Creating cultural experiences for a post-pandemic society

A new interdisciplinary project, hosted by the dhCenter, aims to develop digital tools and practices to help museums, music festivals, and theaters continue to operate – and even thrive – in an age of social distancing.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Switzerland this spring, cultural institutions across the country were forced to rethink their summer lineups, and decide what events could be postponed or held online. But due to logistical challenges, and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s impacts, most cultural events – from EPFL’s Balalec concert to the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival – had been cancelled altogether by the end of April.

As it became clear that COVID-19 would have a much longer-term impact on public life than this summer’s music scene, it also became clear that new social and technological solutions would be needed to help people engage with culture in the future, without risking their health or that of others.

Alexandre Camus, a lecturer in UNIL’s Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) and in EPFL’s College of Humanities (CDH), believes that both short-and long-term solutions must be developed as a collaboration between researchers, artists, and cultural institutions.

To facilitate such exchanges, Camus is organizing an Open Lab event on June 8th, 11th, 15th and 18th, which will also serve as the kick-off of the new UNIL-EPFL Cultural Innovations Program he is coordinating. This program aims to bring researchers and students from the social sciences and digital humanities, as well as computer science and engineering, together with actors from the worlds of art, performance, and cultural heritage.

Camus, who is also a project manager at EPFL’s Cultural Heritage and Innovation Center, explains that the program will focus not only on new technologies, but also on developing new uses for existing technologies.

“Use is really central when it comes to digital innovation. There are many improvements to be made to existing technologies that facilitate public engagement or digital presence.”

He adds that program participants will also explore economic models, as well as open modalities for using and sharing tools and platforms.

Reinventing the arts

For Véronique Mauron, who leads CDH’s art and culture program, meaningful experiences and public engagement with culture at a distance will require more than livestreams or YouTube videos. Indeed, she believes that social distancing is deeply questioning the nature of what it means to perform.

“Art is direct; it is an immediate relationship that people establish with each other and with objects. Art that does not have a place does not exist, and for the moment, the internet is a space and not yet a place,” Mauron says. “To create a connection between the virtual and the real is not only a question of inventing new digital tools, but also of reconfiguring the performing arts; by acting on the virtual as well as on the real to create new connections.”

As a recent article in The Guardian reported, novel approaches to bringing cultural experiences to people, rather than vice versa, could be a godsend for the elderly or those with disabilities. Mauron adds that it’s essential to reinforce the connections between the worlds of art and science to produce such practical solutions.

“More than ever before, artists and scientists can work together to rebuild a society that has been weakened on all sides,” she says.

Alexandre Camus also believes that the Cultural Innovations Program could have a positive impact that goes beyond adapting to the coronavirus pandemic. He says that the program’s long-term goals include working with EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Innovation (VPI) to incubate certain projects that come out of these discussions, and bringing them to maturity in collaboration with several partners, notably the UNIL-EPFL dhCenter, the University of Lausanne’s ColLaboratoire, EPFL’s ArtLab and Cultural Heritage and Innovation Center, and the swissuniversities Doctoral Program in Digital Studies. Camus adds that the Cultural Affairs Service of the Canton of Vaud has also expressed interest in the project.

“We will work together openly in the short-term to meet the challenges of this intense period of uncertainty, but ultimately, we want to do more than respond to the COVID-19 crisis: we want to think critically about how we can support the digital transition, and create a sustainable future for culture,” Camus says.