Innovation and old wisdoms
Topi Lehtipuu describes his Coronavirus lockdown and examines how the situation might revolutionise the way we consume art
The current situation enables a certain focused concentration. Life is not as fragmented as usual and confinement is a kind of monk’s cell in which you can concentrate on one thing for a long time. But, of course, with all the cancelled concerts these are hard times for colleagues and for smaller companies in the creative industries, as well as for friends who have caught the disease. It’s not an easy situation, but I’m trying to see the positives and enjoy the possibilities.
I divide my days between thinking about new projects and running existing ones. With my executive producer and director hats on I’m developing projects, for example for the New Vision Arts Festival in Hong Kong, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore, Casa de Mateus in Portugal and Aalto University in Finland. In my role as a consultant, I’m thinking about how culture can have impact in different contexts, which is naturally the focus with the current situation.
For the singing side of my work, projects have been postponed, so I only have to do a little practice. I don’t know when my next concert will be, but I’m trying to stay fit in a general way, not concentrating on my vocal cords. That will come back quickly when I know when my next concert is. For musicians, performing is the reason for what we do, but at the same time, we know how to be alone, practising, so we’re resilient. Generally, we are also good at describing our own inner worlds, so not only do we survive, but we also embrace the fact that we have to create ourselves – it’s a mind game.
‘What about a streaming company that could generate subscription revenue so that it can afford to create new content? This a big opportunity for the whole cultural sector’
The situation has changed people’s habits around enjoying culture – everything has gone online. The big question is how much those habits will survive among the audience when we’ve normalised. We need to do studies about these new means of creating, producing and experiencing art, but I’m positive that it is producing new behaviours. There isn’t yet a Netflix for the arts, so what about a streaming company that could generate subscription revenue so that it can afford to create new content? This a big opportunity for the whole cultural sector.
Will these new ways of experiencing art online also change the substance and content of the arts? At the moment people are trying to capture live performances online, but what if we change the starting point so that content is created directly for video or television, taking away the live element? How would it change? Live performance will still be a vital element in the post-Corona world, of course, but will there be new dynamics between recorded and live elements? For example, could content that is created for video feed live performance, rather than the other way? If we took a more filmic approach to a libretto, could we get a greater sense of intimacy and different types of theatrical approaches?
Opera and technology
If an opera were created directly for video, the artists could be more sensitive. The scale of expression would be amplified, so singers could start to whisper, whereas normally you just try to get your voice heard over the orchestra. In some broadcasts, such as those of Metropolitan Opera, the viewer gets close to the singers, but the singer still has to satisfy the needs of the audience in the auditorium, who might be 80 metres away, as well as the television audience.
‘How can the arts meet today’s audiences and touch their needs, both socially and technologically?’
It comes down to the bigger question of today’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – how can the arts meet today’s audiences and touch their needs, both socially and technologically? For example, immersive art has been a big thing for the last 15 years, so how can you make an immersive opera experience using Virtual Reality – or even better, Cross Reality? How can you create a holistic experience with this new technology? Can spectators and performers be in the intimate space of Virtual Reality, with a sense of ‘real’ reality, while receiving a coherent and dramaturgically well-thought-through structure and narrative? At the moment it’s possible to have around ten people experience VR at the same time, where the spectators can see each other as avatars, so it’s not yet financially viable, but when the technological hurdles are overcome, we could have many more people experiencing a show at the same time.
Live social experience
Despite having their initial experience online, people still want to be with others in a live social experience – that’s a basic human need. The playwright Tony Kushner wrote, ‘the smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls, societies, the social world, human life springs.’ The new phenomenon where 10,000 people gather to see YouTube and Instagram stars in stadium-size events proves his idea.
It’s important for artists to embrace all these new possibilities for communicating. Classical music had a problem with Serialism – it lost its sense of communicating and touching as many people as possible, but we’ve moved on from that now. In Finland, certainly, our avant-garde praises the idea of communication, which can still include an intellectually highbrow approach. That’s important: how can you touch people without taking one cent away from the inner drive for excellence, perfection and intellectual beauty?
‘The crazy carousel of social media is fashionable and has changed our lives, but people still appreciate that you need to concentrate in order to get your endorphins from art’
A multi-coloured world
There is always a need to concentrate and to understand the complex world in a sophisticated way, and this applies to the arts. The crazy carousel of social media is fashionable and has changed our lives, but people still appreciate that you need to concentrate in order to get your endorphins from art. It’s not something you consume quickly – you can go deeper. Trends work in a dialectic way – they go to extremes and then come back again. That’s how we get a multi-coloured world.
That’s why I don’t think the live experience will go anywhere. We live in a post-modern world and there will be new forms of media coming through, but the old ones will remain. Even in innovation there can be echoes of old wisdoms, of excellence based on what people have experienced in the past – we don’t have to abandon or reject that. If there is a new form of art, it can still be knowing. People appreciate that history has a long ark and innovation is not tarnished when we are aware of older aesthetics. It is all part of our cultural and essentially human continuum.