Culture as a Winner: Digitisation Through Environment Reconfiguration

When a word reaches the dictionary from a non-native language, it is normal that it takes on a different meaning from the original. Covid introduced the word “streaming” in all languages, which for non-English speakers means only a stable and continuous data flow that allows the transfer of media forms from the centre to the network periphery: from the producer to the user. Reading and listening to people working in the tourism and culture sector gave me the sneaking suspicion that it has taken on the meaning of “a fallback”.

The theatres are closed because of the pandemic, and the only way to produce and enjoy a show, a concert, is to sit in front of our computer, at home, hoping that the vaccine will be available soon so you can quit this horrible practice.

Last week I attended a round table on a topic concerning Italian cultural policy at the end of the 1970s, one of those events which, in a large city, are usually hosted in bookshops or cultural centres. For the well-known reasons I described, the event was streamed. Not a nice feeling to tell the truth, very unusual. The audience was visible through faceless and ageless coloured dots, their level of attention could not be perceived, measured to modify in real-time their persuasion path. Not even the other delegates were visible except, sometimes, the chairman. The worst impression was to be alone in front of a mirror, the very negation of the idea of dialogue. On the next day and with this in my mind, I was thinking back on the debate, when a phone call from a friend in Paris, who had also attended the round table, pushed the streaming into a small advantage that the bookshop or any association could not achieve. If there had not been Covid and that ‘fallback’, my friend would certainly not have come from Paris to Rome to attend the debate. Maybe streaming is not all bad.

The Magic of ‘Live’

I referred to theatre and concerts as an example because nothing can ever replace the magic of a stage presence or live sound and performance. The movements of the actors and of the entire theatrical machine in front of the spectator’s eye make it possible to follow, scrutinise, analyse, focus on or just listen to the magnificent and monumental setting that Italian theatres offer; it is an irreplaceable experience. The performance of a piece of music in a church for whose worship it was imagined and composed, a concert in a museum where the relics of the history of civilisation give body to the invisible power emanating from the vibrating air, are essential components of a complex system of stimuli which, in the brain, open doors that have been closed for a long time, extract past experiences, convert them, organise them and package them ready to be sent as knowledge made in that place and only on that occasion. This is why it is called ‘live’, it is life formed around the power of art and narration.

This is why it is called ‘live’, it is life formed around the power of art and narration.

Streaming, i.e. a performance in another environment and for another purpose, has other features: the vision constrained by the camera’s view, the dollies underlining, describing and amplifying the stage actions as the director conceived them, are other, other emotions, other experiences. Other, not minor, poor, useless; simply other, something that could not exist live. Of course, in order for it not to be “a fallback”, it is essential to admit that the other than oneself can exist, and this is not at all little, but it is already a beginning.

The Digital World and the Re-elaboration of Audiovisual Forms

The vision through the forms of the digital enables new media and new dedicated artists to reconstruct a set around the ideas that have imagined the performance: sketches, costumes, visual or pictorial references that have inspired the writer, the composer or the performer can appear on stage only through a re-elaboration of the forms of the audiovisual familiar to the digital, but which would be impossible in a theatre or concert. Each artefact bears the imprint of past and present time, bears the imprint of the meta-history that extends the bridge to board the enchanted vessel that races through the performance, removing the veil and making tangible what at first was only pure intuition. The digital world favours the titanic clash between the immaterial that has always surrounded the writing of a work and this new flow, able to form images, animate them, and fish out, from the immense sea of the world’s archives, the relationships between memory and the origin of our civilisation. But we need to be prepared and attentive to this.

Believe me, exegetes of the fallback, I cannot understand who considers the two as alternatives, they are just two media with completely different expressive characteristics both useful to culture, to the creative world, to the cultural industry and, in my opinion, to business.

William Shakespeare described very well the staging of the stories he conceived for his theatre, we can admire them all the time, all over the world and in all languages, philologically or through productions that articulate the forms of theatrical language in an experimental way, no one has ever prevented artists committed to his texts from making beautiful films that have extended the audience of his lovers and planted the flag of classicism and universality. No one has cried out scandal when the best musicians in the world have recorded their music, leaving an imprint forever and offering the possibility of listening and comparison to a worldwide audience, even if not ‘live’.

I believe the world of culture is at a crossroads: to take advantage of the new living environment we call ‘digital’ to build a grammar of new media that complements and enhances our existence, or to run away, not realise it, and let others do it. Culture, social cohesion and identity on the one hand, and the creative industry and tourism as beneficiaries on the other, have limitless potential for development provided that we invest in the search for a language that is the articulation of specific forms of the new medium. The business world must also understand that in order to be profitable it is necessary today to contribute to being in the leading group of those who have written the paradigms of digital communication in the cultural environment. Institutions must understand this, archives must understand this. Digitising does not mean making scanners, but reconfiguring an environment in which culture is the winner.

Live performance has the magic of the place, but a film also has the magic of the cinema, places where the space and the unknown audience around play an equivalent role to the scene, just as television had the living room as the theatre for family and friends. The digital world has the magic of an environment in which imagination involves the history of a work, memory and ideas can become the scene, have a specific weight in the story and be able to have off-stage elements around it that root each work in history and meta-history. It is a question of knowing how to align one’s audience with the writer and performer, thus revealing the work in its creative essence. If the performance or concert is a done thing, its digital representation must be its doing.

The digital world has the magic of an environment in which imagination involves the history of a work, memory and ideas can become the scene.

When Streaming becomes a Fallback

This is where my real concern originates: streaming becomes a fallback if the grammar of the new media has not been sufficiently studied, or if what is happening around us does not have a place in our attention. Today, the digital environment is missing cultural references and can therefore be prey to pirates. Europe could play a central role in the production of cultural content, by tradition, by capacity, by an ancient civilisation, and fill the gap that exists in not having any European player in the global media market. Covid is just a convenient hideaway: should I stream? A camera is placed in front of the stage, maybe three, and the play is filmed as it is, the concert as it is, without even realising that the lights, built for a human eye in the stalls, will not work to photograph the scene. Actors in the shadows, compressed sound, stage movements concealed by the need for close-ups, set designs invisible to the point of not understanding where the performers are acting, in which context. Sometimes this is what arrives in the spectators’ homes: just a modest amateur photograph that becomes the fault of Covid and not of the mediocrity of the cultural structures with respect to the digital revolution. Little more than a video call. The re-presentation of a story in a digital environment almost always requires a new direction, new lights, new edition. New ideas and new producers.

It often happens that the sloppiness of the form of digital productions is camouflaged by the lack of financial means. Not that culture is rolling in money, but the spaces opened up by the cultural industry in the digital sector cannot just be filled using what comes out of a camera placed in front of a stage as if it were the eye of a single man with evident ophthalmic defects due to lights built for another purpose. In addition, how can you expect the economic sustainability of a digital enterprise if the quality is not pushed to the maximum of the medium’s possibilities? I will never tire of writing that in the world of culture, it is supply that produces demand and not the other way around. In this way, the winner will be the typical social idea whereby any detail, be it light, sound or thought does not matter, can be abolished in function of easy is better, “flat is beautiful”. The earth has also become flat for the same reason for many online followers.

When a digital production renounces specific means and forms, it leaves navigation at the mercy of the waves generated only by those who want to profit from the wreckage of users. The waves will always be higher and more threatening, and the castaways less and less welcome and cared for. Even culture in the digital network has its migrants. I am beginning to believe that it was not Covid that killed theatre and concerts, but a slow and inexorable desire to discriminate against culture. Before Covid, theatre and music had sworn and fierce enemies. They were places of subversion where people still insisted on nurturing abstract thought: autonomy of critical judgement, and polyphony, the ability to coexist and exalt each other in diversity. Then came Covid, for some a godsend. The crisis of Western culture is the consequence of the same wicked economy whose lust for profit has come to build the basis for nature to turn its claws against mankind, to believe that it is the fault of the Covid and not man is, in my opinion, pure illusion or a good excuse.

The crisis of Western culture is the consequence of the same wicked economy whose lust for profit has come to build the basis for nature to turn its claws against mankind.

Paving the Way Forward

Culture has an obligation to sharpen its weapons for the future by building a basin in which realism, imagination and fantasy can coexist in order to nurture the flexibility and rigour both of which are necessary for mankind to coexist, focusing on the critical spirit and abstract thought. What better than art, narrative, music and diegesis to make an idea concrete and viable.

So what to do? Build what has been demolished, start designing digital tools with their own internal history, a specific grammar, forms and articulations of the forms built for the medium to be used. It is important to design the scene; not to take a theatrical scenography as if it were a set, but to reconfigure those same elements in relation to the meta-history of that story, of that place, of that piece. At the same time, it is necessary to implement and give space to the professions that are able to construct this building. Places of culture, archives and artists have the responsibility to understand that it is a question of managing the coexistence of two worlds that are both present and alert; only in this way will they be able to claim an industrial role and positioning.  We need to train companies and associations of digital designers, directors, scriptwriters and set designers who understand the medium and its potential, and producers who know how to invest in a market without geographical boundaries. The places and institutions of culture will discover the practical convenience, as well as the moral obligation, of participating and making available attractive content to the world. Cultural tourism will have its own gymnasium to build reality on the basis of fantasy, a true scent resulting from imagination, the taste of an encounter with another whose roots are recognised. There is no shortage of portals through which to enjoy the media, less so if there is a lack of specific content suitable for building new cognitive experiences in a digital environment.

When radio, cinema and television came into their own, no one considered them to be a fallback, but a new feature for constructing. They have played an enormous cultural role in the creation of states and consciences, and have become enterprises that today hold an important position in the industrial landscape. The relationship between the world of culture and the digital world must be completely revised and filled with a high level of professionalism, skills and knowledge. No, it is not a fallback, it is a world that opens up without us if we do not know how to seize the opportunities with skills, study, research, strategies and economic sustainability.

PS: For native English speakers, ‘streaming’ is etymologically a stream of water flowing in a river. It flows, as Heraclitus and Plato, who were really into streaming, would have said, in ever-changing waters that are the image of the capacity of things to change and of man’s inability to grasp the truth in its entirety. Immersing oneself in this streaming means losing one’s memory and acquiring a new life. It is to immerse oneself in the streaming of a river, which for many religions represents annihilation in order to reborn. It is the streaming that in the ancient Greek world elaborates for man the eternal balance between Mnemosyne: memory and Lethe: oblivion. If for us it is just a flow of data, that’s fine too, but let’s put in some of the depth of the ancients’ thinking and the culture that is at the origin of our civilisation. Then let’s call it streaming if you want.

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