*First published in April 2020. For the first months of 2021 we are revisiting stories from lockdown 1 which raised hopes and spirits or delivered inspiration.*
The pervasive nature of Covid-19 and the necessary measures put in place to protect citizens have had a huge impact on all areas of society across the globe. In our Isolation Dispatches series we hear from creatives in various international cities’ creative scenes to hear how the circumstances have affected their livelihoods, creative outputs and community.
Léna Szirmay-Kalos is the artistic director of an interdisciplinary event series called MONTAG MODUS and the co-founder of the MMPRAXIS curatorial platform. Originally from Hungary, now based in Berlin, her projects organise events and exhibitions which combine performing and visual arts.
Léna’s work focuses on choreography, time-based media, and performance art. In her curatorial practice she investigates different methodologies of how to exhibit live art. Montag Modus hosts what can be described as ‘group exhibitions of live art’. “Each event works in the moment, in cooperation with the audience,” Léna tells us, “and can assume entirely new forms. Given that live art uses the material of others’ bodies, its primary substance is relations, and with that, the consciousness of such relationality.” From her family’s home in rural Hungary, where she has temporarily relocated, Léna fills us in with the status of the creative scene in Berlin.
Firstly, what’s the situation in your city – is Berlin/Budapest on full lockdown or a bit more relaxed?
Berlin is under coronavirus lockdown. The restrictions have been extended until [at least] after the Easter holidays, which end on 19th April. Museum, theatres, shops, and restaurants are closed. Parks and larger city squares remain open with people allowed to exercise and go for a walk as long as they maintain a distance of 1.5 metres from others. I’ve decided to come back to Hungary and spend this time with my family. They live outside of Budapest.
What is Modus Montag doing to keep active in these times and how has it affected your operation?
The current situation has affected the operation of Montag Modus at its core. The act of performing and observing, as well as the relationships between bodies in space, amplifies the tension hidden in the interaction between active and passive presence. This phenomenon is an essential element of Montag Modus. It’s challenging to translate this shared presence to a digital experience. It changes the medium entirely. As mentioned before, Montag Modus works with presence-based artforms. Many of the works are not compatible with live streaming. So for now, we have decided to postpone our events until September.
We have a collaborative approach when we create the programme. For instance, months before the events, we organise points of encounters, such as dinners or talks, where the artists get to know each other, learn about each other’s research, and the context in which their work will be presented. Leading up to each event, we offer artists a one-week, on-site mini-residency. Covid-19 will likely affect the methodology of how we facilitate these events in the future. At this moment in time, however, it’s difficult to say to what extent.
Currently, our focus is on post-production and preparation tasks. We are working on a new website that enables visitors to deepen their engagement with the artworks and events. Besides this, we’re finishing the publication of last year’s project and have just made a short summary interview about it.
How have other cultural organisations in Berlin reacted to the measures?
Many cultural organisations use this time to work on their archives and improve their digital communication. Some museums and galleries make 3D tours of their current and past exhibitions, whereas many theatres stream their performances. Some of the clubs in Berlin started an initiative to invite DJs to play live at their venue and live stream the show to the audience.
The city of Berlin launched a streaming platform called Berlin (a)live that offers a platform for discussions, performances, DJ battles, operas, concerts and vernissages on the internet. It also offers the opportunity to support artists and projects through donations.
Can you give a few examples of what other Berlin-based artists are doing to keep themselves busy and to promote themselves in these times?
As far as I know, everyone is busy. Some with rescheduling their programme, others with home-schooling. There are also artists who are in the position to be able to work on their artistic practice. I see that many artists offer online concerts, readings etc. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time yet to take a look at any of these projects. Berlin artists are in an incredibly privileged position in terms of finances. The Berlin government built a grant program – in which it offers €5,000 to individuals and up to €15,000 to small businesses – to save small businesses and freelancers, including artists from financial free-fall. This enables many to continue with their work.
How are you yourself getting through it – personally and professionally?
I’m doing all right, taking into account the situation, of course. I feel very privileged to be able to spend this time with family in the countryside. In terms of my professional future, like many others, I will have to wait and see how things unfold.
How do you think this will affect the cultural scene in your city once things return to normality?
This is difficult to say. I want to stay positive and believe that a situation like this can change the cultural scene for the better. The way the art world has functioned before wasn’t sustainable at all. I’m sure that there are going to be cutbacks, hopefully also in the extensive travels that centre around biennales and festivals. Despite these potential silver linings, the economic backlash worries me a lot.
Do you have any advice for isolated creatives at the moment?
I think it’s important to remember that we can’t be expected to function at full capacity right now. Due to COVID 19 we all face different challenges, both physically and mentally.
My advice is to be kind and compassionate with others, but also with ourselves.
Read other Isolation Dispatches stories from across the globe here.