By Professor David Cross
2020 has waged a remarkable and sustained attack on the ranks of the glass half full creative practitioner. As the consequences of COVID-19 have leeched through every fibre of our industry, trying to identify anything that might signal a bright, or even brighter, future could be seen to be the preserve of a strange cabal of tin hat wearing creatives. Venue closures, budget cuts, job losses, a surge in applications to creative funding agencies without any additional funding, are just some of the obstacles artists are facing. While it is true that artists and academics by their nature are well placed to negotiate constraint and adversity and are able to consistently find that filament of opportunity between tectonic plates, it is immensely difficult to do this when ambivalence towards the arts at a national level is replaced by active hostility. Artists have a remarkable capacity for reinvention and can survive on varying degrees of neglect, but not targeted odium.
As the membership of the glass half empty brigade has swollen and optimism has been eviscerated, it may seem churlish or insensitive to try and identify green shoots or lessons from such systematic destruction. But the pandemic and its aftermath has forced an intense reflection on the role of the creative arts in a global crisis, and specifically the role it plays in enhancing community resilience and wellbeing.
Perhaps the most significant feature of lock down has been the reshaping of our sense of cultural geography and specifically where we locate our understanding of a creative community. Pre-COVID, our communities were dispersed across local, national and international boundaries and the relative ease of travel ensured that it was viable to nurture profound connections with geographically disparate networks. While these support and patronage networks remain in virtual form, the opportunities for collaboration and presentation have been significantly curtailed.
As we are confined to the local, and in Melbourne (until recently) that meant 5 kilometres from your dwelling, we have been forced to consider what constitutes our communities in a whole new light, and in particular to question our role as creative agents within them. The enforced narrowing of our collective cultural frame – while traumatic – has also pushed artist researchers to consider what role might/should we be playing in our immediate geographic communities to offer succour, support and strategy going forward. In other words, should we refocus our understanding of community as being less about a national and global network of creative allies, and more about engaging in a profound way with our own backyards? Might for instance the gift of COVID-19 be a systemic rethink about the role of the artist as an embedded and key figure within local organisational structures charged with rebuilding resilient communities fractured by job losses, precarious livelihoods and the resultant psychological consequences.
While the full story of the role artists have played in local communities across 2020 is still to be told, there is already substantial evidence of creative practitioners being important conduits for community engagement and expression under lockdown. Opera singers performing from bedroom windows, artists building miniature art galleries in front yards and musical performances streamed live from garages, artists have clearly found ingenious ways to keep culture alive. But it is the attention to the local that is really remarkable, creative expressions designed to transform our rote daily walks, to intervene in the tedium of our COVID existence and in some instances develop portals by which the community is able to express feelings, thoughts and ideas.
Having just recently observed the impact my students in public art at Deakin have had on their communities, it is clear that there is a hunger for place-responsive culture in times of crisis. The students were asked to make art on their balconies, front lawns and nature strips and to specifically consider how they might find considered ways in which to engage their bespoke publics. The outcomes, while erring on the side of generosity over agonism (film screenings, free designer face masks, guides for “guerrilla” local walks), activated local communities in meaningful ways and were more than a decent riposte to the perception that art occupies a “nice to have” status during difficult times.
Seeing the students embrace a role in their communities as both cultural agents and facilitators of dialogue was in part a by-product of remote learning, but it spoke more broadly to the ways in which artists might choose to sharpen their focus in the months and years ahead. Instead of ceding ground to the idea that culture is peripheral to local communities recovering from a pandemic, they highlighted how fundamental it will be in keeping both diversity and complexity front and centre as we collectively shuffle to the other side.
David Cross is an artist, writer and curator based in Melbourne. Working across performance, installation, video and photography, Cross explores the relationship between pleasure, intimacy and the phobic in his works, and often incorporates participation by linking performance art with object-based environments. He recently co-founded the research initiative Public Art Commission (PAC) at Deakin University which is devoted to the commissioning and scholarship of temporary public art. Recent PAC projects co-developed with Cameron Bishop include, Treatment with Melbourne Water and City of Wyndham (2015-17), Venetian Blind with European Cultural Centre, Venice (2019), and Six Moments in Kingston for the City of Kingston (2019). Cross is Professor of Visual Arts, Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, Melbourne.