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The Splits & Sutures of Social Distancing

20 May 2020

It’s very hard to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to your question’ and to have to say this several times a day whether to your students, colleagues or staff. “This is where we find ourselves”, Rebecca Duclos muses, “in a constant place of unknowingness which is very new and pertinent to this particular situation.”

Speaking at ELIA’s webinar on Managing Health & Wellbeing during a Global Pandemic, the Dean of Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal walks us through a new state of mind.


Number one on the wellbeing index for most humans is an assured sense of self. Am I here? Do I exist? Can I balance my existence against the presence of others? Am I making a difference? Am I living genuinely?  
 
What happens when this sense of self is catapulted into a wholly unnatural state of isolation, when we are shockingly connected to a planet with millions of individuals collapsing into disease, disaster, and death—and yet we are unable to reach them… To comfort them?  
 
This is an unprecedented time… of an isolated, collective unconscious that senses a physical, economic, and existential crisis rapidly emerging and yet can do relatively nothing. There is no precedent in our lifetimes.   This scale, with this degree of connectivity, renders us all witnesses, without being actants, as we watch tragedies unfold. 
 
I don’t want to linger on this matter of the divide between knowing and acting—between being able to express compassion and to enact one’s desire to assist the collective, while being thwarted at the same time—but I think that this sensation is key to the psychic split for many of us are feeling right now. 
 
Let me parlay this into a more personal space that nevertheless allows for some more generalized musings. I’ve organized my thoughts into splits and sutures:
 

  
The Psychic Split: The symbol is the Zoom Frame. I am here with you digitally, but not proximally. Not temporally. We are in different time zones. You are in my screen but not in my space. I cannot discern your subtle movements or discreet facial expressions. I cannot find you in my peripheral vision. All your cadences and tones that reach into the upper and lower sonic registers of emotion will be lost to me when you speak. I feel for you, but I cannot feel you.  
 
These indicators of wellbeing have been stripped from our consciousness and so, naturally, we want to find ways to compensate. And that is what we are all doing: we are working within a field of limited compensation when, really, we wish we were back in the field of complex interaction. 
 
The Power Split: In times of crisis, humans tend to go one of two ways with some middle ground between the poles: (1) band together and muddle our way through slowly and together, or (2) fracture into hierarchies so that decisions, perhaps even life-saving ones, can be made immediately and decisively. I’ll just leave that one with you. Think about your own countries. Your own institutions. Your own situations. 
 
The Banana Split: There’s no recipe for this, my friends. None of us know how to make this crisis taste better. So the banana split model for better wellbeing is to accept that you are not the head chef in the fine restaurant kitchen. Instead, you are the groovy, hormone-hopped-up teenager in the take-out ice cream shop with your tiny, tight crew dancing around each other in limited space, with only so many ingredients to choose from, with only so many bowl sizes and cone types at hand, and with only the flavours and toppings that show up on the hand-written menu outside in the parking lot for you to use.  
 
But you, my friends, will make a masterpiece. And that delicious, delectable, unpredictable delight will satisfy the cravings of those who are lining up outside your little window. And you will end the long night with sprinkles in your hair, high-fiving with your crew, and going to bed sticky with the satisfaction of knowing that you did your best with what you had. 
 
The Sticky Suture: What binds us together is completely up in the air right now. Our home places are bonded with our work places. Our daytime hours slide into our nighttime hours. Inhabitants of our domestic spaces slide in and out of the frame that holds our workplace colleagues.  What was once teaching in an analogue space and what is now learning in a digital space are fused and yet flipped. Is it any wonder that you and your staff and your students are confused? That’s OK. We’re all stuck in this together. 
 
The suture that is both a wound and a healing. Both Rotimi and I are much like you, I imagine: at one moment on the edge, at another on the frontlines, later still in the periphery, sometimes at the vanguard, and often on the backfoot… our roles change and shapeshift every day, as yours certainly do as well. This is a life that can be many things at once. This is the life that our students are grappling with. The life that our family is experiencing. The reality that our leaders are facing.

This moment feels like a wound, but it can also be a suture: a site of coming together to figure out how to heal one another. Let’s think about how to heal a sickness that might be a metaphor, but that might also just be a sickness that we can attend to, to bend to, to understand and, ultimately, to respect for what it is teaching us about ourselves and what matters to us most as loving human beings.  

Missed our latest webinar? Please contact events@elia-artschools.org to request a link to view the recording.

(Images by Daniel Barreto & Joystick Interactive)


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