I am writing this blog post just after attending a workshop in Birmingham organised as part of the FEINART Training Programme. For the workshop, titled Decoding Social Spaces (19-21 July 2021), us researchers had to work in small local groups in a hybrid online and onsite format. For me, as the only researcher based at the University of Edinburgh, it was a valuable opportunity to physically work together with some of my colleagues, outside the limits of the Zoom windows and digital collaborative tools. For the three day we were together, it was interesting to observe the offline transposition of relationships and dynamics totally developed in the digital realm and this got me thinking a lot on the possibility and strain of establishing bonds without physical proximity.
Also, a few weeks prior to this event, I attended a workshop entitled Whisper Game: Practicing Attention through Caring and Pacing hosted by Basia Sliwinska and Caroline Stevenson within the framework of the conference Situated Knowledges — Art and Curating on the Move (25-27 June 2021). At the heart of this workshop was the idea of testing the potential of digital collaboration by means of ‘the whisper game’ – a game based on proximity and physical exchange. While waiting for my turn, I felt strange to not be able to visualise the chain of interactions and share that moment with the other participants, worrying that a glitch or an inaccuracy would inevitably interrupt the game and cause the experiment to flop. Yet, how to foster reliability and trust in such a sterile context as a Zoom call? In the absence of substantial relational elements as body language, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues, how effective can online interaction be for the development of incisive and functional group dynamics?
What I find especially interesting in this respect is to consider how Covid-19 and the subsequent prevalence of online communication have influenced not the dynamics of work or friends’ groups, but the activity of social movements. The past year has represented a particularly fertile context for self-organisation. Staying within the art sector, various groups of art workers were born online on the drive of the emergency, among which Art Workers Italia, Cultural Workers Alliance Greece, ZA K.R.U.H. in Croatia, and Cultural Workers Unite in Rotterdam. After an initial focus on the financial aids offered by their respective states to support the sector during the crisis, these groups quickly structured themselves using Facebook, Zoom, and email threads and broadened their range of analysis to examine and discuss the conditions of art work, wages, contracts, welfare, and exploitation. They also got in contact with other national workers’ organizations, establishing a transnational network of workers and meeting at various events over the summer, such as the ART AND CULTURAL WORKERS CONGRESS organised in Zagreb organised by BLOK.
Being part of one of these groups, I had the opportunity to experience first-hand the perks and weaknesses of such a structure. After several years of physical assemblies and interventions, it was quite odd to experience a similar degree of intensity of debate and cooperation within videoconferencing platforms. The fatigue of the assemblies, a moment of confrontation that can be particularly intense per se, could became a very challenging moment. Similarly, the tone of an email, a grammar choice, or a facial expression could become elements of distress and debate, causing a lot of self-policing and frustration. The creation of bonds of trust and solidarity had to take place in a very unnatural and accelerated way, fragmented on a multiplicity of platforms. The only way to get to know each other was within a very rigid setting – video, chat, email – which would maintain great physical distance between the speakers while putting you in extremely intimate life moments (like a child or an animal suddenly entering the scene, uncontrollable noises, private pictures, or parts of a stranger’s home). Or, it would be possible to try to better familiarise with someone by piecing together the identity puzzle formed by the different features/expressions of their online persona. Despite the peculiarity of the situation and the odd premises, the work done in this year and a half has developed in an organic and pervasive way, overcoming minor conflicts and creating a solid core of involved people and a valid communication flow.
Going beyond my personal experience, in the study SICKNESS OR SILENCE: Social Movement Adaptation to COVID-19, carried out by Jonathan Pinckney and Miranda Rivers in 2020, the researcher detected an outstanding ability of social movements to adapt online, managing to quickly develop new tactics to react to the impossibility of in-person gatherings by means of online campaigns and digital organising. Digital technologies allowed social movements to continue their activities, granting everyone to coordinate and take part in local and transnational actions, significantly reducing the costs and risks of physical participation. Yet, according to the study, the range of action of those movement who evolved purely online has proven to be quite small, remaining too anchored to individual self-motivation and ephemeral support while struggling to become a long-term collective commitment. Nonetheless, this data does not invalidate the value of the digital realm as a place of gathering, exchange and organisation, but further emphasises the significance of material action, as it has been possible to observe on several occasions. Tactical adaptation and diversification proved thus to be two fundamental skills in overcoming psychological and physical propensities to take part in social actions, even when taking the streets became inevitable. An example is that of the women activists in Poland using their cars to create traffic blocks across Warsaw against the abortion ban. In Greece, feminist groups meeting online combined Zoom discussion with material action throughout 2020.
As national and international restrictions started to ease, many groups are now returning to the streets, trying to overcome this duality and find new forms of gathering and exchange that would maintain the potential of both realms. While resuming offline activity can still be highly disruptive, for it requires a different pace and commitment, it is nice to recognise each other in real life, to find again those expressions and nuances established through the monitor, and in most cases, this represents an important moment of consolidation and confirmation. Genuinely hoping it will be possible to keep meeting in person, I am curious to observe the development of these hybrid relationships and the new forms of action and collaboration they might produce.
Take care and speak soon.
 Conference programme Situated Knowledges — Art and Curating on the Move, https://shared-campus.com/themes/cultures-histories-futures/curatorial-workshop/curating-on-the-move-situated-knowledges/
 ART AND CULTURAL WORKERS CONGRESS, programme and description of participants, http://blok.hr/en/politicka-skola-za-umjetnike/kongres-umjetnika-i-kulturnih-radnica
 J. Pinckney and M. Rivers, ‘SICKNESS OR SILENCE: Social Movement Adaptation to COVID-19’, Journal of International Affairs, vol. 73, n. 2, Spring/Summer 2020, pp. 23-42
 ‘Poland abortion ruling: Protesters block roads across country’, BBC, 26 October 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54694968
 ‘Patriarchy murders’: Women protest against femicide in Syntagma Square’, ΤοΒΗΜΑ, 19 Junes 2021, https://www.tovima.gr/2021/06/19/international/patriarchy-murders-women-protest-against-femicide-in-syntagma-square/