by Pamela Winfrey
It’s ok to be afraid. It’s normal to feel frustrated. Anger can sometimes be a useful tool. In this time of COVID, these are the messages that artists are sending out to the world. These are the messages that artists have been sending to me through their art. They are managing their own fears, their own anger, they are longing to touch. And while they are managing their own fears, they are also managing mine. They are letting me know that I am not alone - or at least not alone in feeling alone during this unprecedented time.
Art has a special role for us all in the era of COVID-19. By its very nature, art is a cooperative endeavor, for art requires a maker and a viewer, an artist and an audience. It is designed to share. In these times of multiple troubles, artists are creating work that soothes, work that instructs, work that gives us vital clues about how we might possibly survive during these times of uncertainty and strife.
Take, for example, the video "Messages from Quarantine" by Niccolò Natali and Nikola Lorenzin, we hear the disembodied voices of Italy: their fears, their questions, their need to connect with others. "The thing that worries me the most is not knowing when this epidemic will end," we hear as the camera pans across an Italian apartment building showing people on their balconies. "Because of this situation I haven’t seen my 2-year old daughter in two weeks,” a parent shares. And, capturing the uncertainty of this time, one voice admits "I feel dazed." As I watched this video, I felt a deep connection - this pandemic has made it even more clear that we are all humans with similar fears, desires and basic needs.
During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy, the internet was flooded with videos of spontaneous musical performances: opera and violin serenades from apartment building balconies, backyard concerts, people bringing out pots, pans and tambourines to participate in whatever way they could. "The videos are welcome reminders that we can find creative ways to feel connected with one another, even while the virus outbreaks demand that we remain apart," said Kozowska and Todd in an article in Quartz magazineabout this spontaneous artistic outpouring.
These snippets of video became a global lifeline as other countries watched Italy struggle with the ravages of the pandemic. And because I am an extremely emotional sort, they invariably made me dry. Perhaps this is a good thing because scientists have discovered that emotional tears contain toxins and stress hormones. Not only that, but entire regions of our brains are dedicated to processing music and that it affects neurochemicals in the brain that are important for closeness and connection.
Perhaps my favorite video from quarantine is “How to Be Alone” by Sindha Agha. She combines beauty, poetry, and a wry sense of humor to explore strategies for gregarious people who are now forced to be alone. “Nostalgia is a funny thing. It used to be reserved for the distant past. But what I’ve learned in quarantine is that you can be nostalgic for things that never happened.” All the plans that never came to pass, all the people she planned to spend time with this summer who now she won’t be able to see or touch because of the pandemic.
Agha describes her hunger for people as physical and mental needs - something she cannot live without. This resonated for me, as a gregarious person who misses all of her various groups. This video gave me imaginative strategies for coping, and it gave me hope. When I can’t seem to get out of bed I imagine that it is a matter of life and death.I am an explorer and I must move to survive. I have trained myself to seek out beauty on my walks along the sterile canal near my house. For me too birds have become symbols of freedom, examples of nature that continue to thrive even during 115 degree days.
Agha explores other places and times that are like our socially-distanced present: Antarctica explorations and space travel. “Spurred by reflections on purpose and fundamental questions of value,” people in these challenging situations, cut off from the world, often experience “post return growth”, says Agah. Life is not only sweeter and more beautiful, it is filled with the opportunity to gain a new understanding of who we are and how we fit into the world. “I’ve been to space, I’ve waited out winter in Antarctica, and I know what is worth what,” Agha ends.
We know so little about COVID-19. Why this disease is happening the way it is, when it will end, whether we will get sick, and whether we will die. These are big philosophical questions as well as scientific questions. And the arts offer us an invaluable window into the human experience in the era of COVID.
Art is a cooperative endeavor, but so is science. It also requires a maker and viewer, scientists and audiences for the science, cooperating to understand the world and make sense of it. The process of doing science can itself be cooperative. Our Cooperation in the Apocalypse group is a great example of this kind of cooperation.We are joined together by a desire to understand more about cooperation in times of uncertainty - like our present moment. And our work together was itself an exercise in cooperation. We hail from many different disciplines and backgrounds: researchers in psychology and cognition, an artist/curator, an emergency medical physician, a humanities authority on monsters, and an expert in human security. We have joined forces to try to understand how cooperation, interdependence and other aspects of human social behavior, perceptions and attitudes have been changing over the past months (you can read about some of our early findings in this previous blog post or download our preprint).
My role in the Cooperation in the Apocalypse team is to represent the arts - introducing the group to artworks, films, and performances that have been created under the cloud of COVID-19; as well as facilitating collaborations with artists. Exposure to the arts can help us open our hearts and expand our minds - something all the more important at a time like the present.
I have high hopes that in this time of destabilization, pain, and death, we can rise from the ashes to become more cooperative, more empathetic, and interested in the greater good because in the end, it will be good for all of us. As part of the Cooperation in the Apocalypse team, I am interested to see what our future cooperative endeavors - whether artistic or scientific - reveal about who we are, what joins us together in our commonalities, and how our differences and diversity can be leveraged as strengths to get us through. One thing is for sure: our humanity depends on it.
edited by Athena Aktipis