Distance, Interaction and Agency

Whether isolating or distancing, the sheer physicality of our work has been dramatically curbed. In less than two weeks the things we took for granted have disappeared and I now have conversations with neighbours through a fence or at a safe distance on my drive. I pick up food and parcels from 6 feet away from my house and, because I live alone, any physical contact and warmth has now been limited to stroking my dog. I am asking will I ever feel able to hug again? Will I feel comfortable in large gatherings? Will I want to sit on train next to a stranger again?

The implications of this are massive for our sector where interpersonal interactions and collaboration are key to making work and where ‘touch’ is so important and where being together in a space is the starting point for so much of what we do.

The change that we are facing is unprecedented. The situation for the massive self-employed workforce upon whom the sector relies is dire. As our cultural buildings and our schools closed, many artists confronted the immediate loss of income. Thankfully, most funders were fast to act in supporting the sector and the government put in place measures but these will only reach the self-employed in June.

So, initially we raced to set up home offices, found new ways to do business on line and Zoom took off. It is arguable that we placed pressure on ourselves to continue to be productive as we raced to buckle down for a short stint until things get back to normal. But, of course it was not to be a short stint and we are now in it for the long haul.

As Aisha S. Ahmed wrote: “ …as someone who has experience with crises around the world, what I see behind this scramble for productivity is a perilous assumption. The answer to the question everyone is asking — “When will this be over?” — is simple and obvious, yet terribly hard to accept. The answer is never. Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened. And so, while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity right now. That is denial and delusion. The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.

So, the change that we are facing is potentially permanent. What will we do and how will we feel when we are able to move around again? Will we want to? What will be the new ‘normal’ because it isn’t going to be what it was ….

I am also wondering what the implications of the situation are for the processes of co-creation. The commissions programmes were all halted back in March and it is likely that they will all have to be reframed and reshaped. There are limits to what we can do on line. And not everyone has access to the technical resources to take part on line. Is it possible to co-create on line? And how important is proximity to the notion of co-creation? Where does agency sit when working remotely? I have no answers … there is nothing we can compare it to, no benchmarks, no baselines – and as someone who works primarily in evaluation and research, I feel the lack of these. All we can do is reflect and think about our responses to the circumstances we are in, share our thoughts with one another and be gentle on ourselves and our co-creators.  

Over the coming weeks and months, I would love to hear network members’ thoughts and experiences so that we can continue to learn together in these strange times. If you have found effective ways to co-create on line please share them and if you have faced challenges please share them too. It would be great to hear from you about how you are working to continue to co-create in a context where the process is of greater relevance than ever before.

Written by Susanne Burns, Co-Creating Change Network Evaluator