In my daily process of connection with reality, I try to remain fiercely anchored to phenomenological observation : a phenomenon is what is happening and can be observed. I try to pay attention, witnessing figures emerging from the background, gestalts that are searching for their manifestation. In this pandemic, as in all pandemics, the overwhelming figure emerging is the fear of contagion.
Contagion is a Latin word that has the same meaning of contact, cum-tangere: to touch together.
We are in the terrible time in which the contact with another body is potentially the contact with a disease, which is potentially the contact with the ultimate source of fear, Death. It is not surprising that the individual, collective, social and political responses have been dominated by fear. The absence both of a vaccine and an infallible therapy has brought us to an archetypal state of fragility and distress, that challenges the very essence of our social rules of engagement.
Live arts, based on the human need and desire of gathering in assembly in touch with each other, have come to a complete still point. Not even in War-time this has happened. We are in an unprecedented moment for our field of practice: powerful and highly distressing.
The last time a pandemic has been so global and has brought such a scale of disruption was the Spanish Flue of 1918-1921. It’s a century ago. There are extremely few living humans who have experienced that period first hand. None of us has any direct experience of this very peculiar and distinct set of individual and collective feelings. Which, on the other hand, have been often present in the field of existence of our ancestors. I remember vividly my grandmother telling me and my brother stories about that epic flue, while we were in bed with a banal fever.
This fear of contagion imposes a physical distancing between people. I find it very interesting, and rather disturbing, that this process has been named social distancing, which has a very different semantic content. It creates a far more dramatic atmosphere of loss of societal connections and needs. It is also politically very charged. If we cannot touch each other physically, we do not need to be socially distant. This term evokes separation, class systems, status, isolation, and fundamentally fear. Physical distance evokes the protection of each other and reminds us of the physical nature of our bonding. The fact that this social distancing is imposed by law and that, in some countries like Italy, it has been enforced by the Police and even by the Army, has massive political and emotional implications.
I am very critical to the choice of this term. In my communication I have chosen to replace it with physical distancing. The Italian philosopher Umberto Garimberti, suggests the term of viral distancing.
Theatre, as well as any forms of public performance that involves an audience gathering in shared physical proximity, are now not allowed. They are currently illegal, unlawful. The legal regulations are forbidding them and the fear of contagion has become a powerful reason to stay away from any assembly.
Already it was not easy to attract audience to our shows and workshops, but now a completely new level of problems will be looming in our post lock-down scenario. It will provide a great field of creativity for the exploration of locations and performing spaces that will allow the audience to feel safe enough to want to gather to be “entertained”. Intra-tenere: to hold the space in between.
So far, we are experiencing something that has been already experienced by our ancestors in the past, throughout epidemics and pestilences of all kinds. Unlike any of the previous pandemics of humankind, we have the completely new option of remote interaction through technology.
We are in unprecedented and uncharted territories.