by Suzanne L. Seesman
As an Administrative Assistant, my work life is all about preparation – scheduling meetings, organizing documents, and setting up for events. In late February, I added several bottles of hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes to the Arthur Ross Gallery supply order. The list included the usual items too: bamboo paper towels for our education program, sparkling water for the upcoming opening of Re-Materialize. While it seems slightly delusional now, at that time, it was reasonable to think that these supplies would help us care for each other, our community, and gallery visitors during programming as usual. Things changed quickly. It is now clear that bubbly water and a few extra bottles of hand sanitizer won’t cut it and that sharing paper towels is out of the question.
When cultural events were suddenly canceled en masse, and institutional routines put on hold, administrative minds went into question mode. What should we do? When will we know? How should we plan? What supplies will be needed? In the intervening weeks, more serious pandemic concerns have put these logistical questions in perspective. Those of us lucky enough to be working from home are finding temporary ways to connect and making tentative plans for the future. Over a month into stay at home orders, there are still few answers, but one thing has become clear. Things have changed and we will need to adapt. Some mental health professionals suggest attending to three r’s – relationships, routines and resilience in the meantime.
Like many art workers the world round, I am also an artist and a huge art nerd. My virtual and physical home spaces are full of art. Since the classification of COVID-19 as a pandemic, I have seen artists share all kinds of resources from recipes and make-at-home mask designs, to studio demos, and pdf libraries. Galleries and museums have offered resources too. Some have put together educational programs and others have offered content as therapeutic reprieve.
Especially in times of confusion and loss, my go-to is art that grapples with ambiguity – the kind that conceives the inconceivable. It goes by many labels – conceptual, contemporary, social, performative – and it is, perhaps, the kind of art that irritates the anti-art crowd most. Regardless of label, it is a kind of art that involves adapting and inventing routines and challenges us to see habits – social, political, personal – for what they are: changeable, adaptable, and anything but inevitable.
Each week of the stay at home order so far has brought a constellation of artists to mind. The first weeks of social distancing evoked Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano tied at the waist duringArt/Life One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece) and Lanka Clayton and her son in The Distance I Can Be From My Son series 2013. These artists and their practices helped me accept the radical closeness and appreciate small distances of the new close proximity my partner, 19-month-old child, and I were experiencing together. As Instagram memes turned to losing track of time, sleep, and schedules, On Kawara’s work came to mind. On our new regular neighborhood walks I pick wildflowers, and think “I Got Up…” Increasing coverage of strained healthcare systems globally and of the acute effects of preexisting inequity in the U.S. system bring Simone Leigh’s work to mind. Leigh’s Waiting Room and Free People’s Medical Clinic, highlight histories of mutual aid and realize new forms of care that operate against business as usual. Focused on knowledge held by and mobilized for Black women in the United States, her work recognizes and realizes possibilities beyond those bounds.
I understand why some people have a desire to get back to business as usual. These are unsettling and stressful times full of all kinds of loss and uncertainty. Given that a return to normalcy seems unlikely, I find solace and motivation in works that always already demonstrated how much can be gained (or the very least understood) by creating forms of resilience that don’t fit the mold. If so many artists have made a habit of this, we can too. As I adapt new routines and rethink what is needed, exhibitions, artists, and projects, remind me that there are many ways to organize our days, our work, our relationships, our lives. Here are a few closer to home examples – one for each week of social distancing in Philly so far. The first is only a click away!
- Camae Ayewa/Moor Mother’s Poem for Marian Anderson part of Arthur Ross Gallery’s Citizen Salon organized by Heather Moqtaderi.
- Karyn Olivier: Everything That’s Alive Moves at the ICA Philadelphia
- Kristen Neville Taylor’s Instagram Earth Day posts
- People’s Paper Co-op collaboration with The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund
- Artist Josh Graupera’s Blockadia project
- Art at Home with Spiral Q