At first the adrenalin of this whole thing meant that I somewhat relished what was happening. It was intense and scary but I was okay and seemingly most important, I was ‘productive’. But after the 872618th Zoom meeting that didn’t need to be a meeting (why in this whole lockdown did we skip the humble phone call?) I was tired. I’m not quite sure at what stage people thought being in lockdown meant that we had an unprecedented level of 24hour access to each other. Or that we all needed to be in this “new normal” think tank together. But I do think the only people who thrive in amidst a world-wide pandemic that locks us in our houses and then sends the world online are either sociopaths or Silicon Valley billionaires.
The contemporary art version of incessant Zoom calls, seems to be ‘the live’. As in the livestream – Instagram live, Facebook live, Youtube live, all the lives! As the art world went dark, things were hastily re-fashioned and shaped into lo-fi live version of their original selves, festivals, exhibitions, art fairs and theatre have gone live. Or where things didn’t exist before, or where people were trying to figure things out – these things went live too, talks and discussions galore. And move over Berlin and London, Instagram is the hot new residency location.
The digital world enables a connectivity not otherwise seen. What’s been interesting during this time is how quickly people have got onboard with a more accessible way to be, which was once “too hard”. It’s been amazing how quick universities and other institutions who have previously refused to have leniency around flexible and remote working, around sharing hard and soft digital infrastructure have now just found ways to make it happen. Art works are now free from the four walls, physical locations and admission costs which typically confine them.
The government announced a COVID-19 WINZ Wage Subsidy programme in March. The subsidy was “available to support employers, including sole traders, impacted by COVID-19, and face laying off staff or reducing hours.” What it meant in practical terms was a 12-week subsidy which paid a flat $585.80 before tax if someone had lost 30% of the income. Recently announced was that if the loss is up to 50% these same people can now apply for an extension. It still astonishes me that this was way before we would really know just how much impact this would have on our economy.
The WINZ subsidy was followed by Creative New Zealand’s Emergency Relief Grant, which is a contribution towards loss of income between 1 March and 30 June due to COVID-19. The grant is a lump sum top-up of the Wage Subsidy to align with Creative New Zealand’s policy to pay artists and arts practitioners fairly. Applicants to the CNZ fund must have successfully applied to the Wage Subsidy.
As the borders and venues closed here and globally, artists gigs dropped off one by one until for some artists their work had all but vanished. Some artists with calendars full of projects all over the world, found themselves with no work at all. Kate Prior and I spoke to some in this article here. It revealed what artists all know: we’re valued only by our outputs. It also revealed that as much as artists denounce capitalist systems and structures, that we too operate within a capitalist system. One where productivity/art = money.
However the WINZ Subsidy and the Emergency Relief Grant in some ways, for these artists acted like a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This pseudo-UBI allowed artists (although notably only those who lost work due to Covid not before it), off the hamster wheel of the gig economy scrapping for small parts of cash here and there to actually reflect on the art they actually want to make, and what contributions they as artists can make.
For independent artists outside of full time employment the pseudo-UBI seemed like a temporary lifeline, albeit soon to end. It was a complete eye opener then when just last week, a $7.5 million Careers Support for Creative Jobseekers programme was announced. This was part of the $175 million arts package announced by the government. The programme builds on the “the most successful aspects” of the Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment (Pace) programme, which ran from 2001-2012.
In a recent article Henry Oliver writes, “When you’re living it, you quickly learn that without government support, New Zealand would barely have any artists who aren’t hobbyists. The market just can’t sustain it. But that’s true of a lot of things in New Zealand: film, television, even farms.” And he’s right. But seeing so much government support in a way which acknowledges both the national importance of art as well as arts reliance on the government is surprising!
What this creative jobseekers programme will actually look like, is all a bit foggy now just like everything else. But I can’t help but think it’s a positive step forward to developing the creative ideas and minds of our artists here in Aotearoa.
Walking and thinking in fog seems like both an immense privilege and a fun escape. It came to me via an invitation a few weeks into lock down to work with a friend who knew that I too work gig to gig as an independent. And I’m sure it is only one example of many of how artist communities will come to find ways financially and intellectually that we can come together and support each other.
I thought my contribution to this project Walking About in Fog could be to write into the foggy thoughts that I was having through lockdown, the fog of working out what the “new normal” actually might be. (If it is to be anything other than just going back to how it was before). While it would be naive to think that the fog will eventually rise to leave some profound brain nugget, the intense period of introspection has revealed the flaws in the output = pay financial model we have, and by extension the capitalist model in place the world over. I don’t know how that can change, if at all. But as I hunker into the fog and go through winter, I’m not rushing into the open world again. Instead I’m trying to hold onto the slowness of lock down, and onto the sense of care that came with it.