The Green Room is a new blog series from the research community at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It’s both a response to the impact of Covid 19 on the arts, and a way of starting new conversations about the future. Each week colleagues will share their personal reflections, insights, challenges and hopes as we begin to map out our next steps together.
Art-making in a global pandemic
In December, my colleagues Sarah Hopfinger, Stuart MacRae, and I were awarded an RSE grant to organise a series of three workshops called Art-Making in the Anthropocene. I was looking forward to spending this spring planning the workshops with Sarah and Stuart: I wasn’t expecting we’d be doing so under circumstances already so radically altered by the anthropocene. Though there’s nothing human-made about COVID-19 itself, the conditions that allowed for its rapid and devastating spread are very much the result of human activity: human encroachment into wilderness areas leading to the emergence of zoonotic pathogens; an unsustainable level of air travel dispersing new diseases worldwide before we even know they exist; health systems optimized for minimizing government expenditure and/or maximising profit rather than for resiliency; and a misplaced confidence that humans will always be able to control nature through technology.
Suffering caused by anthropogenic damage is nothing new: people all over the world, especially poorer people, people of colour, and people in poorer countries, have been struggling against the effects of pollution, environmental destruction, and climate change for decades, and of colonialism for centuries. What’s new is that all of us are affected by covid-19 (though the risk, as always, is many times greater for less privileged people). While some may escape grievous personal losses, the sense of precarity, uncertainty, and isolation affects everyone. For many artists and academics in wealthier countries, this may be the first time we have had to wrestle with the effects of the anthropocene not as something subtle, theoretical, or yet-to-come, but as something that palpably affects every aspect of both our daily lives and our visions for the future.
For all the losses, however, figuring out how to get through this time as artists, researchers, and educators is not an entirely negative process. Many of the problems we’re dealing with now were already problems before covid-19 brought life as usual to a halt. Now that these problems have been thrown into such sharp relief, perhaps we can address them more effectively. Some of the solutions we come up with to get through this time of crisis may also be key for creating a better life in future. In large and small ways, they may help mitigate the effects of future chapters of the anthropocene, and perhaps even contribute to making some of these chapters less likely to happen.
In no particular order, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about during COVID-19 lockdown that I would like to continue thinking about and integrating into my life as a researcher, composer, and educator when COVID-19 is over. I’ve added links to other relevant blog posts, articles and art (when I can remember where I saw them): there has been lots of great writing about these topics, and there are many important perspectives to consider.
Attention to individuals
Working from home makes it clear what different circumstances we’re all working under. What do people need to be able to participate fully in art and academic communities: Adequate technology? A piano? Auto-captioning? A quiet working space? An ergonomic desk set-up? Childcare? Flexible deadlines? Regular check-ins with supportive mentors or colleagues? We need to ensure everyone has access to the things they need to learn, work, and create most effectively, both during this pandemic, and in the future. (And we need to remember that people may have multiple and overlapping needs. There is no one-size-fits-all model of providing support.
Online teaching isn’t a substitute for in-person teaching (but there are great things about both)
I’m a Luddite at heart, so I’ve been surprised to discover that there are many good things about teaching and meeting online. It’s not a substitute for in-person teaching, of course, not because it’s worse, but because it’s something different entirely (just as movies are no substitute for theatre, books are no substitute for storytelling, and recordings are no substitute for live performance: they’re all valid, but different!) In-person interaction will always be an essential part of education (and I’m vehemently opposed to any attempts to replace in-person teaching with online teaching simply to save money), but it’s exciting to figure out how we can improve our educational offerings with appropriate use of online technologies. Inviting exactly the right video-guest to class? Holding regular discussions between people in different places? Reaching students who can’t attend in person because of location, disability, or caregiving responsibilities? (Students with disabilities have been asking for online learning forever, and it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic for academic institutions to start making this available.)
Centering of marginalised voices
Isolation, inability to attend artistic events, financial precarity, uncertainty about the future, and/or the intermingling of home and work lives may be new for some artists and academics, but others have always done amazing work under these conditions, and have always written beautifully about it. Let’s make sure we’re listening to and supporting people who have been dealing with these issues forever, and not just those who are confronting them for the first time.
Here are a few links to get started:
Blogger Rose Rodent questioning why abled people have been asked to write about isolation during lockdown while disabled writers have been ignored.
Toria Banks and Amble Skuse discussing disability, COVID-19, and their upcoming collaboration.
Dennis Bathory Kitsz writing about being a rural composer.
And a documentary by Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, about art-making and motherhood
Centering care of self and others
During lockdown, preparing food, taking my daily walk, and trying to juggle childcare and work (my husband and I split the days 50/50) have become the constants around which I organize my time. I sometimes resent the time spent cooking, even as I recognize that balancing the abstraction of composing and researching with the concreteness of baking bread is actually very healthy for me. I treasure the extra time with my kids, even while wishing they would leave me alone to compose! Kailan Rubinoff has written beautifully about how “Mixing [one’s] teacher and parent roles” can make one “think more imaginatively about both”.
Community vs individualism
Individual success in the arts means nothing if it doesn’t happen within the context of a thriving artistic community. It’s been amazing to watch artistic organisations find ways to support artists (eg. by offering need-based rather than competitive funding, or by reaching out to find work for people), and to watch artists in turn support each other and the community as a whole. I hope this continues when the current crisis is over.
Exploration of different forms and formats
Though a safe return to the concert hall or theatre stage seems worryingly far in the future, now is a great time to create and perform works in less traditional forms and formats that may be more suitable for socially distanced performance: site specific works, outdoor pieces, spatially separated antiphonal works, sound-walks, made-for-TV operas, pieces for home performance by individuals or households, pieces intended to be realized by amateurs, harbour symphonies, music and film collaborations, and many others. Just a few of the inspirations I’m thinking of here include:
Leanne Zacharias’s Music for Spaces project; Byron Au Yong’s operas for outdoor and other non-traditional spaces; Hanna Tuulikki’s outdoor experiential works like Away With the Birds and Into the Mountain; Murray Schafer’s Music for Wilderness Lake as well as some of the works in his Patria Cycle; Alexina Louie’s made-for-TV operas; books of listening and sound-making exercises like Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations, and John Stevens’s Search and Reflect; do-it-yourself soundwalks by Hildegard Westerkaamp and others; Matthew Schlomowitz’s Music for Cohabiters: (https://shloms.wixsite.com/musicforcohabiters), and the PIY (Perform it Yourself) scores presented by Instrument Makers.
New funding structures
Before-the-fact counts of “bums in seats,” highly conjectural impact statements, and promises that each and every work will be more groundbreaking than the last have never been good ways of measuring the worth of an artistic project, and now that we’re facing the prospect of long-term social distancing and intermittent lockdowns, these kind of claims are patently meaningless. Let’s move to simpler, more reliable, and more broadly supportive funding structures: project grants based on ideas rather than projections; artist salaries (or artist welfare);and widespread structural funding for arts organizations. (Artists aren’t the only ones who need a reliable income, of course: perhaps it’s time now for a universal income, or some other kind of similarly broad safety net for all?)
A move away from constant productivity
Some have found comfort in creating lots of art during lockdown, while others have needed to step back from active creation, whether because they are dealing with effects of COVID-19 directly, because they don’t have home circumstances which give them the necessary time, space, and/or financial resources to create, or because they need time to reflect on and process what is happening. Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian has written beautifully about how important it is to take time away when that’s what you need.
Flying to multiple academic conferences each year or travelling long distances to give an hour-long seminar has never been ecologically sustainable. We’re all seeing that conferences can, with some modifications, take place quite effectively online, and inviting video-guests opens up new possibilities for who we can invite and how often we can make such invitations. Obviously in-person conferences and visits remain important and can’t be replaced by video, but let’s work harder to minimize the number of times we fly (or require people to fly), and maximize the experience when we do travel long distance.
One of the most surprising things I’ve felt since COVID-19 started, mixed in with all the other emotions like worry, fear, and grief, is a sense of relief relief that it actually is possible for the economic workings of the world to slow while we deal with something more important to our life and wellbeing. After years of hearing that there’s no way we could possibly slow the “progress” of capitalism to mitigate the effects of climate change, I’m feeling hopeful, for the first time in my life, that maybe we can. Lockdown has given us a unique window of time to step back and think about what we do, how we do it, and what is most important. I hope we use this time to figure out kinder, gentler, more inclusive ways of doing things, and bring them with us into our post-covid future.