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Auto-theoretical Condition Report: Volunteering & Resilience at a music venue during COVID-19

Condition Report: Resilience is Undermined by Perpetual-crisis 

Alan Lynn | Northumbria University | alan.lynn@northumbria.ac.uk

Depleted yet persisting. Well-managed and driven forward with much love, time, and expertise; plagued by depletion and perpetual crisis. Simply put, for the organisation, and I suspect many others, to be in operation at the outbreak of COVID-19 it had already committed its totality. Volunteers, either existing or potential, were already contributing up to, and in some cases beyond, what they could. Where volunteers contribute beyond their means, tensions develop. Organisational resilience in these terms is depleted to the point of zero. 

Introduction

This article is a condition report of my time volunteering at a music venue for which I am still gathering data. It is a way to give a snapshot of an unfinished project that also affords an opportunity to highlight what I anticipate will be central to my findings: perpetual crisis equals perpetual precarity or un-resilience. My summation of the issue is derived from my own experience of emerging crisis events and my reading of liberal capitalism and its influence on knowledge. My time volunteering places me back into the centre of a situation where nothing had progressed since the last crisis event or the one before that.

My condition report is flavoured by unanswered questions from my time as a cultural manager, including the impact the 2008 financial crash has had on my thought. From an early point in my career my mind was occupied with the feeling of a perpetual struggle for survival driven by perpetual crisis.

The crash was bad for cultural managers but was, for me at least, an awakening of political consciousness that represented a crack in liberalism. Our group acceptance of policy outcomes and circumstances, typified by funding for banks and austerity for everyone else, is mutually constitutive with the crisis tendencies within our field. This crack has grown into my research interest. My hope is to link locations of crisis together to better understand cultural management’s perpetual crisis (Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser 63). The emergence of COVID-19 triggered many of the same feelings of dislocation that I had felt during the financial crash and represented another crisis, in a long line, that would alter plans and lay bare the policy contradictions of late capitalism.

Crisis Event

March 2020. My planner tells me that I should be travelling to cultural institutions in the Northeast of England. Loosely put, my aim is to spend time in the ‘mundane’ with cultural organisations to understand their appreciation of social ‘ruptures’ (Gutting, Oksala). I wish to sift through the complex and the un-enticing to draw a line through state power, social ruptures, organisational belief formation, and the everyday. 

My preparations turn from web searches for bus and metro timetables to searches for ‘the correct way to write CV19’, ‘what is N95’, ‘is the US Surgeon General in the Navy’, and ‘comorbidity’. An event emerged to add to the complexity and number of our own managerial and research questions (Wagner-Pacifici). The addition of questions and complexity lengthens the distance between our struggles as cultural managers and researchers and our desired satisfactions (Federici 1). 

With COVID-19 blocking my path, I felt restriction, dislocation, and dysphoria; indeed these will be common among us all. For me, the COVID-19 event felt like an expulsion from my own research conditions of possibility, an already precarious position. The management team at the music venue also felt a sense of expulsion from their already precarious position. Ukeles captures such a moment of expulsion with the birth of her child; it is a moment of realisation of her artist-heroes and the freedom they enjoyed: Pollock, Duchamp and Rothko relied on never having to change any nappies.  

I was in full crisis. I felt like two people in the same body: the free artist and the mother/maintenance worker. Twirling. I had never worked so hard in my life, yet people who met me pushing my baby carriage asked me, “Do you do anything?” (Ukeles 138).

I can identify with the feeling of illegitimacy when realising that our efforts up to this point count for naught. It is a dual sense of dysphoria and lengthening of distance from effort and outcome that I keenly felt in my own work and with my time volunteering at the music venue. On the emergence of COVID-19 as crisis event, the managers of the music venue went to the cupboard of ideas and resources but it was empty, necessarily so, as they had already depleted themselves just to survive in the pre COVID-19 reality and its dilemmas. It is my opinion that persistent crisis is imbricated with an inability to consider what is constitutive, or to question why the cupboard is always empty.

Nausea, Advocacy, and the Need for Criticality

I decided to complete my master’s degree to answer the questions that were pouring through the crack I had encountered during the financial crisis. Personally, continuing to manage cultural projects without the ability to name and articulate the cause of the perpetual struggle I had felt was unappealing. I was, and still am, unwilling to labour under a feeling of nausea (Wood x). To do so and not address the dilemmas of cultural management’s existence might be to act in bad faith on my part. 

They are merely examples of what Sartre would later call ‘mauvaise foi’, or ‘bad faith’: they have concealed from themselves the awful dilemma of their existence (Wood xiii).

Whilst potentially relevant, it is not my intention to launch into questions of free will, mental health, or to suggest we embark on a scary and relentless voyage into futility as outlined in Sartre’s Nausea. Mark Fisher had an interesting take on free will when dissecting the film Existenz (K-Punk 155); and addresses mental health within Capitalist Realism (19). My time volunteering has left me asking why, as cultural managers, do we keep returning to this empty cupboard when a crisis event emerges? We know it to be empty but seem to struggle to ask why; traces, perhaps, of cultural management’s own relationship with free will and cogitative process. 

In my opinion, a proportion of cultural management literature is focused on advocacy rather than criticality. I feel this advocacy deters us from reviewing the true nature of the problems before us. Just as it would be odd to attend a firefighters conference and not discuss water or how to stop fires from starting; the predominance of advocacy over critique within cultural management literature seems equally odd to me (Bregman no page). This barrier between the reality of our dilemmas and our thought and actions can also be seen as a denial of cultural management’s conditions of possibility. How are we to critique the ground we stand on if we never gaze upon the floor?

What do we make of the flowering vine that uses as its trellis the walls of a prison? (Wang back cover).

As cultural managers, we represent the flowering vine, the beauty in what we achieve is not under scrutiny. We achieve much, despite and not because of our conditions of possibility. To encourage resilience we must start to question why we find ourselves trellised in such impoverished conditions.

Keywords: Nausea; crisis-event; perpetual-crisis; resilience; depleted.

Works-Cited List:

Arruzza, Cinzia, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser. Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. London: Verso, 2019. Print.

Bregman, Rutger. YouTube, uploaded by Guardian News, 29 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8ijiLqfXP0

Federici, Silvia. Wages Against Housework. Bristol: Falling Wall Press Ltd, 1974. Print.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Alresford: John Hunt Publishing, 2009. Print.

Fisher, Mark. K-Punk. London: Repeater, 2018. Print.

Gutting, Gary, Johanna Oksala. “Michel Foucault.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. May 22 2018. Web. Oct 1 2020.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, introduction by James Wood. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Ukeles, Mierle. Laderman. “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition: Care”, in Caring Culture: Art, Architecture and the Politics of Public Health. Ed. Andrea Phillips, and Miessen. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011. 137-144. Print.

Wagner-Pacifici, Robin. You Tube, uploaded by The New School, 8 Jul 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP0eqbihc6A

Wang, Jackie. Carceral Capitalism. South Pasadena: semiotext(e), 2018. Print.

Wood, James. “Introduction”, Nausea. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Trans. Robert Baldick. London: Penguin, 2000. vii-xx. Print.