NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

All in it Together: A hyperlinked essay in the time of the pandemic

On Tuesday 10 March this year, I flew Qantas (QF456) from Melbourne to Sydney with colleagues to attend the opening of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN. We were blithely unaware of the towering cruise ship at the Overseas Passenger Terminal near the Museum of Contemporary Art as we partied hard, cheek-to-jowl, at the vernissage.

By Professor Barbara Bolt

This is an essay illuminated by hyperlinks. You could just go to the endnotes and navigate the hyperlinks and you would have the story. However, I wish to begin with a cautionary tale that exemplifies how naive and unprepared we were, such a short time ago, for the coming pandemic.

On Tuesday 10 March this year, I flew Qantas (QF456) from Melbourne to Sydney with colleagues to attend the opening of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN. We were blithely unaware of the towering cruise ship at the Overseas Passenger Terminal near the Museum of Contemporary Art as we partied hard, cheek-to-jowl, at the vernissage on that night and, without a care in the world, we boarded the ferry from Circular Quay to the Cockatoo Island for the Welcome to Country and the official opening the following day. As we crowded into a packed Artspace for the Artists’ Party on the evening of 11 March, David Walsh cancelled Dark Mofo at MONA due to COVID-19 fears. [1]

Out of the silence, grew a Bolero-like intensity and rhythm of activity under the metaphoric banner “all in it together” — artists, designers, performers, musicians all in dialogue with the pandemic.

What were we thinking? What was I thinking? The Ruby Princess had departed Circular Quay on Sunday 8 March for its fateful New Zealand cruise and there was already evidence of community transmissions as the number of cases of COVID-19 in Australia grew exponentially.

On Monday, 23 March, just twelve days later, the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews announced the implementation of a Stage 1 shutdown of non-essential activity [2] with the closure of major cultural hubs across Victoria.[3] My own university, The University of Melbourne, went into lockdown on midnight on Tuesday, 24 March, the same day as the Biennale of Sydney closed its doors and went online.[4] On Monday, 30 March, the University of Melbourne launched its virtual campus and, in line with other universities, art schools and conservatoires across the world, all classes went online.[5]

Virtually overnight we went from a banquet of the festival season, to famine as the cultural sector ground to a halt. The sounds of hands clapping were no longer to be heard.[6] Those in the performing arts were left without gigs, those in the visual arts were left with art on their hands and no place to show and the film industry just closed down. And while governments elsewhere supported their artists and performers, the Australian Government support for the arts was miniscule and slow to come.[7] Globally we were all left to grapple with the limits and opportunities of Zoom-land and this is what we have done.

Then, out of the silence, grew a Bolero-like[8] intensity and rhythm of activity under the metaphoric banner “all in it together” – artists, designers, performers, musicians all in dialogue with the pandemic.[9] It’s a pretty crowded world out there!

We all did an amazing job getting off campus and into the virtual world. We have had our very low points[10], our blind spots[11] and our conflicts[12] and have scrambled to deal with an unfolding situation outside of our own life experience and control. We have become adept and innovative within the digital real with our online delivery and break-out rooms, synchronous and asynchronous learnings with extraordinary outcomes whether it be practice-based[13] and theoretical work[14] or critical comment[15]. Moreover, the arts have, more than ever, “touched” the lives of people through a myriad of forms – online concerts[16], choirs,[17] dance classes, global online collaborative projects[18], drawing classes[19], art forums[20], symposiums and panel discussions, many enabling synchronous interaction in this virtual artworld.

Universities are deep in planning for a return to campuses. Every cultural institution is also preparing for this opening out … The problem is those recalcitrant and persistent outbreaks and what the science “says” about the ever-present danger of a second wave and beyond.

Now, having just got off campus and online we are facing the next phase and the next challenge. Universities are deep in planning for a return to campuses. Every cultural institution is also preparing for this opening out. Ausdance has released a Return to Dance Framework[21] and the Australian Screen Production Industry has released its COVID-safe guidelines[22]. The problem is those recalcitrant and persistent outbreaks and what the science “says” about the ever-present danger of a second wave and beyond.[23] So, while the actual risk of an outbreak may seem low, the perceived risk remains high. This is not just a risk of a cluster occurring, but more importantly the feelings of safety among our staff, our students and their families and our much dreamed-of audiences … and let’s get real, the financial and reputational risk that this pandemic may pose if we do not take care.

While our staff and students just want a return to campus, to their ensembles, collaborative productions and studios and hunker-down, and the cultural institutions wish to open up and welcome their artists and audiences with open arms, the idea of going to the theatre, a gallery, or a concert hall or back to campus remains a fraught one and it will never be the same.[24] The terms of “our return” will be with “visitation” rights only. No lingering and gathering together over a cup of coffee, a shared lunch or a glass of wine to chew the fat but rather a purposeful return to make work … but for how long and on what terms?[25]

Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge the generosity of my colleagues at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music who shared any titbit of information that might help us move forward during this time.


[1] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-11/dark-mofo-2020-cancelled-due-to-coronavirus-fears/12044738

[2] https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/200323-Statement-From-The-Premier-1.pdf

[3] https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/arts-centres-across-melbourne-close-en-masse-as-covid-19-fears-rise-20200315-p54abt.html

[4] https://www.artsy.net/news/artsy-editorial-biennale-sydney-moved-online-australia-braces-covid-19-pandemic

[5] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-16/coronavirus-state-of-emergency-declared-in-victoria/12058442

[6] See Ashleigh Wilson ‘Anybody Out There?’ in The Australian Review, May 16-17, 2020, pp 4-5 and Kylie Northover ‘Let there be Light … Soon’, in Spectrum, May 9, 2020, pp 4-5.

[7] https://news.artnet.com/art-world/german-bailout-50-billion-1815396

[8] https://finearts-music.unimelb.edu.au/about-us/news/104-concert-halls-ravels-bolero-from-home-by-the-university-of-melbourne-symphony-orchestra

[9] https://www.abc.net.au/austory/novel-and-positive-in-coronavirus-lockdown/12273346

[10] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-18/mental-health-and-coronavirus-how-australia-is-reacting-covid19/12159750

[11] https://stories.uq.edu.au/contact-magazine/2020/all-in-this-together-yet-lonelier-than-ever/index.html

[12]  https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/take-responsibility-uni-students-bemoan-impossibilities-of-online-learning-20200504-p54po4.html

[13]  https://finearts-music.unimelb.edu.au/about-us/news/master-of-film-and-television-students-dress-like-a-rabbit

[14] Harry Hughes Material, Method, Methodology and the Chain of Being https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCERFR4WfPk&feature=youtu.be

[15] Caroline Zeilinski, ‘In the age of hyper-productivity and hustling, I’m embracing learning for learning’s sake’, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-16/learning-for-learnings-sake-not-just-to-upskill/12119746

[16] One World: Together at Home, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTd5Trp1pbg

[17] https://www.creativityaustralia.org.au

[18] https://www.craft.org.au/worldofcraft/globalquilt

[19] https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/multimedia/drop-by-drawing-with-lily-mae-martin/

[20] https://finearts-music.unimelb.edu.au/about-us/margaret-lawrence-gallery/art-forum

[21] https://ausdance.org.au/publications/details/return-to-dance-principles-and-framework-for-restarting-dance-activities-po

[22] https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/media-centre/news/2020/05-29-covid-safe-guidelines-released?utm_source=social&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=2020-05-29-covid-safe-guidelines-released

[23] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/11/opinion/coronavirus-reopen.html?smid=em-share

[24] https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/may/15/we-put-on-theatre-no-matter-what-what-will-australian-stages-look-like-post-pandemic

[25] https://hyperallergic.com/566033/california-art-schools-and-programs-debate-how-to-reopen/


Professor Barbara Bolt is the Director of the Victorian College Arts at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, The University of Melbourne. She is a practising artist and art theorist with special interests in ethics and artistic research. Her research addresses the dialogue between theory and practice and between digital and analogue painting seen through the lens of New Materialisms. Her publications include two monographs Art Beyond Representation (2004) and Heidegger Reframed (2011) and five co-edited books, The Meeting of Aesthetics and Ethics in the Academy: Challenges for Creative Practice Researchers in Higher Education (2019), Material Inventions: Applying Creative Arts Research (2014), Carnal Knowledge: Towards a “New Materialism” through the Arts (2013), Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (2007) and Sensorium: Aesthetics, Art, Life (2007). Website: http://www.barbbolt.com/, Facebook: Barbara Bolt, Instagram: Barbara bolt

More from this issue

More from this issue

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For creative disciplines like fine art, it is often thought that the move to online teaching has been the biggest challenge in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since Curtin University stopped face-to-face teaching on 23 March, numerous colleagues from other disciplines in the university, as well as family acquaintances, have shared their opinion that “they can’t imagine how you could teach art online”.

The rhetoric of fighting a war against an invisible coronavirus enemy has been invoked, perhaps too blithely, by politicians. However, the parallel between global pandemics and sites of conflict are worth reflecting on, as they create an understanding of human experience in extremis.

As a creative arts institution spanning art, design, media, performance, film and music, LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore transitioned to partial online teaching in early February 2020 before closing its campuses and going fully online by the end of March 2020. Each discipline required a calibrated way of transiting the curriculum.

We are training artists-in-the-making, and unforeseen challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic might give birth to some wonderful opportunities, despite the pressure and the rush into semi-lockdown from the top. If we were going to make this work for us, it was up to us to come up with new ideas and turn them into opportunities.

In December last year when planning this edition of NiTRO, we started out looking at Asia and the links between Australian schools of arts education and their equivalents in the region. Then the world changed. Back then the idea of disruption had a ring of optimism about it.