Cultural mediation for social change in pandemic times


Sofía Coca

Aug, 2021

“Navigating a communal geography differs from reading a text, purchasing a commodity, or from the self-consciousness of social media. You navigate a material place in the time of your body, rather than emitting dispatches into a dematerialized zone of no context. You are public, but not displayed, surveilled, and archived. You relate to others spontaneously, without any obligation to perform or expose yourself. Your self can stretch to its full social mobility, rather than indexing itself into the narrow confines of text. Ideology, politics, taste, and social media—these fixities can be a Procrustean bed that crams your whole self into a shrunken modality of positions and transactional messages, but most interesting interactions we have in life are not when we are ‘on’. Life happens when you are not making declarations. Life happens when you are with other people.”

As radical, as mother, as salad, as shelter: What should art institutions do now? – Ken Chen (Paper Monument, 2018)

One of the great achievements of cultural mediation is facilitating gatherings of people who have never met before. But beyond the creation of “networking spaces” and projects based on cooperation, one of the keys of cultural mediation is the building of many new friendships.

When we talk about “care” and build “spaces of co-creation” using methodologies that confront and recognise power dynamics but, at the same time, try to encourage imaginative ways of working together, everything seems to be shrouded in mystery. Often it’s all too easy for such a loving and safe setting to obscure the heavy lifting—the planning and structuring—needed to actually get results.

Obviously nobody can predict whether or not two strangers will be able to connect. There are times when even the most on-point facilitations or most fine-tuned algorithms cannot create a connection between two individuals. Sometimes, even among those who seem to be like-minded, it’s not so easy to attain the kind of coveted connection that, in turn, creates new social spaces itself. There are ways to try, though. This attempt at “cultural mediation” is what ZEMOS98, a sevillina cooperative of cultural production and social research, has been working on for more than twenty years.

Sometimes it means a 3-day meeting where 40 people gather together (any more detracts from the intimacy) and get to work with post-its, poster boards and markers. Other times it involves long conversations with moments of connection that last for weeks but aim at getting people from different professions to work together. And other times it’s about negotiating between peers who form a community of shared practices or interests but who have not been able to identify a shared path.

Cultural mediation is an amalgam of practices, tools and methodologies that involve facilitation, support and recoding, but mediation is also the search for a common language, a language that may be new and invented and that seeks to inspire. A language that sometimes attempts to revive lost words or rituals. A language that sometimes resembles a patchwork quilt.

This is not a methodology that can be applied universally in just any context, nor is it detached from the wishes, possibilities and capabilities of all of the agents in any given ecosystem. For example, you can’t mediate against the institution, or at least I don’t think it’s recommendable as an attempt to build a model to move forward with. I do think, though, that at those points of tension, it’s important that agents in very secure positions in society, such as in academia or cultural institutions, understand that they exist within a certain context.

The following is an attempt to hash out six questions that explore ways to address the challenges of cultural mediation we have just defined in a post-pandemic context.

Mediation as translation

The word “mediation” has traditionally been used in contexts associated with cultural institutions and museums. Some years ago, the adjective “cultural” was added to refer to a series of community intervention practices that are used outside of institutions and the public sector. This is what we mean when we talk about mediation for social transformation. Beyond the conceptual ideas of academia, we believe that thinking about and broadening the concept is an interesting exercise, not so much to hone in on a definitive definition, but more to facilitate and make accessible the work that can sometimes be difficult to summarise in few words. In addition to being a process—and to some degree, an experimental one—we must also add that it is characterised by other difficulties, such as the lack of support and institutional recognition that cultural mediation practices receive, or the scarcity of regulated training associated with this line of work. Little by little, streams of public funding and educational spaces are developing, but in the meanwhile we have to keep working with the term “cultural mediation” by posing questions that result in more than just incomplete definitions.

José Luis de Vicente is certain that the key word is intermediation and understands mediation as a sort of intercommunicative tool: “For me, the term cultural mediation clearly refers back to the educational mediation of cultural institutions. However, we can expand this idea to think of it as a form of intermediation, as a mechanism of translation, like an intercom that enables communication among agents from different communities with different knowledge, practices and areas of specialisation. Social movements are one example. Others could be public institutions, academia, communities around artistic practices, the general public and so on”

In the end, this translation work depends on the privilege of understanding different languages. Can we live in a world without translators? There is a definite, growing trend towards automating all processes of translation, but we know very well that algorithms have their limits when it comes to translating. Not so much literally, but in terms of all the issues that are implicit in the act of communication. Therefore, it’s worth asking, is there a future for mediation understood as an exercise in translation? José Luis de Vicente believes there is:

“I see two points of tension in terms of the future of these kinds of processes—we can call them translation or processes of transmission. As far as I’m concerned, these processes absolutely have a future. In fact, every one of these agents exists in airtight compartments, and when you’re able to create pathways that lead one to the others, very powerful things begin to happen. Of course, this is not a methodology that can be applied universally in just any context, nor is it detached from the wishes, possibilities and capabilities of all of the agents in any given ecosystem. For example, you can’t mediate against the institution, or at least I don’t think it’s recommendable as an attempt to build a model to move forward with. I do think, though, that at those points of tension, it’s important that agents in very secure positions in society, such as in academia or cultural institutions, understand that they exist within a certain context.”

Parallel to this idea of translation processes, there is another metaphor that Adam Horowitz uses to broaden the notion of mediation by exploring the idea of digging tunnels and applying concepts from distributed pedagogy: “The metaphor of bridge building has become a little stale. As if ‘maintaining bridges’ could just explain what the work is all about. I’m a bit sceptical about this definition. But at the same time, when I look back, a large part of the work that I’ve been doing could actually be explained in a similar way with another metaphor: digging tunnels, because a big part of the work that we do is neither visible nor involves the redistribution of resources or the kind of collaborations that are really not intended to be visible because they are more subversive. When I think back to my experiences in the US Department of Arts and Culture—whose provocative name ironically pointed out the fact that in the United States, there is no such governmental institution—most of what worked for us had to do with the idea of distributed pedagogy: working with a bunch of colleagues, developing tools and resources that would be as equally available to a 10-year-old child as they would be to a big cultural institution. And most of that only rarely had anything to do with producing big events, but rather growing a certain level of cultural legitimacy with a bunch of organisations that were looking to do things in a more participatory way, organisations that wanted to be part of something that was more than the sum of its parts and be part of the collective action. I think that in doing that, we did manage to successfully build bridges between social and artistic movements, because we were connected to a growing network of artists that engaged with social issues but that were not necessarily playing a leadership role in those issues or organising social movements.”

Photo_ Ungry Young Man_ CC BY 2.0

It’s not always easy to achieve effective participation. Sometimes, particularly within administrations, methods are created that encourage participation in an awkward way with no lasting effect, usually because the resources to do anything more just aren’t available. This translates into legitimate distrust on the part of those who see this more as a simulation of participation rather than something real and effective. According to this critique, the methodology can sometimes be very superficial—an enthusiastic story or getting participants to use post-its, but it just doesn’t get to the root of the matter. Transformative participation can only be reached with enough material resources to sustain it over time.

When these spaces of co-creation and participation—whether they use post-its or have 10-hour-long meetings—maintain long-term mediation work with a clear aim linked to social justice, they generate shared knowledge that is applied in truly transformative ways, not just cool photos of short-lived participatory processes.
What seems to be true is that there are processes that are getting society involved more than ever. As José Luis de Vicente noted: “More and more, I see that these types of processes (mediation) are popping up naturally in our society’s culture. Perhaps the more natural they feel within a society, the more we should really be rethinking those kinds of processes.”

Mediation for social change in a privatised digital context

It’s no secret that the pandemic has sped up a process that has been happening for years: the continuous privatisation of spaces and tools that early pioneers once thought of as a common digital space.

During the early 2000s, a common attempt at thwarting any radical approach to the debate was: “Free culture can be made with private software.” Now, however, it’s undeniable that RSS (the spirit of shared knowledge on blogs or wikis), P2P networks and the idea of the internet as an open and decentralised space have given way to an internet where paid subscriptions have become the norm, as have personal or collective brand advertisement and algorithms that reward loyalty but often end up being toxic and harmful to the user.

During the course of the pandemic, we have had to reinvent how we communicate digitally a million times, and in many cases it has involved needing to pay for pro versions of tools that we used to use for free. Video conference systems, shared digital whiteboards, content storage, etc. These tools have suddenly become an absolute necessity, and much of the time they are storing very valuable content in private spaces owned by corporations whose values have nothing to do with the common good.

Tere Badía, a mexican-catalan cultural mediator, reflects on this issue as follows: “One of the things that I think about and that I believe could turn into something big in terms of political action—and even if it is an uphill battle, it could still be very liberating—is how we define public space in the digital sphere. If culture happens in meeting places, and meeting places are common space, how do we create this space? How do we create public space within the digital realm when everything digital is in completely privatised hands? If we depend on big corporations—Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.—and they are the ones who decide what can and cannot be done, we’re just giving up our public space.”

The projects that effect the most change are those that create intermediary passageways, little corridors where different people can cross over from one structure to another. In terms of those involved, I like this idea of double agents or triple agents, who are often mediators.

Obviously, this is an issue full of nuances that could easily lead to very complex debates. We already know that the problem is not the technology itself; technology has actually allowed us to do things like generate more active participation. For example, digital events over the past year have enabled us to involve people who, due to borders or because of physical inaccessibility, would have had much more difficulty participating in in-person activities.

Tere Badía adds another advantage—questioning the dictatorship of the office as a space of shared work: “Screen presence also has its advantages, because it has a very positive aspect that, depending on how you approach it, also allows you to escape the omnipresence or dictatorial dynamics of an office. This is a very good thing, but the problem is, how do you substitute the office with a meeting place that is not digital?”

The pandemic has generated a lot of pain and has ruined the lives of thousands of people. On the other hand, it has managed to temporarily stop the global capitalist machine, which has clearly been operating beyond its means. What we have to do now is try to hold onto the positive aspects of digital living and slowly revive in-person activities and behaviours. What will continue to be a priority—and it certainly won’t be easy—is the question of whether or not we will be able to recover our digital public spaces.

Thought processes between academia and activism

One of the legitimate fears that comes up around experimental knowledge production, whether in social spheres or the cultural sector, is the creation of empty imaginaries. These often take the form of clusters of hollow buzzwords—in non English-speaking cultures they are almost always heavily Anglicised—that don’t yield truly transformative practices for their setting or the communities that live there. This is also a prejudice associated all too often with social and cultural agents who are not frontline activists but who are still creating ways of experimenting with the codes we use to relate to each other.

For Marta Malo, a transfeminist researcher and cultural worker, one possible response to this problem is to encourage situated thinking. She does this by telling a very personal life story around the question: How to resist the extractivist tendencies of those with cultural capital and participate in a grassroots movement?

“I was brought up in a family with cultural capital, surrounded by books. I saw myself in social movements, but I had the chance to get into the cultural sector and I saw that opportunity as something that could bring me into extractivist dynamics. I saw that by sharing spaces with other activists, I had the chance to capitalise on the discourse, a chance that others would never have. That made me feel really uncomfortable, and I decided to try and hold a very specific position and hold a glamour-free job, because I also don’t know how to sell myself. I’m shy, it makes me uncomfortable. So I became a translator, and I always defended that line of work. But later I learned other things, and at a certain moment, I began to see that that privilege could be implemented in another way to create spaces for generating discourse and transformations, and I went about doing that, but starting within the movements where I had been active. That made for a rather round-about path towards what I do that can only really be explained by my life story. When I became a mother, I worked with the school. When I worked with undocumented people, I worked at the borders, and I was always trying to encourage situated thought. Words not caught up in abstract academic logic, and not marred by militant or artistic rigidity either. The key for me is to create spaces where people can be equal and feel seen.”

Marta points out a clear split in how privilege can be dealt with. On the one hand, those who know how to carry out mediation processes can often do so because they are in a position of privilege—at least the privilege of being heard as an active citizen. If someone gets to work in a position of intermediation between different social agents and gets paid for it, it indicates a certain level of privilege. But not all positions of privilege are used to oppress—they can also be used to redistribute roles, knowledge and resources. On the other hand, if mediation is conscious of its own position of privilege, the key questions are: Who benefits from the process? Who gains new roles, resources and knowledge? Without being an exact science, if the answer points towards these things being accumulated by a few, then you’re looking at an extractivist practice. If the answer points towards those who did not have these things before the process started, then the process could end up being transformative.

New roles at the margins of institutional logic

We know that institutions are like big waterfalls. They are stuck in old ways that are very hard to change. We also know that, unfortunately, they very often create binary relationships—you’re either in the institution or outside of it, and on the inside, apparently, there is a series of control mechanisms and technical rituals that only let those who are certified remain there. Anyone else is automatically a “visitor”.

This is especially painful when it involves public institutions which, in theory, should be designed under the principle of universality and equity. But we also know that there are many people trying to resist these old ways, trying to open up new spaces where people can operate in permanent roles, not just as visitors. Mediation can play a role in this change, but can we really manage to overpower these institutional ways? Fran MM Cabeza de Vaca, a professor, artist and head of education at the Museo Reina Sofía, reflects on these questions:

“One of the topics that worries me is homogeneity in different spaces. Schools are homogeneous spaces. The artistic world is homogenous, institutions are homogeneous spaces, and I feel that the projects that effect the most change are those that create intermediary passageways, little corridors where different people can cross over from one structure to another. In terms of those involved, I like this idea of double agents or triple agents, who are often mediators. Now, I’m also starting to realise that the realm of mediation is also homogeneous. It’s necessary to have this kind of figure, who has a foot in each world. If we rely too much on these homogeneous spaces and leave the institution or school to its own devices, it becomes very difficult to make things happen, because we live in such a polarised political landscape where everyone goes to one extreme or the other. So, I do feel that this is very good work, that it’s putting you in a place that is not polarised, that is heterogeneous. I don’t want to use the word ‘diverse’ because it’s a word that many people already manipulate, but yes, diverse in that sense.”

If we stick to a conventional idea of what mediation is, the first thing that comes to mind is conflict management between parties. Mediation in conflict resolution usually involves calling on a third party to solve a misunderstanding between two other parties. Different analogies could certainly be drawn, but continuing with the metaphor that Fran MM Cabeza de Vaca proposed, double (or triple) agents don’t always come from outside. Sometimes mediation between social spaces is initiated by agents who formally belong to one of these spaces, but who also belong to other spaces and know other languages and methods. This is the case of faculty in educational spaces:

“Educational privilege is a very powerful tool for creating safe spaces, spaces for questioning power […], for including the question of school insiders versus outsiders in all of these processes. I mean, being clear about the fact that the school is not a physically defined place, there are actual fences to jump, especially in the case of high schools. But what’s really helping me a lot is always questioning what is inside and what is outside, because the narratives are designed to make us believe that there actually is an inside and an outside and that the boundaries between them are clear. The educational administration does it with how it distributes centres of learning, in how it divides up the student body, and I feel that this is a question that can help us to find another way of thinking,” Cabeza de Vaca states.

Neutral facilitation is not something to be strived for. Neutrality in a political process is normally a deceitful fallacy that, more often than not, ends up being an impossible role to carry out. At the same time, we do have to recognise that facilitation should tend towards the creation of equity and not the other way around. That position and that double role of listening to the group and trying to make things equal is something that can require a lot of energy.

It also has to do with identities, roles and how we name things. Often the labels that are automatically ascribed to the roles that we conform to in specific social spaces carry with them a set of prejudices and pre-established notions: professor, activist, artist, researcher. For Fran MM Cabeza de Vaca, the key is dedicating yourself to the margins of identity and letting that be what reinvents the institution and its clichés:

“I’m reluctant to let go of what the word queer really means when confronted with this kind of identitarianism, even though sometimes the word is used to just substitute one mainstream for another. Its real meaning is having a clear commitment to the margins of identity and culture, a commitment to everything in flux, and to me that’s a very transformative commitment. The queerest identity doesn’t really have anything to do with gender. It’s concerned with all genders of all things, all categories, allowing things to grow in the margins and become strong there because normally we try to just push everything into the centre.”

Conditions of care production and mediation

One of the most complicated aspects of working in the kind of mediation that does not aim for neutrality—but at the same time seeks to encourage distributed participation and facilitate a plural conversation—is the energy that must be invested in order to present yourself as both a listening ear and a solid guide at the same time. A listening ear that is able to read different energy levels and tend to issues that are mired in the habits of the groups involved. A solid guide that provides stability, safety, comfort, good humour and attitudes that inspire the group to keep pushing forward.

As paradoxical as it may seem, neutral facilitation is not something to be strived for. Neutrality in a political process is normally a deceitful fallacy that, more often than not, ends up being an impossible role to carry out. At the same time, we do have to recognise that facilitation should tend towards the creation of equity and not the other way around. That position and that double role of listening to the group and trying to make things equal is something that can require a lot of energy. Furthermore, the person who is mediating a process doesn’t enter into that process in a vacuum. There is always something external conditioning that person’s level of energy.

A lot of organisations focussed on cultural mediation exist in a state of precarity. The work is done by a few people doing many things on a salary that provides just enough to live on, and even this can only be achieved by simplifying and reducing on a lot of fronts. This text is to a degree informed by the material conditions under which work is produced and what needs to be done from one mediation process to another, from one activity to another. In the end, what often seems to emerge is the desire to stop. But is it possible to stop? Jaz Choi, cultural mediator and researcher, shares some intuitive thoughts on the matter:

“It’s hard to stop. It also seems very dramatic. In Korean, we have an expression ‘nolda’, which means to play, and there’s also an expression that refers to a key; ‘A key is playing,’ which basically means that it’s there, but it’s not pushing hard enough to fit into the keyhole. In Japanese, it’s similar, there’s a word ‘yutori’, which means to increase in amplitude, like a garment that is slightly oversized. This involves creating a bit of space for comfort and flexibility, and this can be applied to education. I suppose that when applied to an organisation in ‘survival mode’, that’s in a jam, it can really help you reflect, and the idea is, how do we create those little spaces that give you some breathing room and let you reflect on things? Because in reality, reflective thought can happen in brief moments, small spaces. And those moments or spaces can be playful, basically.”

The truth is that being able to stop is a privilege that not everyone can allow themselves, and perhaps the metaphor raised by Jaz could be very thought provoking and translated into practice in different ways—almost ad hoc, depending on the organisation in question. Even so, it’s tempting to try and nail down a specific experience in terms of how we can get past inertia in order to try to generate spaces suitable for reflecting on experiences and to collectively digest all these non-verbalised lessons.

Being conscious of the fact that not all processes and tools work the same way for every person, we are certain that it is necessary to talk about the need to understand that every person needs spaces for self-care and that every organisation needs some “physical therapy” every now and then, which in this case involved creating routines that allow for joint reflection and are not caught up in the day-to-day. Honest mediation needs spaces for self-care as well, in any shape or form, and even under these conditions there are still many issues to resolve. How do you maintain friendships at a distance? How are conflicts solved when you can’t look the other person in the eyes? How can empathy be exercised through a computer screen? How do we make room for silence in digital spaces without it equating to a lack of participation?

We hope to find the answers to these questions as we always have—by learning from other people by collaborating, cooperating and working collectively.