A(r)t war with Covid19
3 April 2020
Here we are in 2020 – what ought to be a perfect vision, metaphorically speaking... we hold up and look through, a more blurrier lens than ever before. In our opening new-year season we launched with Shezad Dawood: Encroachments and I wrote in my seasonal introduction, 'we enter, what might, be a new era'.
But who would imagine such an unprecedented moment? Where most of us are instructed to stay at home - lockdown - curfew style rules across much of the world, let alone the UK. How is this happening off-screen, in our actual day-to-day, not as a script seen in My Secret Terrius? In this moment of managed panic and no vaccine, no one can escape this feverous virus, so what do we do?
Dystopian narratives, juxtaposed with antidote-like themes have been an ever-growing feature seen in films, music, TV and in the global art scene. The sign of our times and potential for global collapse have intrigued audiences, but only really as fantasies. Reality is becoming a much more complex beast - for some unbearable, yet strangely liberating for others.
Isolation and alienation are words we are often uncomfortable with – avoid even. But in our self-isolation, is this moment, a welcome - if not much-needed, opportunity to stop, rethink, worry (for sure), yet rest, socialise in new ways and reinvent? What does this all mean, especially when there is so much anxiety, fear, loss and trauma at large?
Planet Earth's revenge
Since the new century, it seems the world has been spinning out of control with absurd untruths encroaching our minds, numbing ideologies with unexpected macro geo-politics at play. Our norms have been on a constant destabilising roller coaster, especially since the 2008 economic crash. We seem to have been in an ever-increasing state of flux and imbalance. It feels like the pressure has intensified year on in, hitting new heights leading to extreme reactions, choices and behaviours driven by fear. Recent events in Wuhan have led to an increase in hate crime and unacceptable blame on East Asians here in the UK and the West – this has not been good, nor fair. As ever, social media chat forums have fanned the flames of hate and mistruth, enabling malicious gossip to circulate. Blame always divides and in this era we must unify.
The Covid19 health pandemic could well be a rehearsal as planet earth plans its revenge on human civilisation. How insane is it that three months of interruptions can cripple futures? The vulnerability of our 'system(s)', exposed another fragile and dark reality with super power conspiratorial paranoia and failures in our infrastructure and planning with such an unexpected turn of events, even though the warnings were there.
The virus escalating has also brought us together. Italian operatic balconies, India's ritualistic chanting temple sounds made from kitchen utensils, echoing claps and whistling fireworks of optimism from the UK, and the solidarity to fight the virus with dogged determination in China - where they've won the battleground for now. A crisis, a shared moment of urgency has activated movements worldwide. Solidarity has felt good despite the toilet paper wars and lack of ginger for morning tea.
For now, however, solidarity is shown at a safe distance. The morning walks crossing away from other people, avoiding conversations, and nervous smiles at best. There is almost a rejection of our fellow resident in such an act. Our reactions and behaviours controlled by new rules, shared to us everyday at 5pm on national TV. Determined by senior politicians, health professionals and scientists who make decisions that protect our health but also shape our psyche, making us nervous and – in the worst-case suspicious and wary of one another yet in a surreal unification.
Today, this moment is an opportunity to determine what really matters - our reason for being and defining what we do now and next. It is clear, that we as a public, as a community, as families, neighbours and as a creative nation feel the anxious state of play, the surrealist vista and atmosphere of it all. In three to six months or however long it takes to emerge out of this lockdown, will these new behaviours remain as learnt behaviours I wonder? And what will this mean for how we express ourselves and engage in wider society and the arts?
The war on global virus
The virus assault, known as the invisible war, is possibly the world's trilogy of world wars in modern history, attacked by a protein germ so tiny yet so potent. It has crippled established systems and left us on pause considering new ways of being and going forward. The arts, as a key protagonist and an instigator of non-conformity, is surely a movement to challenge the comforts of mediocrity that keep us static sitting targets. It is time for change in every unimaginable way. We surely have to activate in new ways, rethinking how our respective industries and lives can operate and deliver in sensitive ways considering the shifting and conflicting priorities. Our work in every field has to mean something more now. As a society, we are finding more time to think and reflect and this will be vital. I feel as human systems and cross-sectoral industries our sense of urgency exists more so than ever before to unlock a more collaborative, conscious and creative public, sharing wealth, distributing investment into knowledge-creation and opportunities for a healthier, happier existence.
There is much in this world that is not right, that needs to change. From inherited mindsets and hierarchies based on race, gender and super power egos, to the aggressive push for market growth, deforestation and the displacement of the indigenous, plus material gain and consumer greed to name a few. However, with this crisis, we have seen a positive response too. Our environment beginning to heal, volunteers coming forth to help the NHS and health services here in the UK. The courage by frontline action has been huge. When the stats are shared every day, one can't help but gulp agonisingly. The escalation seems unstoppable now - but it will slow down.
Biological systems are clashing with human structures, juxtaposed in a world tipping with huge population growth with bigger more long term issues, more potent than covid19, but also harder line politics and policies at play. Noam Chomsky in his 2020 analysis of this moment, shares his thoughts on the critical causes of the global crisis. A key angle he pursues is that political leadership and policy world-wide was being led by 'sociopathic buffoonery' from Washington DC, championing the 'neo-liberal plague' - driven by market profitability, at the expense of critical societal and environmental issues. The latter being a key disturbing feature and reason for this terrible situation we are currently grappling with (Chomsky 2020).
Seismic shifts in a menacing world
Image: Manifesta 12, Palermo, What is above is What is below 2018, Cooking Sections
As art spaces, artists and curators, we grapple with these absurdities and irregularities. We often deconstruct, sharing ideas in subjective and provocative (un)-truths, forms and expressions. The arts, when on point, bring deeper contemplative enquiries bending time, bringing futures to the fore.
Dystopian versus utopian narratives have been an ever-growing feature in the global art scene across many shores. From, for example, the theme Planetary Gardens at Manifesta 12 - a European Nomadic Biennial and international art event, attracting visitors from all over the world held in Palermo, Sicily in 2018.
"Gardens are places where diverse forms of life mix and adapt to co-exist. They allow for cross-pollination based on encounter" - curatorial vision
To the 58th International Venice Biennale, titled: "May You Live In Interesting Times", a phrase of English invention that has long been mistakenly cited as an ancient Chinese curse that invokes periods of uncertainty, crisis and turmoil" (abstract from the curatorial theme).
Or at, Dhakka Art Summit in 2020 with its theme: Seismic Movements,"provoke us to reconsider (art) histories, movement, borders and fault lines".
All three biennials resonate with the context for example; the menacing reflections about our world in Venice, the optimistic intersections and seeding of rich, multi diverse dialogues and cultures in Palermo, and the need for seismic shifts in society in Dhaka. All three examples reflect the moment we are now facing. We recognise the dark age that might await us, but we need to draw on the intersections of ideas with a multitude of life-generating notions and models to deliver results and outcomes that shift us in huge ways.
So as the world tips and biological systems clash with human ones, the new world vision has to provide a deeper contemplative analysis not simply be a mirror but instead the looking glass of (un)-desire bringing to the fore provocations that shift complacency. We are in an era and moment where we have to consider a new purpose of being as a mini World War III is raging with a strangulating high temperature.
Skinder Hundal MBE
CEO / Director of New Art Exchange