By Sanika Kulkarni
How does a hands-on industry such as the arts cope with social distancing?
In the corporate world, the pandemic has given rise to a series of ‘new normals’ that businesses and individuals have had to adapt to. Both traditional and non-traditional workspaces have had to evolve in order to ensure the safety and security of their employees while still clinging to profitability.
The initial fear and uncertainty surrounding the virus urged businesses to allow their employees to work from home. However, over time, industries have had to retrofit new workspace technologies into their offices in order to maintain the necessary safety precautions for their employees. This retroactive application of technology has played out differently for different industries, as they try to bring productivity back up while maintaining hygiene and social distancing.
Traditional office spaces plan to create apps for contactless operations in places such as elevators and cafeterias. Workstations will be regularly sanitized and AI technologies will be used to ensure that employees are maintaining social distancing measures. Among other industries, this has necessitated widespread changes in the co-working space model, as tenants may not be comfortable sharing communal spaces with strangers.
Some companies have repurposed their production lines to cater to goods that have seen an increase in demand over the past few months. Dyson, a company predominantly known for its vacuum cleaners, has decided to produce ventilators. One London based gin brewery, 58 Gin, has used its resources to produce gin-based hand sanitizers.
But where corporate workspaces have adapted to these new norms by issuing remote working policies and altering workspaces, the impact of the virus on the art and culture industry has been even more drastic.
According to the Americans for Arts organization, the arts industry has lost US$9.1 billion in revenue as of July in the U.S. alone, causing 96% of events to be canceled and over 60 thousand employees to be laid off.
Despite the drop in production, there has been an increase in the consumption of art globally. People all over the world have turned to cinema and television to cope with the isolation and stress of the pandemic. In the first three months of 2020, Netflix gained almost 16 million new viewers, doubling the expected number.
Filmmakers in Canada have managed to produce films for the Toronto Queer Film Festival while still being in quarantine. Dear Journal, one of the films featured at the festival, is directed by Korean Canadian filmmaker Amanda Ann-Min Wong. This film adapts journal entries over the years and presents an emotional journey of introspection and self reflection by being isolated. This film was produced entirely in her home due to social distancing and movement restrictions affecting the crew and locations.
Another film, As Many Worlds, shot by Ojibwe artist Evelyn Pakinewati, is filmed entirely in the Lake Nipissing Watershed in Ontario, Canada, and is an interpretation of the filmmaker’s dreams and experiences.
All of these films were made in the span of two weeks under special circumstances, which truly challenge everything we know about filmmaking and production. This will hopefully provide opportunities and inspiration for up-and-coming filmmakers to explore other unique ways of creating cinema.
Netflix has also provided a platform for self-reflective work through movies where the characters communicate via Zoom, and other narratives surrounding the same premise, in an anthology named Home Stories.
The live art industry
A large part of the appeal of the arts has to do with the physical relationship created between the art, the artist, and the audience. Whether it’s the high-energy atmosphere created at a concert venue or the intimacy of a boutique art gallery, the consumption of art is experiential.
The pandemic has posed the live art industry with commercial and logistical challenges, but artists all around the world have found innovative ways to produce and distribute content.
The live performance industry has adopted technologies such as Zoom to continue to provide entertainment to art lovers in real time. An Oxford-based theater company, Creation Theatre, put up a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest via Zoom. The play itself deals with themes of isolation, perfectly complemented by a platform like Zoom, where each of the actors were on a video call with the rest of the cast as well as the audience.
Though videoconferencing doesn’t naturally lend itself to interactiveness in large group settings, the theater offered the audience the chance to participate, unmuting their microphones at specific points of time for them to clap, scream, or whistle, just as they would in a traditional theater setting.
Moreover, not only have people utilized Zoom in such unique fashions, they have also led the way for entirely new art forms to be born. Companies such as Zoom Theatre in Oregon exclusively produce plays on the platform, with artists and viewers from all over the world. The plays are tailored for an online audience, and keeping the medium in mind, creating a new way of consuming theater that could last beyond the pandemic.
This year has also brought back old phenomena such as drive-in concerts and cinemas in many parts of the world to provide a safer way for people to enjoy live performances. Traditional concerts have been attempted in the U.S., with attendees reduced from 1000 to 200 people, but that may not be logistically possible for bigger artists with millions of fans.
On the other hand, art galleries have tried to provide virtual exhibitions, which can be attended by a much larger audience than the number of people that can physically fit in the real space. The art community in Hong Kong has launched an online platform, ART Power HK. This platform has digitized content from over 60 art galleries, auctions, and interactions with artists hoping to continue to provide access to art and culture during a time like this.
The popularity of virtual art events could also provide a better platform for smaller artists to reach global audiences if these virtual exhibitions become the new norm in the art community.
Could this be a good thing for the arts?
Social distancing and self-isolation have forced the world to press pause, limiting the availability of new stimuli for artists in the outside world. This situation has driven them to introspect rather than draw from the outside world, and access themes from their past.
The filmmakers who produced works for the Toronto Queer Film Festival have reported that they are feeling an overwhelming sense of calm, allowing more room for creativity and expression. Art has also helped many escape the reality of this public health crisis by acting as a healthy outlet for channelling feelings of anger or frustration.
For instance, 21 artists from New York also highlighted the positive impact of self isolation on their artistic process. They mentioned that it has helped them appreciate the simpler things in life and focus on “mindfulness and gratitude”.
Structures of the distribution of commercial art have been dismantled, providing an opportunity for new voices to be heard and new niches to be created. Live performances or exquisite exhibitions could have been inaccessible to different communities due to distance or affordability. This digitization of art will allow people to virtually consume art that they have previously been deprived of through the addition of livestream exhibitions and online screenings of films.
Who suffers the most?
Through this global crisis, artists who can afford basic necessities have been able to continue to create from the comfort of their homes, but a large part of the art industry involves daily wage workers.
These workers are required in the form of crew on film and television sets, make up artists, gallery attendants. Their livelihood depends on hands-on artistic work that has been brought to a halt. The industry will still have to work towards technologies that will continue to provide jobs for such employees.
Will this pandemic change the way we consume art forever?
For the past few months, we have all been consuming different forms of art mediated through our phone and computer screens. From live Zoom performances to Instagram art exhibitions, this pandemic has definitely seen a change in artistic trends and perhaps changed the landscape of the industry forever. Beyond all, art is a sign of the times, and the unique art created during this universally uncertain time will be a marker in history for years to come.