The great empty – How social distancing is changing cities and culture?

Culture is produced, reproduced and consumed in cities. Thanks to the development of dense and diversified (economic and social) networks of relations, cities have always been places where the production of culture concentrates and circulates; the urban experience has always been crucial for the development of art, philosophy, science and technology. In cities, museums, academies, universities, theaters, and public and private spaces allow to experiment, share, organize and define culture, but cultural centers represent also hubs of social life which bring people together, exposing them to beauty, art, entertainment and knowledge. The value of culture, which for some decades has been counted among the areas that favor the economic growth of cities, goes far beyond the economic one: shortly, it can be easily claimed that culture offers a way of interpreting reality. The richest cities in art and culture are also those offering their citizens different spaces where to enjoy, share, experience culture.

But the city, it was said, is also the place of cultural production: the city responds to the need for proximity and face-to-face interaction of cultural professionals who in this way can feed their creativity, exchange information and tacit knowledge; such things cannot be acquired from books or from a computer. In a virtuous circle, this strengthens the formation of cultural communities, that is networks of face-to-face relationships that nourish cultural production, creativity and innovation. In an increasingly connected world made possible by communication and mobility technologies, co-presence relationships allow for the expansion and hybridization of social networks.

In the efforts of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, a physical distancing regime was imposed and is still partially in place. This measure has a great impact on the cultural world. It effectively impedes most, if not all, the opportunities for interaction and cultural enjoyment offered by cities: it prevents physical interactions and reduces sociality to the bone, limiting all our social interactions with people who are part of our closest social circles. Furthermore, the consumption of culture has also been limited, hindering live shows, museum visits, hanging around in libraries and so on. Under these conditions, all or almost all our sociality and our cultural consumption is expressed through digital technology, which reinforces the homologation character at the expense of diversity, and which offers an almost individualized cultural experience. The impacts of this phenomenon should be investigated. On the supply side, the digital cultural consumption benefits large cultural distributors, who have powerful channels, that are able to reach a great number of people and can exploit variegated and composite archives. With concern to cultural production, besides the inability to implement cultural products that require co-presence, the restriction of relationships to the digital sphere represents a major obstacle to the need for interaction that creatives express. Independent producers, creative freelancers suffer from a double disadvantage: they lose nourishment to their creativity, the possibility of exchanging information, the hybridization of knowledge and also lose large market shares, because it is more difficult for them to enter the digital distribution circuit.

The immediate outcome is, once again, the increasing gap between independent producers of culture and established producers / distributors. The former are unable to cope with the impact of the economic crisis, have difficulty in resisting the competitive market and in repositioning themselves on the digital segment of the market. On the contrary, established producers have more margins of maneuver as they are already adapted to digital; despite the crisis, this allows them to survive. At a systemic level, the outcome is perhaps even more serious: without a plural cultural production, society loses its ability to express a multifaceted, rich, open and democratic perspective on the world that characterizes culturally fertile societies.

In the short run it is necessary to support economically the producers of culture, who represent the humus on which all cultural production grows, and consequently the ability of a society to express an open and democratic vision. It is also necessary to imagine plans to encourage and support the digital consumption of independent culture, which is not necessarily conveyed by the main platforms. In addition, it is necessary to develop programmes capable of hybridizing sociality: working on building communities, encouraging the birth of communities based on the values ​​of openness, diversity, collaboration; developing trust between different groups and people, in order to discourage the social homophily typical of digital mediated relationships.

Many independent cultural producers have organized themselves, changing their work, inventing creative solutions and proposing their works to their audiences in an innovative way. Many cultural associations have started projects to address these problems, giving answers that often also welcome democratic requests. Now, it’s the time for politics. We have no quick solution to offer, but we hope that politics pays attention to society’s needs. It is important that today, more than ever, that politics is ready to learn from virtuous communities, supports them and provides the tools to broaden the democratic base of the society.


Written by Dr Marianna d’Ovidio (University of Milano-Bicocca), Dr Lidia Greco and Dr Paolo Inno (both from the University of Bari Aldo Moro)

Photo: Milan (Italy), 2020 © Chiara Labadini

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