This is the first of a series of essays from Canadian authors on the coronavirus and how it affects our everyday lives.
Heather O’Neill is an award winning writer based in Montreal. Her novels include Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Lonely Hearts Hotel.
Pandemics are notorious for upending all of society. Artists are notorious for creating their art under the most perilous and inopportune circumstances. They create in poverty, under repressive regimes, in prison, in the margins, after long late night shifts at a diner. When news of the pandemic began to take hold on the popular psyche and began changing our daily lives, I thought it might feel pointless to write anything given the gravity of the situation. But I am still writing every day, even more devotedly than before. Throughout history, art has continued to be created and consumed during times of plagues and global health crises. So art will be created now. Which begs the questions: What sort of art has been created during pandemics? And what purpose does art serve during them?
In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a group of women and three handsome men they chance upon, flee Florence in order to escape the Plague of 1348. They hole themselves up in a palace and each take turns telling a story at night. Boccaccio was the first to use a framing device, which is a narrative technique whereby a story is surrounded by a secondary story. The tales recited in the evening were witty, provocative, and seriously filthy.
They were not tales of the plague but of humanity in all its distracting joys. They used storytelling as a way to stay alive. It is similar to today. My daughter works at a bookstore and the day before it closed because of the pandemic, people rushed in to buy stacks of books. They wanted tales of loveliness, horror and courage. After its doors were shuttered, people began to purchase books online. My daughter leaves the stacks of books on a table in the vestibule and people enter the quarantined site all day to retrieve these necessary items.
Since self-isolation began, people all over the world have taken to putting up live streams on Instagram to communicate stories. They recite poems, cook vegetables, play music and entertain in any way they can. Because the need to hear stories is as strong as it is to tell them.
Each day of storytelling in The Decameron ends with a song performed by one of the characters. New secular musical forms emerged from the 14th century plague. Poet Guillaume de Machaut of France began setting his poems to music. And by 1365, the ballade had become one of the most popular secular forms.
During the plague, there were processions of wanderers loudly singing songs. Litanies—a chant that involves a supplication recited by the clergy, followed by a response from the congregation—became very popular. There was a call and response from the roving devotional procession to those in the street and the audiences at home. They created a sense of community in the social rupture caused by a pandemic.
Interestingly enough, back then in Milan, where risk of the contagion was high inside churches, the pious joined together in sacred songs from their open windows and doors. This exact phenomenon happened in Italy recently when quarantined citizens took to their balconies to play instruments and sing together. They played everything from accordions, tubas, violins, flutes, guitars and lots and lots of tambourines. And they are filled with infectious communal spirit while doing so.
Then there are those artists who have used the isolation of the plague to their advantage to delve into their own works. Shakespeare was notable in this respect.
When Shakespeare was a baby, a plague was ravaging the city, having already killed both his older siblings. It is speculated that Shakespeare’s exposure to the plague as an infant caused him to develop immunity. Who can say if this is true, but he survived four major plagues outbreaks that were severe enough to close theatres—1582, 1592, 1603 and 1607—during his lifetime.
Whenever there were plagues during the Renaissance, the theatres were shuttered en masse.
Shakespeare wrote in fits. He would not produce a play for several years and then go through a creative streak. In 1606, when he was 42 years old, he was in a fallow period, and it might have seemed to him that his best works were perhaps now behind him. But then when the plague closed down theatres, forcing him away from the wonderful mayhem of production, Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth.
These are masterworks of tragedy and introspection, which delve into the deepest realms of paranoid human solitude.
And what is the point of creating such twisted tales during dark times? Aristotle’s Poetics claims that by witnessing grieving, fear and pity in tragedy, we fear and grieve less when they happen in real life. Which explains why everyone is streaming Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie Contagion. I rewatched it last night and I have to say, I found it comforting.
The tragic figure of St. Sebastien, who was tied to a tree and pierced with arrows by the Romans, is considered to be the patron saint of plagues. During the plague years, paintings and altars of him were created all over Europe.
There are two states in which St. Sebastien is generally depicted: in one, he is in a state of degraded agony, pierced and mutilated by innumerable arrows; in others, he is portrayed in his stunning beauty, arrows sticking out of him like peacock feathers. Sebastien was an adonis. There was a painting of him in his super–babe state that had to be taken down when a woman was caught masturbating to it.
St. Sebastien, in addition to being the patron saint of the plague, is also the saint of homoerotic desire. There is a famous photograph by artist David Wojnarowicz, who was diagnosed HIV positive in 1987, where his mouth is sewn together with thick thread, attesting to the silencing he was facing, that puts me in mind of St. Sebastien.
Because the AIDS epidemic struck groups that were already marginalized, such as gay men and intravenous drug users, they faced—in addition to illness—the horror of blame, hatred and social isolation. Victims were further victimized by a society that refused to immediately disseminate information, medical funding into research and care for patients. As Wojnarowicz wrote in his memoir, “My rage is really about the fact that when I was told that I’d contracted this virus, it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”
Whereas the world wanted AIDS patients to disappear and be non-persons, artists like Wojnarowicz created portraits that made their tragedy magnificent. It rendered them visible. And thus art during this plague was a form of activism.
Wojnarowicz’s art has been repeatedly censored, as has Boccaccio’s Decameron. Art has always been a method of giving voice to the alienated and voiceless. Because they are articulating the experiences of the oppressed and disenfranchised, they do not articulate themselves in mainstream art forms. Thus the newness of their work causes it to be interpreted as shocking, discordant, lewd. Like Mary Shelley, the English novelist who wrote Frankenstein, artists stitch together body parts from the graves of the murdered and neglected, and reanimate them. They exist in the world, demand their space and to be called beautiful. David Wojnarowicz’s funeral was the first memorial during the AIDS epidemic that was a protest march.
In whatever form it takes, art will be created during plagues. There will be more of a demand for it from people, from those who want to be amused, those who want to be consoled, those who are looking for a community, and those who want to be able to be heard. These periods of hardship indelibly mark art. It changes its subject matter, but more importantly, it changes the very structure and possibilities of art. And all art that follows contains the echoes and scars of all we have been through.
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Arts council announces changes in staff and in ways to share art with the community – Columbia Valley Pioneer
Submitted by Columbia Valley Arts Council
New executive director
The Columbia Valley Arts Council is pleased to announce the appointment of Sami Wackerle (pictured) as executive director.
Sami’s past work experience as the program director of the Canmore Museum & Geoscience Centre will be a great asset to the arts council and its members. One of Canmore’s great destinations, the museum offers a variety of collections, programs and opportunities for residents and visitors “that celebrate mountain life.”
In addition to her experiences in the not-for-profit sector in support of the museum’s board of directors, her specific duties included volunteer recruitment and management, community and school programming, event organization and delivery, partnership development, website development and marketing/communications. Sami also worked with their collections department on exhibit design – often with complementary programming to encourage community connections to new exhibits. And she has had specific experiences in the upkeep of historic buildings, attending to Canmore’s 1893 North-West Mounted Police Barracks Building. So Sami is delighted to know that she will have an office within our wonderful Pynelogs Centre, and also play a significant role in its stewardship.
Sami has also worked for Parks Canada, having spent her university years as a volunteer mentor in an online graphic design community, and has recently returned to these roots to do marketing and promotion for a few of her artist friends.
On a personal note, Sami has achieved one of her life goals by being able to move to the Columbia Valley! She has visited the area many times and will be on a mission to explore the East Kootenays one back road at a time. Since her interests include hiking, snowboarding and kayaking, we know that she will find the transition here to be an easy one (COVID-19 notwithstanding). We can’t wait to show her more of the amazing resources of our valley – and most importantly – introduce her to the wonderful people who live and visit here. Sami began her position here on March 30.
New assistant gallery curator
Kate Goldie moved to Invermere from New Brunswick in 2006 and quickly fell in love with the incredible area she now calls home. As an emerging artist, she is excited to be working so closely with the arts in such a fantastic setting!
When she’s not at work, Kate can be found painting and enjoying time in nature with her two toddlers.
Departing executive director
Jami Scheffer has been at Columbia Valley Arts (CV Arts) for over 15 years. She has built CV Arts with a number of boards from a small organization to one that brings live music to the valley on a regular basis and a multitude of art shows and events. We have Love It Live, the Invermere Music Festival, Fresh Fridays for those just starting out in the music world, as well as an open mike on Fridays with OSO. Jami has also started many art shows from Little Peeps to Art from the Heart and shows that run regularly for mature artists.
Jami has been instrumental in leading the CV Arts programs to where they are today. She will be missed by the past and the current board as well as the people in the valley who enjoy the wonderful events that have been organized by her at CV Arts. Her knowledge has developed over the past years as her experience has grown, and we are grateful for the years that she has dedicated to CV Arts. She has loved it and it has shown through her professionalism and hard work; it has been her baby.
We wish Jami the very best in her adventures on Bowen Island. She will be a huge asset to any arts council she joins. Good luck Jami and remember to come and visit this beautiful valley!
How to get creative and enjoy the arts during self-isolation and COVID-19
Pynelogs Cultural Centre will remain closed for the foreseeable future. All upcoming events are currently cancelled. Where possible we will be reintroducing these events online. Our gallery is also shifting online. Our first show Art from the Heart will be available to view soon.
We know that many of you now have a lot of extra unplanned and unexpected time on your hands, so in addition to making the switch to digital, our new staff have also started assembling a collection of creative resources and challenges to help you stay occupied. We’ll be posting links to a variety of puzzles, games, and activities designed to help keep you out of trouble right now. The first activities featured are a Pynelogs history crossword and word search. Check out the activities at: https://www.columbiavalleyarts.com/creative-activities/
We’ll also be featuring a daily Stay Home Creative Challenge on our Facebook and Instagram accounts. There’ll be everything from fashion shows, to dances, date night ideas, and drawing challenges to keep you feeling inspired one day of social distancing at a time!
Interested in creating something to share with the community? Please contact Sami at firstname.lastname@example.org
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