Planet: Reconnect

Irina Nalis is a psychologist, cyclist, reader and techno veteran. We met with her ahead of Elevate Festival 2020 for a conversation around the festival's main theme, "Human Nature".

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Author: Daniel Erlacher

Elevate Festival invited Irina Nalis, who is part of the Faces of We are Europe, to speak during their discourse programme earlier this year. This interview has been conducted during the event, which happened to take place on the weekend before the Austrian lockdown. It comes with a short statement sent 8 months after the interview, regarding the current situation of humanity in times of a global pandemic.

As the world is facing one of its most serious crises in recent history, her words — namely the necessity to work on knowing ourselves better and reconnect with everything that exists around us — only make more sense.

Irina Nalis at Elevate Festival 2020. © Manuel Rieder

Irina Nalis in October 2020:

“Solve everything at once” — a lot of talk in the last months around Covid-19 revolved around an ostensible surprise voiced by some politicians, policy makers and media about how this virus is able to highlight so many societal crises of our times at once. The burning glass metaphor is and was used quite heavily. However, to many of us it was neither a surprise nor good news as it has been understood for quite some time: the interrelations and interdependencies of ecological and economic questions, of power, private and public issues, of humans and nature and last but not least of body and brain demand for holistic approaches.

While the last months showed the human capability of random acts of kindness towards strangers, recently, negative side effects unleashed their destructive potential. Anxiety and frustration, disorientation, depression, and the infodemic side of the pandemic are rising sometimes even at higher speed than infection rates. To me, this reflects how most governments chose control over collaboration; populist answers over social innovation; national competition over collaboration in combatting the virus and all the problems it made so visible. For instance, in my home country, Austria, press conferences mostly held by mamels outplay problem-solving in large scales. Only message sprints for short attention spans are produced – no design sprints, or even new approaches to governance design are sought for.

Waiting, worrying, whining are exhausting — doing can be exhausting, too. Yet, in contrast to passive aggression, it also carries the promise to experience activation, belonging and creativity. So instead of fatigues of all sorts from Zoom, privacy, masks and change fatigue, I would love to see civil society, politics, academia and arts united in building rooms for resonance and leave the echo chambers for good. It is more than time to re-distribute the resources for resilience and grow a change muscle from the experience of how things can, should or could be different. From shock to shift: collective action towards a just transition is necessary. And as the meme goes — here’s a virus, practice.

Daniel Erlacher: Elevate’s festival theme 2020 is “Human Nature”. What is your second thought about it?

Irina Nalis: Why settle for less? You have to embrace big questions to enable big transformation… and this theme is definitely not a no-brainer. I like to take on this challenge.

And your first?

Call the psychologists. Too.

Quo Vadis Humanity? In 2009 Elevate’s main theme was the climate crisis. Ten years have passed. What is your take on the next ten?

I think a lot about the future, because I intend to live there. And as thinking can only be one starting point — next to feeling — I want to contribute my share in co-creating this decade as one where we can overcome the climate crisis. System change, not climate change as we say! 

On the relationship of humans and technology — are there more reasons to be pessimistic or optimistic? Can you name some?

For now, I would say there are more reasons to be pessimistic. Not because of technology per se but because of the corporations and mindsets behind the codes. This self-fulfilling prophecy about human nature reduces us to click-baits for dark patterns of greed, convenience and ego; covered by the shiny hook line of techno-solutionism where post-humanism is framed as an ultimate goal.

For what is next, my belief in the beauty of human potential helps me stay optimistic. I believe a strong bias toward humanism is needed. Humanism with its take on critical thinking — and the acknowledgement of our abilities, complexities, variances as individuals, families, friends, lovers, neighbours… people. We can shine (en)light(ment) into the black boxes that were designed to shape our behaviours and crack the codes open. This is why I am an advocate for the Vienna Manifesto of Digital Humanism — where we ask to join forces from different academic disciplines. We can overcome this divide and conquer an approach of predatory technologies.

And our relationship with nature? We are of course “part of it”, but where are we going?

Ever since the festival theme popped up I have been wondering whether I am team human — as Douglas Rushkoff would say, and in some extreme cases, I would say yes — and if this excludes me from siding with nature — then I am sure that he would argue no. I might not have reached a conclusion now. But for the last years, I have dedicated quite some time to the Rainbow Local idea of resonance, as developed by Hartmut Rosa. Resonance as a response and relation between human beings, plants, art, or everything that can and should be connected. Building on findings from eco-psychology research, I will elaborate more on the potential of this connection. But for now I dare to give an overly simplistic picture: if only we as human beings would acknowledge our nature better, we would already harm nature around us much less.

“Psycho-spiritual crisis”, “a psychotic society”… how bad is the status quo of humanity?

This question is both a great and a sad one. We certainly need to recognise the mental state of the emergency we are in. A mental health crisis that translates and back-fires in so many diseases and disasters from loneliness, to empathy deficits, climate anxiety to narco-epidemics. These symptoms are what the word means: signs — stop signs! So I guess we should all start looking for root causes of what went wrong and where we want to go instead. Sometimes it is necessary to blame the “others” because our shame-inducing culture (Brene Brown), left so many of us wondering, some scarred and most of us alienated from our feelings and the feelings of others. Let’s join forces — and crying is ok here.

Do you have a message to the We are Europe community? What can we do?

Find the others — and I am again quoting Douglas Rushkoff and all activists everywhere ever—, because as Margaret Mead observed, we should never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.

Irina Nalis is a psychologist, cyclist, reader and techno veteran. She has a background of 15+ years in consulting of private/public/non-profit institutions. As a a uni:docs fellow of the University of Vienna, PhD candidate and lecturer, she supports the ideas of critical psychology that challenge the dogma of statistical significance in a publish or perish academia and instead aim for societal relevance. She entertains a hate/love relationship with the art(world) which led her to found the Vienna Biennale for Fine Arts in the 2000s. She more recently served as advisor to a former Culture Minister and the City’s Councilor of Arts and Science. She currently collaborates with Mostlikely Architecture in the development of a common space city model. Nalis is an advocate for new work and new culture, and an ambassador for the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism.

Read this interview on Elevate’s website.

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