Beatrice Leanza

Rapid Response.

Why cultural institutions should facilitate systemic change while keeping the focus on the distant horizon.

— 01 Apr, 2020 —
Beatrice Leanza, credits Paulo Alexandre Coelho
Beatrice Leanza, credits Paulo Alexandre Coelho

Beatrice Leanza is an Italian critic and curator with a strong background in contemporary art; before moving to Portugal, she lived in China for almost twenty years: she worked with Ai Weiwei at his CAAW (China Art Archives and Warehouse) space, founded the studio-workshop BAO Atelier in 2006, and was creative director of the Beijing Design Week from 2013 to 2016 – following in the footsteps of Aric Chen. In 2018 she co-founded B/Side Design, an international organization that has led to the creation of the first independent research and design institute in China, The Global School, dedicated to design thinking. She is currently a member of the Design Trust Council Hong Kong and the executive director of Lisbon’s MAAT, Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia since the fall of 2019. / in conversation with Sara Fortunati, director of Turin's Circolo del Design, ed Elisabetta Donati de Conti, author and curator.

Sara: MAAT was supposed to launch a new program of activities in these days. How is it going?

Beatrice: We were scheduled to open on 27 March, and are in a particularly unfortunate position: unlike other museums, who had to close but are able to convey their content in a different way, ours is a brand new project, and we were expecting a large number of guests. This makes even communication more complicated. However, we have launched the new website and are offering some new initiatives we had already in store – except we have to work with digital solutions instead of a context of physical presence. We are also starting to gradually reveal the details of the program that we had been working on since I started six months ago, but without saying too much because there are aspects tied to what is being built inside the museum, which will have to be experienced in person.

Sara: I’m afraid it won’t be easy to understand how the situation is evolving – in terms of facts as well as perceptions, which change at incredible speed.

Beatrice: In the past few weeks, there has been a deep debate about how private and public institutions have presented their digital programs. Although I believe all institutions share some kind of responsibility to keep culture alive in everybody’s daily life, I am a bit skeptical about the rush to put everything online. Technologies have their limits, and nothing can replace the physical experience: since institutions are physical bodies, the shift to the online dimension is just a placebo. Today we live in a state of universal precariousness, but cultural institutions – museums and cultural centers alike – must guide us through the present, and not be mere means of communication. 

Elisabetta: Do you think the relationships between citizens, public spaces and the places that shape a community’s identity are in danger?

Beatrice: I would not use the term “danger”, because we have questioned these relationships for many years, raising doubts on the chances of survival of (already eroded) public forums, regardless of the type of space we are talking about. At any rate, this was one of the issues we tackled with the new program at MAAT: before the pandemic, there was a lively debate about whether museums’ raison d’être should be redefined or not. It started with the crisis of many institutions, first in the United States and later in Europe, and especially in the UK. However, while one year ago the debate was very animated, it has slipped away from institutions’ priorities today – leaving professionals in the field with all the same questions. Therefore, I don’t think the current situation is posing new problems as much as aggravating old ones and making them more prominent.

Sara: Do you see an opportunity in all of this?

Beatrice: Of course. And we should not consider it a volatile opportunity, because this is the time to face the issue collectively and for the long term. This is why I think institutions and all spaces dedicated to culture should strive, especially now, to keep their focus on the distant horizon and not on the here and now. The flexibility many are proving in the current circumstances should remain after the crisis too, so we might open up to the broader issues in the contemporary definition of civic spaces. 

I recently read an economic polity book that made me think about these universal themes – Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events, by economist Robert Shiller. The author, a Nobel laureate, gives a blood-chilling explanation of how the financial depressions we’ve faced in the past two centuries drag on – scientifically speaking – like epidemics, with their same biorhythm. His book describes the universal storytelling we continue to return to in the face of financial crises, and the ways we respond as a social body. I believe the issues we debated at length, in the past few years, because of the crisis institutions have been going through are connected to this idea, if not perhaps to a new storytelling that we fabricated ourselves, as the people of the 21st century: the story of one vs. most, of personal interest vs. collective wellbeing, of division vs. unity. Recent events prove it: climate strikes, the #metoo movement etc. This is a very broad interpretation of the phenomenon, but I think it is an interesting debate for cultural institutions because they are the ones who have to tackle the present.

Elisabetta: If, as you say, problems that had already been pinpointed have been aggravated and exacerbated by this triggering event, do you think there might be an opportunity now to have more solid foundations to build a new vision, and to be better understood by a wider public, who has directly experienced a certain condition? Or do you think the situation will only generate confusion, at least at first?

Beatrice: I’m afraid the second option is more realistic, but as an optimist I want to believe and hope this event will lead us to a collective awakening. I don’t have a real answer to this question – but that’s because I think it’s something we should all ask ourselves, also because the pandemic is bringing to light the different ways in which we react to collective crises, culturally.

Sara: Do you think the current situation will lead to a new definition of designers’ role, after the emergency?

Beatrice: Maybe. But it depends on a systemic change upstream, which is a problem every field is tackling in some way. I think that in the design world, and in design in a broader sense, there is a whole production chain that should change. The many companies, all over the world, that converted their manufacturing processes to respond to the huge demand for medical equipment have proven that quick action in the face of market needs could be a launchpad to restart the economy. Just like rapid response prototyping has supported technological innovation over the past thirty years, we could imagine a sort of rapid response financing: a new-millennium world where the sharing economy and disruptive economy have taken over. There could be a systemic change where funds, and venture capitalists that usual invest millions in the next app or the next digital experience, could focus on small or medium-scale inventions and projects, fostering solutions to fight the crisis. I think today we have all the tools we need to really react, whether we live in small villages or large cities, and implement a systemic reconfiguration.

Elisabetta: What do you think about the events industry? Fairs, festivals, biennali and the rest of the cultural calendar keep alive not only the creative sector but also part of tourism, and hinge on presence to create an international community. After your experience with the Beijing Design Week, how big an impact do you think all of this will have?

Beatrice: These experiences were part of a great system of overproduction and overconsumption too, and I believe the flipside of the current situation is that for a while we will all live in a climate of austerity. The big issue I hope will emerge, not only for large events but also for institutions, is the new opportunity to design programs for the local context. Again, in the light of all the tools we have at our fingertips, I think we can rebuild these platforms without the huge consumption mechanisms coming with them, which obviously impact both the environment and society. This doesn’t mean events should stop completely, but that perhaps they can change and be more local, live off their local context, and rethink the way they connect to the rest of the world. I think this will be the only way to keep going, and that it is once again a matter of adapting and reconfiguring the tools we have in a way that is more sustainable and realistic.

Elisabetta: The audience is changing quickly, and the professionals working in the field might now find a larger audience for what they are communicating. Will understanding how to restart in a different way also be up to cultural institutions?

Beatrice: If we continue to see institutions like a place for “edutainment”, we are not really being honest about the cultural role they have. It’s a bottom-up, not a top-down approach that will save us, as always. So if we have to support and channel these bottom-up conversations somewhere, I think cultural institutions are the right place to do it. In defining their plans, functions and objectives, they will be asked to adapt: we are facing a collective awakening because, it’s true, we are all equally impacted by the situation. And if this can make the message more vocal and present, all the better.