‘A slow, conscious rebuild’: If we’re going to come back after COVID-19, says Isabella Vadiveloo, we should take the time to do it right
As the country begins to contemplate a return to “normal” – whatever that means – there will be immense pressure for all of us working in creative industries, from sole trader independents through to the major companies, to “bounce back”.
This will mean a mad scramble to return to how things were as quickly as possible, earning the (insufficient) money we were making before. To start promoting a new workshop series the day we’re allowed those 50-person gatherings. To grow rapidly from zero to one hundred.
It’s understandable – we are creators, after all, because we find joy and meaning in making. Even for those of us lucky enough to qualify, government support won’t last forever and rent must be paid. But the idea of doing anything quickly, especially when rebuilding a decimated industry, misses some beautiful potential.
I’m not saying this isn’t objectively a terrible time. I’m not suggesting a “chin up” approach or even “let’s make the best of a bad situation”. I’m certainly not suggesting we can magically thrive with a bit of positive thinking in a recession, mere months after further sector funding cuts. But I’ve been ruminating. What can we do to make these imminent changes easier on ourselves and our industry? How can we orchestrate change that will benefit us, prioritising regeneration over predictable progress?
What I see now is the potential to reflect on how our industry thinks, to shift our thinking around our careers and output into a cyclical, rather than a linear, framework.
This approach is not new. In Australia (a culture helpfully informed by a centuries-old Protestant work ethic) we have developed a value system that prioritises growth and upward trajectories at the expense of all else. Meanwhile, other cultures have been sustained for generations through the prioritisation of regeneration and sustainability: a circling around or through, rather than a march forward. We see this in the Hindu notions of Karma and reincarnation (look after things now because you’re not going anywhere) as well as in many Indigenous cultures globally, who since colonisation have been advocating for a way of life that sustained them for tens of thousands of years.
During the bushfires earlier this year, we saw conversations emerge in the media, from the ABC to the New York Times, around traditional Cultural Burns as a way of mitigating in the future the enormous tragedy that transpired this year. If we had taken a cyclical approach to the care of our forests and bushland, perhaps we could have avoided the damage of a linear, largely economically motivated, approach to land management.
What if we heed this warning, and reject a linear approach to the rebuilding of our arts industry now? What if we slow down our impulse to rebuild immediately and frantically, and stop to think about the kind of industry we want to rebuild? It’s not an approach that will make us the most money in the shortest amount of time, returning us hastily to the frustrations of being underpaid and overworked. But we could build ourselves a new, sustainable space. Perhaps we could stop thinking in terms of success and failure, or making judgements based on ticket sales, commissions or grant approvals.
We’ve known for years that we need to focus more heavily on sustainability, mental health and diversity, for example. Right now, it’s very clear that the arts have not worked hard enough to include the voices of Black or Indigenous people, or People of Colour. Now is the time to think carefully about how we can change and best embed better concepts, values and ethical practices into the foundations of what we want to create; to be extra conscious of how we want to position ourselves as individuals and companies in the future.
It means being slow, re-centering our values and how our actions align with them. It means active reflection – not just when we don’t get a grant we were hoping for, but really tuning in to assess our choices, trusting that the process of doing so will be rewarded with strength and longevity of practice. It means getting back in touch with our gut, listening to our human instincts and factoring that advice into our decisions.
It means stopping our continuous output for a second so we have time to listen, time to learn, time to absorb. It means telling everyone in the next foyer or opening in which we find ourselves, with pride and confidence, that we’re not currently working on anything, which is exactly what we need right now. Perhaps hardest of all, it could mean staying on JobSeeker, if we can, a bit longer. Or keeping that short-term shelf stacking or call centre job, if we can, a little bit longer. To give ourselves the space to work out what the foundations of our rebuild will be.
All these suggestions will work against our imagined linear progression to “success” or “bouncing back”. But in the long term, we will thrive on an approach that centres regeneration, sustainability and diversity. We can’t rely on the Federal Government to support us – as we all know that there isn’t even a dedicated Arts Ministry anymore. Corporate sponsorship, which plays a huge role in arts sectors overseas, isn’t nearly as much of a priority here, particularly in the independent scene, and as we face a recession is unlikely to become the answer.
That leaves us with each other – our abilities to think creatively, to keep giving and supporting each other. What will get us to a sustainable and vibrant place is our ability to prioritise community, to keep caring for each other and for the culture we want to create. We need to prioritise our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our peers and sector over economic gain.
And then maybe, eventually, we might start feeling comfortable enough to take a bit longer, to spend a bit more money, to make the choice that aligns with our values. Because we know that if we need our mate to drop around a lentil stew or watch our kids they will, because we are deeply connected to our community and they believe in what we do.
Perhaps an actor turns down an advertisement their gut tells them not to take, knowing that their mate working at a state theatre company is gunning for them as a Woman of Colour to get into the rehearsal room and onto the payroll. Maybe the person who makes the decisions at that state theatre company listens to their assistant when they recommend the Woman of Colour, and take a risk; the decision maker chooses to take money out of the X budget line or Y budget line, or maybe they tell their white, male friend that actually he can’t be involved this time, because they are making it a priority to have someone they know to be chronically under-represented in the room instead. Say, then, a couple of weeks later, that decision maker reports to the state theatre company’s board, who commends them for choosing to have lesser known but vital voice involved in the project.
As a community, we can pull together to create an ecology that works for all of us, by looking outward and prioritising our community strength and wellbeing.
This is not how we are programmed by our linear, profit-driven culture to think, so it will take commitment and courage to allow such a model to succeed. But cyclical, community-minded approaches work, and we have a chance now to rebuild an obliterated industry in a way that works better than it did before. A slow, conscious rebuild.
Personally, I’m starting with my breath; taking a deep breath, tuning in, and taking my first gentle step into the rubble. I’m searching, carefully, for the first signs of regrowth I want to nurture, being extra careful not to trample it before it has a chance to bloom.