Real people have been wonderful in this weird world. It really is time we shared the spoils better
‘And what do you do, Verity-Jane?’ to which I go blank and stare back at the question coming at me from Zoom. Good question. But one I feel thoroughly under-qualified to answer. I think. I go to Sainsburys. I walk. I jog. I think. I miss the people and places that I work with. I look out of the window. I age. ‘I’m an artist, I make work about people and place via deep rooted engagement processes and developing relationships blah blah interrogating regeneration, exploring publics blah blah’.
You don’t need to read another personal and professional journey through the last 13 weeks (at the time of writing). It might have looked much like yours, or nothing like it.
We’ve seen the world react via social media. Eager outpourings of productivity: ‘lockdown project #312 – tick’, ‘Garden office with Friday drinks – yay’, archives rolled out, temporary allyship on social media, practices and practises adapting in a very performative way (we’re still relevant! We’re still pitching! This residency is now in your living room!), with denial of the Austerity on Crack we’re facing just so we can keep to the programme on an A4 gantt chart. How can we be thinking of design solutions for the other side when we don’t know where or when that side is?
I despair. We should all despair.
Space is a commodity, a luxury, a total privilege that has drawn dividing lines between society, families, friends and colleagues. Walls contract and retract, while I try to process what is happening, and what it is that I actually do, and what I might do on the other side of this. For those in the creative industries, the built environment, public realm, these are worrying times. Not just in terms of the pandemic. It was petrifying before, but what now? The public purse aching, groaning over its emptiness, longing, needing more.
Social media outpourings deny the Austerity on Crack we’re facing just so we can keep to the programme on an A4 gantt chart
The site of (my) practice feels it’s shifted to the view from my window and an almost weekly trip to Whitechapel Sainsburys. To breathe different air, see and hear different voices, has filled me with life, and slowly revealed the adaptations needed. Well organised queues. Security guards making sure you stay to your 2m section. They are masked but you can still detect their smile when you say hello and ask how they are. Argos staff pick out the Argos customers while overseeing a dad build a new bike, his son watching. Escalator down and in. I see a man in full boiler suit with hood up, mask, rubber gloves (in week two when we were obsessing about yeast, loo roll and pasta) elbow a woman out of the way at short range to get a pack of floor wipes.
Mannequins greet you in paper tabards printed with reminders to keep 2m distance. These appeared in about week three. Pigeons walk down the aisles with customers. I laugh with a member of staff who says ‘If I pretend I haven’t seen it, I don’t have to get it out and have it shit all over me. This isn’t even a corona thing, it’s an everyday thing.’ Every other checkout is open to give the staff space. Screens go up the week after, then on week six or seven huge separation screens appear between checkouts so more tills can open. These weekly small changes in response to occupation are great. Thinking as practice has allowed me to observe this pace, has enabled me to enjoy it. The Friday before Eid feels like a genuine party. Families buying shelves full of treats and greeting friends socially distant. I break down on my last visit. My car is at the palliative care stage of its life. Six young Bengali men push start me telling me how much they love Golfs – ‘sick car, I’ve got one’ – and I head straight to the garage. So much life. So much generosity. So much care.
Now is a time to think about response, and the pace of that response to post-lockdown-covid pre-recession times. Care and generosity is what’s needed now. In the studio, in communities, in design, in the supermarket, in our actions. Space to think properly about what we are doing and why we do it, radical support structures, allyship, optimism and hope. We all need to do better.
Lynsey Hanley said it far more eloquently that I can in an opinion piece in the Guardian: Lockdown has laid bare Britain’s class divide: With living space, gardens and local area dictating our day-to-day happiness, the wealth gap has never been more glaring’. Working from home is fine – so long as it’s not a small flat with no access to outside space
Verity Jane Keefe is a visual artist