Not all good comes from the internet

Has the coronavirus made us into couch potatoes and internet slaves? We can’t have that.

culture sector

Frode Bjerkestrand is a Norwegian commentator and journalist at Bergens Tidende (BT) in Bergen, Norway. He received his education from the University of Bergen. He has worked at BT since 1991. In March 2016, he was appointed culture editor at BT.

ON THE EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States

Culture Editor, Bergens Tidende

How would you prefer to experience Bergenfest or the Bergen Philharmonic? On your phone or in person? Would you still rather explore cultural life from you sofa, or would you like to go out and dance and discover things for yourself? Perhaps the right answer is yes to all of this.

The coronavirus has devastated both the travel and culture sectors, which have now been at least partly closed down for a year. For the culture sector, this has been an aha moment. Suddenly, high-profile cultural experiences are accessible across the globe, often for free. Major players have opened their doors on the internet, from the Louvre in Paris to La Scala in Milan.

We, too, at Bergens Tidende have created some wonderful experiences. Together with our partners, we have streamed concerts, including Verftet Online Music Festival, Festspillene, Bergenfest, Vill Vill Vest, and our very own Ønskekonsert with the Bergen Philharmonic in January.

Streaming of stage productions appears to have kept audiences’ expectation of a thriving cultural life afloat when the coronavirus chaos is over.

The big question now is whether these temporary digital solutions will change the cultural sector permanently, or whether we will return to some kind of “normal” when the final vaccine is given.

Will concerts and performances on the internet become an extra? Or will online offerings be so attractive that event organizers risk emptying their own halls? The latter would be a gloomy paradox.

In February, Bergen municipality organized a conference called “Corona meets culture,” where organizers and performers discussed the time after the pandemic.

In these discussions, digitalization emerged almost as a “miracle cure” for a battered sector. The director of the Arts Council of Norway, Kristin Danielsen, declared that “digital cultural events will be an important part of the experience when the culture sector reopens.”

Such optimism is understandable. Digital platforms have the potential to make large-scale experiences available to many.

Especially for those who don’t live close to a state-funded theater or culture center. Or for those who, for various health reasons, are cut off from cultural activities. Or for those who are simply anxious.

A study by the organization Norsk Publikumsutvikling (Audiences Norway) shows that a full 70% of those asked would be skeptical about participating in cultural activities, even when the authorities say it is safe. Nor are vaccines a guarantee that audiences will return. Fifty-eight percent of respondents say that they would prefer indoor events with fixed seating. Just 7% answered that they would dare to go indoors if seats weren’t screwed to the floor.

This is bad news for Det vestnorske teater (The West-Norwegian Theater) and Ole Bull Theater [in Bergen], for example.

But the study has its weaknesses. The question is when this artificial bifurcation of cultural life became an issue at all. Indeed, it first happened after the Norwegian Directorate of Health came out with its strange “seat rule” last fall.

That rule said that performance halls with fixed seats could admit 200 audience participants, while those with unfixed chairs could admit only 10 – 20. In other words, the health bureaucrats said that they don’t believe that smaller cultural centers have the capacity to effectively provide protection against infection.

In this case, then, the authorities themselves have generously contributed to the public’s anxiety.

I think culture will quickly resuscitate when stages, halls, and bars are once again open to everyone. First and foremost, what defines the COVID-19 era is the sore lack of shared experiences with sound, lighting, ambience, and a beer in hand.

Political opportunism

The bourgeois government’s tune about the intrinsic value of cultural experiences is still blasting out of the loudspeakers.

For almost eight years, the government has harped on the mantra that culture should to a large degree function as a commodity, an export to build up the Norwegian brand. The desire for more digitalization fits nicely into this scheme.

To produce performances and concerts of high quality is expensive—and will only get more expensive. Big players like the Bergen Philharmonic and Festspillene will be able to manage it. But for smaller players without a secure place in the public budget, it can present challenges.

In the worst case scenario, the digitalization wave could create an even greater divide between the big and small players in the cultural sector.

Uneven platforms

Many cultural expressions can function nicely on a PC or flat screen in an intimate format. But the dominant entertainment mechanism among younger viewers is now the mobile phone. When the 5G network is built out, internet use on phones will only further increase.

I think it’s fair to say that your iPhone can hardly offer an optimal experience of Biffy Clyro at Koengen [a Bergen concert venue] or a full-scale staging of La Traviata at Grieg Hall.

In January, concert series organizer Anders Beyer posed an important question in the pages of Bergens Tidende: “How will the cultural sector look after the pandemic?” His answer was that the culture industry must make use of all its new digital knowledge collectively and that the potential is great.

But he added that this will require a  “focus on new competencies and a clear understanding of what analog offerings can do that the digital offerings cannot. Hopefully, audiences can enjoy both.”

That is a good starting point, as we prepare ourselves for a life after these exceptional times and circumstances.

This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.