Arts in Place: Thoughts on Being

There is a stretch of I-90 in Eastern Washington that could make you forget the pandemic. From Cle Elum to Spokane the highway unfolds like a hallucination, two hundred miles of lonesome sky. You feel lopsided thinking of all the country eastward. You feel stranded as you move.

We are all hunkered down somewhere, and that somewhere has become a burden. Fleeing Seattle for the first time in August 2020, I felt crazed by the escape. Destination: Libby, Montana, and I wondered what destination meant anymore. If our sense of place is tied to the possibilities on the ground – to move freely, to be opportunistic, to stay awhile, to change our minds – then place has become exposed in the pandemic, possibilities stripped and vulnerabilities laid bare.

And no place is more vulnerable than our urban strongholds. From New York to San Francisco and everywhere in between, cultural citizens have woken to the realities of lockdown and thought, “what am I even doing here?” To justify cost of living, you need to have a life. Speaking for myself in Seattle, the shuttering of the arts and culture economy eats me alive. I need these places like water. I need the white noise of strangers, the flashing of the lights before curtain, the vaulted ceilings looming with benevolence.

This was my state of mind rolling into Western Montana: desperation. Thirst. In August 2020, rural America was on the cusp of pandemic devastation. It was still a removed threat, a far-away problem ravaging dense city centers. The plains, for now, were exempt. The dissonance between my liberal lockdown training – wear a mask, shelter in place, practice social distancing – and the roaming expanse of the Bitterroot Valley presented as a broken synapsis. Six feet an irrelevant distance on miles of earth. Inviting a sunburn as a memento. Standing alone in the street at dusk. These were heightened moments of cultural citizenship, reinvented engagements for a pandemic mind.

Stevensville, Montana, August 2020

I am bullish on the idea that the arts need place, and that place is not virtual. The speed at which arts organizations adapted to online performances, galleries, and galas is astonishing, admirable, and for me: questionable. I don’t question the organizations, but the system in which they operate. That there was no safety net in place, that only ten years had passed since the last crushing blow from the recession, that jumping onto the cloud was the only option for sustainability, feels like systemic failure in the arts economy. The arts have never been given the same grace we extract from them: to find center. That the arts had to pivot on a dime and follow the same “digital transformation” demanded by our despot workplaces conflicts with the power of the arts to impact you where you stand, serendipitous and of the world.

Imagine, almost a year into the pandemic and its impacts, that we had allowed the arts to go dark. That as cultural citizens we had demanded an indefinite hiatus backed by economic safety nets: universal basic income, an arts corps, legacy funds at the ready. Rather than bleeding reserves and ruthlessly competing for limited relief, organizations could have been told: take a break. Come back stronger. Invite a sunburn, stand alone in the street at dusk.

Instead we demanded an ill-fit adaptation; the whole of a symphony compressed into an aspect ratio. And while I hear the argument that virtual arts experiences are more accessible – to geographies, to abilities, to socioeconomic standing – I disagree that this is a long-term solution. Our burden of place in the pandemic is a burden of technology. It has become our only option, another monopolized platform. As soon as we find ourselves physically in cultural places again, a collective denouncement of the virtual experience will follow. Cost of living – really living – will inevitably outweigh the cost of a Zoom subscription.

Consider Wild Space Dance Company in Milwaukee, a small collective in a mid-size Midwestern city (and my hometown) with an arts scene that thrives under Chicago’s shadow. Wild Space unknowingly put on the last live dance performance in the city before pandemic lockdowns. In July, the company launched Parking Lot Dances, with artistic director Deb Loewen quoted to believe “Uploading to Zoom wasn’t an option.” Wild Space has held steadfast, performing ephemeral feats on Milwaukee’s asphalt with backdrops of the Hoan Bridge, the Milwaukee River, and the city skyline the only staging they require. Limited audiences re-enter the world from the safety of their cars, temporarily lifted beyond their screens to the ground in front of them.

There is a lesson here that we resist: place is not a given. It is defined by the temporal events that embody it, the movement of people and ideas through it. A stretch of I-90 comes to life only because I needed it to; needed to find place in nothing at all.

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