The pandemic has irreparably changed our relationship with the arts. Confined to their homes, artists across the globe have lost their ability to earn an income and planning for the future has become mostly impossible. Here in Melbourne, though, things are improving. We have no untraced transmission of COVID, and after going through the world’s longest lockdown we’re now living in this strange limbo-land where our situation is enviable and the live arts are beginning to return—but we still face uncertainty.
I spoke to several artists from Melbourne on their experience working through COVID and their hopes for the future.
Paris Balla is a writer, performer, director (you name it, they do it). Paris completed their Honours in Theatre and Performance in 2020.
Adolescent: Tell me about your research into the effect of pandemics on the arts.
Paris: My research focused on the art that was created during or inspired by the Spanish Flu and the HIV/AIDS crisis, and how the different circumstances of these diseases influenced the arts. The Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed between 50-100 million people, but since it overlapped with WWI it’s impossible to find exact numbers. Strangely, there’s little to no art about the Spanish Flu. One theory is that the quantity of death was too large to grieve, or perhaps it was overshadowed by the war. Yet the HIV/AIDS crisis continues to yield seemingly endless masterpieces, from Angels in America to RENT to A Normal Heart. What’s the difference? Potentially politics. The political world treated HIV as further reason to alienate and condemn queer people and people of color. When no one is listening, art is able to rehumanize.
Adolescent: What does history tell us will happen in the future?
Paris: History is cyclical, sure, but our context is changing so much. Who knows how long the internet will last? If forever, then this moment is going to be one of the most well-documented times in history. If the internet vanishes suddenly in 100 years, maybe all of this art will be lost to time.
Savanna Wegman is a director and designer. She is the co-Artistic Director of STRANGEkit, a multidisciplinary artist collective.
Con Coutis is a writer, performer, and comedian. His work has been featured in the Melbourne Fringe and Melbourne Comedy festivals.
Callum Cheah is a writer, sound designer, podcast host, and musician. Callum and I have worked together a lot and he somehow never runs out of ideas.
Adolescent: Where are we in the arts in Melbourne now?
Paris: It’s a bit of a mess. The combination of making it hard for artists to get JobKeeper (a government-funded wage subsidy program), the lack of funding for the arts, arts-based courses being shut down, [and art’s current inaccessibility] means that it’s not great. I’m still nervous about going to the theatre and probably will be until vaccines are rolled out. However, I did see my first show in almost a year the other day!
Savanna: I think we’re in a space with brand new energy. We’re questioning what’s important after a period of pause, separation, and disconnection. There will be a lot of reframing around community, intimacy, and art explored in public and site-specific spaces. I think we’re coming back into the world knowing that our lives can be interrupted again and we’re more grateful for the present.
Con: Chances to see theatre, improv, and stand-up comedy are becoming more plentiful, but chances to perform these still feel scarce. That's why putting on your own shows is so important. Making plans to produce shows of my own still feels a little weird though, knowing everything could be called off at a moment's notice. Having said all that, I'd take a recovering arts scene over a stagnant one any day of the week.
Adolescent: What will be the effects on the arts long-term?
Savanna: Long-term impacts will be seen in the next generation of artists, with less opportunities in tertiary education. We’ll be thinking more about the utility of digital tools in methodologies, personal practices, and presentation. Also, in terms of sharing and collaborating on work globally.
Con: I will say that I've noticed a lot of actors and comedians giving more grounded, authentic live performances since lockdown. I wonder if being forced to spend so much time by ourselves over lockdown has made performers more “real” on stage.
Callum: As a sound designer, my practice was predominately to create sonic spaces. My role was to fill in the gaps. But in 2020, with everything moving online, sound became one of the most integral factors of most of the projects I worked on. Hopefully moving forward we’ll be able to learn from the artists who are already creating multimedia work and develop entirely new forms of engagement with art. It’s either that or more mediocre adaptations of Shakespeare plays. I know which I’d rather see.
Adolescent: What good came from being forced to adapt? What should we keep?
Paris: Things have suddenly become a whole lot more accessible! Now that we’ve made things more accessible, we really have no excuse at all to revert to the old standard. Outdoor theatre! Production meetings happening on Zoom! I refuse to have in-person meetings unless it’s absolutely crucial.
Savanna: We were challenged to experiment. I think it was an incredible challenge to interrogate artistic forms and mediums and push their boundaries in the way people traditionally engage with them. I think we should keep that energy of experimentation.
Adolescent: What do you want to see in the future of the arts?
Paris: More multidisciplinary work, more accessible art, more art from voices we don’t often hear, more theatre outdoors, more government funding. I’d like to see something with a dinosaur in it too.
Savanna: I would love to see artists expect more from audiences, reimagining the possibilities of that relationship. I’m interested in this idea of creating sacred spaces of collective dreaming, imagining, celebrating, and experiencing.
Callum: More appreciation for alternative art forms, especially digital artists. I hope the difficulties many of us faced last year give us a new appreciation for the hard work of artists who do actively engage with the online world, and how creation in this space is a worthwhile endeavor. Also, I want to see shows that aren’t about COVID or lockdown. I know you want to make one, but seriously—don’t do it. It’s a bad idea.
Adolescent: For our international readers currently facing lockdown, please enjoy some quarantine favorites from our artists.
Paris: I’ve loved Staged with Michael Sheen and David Tennant!
Savanna: I watched a lecture by Grayson Perry that I still think about a lot. His ability to create personal fantasy worlds, characters, and alter egos blew my mind. I also love ‘90s UK atmospheric jungle music and having my warm porridge in the morning with coffee.
Con: I watched the movies Jackie Chan made in Hong Kong. The stunts are more outlandish than in his American work, and his sense of timing is just amazing. I also watched a lot of Marx Brothers movies.
Callum: Chris Stapleton’s a great country singer-songwriter and I would highly recommend his album Starting Over. MY WOMAN by Angel Olsen, what a banger of an album. Just listen to it. Heroine by Col3trane, this 2019 R&B album really kept me going this year. Songs by Adrianne Lenker is just a great folk album. Schwebungssummer by Hainbach is technically 2021, but he’s a great ambient/techno producer and Kanye 2049.