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Presenting Art in a Pandemic

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Some brief thoughts on presenting work in public over the past couple of years...

Ring Out at GDIF 2020. Photo: Wright for GDIF

In March 2020, as it was for many other artists, my years’ worth of work and public performances fell away one by one like a row of toppling dominos. However, despite the general sense of doom and gloom for the arts, I was encouraged by the determination of some festivals and programmers to find ways of getting art back out into the public domain again. The first major festival to go ahead was GDIF (Greenwich and Docklands International Festival) which went ahead in September 2020 rather than their usual June slot.

I presented my works Chorus and Ring Out at GDIF and this was the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that I’d taken my work out to the public. I was overwhelmed by how excited audiences were to be out in the world again, taking in the culture. In May 2021 I presented Points of Departure at Shoreham Port as part of Brighton Festival. Described by Simon Topping in a Review Hub review as:

‘an outdoor alien cathedral of sound, which fills the air around us’,

Points of Departure was a 45-minute performance/art trail for an audience of 100 at a time presented up to 5 times an evening throughout the festival. According to Brighton Festival over 6000 audience members attended, indeed we had to add additional performances to accommodate the demand for the sell out shows such was the clamour for audiences to be out in the world again.

Thomas H. Green, writing for the Arts Desk, summed it up nicely when he described his and the audiences’ response to my piece at Shoreham Port:

‘All around, the public wanders, finally gathered, in itself a small miracle […] the end, everyone applauds. Applause! Human beings gathered together doing that! It’s been a long time.’

This sense of the thrill audiences experienced in being out in the world again comes across in this review of Points of Departure from GScene magazine:

‘Added to the gentle background sense of excitement and anxiety from our reintroduction to the world of culture post pandemic this is a strange calming experience. […]’s a thrilling experience allowing us to enjoy the novelty of being out, in public, with a large groups of strangers and all experiencing each other and the magnificent machine and the mystical musical soundscape so expertly curated by Ray Lee. It’s both installation and event, performance and concert, people applaud after the last notes fade, the applause itself a novelty to hear and be part of.’

Chorus at GDIF 2020: Photo Southall for GDIF

The reality for me as the artist/maker was that I was, on one hand, delighted to be able to bring my work to a large in-person audience, but also that I also really struggled with many aspects of both the logistics of making in a pandemic and the practicalities of working with the threat of covid hanging around us.

Points of Departure was a very large-scale production, the biggest project I have created to date, which involved six separate sound installations set across the huge Shoreham Port site, four of which were new works made specially for the port location.

I made the work at the wonderful 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Centre in Newbury. Here we had to limit crew numbers in the building, maintain social distancing while building art works with a large team, and deal with delays caused by covid in the logistics of getting materials delivered to a tight schedule. Working on site in Shoreham added more challenges. The influx of my team and the festival crew together comprising upwards of 18 people added an additional strain to Shoreham port’s covid safety measures. We had to establish entirely separate working and crew rest areas so our crew would not come into close contact with the port’s workers. Dan Lake and his team from Brighton Festival worked astonishingly hard to ensure everyone’s safety and Tim Hague from Shoreham Port ensured that we were made very welcome at the port despite the difficulties.

However, all the time we were faced with the pressure of what to do if someone became ill? Firstly, the concern for someone’s health and then the sense of uncertainty that it put on the successful completion of the project. In the end, due in no small part to the sound covid safety protocols in place everywhere we worked, none of us became ill.

Over this past year none of my team have tested positive. But what if one us had? We did have close calls. On a gig in the North East of England one of my team's partner phoned to say that they had tested positive. We immediately did tests and none of us, including my colleague (who we had been in close contact with) were positive. But what if we had been? We were staying in a hotel, far from our homes, literally just about to do a show. Would we be stuck in this hotel for 10 days? Later that same gig, I was pinged (notified by the NHS Bluetooth app that I had been in close contact with someone who later tested positive). I was pinged literally as I was mid way through a performance of Congregation. I kept my distance from the audience, and let my colleagues know as soon as I was back, took a test and waited to see. As it turned out, I did not have covid, lateral flow tests and PCR tests confirming this. The added stress that the uncertainty added was considerable.

How do you make a contingency plan for testing positive when you are hundreds of miles away from home, with a team of people working with you who need a lift home with you in the van, with a large installation installed in a public location that needs dissembling (because it can't be left up in the public space in occupies) and then loading in said van, with the same van that needs to be returned to the van hire co.? If you become positive on tour where do you go? Where do you stay? How can you isolate? How can you get home? In the end we always did the tests to make sure that we were all as safe as could reasonably be assumed, that the festival teams and audiences were safe, but we also took the tests not knowing quite what we would do if we tested positive.

Over the close to two years since the start of the pandemic I’ve presented works at Greenwich and Dockland International Festival 2020 (Chorus and Ring Out); La Strada Festival, Graz, Austria (Congregation); Appetite Seasonal Special, Stoke on Trent (Chorus); Brighton Festival 2021(Points of Departure); Norwich and Norfolk Festival 2021(Ring Out); Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds (Congregation); Festival of the Sea, Grimsby (Congregation); London Bridge (Congregation); Feste, Derby (Chorus); SPILL Festival, Ipswich (Chorus); Lumen, Crewe (Chorus). Thank you to all the determined and committed programmers and festival directors out there who’ve had the courage and conviction to keep making the work happen and to all the artists that make the work, and the tireless technical teams behind them, because without them all….


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