May You Live In Interesting Times
Covid19 takes a toll on everyone’s life and routines, affecting the vulnerable and (to a lesser extent) even the privileged who always got around disasters in one way or another. At the level of everyday life, the spatial and temporal patterns of movement are changing, forming in their own way a pandemic choreography that reflects the societal conditions under Corona. This post by Martin Schinagl maps and reflects on these changes.
Last year in November, I received a tote bag as a souvenir from a close person of mine who had travelled to the Venice Biennale. May You Live In Interesting Times is written on it. Those first weeks of November 2019, Venice was flooded. The highest flood in 50 years had plunged the city, its streets and famous squares, the offices and apartments of its (due to tourism few remaining) inhabitants into brown water. It drowned the daily and economic routines. The Venetians were slowed down – literally – as they had to wade in rubber boots to get from one place to another.
Should the slogan convey this message in relation to the floods? I do not know.
Does it refer to the almost yearlong bush fires in Australia? Or to global warming, conflicts, crisis over water, land and rights? I do not know.
Could it be referring in anticipation of the attacks and assassinations on migrants and Jews in Germany that took place that year? I do not think so. Yet I don’t know.
For me, any of the above events can be a potential source of inspiration for the slogan. Of course, none of these events are first and foremost interesting. They are outrageous, frightening, scandalous. We are experiencing a time that is characterized by the juxtaposition and overlapping of catastrophic and strange events. Have these events increased? Have previous events faded in the mists of time, a sort of cognitive distortion or am I more exposed to them through social media?
But rarely, these events really had a noticeable or decisive influence on my life, my habits and my decisions. So, they are interesting insofar as it speaks for my privileged position I have (white, male, academic, living in Germany) – I am not affected.
They are not interesting, yet it made me think again.
So what is now?
As I walk up and down in my apartment and think, the thoughts in my head go round and round. I have broken with everyday life and routines. Home office for weeks and weeks to come. I know and picture the role I play in a collective effort to „flatten the curve“. I do not want to be one of the „unreasonable ones“. That is why I adapt to the new and constantly changing norms and pandemic orders. I follow the dictates of pandemic statistics.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly we internalize new norms and how they infiltrate our affective structures? Arousal of indignation goes through my body when a person in public simply dares to get too close to me without respecting the newly installed norm distance of 1.5 meters. The new rules of physical distance(s) translate into emotional and embodied intensities. I feel them the moment they are ignored. What is possibly considered too close; what is appropriate? This is part of a normalization process, while we continue to move in crowded places, slalom through the alleys of supermarket shelves and strive for the recommended distance to others.
In the interest of the common good, we adapt new strategies, such as running a marathon in a driveway or appreciating the pleasures of a lonely walk in the park.
What is still abstract and distant, nevertheless attracts full attention: With the greatest interest, we follow the new numbers of infected people and update our news feeds again and again to see what is new, what the next intervention will be, when the lockdown will be lifted and what the numbers and curves are alike today. Is this an obsession? It is interesting and sensational, just as it is banal and deeply political. After all, we live in a society of spectacle, and staring into an abyss can be a great source of entertainment.
Choros and chronos
Covid-19 is dramatic because its effects occupy the entire everyday life. Appointments are postponed indefinitely or even cancelled. The bursting gaps in my calendar resemble the spatial patterns in otherwise busy parts of urban life. We re-figurate our daily lives through re-arranging the socio-spatial-temporal: Radii of movement are restricted or allowed only during specific time frames within a day. Public transport, if not already avoided or completely discontinued, is reduced – not every five but every ten minutes, not every ten but every 20. We are advised not to use and move in public space more than necessary. And if we do not oblige, the police will gladly enforce the norms with authority and folding ruler.
Berlin’s parks seem to be overcrowded these days (and they are). But the patterns have visibly changed. Distances are respected and the size of social groups is usually reduced to two or to people from the same household as I kindly assume. This does not speak for all, but for many.
When we write about the “distancing”, the “curve”, the “dance”, the “flattening” and the “hammer” we describe the choreography of the pandemic. A choreography, described by the meaningful sequence of movements through space, that forms into a routinely dance by physical movements. The pandemic choreography of the Corona dance to “flatten the curve” is quite literal one. It involves specific sets of rules concerning distance, movement, breathing and timing. „Choreography” as choreographer William Forsythe describes it, “is about organising bodies in space, or organising bodies with other bodies, or a body with other bodies in an environment that is organised“. Thus, the ways in which we write and make space follows collectively (socios) coordinated and rule-based movements (in space, choros) and rhythms (in time, chronos). The temporal dimension is not to be neglected, as timing in a pandemic is a delicate (and political) issue.
Since the cities are sealed off, people are restricted to their houses and balconies. And what worries most of us is that we do not know when this will end. The suspension of normality, including the temporal regime, indefinitely affects the sense of time.
Will I be able to complete my field research? Will I have enough time when this is over? How are plans, i.e. visions for a determinable future, to be made when it is unclear when and under what conditions the post-Covid future will begin? It is difficult to deal with such uncertainty.
Once again back to Venice: the bubonic plague, as it also strongly affected Venice, did not only have dramatic effects on the population of the cities by reducing them by one third up to one half. It could just as well have served as a decisive catalyst for the Italian Renaissance, as one article suggests. The plague developed such power and uncertainty that it shook hierarchies, belief systems and structures held together by feudal ideology, church rule and traditions. They lost some of their cohesive power, which – after this static system was loosened – led to more social mobility, freedom and creativity. In addition, the experience of being surrounded by death gave rise to many Renaissance themes such as memento mori and a renewed lust for life. It shaped politics, culture and art.
Well, this is no plague, but – apart from all the terrible, sad and serious things – these are certainly interesting times.
We may find it difficult to envisage short and medium-term plans. But perhaps these exceptional circumstances give us room to imagine a different future in the long term. Because simply returning to normality, as we know it, would be such a missed opportunity. So let us be hopeful.
Have you heard that the water in Venice, which is otherwise murky and dead, is now crystal clear and inhabited by dolphins? Close your eyes and ask yourself: What kind of normality do you want?
 No it wasn’t: The slogan is “actually” a ‚fake‘ ancient Chinese curse. The intend as curator, Ralph Rugoff, suggests is much more referring to the rise of nationalism, authoritarianism and “fake news” in which “art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times.’”. Yet, as any artifact of art, it is free for interpretation beyond the intend of its creators. URL: https://www.inexhibit.com/specials/58th-venice-biennale-of-art-2019-may-you-live-in-interesting-times/
 June 2019 until the end of March 2020
 Which is an equivalent of 4’9″ in imperial measurement. The US has introduced 6” as the norm.
 Another case of cognitive distortion, since quantitative analysis seems to show the contrary. See more: https://www.gstatic.com/covid19/mobility/2020-03-29_DE_Mobility_Report_en.pdf. Thank you, Robert Vief, for the correction.
 William Foresythe. In: Spier, Steven, ‘Dancing and Drawing, Choreography and Architecture’, Journal of Architecture, vol. 10, no. 4, 2005 Sept., p.352.
 Don’t let yourselves be fooled: The return of “Venetian dolphins” is “fake news”. For more information see: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/03/coronavirus-pandemic-fake-animal-viral-social-media-posts. And of course, there are also no crocodiles in the Venice canals as the photoshopped picture might imply.