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The Arts and Regenerative Cultures in the time of COVID-19
By: Ann Light
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
In the course of a three-month period, COVID-19 has wrought unprecedented social and economic change across Europe. Much of this has been catastrophic – over 130,000 lives have ended too soon, and early indicators show national economies in freefall. Yet the widespread suspension of social and economic norms has also opened up a space to rethink our values and ways of life. Recent public polls suggest that this has helped people tune-in to our wider climate emergency. News outlets report that “only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” once lockdown ends” – citing improved air quality and a greater sense of community. Another poll finds that 48% of the British public want the UK government to respond to climate change “with the same urgency as coronavirus”. Both crises – one fast, and one slow – point towards the same dysfunction. When apportioning blame for the emergence of the virus, scientists put our entire species in the frame. It is clear that our extractive relationship with the earth’s ecosystems is endangering the health of all beings in new and accelerating ways. Right now, the need to for new, regenerative ways of life is pressing.
Grasping the connection between social and environmental sustainability is crucial to understanding the work that arts organisations undertake. Much of the activity is quietly sensitive to environmental context and more overtly concerned with the issues that motivate the communities round the arts programmes, such as dying town centres and racial/ethnic tension. Closing physical operations necessarily disrupts the relationship between people, place and provider and we have been interested to review how these organisations adapt their mission to the social, physical and emotional distances the pandemic has introduced. Now, the CreaTures project is tracking the responses of these groups to COVID-19. We took the 300 arts organisations that have joined the Culture Declares Emergency (CDE) movement as our sample. CDE launched last year to promote divestment from fossil fuels, climate change education and other ways that cultural organisations could make a difference in addressing the global climate crisis. It represents a good cross-section of activity, from visual art and theatre to local community arts. First, we collected any COVID-19 statements on organisations’ websites. Then we reviewed other communication channels used by the organisations to reach their audiences as a way to identify new online activities. We used thematic analysis to come up with five notable ways that organisations are responding in the immediate aftermath of this crisis and discover interesting examples of creative connection and co-production in a newly-distanced world (more detailed findings are available in our working paper on the CreaTures website). Yet the same COVID-19 shock has also undermined our capacity for action by destabilising many of the organisations doing transformative practical and imaginative work on the ground. Just three months ago – in what feels like a different world – we launched a new project called Creative Practices for Transformational Futures (CreaTures). This EU-funded project brings together eleven partners from the arts and academia across five European states to understand how arts and cultural organisations are helping people to develop more meaningful, sustainable and resilient ways of life. Creative practitioners are devising practical responses to this pressing need to rethink relations in the world. Their highly engaged processes are making quiet, slow transformations, by helping people identify what is meaningful from the dross of life and inspiring participants with a sense of purpose. They start with where people are already focused, looking at what they care about and creating relations that will endure. They make time for reflecting together on the world, and take emotional responses seriously. They involve people as participants, not observers. They imagine difference on a scale that is meaningful to people’s everyday lives.
First, organisations are grieving.
From theatre shows to participatory arts, creative and cultural activities are often things that we do together. We find excitement and comfort from sharing spaces and experiences. In the time of COVID-19, the act of being co-present – once a source of joy – has become a risk. Arts and cultural organisations have acted to safeguard their communities by halting all activities. But the cancellation of programmes has an interlinked emotional and financial impact. One survey estimates that an astonishing 42% of creative businesses and 62% freelancers have lost their entire incomes. Many theatres, festivals, and event organisers are asking ticketholders to consider donating a portion of cancelled ticket prices to offset mounting losses – an act of shared solidarity. And where there was a growing emphasis in the arts on cultural change towards more sustainable practices, individual organisational sustainability has had now to take first consideration.
Organisations are caring.
Nonetheless, arts organisations have been offering unprecedented levels of peer support, particularly to precariously employed colleagues. Many organisations have responded by developing intensive practical and inspirational resources for arts workers, such as this comprehensive list from the Live Art Development Agency. And some of the planned work will go ahead at some point or in some form. For instance, the High Tide theatre company’s Cancellation Catalogue will record and try to re-home any orphaned plays that were never shown due to COVID-19 disruption.
Organisations are sharing.
During this period of increased social isolation, creative groups recognise the important role they can play in engaging audiences, supporting wellbeing and promoting social cohesion. Theatre, dance and live art performances have been particularly amenable to digital translation. Human rights campaigners the Belarus Free Theatre have put their entire back catalogue of social justice-oriented works online, as part of their #LoveOverVirus campaign. Social media have been important dissemination points for these materials, creating a new and diverse media landscape (for those who are connected). New listing sites Cultural Digital and The Shows Must Go Online have begun to catalogue these new resources.
Organisations are connecting.
Organisations are using digital tools to foster new connections to isolated audiences. Many activities focus on wellbeing and education: Manchester Art Gallery and Derby Quad are hosting art-focussed mindfulness sessions, while dancers with the Akram Khan Company are live-streaming movement sessions on Facebook. Creative new event formats are also beginning to emerge, as practitioners adapt to working from the confines of their homes. Deveron Projects has developed the “Month of Sunsets” workshop series - part live cook-along and part writing workshop - to mark the observance of Ramadan. Other events are explicitly using this moment of profound disruption as an opportunity to re-imagine more environmentally-connected futures. Furtherfield gallery’s Marc Garrett has launched a new podcast called “News from where we are” that addresses how artists, techies and activists can work together to create more sustainable post-capitalist realities in the aftermath of COVID-19. Culture Declares Emergency’s weekly series of seminars and events are open spaces to discuss what to do about our collective climate crisis.
Organisations are co-creating.
Finally, organisations are encouraging their audiences to produce new creative works, as a way of keeping relationships with audiences alive while events are cancelled and buildings are closed. The Tate has developed an engaging programme that shows kids (and playful grown-ups) how to create visual art at home, using household materials to reproduce artists’ techniques. Kids are invited to share their creations to an online gallery. Other co-creation exercises are producing a shared record of life under lockdown. The Artists and Climate Change network are collecting 100-word Tiny Coronavirus Stories that convey fleeting thoughts and feelings from isolation, assembling very different experiences of this shared global phenomenon. Continuing their existing work with young people, the Gulbenkian arts centre have been curating a video-based “Coronavirus Time Capsule” that documents teenage experiences of family life in isolation with humour and panache. These shared activities bring us together in the moment, and at the same time record the legacy of COVID-19 as a moment that shook up our global social, cultural and economic rules.
"At the heart of theatre is a sense of ritual return... The company is committed to returning. Not returning to remain in the same place. But to return as an act of persistent enquiry; to bear witness to human experiences which demand. Which cry out. So that we can constantly reaffirm that what joins us is stronger than what divides us."
COVID-19 statement by Simon McBurney, Artistic Director, Complicité theatre company.
We know the work of making cultural change is slow and patient. We know that time is running out for mitigation solutions that halt climate change and the instabilities it is bringing. Cultural change brings the promise of both mitigation (a world acting with care) and adaptation (populations adjusting for change). Humans are going to have to work together in difficult conditions in the next few years – and finding fulfillment in that collaborative work will be one means of protecting social cohesion. It has never been more important to learn from the knowledge traditions that look to meaning, care and co-construction.
How the COVID-19 pandemic will unfold is still uncertain. We have no idea how long arts and cultural venues will have to remain closed, but we know that whatever happens, they will be severely affected. The organisations that are responding to COVID-19 are playing an immediate role in keeping communities entertained, nourished and inspired as they stay at home in the collective effort to slow the spread of the virus. As we continue to understand how the world has changed in the wake of the pandemic, cultural production and co-creation gives us a way to think together about these transformations, and how we’d like to move forward.
Ann Light, Professor of Design and Creative Technology in the School of Engineering and Informatics.
Find out more about her Sussex Sustainability Resarch Programme (SSRP) project "SDG 17++: Managing cross disciplinary trade-offs for sustainable development".
Dr Lara Houston is a Research Fellow in the School of Engineering and Informatics working at the intersection of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).
Lara's work focusses on computing infrastructures and environmental sustainability, particularly issues around repair practices and computing in the Global South.
Dr Kat Braybrooke is a Research Fellow in the School of Engineering and Informatics and Associate of the Sussex Humantities Lab.
Kat is a digital anthropologist whose work examines the effects and implications of digital making practices, in particular the tensions between grassroots communities and institutions.
This blog is part of the
SSRP Forum: the Pandemic and Sustainability
This forum aims to contribute to the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to offer policy recommendations on how to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) presents us with an unprecedented challenge. We see losses of human life around the world, while one can hardly think what will happen if and when the pandemic reaches poorer countries with weaker economic and health structures. We see countries shutting down their economies to avoid the spread of the virus, as well as employing unprecedented measures of social distancing and population lockdown. We see whole economic sectors and households entering the intensive care of public financial support. In less than a month, the pandemic has redefined the priorities, parameters and boundaries of ‘what is possible’ in much of the world that we constructed since the Second World War.
The most urgent question is how to deal with the humanitarian crisis currently evolving and prevent it from getting out of control at a global scale. But a question we must also face is how the currently unprecedented mobilisation of public resources will be used to support our transition to a sustainable future, rather than a return to a socio-environmentally unsustainable past. One can hardly overstate the urgency of both these tasks. We in the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) community aim to contribute to this ‘mobilisation’ effort by setting up this Forum which aims to bring together experience, knowledge, ideas and recommendations to inform public responses to the pandemic and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at both local and global levels.