Culture in a time of crisis – and events in a time of isolation

Since it first became apparent that the UK was not going to escape the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve felt the need to say…something about it, and about the relationship between culture and crisis.

I guess we’re all – everybody – trying to orientate ourselves right now and saying stuff out loud can be part of how we do that.

(It’s really hard to know what to say at the moment, don’t you find?)

So, a couple of us started putting some thoughts down. This was a week or two back – before the full lockdown, before Parliament’s new emergency legislation, before Arts Council’s funding announcements or any of the more drastic escalations of the past few days.

Maybe let’s call this an exercise in thinking out loud – which we’re sharing with you now after quite a long delay because, like lots of people, we’ve spent most of the past week trying to put various emergency measures and responses in place.

Here goes, though:

A photograph of Sarah Blowers

Sarah (Co-Artistic Director)

Even before all this happened and threw everything up in the air, I had been thinking again about culture and its position in our society.

In reading Etty Hillesum’s extraordinary writing, An Interrupted Life (totally recommended reading), I contemplated the role of culture in ways I hadn’t before.

I started to reconsider how culture – especially in times of absolute crisis – has an ability to lift you from your present and take you to a place that almost nothing else can.

We are in a crisis and we are all losing many freedoms that we usually take for granted.

In that context, watching recent social media footage of people in Italy singing from their balconies, music soaring into the air, giving solace and importantly a feeling of “we are in this together” has really chimed with me.

When locked away, when held in, when on literal lockdown, the role of culture and beauty can transcend social divisions and offers a place of togetherness for us all.

We have held emergency meetings over the past week at Strike A Light (via video call!), as will many thousands of organisations, and asked ourselves questions like:

  • What do we do? 
  • What can we do?
  • What is our role?
  • What is happening?!

I am so heartened by groups of people self-organising: supporting communities, delivering food.

So how does this work in the arts?

I’d love to hear people’s responses and how we might work together. We know that culture and beauty in these difficult times become more necessary not less.

  • How can we ensure that people who are lonely, isolated and scared are still able to turn to culture and be uplifted?
  • Should we be working out how to share experiences by post, phone or podcast?
  • Should we invest in live streaming?
  • Should we commission a travelling show that can play to outdoor spaces that people can watch from a distance?
  • How can we immediately support artists? I know many have, overnight, lost their livelihoods…

I don’t have the answers but I know that as things become tighter and more constricted that we will be turning towards and yearning for some cultural transportation – and I’d like to think that as artists and organisations we are able to respond to that.

A photograph of Ben Whitnall

Ben (Marketing)

As an organisation all about making cultural change in a geographical area, putting on live events, bringing people together in physical spaces to share in amazing experiences, it would be easy to think that this new world of social isolation/distancing just entirely pulls the rug out from under us.

How can we do anything to create a shared cultural experience when people aren’t even allowed to be in the same room?

We’re determined to come up with creative ways to keep doing what we do and bringing you, our audience, together (even if our ‘bread and butter’ of in-person events is off the table).

Why is this about to get more important?

This isolation is going to feel…weird. And, sure, people are happy to joke about binge-watching their way through the entire back-catalogue of Netflix but just try it for more than a few days in a row and see how quickly you start feeling the lack of genuine human interaction. Humankind does not live on boxsets alone. 

When you’re in the wild west – at the frontier, finding your way through the uncertain nights in a hostile landscape, navigating a world where the rules aren’t yet set – you sit around the campfire and tell stories to each other. 

Every time any community has started out on a new rhythm and structure of life, you’ll find the same thing happening: people make stories to tell each other. Because we need that to navigate, explain and pass on the situation in which we find ourselves. And it’s only heightened when that new time is a time of crisis. 

We’re in a wild west all of our own now. We need to tell stories to each other, even if we can’t sit around a campfire.

Maybe it’s possible to identify and bottle some of those other ingredients that make arts and cultural events so vital and find other ways to share it with people, even when we can’t all be in the same room together. We’re going to try.