by Shraddha NairMay 04, 2020
"Necessity is the mother of invention" - in the past year and as we continue to navigate the obstacle course that is life in the wake of the coronavirus, we have seen this popular adage in action with the inventive adaptations to the ways in which we communicate, relate, and express ourselves. Be this as artists, thinkers, scholars, philosophers, or creative practitioners, the world is certainly no longer as it once was. Looking into the varied ways in which arts and culture have been affected and how we as a community of creative practitioners have continued to evolve in medium, style, expression and school of thought, it is nearly impossible to miss the overarching impact of digitisation on the creative space and on our own creativity.
The shift to the digital space is not new, we have seen its consistent impact on community engagement since the birth of the Internet in the 80s. However, with the global shutdown and the restrictions upon any means of physical engagement, it provided us with the unforeseen, turbo-charged forward leap to our digitised existences. The internet as a medium of engagement today, is more democratic and inclusive than ever before, yet one must stop and question that with all the brilliance and accessibility of such a world are we too quick to forsake its detriments? Namely, its impact on our mental health and by extension our creativity and output.
As millions around the world lived and continue to live in the fear of death, disease, and waves of loss and repeated isolation, there is an expectation of the greatest mental health crisis we have ever experienced. Proactive measures to preemptively address this crisis include suggestions of art-based interventions and have proven to be extremely effective. Since the 1990s art has been an integral part of alternative mental health therapy and its growing social impact is undeniable. What stands different now, however, is the impact of this crisis on the artists, on their own creativity and their creative output. As much as we are turning to visual aesthetic experiences and cultural events to bring a sense of normalcy, beauty and relief into our own lives, it is easy to forget these same requirements stand true for the artists and creative practitioners providing us with these experiences. In the past year of the many conversations I have had with artists, performers and researchers, the impact of the pandemic on creativity has been an unescapable topic. Mental resilience is equally a challenge for those to whom we are turning for support.
In a recent study appearing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, conducted in partnership with University of Arts Rotterdam and Performing Artist and Athlete Research Lab, Rotterdam, the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of performance artists was observed. It was noted that aside from stress and anxiety, the levels of sleep disorders and the severity of loneliness was said to increase. It is perhaps easy to forget how much artists and cultural performers also depend on active and physical engagement with their audience to keep their art alive and to feed into their creative output in what is a symbiotic relationship. As much as we can appreciate the romance of the lone artist genius separated from the world creating a vision, the reality is closer to the fact that social and community engagement are integral parts of the creative process. When this give and take is disrupted it impacts creation, the way one thinks of creation and the extent to which one can create.
In what might seem a redressal of the situation, artists have been moving beyond Zoom workshops and live shows, to the intimacy of the group chat via Whatsapp, a platform that proved to be a surprising safe space for community members struggling with social anxiety. This immersive platform of chat groups became a place of comfort and inclusivity in the absence of in-person interactions. The democracy of the internet has certainly opened doors for the arts and cultural community - far-reaching and more all-encompassing. In contrast to the stress experienced by artists, for art patrons already experiencing mental health problems related to anxiety, social phobias, and compulsive behaviours, are finding new and accessible outlets to experience art.
Singapore-based artist and film director, Salty Xi Jie Ng, in response to Arts Wok Collaborative’s call for Community Engagement Art Projects shared her work with senior citizens in Singapore fostering community ties during the pandemic. For her Whatsapp took the shape of a medium in itself, moving beyond communication and connection, into a platform of engagement and expression. Having recently returned from a US-based residency, the artist, who is best known for her ‘semi-fictional paradigms for the real and imagined lives of humans within the poetics of the intimate vernacular’, worked with senior citizens who were unknown to her. The question of building a rapport of trust and freedom was a necessary first step and crucial to the success of the project. Whatsapp became the unique solution, a social medium that all participants were comfortable working with and perhaps the anonymity afforded by it went some ways in lowering their creative inhibitions. Xi Jie Ng admits that despite the upsides of the social media platform, there were some participants for whom the medium as an art space was a little disorienting and alienating; it required her to perform a levelling so that they could embark on the collective creative journey starting out from the same point. In the eventual report for the community engagement project, she explains to Arts Wok Collaborative that, “Setting up a digital artwork space is not unlike setting up a physical one. People involved create the boundaries of the space, cultivating a microcosmic universe with its own culture and informal rules of engagement. There is still a sense of a world (as every project is its own world) just one without the interactions of its physical bodies.”
Even so the rise of digital media platforms impact on creative expression and the birth of perhaps a new kind of ‘medium’, has also triggered a strange pensiveness; a re-thinking so to speak stripping us back to our bare necessities. A result of this contemplation is best explained in the collection Pause. Fervour. Reflections on a Pandemic, put together by Harun Farocki Institut, Journal of Visual Culture. “On Zoom meetings, I can glance us in one of the frames – such a bizarre feature of video-based interfaces that includes our image onscreen amongst the person(s) we try to communicate with. We are a ready recreation of Da Vinci’s drawing of the holy family for the Getty Museum’s challenge. I have always liked the way in which this image abandons the traditional posed or emblematic ordering of members in representations of family, in favour of an intermingled composition of figures, coalescing bodies and overlapping movements, a merged complex of gestures, expressions and intentions,” writes contributor, UK-based artist and researcher, Lina Hakim, perfectly encapsulating the disorientation of a largely digital existence during the lockdown. Bringing together writers, artists, architects, thinkers, philosophers, scholars and more, the writings communicate the strife and the small joys held onto in the difficult times. It makes one wonder if at all we are ushering in what will perhaps be known as the post-pandemic school of thought.
The pandemic has already been so many things to us and as it continues to unfold in waves of unknown scales, in this turning point in history we seem to be in the midst of an ongoing experiment in invention, expression, and reflection. We are, one can venture to say, finding our footing in a new world, learning to question everything, and maybe even learning to approach our own creativity with patience.