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Planking through the pandemic: resetting expectations in the age of isolation

Becky Sui Zhen
Mar 20 · 8 min read
Many of us practice social distancing due to solitary work practices, but we used to have a choice. This photo is from an artist residency in 2016 at Tenjinyama Artist Studios in Sapporo, Japan.

I’ve been reading a lot of thoughts lately. Thoughts from people I follow on social media, thoughts from friends in text messages, thoughts expressed through notices posted in public spaces like the lift of my apartment building or on the door of my favourite restaurant. As I struggle to connect with my own thoughts and feelings I seek connection in the thoughts of others — and my eyes quickly scan paragraphs for mention of the virus. My expectations have adjusted so that I have come to anticipate signage everywhere. In my own studio I am tempted to put up reminders if only to reassure myself. I read somewhere that sighted humans don’t need to see letters within words in the correct order. It could say VCODI91 and we’d still be able to recognise the word when placed in context. But here we are unable to make sense of the disorder we currently face as a society. We keep trying to do the things we would do in normal circumstances whilst in the back of our minds the term ‘social distancing’ reverberates without a true grasp on what that might actually mean.

For those in Australia fresh off a traumatic summer of bushfires we’ve become accustomed to emotional outpourings, expressions of support and gestures of kindness and goodwill. Artists, promoters, venues and those in the wider music industry were some of the first to step up and show compassion and generosity donating their time and resources to raise money for communities impacted by the bushfires. When a portion of society is hit hard by something like a natural disaster, there’s usually a portion of society that remains stable or less impacted and therefore in a position to rally help and share the load. However we’re now experiencing something that is touching everyone and forcing all industry sectors to change the way they function to incorporate the realities of the pandemic into day to day practice. The arts industries are but one of many which face a looming crisis. Organisations, businesses and sole traders who rely heavily on gatherings of people and events to generate income have had their foundation destabilised with no clear time period to plan for.

This perpetual uncertainty is stressful for us all and the goodwill and optimism of the public has had little time to replenish itself since summer. So, who can we turn to?

Amongst the torrent of the thoughts I’ve been absorbing from within the music industry a few things have resonated with me concerning the notion of productivity and progress and how much we rely upon this propulsion to avoid existential crises. Most of the artists’ I know are incredibly hard-working individuals who need to feel productive in order to justify the amount of time devoted to their creative practice when return on investment is varied and unreliable. Productivity comes in the form of producing new works, gigging frequently, building audiences through shows or promotional activities, learning new skills to help us do our jobs better and generally creating more stuff to generate more income. Progress comes when we reach our milestones and can see things grow and open the door to new opportunities. For some the act of making art and finishing projects is enough to sustain that sense of purpose alongside other work or jobs which are less creatively intensive but pay the bills. This approach to art making can still happen during the pandemic and perhaps the possibility of forced leave due to organisational restructures or closures have provided the prime opportunity to hone skills or commence that project you always wanted to do. For others who’ve dedicated their lives solely to a creative practice and therefore rely on that income to make a living — a larger adaptation needs to take place. You may have savings, a fall back job, a plan B, skills from a former life that might carry you through or family and friends that can help you out. Or you might be in a more difficult predicament without a plan B job or support network to lighten the load — if this is you and you haven’t done so already I urge you to reach out to Support Act to get some help, further links are provided below. Even if you think you’re doing okay building your support mechanisms now may help you when things feel harder. It’s difficult to swallow but important to understand that your productivity and progress may be on hold for the foreseeable future. If you can continue to practise then allow yourself to go at a slower pace. Spend more time caring for yourself than you normally would. It’s like that moment they tell you about during take-off, you have to be able to breathe yourself before you can help others. This is hitting each of us differently based on our personal circumstances and some people will feel it harder. With work opportunities becoming scarce a light is being shone onto class divisions that exist within our music community and privileges that some have and others do not.

This is a time to not be greedy, to create opportunities for those who need it more.

The pressure we artists’ or arts’ workers put on ourselves to constantly create and produce can easily tip into being unhealthy. It’s common to see artists’ putting their mental and physical health as a second priority to their art practice. How often do we joke about not getting sick pay or having super? But is it really that funny? Of course we could put funds aside but the infrequency of payments make it difficult to organise finances into tidy buckets for now and later. We’ve chosen a path that is less clear. For those that juggle part-time or full-time work with a music career there’s the common misconception that tours or music-related travel is a holiday. When the reality is many of us don’t take holidays. We use our leave to do our other work. And then there’s life admin to fit in as well. Persistent amongst all this are our familial responsibilities. As one goal is reached another is set and so it goes.

Our industry is simultaneously supportive and incredibly competitive and with the advent of social media we’ve had a whole new workload stacked onto us to generate content. We offer our content freely to unethical tech companies and platforms who connect us with audiences but give us little in the way of financial return. Needless to say, it’s a tough gig designed for workaholics who often suck at taking holidays. And now we’re finding ourselves forced into one, only we can’t go anywhere and we have to socially distance ourselves which sits at odds in the life of a performing artist. The nature of the spaces we occupy to perform our work are designed to bring people together so it’s no surprise we’re left scratching our heads. The term ‘cancelled’ has been commandeered by the pandemic post #metoo, to punctuate the immediate full stop on our collective livelihood. And yet in light of this artists’ are also some of the most resilient people I know, they are born problem solvers and I hold hope yet. So how can we turn this moment into an opportunity to change the music industry and return the value back into our art making so we have livelihoods to return to once venues and travel are back in full swing?

It’s understandable that many of us are searching for ways to make isolation periods and self quarantine fortnights feel productive. Forging on and picking ourselves up is what will keep us grounded and connected.

But it’s important to consider exactly how productive we can expect to be during a pandemic.

My first response was to replace shows with studio time. Some days proved fruitful. On others I felt so unfocused and distracted I found myself taking short naps on the studio floor overwhelmed and concerned for how I’d ever muster the energy to create again. And yet I have client briefs to meet still, commissions to fulfil. This made me feel some sense of shame even though planking on the floor is a perfectly legitimate response to the world right now.

Adjacent to my solitary studio mood comes the rise of live streaming. I’ve never seen so many artists’ using this function of social media platforms as I have in the last week. I feel a little uncomfortable because live streaming requires me to give away more of myself for little tangible value at a time when I am feeling vulnerable and sensitive. Of course I wish to grow my audience and remain connected to fans but to make live streaming a replacement for live shows is a deflating concept. It increases the time spent on my phone and is one tap away from the ceaseless stream of information that increases our collective anxieties. I admit I have enjoyed seeing the interiors of people’s lives beyond the facade of a stage performance however I fret that the interest will be short-lived as we adapt to the new norm. And then suddenly we have yet another content task on our plate to fulfil the duties of being a modern musician. Some questions arise of how to monetise live streaming and where it leaves live music venues when people can see gigs for free? No doubt I’ll dabble in it in the coming months but I do wonder how sustainable it all is.

My desire is for the world to pause production and take some quiet time to process what’s happening and adjust to our new circumstances with new habits and routines that incorporate the pandemic. The elderly, the immunocompromised, the vulnerable and the children need caring for. To care for others we need first to care for ourselves. We’re all under some degree of stress and that stress will inhibit our ability to work effectively so we need to shift our expectations for what we might achieve in the near future. We might not get that album released and even if we do succeed in recording new music, we might not like it.

It’s a great time for pet owners. Pictured here is my cat Terrence, he has provided great comfort to me during this strange time.

Genre #isolation is an intriguing prospect but don’t force yourself to create if you’re just not feeling it.

You may need to have a few days not doing anything. You might need to nap more frequently. All this is completely understandable. I have utmost admiration for people working in key service industries who have little choice but to continue. You are the unsung heroes of the pandemic and we are forever indebted to you for carrying us through this crisis. We will write songs for you, yet. In the meantime here is a soothing mix I made for Stadiums & Shrines entitled Silencing the mind.

What do you think? If you have thoughts to contribute please share them in the comments section, I’d love to hear your perspectives.

If you need immediate mental health support please call Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or Lifeline 13 11 14. Support Act delivers crisis relief services to artists, crew and music workers; Arts Wellbeing Collective also has a range of industry specific resources. Other community initiatives include Art in times of emergency and I Lost My Gig. Please add others in the comment section if you know of others that might help people.

Becky Sui Zhen

Written by

Music, creative technology & audio production @beckysuizhen @artprocessors

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