How to Make Art in a Pandemic?

Khairani Barokka considers ableism in art in the light of the Covid-19 lockdown

As we continue to disinfect our homes and hopefully wear non-medical facemasks outside, news begins to reveal how many governments, including the UK, have abjectly failed to protect our lives – particularly those of keyworkers, those in care homes and those most vulnerable. What does it mean to think, feel and write about art-making during a global pandemic? We may well be fatigued by anxiety and the question might seem irrelevant. But, as ever, what constitutes ‘art-making’ contains innumerable different experiences – in the face of this crisis, perhaps we can sense the possibility of it being decentralised and remade.

Under these present conditions of lockdown, many artists working as freelancers have lost significant opportunities to earn income, exposing many to poverty, joblessness and even homelessness as exhibitions and events are cancelled or postponed. We are left with a wait-and-see situation: who and indeed what organisations might still be around in 12 months? While mainstream media regularly updates us on frazzled, striving, middle-class parents trying to make craft with their children at home, this is far from the only art currently being made. A better researched account would reveal that artworks are appearing in under-resourced neighbourhoods in towns and suburbs from Southeast Asia to South America, and with artworks hanging from balconies, stuck to windows or painted on the sides of buildings.

Arts organisations continually update us on the value of art in a time of crisis, but we need to remember that art-making is never value-neutral; and not always ‘positive’. Responding to the pandemic, many art organisations have finally made art courses and gallery tours ‘accessible’ online. But without accessibility in education procedures – such as asynchronous remote learning, captioning (which scholars such as Aimi Hamraie have been trying to educate people about) – these approaches might further alienate many who are chronically ill and/or disabled (the largest global minority who continue to be overlooked).

Ironically, the swift adoption by most art organisations – in many cases, in the first few days of the pandemic – of remote procedures to enable staff to work from home (often developing support systems to make it as easy as possible) is something disabled and chronically ill people have been campaigning for in the arts for many decades. In other words, it is only when non-disabled people’s livelihoods are at risk that these measures are seen as an urgent necessity. And for many of us disabled art workers, and art workers outside large cities, who have faced lack of employment options and/or risks to health because of the lack of remote-working options, for example, the lack of true accessibility in these new measures not only seems an incredible oversight, but also hurts significantly.

The pain comes from how these belated measures have been made without acknowledgment or consideration of those who have been fighting for these rights for years (in many cases, lifetimes). New art opportunities, events and projects on ‘isolation’ and ‘illness’ are cropping up, and I have even heard facile statements from non-disabled artists: ‘Now I understand what it means to be chronically ill.’ Depressingly familiar, these projects are not aimed at artists who have lived for many years as chronically ill and/or isolated and/or incarcerated and/or disabled people and vulnerable to illness. Even now, the work of disabled people remains overshadowed by that of non-disabled counterparts.

One form of answer to the question of how to make art in a pandemic is to collectively dismantle ableist prejudice in art organisations, to make communities’ and individuals’ lives better. This means rejecting the capitalist models of art-making that permeate popular culture, as evidenced in the misguided calls that pressure artists to make work during the pandemic, under terms of ‘productivity’ and responding to a ‘discourse’ of illness. Certainly, consumption and creation of art can be incredibly nourishing, calming and helpful for all of us, but not because we are pushing ourselves to ‘achieve’ art goals, without which we are somehow seen to be lesser, and less successful, people.

I argue that we should not go back to the state of the art world before the pandemic – we should attempt to make it more humane, more equitable. If, as Arundhati Roy says, the pandemic is a portal, we need to move away from the violence that has undergirded so much of art practice and move forward to principles of solidarity. We need art initiatives to be disability-led, artists with lifelong experiences of disability; activist Alice Wong has described disabled people as modern-day oracles – responsive to how to deal with and combat ableist violent discrimination in the arts. Ableism continues to enforce who has ‘a good body’ – who is deserving of survival and wellness.

There are various disabled artists who have written about how to tackle ableism in the art world, including myself, in terms of policies such as accessible venues, access aids such as motorised wheelchairs, tours for D/deaf and/or blind visitors to galleries and museums, and relaxed performances (in which disabled people who may make various sounds, for instance, are welcome).

However, especially in the current Covid-19 era, we need to think far beyond these measures and look at ‘the art world’ in terms of transnational, colonial, socioeconomic structures. Jasbir Puar’s 2017 book The Right to Maim covers how ‘access’ and ‘inclusion’ of D/deaf and/or disabled people in the so-called Global North runs parallel to the deliberate maiming, the deliberate debilitating and disabling, of communities bearing the brunt of western imperialism, for instance in Palestine. Resources are extracted wholesale in mining and plantation operations in Indonesia, which may allow the enrichment of an oligarch’s charitable body to fund an increase in accessibility measures at a large art gallery in Europe. At the same time, these plantations and mines leach toxic tailings that poison adults and kill children. To truly understand ableism, one has to follow the flows of violence and extraction capital at a global scale.

To speak about how ableism affects the art world, one needs to recognise how citizenship and residency statuses are subject to violently policed borders (particularly considering the lives of immigrants in the US, the UK, Europe, Australia and elsewhere), which continue to affect the lives of artists.

In late-stage capitalism, we are complicit – as all of us are in the marketised, overarching sphere of financial flows – in the material nature of ‘the art world’. The pre-pandemic ‘normal’ of the art world benefited the few, endangering, injuring and killing the many. The art world to come, the art world in this pandemic, should be geared towards anti-imperialism, anti-ableism and a world of art that protects all that it has long made vulnerable.

Khairani Barokka is an Indonesian writer and artist based in London. She is a research fellow at UAL’s Decolonising Arts Institute and associate artist at the National Centre for Writing. Her book Rope was published by Nine Arches in 2017.

First published in Art Monthly 437: June 2020.

Sponsored Links