With/For/About 2020

Unapologetic_Coughing - Credit - Nurri Kim
Unapologetic Coughing. By Nurri Kim

We have been living through months of online-intensity. Since the beginning of lockdown in late March, most of us have moved our lives into the virtual sphere, seeing 3-D humans less and less, communicating little and almost entirely on screen. It’s difficult, disorientating and – we have come to realise – exhausting.

Luckily, there is a spaceship on its way to help us out. Travelling through space for 6 long weeks in Spaceship Biscuit, Jess Thom and her team at Touretteshero are here to tell us that we are going to be ok, if only we can learn from others. And the first step in doing so is to interrogate the ‘we’ I have been referring to. Who are this ‘we’ – the shocked, destabilised, middle-class, office-accustomed workers who have found ourselves restricted in a new way for the first time? Like all ‘we’s , this ‘we’ doesn’t really exist. It is constructed in media and online discussions, as we have tried over and over to make sense of what has been happening, and how it disrupts and re-moulds our identities.

As the team on the Spaceship Biscuit remind us, there are those for whom the spatialities of lockdown are not new, nor is the sense of danger and contagion in the outside world. ‘Crips have been navigating this space for generations’, Thom tells us. We would do well to listen.

Touretteshero’s intergalactic message is just one of a multitude of online communications that made up this year’s With/For/About, which is Heart of Glass’s annual conference curated by ‘the vacuum cleaner’ and Cecilia Wee. The conference brought together performances, provocations and presentations from marginalised people and communities, and this year moved online to focus on the challenges of the present moment.

Taking place in four 3-hour sessions across a month, the conference is too rich and wide-ranging to do it justice in one review. The pieces it contained were in turn profound, funny, poetic, light-hearted, and academic. They ranged from lectures about eco-fascism to reflections on social distancing and Black Lives Matter. Lois Weaver’s A-Z of lockdown offered terms that were returned to in many different ways throughout the conference. Longer presentations were interspersed with short works, such as Jamal Gerard’s poetry, or reflective cat-videos created by Selina Thomson. The contributions were combined with shout-outs and calls to action, and an extensive reading list. My personal highlights were Marjorie Morgan’s beautiful short film on ideas of ‘home’ and the experience of living as a Black woman in England, and Joanna Hevda’s digital performance/reading which formed the conference ‘finale’. In different ways, both performances were dreamlike explorations of marginalised womanhood, at once critical and profound.

Reflecting on the structure of the conference itself, the curation of works of different lengths and modes allowed for an accessible and enjoyable mode of engagement. Contrasting works were allowed to speak to each other, whilst there were moments in which one could relax into watching an online artwork or Bella the cat. In this period of online-intensity, With/For/About beautifully transitioned into the socially-distanced galaxy in a way that felt inviting and manageable and truly responded to the current moment.

You can view all of the episodes and the reading list for With/For/About 2020 here. I recommend that you do!

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