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  • Writer's pictureKatharine Wheeler

Staying connected…in a global pandemic

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

A question to those who work in cultural and creative areas with people, with communities, as part of their local places; is anyone else both tired of the digital world and yet, at the same time, now utterly reliant on it to connect with people?

Is anyone else fearful that, despite the clear benefits of working digitally, greater accessibility, flexible working, the ability to connect over large geographical areas with diverse groups, we are not talking enough about what is missing? We are not talking, or hearing, enough about how disconnected we may be from other people outside of our immediate circles of relevance? That if we are not careful, we will miss the importance of making the spaces and giving the time that is needed to repair our connections with other people, in our places, in our communities, so that the development of new work, different ways of working that could inform strategies for “build back better” is truly connected, and includes, more than the few it already does?

The creative work I do is about connecting with people, local and wider, to have conversations as a foundation for the development of concepts and ideas, that lead to larger projects with communities. At the core of this practice is the belief in creative activity as a grassroots means of innovation and interrogation. Innovation in imagining what is possible, what something different could look like and how we can think about this together. Interrogation of our systems, our policies, our solutions, and as a tool for a holistic way of working that values the lived experience and the knowledge we all bring, not just the perspectives of one group, one sector or one profession. This way of working is about connecting both the “doing” and the “thinking” with others, both in planned and un-planned spaces, in considered and un-considered ways. With those that share the same experience and knowledge and in finding ways of also doing this with those who have a completely different set of lived experiences and knowledge, both professionally and unprofessionally.

Recently I have been having a lot of conversations with people about what it is we are missing in this work and how much this pandemic has shone a light on the power of the unplanned. In my work I know that it has been a real struggle, particularly in these past few months, to stay connected to people, not because we lack the tools of doing, using digital platforms, finding creative ways around not being able to meet directly or engage with groups but because of what is missing from that doing. The unplanned, the incidental, and when your work is about community, it is this type of “doing” together that keeps it relevant. The bits that don’t fit into project plans, the “doing” that is bumping into someone in the street, giving time to that conversation that doesn’t really fit into your day. The incidental that helps keep our actions, our planning and ideas in check and connected to the reality of living as part of the community we are here for. This is not something that can be scheduled into a Google Calendar! It is these things that we often don’t really have time for that feed the relevance of what we do in inexplainable ways, and I’d argue this is not something that is solely relevant to the work I do but vital across sectors.

Recently, as part of my MA in Arts and Social Practice, I needed to do a presentation on what I have been “doing” and what my “thinking” around that was and I hit a wall. Usually, I really enjoy telling stories like this, it is something I do for The Stove and often draws lines between how one thing can lead to another in a way I hadn’t previously considered. But it’s hard to draw lines in a mostly ALL virtual space and it highlighted just how deeply the pandemic has affected the sense of this work. And how much this type of creative, community, place-based practice, relies on physical connection as part of keeping it relevant and useful, an actual real thing rather than just a series of internal conversations.

Don’t get me wrong, people in communities and working in this area have been instinctive, responsive, spontaneous in a way that has been inspired and I have found huge optimism in how people have adapted the work they do to support and work together in the face of serious challenge. But, as we move forward, I think we need to also be brutally honest about how disconnected many of us are from each other, often from those most local to us. If we share and are conscious of what is really missing, then we can make space for the time that will be needed to re-connect.

Healing these connections is not something that can be manifested digitally or quickly (online consultation, questionnaires, mapping the landscape etc. though that may be a part of it). It can only be found in giving time to coming back together, to re-building relationships, by opening the doors again, creating physical (and digital) spaces for re-connection, for listening, for seeing, for reaching out. And it is found in those 15 minutes with people you bump into in the street, in the corridor, in a Café, a shop, at the school gate, that you didn’t plan for.

Those of us who are in any way involved in planning what might come next in organisations, or even as individual workers in the development of creative work, activity, local and regional strategies, let’s remember the time that it will take to re-build these connections with our community and support each other to do it. And to those in charge of supporting/funding it, know that this re-engagement will take time, and that though there has been a tremendous amount of brilliant work done there is also a lot that is broken, that was already and now is even more broken! And that anyone who tells you differently is not bringing the learning of the real community action and support we have seen through this pandemic into their own development and ideas for what might come next.

Some references on digital accessibility:

LEAD SCOTLAND (accessed 2021) Accessibility and Online Engagement

Office for National Statistics: Exploring the UK’s Digital Divide (2019)

“The number of adults who have either never used the internet or have not used it in the last three months, described as “internet non-users”, has been declining over recent years. Since 2011, this number has almost halved, but in 2018 there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10.0% of the adult UK population, in this situation”

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