back together, not back to normal

Dear artists,

We are beginning an unprecedented transition. We are getting back together.

The enforced separation and isolation of the pandemic will begin to end (thank goddess and medical science and everyone steeped in reality).

We are entering a liminal time, a borderland, a long transition where much is at stake and much is possible. We will slowly and haltingly step out of lockdown and into—what? The coming transitions are so unimaginable, so unthinkable, they need the wild and precise attention of artists.

We will get back together, not back to normal.

Many of us have an understandable urge: Can’t we just go back to how things were in 2019? No, we can’t. Too much has shifted in our culture and economy and world. What comes next will be built, in part, by artists. We have sacred, essential skills for this moment: We look clear-eyed at what is and fearlessly imagine what could be.

“Back to normal” erases the political reckonings of the past year. Returning to our familiar habits and connections must not mean forgetting. Let us not simply reopen; let us reimagine and remake.

Getting back together will be messy.

The agony of lockdown is obvious and immediate; the agonies of getting back together may be subtler and more unexpected. Delays, debates, backsliding, confusion, reluctance. In the artistic process, we practice comfort with complexity and uncertainty, looking beyond simplistic binaries—vaccinated/vulnerable, together/alone—to difficult and precious truths.

Transitions are our strength. Artists spend a lot of time on borders, collisions, gradients, boundaries, endings and beginnings, jump cuts and slow fades. We thrive in grey areas, the in-between spaces where much life and art manifest. In a time of rapid change, that fluency is a superpower.

If artists are a culture’s way of talking to itself, there is much to talk about. There are so many stored up emotions, losses to mourn, joys to unleash, anxieties to overcome, connections to relearn, ways we have missed and feared and longed for each other. Our art making helps digest complex events. It makes visible the unseen tumults and transformations. It remembers.

I’ll be honest, I worry.

I worry artists and organizations will be so focused on reopening our lovely galleries and theaters and festivals, so focused on the return of old structures and infrastructures, that we will miss this moment. We will miss what our communities and beloveds need from us. I worry we will rush past the pandemic and, in the process, rush past the spaces where we are most useful.

We need rituals to mark our return, and rituals to grieve what is lost. We need joy and play and the deep, deep pleasures of proximity. Performing artists—how we have missed live art!—this is the moment for your gifts. We must reinvent how to be near each other and how to honor our losses, our gratitude, our rage.

There is a lot up for grabs in the next twelve months.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to claim space, reframe practices, and amplify voices (yours and others). Do you see a possibility, something useful as we get back together? Now is the moment for intention, for imagining and constructing New Normals. Those who move with urgency and vision will find relevance and resource.

The structures that support art and artists are in flux. Many face financial challenges. Many have begun to consider legacies of white supremacy and colonialism. New approaches are manifesting, alternative structures are finding the spotlight. The future of our art worlds will be—must be—reimagined for these new times.

There are things to keep from the pandemic, political momentum, truths told and truths revealed. We learned new skills, adapted our practices. We saw the possibilities of technology and its limitations. And we put care—for ourselves and others—where it has always belonged: at the center.

There are infinite ways your artistic work, skills, and voice are needed.

We need artists who sequester themselves away and return with deeply reflective works of art. We need artists organizing community, artists transforming institutions and artists working outside of institutions. We need rituals, parties, ceremonies, danceathons. We need joy and mourning and fury and love. We need that pandemic zine you made out of loneliness. We need that dance you were supposed to perform last April, and we need the dance you couldn’t have imagined before the pandemic. The only thing we don’t need is meek artists wondering if they have anything to contribute, hoping to get back to normal, spectating history instead of inventing it.

You don’t have to do it all. Take up what is at hand, work at a scale and pace that fits your body. Know that your practice—your skills that are so deep and so familiar you may not even see them—will be essential as we get back together. Know there are questions and possibilities in getting back together that only artists—only you—can address.

This too is what we train for.

***

Do you have an idea or project for getting back together? I would love to hear about it here.

(You can read my messy ideas and brainstorms here.)

***

And I’m looking for guest artists/speakers for a series of online conversations: Back Together, Not Back To Normal

If you are (or know) an artist working on the transitions back together—the role of artists, grieving and remembering, political momentum, rituals of return, building New Normals—let me know. (Yes, of course, it's a paid gig. Didn't you read my book?)

 
 
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