What if . . . it didn’t go away?
Like a good conspiracy theory, or an old fairy tale about a one-eyed monster living in a cave, it all begins with a bit of fact. But long-forgotten truth gets buried under the weight of fantasy. The forgotten one-eyed monster maybe was just a big lonely hermit who happened to lose an eye along the way, but the years turned him into a larger-than-life force to be avoided. A conspiracy theory follows the same path, only it can be more disturbing.
A theory I hear from time to time goes like this: what if the pandemic doesn’t go away? What if it keeps on mutating and science can’t keep up? Will we be forced to wear special masks and limit our movements? Will schools and public gatherings be banned and only experienced virtually? Will it be the last we ever see of the inside of a theater, or museum? I hope not, but perhaps we need to think about how we should view the future, a future that might be a bit more restrictive, and how we as artists can find a voice in these times and stare that one-eyed beast right into his solitary eye.
We are social creatures. We gather with each other to interact, to be able to view the same things differently. The artist feels this need as well as anyone else, the difference being that the artist communicates in a visual language, a language that speaks in imagery and physical form. They can only hope for the best and that what they create will travel beyond the personal and resonate universally. Yet now, in the time of the pandemic, we find ourselves being pushed. We know there is uncertainty around the corner. Should we ignore the beast and work away in solitude, or find strength in our numbers and push back? Is collaboration a means to this end? A tool to fight back?
In the UMVA journal’s summer issue dated 1990, a letter by artist and Union Member, Wally Warren describes his experience with the collaborative process. He and a group of artists were chosen to work as residents in Maine’s SAD 59 school system. Wally describes sitting in a stuffy school library as the facilitator lectures on about the need for the artists to find common ground, a common theme that the students could easily interpret. He asks the artists to go out in the surrounding fields and bring back “inspiration,” something to do with “nature.”
Wally then describes how the “professional educator railed on about the glories of nature and the great imagination of children.” All Wally can think of is “taking my clothes off and jumping in the stream down the road from the school”—and that is exactly what he did! In doing so, he “found a wonderful collection of junk buried in the stream bed . . . rusted automobile parts, stick shifts, discarded metal and glass, great stuff.” Wally goes on to work with the students to create The Lost City of Golgotha, a theme far from the facilitator’s idea of nature and a departure from the collaboration concept.
Collaboration among artists has been with us for years, but now in this time of the pandemic, Arts Councils and their governing bodies have dusted the idea off and have attempted to put a new shine on it. Collaboration is now viewed as a way to bring people together, even though it currently remains a virtual process. Today, the idea of collaboration, as seen through the eyes of Arts administrations, is about bang for the buck! The more people involved, the better. The individual artist who wants to express their personal view may find it harder to be acknowledged by those holding the purse strings.
An unattributed quote that appears on the cover of a UMVA newsletter from 1995 reads: “When we join in creative collaborations our intuitions speak to one another, our vision is multiplied, and our creations reflect an image of community.” That may be true, but does the individual lose the sense of their own creative process? When artists collaborate, there is a chemistry that forms, and this chemistry brings the strongest idea or vision to take precedent and shape the whole. Or as Wally Warren put it: “My rules are my own and that is what I would hope that these kids find out. That does not preclude cooperation with others, God knows the UMVA has shown that.” The artist must continue to stand their ground and shape what is personal to their belief.
It has been over a year now since the pandemic turned us on our heads and took from us so very much. Galleries and museums have shuttered their doors, some will never open again, and those that work from a virtual platform realize that there must be a better way forward. To merely film an exhibition of artwork on a gallery’s walls cannot give the viewer a sense of luminosity, depth, texture, or vibrancy. The gallery/museum has other possibilities to help us look, new ways of showing what the artist has created. And if they use video to do so, they must show us how the artist works and thinks.
Recently, here in Ireland, the RHA (Royal Hibernian Academy) held their annual open exhibition virtually. This exhibition is well-regarded by artists, and as an open call, gets numerous submissions. Pat and I, over the years, have attended a few of these shows. It’s a huge space, and you need time to explore the works. But this past show was done as a virtual “tour” (with or without comment). The flatness was distracting. You can move along the walls and hover over a piece, but it felt like a suspect lineup in a police station! You could pause at any time to look at a piece, but I just wound up moving through the gallery, as you would on Google Street View: click a few times, and you’re a little further down the road. Would it have been far better if the RHA had canceled its exhibition? After all, we are getting used to these disappointments.
When the pandemic meets its own end, there will be much we will have learned from it. We will have found new resources within ourselves and others. The human need to create will be even stronger, and we will find again that being with others gives us the energy we might have missed.
The pandemic will have left its mark on all of us, some more deeply than others, but ultimately, with insight and sensitivity, the marks will fade. The beast will have given us a better understanding of what might lie ahead and how to navigate that uncertain future.
All the Best From the West (of Ireland),
Please note: It is our understanding that the artist Wally Warren has had a bad stroke and is currently in rehabilitation. We ask everyone to put good thoughts out there. After all, he’s one of us.
Later email: “Currently the majority of grant projects here stipulate working with other people and or larger groups. So that’s why we have to look at the other side of what the individual artist loses.”
Image at top: Pat Owen, Are We Screwed? . . . Hope Not.