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The Myth of the Artist

Originally posted on Christina Webber’s blog found here.

Articles were circulating during the height of the pandemic expressing concern for the future of the creative industries. Headlines warned that the cultural sector had been one of the hardest hit by Covid, and that going forward early career artists and entry-level freelancers would struggle to find work. I read those reports and thought: ‘what’s changed’? Of course, the world has changed – and I don’t wish to minimise the impact of Coronavirus both on a human level and economically – but it’s not like we were inundated with opportunities beforehand. I agree that we need to seriously consider how we remodel after the pandemic, and that many inequalities in existing systems have been brought to light by the restrictions faced by the population and the adaptations that were suddenly made possible because the majority of us were in lockdown. A greater focus on accessibility both on and offline should be born from this, allowing for improved flexibility and provision for previously overlooked audiences: those with access requirements, caring responsibilities, chronic health conditions, those unable to travel into city centres, or travel at all. The digitisation of the creative industries through virtual exhibitions, digital engagement activities, remote learning and accurate, immersive translation of ‘in-person’ experiences for those unable to physically take part – all these things were simply not seen as a priority before Covid and now we’re realising how much can be done when the issue of access is paramount. That stuff is hugely important, and great leaps have already been taken. The programme of activity now available for photographers online? The variety offered by institutions like Street Level Photoworks, who have excelled in offering material online? It’s amazing.

But what I want to focus on in this hopefully short-ish text is the need for further adjustments to be made, and to highlight the perpetuated infeasibility of ‘accessibility’ in an industry that at its foundation relies upon unpaid labour, voluntary contributions, and a system of network-based nepotism that biases those able to physically take part and take risks. There is an unwritten assumption that to be a serious photographer you need to be flexible and comfortable enough to put all your energies into something with no guarantee of pay-off. As we move forward into whatever comes next, we should be careful not to misremember a world where exhibitions were always busy, where opportunities for early-career artists (especially those without certain privileges) were bountiful and lucrative, where commissions were commonplace and where early creators felt a freedom to try and fail. The truth is, it’s tricky to be present in this industry.  It’s tricky to consistently turn up. The last 18 months should not eclipse the reality of photography in Scotland pre-2020, merely because a pandemic has seen the bigwigs struggling and the ‘art world celebrities’ are suddenly also without work.

In 2020 I launched a podcast called Finding Focus, recorded shortly before the pandemic hit the UK. As a co-founder of photography critique group Fresh Focus, I speak to a lot of early career artists. I realised talking to my peers that I was having the same kinds of conversations with multiple people and that behind the scenes most other photographers were struggling too. One of the main messages coming through was that we all felt we’d been under some illusion that to be ‘a photographer’ or ‘an artist’ you had to do this with your whole self, you had to make your sole income only from photography, and that to do otherwise or compromise your time and energy in way was a failure. We all felt a pressure to appear professional, active and engaged, and bowed to an unspoken stigma about any pursuit that wasn’t behind a camera, any part of your life that didn’t fit into a specific ‘artist’ aesthetic. Before leaving University I was told to quit my day job by a tutor who I’m sure was well-meaning, but who couldn’t see that that simply wasn’t an option for me. He believed I needed to put everything into photography to succeed. He believed I needed the freedom and flexibility of being unemployed to be able to make it taking pictures. I knew, over £1k overdrawn after paying off my degree show, that that simply wasn’t an option.

Somehow the ‘myth of the artist’ prevails today: someone comfortable, flexible, prodigious, aloof, able to take risks. That’s just not real. In a world of image-makers changing all the time – where zero hour contracts, funding applications, burnout, bloggers, baristas, residencies, pinterest and polaroids exist all at the same time – why does this fantasy survive? 

I think the ‘shiny’ side of social media fuels the fire; confirming for many that the photography industry is full of competent, successful, happy and commercially savvy individuals who are solely making pictures. Scrolling through my feed I see artists with elaborate exhibitions, carefully considered behind-the-scenes shots of studios and work-in-progress, frames in bubble wrap, and desks draped in sunlight. Is this why the myth of ‘the artist’ persists ? The photographers on my feed don’t sweat, or cry, or stand behind a till. I mean they do, of course, but we don’t see it. And when we don’t see it, we don’t feel like we can talk about it. Considering that social media is the primary way a lot of early photographers network, and for many this may be the only space available to interact with their peers, it can take years to learn that actually you’re not the only one working three jobs, or with kids, or caring for a relative, or battling with your health, or struggling. The merging of professional and personal in online avenues creates an auto-biographical grey area, perpetuating the idea that ‘real’ photographers are worry-less, don’t falter, and don’t compromise. We crave professionalism and so we edit. But what does that achieve, really? We need to reclaim this space.  What exists beneath the surface of Instagram feeds and exhibition catalogues is an art world full of multi-faceted individuals with a range of commitments, skills, priorities, backgrounds and careers. Artists that stack shelves, that campaign, that breast feed, that drive trucks, that answer phones, that regularly, repeatedly, get rejected. For some reason all these brilliant bits get blurred out. Both institutions and practitioners are complicit in this bizarre performance. And in ‘real life’ too – it’s easy to assume that the photographers speaking at events and giving masterclasses don’t also have part-time jobs or other commitments because even if they do it somehow still feels taboo to talk about that. We’re encouraged to discuss our successes and not to linger on the hard graft, or the lucky breaks, or the undeniable privilege that got us there. Only once in my life has someone asked at one of these talks ‘where did the money come from?’ and I was ecstatic.

We have a whole generation of artists putting their best faces forward online on the off chance someone might notice them, see their cultivated professionalism and productivity, and invite them to do paid work. Indignation is muted because everyone wants to make a good impression. Nobody wants to challenge anything for fear of  burning a bridge, digital or otherwise, and everyone remains friends. Facebook friends. Nobody wants to be the first person to point out it’s not really working, especially minority groups, for fear of being branded ungrateful or problematic. It’s uncomfortable and it self-perpetuates – we all believe we’re the only one that hasn’t ‘made it’ yet.

It’s not all about money and it shouldn’t be all about money and yet calling it an industry does assume someone is getting paid. I didn’t pay the contributors to my podcast, but I was very clear with them about that. I didn’t make a penny from this, I never expected to. It wasn’t a profit-making enterprise. But equally, this was only possible because at the time I’d lost all my work. I had nothing else to do so I seized something I wanted to exist and squeezed it into the world. And that’s what I mean about access – when nobody gets paid, we’re instead relying on time. It’s either or. You’ve either got money or you’ve got time. Being ‘an artist’ requires both. How can we talk about accessibility without pointing out what a barrier that is?

Who is making money here? Voluntary roles that are necessary for Festivals and Galleries to operate are advertised as exclusive positions or ‘invaluable opportunities’ for which you have to carefully apply. Invaluable opportunities. All this language is doing is  reinforcing the idea that being picked to work for free is a privilege. I’m not saying that these aren’t meaningful experiences but there seems to exist this idea that if you enjoy doing something and care about it you shouldn’t expect to be paid. Again, I didn’t pay my podcast participants. It’s not definitively exploitative to seek voluntary support. But it’s important these relationships are considered as such – as relationships with a give and take – as opposed to an essential part of a business surviving. If an industry doesn’t work without its volunteers it’s not really working. We have to consider the financial machine behind a lot of these institutions as businesses, and recognise where the money is going, because someone is getting paid. At some point a value judgement has been made which acknowledges the vast appetite in early-career artists and understands it’s not necessary to pay these positions because there will always be those able to do this for free. What’s accessible about that? Those with financial support, those with allowances, those who have been able to put the unpaid time aside – everyone with the flexibility and opportunity and privilege to do so will. And all those people that face barriers here: those with access requirements, with caring responsibilities, those who are unwell, those unable to travel – what about them? Accessibility isn’t just about allowing people to view work. It’s about participation too. There are still so many obstacles in place that make taking part, or taking part for very long, impossible. The system acknowledges that there’s an appetite, and takes advantage of it.

How is this going to change? How can practitioners and institutions engineer a different path for young photographers, for those who face barriers in whatever format between their pictures and a platform? I keep coming back to the idea of changing the perception of what an artist is. Proving that often interesting photographic work often comes from individuals with a diverse remit; with multiple priorities of which ‘making art’ is but one dimension. 

So I return to my initial point: to say that the creative industries are ‘in trouble’ seems to be stating the obvious. If we were looking at this as any other business or commercial entity that can’t afford to pay all its staff it would seem outrageous. It’s unfair to assume that making work is dependent on having the time, space and money to work for free and this shouldn’t be all we see. I’m a huge believer in advocacy, in making things happen, in doing things yourself and I don’t want to shovel all of the blame on the galleries, festivals and competitions that likely believe they are doing their best to support practitioners. We’re all complicit in perpetuating the myth of the artist, and it’s a wider issue of course when we start to thinka bout editing our personas online. But let’s talk about this stuff! We can change the way exhibiting photography works, and lockdown has already kickstarted some of that: more paid online commissions, more flexibility in blended on/offline events programming, transparency on where money is going, transparency too on how you get your work seen, or which publications pay contributors, on which galleries commission new work, shared storage for those without space to store materials, an accessibility officer in every institution, listening events with recent graduates and start-ups to see what support is needed in a fast-evolving climate, low-cost equipment hire, low-cost studio spaces, community-building, more paid reviewers, more paid opportunities in general, and fundamentally more space for failure. Not only can we shed the idea that artists are privileged prodigies who sit all day waiting for inspiration to strike but it also makes the work accessible and available to so many more contributors. Those who can only afford to dedicate a day or an hour at a time to making photographs. We are curating an idea of success that just isn’t realistic. Unless we start to acknowledge the problems we’ve always had, pre-Covid as well as now, we can’t enable real change going forward.

By Christina Webber

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Thoughts

Manmade Nature

There has been a trend as of late to move toward the use of a concept known as “rewilding” to combat climate change and realise a more functional relationship with nature, namely, restarting the ecosystem that may have emerged through evolution and eventual stability in the past. To rewild, as defined by Oxford Languages, is to “restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or exterminated)”.

Many major bestsellers have followed, advocating such practices such as Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald or Wilding by Isabella Tree (aptly named). In both cases, the authors lay out potential solution, in theoretical or practical/experiential fervour. The latter being a real world example of the rewilding of an estate shows the benefits, the return to nature and subsequent healing it quantifies.

Although beneficial, there is a hidden irony in all of this practice and purpose, the fact being that we humans have to (as the definition even states) introduce a species of wild animal that may have otherwise been driven out or exterminated. Now it is entirely agreeable that the introduction of an animal given its driving out or extermination due to human activities, for example, deforestation, would validate morally and practically a decision of re-introduction. However, as an example, there is talk of resurrection of species that are extinct and which are not extinct completely due to the existence of humans nor the industrial revolution that followed. One company (a privately funded organisation) intends to resurrect the woolly mammoth which they believe could be a tool to fight climate change through their landscape changing abilities. Yes, the woolly mammoth was very much like those rewilding animals being re-introduced today, but the difference being it has been dead for thousands of years. Does it deserve another opportunity? Are humans the one that should make that decision?

The point of all of this is that it could be argued that fundamentally nothing is natural anymore. Humans dictate the boundaries of national parks, forests, nature reserves, local parks, gardens, and any other plot of land deemed non-residential, commercial and/or agricultural. Humans also decide and/or determine what species should be in a given habitat, what species are to be expected in a given habitat, and subsequently what should be re-introduced and therefore exist in a given place. Nature, as we call it, is now manmade and there is no turning back from this. Take our gardens as an example where we’re encouraged to invigorate nature by buying a bird feeder or plant wild flower for bees and butterflies. That in itself is unnatural, the closing off of an area of space, deeming it a garden and artificially subsidising “nature” with something that may otherwise be found if the garden was left ungardenlike without boundary and “care”.

We need to reconsider what is natural and what is not, the use of terms and/or labelling can at times seem pedantic and anal, but it lends understanding in what it is we are trying to achieve with this planet. Currently we are a parasite draining our host of all resource and energy, but soon we need to create a truly natural symbiosis without artificial decision making and subsidisation, instead bringing a balance to things that allows true nature to thrive.

By Anonymous

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Thoughts

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues songs

The title is poignant, a lyric from the band Song: Ohia in a song called Blue Chicago Moon. Fronted by the late Jason Molina who passed prematurely due to alcoholism, the song like many of those sung by him, is deeply seeded with pain and anguish. It’s a seeming pain of a man who maybe could not fit into the world coming up against its increasing modernity, individualism, free marketisms or ill gotten ways. That in itself is a speculation as to know exactly what went through Molina’s head is impossible.

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues song. This lyric stands out and could be applied to the many voices through the ages that cried out in need of help, in warning, or in pain, repeating the bringing to attention a problem at hand. Those that hear the shouts are very often more willing to suggest its a cry of “wolf” than a true warning. It seems particularly fitting in explaining for the recent unsettling existential dread that seems to hang over us. If the Covid-19 pandemic was a fire alarm regarding our changing world, the latest IPCC report on climate change is the fire in the front room. It is more or less around us, the sickness if you will, whilst those in the know continue to sing the same blues song. Are we to continue ignoring it?

I have struggled recently with this seeming existential dread as some have termed it climate anxiety. I think applying such a label is not helpful and narrows focus to climate change and inaction solely, when in reality it’s a combination of many things, at least in my own case.

For example, I seek out philosophy likely to negate my lack of spirituality, but my lack of spirituality feeds my seeking out nihilism and existentialism in philosophy. The political structures of neoliberalism enforcing a culture of individualism, reinforced particularly in the Anglosphere to the point of stressing ownership of property or a home, and the competitiveness of you against others, reduces the sense of community and belonging.

This combination of commonplace belief systems already weighs heavy on many, specifically a lack of spirituality and neoliberalism, which restricts support, economically, socially and therefore fundamentally mentally. It already places many individuals in a position of apparent futility, broken or unmotivated to begin with, existing and occupied by their black mirrors. Couple this with the inaction over climate change, therefore current and coming disasters (even with dramatic action tomorrow) and you have recipe for a generational anxiety or angst, not solely climate related anxiety.

The so called “climate anxiety” is much deeper, it has many structural causes within culture, society and the economy. But some of us continue to Sing the same blues song, whether about climate, politics, economics, society which seems to fall on increasingly deaf ears, with those around us becoming passive and uninterested. The use of general labels introduces categorisation and therefore grouping of individuals reducing scope for collective action for the totality of our problems. Our song should be loud and in every wording so that is understood by many and not reduced to a few.

By Anonymous

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Thoughts

A Way Out of the “Black Hole” of News

I grew up on a tiny island. Driving from one end to the other took around an hour and a half if the traffic was good. It was extremely conservative, but it put up a liberal front for the tourists. “Guilt-free trip to the Middle East!” it seemed to say, “Arab culture without all that pesky oppression.” If I was fully American, I would have had the time of my life. Unfortunately, I was also Bahraini and the relaxed “Arab-lite” image that had been so carefully constructed began to fall apart.

Peaceful protests started popping up all over the country. It was like a huge party to 8-year-old me. Hopeful voices all around me, finally the government would listen to us. The king didn’t have to go! We could have a constitutional monarchy like Britain. There were huge community cook-outs, I banged drums, shouted chants, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. This lasted a month.

I wasn’t there for what came next, but I remember it in the first person. My mind must have pieced together memories from pictures, videos, things I heard later. My dad was there working as a journalist for the Associated Press. His memories are real. We were gathered at a huge statue that had become a symbol of the rebellion. The riot police attacked without warning. They fired tear gas into the crowd who panicked, trampling each other. They shot the stragglers. Years later, I saw the videos. Boys bleeding on the ground _ a man, wounded, staggering toward the police. They shot him twice more in the stomach from two meters away. My neighbor was the first person shot that day.

After that, things changed. You couldn’t talk anymore, my American life and Bahraini life became two separate worlds. Phones were bugged, houses were bugged. My parents sat up until dawn waiting for the riot police to raid our house. We were lucky. I got used to the smell of tear gas and burning rubber, I stopped noticing the sound of gunshots. My dad went to a lot of funerals. I have a memory of the body of a cousin who was so swollen and bruised you couldn’t see his face. I wonder if I would have recognized him anyway, I didn’t know him that well. Two meters in front of me, a young boy got shot. The canister sank into his stomach and heavy tear gas flowed from the wound. I buried that memory and kept living. My life was normal. I was happy and optimistic. I didn’t know any other way of living.

I once heard my mother describe Bahrain as a black hole for news. A tweet could land you a jail sentence. Image was very important to the Bahraini government. They maintained friendly relations with other world leaders, and aside from a few petitions no global action was taken against them. 

My dad was a photojournalist. The government tried to buy him and he refused. Eventually, he was banned from working. We lived for two years scraping by. We heard rumors that he would be arrested or killed. We moved to Cyprus.  

I had lived in fear since I was eight. Without that fear to support me I didn’t know how to function. I joined a school for musical theatre and started to dance for the first time. Slowly I learned that there were other motivations. I could suddenly breathe _ surrounded by bright lights, sweat, smiles, and people who shared my dreams and passions. I spoke to them freely, knowing they couldn’t turn me in even if they’d wanted to.

I had a voice. I immersed myself in politics, educated myself on LGBTQ+ rights, and accepted my sexuality. I talked and talked at anyone who would listen. Sharing opinions without fear of retribution is exhilarating. I marched for gay rights, against climate change, for the rights of migrant workers. Every time I march, that old fear comes back, but slowly my triggers are gaining new associations. Smoke can be fog as well as tear gas, you can march to Lady Gaga as well as desperate chants, and not all angry teenagers become martyrs.

By Safiya Jamali

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Uncertainties of a Beacon of Democracy in Africa

BBC Radio is one of my favourite channels. I love the phone-in-sessions especially World Have Your Say and other personal stories about overcoming difficulties. As I write this piece, I cannot but recollect a BBC Sports program about a certain period of the African Cup of Nations. In that session of the BBC Sports program, there were jokes about the African countries. And this was how the joke went: all African countries meet at a pub and they display their manliness by requesting a smorgasbord of strong drinks. When it was Ghana’s turn, in a quiet voice like that of a child, it said, “Can I have a glass of milk?” This of course set off a round of raucous laughter among the panelists.

The juxtaposition of Ghana to a child, in my view is not necessarily a denigration. It portrays Ghana as pure and innocent. Qualities which sum up the stage Ghana finds herself in several decades surrounded by countries of which have fallen into the very pit of hellish civil war. The kind which Dante would have been proud to use in his “Inferno”. Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo; countries that are the immediate neighbours of Ghana have always experienced one form of altercation or another but not Ghana. The consequences of the Liberian civil war exist in Ghana in the form of the Liberia Camp, occupied by refugees who have went through the psychological and emotional trauma of war, refusing to go back to Liberia after two decades. Just as some Liberians found Ghana to be a haven, the children I teach from Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon, etc. see Ghana as a haven of peace. Ghana indeed has been the most peaceful place in the African continent.

This is not to say Ghana has never had challenges. Like all Africa countries, Ghana has been marked by the indoctrination of European colonialism but has weathered it quite well. Despite that Ghana has not felt the serrating and the destructive effect of the underbelly of civil war (which have been felt by the Rwandans, or Nigerians with Boko Haram, to name but a few). Thus, the comparison of Ghana to a child is apt, an innocence of the devastating nature of civil war.

My fear however is that this child is gradually losing her innocence, the consequences would not be pleasant, thus the trepidation and uncertainties. In 2016, Ghana elected a new political party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) with Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo as its flagbearer. The previous governing party, National Democratic Congress (NDC) led by John Dramani Mahama, was booted out of office because of the reported canker of corruption. Prior to its election, the then opposition party (NPP) which went on to win the 2016 election, fervently promised to drastically deal with corrupt politicians and act of corruptions. Upon its assumption of office, nothing has changed much, except some would say corruption is at its very peak. Perhaps the words of a Special Prosecutor for corruption, Martin Amidu, (appointed to prosecute all involved in corruption in politics and the economy) that his employer is the “mother serpent of corruption” affirms the horrifying state the country faces.

During the rule of Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo, there were rumours and videos of civilians being trained in military warfare. This was reported by private media. The civilians trained in military tactics were called the Delta Forces. During the 2020 election, it was soon to become apparent why the Delta Forces were recruited and why the government appointed his relatives to the positions of the Electoral Commissioner, the justices, and key functions (who could have put a stop to any fracas the country experiences) in government. Indeed, for four years (2016-2020), the ruling government led by Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo was playing a game of chess with rules the opposition (NDC) was not aware of. The result leading the opposition (NDC) to having their hands being tied, effectively being handed a checkmate.

The civilian militia, Delta Force, had a role to play in the 7th December 2020 election. It is alleged it stole and burnt ballot boxes at opposition strong-hold and put into force other skirmishers which resulted in the death of nine people of which the media reported. This is unheard of in the history of Ghana’s elections. The justices appointed by the government shows clear nepotism and their necessity in the election is clear. The current opposition (NDC) who have disputed the 2020 election are faced with challenging the result of the election in front of judges appointed by the ruling government. On the 6th of January 2021, the Members of Parliament had to propose and vote for a Speaker of Parliament, when the ballot papers were being countered, a member of the incumbent NPP government, tried to do away with ballot papers cast, to have a person of their (NPP) choice as the Speaker of Parliament. To some this is just a confirmation that that the incumbent government led by Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo, rigged the 2020 election. And the very public figures who previously, could have expressed their views concerning the errors in the election have their hands tied, because they have been appointed by the government in several positions and therefore one cannot bite the hand that feeds it. Indeed this is almost admirable; it took foresight, effective planning and the ability to believe in one’s own lies to make this possible.

As a confirmation of the unease the country is experiencing, a movie, “Freedom and Justice” by a Ghanaian actor, dancer, musician, Kobby Rana was banned from its 25th December 2020 debut. A trailer of the movie portrays almost effectively, the corruption that has brought about the snail-pace or even a halt to the progress and development of the country. A country which gained independence at the same period as the likes of Malaysia, to use a comparative measure of development. With all that is occurring, the consequence is an undertone of unrest and uncertainties. Can Ghana continue in the midst of the lies, armed civilian militias (at the detriment of trained and qualified security officers), a disputed election, a government that practices Machiavellian and mafia-like tactics?  Will Ghanaians be willing to unify as the newly sworn in government of the Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo hopes for in his inauguration speech? Is this beacon of democracy in Africa losing its glow?

by Ali I. M.

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Post-Pandemic Economics

What we are currently experiencing is unprecedented. A major economic catastrophe of which is mostly welcomed and intentional. We have locked down all function of our economies, restricting the movement of people, shutting many away from their normal lives of working through the forced closure of many businesses or what could be deemed the “free market”.

The free market is shut, but life continues. The UK government after many years of some of the most severe austerity in the advanced economies has made available spending that is astronomical including and not limited to the paying of 80% of the wages of many private sector workers. The rescue packages being dealt out by governments globally equates to trillions of dollars in value.

How are free markets suddenly disregarded with centrally planned state flotation of the economy being allowed by many of these private corporations that herald deregulation and outsourcing. Many may try to argue that this economic downturn is artificial due to its transparent causation. But should the free market not factor in all risks? Should it not be sustainable through any contingency?

That is what is usually argued, that the free market can provide all that the market demands and sustain economic activity efficiently. What if, as in this case, the market is no longer needed? What if all that is required is the bare necessities and the majority of activity is actually detrimental to many individuals’ lives? This is what we have now seen, the necessity of government, including in its existence in the economy. Our governments have increasingly pulled away from involvement in our economies with consecutive bodies being elected “reflecting” the wants of the public.

Things need to change. No longer can this form of capitalism function. We as societies already faced problems in the form of climate change and foreign ideological regimes with state surveillance systems that would keep the majority of our citizens awake at night. A new system of economics needs to be born from this. One that is inclusive, morally and socially responsible, and accountable both with risk and impact with safety being paramount. Safety is a fundamental component of the new system. No one wants a repeat of this, even those in the free market. The uncertainty, self-inflicted wounds, and chaos that this pandemic and subsequent lock downs has rout has brought oil to its knees, whole industries facing collapse, to name only a couple of the historic firsts. Now is the time to use this to our advantage and make the change needed to save this world. Life cannot go back to “normal”, we need a new normal and it needs to start now.

by Maurizio J Liberante