Backstage at the Pandemic


From the very beginning of the “work-at-home” phenomenon imposed because of social distancing, anyone in any kind of collective or administrative work situation began to experience a dissolving divide between public and private life.

With everyone having to meet remotely, quite suddenly we landed inside each other’s living rooms (or kitchens, or bedrooms, or whatever space was available) to carry out our “business.” Corporate people in work sessions with children crawling all over them during Zoom chats, students and teachers having class while getting glimpses into each other’s more intimate quarters.

This of course readily, and quickly, extended to network television, with the whole array of late night show hosts now broadcasting from home via video conferencing technology. But why stop at showing us your bathroom, attic, or study, we want to meet your family too! Suddenly spouses and kids have been directly incorporated into scripts as well.

Two months into confinement, what I was really curious to observe was how these shifts incrementally unfolded. The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert for example went from filming himself alone to having his son operate the camera and daughter doing make-up – facts we know because he eventually shared this with his audience. Interrupting himself mid-sentence to turn his gaze away from the camera and talk to his wife while doing a bit (“are you going to lurk there in the corner or come over and say hi to everyone?”) and again in another episode to ask his younger son how school is going, what started as off-screen interactions and oblique references, turned into direct, on-screen presence. Within a few weeks, Colbert was referring to all family members by name and on Mother’s Day his partner Evelyn finally joined him in front of the camera. (I should mention: his dog now makes regular appearances too). Not only did this ultimately break the fourth (TV) wall, we could also see a perceptible shift in his behaviour. He was immediately nervous and shy and she had no problem pointing this out, to him, in front of us. Not only unscripted but also un-masked; all artifice now briefly dissolving too. This “widening” of the frame has now been fully adopted as his new “shtick” whereby the show is being edited such that we are essentially interrupting this family time on a nightly basis. We now “suddenly arrive” at his house, as if walking through the unlocked front door a few moments too early to find Colbert already in mid-conversation, talking to a member of his family. We’re like the guest he was expecting, but hadn’t confirmed at what time.

This self-conscious editing creates a simultaneous illusion of familiarity – which is to say, we too are now “of his family.” With its gradual evolution over the last eight weeks this YouTubed version of a CBS show has acted like a kind of mirror to the evolution of our gradual accepting of, and adapting to, our social-distancing situation.

Late night TV hosts are also chatting rather informally with each other on their respective shows (via Zoom) sharing with audiences their strategies for navigating this peculiar situation as show hosts. I.e.: they are spending time contemplating their craft and its changing facets because of the change in landscape.
“Isn’t it strange to be staring into a camera with no audience?”
“It’s the audience that focuses me. How do you stay focused without an audience?” Etc. It’s like being back in the acting classes I took when I was thirteen.

On another scale, the same thing is happening in the news. A few weeks back when reporters started having more access inside of hospitals one journalist told a rather bleak story of the extreme isolation that patients with severe cases of COVID-19 experience once hospitalized. Without going into those tragic details (as I imagine readers of this blog are already aware) what really struck me was the amount of time she spent explaining what she had to do, to get ready to go in and conduct her interviews. This detailed description accounted for a large part of her segment, as it also included considering her own mental state and the emotional reality of being in such close physical contact with a potentially lethal disease. So while the piece was about the incredible challenge and sadness of isolated patients it was as much about the journalist’s capacity to both physically and mentally gear up for her job as a reporter.

This “backstaging” of our professional lives feels de rigueur within the current context and again acts as another element that palpably contributes to the swirling and uncanny interval. It’s not just a “fourth wall” – the invisible barrier between the performer and the audience – that’s being pierced, it’s the space behind the stage, where used coffee cups, laundry, and half-eaten lunch are normally left and not meant to be exposed or discussed.

With the sudden dismantling of previously held boundaries, these bits and pieces of private life, the stuff that usually stays hidden, now seems to need to take on a visible and more prominent role. We need to see and know how others are faring emotionally, just coping in the day-to-day, in this swirling, uncertain, unstable time.

The backstage gives us more room to navigate, and opportunity to share, perhaps making confinement a little less isolating.



Residency For Artists On Hiatus is an amazing initiative by Shinobu Akimoto and Matthew Evans. Over the years they have given stipends to artists for months-long periods – to stop making art.

In response to the current slow-down (and paradoxical speed-up) that the current health crisis has engendered, the folks at RFAOH have launched an emergency #weareallonhiatus project on Instagram.

Here is their pitch, with info on how you can take part:

“It is surely a tough time all over the world as many of us face a forced hiatus (or worse) but we, the members of RFAOH community, have known the benefits of non-production and taking a break, and are fortunate to have “creativity” which we believe is the true antibody for survival. RFAOH invites people worldwide to join our online community, by sharing what you are doing when not making art, or not being able to do what you want to do. How are you being creative during this down time? What are your hiatus endeavours? Or maybe you are making art!?!

To participate:

Post an image(s) and/or a story of your hiatus (in any language) on Instagram with the hashtag #weareallonhiatus, and that’ll automatically be archived on the #weareallonhiatus page. Follow the hashtag #weareallonhiatus, so that you’ll see others participating. We would like it if you let us know where you are.

Please note:

  1. Unfortunately there’s no “stipend” for your participation this time. (;
  2. Instagram says: “We may remove posts in a hashtag page if people are using the hashtag to post content that goes against our Community Guidelines.”
  3. Copyright the image/post if you want; we have no guarantee that someone like Mr. R Prince or a future resident artist-on-hiatus may steal it because your post is so dumb good.

RFAOH has always questioned what we could do from a position of powerlessness, to circumvent gates and obstacles in the artworld. But now, we are facing something much bigger and harder. While we are so thankful to see a number of support initiatives happening for artists, we also wanted to share our usual RFAOH spirit.  Our ex-resident Milena Kosec once suggested that RFAOH should accept ALL the residency candidates on hiatus — Well, here’s our first open and organic “residency” where you get to know and connect with more artists (or non-artists) on hiatus worldwide.

And ultimately, let’s use this platform to be empathetic and supportive of each of us at this challenging time. We sincerely hope that those who are NOT on hiatus, working non-stop at great personal risk are staying safe; they deserve our utmost respect and indebtedness. As well, while we try to build the “creative immunity” against hardships together, we hope this emergency project will see the end VERY soon.

Stay safe everyone, and for now, see you at our #weareallonhiatus residency!”

You can read more about their mission and work here:

The Discombobulation of the Interval (Part 2)


A qualitative shift has taken place in my interactions with my students.

I think it began with a text on Facebook in which a colleague reposted an excellent treatise on why we (as post-secondary educators) should not be moving our courses wholesale online; how because we’re not trained to do this and, being tasked with having to figure this out in record time, we should resist the temptation to perfectly adhere and instead focus on how to simplify content/delivery and take as much pressure off ourselves (and our students) as needed. The original blog post concludes with the author, a specialist in online teaching, saying “Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”

Further conversations with the coordinator of the program where I’m based supported this point of view (much to my relief) and encouraged us to be as honest as we need to be, to let our students know that while “we got this” we are also figuring it all out piecemeal, so there might be gaps and it will likely be far from ideal.

But these gaps are precisely where this “new territory” is emerging, and within it, a potential for another kind of space, perspective, and permission – offering room to behave, interact and manoeuvre differently than before.

Case in point: as instructors we were given full permission to move forward as we saw fit, this included giving students full permission to bow out completely. Having no idea what their individual circumstances were, we were (are) in no position to impose deadlines for assignments that at this point might be completely irrelevant and distracting from potentially more important things like basic survival.

So with yet another by-product of our grey zone that is CoronaTimes, I found myself encouraging my students to work when and how they could but within the capacity they have – to only do what they could manage doing. And only do what would bring them nourishment and joy. This meant that final projects could take many forms, including being unfinished fragments of process: edited or unedited combinations of notes, videos, images, etc. Our grading would, accordingly, be much more relaxed as well.

This advice to “release oneself from high expectations” was passed on to them, being fully aware of all the ways in which this also harmonizes with my predisposition toward questioning notions of “achievement” and what “productivity” should look like.

So while all this was exciting to me, to be able to offer options of generous spaciousness (especially in seeing it sit so congenially with my already-established philosophy around carving out spaces of pause) it had me also feeling somewhat perplexed. …Why am I not always giving this advice and affording this space at all other times…?? How come this isn’t already the standard practice (my standard practice) – but instead only now being adopted as a core part of our “new normal?”

You see, having come from a background steeped in the philosophy of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow (yes, I am a proud graduate of Dawson College’s New School) I absorbed their methods as a student and never shook the conviction that the classroom should be a space determined by the student’s needs and driven by a student’s intrinsic motivation (aided along by a passionate and invested facilitator). And that the construct of grading either needs to be completely overhauled, or eliminated altogether.

As a result, I’ve consistently had difficulty reconciling my disdain for grades while finding myself in the position of having to dole these out. Also in reconciling a need to produce finished work versus holding space for process. I am constantly trying to find the delicate balance between honouring the rules of the institution, my students’ needs to get those good marks in order to be potentially accepted into graduate programs, and wanting to reinvent the structure of the class such that this could become of place of co-teaching, co-learning, co-creating.

(SIDEBAR: Yes I understand that in preparing young artists to go out into the world we need to be having conversations about how to finish pieces and put these out into the world but art school is also a place where we challenge what the world expects of us. Art school itself is another kind of “in-between” zone where we could – and should – treat everything like the laboratory it is. A space for deep experimentation and for failure – in the process of trying new things that might not work. And finding new facets of our research – precisely because of some accidental occurrences (i.e.: our mistakes!)

So while that question will be the subject of another set of reflections (in a future time related to upcoming research; stay tuned), suffice it to say, within the current space/time framework of this “new normal” some of my students have begun to question core facets of their respective practices: what drives their interests and modes of making. Questioning what it means to make performance without an audience (i.e.: a live audience), to make objects that can’t go anywhere or be interacted with by others, we’ve been having incredible conversations around the function of practice, making, non-making, process… How making, right now, feels “out-of-place.”

And so within the emerging territory of this ever-present gap – and its inherent stretching of new permissions and dissolving of previously enforced boundaries – I’ve been inspired to “come clean” with my students about my specific preoccupations as an (un)artist and proponent of non-doing. This has been incredibly freeing…

…Temporarily reconciling a fundamental fissure between my in-class self versus my out-in-the-world self, I am reflecting on what it means for the classroom to be a true space of freedom. And what this potential space could look like on the other side of the “normal” we are experiencing now, in the discombobulating interval.

The Discombobulation of the Interval (Part 1?)

gene simmons learns to knit

This time, our here-now, is about being smack dab in the centre of an interminable in-between. Whether stuck or circulating there, this is a moment of prolonged pause and of being on indefinite hold.

Cycle 3 (of this project) is therefore a corresponding in-between cycle. Cycle 3 (this here-now) is like the half floor in Being John Malkovich: this liminal world where time has its own (new) rhythm and you start to feel yourself kind of split off into another part of this/your self (who am I when I’m home, looping day-in-day-out 24/7) and that other part tries to enter the “previous” you, via your brain/body, creating an uncanny sense of “you”/not you (me and this “other” version of myself). If only because you’ve stepped into this whole other version of (global) reality. A new reality of global proportions. Temporarily. That half floor is pushing against the walls of “normal space/time.” Encroaching and enveloping what was once your daily routine. That half floor is the new reality. For now.

This state of in-between brings us closer to other cultures and places outside our North American experience. Take Cuba, for example, where almost every kind of commercial transaction means having to wait and often having no idea how long you’ll be waiting (which is something we are actually having to do here now because of “social distancing.”) Waiting is a skill. Waiting is creative. That interval in time is inhabited by a quality of presence that requires a degree of letting go. Our culture is not very adept at this.

Waiting is a subject that has been thoroughly explored by Swedish Ethnographers Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren in their thoughtful study, The Secret World of Doing Nothing in which they describe this state of pause as having varying impacts on the person who waits, depending on how much information one has been privy to. Passengers on a plane, for example, will start to feel frustrated if told nothing while sitting impatiently on a tarmac watching the clock ticking during a delayed departure. If checked-in with by the pilot, “We’re sorry, folks, there’s a slight problem with the air cooling system and we expect to here another 20 minutes or so. We’ll keep you updated,” there’s at least a sense of “control” of the situation.

So that’s obviously partly what’s so disconcerting about this time we’re in: this not knowing how long we’ll be stuck (or circulating) in this prolonged interval. And we have no control.

There is something quite spectacular about this particular in-between as well; humans at the best of times are not always great at riding life transitions or change (big or small). So with so many question marks in the air, this time of uncertainty that is unraveling in us and all around us – on a very personal and global scale all at once – has the micro and the macro colliding, creating a simultaneous chasm and a bonding. Each of us is living through this challenge as our life situations dictate but everyone all around the globe is going through some version of this at exactly the same time as me.

And of course I can’t not bring up the subject of the interval – and this grandiose-level-pause – without bringing in the notion of the “performative.” On a personal level many of us are having to reinvent ourselves, and our lives, to some degree or other, in order to move forward in this discombobulating time (with the parallel global scale of governments reinventing “order”). This personal reinvention of time/space/routine is fundamentally – and infinitely – creative. Even if daunting. And a whole other set of challenges. I come back to the John Malkovich analogy above.

Of course it’s awkward to be writing about something you’re in because you don’t have the benefit of hindsight to support clarity and greater perspective. I guess that could be the disclaimer for every post I might write during this cycle.

But for that same reason it has my neurons firing off in multiple directions. So while I have more to say on the subject, I’ll leave it here. Any perhaps come back with a part 2 in a near-future post.

The Rest of the World Is Moving at My Speed Now

Smith_How to Do Nothing_bookcover

… Is what my friend L said to me last week when we had a brief catch-up.

Like many I find myself on several calls (and zoom chats) every day, so by the time she and I were speaking I was feeling somewhat saturated. But we stayed on long enough for her to describe how strange it is that she feels like her routine hasn’t changed much at all. And how everything around her is suddenly moving more at her pace. I.e.: no pressure to have be running to activities or events, not a whole lot to have to do out in the world.

As someone living with chronic pain and with general low energy, this pressure to be social and productive (in the time before the pandemic) has been a weight for her to carry, both with regards to worrying about needing to cancel plans at the last minute (if she’s not feeling well) and with feeling like she’s not contributing as fully to society as she could (or once did).

This conversation continued when I spoke with another colleague who mentioned that many of her entourage, folks also living with varying types of chronic conditions (both physical and mental), are the people around her who are the best equipped to be dealing with this current situation.

“These are people who have all the tools,” she said.
“They know how to stay home and deploy self-care. They are often quite isolated in their day-to-day and so now, suddenly having to be shut-ins they are not freaking out, but just dealing with it and quite well, doing all the things they have been teaching themselves to do.”

She pointed out that this creates a fascinating role-reversal in which those who are used to being “on top” are now reeling from the crisis, whereby those who are used to being ostracized are now feeling quite at home. This doesn’t make the overarching reality of the crisis easier on any one person but mostly to highlight that those living with chronic illness are much better positioned to move more easily into a now increasing need to normalize slowing down.

Normalizing slowing down. Normalizing taking breaks. Normalizing staying home.

Normalizing NOT ALWAYS BEING BUSY AND PRODUCTIVE – and still finding and feeling a sense of self-worth.

On Indefinite Hold

In early 2020 the world was plunged into a global pandemic. On the one hand frontline workers (such as grocery store clerks and hospital staff) have been working non-stop and literally putting their lives on the line each day. On the other hand huge swaths of society are now “self-isolating” and ripped out of usual routines. We’re all told to keep our “social distance” and many of us are at home, Doing Nothing. In as much as I’m able to concentrate during this surreal and challenging time, I’m keeping track of reflections, observations, correlations, and inspirations that find an uncanny dwelling in the non-doing that has now become the “new normal” and essence for many of us, in our lives.