No Time to Pause
Artist Life in the Cool Zone of History
For something called The Great Pause, it sure did come on quickly. One day in March, I was preparing a Collage Artist Lab, getting ready for World Collage Day, and reviewing submissions for Kolaj Fest New Orleans. Not a week later, I was housebound waiting to see what would happen next. Fourteen days became a month. Borders closed. Travel restrictions were enacted. As time moved forward, events got postponed or transformed. We all went online like townsfolk taking to the hills at the first glimpse of the invading army. This wasn’t a retreat or even a pause. This was a gear shift.
For many artists, The Great Pause and the COVID-19 pandemic afforded a much needed inflection point. Free, for better or worse, from day-to-day obligations, huddled in our homes, this was an opportunity to lean into art making. Being able to turn to art is a gift. There, in the safety of our studios, we tried to come to terms with what was happening to the world and how we felt about it, to find our voice again when the pandemic cut us off mid-sentence. Exhibition and event cancellations opened bandwidth and freed up mental and emotional space and time. What needed to be said now was different than before. Some of us chose to speak directly to the moment. Others adapted pre-existing plans and work.
Twitter has dubbed this period “The Cool Zone” to refer to those times in history where everything feels possible and “big things” define history moving forward. It’s those parts of history people like to read and talk about. Nobody really cares about the early 1910s, but come 28 June 1914 and Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, things get interesting. Dadaism is often presented as a response to World War I, a reaction to carnage and devastation, but the roots of the movement go back further, well before Hugo Ball founded a satirical night-club in Zurich and before Europe entered “The Cool Zone”. Ball himself acknowledged Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi as a forerunner of the movement. Such a view positions Dadaism as a critique of colonialism, nationalism, and bourgeois interests with roots extending before the War. The Manifestos of 1916 (by Ball) and 1918 (by Tristan Tzara), while written in the forward-looking spirit of Futurism, represent a summary of avant-garde artist thinking that led to that point.
Our work is not to avoid the feelings we are having, but to feel them and let them inform us. The role of the artist is to make the unseen, seen. The role of the artist is to help society make sense of the world.
As we enter our own “Cool Zone”, we must consider that we have been building to this moment for some time. The presidency of Donald Trump, Brexit, income inequality, and late-stage capitalism have been wearing down neoliberal systems and wearing out the social fabric in North America and Europe for years. To treat 2020 as unique is to be Western-centric in our world view and to ignore ongoing economic insecurity in Central America, the destabilization of Venezuela and Brazil, Chinese colonization of Africa, the Syrian Civil War and the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The COVID-19 pandemic is historic, different, and global and it will have profound implications on society. The enforced break in routine has revealed much about how we lived before and how we could live differently; for example, about the personal and environmental toll of commuting and how we educate our children. After years of rigid austerity, we saw how easily governments could shift resources to the social welfare of their people. Conversations about a “New Normal” of masks, social distancing, and hygiene are taking place side-by-side with questions about our work lives and how to reimagine our communities. This break in routine and openness to new possibilities — a hallmark of “The Cool Zone” — has allowed the conversation about race in North America to evolve. The protests in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis have inspired similar movements around the world. People genuinely appear to be understanding the rallying cry, #BlackLivesMatter, and are taking steps to undo the systems that oppress black people and cause suffering and subjugation. The anger we saw on the streets of Minneapolis was not new. What is new is that people are now listening.
Artists have an important role to play and this is a fertile time to be in the studio. For some of us, there is real loss. Our sense of safety is destabilized. Livelihoods are threatened. Familiar systems are breaking down. Grief is a legitimate response to loss. Making sense of grief is part of what artists do. For some of us, there is real anger. It is not the petty anger that comes from not getting what we want, but the rage that comes from witnessing injustice after injustice as the powerful take and demand servitude. For some of us, there is real fear. The world is changing and the unknowns show themselves more and more each day. Fear is a natural reaction. Our work is not to avoid the feelings we are having, but to feel them and let them inform us. The role of the artist is to make the unseen, seen. The role of the artist is to help society make sense of the world. In the words of Toni Cade Bambara, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” In these times of profound historic change, that work is more urgent than ever.
This article originally appeared as the editorial in Kolaj #29. Ric Kasini Kadour is the Editor and Publisher of Kolaj, a quarterly, printed, art magazine reviewing and surveying contemporary collage with an international perspective. We are interested in collage as a medium, a genre, a community, and a 21st century art movement. www.kolajmagazine.com