An Interview with participating artist, poet Anna Zilahi
A number of scientists agree that the virus may provide an opportunity for a slower and a more sustainable way of life. Do you agree with this statement?
COVID-19 reveals the most significant weaknesses of the current world order. Its spread to humans can be traced directly to our ill-fated relationship with nature, the destruction on which Western middle-class comfort is premised. Many ask whether we can return to what had been deemed normality; however, it would be worth considering whether we want to return to a normality in which science has been warning of the danger of a pandemic for years, urging us to take action, and then having to watch this nightmare come true. Or should we return to a normality in which the view that lives can be sacrificed to safeguard economic growth is an acceptable political response to the crisis? A “slow life” as pointed out by the exhibition would mean that hundreds of thousands have become unemployed in a matter of weeks, their existence has come under threat, while the lives of others has shifted to struggle to holding one’s ground from dawn to dusk. For example, the lives of parents, health care workers, shelf-stackers, teachers or delivery (wo)men have not slowed down at all, and online interfaces also seem to support a compulsion to continually consume content. (How many self-help podcasts have you listened to while cooking today? What have you learned in the past few weeks? What did you stream in the past two hours? How do you live the gift of time?)
A slower and sustainable way of life (it may not be worthwhile to use the comparative of the latter) can only be achieved when it becomes attainable for all, not as a prerogative, but as a fundamental right. It can only be achieved, if we spend the gift of time to face social inequalities and think about the mental mechanisms that keep us in motion through desires instated by capitalism. For slowing down should not mean that we have nothing to do, yet we continue to hustle and bustle. The purpose of slowing down should be to have time for activities that allow connections to be formed and bring about change. This can only happen in communities, but the virus isolates us. The question is on what conclusions will a new normality be based: the experience of mutual assistance and interdependence or the fear of the unknown and individual losses.
Forced isolation has changed our communication habits. This can carry positive impacts in the long run, but can also lead to the formation of bad practices. For example, in one of Asimov’s novels, the inhabitants of a planet only come into contact with each other through “remote viewing” as the idea of a personal encounter is unbearable for them, due, in-part, to viruses and bacteria. Communication is just an example of the immense change, but in general, should we hope for a better or worse future?
Just before the pandemic broke out, I thought about taking my ancient, albeit barely used tablet home, to my grandparents, setting up a Wi-Fi router, and teaching them how to launch a video call with the touch of a button. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to follow up on this amidst the continuous rush, which I regret in retrospect. However, I have been in a flood of video calls with friends, co-workers, acquaintances, some of whom I have not seen for ages. But is this really necessary? If the crisis has revealed something, it’s how many more meetings I schedule than what would be necessary. These unnecessary in-person meetings have been replaced by Zoom video chats, where we don’t even notice when someone isn’t present, or may have been scrolling through news pages for the past quarter of an hour. This does not help a so-called slowing down at all, it only increases frustration and creates the illusion that one is working less. In fact, however, the boundaries are becoming blurred: if I pick up the phone wearing pyjamas in the morning, it doesn’t count as time at work, but what I’m not dressed later, when I answer next call? Doesn’t this lead to a higher level of self-exploitation through these changes? I yearn to hug my grandmother the most, but at this point, of course, I would be happy, if I could have taught her to turn on the iPad.
Artists exhibiting at the Slow Life exhibition. Radical Practices of the Everyday examine the social and economic causes and possible solutions of the ecological crisis from various aspects. Why have you turned to this topic?
Leading geologists at the 2016 International Geological Congress proposed the introduction of the geological epoch they named the anthropocene, which expands the discipline with the idea that, in the current global system, human activity, industrial destruction, and pollution have become primary geological forces. Since it first appeared in the early–2000s, the concept has had a huge impact on cultural public discourse, but it seems that little attention was paid to the subject in Hungary. In 2017, we founded the xtro realm artist group to support the expansion of art, theory and knowledge on climate change and ecological. After massive social crises and transformations in worldviews such as Galileo’s discoveries, the Plague, World War II, or the establishment of the socialist dictatorship, it is no longer possible to conduct art in the same manner, practices and focal points change. However, the climate crisis insidiously brings about constant transformation, which does not prompt an acute response, it does not lead to a critical point, from which everyone agrees that we should go no further. The crisis is here, coronavirus is just a symptom. The question is whether it is possible to respond to the growing challenges through the means of art, and whether the concept of art can be extended to progressive practices that do not fit the capitalist expectations of contemporary art production trends.
How does the current situation interpret/ situate (maybe annihilate?) your artwork that was selected for the exhibition?
The River Knows Better (Ophelia Lives) is a poem meditation, a guided piece of sound poetry for inner, bodily sounds. Meditation is the mental space where the pouring of air, the hurtle of blood flow, and the never-ending trains of thought can create a calm liveliness. It is still believed that meditation is a kind of abstract, esoteric and meaningless activity, a culturally alien expropriation of a Far Eastern practice. However, it has been scientifically proven to have an effect on the nervous system that can be measured by monitoring changes in brain waves. The main line of the poem’s chorus, “Slowing down to the rhythm of the river,” means a return to one’s own rhythm. Your pulse changes quickly, adapting to even the most unpredictable life situations, or it can just pick up the rhythm of a techno concert that has been going on for hours. If, on the other hand, we (get to) know our own rhythm, we can calm our thoughts simply by focusing our attention on our essential life functions. It is an excellent tool for stress management and, in the long run, it can fundamentally change our human relationships and thus society. In a few economically vulnerable neighbourhoods in the United States, an experiment was conducted to offering the chance for students with behavioural difficulties to meditate as opposed to punishing or detaining them. These children very soon underwent a spectacular transformation, their anxiety diminished, and they became interested and cooperative with others. Meditation should not be exploited for the sake of productivity. Its potential is, however, transformative at the societal level.