It only takes a quick glance over the homepage of Beyond James to notice that it has been unusually quiet the last few weeks. It certainly hasn’t been for lack of some great events; instead, I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to determine how to bring artists together and share their work with audiences. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but the learnings have been interesting:

Everyone Wants Certainty- But No One Can Provide It

Artists and arts administrators are typically prepared for the unpredictable. But the processes, methods and framework that we have previously worked in are- for now- obsolete. As a result of COVID-19, we’re developing new ways of working together- some good, some bad. Being forced to find new ways means old traditions, some of which are outdated or inefficient, can now be easily disregarded. But methods that may have been working well or reliable, may simply not be applicable at the current time. Unfortunately, this means that when things go wrong, those comforting processes that helped move things forward- even when a situation changed- can no longer be relied upon. As a result, we’ve been required to develop a sense of comfort within the uncertainty, even though a lack of information and the unknown is, in itself, a little scary. It’s part of the trade-off to be able to share the art.

While artists are often living in a type of uncertainty due to the precarious nature of their work, this anxiety is forced to live alongside the new uncertainties that most of the world is also experiencing due to the pandemic itself. Many artists still live in job insecurity, despite the temporary government assistance offered through the pandemic to date. For those that may have jobs as working artists, they are often on contract, without benefits or other protections that formally-employed workers enjoy. This on its own is difficult before being combined with changing government regulations and scientific information on how to best live during this time.   

We’re All Afraid of Each Other

In its framework for reopening, the government has provided a lot of recommendations for how artists are to interact with audiences (short version- they aren’t). However, the guidelines are significantly more vague on how artists should interact with each other- and this ambiguity is leading to a lot of confusion and fear. 

Artists naturally want to collaborate and perform together- but when they are afraid of each other, or put in a situation that would be unsafe with audience members, but considered safe with another artist, a fine line emerges between creative coordination and absolute chaos, often driven by whatever news conference or COVID-19 related headline is dominating that day. 

For artists who rely on their art to make a living, it generally isn’t practical to stay at home, particularly if their art is best expressed collaboratively. How to do this safely though, is a bit of a moving target. All we can do is follow the guidelines that are set out for us by experts and try to find that comfort within uncertainty. 

Every Jurisdiction is Different

At the start of the planning process for the project, I was in close contact with many colleagues across the country, and later, the world, to ask about their metods and share learnings. It was quickly discovered that there wasn’t much to share, as each of us were reliant and restricted by whatever the government of that province or municipality had enacted. As a result, what was acceptable or even mandated in one geographical location was not permissible in another. Similarly, attitudes of audiences were different, depending on the framing and positioning by each government and what they deemed in their announcements to be the most important to convey.  

As a result, while there was some shared learnings and information, it was ultimately clear that each of us were on our own to navigate the best way forward for now. However, there is a benefit to shared information- as each geographical location is responding differently, there is an opportunity to recognize what is working well or not well in each place, and consider how that can be adopted if circumstances change to be something more similar to one of those locations. 

Yes, It is Worth It

Last week, I was part of a team that produced a concert recording. Although I wasn’t there in person to see it happen due to capacity limitations, at one point in the day, someone phoned me so I could hear the live music. In that moment, all the uncertainty, fear and frustration was worth it. Hearing the result of the collaboration, hard work and practice made it clear that we were on the right track- and that it deserved to be shared with the rest of the world. 

For all of the challenges of this pandemic, art is at its best when our community needs healing. Artists respond to the world around them- which includes the uncertainty, fear and frustration- in order to humanize it. I don’t think we’ve found a way to fully embrace this yet and do it in a way that makes sense for all. But I do believe we’re on our way.

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