Aidan Moesby, a Newcastle based artist, writer and curator, reflects on what the crisis caused by Covid-19 could mean for the cultural landscape. Moesby joined Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) in January 2020 for a year-long role as Curatorial Resident where he is developing research and public facing projects. This is part of a national partnership programme initiated by DASH with MIMA, Midlands Art Centre (MAC) and Wysing Arts Centre to support the development and careers of Deaf and Disabled Curators.
We spend a third of our lives if not more at work. We often see our colleagues more than our families, friends or partners. People may refer to having a work partner/wife/husband and this can be an incredibly powerful relationship, intimate yet platonic. Now, suddenly, there is absence. Different from when we go on holiday or a weekend. There is no ‘See you on Monday’. We do not know when the next time we will see each other is.
We are currently experiencing collective trauma. Many people in the cultural sector were already dealing with the fallout of earlier guidelines to self-isolate and socially distance, leading to the closure of galleries, museums and other cultural venues to the public. There was an urgency to think about how to continue delivering programmes and adhere to NPO requirements. A week later that cultural landscape experienced another seismic shift with the comprehensive lockdown. We all entered the uncertain world of remote working with undefined rules and protocols to negotiate, navigate and perhaps influence. Some new found freedoms were accompanied by new responsibilities.
This absence, this loss, this silence. Something has irrevocably changed. The easy chat, the personal information we share with ‘that’ work colleague and no one else. A smile, an in-joke, a glint of an eye, a micro movement that says more than words and connects us across the space of an office. All this exchanged for being home in lockdown. How do you negotiate that new domestic workspace, suddenly faced with an ‘irl’ family or friends and all the complex emotions this may raise? How do we accommodate being around others 24/7 and still get the space we need for ourselves?
In a rush to adapt to this change and the digital-heavy ‘new normal’ we must not lose sight of what we have suddenly lost. We must allow ourselves time to grieve: mourning cannot be rushed.
I thrive on human contact. I love going to work, it gets me into the world and connects me with people; even if that just means being in the same room as them. Whilst I am easy in silence and feel no need to fill it, I really enjoy chatting, exchanging everyday mundanity or engaging in critical conversations in my varying professional roles. Now at home, I am alone, distanced from the wider staff team and isolated from my colleagues.
How do we maintain these relationships when we are not present with each other? Who is holding me in mind? All friendships and relationships need tending and nurturing, but what happens when the work family has fragmented? How do we look after ourselves? How do I maintain my mental health in lockdown? As a disabled artist, familiar with extended periods of isolation, working is fundamental to my wellbeing. It maintains structure and focus and keeps me in direct contact with my support structures, networks and peers. Reducing isolation has a positive impact on my mental health and helps keep me well. It removes the cycle of stop-start and the extra demands in getting going again. Therefore during this time of enforced physical isolation it is essential that I keep working.
The first week of lockdown saw my inbox bulging with invitations to Google hangouts, Zoom, Skype and Whereby. Being able to see the person I am speaking to, where they are and perhaps their favourite at-home cup; looking into their eyes and smiling at each other, all helps me feel connected. Somewhere in this I am hoping for reciprocation, that I am held in mind, thought about in absence, kept alive in others’ conversations. Video connectivity does however come at a cost. It is more physically and emotionally exhausting; present yet disconnected, such a curious dissonance. We miss cues and nuances, the subtleties, yet it is still so much better than the void.
‘We need a digital offer’ is the new clarion call from the cultural citadels. Perhaps it would be timely to allow the silence to be heard without the need or compulsion to fill it. What is the silence saying and what is being said within it? With venues closed under lockdown, the new norm it offers presents us an opportunity to slow down, to be more mindful, reflect.
There is no need for everyone and every cultural entity to create digital content, to jump on the nearest digital platform in an ill-conceived knee-jerk reaction. Indeed, not everyone creates digital content, and why should they? Perhaps there is a fear of invisibility, a need to be seen to be trying to be seen. Ironically their clambering digital voice may not be heard in the rising cacophony.
The rush to digital poses several other questions: who is the content for, who is making the content, why is it being made and, importantly, who is excluded? To say nothing of the contribution of the digital to climate change. What happens to ‘analogue creatives’ when they were commissioned for a practice in one media but now the imperative is to produce something digital that they may have no understanding of, or talent for. Also, what of those who are digitally excluded due to access, poverty, relevance and disability?
The digital realm can be as exclusionary and ableist as the analogue world, if not more so. Much of the new content has been published without sign interpretation or subtitles or without a host of access issues being considered. The presumption being the target for consumption is a ‘normative able-bodied audience’. Social media is currently full of commissions for artists to talk about Covid-19 isolation and this unintentional ableism is not lost on the disability arts community. Living and working in isolation has always been the norm for many disabled artists. With exclusion currently a reality for mainstream artists, organisations and institutions, some are still not joining the dots and making the links. The fear is that once we come through the other side of Covid-19 the status quo will be resumed.
Undoubtedly there are questions about how cultural institutions remain relevant and visible and survive. There will already be an understandable anxiety of how things will be when everyone is ‘back in the office’. We need to create a vocabulary of care and compassion within which everyone can be nurtured. When we ask the social filler of ‘how are you?’, it’s important to take the time to listen to people’s responses. It’s ok not to be okay and not to know how to navigate – we do not have a map for this particular landscape. As we proceed, let us do it slowly with radical kindness that includes everyone and leaves no-one behind.
Aidan Moesby is a Newcastle based artist, writer and curator.
This feature is supported by Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA).