What Art and Design can do to (re)build communities-in-place
Weaving People and Places is a public seminar to be held on 1 July 2016, at Central Saint Martins, in which the main results of the UAL Culture of Resilience Project (CoR) will be presented and discussed with a selected group of invited interlocutors. In order to prepare for it, this working document has been prepared to be discussed at an internal seminar to be held on 10 May, also at Central Saint Martins.
A Society of Displaced Individuals
Contemporary societies are fragile. This observation becomes particularly clear when a catastrophic event happens. However, its tragic truth can also be recognized in everyday life events such as the increased migrant flow in Europe today. In cases like this too, a lack of societal resilience appears in breakdowns at every level: from the micro-scale of human encounters, to the macro-level of society as a whole.
What makes contemporary societies so fragile? There are several causes. One of them is the weakness, if not total absence, of communities-in-place: networks of people who are capable of recovering from unforeseen setbacks, can adapt to change, and learn from experience, or in other words, networks of people capable of behaving as resilient systems. Given that, the question could be: why does it happen? Why are communities-in-place disappearing in contemporary societies?
To cut a long story short, we can say that it happens because traditional communities (the tradition-based communities on which societies of the past were built) have progressively disappeared and the twentieth century intentional communities (the communities driven by strong ideologies and sense of belonging) are becoming weaker and weaker. In their place, loose, flexible, temporary social networks are spreading. The most evident effect of this transformation is that, while digital connections in virtual space are increasing exponentially, personal encounters in physical spaces are dramatically decreasing in both number and quality. The result is a society of displaced individuals: a fragile society with fewer and fewer communities-in-place.
Counter-Trend: Rediscovery of Collaboration
Looking more carefully into the complex and contradictory existence of contemporary societies we can see that, against the mainstream trend towards social desertification, something new is happening and is taking the shape of a growing counter-trend: groups of people are creating unprecedented social forms, based on the re-discovery of collaboration and of the quality of places. At the same time, more and more social networks are moving from the digital sphere to a hybrid physical-digital environment, re-discovering the value of proximity, localization and direct human encounters. These social innovation cases are very diverse, but they share an important common characteristic: they have no nostalgia for the old tradition-based communities of the past and are also a far cry from the intentional communities of the twentieth century. In other words, they take unprecedented social forms.
It follows that, although we still refer to them as communities, if we look at them more carefully we have to recognize that we really don’t know exactly what this term means in this context: what is a community? What is its relationship with a place? And, most importantly, what could be done to make the environment of these new communities, (that is their economic, institutional, technical and cultural ecosystems), more favorable so that they can thrive and spread?
The fact is that, as for everything that is radically new, practice is ahead of the conceptual model we use to (try to) read it. Therefore, we must now make a consistent effort to fill the gap and build a body of knowledge that is capable of understanding the nature, the potentiality, and the possible evolution over time, of these new communities. (See Annex 1. Communities, in a highly connected world)
Art and Design
There are different ways to study these emerging, brand-new communities-in-place. Different approaches and tools can be used from different backgrounds. Here, our approach will be from art and design and from the positive loop between action and reflection (that is, between iterating projects and learning from them) that characterizes its way of thinking and doing.
Our starting assumption is that, willing or not, art and design plays an important role in shaping the social context in which it operates. Thus, whether for good or for bad, art and design initiatives always have social effects. Given that, we can observe that some of these initiatives have a peculiar positive capacity to connect people and places and, in so doing, to create new forms of communities-in-place.
Of course, the way this may happen can be quite different in different projects and in different contexts. Nevertheless, it can be recognized that, for many of them, the focus is on the micro-scale of human encounters: those personal interactions that are the building blocks of any possible society. Sometimes this community-building role is explicitly researched. Sometimes it is the precious side effect of projects aiming at different results. In any case, this art and design role in weaving people and places together seems to be increasing, becoming a meaningful part of the wider, on-going wave of social innovation.
Moving from here a new set of questions appear: what kinds of human encounters are created by art and design projects? How can we describe the social forms that they contribute to build? What are their relationships with the contexts where they take place? Can some patterns be recognized between the different kinds of art and design actions and the resulting human encounters and social forms?
The internal seminar of 10 May and the public seminar of 1 July, aim at discussing these questions.
The first event takes the projects on which CoR participants are working to identify and discusses relevant community-related themes emerging from them.
In the second event, these same themes will enable the outlining of a conceptual frame to describe contemporary communities-in-place and will provide guidance on how art and design can contribute to their existence and potential to last and to spread.