moving forward 2021…

A start to this year by clayton windatt

As someone who has worked in artist-run culture and community arts for many years, noise, interaction and critical discourse has become a constant for me and I grew accustomed to it. Witnessing people coming and going, socializing with them in daily life and interacting with their arts actions is a way of forming community for me. My social circle is a huge network of artists across Canada and locally here in Nipissing.

Now that we are in lockdown, I miss the interactions of debating the value of artistic statements; not as a way of attacking someone, but as a challenge to prove the validity or value both to me and to the artist themselves. For me art has always been about the “why” more than the “what”. Critical discourse is a check and balance, an act of communication that allows people to reconcile their opinions and either disagree or align.

Much of this network was being maintained through various social media platforms and digital interactions as I haven’t worked in a physically accessible space since 2015. I have been working from home or through other organizations, festivals and studios on occasion as the only physical interactions while the bulk of my communications were over the phone, skype and email.

Digital interactions are great, but they cannot replace the stimulation of being in a physical space when arts actions are taking place. The privilege of being in person cannot be understated as digital interactions do not allow you to smell, feel or even taste. Beyond the senses there are mental restrictions to digital interactions as experiencing a physical space comes with a hyper awareness of being immersed whereas in a digital space you are seeing or hearing a version of that experience.

All of this is coming from my own perspective. I am aware that many people have various limitations either physically or economically that can be barriers to attending arts events in person. I am also aware that for some of those that experience these barriers, 2020 was a year where opportunities were increased through virtual platforms, allowing attendance that was not possible before everything went digital and skype meetings were replaced with zoom conferences.

I understand that everyone is getting screen fatigue and burn out from the levels of terrible in each of our lives. Over the past year, I have had cousins, uncles, friends, family and coworkers die. Some from COVID-19 and others from unrelated illness or life issues. I have had surgery twice in a lockdown hospital and I have witnessed suffering in many ways. I have also watched people rise to ensure the world pays attention, and I got hired into this job as the ED of ARCA. So, it’s been a mixed bag of high volume good and bad.

The intensity of many issues has reached the point of ignition. Some things need this intensity as many issues have been silenced or ignored for many people for too long. Other issues have held a lot of space for a long time and I won’t miss them when they finally take a break. Why am I saying this? Because I feel like the exercise of the exchange of ideas is itself being threatened. That many issues have reached an intensity that silences others and I worry because this is where authoritarianism can take hold of a situation. There is no clearer example of this than in the corporately owned playgrounds of social media where manipulation and a lack of public accountability runs rampant.

I have been consistently fascinated over the years that social media platforms are not regulated by governments or held accountable by the public for their behaviour in the same ways that newspapers and other media outlets are expected to behave. That codes of conduct or codes of engagement come with governmental regulations set forth by bureaucracies led by publicly elected officials do not seem to apply to social media. Publishing a newspaper means the newspaper is held accountable for what they publish just as platforms such as facebook or twitter should be held accountable for what they allow to be published. Why is a digital interaction somehow different from printing on paper? Or, are the real questions about how inefficient our regulatory bodies have become and how slow bureaucracy is compared to the rapid changes or technology? Either way, social media has become an exhausting place where discourse has taken on the appearance of “attack” instead of “debate”.

During the pandemic everyone has had even more time to spend on social media platforms, replacing physical interactions with digital postings during lockdowns. I see call out culture or cancel culture and overall ostracism taking place all the time, increasing the level of fear between people. I’ve also seen an almost bloodthirsty behaviour of piling on when someone’s opinion lands on the “wrong” side of a discussion. People rally to things quickly and with an intensity that is sometimes fitting, but not always. I also worry about the levels of fanaticism I am witnessing. All of this has made me turn away from social media platforms and the internet in general. It’s not that I disagree with anything, I just do not have the energy to be ruthless all day, every day.

Maybe being in digital spaces less is a good thing for me but I wish there were more digital spaces that endorsed a bit more safety and overall compassion. Maybe if we had to have these conversations in person we would feel an increased need to negotiate or mediate relationships a bit more. The distance between everyone when working in digital spaces is obvious, as is the lack of empathy.

So, why talk about all this? What is the point? We all know that Canada has a long road ahead towards healthier cohabitation between peoples, but I still believe that we will only get to a better place together and that democracy is better than dictatorship. I think we need to share the burden of addressing other people’s behaviour instead of making each issue a personal crusade as online clashing is not leading to meaningful change. As we enter 2021, I ask everyone to think about defining their own principles and consider their proximity to issues to gain insight into where we can do the most good in our worlds.

We are about to approach our first full year of lockdowns, illness and deaths as a country. In 2021, I plan to find ways that we can work together, share resources and how the transfer of power can take place efficiently. Each of us needs each other to listen and be ready to work towards our shared goals and mutual benefit. I personally plan to do a lot less this year than I have in the past but the things I will be doing will matter more, and with your help they will have larger impacts. 2021 will be a year of consensus building on big issues for Canada and we will need many voices in order to move forward.

When the pandemic allows me to travel again, I plan to visit people and continue to offer critical discourse with care. I miss the noise, action, and people, but until we can be safe together again, I will continue to activate things digitally but only when necessary and only when I am supporting those within my network and community. I hope to reflect on my own proximity more in relation to many issues and consider extensively how to bring more voices into discussions that impact many peoples. For me, 2021 is going to be a year of listening with empathy, compassion through sharing and accountability through actions. I am happy that 2020 is over.