1. The end, of course.
They stopped the football. It must be serious. I’m not going in tomorrow. I might just stay home and see how this plays out. That was March 16th. Group crits and tutorials were cancelled. We kept hearing one word: unprecedented. Students up and down the country found themselves with nothing to do but finish their coursework on time. Unprecedented.
I went in anyway, on the 17th. My crit had been cancelled and I needed to collect the sofa I had bought for my viewers to sit on. The automatic doors allowed me to enter without touching but I washed my hands anyway and headed to the studio. I removed my blackout curtains, dismantled my sofa, and left everyone else’s work just hanging there, like so many unfinished conversations. Final year, done. Finished early. Gone…online.
I drove home down quiet roads and someone on the radio kept saying the word ‘dystopian’. Some shops had put up signs that read ‘one at a time, please’, and millions of us were washing our hands more diligently than ever. Scrubbing, scouring, scratching. In front of bathroom mirrors, singing Happy Birthday to ourselves, twice. Dystopian.
They closed the pubs. It must be serious. I dreamt of Corona lager. Bottle after bottle, inviting me to drink like Alice in the story. Only, instead of outgrowing my house I would I contract a virus that was killing hundreds of people daily.
On Instagram the artists stopped posting new work. Everyone was home schooling, doing PE with Joe, or back at their parents for lockdown. April was impossible. Death toll rising, leadership floundering, Prime Minister in hospital. Millions furloughed, or worse; unemployed. The final assessment deadline drew close and I had all of 150 words ready to submit.
They closed the schools. With the children at home I could not get anywhere near my work. As April turned to May the days blended into one. Routine was helpful, but mine was exhausting. The longer days of late spring helped. More sunshine made queuing an hour for shopping more bearable, but I lost sight of the last time I considered making art.
The end of course deadline was days away. The 8th of May: Deadline Day. Anxiety and sadness peaked. Did you know that Bath was built on a swamp? On days like these which are hot and humid, the temper and temperatures rise. I must have been hell to live with. There had been no lockdown for me, only more work, but delivering groceries offered precious and vital alone time, processing time, at once both mindless and mindful.
That night I went to bed with a migraine and in my dreams I lost everyone. I spent my days in care homes for the infected, listening to their stories of love and hurt, joy and sadness, and lives lived in mediocrity. I awoke, tearful.
2. At last, the beginning
I learnt many years ago of the value in seeing out an emotion. Seeing it through to the end, the bottom, I have seen so many of us have to put that into practice during lockdown.
There would be no show but the possibility of an online showcase – however that might work; however it may look – offered hope. After six weeks of waking to a 5.30 alarm, I celebrated by staying up until eleven. We kept hearing something about getting back to ‘normal’, but since when was normal the choice of an artist? You say normal, I say normalised.
June began, and on social media the artists were posting about going for walks, about homemade elderflower cordial and hand-stitched facemasks. ‘This is my practice now,’ ‘This is my work.’ The tutors were online too, always available, steering us through and figuring out how to deliver the unparalleled experience that constitutes the planning, installing, and opening of a degree show. Somehow making it work. It struck me that Pandemic Academic is a good name for an album.
Then they told us we could leave the house for more than just the essentials. Picnics, they said, in small groups. Some children are going back to school. And then the biggest signifier of a brighter tomorrow, the Artists – who had hunkered down, barricaded against this assault on their mental health – they started making work again. I made this in my kitchen, my parents’ utility room. I took over the spare bedroom. My practice has gone digital. I’m recording monologues that could only be made here and now.
Spring 2020: the UK went into lockdown and our final year art students went into hibernation. We heard words like resourceful and robust and, eventually, we embodied them. In the beginning of the summer we showed ourselves, from our disparate corners of the UK and beyond, what we can do when we come together. Many of us will not go on to maintain an art practice, but we are all the better for having lived this experience. We found a way to function when the fabric of the world around us was fraying at the seams. Those that remain – the ones that take a studio, that apply to open calls, that put on their own shows – they will soon realise the value of what they have been through. This bending of a practice to work with limited resources, without workshops and technicians, is a big part of what being an artist is about. Together we have speed-dated our introduction to life as practising artists. Together we progress, show or no show.