Talking in the dark

Last night, Arlene Goldbard hosted our second shared conversation about community art, for which we were joined by about a hundred people. It was a joy to see old friends pop up in Zoom’s little tiles, and nice to glimpse new faces too. Video calls have made lockdown much more liveable, especially for those of us in solitary confinement. I miss the physical presence, but we can at least gather, talk and build castles in the air. It’s that shared experience that makes it different from the phone, which is essentially a means of dialogue. Although I could only see one screen at a time yesterday evening, I watched – and was sometimes distracted – by a rich parallel conversation scrolling past in the chat box.

My experience of these videoconferencing platforms has been mostly positive, and getting more so as we’ve all learned how to be present in them. They work best, for me, when they’re short and focused, and they do have some real advantages over conventional conferences. One is that I know who’s in the room, if people introduce themselves in the chat when they arrive: I’ve often spoken to a hall full of faces, with only the most general sense of who is listening.  They can also be more democratic. Everyone has the same screen space, whatever their status, physical presence or personality: it’s harder to intimidate another participant here the way I’ve seen it done in conferences. People can choose to turn off their camera, and make their comments in the chat box rather than speaking in front of everyone – and to do that they don’t need to catch the moderator’s sometimes careless eye. One of the groups I support will move its next international conference online and that will surely mean that people from the global South and/or with limited funds will participate in much greater numbers than before. When you add the saving of time, effort and carbon emissions there’s a lot to be said for videoconferences. 

There are downsides too, especially in this time of intense, wearying anxiety. I’m spending too much of my time in these virtual rooms, sometimes switching between subjects and networks in the same afternoon. I’ve agreed to do almost everything I’ve been asked, believing that saying yes is even more important now than it usually is. But I worry that hasn’t always given me enough time to prepare or focus. There is something to be said after all for the journey that helps you acclimatise to the people and the situation that you’re entering. I spent two days in County Durham in February learning about the place where I’d been asked to speak to think about what I might be able to bring them.  

And there’s another issue, one that has concerned me for several years now, and which is made sharper by the current revolt against the racism that stifles people’s voices, opportunities, development and ultimately their lives. My working life has been a rejection of that, and all forms of discrimination and exclusion. It’s that work that has brought the invitations to speak, and I’m grateful for each one. But I also know that if I’m speaking, someone else is not. I have tried, for instance at ICAF in 2017, to redress the balance by asking others to share the platform I’ve been offered, but I haven’t yet found a workable, sustainable solution. One of the things I take out of lockdown is the conviction that solutions do exist so I must put more effort into finding or creating them. 

Right now, I’m tired and talked out. I need time to think, to listen and to read. I need some better answers than the ones I have. This is a moment of change, and whether we get somewhere better depends not only on governments and institutions, but on each one of us. Enough talking in the dark; I need to sleep, perchance to dream.

The image is of an Egyptian siltstone figurine in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (UK)