What do the measures against the coronavirus pandemic mean for the cultural sector in Rotterdam? How precarious is the current situation for freelancers? Why is it important to continue to investing in culture? And what can we do – as enthusiasts, listeners, viewers, visitors and fans who now have to stay home – to help?
On 20 March 2020, Het Nieuwe Instituut broadcast a virtual panel discussion in which freelance professionals Jelena Barišić, Hasna El Maroudi, Sheree Lenting and Tarona Leonora discussed culture and solidarity during the corona crisis. For this special online edition of Thursday Night Live!, the poet Derek Otte provided an appropriate intro and outro. Below is a transcript of the session.
The text is a translation of the Dutch discussion, with minor editorial interventions. The guests and moderator were: Hasna El Maroudi, moderator (referred to as H); Jelena Barišić (J); Sheree Lenting (S); and Tarona Leonora (T).
A topic that affects us all
Hasna El Maroudi (H): Welcome everyone – viewers, listeners and readers – to Thursday Night Live! Online. This is the first in a series of virtual panel discussions that will explore current conditions in Rotterdam’s cultural sector. My name is Hasna El Maroudi and I’m honoured to be the moderator of this discussion. Derek Otte opened this conversation just now with a beautiful poem about a topic that affects us all, and especially the guests I’ll be talking to. We’ll be discussing the impact of the coronavirus on society, work, income and the cultural sector in Rotterdam.
We’ll be talking about the closure of the big cultural institutions and the loss of income, but also the importance of arts and culture and valuing the sector, especially in times like these.
I won’t be going it alone: I’m joined by Jelena Barišić, journalist, copywriter and interim editor-in-chief at the Rotterdam online platform Vers Beton; Sheree Lenting, choreographer and teacher; and Tarona Leonora, visual artist and photographer.
Here we all are at home…
It’s a strange situation. Normally, I would say: great that you could all come! But today that doesn’t really apply because we are all stuck at home. I’m in my bedroom, because my daughter is running around downstairs. Where are you right now Jelena?
Jelena Barišić (J): I’m sitting at my dining table in the living room, in the only corner that’s fairly tidy. It’s a big mess here.
H: Sheree, where are you?
Sheree Lenting (S): Hi, same here. I’m also in my living room, sitting at the dining table.
H: And Tarona?
Tarona Leonora (T): I’m sitting in my home office. I’m lucky, I know.
H: Are you more used to working at home now?
T: Yes, very much so.
H: Do the rest of you agree? Is the place where you’re sitting somewhere you now work regularly?
J: Yes, this is actually where I usually work. I also have a home office, which has turned into more of a junk room over the past few months, but for some reason I never actually use it. Even though I do have a better desk in there. But here there’s more natural light and I just feel more at home, which makes me a bit more productive.
S: Well, I don’t have a home office.
H: Do you work at the dining table?
S: Sometimes I work at the dining table, sometimes I work on the couch or in the bedroom. I dance in the living room and when I have to do my administration, I’ll sit anywhere. I don’t have a fixed place where I work.
H: Staying with you and getting straight to the point, you’re a freelance choreographer. I can imagine that the coronavirus has had a big effect on your work – dance and choreography are things you do with other people. You’re a teacher too. As the schools are closed, what does that mean for you?
S: It’s very stressful.
It’s panic inducing. Everything is either cancelled or postponed. Some things can be moved to a later date, others can’t. What can I say? At first, I was in shock, but it’s starting to sink in now. We’re trying to find ways to deal with it creatively.
We have a lot of students who are at school and have to work from home, so teaching continues but in a different way. Yesterday was my first try out, and it took a long time. I had to make a student dance assignment, for which I had to film myself and the whole assignment. Edit the music and everything, add the text, do it a hundred times over. These are things that I normally don’t have to do. But I’m happy to do it; I want to keep them busy.
H: Who is it for?
S: Korzo in The Hague, where I work as a dance teacher. This assignment was for the students there. I do a lot more for Korzo, I’m also in the programming group, which is on hold now. Similarly, I work as a programme maker for Theater Rotterdam, which is also temporarily closed. We’re looking at ways of carrying on. I work for HipHopHuis too, which is also shut at the moment. I’m exploring whether I can teach my students online so they can keep busy at home. The same goes for [cultural education foundation -ed.] SKVR, they have closed down completely too. So, I don’t have anything left at the moment. I’m continuing to work on my own projects at home, but right now I have no income.
H: Tarona, does this sound familiar to you?
T: Yes, because my work also relies on contact with people. I photograph people and my field of expertise within that is project-based work where one-on-one contact is extremely important. Additionally, I usually work with a make-up artist and stylist, so we can’t continue our collaborative projects. The visual assignments that I wanted to exhibit this year will probably all be cancelled. For example, I was working on a major long-term project about Caribbean and South American carnivals in Europe. Well, Notting Hill might be cancelled, Zomercarnaval might be cancelled, all of them could fall through. Apart from that, I also started a new job at the Willem de Kooning Academy as an assessor and photography tutor for first-year students. We’re doing everything we possibly can to work, but we’ll have to see how things pan out. I’m lucky that with this job I have a short-term contract, so that means I do have some income right now. And at the last minute, I’ve been able to do some digital work, but for the rest I’ve got nothing.
H: Have you built up a financial safety net over previous few years to take care of yourself, at least over the next few months?
T: Well, I wish I could say, yes, I’ve got an amazing safety net. But because of the way I’ve lived my life over the past few years, I don’t. I wish that I’d saved more, but I kept thinking: I’ll start with my next assignment. And now I’m like, damn. It’s my own fault. I should have prepared myself better. So no, I don’t have a financial buffer right now.
H: In Derek’s poem that we heard at the beginning of the discussion, he also said,
I live from job to job.
And even though he has built up a cushion, how long can it last? I often wonder if you can build a proper financial buffer in the cultural sector that we’re all a part of. Is it even possible?
T: In my case, it was. Last year, I was lucky enough to get a major assignment. But you know, over the years, because of the way the system is built, I amassed an incredible amount of debt. I’ve had to pay it all off, so I’m debt-free right now, fortunately. In my case, this was supposed to be the year that I could finally start building that buffer. Financially, things were going really well: I had regular clients, good return clients who wanted to work with me regularly. Then this happens and it all falls apart.
H: What about the rest of you?
J: I’m fortunate to be able to work from home a lot, so the jobs I have right now allow me to continue doing that. Also, it has worked out well that I’m interim editor-in-chief at Vers Beton right now, so I have a job until June when the person I’m replacing is back from parental leave. I’m naturally a bit anxious, so from the moment I started freelancing, I’ve always tried to build and maintain a financial buffer. There have been times when I needed it. I don’t have family members who can support me when things go wrong. So I’ve always been careful about that, although sometimes it’s worked better than other times. By doing commercial jobs, I can ask for a higher hourly rate. Usually that’s copywriting, which isn’t very exciting work, but generally it does pay better than journalism.
H: So, you have to take commercial jobs to boost your financial position, and that allows you to do the work you actually want to do? I think that happens a lot in the cultural sector.
J: Yes, and in journalism too, of course. Most journalists who are freelancers do copywriting on the side to help make ends meet.
H: Jelena, as you said, you’re interim editor-in-chief for Vers Beton. What kind of impact does the coronavirus have on the work that you and the other journalists do at Vers Beton?
J: I think journalists are seeing some assignments fall through, but not as many as performing artists or photographers. We usually work remotely anyway. We do have an office but only a few people go there, so we are actually used to not physically working together. However, we’ve had to go back to the drawing board. We are not a news medium, so it’s not like we work from day to day and say, we’re going to publish this story today. We plan articles months in advance. And now we’re having to look at whether it’s relevant to publish them. Because we’ve found ourselves in this new reality, a lot of things aren’t relevant anymore, or they become outdated tomorrow. So right now, it mostly means going back to the drawing board and exploring ways in which we can prove that we add value for Rotterdam, especially during times of crisis.
H: Looking at what’s happening now in Rotterdam – and this is a question for all three of you – where are we right now, and where do you think we are going?
S: To be very honest, I think that things will get worse than they are now. I think there will be a total lockdown. We’ll probably have to do it, maybe in a matter of days. Above all I hope that we don’t end up in a similar situation as Italy, where shops only allow two people in at once. But I’m afraid we might be headed that way.
H: What does that mean for your work?
S: It will stop it completely. I don’t work from home. I’m in theatres, dance schools, regular schools. For the time being, that’s just not going to work. I am stressing out a little bit because if this continues, where do I go from here? Right now, I don’t have any answers.
H: In your case, how have clients dealt with job cancellations? Have they been trying to help you out or, after everything that’s happened, are you basically screwed if you can’t find a different way of working?
S: I know I said earlier that I don’t have any income right now, but I’m not screwed yet! I’ve been working for some clients for a long time – for Korzo for ten years, for HipHopHuis for eight years, and for SKVR since 2013. These are institutions I have a long relationship with and they are willing to meet me halfway. Just yesterday, the Korzo director called to ask how I was doing and I find that touching. Most of them have said that they want to continue paying me, at least until 6 April. Some parts of my jobs have already been done. I’m thankful for that because it gives me a certain kind of peace. For the rest, I had a booking at the Maas Podium to showcase my own work. That was supposed to be on 3 April. Unfortunately, it’s cancelled and I don’t know if I can do it later. They are looking at it but if it is not possible, that’s just the end of it.
Generally, though, most of my clients are trying to help me out. At least until 6 April. What happens after that, I don’t know.
The freelancer’s dilemma
H: In a broadcast of WNL op Zondag, [Economic Affairs and Climate Policy] Minister Wiebes said that the coronavirus means a reduction in income for a lot of freelancers – which is evident in this discussion. But he also said that it was more or less their own fault. I quote: “Freelancers have made a personal choice of not wanting permanent employment. These people have consciously taken that risk themselves.” These are the minister’s words, although the cabinet has now decided to financially support freelancers after all.
What does the minister’s statement say about the way we see freelancers?
T: Oh dear… [laughing]
H: Tell us what you think.
T: What it’s saying, if the government is a reflection of society, is that freelancers are seen as important, yet now they’re unimportant. In that everyone – well, so many people – want to use our services. We pay our taxes; often we pay a lot of tax. But when there’s a crisis, we’re the first to go. I find that deeply worrying because it sends the message that we entrepreneurs, people who actively contribute to the economy, are not being taken seriously. I find that very disturbing because it shows that people are generally unaware - in my opinion and speaking from experience - of how much art and culture is around us. If you look, for example, at the product packaging at the Albert Heijn: it uses graphic designers, illustrators, photographers. It’s the same with ads and political campaigns. There are videos and music being made and edited, and all of those people are part of the cultural sector. So yes, I find the situation alarming, because we are seen as disposable. When the moment comes that you don’t want to employ us, all of a sudden we’re not needed any more. It sends us the message that we are disposable. I don’t know if this answers your question, but it makes me angry.
J: The statement isn’t true anyway. It’s not like a lot of people actually choose this. A lot of people, especially in the cultural sector, really don’t want to be a freelancer – but there are too few permanent jobs. Sometimes, in order to practice your profession, you have to freelance. That makes his statement untrue. It’s bullshit.
H: You are all nodding your heads in agreement. Sheree, do you want to add something?
S: No, they’ve said it all! I can get angry about statements like that. Often, it’s not a choice to work as a freelancer. If I look at myself: I’ve worked for the same institutions doing the same work for years. I could have been in a job with a salary, but at the end of the day, I’m still a freelancer, and it only benefits the institutions. There’s a reason that it works that way. Tarona, Jelena, I agree completely. Bullshit.
T: Can I add something?
H: Of course.
T: I have made a conscious choice to not work for anyone. Our economy and our society are organised so that if you get a job, you’re secure. But office life, and having a permanent job in the traditional sense, is not for everyone. My mum had a permanent job for years, went into the office every day. I have a lot of respect for that because it requires discipline and perseverance. Personally, I’m not made for that life.
We live in a country where people say that everyone has the right to freedom, but freedom also means that, if you want to organise your life in a way where you don’t want a traditional job but still want to contribute to the economy, you can. And you’re taken seriously for that.
H: Maybe I’m adding a little bit of my own experience here, but some people think freelancers don’t work very hard, because they can go for a cup of coffee in the afternoon. You’re shaking your head in disagreement, Tarona. Tarona is shaking her head like, no no!
So it isn’t true? You do work hard?
T: You know what it is: the [Dutch] term ‘zzp’ literally means working independently without staff, but actually it just means being your own boss. And – as everyone who runs their own company knows – as your own boss, you never stop working. The work never ends. Even when Sheree is not practicing dance, or when I’m not practicing photography, we’re always thinking about what the next step is, and how we’re going to survive financially. It’s a treadmill.
And apart from that I am a proponent of autonomous working. In the society we live in, we say that if you work eight hours a day, you’re productive. But there is proof that working eight hours a day is not productive at all, and that an autonomous working environment is a lot more efficient. The fact that you don’t work in an office doesn’t mean you’re not productive. Our assumptions about productivity and what work looks like is are wrong, in my opinion.
S: Yes, and if I may add to that, I think that for dancers and other freelancers, having no job means having no income. You have to take that into account.
We dancers can never be sick.
Only if there really is no way we can perform. Feeling weak, ill or nauseous - we don’t get that. Pains, injuries, we are trained to deal with them at college. Just get on with it, don’t complain and carry on doing what you’re doing. That’s a big thing with us. It’s top-level sport. I don’t teach eight hours a day, but when I direct a performance, I have long rehearsal days. If I have to be in the theatre, I start at nine and sometimes I don’t leave until 11 o’clock. These are things that are part of the job, it’s normal for us. We don’t work hard? [laughs]
H: To come back to where we started, the way we value freelancers. As you just mentioned, a lot of people freelance in the cultural sector out of necessity. There aren’t enough permanent jobs for everyone. Over the past few years, there have also been lots of budget cuts in the cultural sector. Derek mentioned this in his poem too: “We make life lighter, but for us everything gets heavier.” Is that your experience too?
J: Yes, I may not be an artist per se, but I definitely think that the society we live in has a tendency to express the value of things in monetary terms. And I think that that is also one of the reasons why art and culture are so undervalued. Because we can only think in terms of, what does it earn? How much money does it generate? Whereas art also has a bigger societal value which appears to be considered of minor importance in our society. That’s how I interpreted Derek’s line. I don’t see it changing over the years. People won’t start thinking about the value of art and culture in a different way. A lot of people act like artists are on a subsidy-drip all the time. And that’s just not the case. At least, the people I know work incredibly hard. And these two ladies actually demonstrate that too. You’re constantly engaged with your profession. Not only out of passion, but also out of necessity.
H: Sheree, do you recognise that?
S: Yes, absolutely. I’m lucky, in the sense that I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I’m often invited to work on projects, but I know lots of artists who really have to hustle for work, who live from job to job as Derek said. I try to create a sort of permanent or yearly monthly basis. So, I do what we just talked about. I have jobs that I do because I have to do them. And next to that I have my assignments, like my choreography work… Those are the project-based jobs. I don’t have them the whole year round. I just finished one where my dancers and I worked incredibly hard for three months. And then it’s finished. On to the next. So yes, I do recognise it.
The social value of art and culture
H: I can also imagine that when they have already cut back a lot on the sector and the corona crisis comes along, it might be even more difficult to start rebuilding again. Unless it becomes clear that art and culture have value for the whole of society.
What’s the value of art and culture for you? What do they contribute to society?
And let’s leave money out of it.
T: Yes, let's! The value of art and culture. Well. If I just look at the friends I made just because we all listen to J DIlla. The fact that we can talk about films and that we can laugh about them. The books we read, theatre shows, dance… These are things that lift our spirits. And they give us strength and courage and the power to carry on - as Prince said - to get through this thing called life. Because it’s so present in our daily lives, a lot of people might take the value of that for granted. Like, oh there’s music, there’s literature… But what also comes to mind - this might sound really weird what I am about to say - but what comes to mind is the movie The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a scene where the main character is being isolated in an isolation cell, but he says that he carries music with him in his head. And that it helps him through that time. And here I think we can find a bridge to the importance of arts and culture. They connect us. They connect people from all walks of life. Every time when I go to a concert, I think to myself, damn. We all have our differences, we all come from such different lives and yet here we all are listening to this artist or watching that dance performance. And I think it’s important that everyone who enjoys photography, art, dance, reading, anything, is aware of the healing power of art and culture. And how that eventually impacts not only your heart, but also your spirit and your life. I mean, if you want to go clubbing, you have to have music.
H: Okay, a little bit harsh on my part, but clubs are closed right now. So why is it important to keep believing in culture and music? To keep listening and keep spending money?
Especially when times get tough, we need things that keep our spirits high.
S: I agree that people often forget that art and music and dance and visual art are good for their wellbeing. The healing power that Tarona was talking about, that’s it. I see it a lot with the students I teach, or in the asylum centres where I worked with refugees. In secure facilities, in secret locations where women and young girls are living for their safety. What dance does for them is therapeutic. It lightens the spirit. For a little while, they can leave their problems behind. And it’s also empowerment. It’s good for your self-confidence. You can see people grow, and I speak from experience. I’ve seen it happen, in myself too. That’s what dance has meant for me. I think a lot of people don’t see that, the meaningful impact of art. Art is often considered a luxury, or something that’s not essential. But for me it is a necessity.
H: Also, when you dance, for example, I believe the body produces endorphins which make you happier. Simply said, it’s biologically measurable that art and culture contribute to happiness.
S: It’s a means of expression too. From a dancer’s perspective, dance is non-verbal communication.
J: Coming back to what you said about empowerment, I grew up with hip-hop and hip-hop really made me feel seen when society maybe didn’t see me, or when I didn’t feel valued.
Hip-hop made me believe that art and culture give you a voice and strengthen you.
I think that everyone who grew up with hip-hop also has that ‘fuck it, we’re gonna get through this’ mentality. It makes you stronger.
S: Especially hip-hop - it embraces you, people are welcome. It’s family. That’s what HipHopHuis means to me. It’s not just client, it’s also my family.
H: Are you currently still in contact with people from HipHopHuis?
S: Yes, for sure! Just last night I was talking to Aruna Vermeulen, director of HipHopHuis. She’s also at home with her kids. We talked about what life is like now, where we’re at and what might happen.
H: These are such uncertain times. At the moment all the institutions, museums and discussion centres are closed. What will that mean for the cultural sector in the city, and can we even handle the blow that’s coming - as makers, but also the institutions providing work for the makers?
J: It depends on the way the situation develops, I think. But we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that, when the moment comes when we’re all allowed to go outside again, and that we can go to visit museums and get together again, it may still not be over. Actually, that’s when the biggest blow will come. I think we might end up in a crisis, to be honest.
Being optimistic, I think that right now we have a chance to rethink how we consume and create art.
And perhaps art and culture, with their imaginative strength, can play a big role in designing the world we want to live in once this is over. But in terms of the actual consequences of this situation, I think we can only guess.
S: I agree that the real blow has yet to come. I’m also curious about how long all of this will last. We don’t know. A lot of institutions are subsidised and that might help for this year; I don’t know if that’s the case for a longer period of time. The question is, will those who dance in their free time still have the money for that? People have to think about their primary needs like the rent, insurance and clothing. So, I really have no idea. I’m curious about how this will play out.
Culture and entreneurship in a time of crisis
H: It might mean that creatives have to start looking at their work differently and think about how - in spite of institutions and physical contact not being there - they can create in different ways or make different kinds of work. Tarona, are you thinking about that? Any ideas about how you, as a photographer, can still work, or do you think you might have to do something else?
T: It’s a difficult question. Yesterday I told my partner that nature dictates that those who survive are the ones who adapt. And if I can be completely honest, it’s difficult, because when you’ve been working in a certain way for a long time and you have to make a sudden, rapid switch - that poses a challenge and requires a certain capacity. I’ve noticed that on a personal level I still struggle with that a lot because it makes me think that I might have to reconsider my whole medium, or maybe completely renounce photography in the traditional sense. Yesterday, for example, I was thinking about how I could carry out a project about being stuck at home. Maybe I can ask my friends to do something together via the webcam. So, the photography medium has become a lot broader for me personally. What are photographic expressions, and where do they appear. It has forced me, as a person as well as a visual artist, to think about how we use imagery. But I wouldn’t be able to give a concrete answer to the question about what to do next. I’ve been working this way for so long - I need a minute [laughing].
H: Sheree, have you thought about it? Or is it also a case of, let’s see how we get through this first week?
S: Well, I’ve been thinking about it but I don’t have an answer. Either way, dancing is a physical profession and you can’t do it indefinitely - it depends on how long your body allows you do it. So, I definitely think about the future and I wonder whether I will keep doing this as a freelancer. Right now, in a crisis like this, you think about whether you should continue or look for a regular job somewhere. Because, as Tarona already said, a nine to five office job isn’t for me. Or maybe a combination of both, if that’s possible. Earlier in the discussion, we mentioned salaries and being able to save up for things, and I’ve been lucky in that a couple of my choreography jobs have gone quite well. But I don’t always have that. And I don’t know if freelancers right now are protected in a way that allows us to actually save up for retirement, build a buffer for six months to a year, and insure ourselves for illness. I know that when I had surgery on my knee, I wasn’t entitled to anything. I just had to save in advance. I worked really hard on my medical rehabilitation so that I could start working again within seven or eight weeks. These are definitely things that I think about.
How are we going to move forward? Because this can’t happen again.
So, I don’t have an answer yet, but I'm definitely thinking about it.
H: Jelena, at Vers Beton you’ve published an article with ideas and tips from entrepreneurs on contributing to the cultural sector. Can you tell us about it?
J: Yes, it was the first article that we published after measures like the museum closures took effect. On social media, on the one hand we noticed that artists were panicking. Entrepreneurs in general by the way, small businesses are now screwed as well obviously. And on the other hand, we also noticed that a lot ofRotterdammers were curious about how they can help.
We figured that we could combine these things and check in with local shopkeepers, DJs, spoken word artists to see what would help them. Because you can try thinking about it yourself but ultimately if you don’t ask, you can only guess what they need.
And that resulted in quite creative solutions, which surprised me. There were things I hadn’t thought of at all, which shows that people are suddenly forced to think of new solutions and there’s a real need for that.
H: Can you name an example?
J: Sometimes it’s just the simple things. For example, we talked to a blogger who said, if you go to my website and just hang out there for a while - you don’t even have to read something - I earn money because of ads. I also spoke to DJs who were like: within 24 hours, six or seven parties have been cancelled where I was playing, but now I’ve got the time to get in the studio again and create something I can ask money for. And I hope that there’s a certain kind of benevolence among people who have less art to consume now, because you can’t go out to that party, so they give the money to things that emerge from this crisis.
H: You were talking about Vers Beton, and going back to the drawing board with the website - what’s the plan now? How will you engage with the topic and with Rotterdam people?
J: We’ve already set the course with the article. Like I said, Vers Beton is not a news website. People go there mostly to read analyses, background pieces, reflections and opinions. And of course, we will continue doing that because it’s incredibly important and essential to keep people informed about the dangers of corona. On the other hand, though, we also noticed that we felt a strong need to show people a softer side. And maybe a slightly optimistic side in the sense that we would like to offer solutions for getting through this with each other, including how we can help and how we can shape the world.
H: Tarona, you just mentioned that you’ve been thinking about the topic and how you could possibly use it in your work, or at least the situation as it is now with all of us being at home. Sheree, do you have an idea - it’s a bit more difficult because you work with choreography of course, but do you think that the topic will become part of your work? Can you do something with it?
S: Absolutely. I’m influenced by the things that happen in society and I always put that into my work. So, I think it will, I’m pretty sure.
H: And to stay with you for a bit, we’ve talked about Wiebes and his statements. Eventually, the cabinet had to come back to that because all of a sudden they have a pot of money I didn’t know existed, and freelancers will be able to get welfare. The exact amount isn’t clear yet but it’s a major change. Does it help you?
S: For sure, especially for paying my rent and that kind of stuff. I’m really happy with that. I also saw the press conference and it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders when he said it. I’m curious how it will actually work in practice. This morning I was talking to a friend and she said she’d already applied! And I thought, huh? I was looking on the website and I couldn’t find a form to fill out or anything like that. Turns out she applied for regular welfare, so it’s still quite unclear for us. Because we don’t get welfare. Before you’re eligible, I believe you have to give up your company. So, I hope there will be more clarity soon, but to answer your question: yes, I’m very happy with the measures.
H: Now it’s for three months. Tarona, maybe that gives you the minute you said you needed to think. [laughing]
T: That’s a proverbial minute! Yes, I mean thinking is part of my work. It’s not like I’m not used to thinking about what the next step is.
H: But will this help over the coming months, or do you think: it’s a nice gesture, but we might need more? And not only financially, but also in terms of structural support?
T: Well, as Sheree said, when I heard the news it felt like a weight off my shoulders. But then I had a lot of questions. What if this lasts longer than three months? How much money can we get? And how long will it take to apply? Because as Derek said so beautifully, when they knock on the door to collect the rent, I might have to say I just don’t have it. He said it a lot better than I did but that’s essentially what it comes down to. And I do worry. So, the help has been announced now, and I almost feel like they said it to calm everyone down. But we’ll have to see how it works out in practice. And the politicians - I have my own personal opinions about them which I won’t express here, but I mean, we’re talking about salaries over 60k. They decide about our lives. I think that’s intense. And they come up with these measures, but the reality often is that what you put on paper doesn’t work in practice. And I’m very realistic about that. Maybe that’s because I’m a Rotterdammer but I definitely think: show me first! I want to see results before I start cheering that we’ve all been saved. And I also think that they’re being very optimistic with those three months. Because what will happen to the people who can’t pay their rent now or who can’t work now? What kind of problems will they have in the long run? And that’s not because of unwillingness.
We all want to work. Trust me, we love to work.
It’s not because we’re lazy or because we don’t feel like it. We just can’t. And what will be the long-term consequences and effects of that? Because in three months, the time that people will be waiting for their money, a lot of people will probably already be drowning. And that’s painful, because I see the people, and the community I care about, struggling while they wait for help. So, I’m curious how this will actually work out in practice. Actually, I’m quite sceptical about it really. Sorry.
J: You’re not the only one who’s sceptical. [laughing]
H: Jelena, do you want to tell us more?
J: Don’t get me wrong: it’s wonderful that this money has been made available and I think it will help a lot a lot of people in the coming three months, but considering Wiebes earlier statements, I just feel like his true nature is really saying: it’s your own fault. You chose this, good luck with it. I think that, as Tarona said, the fact that they’ve come up with these measures now is only to keep the peace. But in the long run they also can’t say how they’ll continue to help us. Well, I say us but I actually mean the people who need it most.
H: What’s notable is what Tarona said about the three months and the people who are already in trouble now only slipping further under. You can promise someone money, but aren’t there other problems in society that we should tackle first? Something like rent costs or the amount of money that bailiffs are allowed to demand when they are on your doorstep?
S: I agree. Tarona, Jelena - you’re absolutely right. Initially, I was relieved, but after that you start thinking: okay, how are we going to actually do this and where do we go from here? During our discussion, we’ve all agreed that the lockdown will probably last longer than three months. What happens after that? And there’s a waiting time of four weeks. Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever applied for any type of funding, but it usually takes longer - so I really hope it will be as short as four weeks. And to get back to your question about other things in society: what bailiffs can demand, the fines and the interest - these are the reasons that people end up in debt. Because a lot of the time, it’s not about big sums of money, but what that they add on to that when you’re late. A while ago I accidentally forgot to pay a traffic fine and the amount of money I had to pay eventually was double the original amount. We need to think about that. And they know that, they’ve known for a long time. There have been so many conversations about it. It’s nothing new. And you also mentioned a structural basic income for all citizens. I like that idea. [laughing]
J: If you needed any further proof that capitalism is rotten, here it is.
A single catastrophe breaks out, and the global economy collapses.
I mean, let’s focus on what we can actually do differently instead of maintaining something that’s just corrupt.
S: Yes, and there are so many things that are not okay. We can name them all. Ministers who have to leave their posts, money laundering, that kind of stuff. We can name a lot of things but a lot just needs to change. That’s clear.
T: Can I add something to that? It might sound weird, but I’m so grateful to live in a country where things are actually being done. Because one of the first things I said to my partner, when we were watching the press conference, was: so this is what my parents meant when they said they wanted a better life for me! So, I’m grateful that we live in a country where these options are available, where they can actually free up 20 billion euros. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep looking critically at what’s happening.
S: Yes, I agree. I think that we can count ourselves lucky that we have a safety net in the first place. A lot of countries don’t. I was talking to a friend. She told me about Angola: if the supermarkets are empty there, they’re empty. There is no distribution centre like we have them here, where they stock all the toilet paper. So you know, people there are truly screwed.
J: My partner lives in New York now and when you hear how people in the States are left to their own devices, which is of course also just the status quo in America, let’s be real, and it’s only got worse. That does put things in perspectives for us here, I think.
H: I like it.
Grateful but always critical. I think we should hold on to that!
One of the calls I’ve come across on social media a lot is, if you’ve bought a ticket for the theatre and the show is cancelled, don’t ask for your money back. What I’ve also seen is musicians making music together and releasing it in the hope that they can still earn money. They’re saying, you can’t buy a concert ticket, but this way you can still support us. Are there other ways you can think of in which our audiences, people who enjoy our work, can still support the cultural sector?
S: It’s a difficult question that keeps me busy. As you said about people not asking for their money back for tickets, I teach a group of women who said, we’ve already spent the money, we don’t need it back. I had already told them that we could postpone the classes and they offered this, which is a lovely gesture. Apart from that, I’m looking at how teaching online works. Can you make money like that? I’ve no idea how it works. And I just hope that people who value arts and culture will always keep doing that. And I hope that after this, when the storm has died down, people will come back.
Calling the institutions
T: My biggest call is directed towards cultural institutions. When I look at what Het Nieuwe Instituut, for example, is doing right now by saying: okay, we are going to try to keep supporting a group of people that we love working with by organising a virtual panel, that’s great. Apart from that, I also think - I find it difficult, because talking about money is always a thing, and asking for money is also always a thing. But I think that it’s mainly important that we collectively carry this situation and think up new ways. So, I can indeed imagine teaching online. And if you want to take classes, take them. And if you can miss it, donate. I also see people who are making a GoFundMe, mainly my homies in America. It’s become a worldwide community thing where we’re all interdependent on each other. I find it difficult because I think that institutions may have to look at how they can keep supporting the freelancers they often work with so that they can also employ them, like Sheree said, after the storm has died down. Apart from that, I’m more willing to donate my money, for example if someone like Franky Sticks is playing a DJ set and he has a donate link. Because I’d like to be able dance to his tunes if I go a club. It’s a matter of looking at what you can spare and trying to contribute something. We don’t know about people’s financial situation but I do know that institutions - on which we very much depend - I think that they should definitely think about what their role can be here. To keep supporting us. Because they need our services, always. That may be a harsh truth, but I stand by it.
S: Me too!
J: I completely agree with Tarona. I also think that no one will come out of this unscathed, but some people will have to deal with bigger losses than others. So, if you have the space - as an institution or as a consumer so to speak - and you can spare something, look at what you can contribute. And something that the artists I interviewed told me last week and something that keeps on coming back is that a lot of people find it really hard to ask for help. People often find it very difficult to say: I can’t pay my rent, give me money. So, ask people what they can use.
Check in with your local artists and entrepreneurs and ask them what they need and how you can help them.
And this might not be arts and culture, but if you can spare six euros a month, you can become a supporter of Vers Beton - it’s journalism, which is just as important in these times. That will allow us to contribute to keeping people informed and hopefully offer some solutions and beacons of light in these dark times.
H: That seems to me a perfect way to end this first edition of the Thursday Night Live! Online series. Thank you Jelena, Sheree and Tarona. Next week there will be a virtual panel about the clubbing scene, with Philip Powel from Bird and DJ Franky Sticks, moderated by Stephanie Afrifa. Also, a big thank you to poet Derek Otte, who will now deliver a closing piece.