A responsive kind of design

XXVII.4 July - August 2020
Page: 68
Digital Citation

‘Together, we dance alone’: Building a collective toolkit for creatives in a pandemic

Kat Braybrooke

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It seems to me that, if we can talk about such a thing as the tasks of resilience, then today these tasks will share that quality of taking responsibility: not an impossible, meaningless responsibility for the world in general, but one that is specific and practical, and may be different for each of us.

—Dougald Hine [1]

As the twin towers smoldered on September 11, 2001, the electronic music composer William Basinski produced The Disintegration Loops, a recording of decades-old tapes crumbling into decay alongside live footage of that fateful day's sunset in ruins [2]. In doing so, the collective paralysis of a historic disaster became something timeless—and 20 years later Basinski's piece continues to compel people to come together and share it in spaces of eulogy and renewal. Creative responses to crises like this, which ask us not only to consume but also to reflect and rebuild, remind us just how interconnected we all are, our lives made up of recursive loops of cause and effect. Such encounters "rewire our imaginations," the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson argues [3]. As such, they light fires of possibility inside us—the kind of collective sonic booms that can enable, ever so briefly, alternative ways of living-with to emerge. The theorists Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey have described these as the cracks that dismantle and transform the systems of unequal power that structure our society [4]. How can design thinking respond to such moments of crisis and opportunity with sensitivity, in ways that transcend disciplinary and cultural divides? How can collective paralysis foster collective action?


These were the kinds of questions that consumed my attention as the Covid-19 pandemic descended upon us. I work on projects such as CreaTures, the Mozilla Festival, and Superrr [5], which bring people together to imagine new socioecological futures across the arts and cultural industries. The more I spoke to the creative practitioners with whom I have collaborated, however—artists, makers, designers, hackers, curators, and educators—the more I started to realize just how hard-hit many of them would be by the persistent uncertainties of the virus and its ramifications.

Those with precarious livelihoods are faced with two emergencies at once: The first, a health crisis; the second, economic instability. The data on this is already striking: Museums and archaeological sites from Egypt to Asia have had to close their doors and furlough staff for months, and a report by the Fairwork Foundation indicates that half of the world's estimated 50 million gig workers have already lost their jobs [6]. In the U.K. and Europe, a majority of arts, heritage, and culture charities are under significant threat, and over 60 percent of makers surveyed by the Crafts Council [7] report a loss of income of over £5,000 in the next six months. In the U.S., a census of freelance art workers [8] by Art Handler found that 90 percent do not have paid leave, and 80 percent are worried about rent. An open letter to museums and galleries [9], meanwhile, is making the rounds to express concern about increasing layoffs targeting precarious staff at cultural institutions like MoMA and LA MOCA. Most worryingly, we are seeing creatives across all sectors state that they lack access to the support and help they need.

The Covid Creatives Toolkit (http://bit.ly/CovidCreativesToolkit) emerged from these uncertainties as a mutual-aid effort aimed at offering some of that much-needed support, by helping creative practitioners who needed to quickly migrate their practice onto digital places and spaces as a result of the virus. My collaborators and I noticed that many of the kits, guides, and other resources that were currently being populated with artists, designers, and creatives in mind remained geographically skewed toward North American perspectives and did not allow external contributions. For these reasons, we wanted to offer an open resource focused on free offerings with a global reach that could be maintained by creatives themselves. Starting from an open call and a tweet asking for help, the kit's contents were compiled by 30 curators and countless unnamed contributors worldwide, who came to it from across the arts, technology, community, academia, and gig work.

As such, the toolkit has become a living archive that articulates what co-creation as a form of care making can look like in a crisis. Public contributions to the kit have varied widely, from mutual education and collaborative digital gatherings aimed at challenging social isolation, such as the Uroboros Festival, ANTIUNIVERSITY, and Disruptive Fridays [10], as well as film lists, meditative browser extensions for BAME communities, and digital dance parties to promote well-being. The eight featured chapters of the toolkit, from "Digital Gathering Spaces" to "Digital Tools for Creation and Support" to "Digital Well-being," are wide in scope and offer ongoing documentation of the resources that creatives most need as the pandemic progresses. Chapter 8, for example, features much-needed data points on how Covid-19 is impacting creatives. Initially suggested by an anonymous contributor, it has evolved into one of the kit's most valuable offerings. Another primary focus of the kit emerged from public requests for leads on organizing and bargaining for collective rights, with contributions from organizations that take action against exploitative practices such as the UVW Designers & Cultural Workers Union and FrenaLaCurva [11].

The Covid Creatives Toolkit has also benefited from the efforts of a decentralized curatorial team, made up of creatives around the world who have volunteered their time to help compile it. Here are some reflections on the co-creation process from five of those curators, in their own words:

It is such a strange time for everyone, and some people might be able to cope with this lockdown and anxiety better than others. Many digital creatives are fluent in using network tech to feel connected, but in many cases there is a need to have an anchor or a new routine to keep grounded (while the ground is shifting) and to have a strong base to continue be creative. I believe that this is what the Covid Creatives Toolkit is providing—a resource for everyone to feel anchored.

—Kasia Molga, Design fusionist, Margate, U.K.

Digital communication is insufficient in many ways, but to envision new forms of community, we must practice care and mutual aid—in its multitudinal forms—across long distance. Not just in these times, but in this next long century. Resistance against a virus is a global effort. Activism bends around these circuits, and at best, manifests as transnational efforts, sharing digital resources, methods, and tools. Creative practices must follow suit. And digital life expands not just as modes for where production happens; we have to trust in the new ways of togetherness. For the Covid Creatives Toolkit, my contributions were mostly focused on cinema. How can we watch together across time zones? How can we share work, experimental films, which were otherwise kept in the annals of email archives or shown at festivals? Through cinema upon these new channels, we must form a different kind of being together, of sharing dreams. How can we continue to forge a popular consciousness while being physically apart?

—Tiffany Sia, Writer, artist, film producer, Hong Kong


As a Korean on an extended journey back to Australia just as the borders were closing around the world, I was acutely aware of the rapid changes in people's perceptions and behaviors in response to Covid-19. Many, including myself, find themselves in between the need to do more of everything, like talking about and making or designing things, and do less of everything we had been doing collectively to date, and perhaps try to listen and/or reflect instead. For this reason, I refused to participate in or share calls for immediate actions, especially those calling for "doing more" from creative practitioners, many of whom were facing imminent threat to their livelihoods... but when the invitation came to contribute to curating the toolkit, I immediately agreed, with thanks. This was because it clearly embodied openness and humility; it was not asking people to do things for particular outcomes. Rather, it held the space to share, but with care. This means acknowledgment of the diverse needs of many different creative practitioners in vastly different situations; calling out to those who may not be thinking about what a toolkit might offer to them as a reader or contributor; and ensuring that if they want to, their voices are explicitly heard.

—Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Director, Care-full Design Lab, RMIT School of Design, Melbourne, Australia

Like Basinski's Disintegration Loops, the Covid Creatives Toolkit is a product of its time, a reminder of how Covid-19 has rewired our imaginations.

I really enjoyed the process of curating the Creatives Toolkit, and particularly the speed and ease of collaboration with the other curators. Information (and misinformation) about Covid has been spreading at an unprecedented scale, and communities need support to make sense of it. The curators of the various response kits and guides are fundamentally sensemakers: They scan, filter, and organize the informational landscape as an act of collective care, emphasiz[ing] elements that resonate with the lived experience and needs of a community.

—Eirini Malliaraki, Alan Turing Institute, London

I see a unique role for online forms of gathering that are structurally multidisciplinary. Like a bazaar, they are organized around the realization that people coming together from different backgrounds have more to offer to and consequently more to gain from each other. Compared to their offline equivalents, online community efforts need to work extra hard to establish and maintain trust. What makes people dedicate time and attention to an online space? How does a communal space embody trust and where does it come from? Can it be earned or transferred? I feel that through the personal approach in curation and sharing, the Covid Creatives Toolkit did a great job at building on existing networks of trust and is an excellent example of a framework for collective value creation via distributed contributions.

—Philo van Kemenade, Storytellers United, Hilversum, Netherlands

Decentralized co-creation also has its limitations, however. The Covid Creatives Toolkit has required the dedicated attention of many people volunteering their time to manage its contributions and disseminate it widely enough to include diverse perspectives. It has been a challenge to gather non-English content that does not originate from Europe or North America, and the limited translation capacities of Google Docs mean it is less replicable than I had hoped. Free resources like the Creatives Toolkit are also left with far too few options for hosting their content on easily accessible digital spaces. As a result, projects of this kind must use free tools provided by proprietary digital platforms, which gather revenue from the data traces of their own users. We also currently lack the social infrastructure to collaborate with others creating similar toolkits elsewhere—and curators like Eirini Malliaraki have rightly asked why we cannot foster resilience not only within the many different communities affected by Covid-19, but also between them.

These experiences illustrate how the process of taking care, defined by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa as "those doings needed to create, hold together, and sustain life's essential heterogeneity by creating relation, in ways that recognize interdependence" [12], can emerge through co-creation in times of crisis in ways that build solidarity—and also how that process may be both messy and complicated. Like Basinski's Disintegration Loops, the Covid Creatives Toolkit is a product of its time, a reminder of how Covid-19 has rewired our imaginations. It is a reflection of the mutual-aid networks built around it, and the challenges they face. In the words of the Zapatistas, it is a "world where many worlds fit." By coming together in a time when so many of those involved are isolated and vulnerable to new forms of precarity, mutual-aid toolkits teach us that the claim of knowing something is inconceivable without acknowledging the multitude of interdependencies that have made that knowledge possible. As the anthropologist Arturo Escobar puts it, "All creation is collective, emergent, and relational; it involves historically and epistemically situated persons—[and] never autonomous individuals" [13]. I believe it is in these collective worlds upon worlds in all their messiness that the real work of design thinking as a viable form of future-making begins. For it is in such spaces of collective co-creation that we learn who we really are as a species and as a biosphere, and who we really want to become.

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the following people in particular for volunteering their time to co-create the Covid Creatives Toolkit as its curators and allies: Marc Barto, Katy Beale, Andrea Botero, Tanya Boyarkina, Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Hanna Cho, Sophie Dixon, Tracy Gagnon, Janet Gunter, Lara Houston, Sophie Huckfield, Philo van Kemenade, Jamilla Knight, Helen Leigh, Ann Light, Thor Magnusson, Eirini Malliaraki, Mauree Aki Matsusaka, Kasia Molga, Dina Ntziora, Mirena Papadimitriou, Annika Richterich, Anika Saigal, Anouska Samms, Tiffany Sia, Andrew Sleigh, Alex Taylor, and the CreaTures network of researchers and practitioners, who are developing creative practices for transformational futures across Europe, for their support and inspiration. I would also like to thank the many who continue to make suggestions, share, and maintain the toolkit. As Innervisions puts it: "Together, we dance alone."

back to top  References

1. Hine, D. The dark shapes ahead. Jul. 10, 2012; http://dougald.nu/the-dark-shapes-ahead/

2. A recording of The Disintegration Loops is available at https://williambasinski.bandcamp.com/album/the-disintegration-loops

3. Robinson, K.S. The coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations. The New Yorker. May 1, 2020; https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future

4. Hall, S., Massey, D. and Rustin, M., eds. After Neoliberalism? The Killburn Manifesto. Vol. 53. Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2013; https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/soundings/kilburn-manifesto

5. See http://creatures-eu.org/; https://www.mozillafestival.org/en/; https://superrr.net/community

6. https://fair.work/fairwork-releases-report-on-platform-responses-to-covid-19/

7. https://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/articles/crafts-council-survey-of-impact-of-covid19-on-makers/

8. http://art-handler.com/covid-19.jpg

9. https://docs.google.com/forms/d/11z1wwu3meYdLeYozGI_OCzoExpxK-DiH0DmkrXn5qr4/viewform?edit_requested=true

10. See https://www.uroboros.design/; https://2020.antiuniversity.org/; https://www.disruptionlab.org/fridays

11. See https://www.uvwunion.org.uk/design-culture-workers; https://frenalacurva.net/

12. de la Bellacasa, M.P. 'Nothing comes without its world': Thinking with care. The Sociological Review 60, 2 (2012), 197–216.

13. Escobar, A. Designs for the Pluriverse. Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC, 2018.

back to top  Author

Kat Braybrooke is a spatial anthropologist and designer whose work explores the critical implications of creative communities and spaces in places like Europe and China, with a focus on issues of social and environmental justice. She is currently a research fellow on the CreaTures project at the University of Sussex, and visiting researcher at the King's College London Department of Digital Humanities. k.braybrooke@sussex.ac.uk

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