Responding to the New, Frightening and Rapidly Changing Normal

Written by: Fiona Gruber
Ping. Another email, another announcement; the cancellation of an exhibition, the closure of a gallery, a musical, a festival, the next six productions of a major state theatre company, the postponement of an international biennale, the cancellation of a major tour. We are in lockdown.
The Coronavirus pandemic has hit everybody hard, but as a group, those in the arts have had it particularly tough. They’re at the sharp end of the gig economy, with intermittent income, casual contracts, few savings.
As a freelance arts journalist, that’s my livelihood seriously undermined too. I can’t write or broadcast about an arts scene that has disappeared in a puff of smoke.
But I can at least write about the repercussions and get paid for it.
That’s not an option for most performers or artists, but you can be sure that, in a few months when – we fervently hope– this is all over, there will be a flood of works that address the most momentous event to overtake the human race (at least in the developed world) since World War II.
Lots of artists and performers are struggling but many of them are also finding ways to keep working, if not always earning.
Reciting poetry on social media, posting and selling artwork on line, singing or playing from balconies or writing blogs about the experience keeps the spirit alive. Arts bodies, such as the Australia Council as are working out relief packages, communities are rallying. There’s a lot of hardship but also hope.
And then there’s Zoom. A few weeks ago the online meeting technology wasn’t part of most people’s app armoury but now it’s seemingly indispensible as a conference and teaching tool.
I checked in on tap dancer, choreographer and teacher Jane Guy. Her company, Glamour Puss Studios in St Kilda has continued its classes on Zoom. She anticipated a severe downturn in business but instead, she says, removing the need for physical attendance has caused an upturn.
‘We have ex-students re-joining from around the state and even from London’, she says. ‘Everyone has emailed saying it’s so good to keep the connection going, to stay part of a group when everything else has changed. They just need something in life that’s normal.’
Other friends, like artist James Geurts, are interested in responding to the cataclysm. It’s an opportunity to think about fundamentals as a creative person and address the role of art, he says; ‘artists have always responded strongly to major change. It forces new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world and our relationship to it’.
He also says that those in the arts are probably better mentally prepared for the current crisis.
‘We’re the lowest paid and most resourceful group around, we’ll just have to find other ways of making and sharing work,’ he says. ‘For me it’s about getting back to my roots; my practice is built on public intervention and I can still make public interventions in the neighbourhood.’
James works across sculpture, fieldwork, drawing and photography and has public art commissions in various stages of planning or execution. Major exhibitions have been postponed or cancelled and a six-month Australia Council ACME Residency that was supposed to start in London in April is pushed back until April 2021.
He’s philosophical about his new, rather bleak normal. ‘I’m just rolling with it in the studio and making work for the future. Now’s a time to be inventive and work with what we have.’
Things are moving so fast that in a few weeks’ time this article might seem crazily optimistic. But for now, the spirit is strong. Stay safe, everyone.
Fiona Gruber is a writer, producer and broadcaster on the arts; publications include the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, and she makes radio documentaries for ABC RN’s Arts and life style programs.