NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The intimacy of crowds – making meaning in times of extremis

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.

By Professor Michael Balfour

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. Ten years ago, I was an investigator on the In Place of War research project examining the impacts on theatre and performance in contemporary war zones. We asked artists from over twenty different war contexts, why they had chosen to keep making art in times of mass murder, chaos and structural anarchy. We found three things. First, art increases threefold during wartime. Second, productions, by necessity, are stripped back to basic production values, and held in makeshift non-theatrical spaces (outdoors, basements, reconfigured buildings), and thirdly, that art for the makers and audiences, are core elements of maintaining a sense of humanity and connection.

The governing aesthetics of the COVID-19 context has been authenticity, interactivity and a homespun humbleness.

Translate this analysis into the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is possible to see parallels. The explosion of creative cultures online, from spontaneous amateurs on Italian balconies to clever memes and Tik Tok videos that spread, well, like viruses. Commercial creative industries, Together At Home, and the amateur musical antics of families and individuals stuck in situ, blur into equally valuable and engaging points of connection. We don’t care about the production values, we care that they are in this situation together, and that everyone’s story has heart and worth. We care also because it is an expression of a shared and collective experiencing. Funny. Moving. Embracing and acknowledging the circumstances. Expressing something ineffable. The governing aesthetics of the COVID-19 context has been authenticity, interactivity and a homespun humbleness.

Translating and representing complex experience is precisely the role of artist-researchers. Rather than producing academic narratives, the Non-Traditional Research Outputs imperative is to somehow distil and refract emotional and existential qualities of experience. We implicate ourselves in the research. How then to capture our fractured sense of the current reality? Of the endless lost days caught between anxiety, fear and economic hardship.

Perhaps the surprise here is that the blurring and integration of technology with our lived experience has been so rich and simultaneously exhausting. The internet has been a critical lifeline as well as a consuming distraction that we long to break away from. Small things suddenly seem miraculous. We stumble outside, cautious and hesitant, but relieved, breathing in a lung full of air (as long as there are no joggers or dog walkers) with gratitude.

The values of connection, collaboration, creativity will not be lost, but perhaps the darkness and reflection that this dramatic pause has brought to us, will fuel a more ecological vision of our work and practice.

And so, we are here. We long for normality but no longer know exactly what that is. We stare over our shoulder for hope, marvelling at what we took for granted, and knowing that we face an uncertain abyss of recession in front. Living in the rupture between past, present and an untold vision of the future. Yet, time won’t wait for us. Already minds are shifting focus to how we come down from the peak. We start to consider physical distancing on a commute that used to be on a standing room only, how to space out audiences in theatres designed for the intimacy of crowds, how to re-configure tutorial rooms with a capacity of 30 to fit 22 (without blowing the bank), while nostalgically questioning if we will ever make it back to being able to travel somewhere/anywhere for a hint of cosmopolitanism.

We are slowly putting our lives back together, with deliberate care, in the hope that we might collectively laugh again. Still believing that the arts (like religion, or sport?) are an invaluable ritual of communion. Lost. Digitised. Whispered. And within the chaos and catastrophe, a resignation and a determination that things have got to change. The flights. The endless busy-ness. The non-stop neuroticism of 24-hour capitalism. Days jump started by consumerism. The academic conceit of internationalisation burning the world up with important conferences, symposia, research events, and exotic hard-earned sabbaticals. The artists connecting, collaborating, celebrating the richness of intercultural adventures and embracing an intoxicating trans-global world of stories, music, poetry, and dance. The values of connection, collaboration, creativity will not be lost, but perhaps the darkness and reflection that this dramatic pause has brought to us, will fuel a more ecological vision of our work and practice. To not hold this moment would be a waste of the lives lost. We need to be different and need to do things differently, while holding onto our understanding that research, practice and education are about investigating, investing and responding to a world in which the future is always just beginning.


Michael Balfour is Head of School of the Arts and Media, and Professor of Theatre and Performance at University of New South Wales. His research is focussed on the social applications of theatre and creativity in a diverse range of contexts, including prisons, sites of conflict, and arts and health. Michael’s most recent publications include Performing Arts in Prisons: Creative Perspectives (Intellect), Applied Theatre: Understanding Change (Springer). He is currently working on a participatory virtual reality project working with young people undergoing long-term treatment in hospitals.

More from this issue

More from this issue

The impact of the pandemic on music … has been immense. COVID-19 has expanded our repertoire of catastrophic synonyms as they are now the new vocabulary. The response to the pandemic by some musicians and educators was swift, decisive and efficient while others have floundered.

During early February 2020, Thailand was among the early countries that encountered the COVID-19 epidemic. Personal and social health protection and prevention has risen to the new social normal, wearing sanitary masks, social and physical distancing. Certainly, the field of art and design are being affected and starting to change in response to the pandemic.

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”.

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.

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.