radical action. This is not a critique, but a sort of statement to show that we have an opportunity to [RE] everything: reconsider priorities, reevaluate objectives, readapt work, rebuild better, reset on sustainability, reshape climate response and redirect the future.
Talking to artists, I have realised that one of the issues that concerns them most is how to best adapt their ideas, practices and projects to the new and uncertain landscape, and what is yet to come. Artists need help navigating these uncertain times. We all do. I believe funding bodies and art and cultural institutions can do more to help artists and art and cultural professionals transition during these challenging times. It is not always about doing more (more exhibitions, more events, etc.) but to provide the means for change (professionally and personally), for exchanging meaningful discussions, for rethinking things, for building resilience and adaptive capacity to a rapidly changing world. This is an opportunity to explore alternative ways of creating and being in the world that are kinder and fairer with our surrounding environment and with its inhabitants.
Resilience, responsiveness, collaboration and adaptation are key aspects to navigate the socio-ecological challenges that lay ahead of us. Art and culture play a fundamental role in the eco-social transition of our societies. But is the art sector adapting fast enough to operate in a rapidly changing world? Are we prepared to put resilience and adaptation strategies and approaches, and climate-art education at the top of our agendas? How is the art and culture sector responding to the current socio-ecological challenges? How will the art and cultural sector thrive after the pandemic? Can the art and culture sector help create the “new normal” in a post-Covid, post-Trump society affected by increased levels of grief, anxiety and inequality?

Can We Go for “Less is More”?

In today’s fast-paced society, we keep hearing or thinking that the concepts of "bigger", "larger" and "busier" are crucial to success. But, do we ever think about the value of building resilience, fairness and sustainability in an increasingly uncertain world? How will our events and projects change if we implement a “less is more” approach?
Less flights = less impact on the environment.
Less travel and lower accommodation costs = more budget to pay for better fees (artistic and project team: curation, production, marketing, design etc.
Less activities = more time and budget for thinking, brainstorming, exploring, strategising, implementing and evaluating. 
More paid time to think. More paid time to rethink why we do what we do and how we can do it in a way that better connects with our values and with the state of the systems we are all interacting with. More time to respond with resilience, adapt accordingly and change.
At the time of writing this article, the United States is approaching 4,000 Covid-19 deaths per day, and the UK is recording the highest daily death tolls since April 2020. I am not an environmentalist nor a cultural activist, but as a highly sensitive human being, I am worried about the state of the world (and our sector), and what we are leaving behind for future generations. The bigger challenges our future generations will have to face are not only concurrent climate and health risks, but a major crisis in human values, a crisis of social cohesion and a crisis of inequality. I am also worried about the psychological and behavioral responses to crises like Covid-19. It worries me to see how many segments of the present population think that the vaccine is the solution to all of our problems. Many people think that once the vaccine reaches a certain amount of the world’s population, we will be able to go back to "normal". Normal was the problem. Infinite growth on a finite planet was/is the problem. Blind consumerism was/is the problem. The same human activities that drive climate change also drive pandemic risk, social injustice and polarisation. Everything is connected.

This text was first published on TAAK´s website on May 25 2021, as part of an initiative called "Our New Normal"

Credits: Kora-llysis by Gilberto Esparza, 2020. 
Photo credit: Iván Puig. 
Words by Carmen Salas
Carmen is a curator and cultural producer currently based in Southern Spain. She is the founding artistic director of Connecting the Dots, an international forum on creativity, art and digital culture that has been taking place in Mexico City since 2018. From 2017 to 2019, she curated the Paradigm Shift Forum for Mapping Festival in Geneva. In 2009, she co-founded Alpha-ville in London, an international festival dedicated to exploring the intersection of art, technology, society and digital culture through a series of conferences, exhibitions and audiovisual events. The festival became a curatorial agency and creative studio in 2011 and developed activities on a national and international scale until 2017. Her most recent projects and reflections explore the transformative potential of art and culture.