Inward Stretch, Outward Reach: Moving into the New Normal Post COVID
Resurgence: This series of essays curated by the National Cultural Foundation’s Literary Arts Officer, Karra Price, features the thoughts and commentaries of Barbadians immersed in various aspects of daily endeavour.
This theme, “life in a post-pandemic Barbados”, is provocative in that it implies a country and a world that takes a more relaxed approach to COVID and its varieties as we transition out of this global state of emergency.
In this essay, I reflect on culture (defined by UNESCO) as simultaneously “self-referential” and “self-transcending, …inextricably linked and provid[ing] the key to envisioning the fruitful interaction of peoples in the context of globalisation”. I also consider my own perspective of culture as complex and often full of contradiction. I take note of the many gifts offered to academics, artists, creatives, and gatekeepers of all things cultural from 2020 until now.
Certainly, the late Rex Nettleford’s term “inward stretch, outward reach” became an apt way for us to acknowledge, brace, embody, reset, and produce in this past moment. In some ways the fragility and vulnerability of most practitioners made us resilient in the face of the austere measures put in place to save our lives. As a result, many of us now return to a new normal with more self-respect and having gained experience and developed new tools during this time.
For some of us performing artists and teachers, the shutting down of studios and venues and limiting of our movement to curtilages allowed us to reset and take stock of how hard lived our realities were. For most of us, the reality was that performing was a hustle, even before March 2020. There was a national check: the constant obstacles to how we consume, define, refine and reproduce were paused, laid bare, fully exposed. No one was working, and everyone realized what it felt like for the more vulnerable amongst us. As art teachers we could no longer fully stress technical training and presentation in concert halls, church halls, dance halls and the streets.
Online training for dance and theatre could not go much beyond knowledge and information, and teaching vocabulary and phrases. The multiple realities of teaching online with the lack of consistency in standard of devices and systems impacted the sound delivery of education.
Still, the Internet was a game-changer, with access and creative use of online technology being key to reimagining identity and remaining relevant. Emphasis changed to “likes”, social engagement, which meant that we had to invest in ourselves, self-producing, and finding innovative ways to keep ourselves in good taste and in the minds of Barbadian audiences.
As creatives, where producing goods and services is like breathing, we shaped, refined, redefined, reproduced products on several platforms at such a prolific rate that it generated interest from the national communities that identified with our work, and then captured the attention and interest of global players and stakeholders. Hybrid and virtual workshops engaged several tutors and students from several places on a multitude of platforms and at reasonable prices.
There was lots of internet archiving, networking, and sharing. Content creators collaborated, engaged with mobile devices as a “box frame”, a lens to explore the various existing or virtual habitats, accounting for innovative engagement in wonderful ways. The frequency of collaboration and connection increased significantly. Everyone went to the metaverse, some of us kicking and screaming, but all of us safe from COVID.
We learned to collaborate, to internalize, to reflect and reset, to be flexible around the ways we train and present, and to focus on redefining, redisciplining, and retooling ourselves. Also, in certain ways, a work-life balance was achieved.
Then, just as the first case of COVID in Barbados spiraled us into the opacity of the pandemic, the anticipated announcement of the end of the state of emergency promised to be even more magical. Apart from a few countries retaining their vaccine mandate for non-citizens, most other nations seemed to be practicing going back to normal.
The New Normal?
As we awake from this nightmare, as our society allows our symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts among others to evolve, let us be mindful that our nation-building policy and political directives continue to be informed by the people “down-below” by, as Nettleford put it, actively seeking their acknowledgment, engagement, and respect.
Often labelled as subversive, our counter-narratives keep our histories and realities in check. We creatives and entrepreneurs involved in practice, along with policymakers, ought to take the opportunity to carefully set the groundwork for determining how our traditions inform our identity as a republic.
Fundamental obstacles remain. Staying the course towards decolonization among operatives determined to reinforce recolonizing rhetoric as truth requires a particular level of vigilance. This reticence to change blocks intercultural dialogue as key to accepting the variety of cultures as well as accepting and embracing new expressions that are evolving here.
Such immodesty upholds an elitist myth of separated fault-lines that never served us. Such clashes are welcome only as symptomatic of the healing that needs to take place, as cultures are neither self-enclosed nor static. The dialogue of each expression has porous boundaries that allow tenets in relation to our environment to be considered and explored.
Here is another lesson that COVID-19 taught: adaptability. To be able to penetrate the community, offering self-awareness, is fulfillment of our creative potential as a people. Cultures, like individuals, exist in relationship to one another.
So as our nation moves into a post pandemic period, I trust that we continue to reflect on and serve our national resource; that we tap into acknowledging, honouring, and respecting the “rock” on which we have come to know ourselves as we are, even as we embrace all cultures coming in.
We get to celebrate all the ways we get to consume, create, embrace, embody, and innovate as we treat to our reality, producing knowledge and services for ourselves that also serve our global contribution.