Nordic-Baltic networks in a new era

Three otters swimming in water with seaweed.

Wrapped in kelp and resting on their backs in the water, the charming sea otters are hard to resist as they look into the camera with their teddy-bear faces and crooked smiles. It was a similar image that adorned the cover of a talk with thinker Astrida Neimanis, which took place in October this year. The talk was part of a two-day online network conference organised by Nordic Culture Point in collaboration with the art institution Art Hub and with Media Evolution, which creates digital solutions.

Titled “What is the new normal for Nordic-Baltic networks?”, the aim of the conference was to suggest solutions to the challenges posed by the global pandemic for cultural network partners across the Nordic Region and Baltic countries. All supported by Nordic Culture Point for a collaborative project.

Neimanis’s contribution – a public talk, open to all – was a part of this, opening the conference with her thoughts on solidarity, care, and communities. In this context, the sea otters and their relationship with kelp are interesting: The kelp tethers the otters, so they don’t float away while preening their fur and eating sea urchins. Sea urchins eat kelp. If there are too many of them, the kelp forests will disappear. The kelp forests are essential for purifying our atmosphere and oceans. Thus, the symbiotic relationship between the otter and the kelp becomes a symbol of how one organic body can support another, and vice versa, in a community of solidarity that ensures survival not just for both of them, but for all of us.

This is relevant to the question of how we can create similar sustainable supporting structures in the culture sectors of the Nordic Region and Baltic countries. Not only does this relate to working communities across these countries, but it also serves to bring attention to structural and organisational changes that secure diversity and healthy working methods.

For instance, can we imagine a cultural sphere that creates more space for reflection and rethinks existing deadlines and structures?

Although many of the conference participants stated that they don’t want the current situation to be “the new normal”, the crisis most of all seems to leave us with questions about how we ensure that the necessary changes highlighted by the pandemic, are implemented in the future.

The silence that paralysed the world roared about our need to stop and reflect on how our society is structured. The trace of humankind in the world became more conspicuous by its absence: Smog disappeared, and the skylines emerged. The sense of separation became clear as the need for presence made itself felt.

The closest we get to being entangled in the kelp, is through the undersea fibre cables below it, that connect us across land borders. Digital solutions, along with all their potential and challenges, have become the panic solution to the pandemic. But how does this affect a genre such as dance?  And can we expect everyone to adapt to new systems?  Furthermore, there are ethical considerations about who owns the systems that are used. After all, not everyone wants to support enterprises like Facebook. Rather than bringing traditional formats to the screen, we may need to consider how we can create new formats that rethink the digital.

Venturing away from the city and out into a more voluminous nature had a healing effect for many in the Nordic Region at the start of the crisis. We may ask how art can do the same in a time of crisis. Artist Stephanie Whitelaw’s “Synchronise” project encourage participants to go for walks in nature to awaken their senses and have them reflect before coming together online for a session of group reflection. This is an interesting contribution along these lines. The project is part of Virtual Care Lab in Los Angeles, which creates sustainable and caring online communities that digitally rethink human proximity in its physical absence.

If we look at the culture sector as an ecosystem of which we are all a part, it may be easier to understand what needs to be done. Humankind almost brought sea otters, and thereby itself, to the brink of extinction, first by hunting, and later by forcing orcas to turn on sea otters by depriving the orcas of their food. Although it’s already possible to talk about many things relating to the pandemic in past tense, the world will never be the same again. The question is whether we are interested in protecting the kelp and the otters, or whether we just want to continue forcing the orcas further ahead.

Mette Woller
is a curator and art consultant based in Copenhagen

This text has been made possible thanks in part to the inspiration from Astrida Neimanis’s thinking and the reflections of the participating networks in a workshop organised by Mette Woller. See also Harmony Holiday’s text “An Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Kelp and Exile”.