It's been a slow start mentally to 2021 and January lasted forever! I think I only really got back into my stride in February. Then before I could blink, it was March. I'm grateful that I have continued to work through each of the lockdowns and have been able to keep developing my practice. I've kind of got used to the corner space that I spend a lot of my time in, and know I am lucky to have a small space outside, that I optimistically refer to as 'my studio'. When I'm feeling a bit lost or doubting myself I find it's good to look back and remind myself of why I'm doing what I do. It also reminds me and brings into focus how I am not doing this alone. I'm not just talking about the direct support from family, friends and peers, but seeing their work, the work of arts organisations in the West Midlands and further afield; the events and exhibitions that were able to go ahead, the change makers, and people from across the sector sharing their experiences; the opportunities I was able to access. All of that helped.
This blog is a look back at the different opportunities I have been able to access due to them being online or part digital/physical spaces.
Various opportunities that I have been able to take part in have helped enormously and they have, on the whole, taken place online in my corner.
If I cast my memory back to the start of 2020, I responded to some tweets from artist Simon Poulter inviting people to become part of a new Parallel State. This came at a point where I was completely disillusioned with everything that was playing out in relation to Brexit and the preceding general election. I attended the first event in Huddersfield with fellow artist Janet Tryner and felt encouraged. For the first time in a long time, there was a way to get through this, to live in a parallel state as a way to cope with, have dialogue around, seek change and find common ground.
Image: Screenshot from Parallel State Facebook page
This was the beginning of what has been an incredibly ambitious and pro-active year for #AParallelState, with a lot of hard work by its caretakers, of which I am grateful for the opportunity to have been one. This was the last time that I was at a public event, in a space with other people. We didn't let the pandemic stop of us from producing a packed series of online events, art and podcasts. You can catch-up with everything that the Parallel has done via the facebook page (link above) or the twitter feed. Parallel State adapted to the change in our freedom of movement brought about by the pandemic and moved events online, including 'In Coventry', 'In Sheffield', and 'In Bristol'. It has produced digital podcasts, a social media feed and experimented with a hybrid (digital/physical) event in Sheffield and commissioned artists and speakers from across the globe. Being involved with the Parallel State has also introduced me to people I would probably not have met under normal circumstances. I have learned much from them and the experience.
It wasn't long after that the first lockdown came, just as I was questioning myself as an artist and stepping away from things, I was suddenly on furlough. Despite the anxiety and precariousness that lockdown brought, I also found head space that I hadn't had for a long time. I was able to begin unpacking the conflict that was happening in my head and a new energy and determination emerged. Would Speedy Crits have happened without lockdown, would I have even thought to initiate an online peer support programme? I doubt it. If we rewind to early March 2020 and before, how accessible were opportunities, support, exhibitions etc for people facing challenges with the 'normal' way of working and engaging? Speedy Crits ran from April to July 2020, with 3 months being supported by Artspace Coventry, it brought together artists from across the West Midlands and beyond. #SpeedyCrits is currently on hiatus whilst funding is sought, but will hopefully be back this year with a hybrid approach! For more information on Speedy Crits, there are previous blog posts here.
Image: Marketing image by Helen Kilby Nelson
Through Speedy Crits I reconnected with peers and developed new connections.
Screenshot of tweet from Simon Poulter, original image credit: Matthew Usher
I remember when I first saw the Active Reality Research Lab, , opportunity, led by Simon Poulter, pop up on the New Art West Midlands website. I wasn't too sure if it was relevant to me and spent a long time pontificating over it. What I was sure about, was that my practice needed a re-boot, and that I would gain knowledge and learn new skills. The lab became another hybrid of digital and physical space, with 3 days in digital space and 2 days in the physical space of Coventry from 13-17 July 2020. For most of us, those 2 days in Coventry were the first time we had ventured into a public space since March. The lab was intense and challenging. I learned about ways of working, new equipment and software, cross sector collaboration and public art. I was glad I'd made the decision to go ahead and apply, and even more grateful that I'd been selected, along with: Carol Breen, Matt Eaton, Namratha Jacob, Edie-Jo Murray, Priti Patel, Rosa Postlethwaite and Laurie Ramsell.
Since the lab, I have gone on to work with Rosa Postlethwaite, commissioning her for the Community Comedy Club, part of the S-o-A Community Art Project. I have continued to connect with Edie Jo Murray, through Speedy Crits and more recently when we were both selected for the AD:Vantage Leadership Programme. I was also invited to be on the Digital & Gaming Roundtable panel for Birmingham 2020 Commonwealth Games, following my presentation for a public art proposal at the end of the lab.
Image: Inspiration from a local resident at the project drop-in day
This leads nicely to the next significant and ongoing opportunity. The commencement of my involvement with the S-o-A Community Arts Project as artist lead and project manager. For some background on the lead-up and early days of the project, click here. Starting anything during this long period of uncertainty has been a challenge. I quickly discovered that even when restrictions weren't so strict, there has been a definite reluctance from the community to mix with others in an enclosed space. The community centre and the project were allowed to continue to offer workshops. We were able to invite up to 15 people into the space and as long as we kept the room well ventilated, and followed all the covid guidelines, we could go ahead. (I have actually lost track of what restrictions were in place during what period now). I knew we would have to adapt, or postpone the project till a future date. Myself and the community committee did not want to postpone. Everyone felt the project, it's potential to connect people through creativity was too important. I shall write more about how the project has developed in a separate post, except to say that since October everything has had to take place remotely or online. As we approach the easing of restrictions we are now looking forward to bringing/expanding some of those events into physical space. One example being the aforementioned Community Comedy Club.
Image: Screenshot of the online Community Comedy Club, facilitated by Rosa Postlethwaite
This 'wheel of life' was just one of the many exercises we were encouraged to do during our time, which began in September 2020. The pilot leadership programme for d/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists/producers/cultural & heritage employees and freelancers, was developed by Lara Ratnaraja and Helga Henry and funded by Coventry City Council working in partnership with New Art West Midlands, Coventry Biennial and Warwick University. Lara and Helga have developed and led many leadership programmes including RE:Present and ASTON-ish, click on their names to learn more about their work.
These programmes usually take place in physical spaces, so yet another example of how people in the sector can adapt and change methods of working. It also made sense for this pilot to be taking place online, purely from an access point of view for me and also some of the others. You can read more about mine and my cohort's experience here.
Of course there are also disadvantages to being online, including digital poverty, digital ability, safeguarding, care and empathy. Through these different experiences over the past year I have gained a lot of knowledge and a good feel for how hybrid approaches can be implemented as we hopefully move towards a post-covid world. Thinking around flexibility for participants to drop in and out of the physical and digital spaces according to need at any given point of its duration. Yes, providing digital spaces can use up more resources in the organisation and skill it requires, but it's worth it for a more inclusive sector.
My thoughts going forward are to look back at and analyse all of these hybrid communities and think about how to resolve the less positive outcomes and expand on and implement those that were positive. How will the dynamic change for instance, for the Community Comedy Club as it moves towards a physical space - will the group even want to do that, or will they want to maintain that digital space, or perhaps combine the two? What will the advantages be for participants of Speedy Crits if they can choose to take part in either a digital or physical space. How will that open up opportunity for connecting with other artists and growing a network?
I haven't even touched on the subject of online exhibitions and how these have improved and become more prevalent during the last 12 months. Will these disappear once spaces re-open? Would it be fair to let them? Whilst the experience of viewing art online is very different to when you are there in a physical space with it, for some people this may be their only way to engage with works of art and we shouldn't close those digital doors.