Between physical connectivity and digital overwhelmness

We spend a third of our lives, if not more at work. We often see our colleagues more than our families or friends or partners.  People may joke about having a work partner/wife/husband which can be an incredibly powerful relationship, intimate yet platonic. Now, suddenly, there is absence. Different from when we go on holiday or a weekend. There is no ‘See you on Monday’. We do not know when the next time we will see each other is.

We are currently experiencing collective trauma. Many people in the cultural sector were already dealing with the fallout of following earlier guidelines to self-isolate and socially distance with the closure of galleries, museums and other cultural venues. There was an urgency to think about how to continue delivering programmes. One week later that cultural landscape experienced another seismic shift.

This absence, this loss, this silence. Something has irrevocably changed. The easy chat, the personal information we share with ‘that’ work colleague and no one else. A smile, an in-joke, a glint of an eye, a micro movement that says more than words and connects us across the space of an office. All this exchanged for being home on lockdown. How do you negotiate that new domestic come work space? Suddenly faced with being at home with your ‘IRL* family’ and all the conflicted emotions this may raise. How do we cope being around them 24/7 and get the space we need for ourselves?

In a rush to adapt to this change and the digital heavy ‘new normal’ we must not lose sight of what we have suddenly lost. We must allow ourselves time to grieve. Each of us will move through the stages of grief at our own pace. It is not a linear one-way process. Mourning cannot be rushed.

I thrive on human contact. I love going to work because it gets me into the world. I see and connect with people, even if that just means being in the same room as them. Whilst I am easy in silence with no need to fill it, I really enjoy chatting, exchanging everyday mundanity or engaging in critical conversations of my varying professional roles. But now I am home. No staff team. No colleagues.

How do we maintain these relationships when we are not present? Who is holding me in mind? Who is thinking of me? All friendships and relationships need tending and nurturing but who looks after us when the work family has fragmented? How do we look after ourselves? How do I maintain my mental health on lockdown?

The first week of lockdown saw my inbox bulging with invitations to Google hangouts, Zoom, Skype and Whereby. Being able to see the person I am speaking to, where they are and perhaps their favourite at home cup; looking into their eyes and smiling at each other, all helps me feel connected. Somewhere in this I am hoping for reciprocation, that I am held in mind, thought about in absence, kept alive in others’ conversation. Video connectivity does however come at a cost. It is more physically and emotionally exhausting; present yet disconnected, such a curious dissonance. I enjoy the silence when I am sat with someone in a cafe, I can sense their physical presence, the presence and silence are rich and feeding. Online is the emotional antithesis. We miss cues and nuances, the subtleties, yet it is still so much better than the void.

“We need a digital offer” is the new clarion call from the cultural citadels. Perhaps it would be timely to allow the silence to be heard without the need or compulsion to fill it. What is the silence saying and what is being said within it? With venues closed and lockdown the new norm it offers us an opportunity to slow down, to be more mindful, reflect.

Indeed, not everyone creates digital content nor why should they? Perhaps there is a fear of invisibility, a need to be seen to be trying to be seen, an endless loop of virtue signalling in a wholly narcissistic self-referential hall of mirrors.  Ironically their digital voice may not be heard in the rising cacophony.

The rush to digital poses several other questions; Who is the content for, who is making the content, why is it being made and importantly, who is excluded? To say nothing of the contribution of the digital to Climate Change. What happens to ‘analogue creatives’ when they were commissioned for a practice in one media but now the imperative is to produce something digital that they may have no understanding of, or talent for. What also of those who are digitally excluded due to access, poverty, relevance and disability.

The digital realm can be as exclusionary and ableist as the analogue world, if not more so. Social media is currently full of commissions for artists to talk about Covid 19 isolation and this unintentional ableism is not lost on the disability arts community. Living and working in isolation has always been the norm for many disabled artists. With exclusion currently a reality for mainstream artists, organisations and institutions, some are still not joining the dots and making the links. The fear is that once we come through the other side of Covid-19 the status quo will be resumed.

Undoubtedly there are questions about how do cultural institutions remain relevant and visible and survive? There will already be an understandable anxiety of how things will be when everyone is ‘back in the office’. We need to create a vocabulary of care and compassion within which everyone can be nurtured and ‘fed’. When we ask the social filler of ‘how are you?’ take the time to listen. It’s ok not to be okay and not to know how to navigate – we do not have a map for this particular landscape. As we proceed, let us do it slowly with radical kindness that includes everyone and leaves no-one behind. Now, will you walk with me?


*IRL: In real life