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Andrew Joyce in Play Our Part. Photo/NZSO

The art of isolation and culture in a clampdown

As the NZSO prepares to deliver another housebound performance, the NZ arts sector adapts to life in lockdown including mounting exhibitions online.

A plastic tea set is lodged under the sofa. An orchid droops worryingly on the windowsill. Outside, five-year-old Evie yells out to her neighbour from the trampoline. Sitting in his kitchen/living room in his Khandallah home, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Andrew Joyce plays a hauntingly beautiful rendition of El cant dels ocells, a traditional Catalan lullaby made famous by renowned Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. His audience? An iPhone with a Zoom IQ6 microphone.

“The experience was actually quite stressful. It is always confronting when you record yourself and even more so when you film yourself – it is like looking in a mirror when that you never really want to. So it wasn’t the most relaxing experience, but I am very glad we did it.”

Joyce recorded his recital at 9.30am last Wednesday, just 48 hours after the orchestra had to drop plans to livestream a performance on RNZ Concert. Rather than close up shop, NZSO concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen, several section principals and pianist Stephen De Pledge decided to record themselves performing their favourite pieces of music from their homes. By 7.30 that night Play Our Part, comprising video clips of the at-home performances and a single soundtrack seamlessly stitched together by Wellington audiovisual company Latitude Creative went live.

This is art at its nimble best. Even before the lockdown, organisations were working to keep the show on the virtual road. Less than 48 hours after BATS closed its doors, the Wellington theatre livestreamed its planned performance of Hugo Grrrl's solo show Princess Boy Wonder to 160 paying viewers – double the capacity of the actual theatre. The artist was paid and the performance seen across the country and internationally.

“It wasn’t perfect,” says general manager Jonty Hendry, “but we learnt from that and now we are looking at upping our ante. The possibility of a more slick and more comprehensive streaming medium that can catch more nuances of the production is entirely possible.” The theatre was already in a phase of testing and experimenting, “but this pandemic has forced our hand. We have got some change to make as a society for weeks or months and people will want to experiment.”

The Lyttelton Arts Factory (LAF) hopes to do just that. Due to open in May, Joe Bennett’s first full-length play Chippie will now be adapted to be performed before cameras. No audience, no fourth wall. The play was premiered at the East Riding Theatre in Beverley in Yorkshire last year, starring Lyttelton’s Tom Trevella and ERT’s Hester Ullyart – both scheduled to appear in the LAF production – in the latest of a series of co-productions arising from the friendship between LAF creative director Mike Friend and ERT artistic director Adrian Rawlins (Nikolai Fomin in the HBO series Chernobyl).

Mack and Beth in Chippie. Photo/Supplied

Promoted as a deep-fried psychological thriller, it tells the story of Mack and Beth who run a fish and chip shop in Lyttelton and the old captain clinging to life – and power – in the room upstairs. Duncan? No, insists Bennett, Chippie is most definitely not a modernised version of Macbeth.

“It is a completely independent story that has evolved in a completely different way. It is about fear and desire – all literature, all human life, is about fear and desire – and loss of choice.”

Since the lockdown, museums and galleries are rushing to develop new ways to offer more choice to their stat-at-home clientele.

“Online and social media presence has been growing in recent years and we expect it to expand rapidly,” says Phillipa Tocker, executive director of Museums Aotearoa. In the last week, she says, museums have had to focus on staff wellbeing and the logistics of security and budgets. Yes, there is disappointment around the endless cancellations “but there’s also a feeling we all have a part to play in this. People are reflecting back to the Christchurch earthquake and the mosque shooting and the way the cultural sector did shine during those events.”

Over the last few days Te Papa has put 11 years of its videos on its website (find out how to sign art words in Sign Language, learn about the history of Tuvaluean weaving) and devised an endlessly distracting “Little Page of Calm” – puzzles and jigsaws and pictures of sunsets.
Olivia Laing. Photo/Supplied

We need this, argues Olivia Laing. Describing one long period of loneliness, the author of The Lonely City says voyaging into other people’s worlds by way of novels, paintings and films, “had a magical capacity for making me feel connected, seen, met.”

But it won't be easy. Already, says Tocker, redundancies are hitting front of house and part time staff. For those reliant on ticket sales in particular, there is “serious potential for closures.”

A timeline of this year’s Auckland Arts Festival reads like a falling house of cards.

Changes in transport routes upped freight costs. Fourteen-day self-isolation requirements cancelled shows. Restrictions on audience number first to 500 then to 100 closed venues and some events. Seven days into the 19-day festival, events and performances were cancelled.

“It was short but sweet,” says chief executive David Inns. “The first part was fantastic.” As the threat of lockdown grew, all attention was geared towards keeping staff, artists and audiences safe, getting around 300 overseas artists back to their home countries (one couple is having to wait it out here in New Zealand), reimbursing ticket holders and honouring agreements “so the artists hopefully didn’t lose from this.”

The shape of next year’s festival is unknown. “We’re working with colleagues in Wellington and Australia. We’d love to get the festival up in March but it depends on when the world gets running again. The whole world has changed, all the venues have shut – that pushes everything further down the line. This will have a long tail. But it’s about being ready to reactivate as soon as we can in terms of commissioning work and talking with artists. There is a vulnerability across all sectors now but I think the arts can provide a refocus on community – there’s a huge amount of options across the sector. There’s some good thinking time now while we are all locked down for 28 days.”

The Christchurch Art Gallery knows the drill. Primed by five years of closure following the 2011 earthquake, it is now running its Art Bite lunch time presentations on Facebook and looking to increase, for a second time, its online capabilities. “We are not certain what these are yet but we will be looking at all the options,” says director Blair Jackson. “I am not sure if wondering around with a camera is the best way but we will be looking at other ways of engaging with the collection, powering up our communications and informing people what we are up to.”

Rachael King. Photo/Supplied

WORD is still forging ahead with plans for its Christchurch book festival in August – “We have the most incredible festival planned,” says director Rachael King, “which will happen, even if not in the form or timeframe we had thought.”

Auckland gallerist Michael Lett has been quietly working away on an online viewing platform for some months. Now, with three art fairs wiped from the arts calendar, he is looking to bring these plans forward.

“Over the last few years a lot of galleries have been thinking about how it could be possible to increase accessibility for their wider audience. Most gallery websites document exhibitions via images but don't necessarily go that extra step towards front-lining the commercial aspect of those shows, or providing any additional content. It’s always going to be important that artists work can be physically seen in galleries, but if the door is closed there has to be a shift in thinking.”

Can the be-there-now momentum of a new exhibition be translated online? “This is the question we are all asking. Some shows are already online for a limited time and in some way the physicality of the work isn’t paramount.” The gallery is now considering online artist talks in real time “so ultimately it is a live experience. Having subscribed to some of these things myself I think there is a bit of excitement when a gallery sends out an email offering access to works by an artist that are simply not seen in the traditional gallery space. It might be really interesting preparatory drawings by Imogen Taylor or unseen photographs by Michael Parekowhai.”

It will not suit every artist, not every work can be shown to its best advantage on an IPhone, but increasingly galleries and art fairs need to augment their events programme with more device-friendly screen-specific opportunities.

Art and design professor at the University of New South Wales, Keir Winesmith, author of The Digital Future of Museums, says museums and galleries need to be less large ocean liners, following the well-ploughed routes around the world, and more like nimble vessels able to meet the changing needs of a growing online audience. He points to the new twitter handles #MuseumAtHome and the excellent online resource available the Museum Computer Network (MCN) website.

When this year’s Art Basel art fair in Hong Kong was cancelled, it brought forward its first iteration of Online Viewing Rooms, giving exhibitors the opportunity to present works in a visual mock-up of a gallery space viewable for the six days of the fair (it closed on 25 March). Talking to the Listener from his office in Sydney, Art Basel “exhibitor” and director of Fine Arts, Kiwi Ryan Moore, says it is something other galleries are and will be doing. “And this sudden set of circumstances where our personal mobility is very restricted and the logistics of moving people and art works between cities or countries is severely curtailed is an opportunity for people to bring these ideas into fruition – a platform that is not a conventional art gallery website or a ‘virtual’ fair but a place where we can put new work by artists into circulation and people can experience that without having to physically be there.” 

Larger public institutions, he agrees are more reliant on visitors and tourists tripping the people-meter at the gallery door, but even without a novel virus romping across the globe, the days of people jetting into town to see a major exhibition, stay in a hotel, fit in some shopping and fly home are numbered.

“So maybe it’s time to reflect on how hungry the art world is for people’s travel, how much resource goes into that and what are the ways we can still share ideas, share works, be social, be connected, be putting art ideas out into the world without expecting people to be taking international flights or interstate trips. It would be delusional not to think we have to adapt the way we live and work – like, now.”

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s second at-home performance (Wednesday, April 1, 7.30pm) will feature a special guest appearance by acclaimed American violinist Shana Douglas from her home in Britain. Douglas will duet with NZSO Associate Principal Cellist Ken Ichinose, playing from his Wellington home. The two will perform music by famous 19th-century Italian composer and violinist Niccolò Paganini. The performance can be viewed by smart TV, mobile phone, tablet or computer.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is offering free broadcasts of recent performances via Facebook Premiere, starting this Friday, 3 April at 7.30pm with Hansel & Gretel.


Locked down does not mean locked away

Behind the dreary scroll of static images, a few clicks beyond the lurching walking tours of exhibition rooms, a wealth of art and artefacts, artists and articles and DIY advice is just a short mouse-trip away as galleries and museums post new content and new ways of delivering content.

The Getty museum in Los Angeles has a range of online exhibitions including Michelangelo and the history of the Bauhaus and an excellent menu of behind the scenes interviews, podcasts and look at the artworks, art processes, people and history on its Iris blog page at getty.edu. You can take a trip to the Prado with an interactive timeline, commentaries and videos (with English subtitles) on Goya, Velázquez, Bosch and most recently Fra Angelico. At the Louvre you can wander through the empty galleries, zooming in on some of the world’s most famous artworks.

To tour the Vatican museums follow the rabbithole at museivaticani.va into Museums, turn right at Virtual Tours and enter the world of the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms, and Chiaramonti museum. One of the highlights of the 500 or so galleries and museums featured on Google Arts & Culture app is a journey through the rooms of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Also accessible through its own website, viewers can listen to curators, visit exhibitions and watch English-subtitled updates of the lengthy research and restoration project of Rembrandt’s Night Watch.

Back in the UK britishmuseum.org, links listeners to a range of BBC and British Museum podcasts as well as the ever-so-relevant Desert Island Discs in which guests share their choice of desert island books, personal luxury and soundtracks (illustrator, author and political cartoonist Chris Riddell chooses Young Marble Giants and Leonard Cohen).

The Natural History Museum takes viewers into the British wildnerness with endearing excellent video clips of naturalists at work, including how to make a bird hide, bird box or simply a nature journal.

At the Virtual Museum of Canada you can click your way through to interviews, podcasts, exhibitions and games – including the worryingly prescient Morbus Delirium from the Montreal Science Centre.

Lessons on the photographic silkscreen at The Andy Warhol Museum, inspirational stop-motion films made by 7–12-year-old animators at MetKids on Metropolitan Museum of Art and excellent artist interviews at the Tate: including photographer Nan Goldin and Louise Bourgeois.

Back on home turf, DigitalNZ opens the virtual doors to Landfall Online, Play it Strange (original songs and arrangements by young Kiwi musicians) and over 5,000 clips and videos from NZ on Screen, most recently a film trailer for David White’s This Town and last year’s full length online documentary NZ Wars – Stories of Waitara.

The Auckland Writers Festival and Word Christchurch have posted podcasts and interviews with speakers including Arundhati roy, Markus Zucaks, Antony Beevor, Vincent O’Malley, Shayne Carter, Philip Hoare and Val McDermid.

This article is part of upcoming Listener content, but we are releasing timely stories early.

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