‘I know artists who may never work again’: culture’s year of Covid | Culture


‘Normally we’re a team of 120. Now we were seven’

Alex Jones, presenter, The One Show

Within days of Covid coming along, we had to totally adapt our way of working. The studio and our office were transformed. Normally, we’re a team of 120 people. Suddenly there were only seven of us in each night. Our set used to be full of people, including an audience. But all interviews were moved to Zoom, making connections tough.

Finding balance … Alex Jones.
Finding balance … Alex Jones. Photograph: GORC/GC Images

Driving into London felt apocalyptic. The BBC is usually a busy building. At the start, I was nervous just stepping inside. Matt Baker, my co-presenter, left the show this year, during a period of self-isolation. After working together for years, we waved goodbye through a screen.

I’m still doing my own hair and makeup, slapping on foundation and failing to sort my hair while getting to grips with the entire script for each solo show. And I’ve clicked my neck trying to reach the back of my bra to clip a mic on.

Still, in many ways, this has been my favourite year on the show. Together we pulled through, because we provide familiarity to an audience, something comforting every night after the news, whatever might have been going on. We’re here to lift your spirits. Getting that tone right was tricky: we needed to find the lighter side of life, but we couldn’t ignore the darkness and despair. Finding the balance kept me up at night, but we worked it out.

The letters we’ve received from older people, others who are lonely and shielding – I’ve kept all of them. An 83-year-old wrote to say we’re the only family she’s seen for a year. It makes me emotional every time. (MS)

‘We’ve used CGI – it’s like a green-screen Marvel film’

Jon Sen, executive producer, EastEnders

Distant friends … EastEnders. Photograph: Jack Barnes/BBC

A year ago, we were celebrating our 35th anniversary. On 16 March 2020, we shut down production for the first time in all those years. Right away, we started preparing for the day we’d come back.

Three months later, we returned – with strict safety protocols that dramatically changed how we filmed. EastEnders is about families: our characters wouldn’t distance from their households. In a long-running drama like ours, though, creating a bubble was not feasible – you can’t separate people from their loved ones indefinitely. So, we created a new set of techniques, allowing us to film with two-metre distances, without it being visible on screen.

We use basic CGI – actors act separately, and we digitally put them together. We’ve brought in real-life cast partners for kissing and touching scenes. We employed supporting artists from the same bubbles to keep small crowds possible, and we’ve even used mannequins. All of this has changed the nature of performance for our actors: suddenly it’s as if they’re in a green-screened Marvel film.

Our efforts have paid off: we’ve not had a single case or transmission on site in those last nine months.

The result, though, is shorter 20-minute episodes. To keep crew numbers down on set, we can only shoot a scene with two cameras, so scenes take longer to film. We work in units: the cast are split into three groups to limit contact, with plot developing in those teams. That’s a massive challenge for story-designing: only certain characters can interact.

Over the filming break, we made a decision to show a world that had been touched by the pandemic, but in a way that wasn’t all-consuming. We’re fiction and offer an escape. Plus, it’s difficult to judge where the world will be when you’re planning storylines six months ahead. We reference Covid, but who wants to watch a lockdown? Life on the Square goes on. (MS)

‘Funny stories were important – like the 6cm-tall man’

Andy Zaltzman, host, The News Quiz

Andy Zaltzman.
‘The right satirical tone’ … Andy Zaltzman. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Last autumn, I hosted my first series of The News Quiz on Radio 4. By then, the BBC had found a way for an online crowd to join the recordings. I do not envy the silence faced by my predecessor, the excellent Angela Barnes.

Remote recording has benefits. Without the need to be in a single location, we’ve had panellists join us from the US, India and Australia – we’d like to keep that up. The slight delays on Zoom do disrupt the flow and can mitigate against spontaneity. The added beat before an audience laughs shakes the timing and rhythm that comedians hone over years. It also heightens my “that-joke-didn’t-work” paranoia. But performers – and live audiences – have adapted.

The difficulties have been mostly with production: getting mics couriered to panellists, dodgy wifi connections, family members and pets interrupting. And then there’s the rain pelting down on to the roof of my shed, where I record.

We’ve had to strive to hit the right satirical tone among a bleak swathe of headlines. We need to address the big, inescapable issues, but stories offering some light relief have been especially important, like the famous Zoom goats of Lancashire, HG Wells’ four-legged tripod coin and the six-cm-tall Liverpudlian man. (MS)

‘We needed to rescue the nation from despair’

Richard McKerrow, executive producer, The Great British Bake Off

Fortunately, we had cast our GBBO bakers by the end of February. Normally we’d film a series over weekends. Contestants would come to the tent, bake, then head home, meaning they could live their lives fairly normally, with time to practise for every new stage. In the pandemic, this wasn’t possible. Still, Channel 4 was clear: we needed to rescue the nation from despair.

Matt and Laura Adlington on The Great British Bake Off.
Made in a giant bubble … Matt Lucas and Laura Adlington on The Great British Bake Off. Photograph: Love Productions

We briefly considered doing a live bake-along show with hosts Paul and Prue. It seemed tricky, and there were barely any ingredients on supermarket shelves. We felt a responsibility to deliver the real GBBO thing. We decided it could only work if it felt recognisable. Bake Off wouldn’t work with social distancing – 12 bakers plus crew and talent? Not a chance. So we came up with the cruise ship-style scenario: we’d create a giant bubble and compress shooting to eight weeks.

We looked for locations: a hotel that would take us – and somewhere beautiful for our tent. We drafted Bible-length protocols that were run past lawyers, medics, health and safety, and commissioners. There would be nine days of quarantine and two tests for anyone joining the bubble. You’d travel to the location in a deep-cleaned rental car delivered to your door. Arriving on set in Essex, you’d be tested again and quarantined for another 24 hours. Then you stepped into the Bake Off magic, Covid-free. (MS)

‘In a way, I found the crisis galvanising’

Ai Weiwei, artist

Ai Weiwei.
‘Impatient’ … Ai Weiwei. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

A year ago I was in Rome, rehearsing my production of Puccini’s Turandot – the first time I had directed opera. During the last days of rehearsals, the head of the theatre came to me and said: “We have to stop.” I had just asked the actors to dress up as intensive-care medics. It all seemed too close. Art gets caught in the crossfire sometimes.

In a way, I found the crisis galvanising. My studio and I started making a film about what was happening in Wuhan, working with people who were shooting footage on the ground, which we edited in Europe into a feature-length documentary called Coronation. I designed masks to raise money for humanitarian charities working on Covid-19. We made two other films last year – one about the situation in Hong Kong, the other about Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladesh. There are many crises going on right now; coronavirus is just one of them. Critical situations are a call for artists.

Since 2011, when the Chinese authorities first took away my passport, I’ve been a political refugee. It’s sad when you don’t have a homeland, but it’s also an advantage. My studio is in Berlin. I lived there from 2015 until last year, when I moved to Cambridge, partly because I wanted my son to go to school in England. I’m used to moving around, and I’ve become good at working remotely. I am comfortable in England. But when the pandemic hit Europe, we decided to drive to Portugal – 1,500 miles by car. That was really strange: no one on the highways, checking in to empty hotels.

The lockdown has been strict here, but some days you wouldn’t notice it. We are fortunate to have space around us, fields and plants and trees. My son has been doing school online, and I’m working hard. I’m online with my team in the studio a lot – it’s like talking to family. Sometimes I’ve been on the Clubhouse app, talking to people across the world in Chinese. But I’m an impatient person. I hate waiting or wasting time. I’m 63 – there are only a few pages left in the book. (AD)

‘A lot of barriers came down – it was wonderful’

Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery, London

‘Duty of care’ … Whitechapel Gallery on its reopening last July.
‘Duty of care’ … Whitechapel Gallery on its reopening last July. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

The Whitechapel is a museum without a collection. Every exhibition relies on people lending work, so it was a huge logistical nightmare when we had to figure out how to delay shows or extend them. If you’ve got 100 lenders and one of them says no to lending you a work for another three months, you have to restructure the whole show. And there are so many steps to the process, most of which are invisible to the public – collecting work from someone’s house, taking it off the wall, packing it, transporting it, having it checked, technicians installing it. So many people. And we have a duty of care to everyone.

Keeping colleagues motivated and in touch with what was going on was critical. When you’ve got a big team and they’re spread all over the place, if they’ve got young kids or they’re homeschooling, or they’re completely alone in their flat – you need to think about all of those things. The art world is very sociable, but people put on a professional front: you know they have kids, say, but you might not know their names. A lot of those barriers came down, which was really wonderful. When we get back, I’m keen to talk to colleagues about flexible working, and how we can do more events that are a blend of live and digital – that’s been a revelation. But I miss a lot of things: the chance conversation that leads to a good idea, dressing up for work. To paraphrase Karl Lagerfeld, wearing sweatpants is a sign of defeat.

Financially it was challenging, but three things saved us: the furlough scheme, the government’s cultural recovery fund, and emergency assistance from foundations and patrons. That means we’ll be able to balance the budget this year. We’ve been able to protect all our jobs. But I’m mystified by the government’s decision to delay the opening of museums and public galleries until mid-May at the earliest, after nonessential shops and commercial galleries. It simply doesn’t make any sense. (AD)

‘The online experience will only go so far’

Richard Ingleby, co-founder, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

When it all began to happen last March, the gallery team was in New York at the Armory Show, one of the more important US art fairs. People were still shaking hands and hugging, but over three dayseverything changed. Although we had a burst of activity in the summer and autumn, and have been very active online, we quickly realised the only way to exist was not to have too many expectations.

Richard Ingleby.
‘Still feels strange’ … Richard Ingleby

There’s been a big rush to virtual exhibitions and a lot of talk about art in the digital space. Most of us are still working out what all that means – whether it will become a part of life in the long term or disappear once things open up again. With the kind of work we show, which depends on a physical presence, it only really exists when someone is in front of it. The online experience is only ever going to go so far.

In a broader sense, this is a people business – I spend my life dealing with artists, collectors and curators. There’s a huge amount of face-to-face. It still feels strange to be doing most of that online. But it has levelled the playing field – we’re in Edinburgh, which has never been the centre of the art world, yet suddenly all galleries, wherever they’re based, found themselves competing in the same digital place.

Our turnover is significantly down but our profitability isn’t, partly because we haven’t had the costs of physical exhibitions and art fairs, which are a massive expense.

It’s been much harder for artists, particularly those whose work hasn’t been selling. When I compare the UK response to what’s happened elsewhere – Germany, for example, where the government established a fund to acquire works by German artists from German galleries – we’re a long way from that.

This isn’t just about coronavirus: it’s a much broader conversation about how we value culture in the UK and, in particular, how we fail to recognise the fragility of the art world’s ecosystem. Everything depends on everything else – grassroots galleries as well as big museums. I hope it gets back put together again. (AD)

‘I know artists who might never be able to work again’

Larry Achiampong, artist

Larry Achiampong
‘Work saved me’ … Larry Achiampong Photograph: Gary Zhexi Zhan

Even before things got bad in the UK, I was worried. I teach at the Royal College of Art and at the end of 2019 I remember talking to one of my students about the virus that had popped up in China. It was so hard to know what to believe. Then in April I got Covid, or I think I did – I couldn’t get a test. I’m still getting my sense of taste and smell back.

The whole thing was incredibly weird. During the first lockdown, I moved to my live/work studio in Essex, living alone and not seeing anyone else, doing the shopping for my mum. My former partner and I don’t live together, we co-parent our kids, and you weren’t allowed to mix households during the first lockdown. I ended up not seeing them in person for three months. That was really, really tough; my kids are a big part of my life.

Speckle, 2020, by Larry Achiampong.
Speckle, 2020, by Larry Achiampong. Photograph: courtesy the artist and Copperfield Gallery, London

Being able to make work saved me mentally. I had a few different projects I was able to keep going with. I use a lot of video and sound in my art and my studio team are great, so I’m used to working remotely. I’ve been lucky, because Copperfield, my gallery, were really supportive and helped maintain my income. Some artists I know have been having to claim universal credit because projects they’ve been working on have been delayed or stopped. Some of those people might never be able to make work again.

What comes to mind when I think back on the last 12 months is loss: of friends, family, loved ones. Several people close to me have died, either due to the virus or a situation caused by the virus, such as not getting treatment or the mental impact of it. I think about people living in small flats like the ones where I grew up, not being able to get out for months. The emotional and social toll of it. The racial, class-based and gender-based inequalities, part of life in this country for a long time but deepened by the pandemic. The shitstorm the government created, the confusion and the stupid decisions. That’s what I’ll remember. (AD)

‘The film industry is cruel. If you seem vulnerable, people don’t use you’

Blair Barnette, production designer and art director
Before the pandemic, I was never out of work [on films such as You Were Never Really Here
and ITV show Vera]. I was away from home at least half of the year: on location, in and out of airports. My partner was also working as an executive for a telecommunications company, so we were comfortable. Then he became disabled and lost his job in late 2019. My work disappeared when lockdown started a year ago. I was already stressed, as three-quarters of our income had gone, but I had thought we could make it work –then Covid happened. It was awful timing.

Tough business … Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here.
Tough business … Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here. Photograph: StudioCanal

Right now, things are still tough. I am still getting a furlough payment but that’s it – all of our bounce-back loan is gone. Our landlord has been pretty good, saying we can take a rent break and start paying again when we can.

Work-wise, offers are starting to return and the industry is beginning to ramp up a bit again. But, as a freelance, work is more or less by word-of-mouth.

The film industry is so aspirational – and so cruel. Success begets success, and people feel they have to show that they are winning and confident; if you seem vulnerable, people don’t use you. I know a lot of people in the industry who are silently struggling because of the pandemic andafraid of the stigma. People are drowning and it’s really affected their mental health and their families.

As much as money, we need emotional support and not to feel as if we are doing a “hobby” or be told we should retrain for something more “meaningful”. The film industry is all I know and all I know how to do. But my partner and I are also looking at diversifying into things we can do on our own. I never want to be in this position again, where the rug gets pulled out from under us. (AP)

‘How eager will the public be to come back?’

Rick Gibson, CEO of the National Videogame Museum

We broke visitor records in February 2020, but in early March numbers fell dramatically. Because we would not guarantee the safety of visitors or staff, we closed the museum nine days prior to the government’s lockdown announcement. As an independent museum that relies on ticket sales, this was a precarious time. We lost 85% of our revenue overnight.

Sonic the Hedgehog at the National Videogame Museum.
‘We have to be entrepreneurial’ … Sonic the Hedgehog at the National Videogame Museum. Photograph: The National Videogame Museum

We saw this crisis coming and had a film crew creating a support video for a crowdfunding campaign three weeks before lockdown. We had no idea how people would respond, despite seeing the love and passion for game history and heritage from our visitors. A host of games companies, leaders and players stepped up to help us survive with lifesaving funding. We could not be more grateful.

We have had to be very entrepreneurial to survive. In March, we launched the JustGiving campaign. Then we won a culture recovery fund grant. We’ve won local government grants, done a fair bit of furloughing, won funding from grant-giving trusts for our online collections for Animal Crossing and a video game art gallery, and cut as many of our costs as possible – all without downsizing our team.

The uncertainty around timelines, tiers and dates has made forward-planning almost impossible. We sunk a lot of time and cost in consultation with our staff and community to get the museum ready and Covid-secure when we reopened in August; six weeks later, we were forced to close again.

The pandemic has threatened our survival, as it has for every museum, arts organisation, theatre and cinema. We’re stable now but the future is very uncertain. How eager and comfortable the public will be to visit arts venues after the pandemic, even with a vaccine, remains to be seen. (KM)

‘We’ve been blown away by the engagement’

Kate Edwards, executive director of Global Game Jam

In January 2020 we were able to conduct our normal in-person game jams and had a record-breaking year: 49,000 jammers at 934 live sites in 118 countries.

Global Game Jam online 2021
Photograph: YouTube

But as the pandemic became a reality, we had to transition to virtual events. We had never conducted an all-online game jam, so we had a steep learning curve, but July’s event went really well and taught us a lot.

We fully expected to have fewer participants than 2020 and had a goal of getting at least 50% engagement. In the end, we are very happy with the outcome. Doing our main event online for the first time, we were blown away by the level of interest and engagement.

It’s been a significant adjustment for me, as I typically travel 75-80% of the year. I initially welcomed the break when things started shutting down in March, but as the year dragged on, I basically had to relearn domestic life and this was the longest I had been home for many years. It was also hard to gauge the level of engagement with our community during the event compared to a normal year since we are usually inundated with pictures, videos and stories of happy jammers together all over the world, and this year we didn’t have that. (KM)

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