Grief, longing, absence: Carissa Lee ponders intimacies beyond and through the screen
The past two months have been a time of mass grief. Grief at losing people, jobs, opportunities. Perhaps most cruelly, we haven’t been able to be with the people who care for us: to hold us, cry with, grieve with, to help us feel better. I hope you are all being easy on yourselves, because it’s a weird time. We need to acknowledge the extraordinary circumstances we are living through now and somehow get through the absences that come with it.
Being able to connect with other artists has been a comfort for me, because I know I’m not alone. At the same time, knowing that we’re all suffering breaks my heart a little bit. All of us are trying to find ways to stay positive and keep our shit together despite our worlds crumbling, and some of us are unable to reach the loved ones we want to hold close.
Grief is an awful place. It always belongs to someone. Sometimes it’s ours alone, sometimes it belongs to multiple people. There’s a western proverb that says a sorrow shared is halved, but I don’t know if that’s know if that’s true, because the only people who share my present sorrow are interstate.
I saw a sculpture online once, a figure with their head bowed down and their stomach hollowed out so you can see through the hole it leaves. It’s the best way I can describe how I feel in deep sadness or grief. In the past, even in the midst of the emptiness of grief, I could always count on art to sort of fill me back up again. Not that it could always make me feel better, but art helped me to figure out what I’m feeling, recentering me and getting me back on some kind of track. But lately the “art fix” has been limited: what I’ve come across hasn’t been enough to pull me out of this emptiness. I found myself searching for something, a distraction: tv shows, social media scrolling, anything.‘Grief is an awful place. It always belongs to someone.’
My Nan’s funeral was happening interstate. The funeral home live-streamed it for families who couldn’t be there because of quarantine requirements. I viewed it on my phone in the lounge room on my couch, sobbing as I watched my family. Then I noticed a number in the top left corner. 20 people were watching. Two of them were me and my Nan’s brother. I’ve no idea who the rest of the people were.
One woman commented on the picture of my Nan that accompanied the service. Another said what a great service it was. It got many likes and hearts, and a random angry face. (I hope that was an accident, otherwise fuck you, random person.) But I found myself wondering, who watches some random person’s funeral? Afterwards I deactivated my Facebook for a while, because some things need to be kept away from strangers’ eyes. My brother said that the video had over a hundred views. It has since been taken down at my family’s request, which the funeral home should have done anyway.
It made me wonder what motivates these strangers. What is this longing? The separation of a screen can squash the life out of the thing we’re watching: it becomes an empty collection of images. And some things should be acknowledged as real, as more than images: my Nan’s funeral is one of them.
Maybe, as we sit in our homes watching Netflix, scrolling through phone apps, never satisfied with only one screen, we are craving something more. In the time of coronavirus, we are no longer consumers of entertainment, but of anything put in front of us. Maybe the gross voyeurs inside us long for something live, something to make up for the distance from everyone else, from the rest of the world.
Is it a new, awful grief? Or perhaps the problem is the internet itself: some of us are misconstruing everything as entertainment, just as the media uses new cases of this virus as clickbait. This odd fascination with watching others’ misfortunes predates the pandemic, of course; but maybe we’ve grown so accustomed to watching climbing death tolls that we think that everything is clickbait now. Just something else to watch.
Instagram “influencers” have long taken advantage of this voyeurism, posting their entire lives on Instagram. Some post provocative pics with a pseudo-inspirational generic caption, marvelling at their own uniqueness. They make videos of their lives, craving attention just as their viewers crave distraction. A happy partnership, I guess?
If we get to choose what is performance and what isn’t, what is privately ours and what is to be shared, then there’s no harm in it. But there must always be a choice. That’s the difference between sharing and just consuming for entertainment.
Some things just can’t be shared for public consumption. I wanted to be with my family at my Nan’s funeral, not sitting in some anonymous online auditorium with people who measured the experience with likes, hearts and angry faces as if they were rating a selfie. We can’t seek performance in what has been deemed as private and sacred. The people who are experiencing that thing are the only ones who get to decide what that is, and who is allowed in.
Academics Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write about the right to refuse disclosing content in the context of research. They say that there are some things that universities don’t deserve to know or have access to. In Australian First Nations groups, there are ceremonies and practices where only certain people can be present: men, women, the initiated, Elders, people of a certain nation. Whitefellas have had access to us without our consent for long enough.
There have been theatre productions where the arts practitioners putting on these shows have decided that white audience members do not have access to certain things. Isabella Whāwhai Mason separated audience members by their skin colour, for example. Yolanda Bonnell, a First Nations Canadian performing artist, recommended that only people of colour review her production, because of the racist reviews she’d received in the past. Although it’s not always met with understanding, it’s a valid request. I’ve written about this for Witness.
During the pandemic, a fair chunk of the performing arts community have made access to art easier, and have been working hard to support one another. Much of the arts community knows poverty and how tumultuous a financially uncertain existence can be. The support groups that have emerged, the arts grants that are being released across the country, and platforms like this one that continue to offer writing work during this time, are immensely helpful, and make me feel less alone.
I wish that the general public, and every performing arts company would get on board with this more generous way of thinking. Plays, film, television, visual art, dance and so on have much to teach about the necessity of empathy. It’s no surprise that many of those who bring these stories to life are also continuing to be generous humans during this time.
Those of us fortunate enough to have access to the internet should take advantage of artists and companies adapting to these times of absent audiences. They have provided spaces that, although divided from us by screens, can continue our connection to performances. The Guardian, for exmaple, put together a great list of upcoming events. Although they don’t provide the intimacy of a live event or performance, there is something beautiful in the act of accepting the absence of audiences, and trying to reach out despite it.
Live streamed performances also allow access to those who can’t leave home, and hopefully sets a new precedent for future performances. People who are unable to leave home or travel to see performances have always been here, long before this pandemic, and I hope this turbulent time brings to light the importance of accessibility. Now that venues and companies have the resources to do this on a large scale, I hope that this resource remains available for the house-bound or hospital-bound who want to see performance. It would be a shame to take it away.
But we also have to consider the inequity of internet access. If this pandemic had happened when I was a teenager in school, there’s no way my brother and I would have been able to have access to an education, because we didn’t have a computer, let alone the internet. Teachers in remote communities have had to hand-deliver lessons to their students because their families don’t have computers or internet.
The pandemic has highlighted the inequality that exists in Australia for children who aren’t white, middle class, or living in metropolitan areas. The government should be investing to ensure that First Nations remote communities all have access to decent internet and computers for their homes. If the unmet targets in the 2020 Closing the Gap Report are anything to go by, when it comes to health and education for First Nations people, the government is still lagging shamefully behind.
Belvoir Street’s creative director Eamon Flack said that once this is all over, we’re going to need art more than ever. As I was writing this essay I took part in an online creative development for a show that has been postponed to next year, and I can confirm that, yes, we do need it. Being able to move in a space – absent from my fellow actors, but still somehow together in isolation – I was reminded that art will help us heal.
Live performance will be there when we get back from this. We will have stories, and applause, and laughter, and tears. It will be such a relief to no longer have to do it all alone any more. That means we need to keep our practice alive while we’re all stuck inside. Everyone has been finding new ways to do this.
So rather than searching for distraction in events that have no business being entertainment, let’s accept the absence of art for a bit. We don’t necessarily need to shut out the longing we feel for closeness in performance, but rather to find a way to accept the absence of bodies in a theatre, the closeness of people, the smells, the cramped seats and warm, dark rooms we try not to fall asleep in. We need to remember that it’s coming back. We need to stop searching for intimate performances in other peoples’ tragedies.
Although streaming has the potential to flatten out the humanity of what it is we’re seeing, there’s something special about how theatre has responded. Maybe I’m being sentimental, but the fact that artists and companies have been taking the time to organise live and pre-recorded performances for us to watch while we’re home feels to me like a beacon of hope. It offers more than the safe separation that comes with tabloid-like livestreams and social media, the footage of misfortunes and dramas of people we don’t know.
These artists are offering their performances to remind us that we’re not forgotten, that we’re not alone. Like all of us, they have had to adjust to these times. It’s not the same, but it’s going to have to do. Live art as we knew it before the pandemic is gone for now, but we need to hold onto our longing, because artists will need our desire when theatre can finally return.
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014). R-words: Refusing research. Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities, 223, 248.