Therme Art Program

Creating in Crisis – Systems of Creativity and Improvisation

COVID-19 has shown the incompatibility of certain cultural practices and modes of behaviour with continued human life. Now, we are thrust into unprecedented territory and find ourselves rebuilding on shifting grounds. Responding to crisis can often feel like a passive reaction. However, it can also be an active process that creates new transitory forms and (re)discovers ancient practices of action, hidden under the normative rules of art. What does it mean to design and create in the presence of uncertainty? How can we use that precariousness to our advantage?

In thinking about generative modes of production and collaboration, improvisation (re)appears as a viable methodology to lean on during our endeavours toward future building. The line between improvisation and chaos, however, is extraordinarily thin: the former denotes spontaneity and frugality, creating with what you have, while the latter implies a temporality of confusion and disorder. Though these phenomena may share some qualities within a relationship of permanent interactivity, they remain distinctive irrespective of these qualities. Improvisation, for one thing, tends to have systems or structures in place that can be abandoned at any time in favour of free space and play.

The late medieval physician Paracelsus described his art of healing (and alchemy) as “wandering in chaos”. This kind of art is rooted in constant interaction with and acceptance of spontaneous events. Similarly, improvisation spans all disciplines, from performance art to quantum physics, and functions on both micro- and macroscopic levels, from the symbiosis of single cell organisms to inter-species evolution. It signals intelligence, heightened communication, and adaptability. All of these are crucial to the survival of our species, our fellow nonhuman neighbours, and our planet.

Mikolaj Sekutowicz, Marcus Fairs, Jeewi Lee, Sarah Wilson, Julieta Aranda

Historically, city planning has taken a one-size-fits-all approach. However, we are now becoming increasingly aware of the harm and inefficiency of this outlook, especially considering the growing globalisation of our networks. Wellbeing comes from being in harmony not just with our internal landscape, but our external environments as well. No change can happen without taking all intrinsic cultural practices into account. Reaching this homeostasis requires listening, presence, and trust. How can we design cities that create pockets of space for this type of relationality? How can improvisation manifest in stable architectural structures, as well as the relationships these structures hold?

To ensure the viability of future life, large-scale cultural adaptation is now needed. Bringing together cultural producers, artists, architects, activists, and designers, this interdisciplinary session considered the role of culture in this widest possible sense, exploring the urgency in developing new cultural technologies and improvisatory practices in harmony with human and environmental health.

Key Questions

1. How can we integrate improvisation into our creative and collaborative processes?
2. How can we remain grounded in our work in the midst of precarious times?
3. Which cultural and design adaptations are necessary to redesign the city in response to COVID-19?
4. How do improvisational techniques manifest in practice?
5. Are there any examples of architecture, design, and/or urban planning finding innovative solutions through unplanned detours?
6. How can the current public health crisis be understood as a cultural problem and how can culture help to solve it?
7. How can the cultural and creative sector participate in problem solving and communication between other diverse disciplines?
8. What is the artist’s role in current political and health crises? How can artistic work affect positive change?


Mikolaj Sekutowicz, CEO and Curator, Therme Art (Co-moderator)
Sarah Wilson, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, Courtauld Institute of Art
Joulia Strauss, Artist, Activist and Multimedia Sculptor
Julieta Aranda, Artist and Editor of E-Flux Journal
Johann König, Galerist König Galerie
Jeewi Lee, Artist
Marcus Fairs, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Dezeen
Matana Roberts, Multidisciplinary Artist, Composer and Saxophonist

In partnership with


Jeewi Lee


Johann König


Joulia Strauss


Marcus Fairs


Julieta Aranda


Sarah Wilson


Matana Roberts


Mikolaj Sekutowicz


Photo Credits: Therme Art © Jendrick Schröder