“We made the world we are living in and we have to make it over.” James Baldwin
I was in Ballymun when the phone call came. Close the nursery, close the café, close the theatre.
Ballymun is a suburb in north Dublin, close to the city’s airport, which sprung up in high-rise glory in the 1960s. Then a solution to a housing crisis, now described by environmental journalist Frank McDonald as Dublin’s ‘worst planning disaster’. Axis Arts, where I was when the phone call came, is part of the area’s regeneration plan – a plan to reverse the ‘disaster’ which also brought to Ballymun a leisure centre, student accommodation and the hotel I was staying in.
Axis is an arts and community resource centre at the heart of the suburb. It’s a place where the residents of Ballymun are encouraged to come together. It had to close its doors and halt its work aimed at community cohesion, as the policy of social distancing aimed at slowing down the spread of COVID-19, required us all to step apart. And in doing so transforming the world and our lives into a place once unimaginable.
I’d travelled the slow way to Ballymun. Taking train and ferry from Edinburgh to Holyhead to Dublin. En route brilliant rainbows burst across stormy skies over Cowlyn Bay and through the crests of restless waves on the rough crossing over the Irish Sea. Both forms of transport uncharacteristically quiet. Even before lock down COVID-19 had persuaded many not to travel. To my climate change shame, the fear of not being able to get home forced an early return by flight from a near empty, subdued Dublin airport two days later and two days earlier than planned.
It was climate change shame. I’d travelled to Dublin with the Cultural Adaptations project and the third meeting of its transnational partners and embedded artists tasked with exploring the role of culture in the adaptation of wider society to climate change, as well as how the arts and cultural sector itself must adapt.
Those of us who had travelled to Ballymun, as well as our hosts from Axis, spent the one night we had together gathered around a long wooden table in a packed vegan restaurant in what was to be my last meal out for a long time. Over our bring your wine we tried to pack in the conversations that under non pandemic circumstances we would have had days to undertake, mull over, and undertake again.
“we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we scientists don’t know how to do that.” Gus Speth environmental lawyer and advocate
We all agreed that with every crisis comes an opportunity to change – whether that change is incremental (doing things differently) or transformational (doing different things). And that everything society is experiencing with COVID-19 parallels what we need to go through with climate change. Although our focus is climate adaptation, and we know the arts and cultural sector can’t be at the forefront of critical care, we all acknowledged that the way we work has a role to play in the current crisis. And that the learning we take from it can inform us in the role we can play in helping society adapt to net-zero emissions by 2045 (see the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Policy) alongside the adaption of our sector.
Like climate change, COVID-19 is changing the system. Any process of recovery requires a vision that incorporates a revolution in understanding, finance, planning and delivery, alongside an increased ability to build resilience and a shift in our relationship with nature.
The enforced time many of us are currently spending at home is valuable time to imagine and plan new ways of living, working and being for ourselves, our communities, our organistions and sectors. And in doing so plan a recovery that also improves the long term health of the planet we call home.
Here’s some first thoughts on how to incorporate ways in which artists and cultural practitioners think, work and create into the planning process.
“Artists do not think outside the box – there is no box.” Frances Whitehead
During our short time with Axis Arts we discussed the value of thinking differently and creatively, as well as the ability to manage complexity that characterises the way artists and cultural practitioners work. An ability undervalued in a system which emphasis the worth of end product above process.
As many of us now grapple with ‘non-productive’ time at home, it’s a perfect time to reflect on time and how our perception of it changed during the Industrial Era. The Industrial Age established a tremendous pressure on time to be ‘productive’. It revolved around ‘clocking in’ and ‘clocking off’. For city dwellers especially, time became measured in minutes, not the turn of the seasons. Since then we are constantly reminded that ‘time is precious’, ‘time is running out’, ‘use it wisely’, ‘time is money’. And many of us have lost the understanding of the passage of time in relation to the natural world.
None of which is intrinsically a bad thing. However, in the rush to plan our recovery and consider new ways of working that prioritize conserving above consuming, we can chose to take this moment of enforced ‘unproductive time’ to pause and acknowledge the value of time ‘spent’ creatively. As well re-connecting with the natural world as an environment we need to create a healthy working relationship with.
“The power of community to create health, is far greater than any physician, clinic or hospital”. Mark Hyman, physician and author
The arts and cultural sector understands the value of community – from the supportive communities we create for ourselves to work in, to our role within wider communities. As the inclusion of Axis Arts within the regeneration of Ballymun proves, arts and culture plays a valuable role in bringing communities together, and are a vital part of their health.
During our short time at Axis we shared thoughts on how healthy communities treat elders as experts and mine their expertise and experience on how the natural landscape has changed over the years. We reflected on re-greening the city and loss of knowledge in growing our own food, as well as the importance of learning across generations, nationalities and sectors.
The value of community has come into sharp focus as our ability to travel is curtailed and we are all required to ‘dig where we stand’. As a sector underpinned by a values based approach to the work we do, we understand the value of support and supporting those around us. We know the value of understanding and growing communities, asking not what they can do for us, by what can we do for the communities we work with and our part of our lives.
Paradoxically COVID-19 is highlighting that the community we belong to is global as well as local. Both in terms of who we connect with in person and online, as well as seeking solutions that will make the world a safe and healthy place to live. It’s proved what artists already know, that borders are artificial and that there is more that unites than divides.
Our processes of re-evaluation must include thinking locally, but acting globally for ourselves and our organistions, recognising we are citizens of the world as well as our own neighbourhoods.
“Language is also a place of struggle.” Bell Hooks, author and social activist
Artists and the cultural sector understand shared language and the importance of dialogue and giving voice.
We bring both an insider and outsider perspective, creating and dedicating time for refection and sharing as well as talking. We know how to bridge gaps between statistics and lived experiences and in doing so communicate complexity through forms of language that include images, music and public art as well as the spoken and written word.
We create meaningful messages that challenge assumptions and encourage people to look and think differently. We take time to articulate the intangible, making room for feelings as well as facts and figures. In doing so we can communicate visions of the future as a place which people have an emotional connection with and desire to be there.
As we re-evaluate how and what we communicate about our plans for recovery, we encourage giving voice and listening as well as asking to be heard. Use multiple ‘languages’ and speak to the emotions as well as the intellect. Artists and cultural practitioners understand the importance of people, and place them at the heart of our work, strategies, project and business planning.
“The new storytellers are writers, poets, musicians, documentarians, radio producers, and others who are reporting the story of a new world.” Sarah van Gelder Co-Founder Yes! Magazine
Arguably the closest experience to the swift, traumatic change we are undertaking through COVID-19 are times of war and revolution. Historically arts and culture has played a crucial storytelling role during and in the aftermath of these times of abrupt and disruptive change.
One of the impacts of war can be to silence people. In contrast the arts and culture gives voice to individual stories as well as the story of a nation. In conflict situations artists as storytellers can help imagine alternative ways of being and transformation to a better future. The arts can safe guard stories and cultural heritage – both tangible and intangible – ensuring these aren’t lost or obliterated in the drive for change.
In the aftermath of conflict situations, reconciliation is essential. This involves restoring relationships torn apart and subject to psychological distancing. Stories of reconciliation can be between family members, individuals or communities and have a role to play in building new national identities when the times comes to come together again.
Reconciliation is essential when a way of life and living has been lost or needs to be let go of, if we are create a healthy relationship with the future. The work of theatre practitioners such as the Mashirika Creative and Performing Arts Group in Rwanda, DubbleJoint Theatre Company in Northern Ireland and the Centre for Children’s Theatre Developmentin Kosovo all illustrate the role that storytelling has to play in reconciling the past, as a crucial part of healing in the present and building towards a new future.
If you can change the narrative, you can change the world. Creating and holding space for stories old and new to be told and listened to has a crucial role to play in the transition to a new society. Storytelling helps us answer questions and when we do we are able to tackle problems with courage, risk-taking and creativity.
Stories must be told from multiple perspectives, articulated by those at risk, not just those in power. They need to detail solutions, solidarity, action and hope, visualizing alternatives and the pathways to get there.
As we plan for re-building, narratives of empowerment and co-ownership of knowledge enable individuals, organisations and communities to be their own heroes, not someone else’s victims. They can articulate shared visions of a future that is not all about loss, but as a better place to be.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel, author, activist, holocaust survivor
One of the most powerful things writers, artists, everyone can do is witness and document. As a witness you have personally seen something happen. You have a version of events, knowledge of and a memory. To document it means no one take it away from you. At a time, like many in history, when powerful storytellers on world platforms take control of narratives, the act of witnessing, documenting and sharing what we witness is an act of re-claiming our lives, our version of events, our story. And not have it told, or mis-told for us. Our voices and what we have to say matters.
During this time record all of the good things that are happening to us, our organistions and in society, as well as the challenges. Use these to inform planning and recovery, so we can look to the future with optimism and not just to the past with pessimism.
“Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe.” Arundhati Roy
Making room for creativity, understanding and being part of our communities – local and global – taking time to communicate, tell and listen to stories and bearing witness in times of change, are all valuable skills and ways of working the arts and cultural sector can share, contribute and bring to the planning table at this time.
However, we too should reflect on own advice, re-think our practice, organisations and business models. We also can learn from other sectors who think and work differently to us and integrate new ideas into our recovery and re-building. In doing so we can take tangible, holistic, cross sector steps in understanding our role in the healing and re-creation of society during and in the aftermath of COVID-19, as well as undergo a Just Transition to a better, fairer, healthier and climate friendly future for all.