This month we find our ourselves ‘working from home’, a commonly used phrase when in need of concentration, away from the distractions of busy office life. Obviously, this disposition comes from the dramatic effect that the coronavirus Covid – 19 is having on all our lives. Like most other visual arts organisations, after realising that the virus had passed through British borders unchecked and indiscriminate to whom it claimed as host despite our heightened hygiene practices, we postponed our public meetings, our study and reading groups and soon after, sadly closed the Stuart Hall Library doors to the public. A place in which many people take solace in our book collection and where we gather for collective study, intimate talks, and reading. Then the team themselves needed to retreat to work remotely. Meanwhile, the government realised the magnitude of the public health risk and have encouraged ‘social distancing’, only bare minimum and essential travel as well as the closure of all non-essential gatherings, as well as commercial, social and religious spaces.
Schools and universities also closing their doors means that work life and family life are now colluding in the same time and space. And due to the high proportion of elderly and people with underlying health issues being at greater risk, it makes attending to parents, grandparents and loved ones extremely difficult. This was truly an event of a global scale that continues to have a direct impact on our daily lives. The fear of the virus quickly gave rise to a racialising of the virus in relation to where cases of the infection arose primarily in the Hubei province, in Wuhan city, China. Art Asia Activism raised an important issue with a public statement calling for public media and politicians to un-racialise the coronavirus pandemic as early as mid-February, pointing to the recent rise in attacks towards people of Asian descent. However, the entanglement of the question of race, fear and the pandemic continues to reveal underlying infrastructures within our societies. The nurses and doctors for whom we now cheer for at 8pm on our doorstep each Thursday evening, the cleaners, the zero-hour contractors, the public transport staff, they become the essential workers and on the frontline to help flatten the curve. But they are also the ones who put themselves most at risk.
Shortly after the closure of our doors to the public, I posted a question online that was the focus for the reading group proposed by The Laundry Arts, ‘How can we create a universal moment that also recognizes difference?’ To my surprise there were a lot of varied responses and references to Sylvia Wynter and what it means to be human. In these occasions, we have seen an increased connectivity between people and we are looking at each other through our screens, perhaps for reassurance to try to continue some semblance of normality. However, now more than ever, it feels as though we can only connect online while museums and galleries scramble to activate their digital content and engage with our publics online. I am reminded by a story of a friend whose eight-year-old asked, ‘What does it mean to be offline?’
We perhaps might need to put on the breaks to recognise that the spread of the virus is a symptom of our hyperproduction and hyperactivity as well as our far-reaching mobility. A noticeable reduction in our human activity is having a marked change in our environment and an ongoing concern of constant air travel gives breath to multiple ecologies. A larger question mark looms over our economies and in the UK the government have no other alternative but to take up the responsibility of the social ‘good’ again.
Maintaining social contact through media platforms of our individual and shared activity, many artists’ social media feeds are filled with sharing their domestic activity and sharing challenges with friends. I took up some challenges myself, one of sharing my library through live readings and images of front covers of books. Another one of sharing an embarrassing photo with the hashtag until tomorrow. These challenges also created more connections and activity, some interesting stories arose from these images as well as continued conversations and sharing of work to my surprise.
But what could it possibly mean to slowly turn on the ways in which we have been living and working? To reflect our activity and the way of doing things. What should institutions do now? What should artists do now? Paul Maheke’s open letter, ‘The year I stopped making art. Why the art world should assist artists beyond representation; in solidarity.’ published by documentations.art at the end of March jilted my thoughts. Subsequent to that moment we have needed to consider what does it mean to continue working when so many artists find themselves out of work. We made the decision to continue to honour agreements made with artists and where necessary postpone some activity. Arts Council England also offer support that you can find here. We are also thinking about how our website can be helpful as a portal to signpost opportunities for artists as funding bodies and visual arts organisations are also trying to safeguard the livelihood of our art ecology.
(interim) programme takes our offline culture online through these corona times. We are still learning how to programme remotely using only digital tools and online platforms so please bear with us. This month will be an experiment so please engage with our programmes and feedback to us about your experience as we find other ways to continue our work. But more importantly we urge you to consider your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you by doing what you can to not spread the virus.