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Some thoughts, notes and links for further consideration…

image: When worlds collide. Alice’s bedroom becomes my office and my office becomes Alice’s bedroom.

Are we really all in this together? Olena Hankivsky and Anuj Kapilashrami provide a crucial policy briefing which calls for an intersectional view of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and response. While the common thread connecting us all is the virus itself, our experiences of it are so diverse, depending on our circumstances: our age, mental health, the type of employment contract we have, if we live alone, or with kids, the age of our kids, if you live with people you get on with, or abuse you, your internet connection, and if you can figure out how to use Zoom, or not….

The virus is highlighting the existing inequalities in societies and across the globe and potentially making things a lot worse. The ability to publicly resist corruption and inequality are becoming harder as physical protests are being cancelled and Parliaments are shut down. Those already on precarious contracts and informal employment conditions have no rights and protections with Universal Credit being stretched to the max. For others, there’s money to be made  from ‘coronacapitalism‘ (including the online platforms harvesting data to profit from increasing online connectivity).

For a livelihood based on physical social interaction, the current necessary distancing measures have put the principles and incomes of many socially engaged artists under huge strain.

In the name of physical distancing but not social distancing, there are many inspiring attempts to ‘reach out’, connect up and support friends, families, neighbours and strangers via WhatsApp groups, online conferencing platforms and collective projects (such as Mass Observation’s call out to document your Covid-19 experiences), with socially engaged artists adapting their practices to the conditions of the lockdown (such as Pablo Helguera’s singing telegrams or Alan Nakagawa ‘s invitation to write haikus). In the world of research, resources are being shared on how to carry out field work while physical contact is on hold.

The virus also forces us to take stock and reflect on the very principles of engagement that we live and work by. With many socially engaged art contracts cancelled, funding withdrawn or projects on hold, there is a real concern as to where the money is coming from to pay for food and rent. For the socially engaged art organisation A Blade of Grass in New York, “the most helpful thing we can do is send money that artists can use on things like rent and food, and later address the reality of projects that will need to be massively reshaped and re-scaled”.  In the UK, the artists’ organisation Keep it Complex are providing a well-needed critique and alternative to Arts Council England’s competitive emergency fund by creating solidarity syndicates. Arts Professional reports that the DCMS has announced a call for evidence into an Inquiry into the Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS Sectors. They refer to the Directory for Social Change’s response to the government’s funding package for the charity sector (often the commissioners of socially engaged art), which outlines that this only amounts to 1% of the amount of support offered to businesses. With the future of the charity sector uncertain, where will the money to pay for future socially engaged artists come from?

The hiatus raises questions about what it means for socially engaged art to be a profession when there are thousands of people being socially engaged at the moment, for free (such as through the Mutual Aid networks). What are the roles and purpose of the professional socially engaged artist in all of this unpaid care work? And how can we use this time to (re)consider economies of care and social reproductive work and our role within them?

For many, being a socially engaged artist (or whatever you want to call yourself) isn’t necessarily because it’s where the money is, but, like it or not, over time, artists have become professionalised and a practice of socially engagement has been turned into a waged form of labour. With the wage no longer there, however, the principles of social engagement don’t disappear. Indeed, the current crisis has highlighted how fundamental and essential practices of care, mutual aid and the commons are. It does beg the question, however, (how) do I continue ‘practicing’ my socially engaged work for free (if I’ve got time and the capacity) in the hope that once this is over I can start charging for it again? Just as some self-employed musicians and yoga teachers are providing content for free during the crisis so as to maintain their fan / client base, are socially engaged artists compelled to provide free arts participation services in the hope of future paid work down the line?

The virus is highlighting extremes in the terms and conditions within workplaces as well as across sectors, such as the agency nurses who aren’t paid sick leave. While unions are working hard to make sure key workers are not expected to work for free and have the right to PPE and adequate sick pay, the slippage between paid and volunteer work are becoming more apparent as thousands of people sign up to volunteer or return to work after retirement.  This foregrounds the inequalities in society as those with capacity are more able to help than others.

What role do socially engaged artists play in this crisis and what does this mean for the profession? As a profession (albeit precarious and underpaid), socially engaged artists could be seen as key care workers, focusing on connection, interaction, facilitation and ‘holding’ spaces for others to make those connections with each other and the contexts they are in. How does a practice that facilitates intersubjectivity between people cope when mediated through screens?

As Naomi Klein points out, there are alternatives to the impending message of ‘back to business as usual’. As with the (what feels like an age away) limbo time on the picket lines, can we reserve some of our limited and context-dependent energies into a critical analysis of the economies and societies we usually operate in and consider if the time is right for pushing forward with principles of social engagement for social justice (aka cultural democracy)? Is this the moment to introduce Universal Basic Income, for example?

Here are a few more links I’ve been reading to help me through this discombobulating time:

The amazing USDAC have some great links and ideas about community care in the time of COVID-19.

Kandida Purnell has written a well-need Foucauldian analysis of the body politics of COVID-19.

Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine consider Social Justice in a time of Social Distancing and suggest we “seize this opportunity to explore and challenge what COVID19 shows us about the hidden (and not-so hidden) arrangements of our lives” They “suggest folks turn outwards—instead of inwards—to come up with new arrangements that are not just healthier, but also more just and more social.”

Psychotherapist Esther Perel asks when the most socially responsible thing we can do is avoid other people, how can we maintain social connection?” She refers to how “collective trauma necessitates collective healing, a process dependent on the activation of our communities, not just ourselves. It lifts everyone and takes certain pressures off our partners and families to do it all ourselves, a crushing and near-impossible feat.” (thanks Keep it Complex for this link).

If you have any other links, ideas or responses to the above ramblings, do get in touch!