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Community Care, Art & Activism in a Time of Corona virus

Yolande Zola Zoli van der Heide x Suzanne Dhaliwal
45 min read
5 Apr 2020

A Dialogue part of The Corona Essays

Where are you, how are you? Describe your working space, where are you speaking from?

Y: This question opens up a notion of domestic space for me that is assumed to be safe at this time. The question presupposes that we all have a safe place to live. However, we know from statistics in Wuhan that the rate of domestic abuse tripled there and globally too (from Brazil to Germany, Italy to China). “Women and children who live with domestic violence have no escape from their abusers during quarantine.”

In Amsterdam, where I am writing right now, the municipality is struggling to set up beds in public gyms for the homeless to spend the night, but as far as I am aware, there is nowhere for them to rest during the day. The Wereldhuis (a community centre for undocumented people) had to close.

Elsewhere, writer Marina Vishmidt describes the home as the place where politics are born and buried; an expression which conveys the idea that the home is a concrete microsite in which everyday and public matters are embedded. “It redirects our critical gaze so that we focus on everyday practices, not as an autonomous haven, but where the system is naturalized”. I quote my former colleagues Maiko Tanaka and Binna Choi from their introduction to a book (co-published by Casco and Valiz in 2014) entitled the Grand Domestic Revolution Handbook. I have been revisiting this book, as it speaks so concretely about the question of invisible reproductive work that is tied to the domestic or home site, which I think is now again becoming evident to us and is as palpable as ever as we are having to negotiate time: do the laundry, cook, clean, teach children, arrange care for our parents, elders and so forth. What lessons can we learn from this, that have garnered immediate self-organizing (home tactics), and how can we ensure that we continue to honour these lessons once the pandemic passes? I’m thinking about affordable housing for all, pay for domestic work typically done by women, and particularly migrant women of colour, etc.

S: I am currently in North Amsterdam. I am safe, I have food and care. However, I feel now more than ever that I am questioning what it means for me to be in the Netherlands. I feel politically disconnected and unable to challenge the way the government is functioning, because my political community is mostly in the UK and Canada. A result of this is that I have become introspective, trying to find my strength in spirituality, online activism, checking in on friends and my community, amplifying mutual aid efforts online.

I tried to be part of an online mutual aid group in Amsterdam, but I experienced a lot of censoring and racism. We were only allowed to share positive news and initiatives and people got really annoyed when I tried to talk about my concerns with the governmental approach and there was a real lack of connection between political questions, activism and community care. For me, political action is how I express community care as well as the physical service of sharing the resources I have: food and knowledge of traditional medicines. I am trying to really think about who I am at this time in my community, but it has been a scary, isolating time that has made clear to me how hard it has been to integrate and be connected in Amsterdam in the way I normally organize and engage in a community. I’m speaking from a place of uncertainty, instability and day 22 of self-isolation due to being asthmatic. I’ve been really grateful to work on this piece with Yolande, as it has connected me to a creative practice and community in the Netherlands and I look forward to continuing to nourish and develop these relationships throughout the festival and the possibilities it may bring.

How is the corona virus affecting your daily life? Are you safe, supported, well stocked? Do you have a secure source of income?

Y: This concisely crafted question was brought to me by someone we have in common: speculative writer curator and pleasure activist Ama Josephine Budge, whose writing I’d also like to recommend here. See for example her piece “Watching the Channel” in Consented Magazine, were she depicts black queer life in a post-apocalyptic flooded London.

This made me think about the types of system changes that are being provoked here as those across from us and beyond are seeped deeper into precarity. To begin to address this, we have seen a practice of paying the participants of cultural events, despite cancellation in light of COVID-19. This acknowledges the situation freelancers / the self-employed are now in, for example, as they rely on the income from different gigs, and likely cannot find compensation for lost fees. Of course, this is in stark contrast to my position at the museum, as I have an employment contract and even a pension for the first time in my adult life! The question here too is perhaps to think about which practices we should maintain once the pandemic passes. And to this end, initiatives like Platform BK are keeping a keen eye on the governmental response and are acting accordingly. After carrying out a survey of how artists and freelancers in the cultural sector have been affected by COVID-19, they are lobbying to ensure that the government considers and supports them with a specific package alongside the TOZO grant for freelancers in general. They are lobbying the Ministry of Culture, applying pressure together with the Kunstenbond, Kunsten ’92, the Creatieve Coalitie and other partners. This is in addition to tackling the structural underpayment of cultural workers. You can follow this on their website.

S: I have been working from home since 2009, so in some ways things are similar, but now suddenly there is a culture of care, support, tips and understanding about the benefits and pitfalls it brings. I feel there is more support from friends and distant family as we are all going through this together. No, in no way is my income secure. I have had months-worth of work cancelled. But luckily, networks of artists have offered to cover short-term costs and an old friend actually helped me pay my rent this month. As I can’t travel to the UK and back again, I have no idea how I will continue to work; offering workshops, talks etc., engaging in research. I am having to look inward and to the future, to find out how I can continue my work and research from a distance. I do have a patreon set up where people can support my work.

I’m really relying on my traditional knowledge of food and medicines to feel reassured that I can care for my family with what is in my cupboards. Also, I work with medicines to support my immune system. I’ve been making medicines and also working intuitively to see what my body needs right now – I’ve been taking Andrographis, which is an Ayurvedic herb and found out it was actually used to treat SARS during the pandemic, as well as Golden Seal, and a variety of kitchen herbs for my asthma. I’m still scared to go outside as I don’t feel that people are taking the pandemic seriously enough. Children are still playing outside like nothing has happened, drinking from a communal water fountain outside my window and I’m concerned about the increase in racist attacks that have been reported. I really miss nature the most and being able to know that, if I want to visit the UK to continue my work or see friends and family, whom I have already been separated from due to Brexit, I can just hop on a train. Brexit means that I’m unsure of my status here in relation to self-employment benefits, and I’m not sure that this is the right place to be with family spread across the globe, but we have to focus on building a sanctuary and caring where we are for now, and being in a practice of gratitude and service.

What is the corona virus revealing to us about the urgent need for a shift in the social and ecological paradigm? And how do we ensure that the corona virus does not lead to an increase in the normalization of eco-fascism in climate activism?

S: It has been unveiled how little governments are taking heed of scientific knowledge and expertise when it comes to large-scale public spending, decision-making and future-building. We all know that many corporations continue to exploit crude oil, coal and nuclear energy to further their economic interests, despite warnings from scientific, health and political experts who see the dangers that global warming presents to our civilization. This colonization of knowledge and the inability to acknowledge science and knowledge systems has kept our climate action on hold for generations.

We have now seen this play out in real time before our eyes with the corona virus pandemic. The Dutch, UK and US governments have been particularly stubborn when it comes to slowing down economic activity to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The attempt to push ‘herd immunity’ as a legitimate public health strategy, despite advice to the contrary from epidemiologists and nations such as Italy and China, that have lived through the pandemic, mirrors what we see in the fight for climate justice. Even though indigenous, black and POC communities are already living with the impacts of climate injustice and are calling for moratoriums on extractivism and highlighting the need for adaptation and mitigation strategies based on traditional ecological knowledge and science and technology, industrial nations drag their feet and continue business as usual.

We have seen a lot of fake images of the canals in Venice becoming clear as a result of the lockdown in Italy. And celebrations of the historically low levels of emissions, due to the reduction of flights and human activity. However, we need to be cautious, as the goal of climate justice is to ensure that we build a just and equitable future for our communities and change the fundamental nature of our societies, economies and communities. Ecological change that comes from the death and devastation of communities isn’t a strategy that we want to promote. We have already seen an increase in eco-fascist propaganda appearing across the UK, claiming that corona virus is good for the planet. At a time of increasing fascism, spurred by Brexit, Trump and Modi, we need to ensure that we are calling for ecological strategies that are not based on the death of already vulnerable communities. Also, as nations begin to recover from the virus, we may see larger injections of capital into heavy oil and extractivism to stimulate the economy, and this may lead to an increase in overall emissions.
Trump announced last week that he will weaken environmental standards in the midst of the corona virus, backtracking on many of the ecological and climate justice gains made in the last few years. And in Canada, Trudeau is refusing to shut down oil and gas projects, even though the workers pose a threat of infection to local indigenous communities.
Instead, he is using the opportunity to move forward on illegal projects that violate indigenous rights, such as the Wet'suwet'en & Keystone XL pipelines, which were given the green light in just the last few days.

What is the role of cultural institutions and art in the pandemic and how can this prepare us to create a cultural landscape that will also serve us in the fight for social and ecological/climate justice?

Y: As you will recall, Suzanne, I was hesitant about participating in this digital version of STRP festival. Hesitant, because I think it is fair to acknowledge that I, like many of us, was and continue to be anxious right now; worried about falling into the trap of continued or even increased production instead of reflection and organization. I am acutely aware of the importance of responsible institutional practice at this time, having recently experienced a situation that went awry, which is one way of saying that I am glad that the museum where I work took the decision to close and practise physical distancing when it did. This is in stark contrast to colleagues in the UK, for example, who had to live in limbo for a while, because they were essentially being forced to act as if it was “business as usual”. This also means that I can only participate in this discussion as a way of reflecting and collecting my thoughts thus far and recognizing that they will develop further. Moreover, it enables me to tap into resources and knowledge systems for dealing with how to live through a health crisis in tandem with social justice practices that would otherwise have been beyond me. So, I am particularly grateful to you, Suzanne.

Just one of the things you did, sharing the Irresistible podcast episode entitled Corona virus: Wisdom from a social justice lens, reminded me again of the importance of giving space to and learning from/with “those who know what they know and know what they need” otherwise through the words of The Otolith Group who exhibited at Van Abbemuseum last autumn: learning from / with those that have lived after an end (here they are speaking to black subjectivity in lieu of the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, fracking and other ecological disorder, which we may understand in terms of apocalypse, in terms of an end). This is another way of acknowledging those living with chronic illness, disability thus after an end so at the forefront of wisdom and expertise when it comes to dealing with the health crisis in moments like the pandemic that we are facing. This is precisely because they have been making do all along. It’s from such communities we can know about:

How to thrive living at home
How can we better address homelessness, and those who can’t self-isolate in the way that the state is mandating?
What do you do if you are quarantined and are lonely?
Recipes for making homemade sanitiser

Cultural institutions can, in turn, participate in the insistence of these wisdoms, giving them space in sincere ways, and by learning from / with them. In some sense, none of this is new, decolonial practice, commoning practices, notions of degrowth address these paths to varying degrees.

I have also been thinking about an institutional slow-down in order to revisit our mandates and positions when it comes to practices of care, making sure that the institutional front (these days with a de-colonial agenda) is matched and backed at the operational end, and leaning on art practices that are relevant. It is particularly interesting to think about policy and its future here, if we consider how quickly a new way of life has been learned, a way of life that keeps us at home. What institutional practices can we establish in order to ensure we do not return to “business as usual” once the pandemic passes? What is in our archives, exhibition halls? What measures are our museums taking to address the ecological crisis, and who is at the table when it comes to decision-making? More importantly, what and who is missing and what steps can we take right now to correct this?

S: On a personal level, in the days following the corona virus outbreak in the UK and the Netherlands my work was cancelled overnight, yet funds were quickly made available to support artists who had lost work and payments were honoured for cancelled gigs. This immediate expression of care, redistribution of funds and creativity in generating online opportunities has been more active than my experiences of the same situation in the non-profit and charity sectors, where there has been little effort to support freelancers and workers in precarious situations, who are often invisible, marginalized and predominately queer, black and POC people active in the climate movement and working precariously between the cultural and climate justice sectors.

As we move forward, we need cultural institutions to examine and expose their complicity in the climate and social crisis, from the funding sources they accept and the social license they give to corporations like Shell by accepting sponsorship and how these can be a site for contesting colonial powers and corporate ecocidal and genocidal activities. There is also often a lack of space for questioning and reflecting on the forms and modes of climate organization itself. For instance, the space to reflect on the impact of XR’s strategies and aesthetics on the participation and safety of black and POC organizers has become almost impossible - we need cultural spaces to explore and question the forms of activism that we engage in, especially at a time where we are unable to rely on old forms such as protests, blockades and mass marches.

Those who have been calling for disability justice and accessibility have been traditionally ignored, but should actually be at the centre of designing a new culture of climate organizing and need to be supported to be involved in decision-making and creative thinking about how we can utilize strategies and ways of working with remote access, questioning ableist notions of participation and embodiment and envisioning futures. I believe that the communities that have already worked on these questions need to be honoured, respected and at the centre of critical and creative thinking about digital technologies and survival strategies in this new epoch.

The rapid response, creative redistribution of resources and widening of the art community to include cultural producers in the climate justice sector will be essential as we move forward. We need to ensure that queer, indigenous, black and POC climate justice organizers, whose work overlaps into cultural production, are cared for at this time, as these are the voices and visions that we need to build a climate and social movement that challenges the capitalist, patriarchal and ableist systems that have fuelled this social and ecological crisis.

How can we continue to practise solidarity in a time of social distancing?

Y: Culture Action Europe closes by challenging us from confinement to practise physical distancing and solidarity over the now popular notion of “social distancing”.[1] This requires that we take the time to reflect not as a navel-gazing activity, but in order for us to think through system change that addresses social asymmetries and it calls for us to put solidarity above economic gain. I think it's important to live by these words, especially now that the VVD Dutch government is leading the so-called frugal four (Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland), who are against a common fiscal response aka EU solidarity package. They describe solidarity as a moral hazard and have rightfully been reminded that “solidarity is not charity. It is the recognition that the struggle of one is the struggle of all.” What is more frightening here is that by obstructing the EU solidarity package, the frugal four endanger the function of the EU.

In this light, solidarity could be felt and practised through things that we perhaps already know:

Getting to know your neighbours, both immediate and along the national “borders”.
Finding out what they need, if anything, and providing service or taking action accordingly.
And above all remembering all of the exceptions to supposedly unbreakable rules and habits that we have been abiding by for so long and that have suddenly been reversed or turned upside down in response to the pandemic. How can we keep these up?
Suzanne, during our preparations I asked you about grounding techniques against anxiety, in that you mentioned you were returning to some Sikh prayer practices. I am thinking about the cliché of how the act of solidarity begins from the self in that maintaining a healthy body through meditation practices, movement, eating foods that boost the immune system (elderberry, garlic, echinacea, vitamins D, C, zinc omega 3 are linked to improving immune function and are good to take when you are not sick) can be a step to ensuring you don’t infect others who may be more vulnerable.

I have been amazed, even overwhelmed by the sheer volume of resources that are coming to light: from institutions sharing their archives to weekly Feldenkrais classes through Zoom by artist Yael Davids in lieu of the now postponed exhibition A Daily Practice, institutions improving their distribution and access practices to my mother blasting us with her immune boosting system in the family group app, much to our petulant irritation.

So in this spirit I leave you with a list of resources that have come in handy for us listed at the end and my mother’s recipe for a strong immune system: my mother’s tea recipe; mix together and brew fresh turmeric, fresh ginger, fresh lemon, fresh honey (from a jar), and fresh cinnamon sticks.

S: As a British-born Canadian, Indian queer person currently living in Amsterdam due to Brexit, distance influences a lot of my work as I acknowledge both the settler privilege I operate with as an immigrant in occupied Canada and as a QPOC in post-Brexit Europe. I have challenged UK banks and corporations driving destruction on indigenous lands in Canada, Nigeria, the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes without even travelling but working with community networks and acts of solidarity. I have always worked from a distance and I inhabit this geography in my sphere of care when I plan daily media posts, campaigns and projects. Many people in the creative climate sector work with technology to maintain relationships, to co-design campaigns and to develop creative initiatives. No Tar Sands was thus able to initiate and build an intersectional and international climate justice network that has been pivotal in the climate justice movement. Working across time zones and area codes was often necessary, as we didn’t have access to travel budgets and we also wanted to reduce the volume of air travel we engaged in. Yet we knew it was essential to work at an international level to mirror the international operation of the capital and corporate power streams that drive ecocide and climate chaos.

When it comes to the pandemic, I think the way mutual aid is organized means that we need to be strategic with care and those who are able to provide immediate care and redistribute resources must recognize the privileges they operate with. I have been in contact with Healing Justice London on a daily basis ever since I have been in isolation to both meditate and pray and to support my emotions of missing home and seeing how horrifically the pandemic is increasing authoritarianism, mass displacement and hunger in other nations, like India, where I am at times at a loss how to work in solidarity. It has been grounding and soothing, reassuring and essential to maintain my ability to continue my responsibilities in climate organizing amidst the pandemic and to stay present for my family and friends and remain healthy.

I think we need to be careful, though, regarding the ease with which we introduce technology. As previously mentioned, Yolande initially had doubts about this festival becoming digital. We need to reduce the number of complications, so as not to overwhelm and exhaust ourselves, be mindful of the global digital divide. Some of the practices I have used that connect me to indigenous teachings often also involve learning to think and meditate with the natural elements. This is really a time of investigation, learning about metaphysics, exploring the body and embodiment as well as engaging in digital strategies. How can we also reduce distance through intentional thought, prayer and meditation as well as telecommunications?

As a survivor of PTSD, which came on by sustaining direct action for over a decade and the racism and physical and sexual violence I experienced in the climate movement itself, a lot of my research during the past few years has focused on exploring how to use creative strategies to continue organizing from a distance to be able to continue the work as a survivor. I have also looked into deepening my practices of spirituality and self-knowledge as a way of investigating and understanding other ways of standing up for the environment, our communities that are rooted in our spirituality, our embodiment and creative awakenings. I think that we can continue to learn from the models of climate organization used by Indigenous, Black and POC communities as we continue to organize on a collective global scale. There are many online webinars, digital organization, mass calling of banks and corporations driving fossil fuel projects - these will be a big part of the new organizing landscape as we move forward, but I think we also need time to take stock and adjust to the new reality as some of this hyper-productivity also stems from anxiety, fear and restlessness. There must be greater resources for QBPOCs to be able to sustain their work through precariousness at this time and to be able to alchemise our experiences into embodied research about how action from a distance can become a new organizing culture and how ancestral and emergent creative practices can sustain us through this time, which is something I think that the arts could support, resource and nourish now more than ever.

About Yolande Zola Zoli van der Heide & Suzanne Dhaliwal

Yolande Zola Zoli van der Heide is exhibitions curator at Van Abbemuseum. Her interests lie in diverse intersecting perspectives – institutional, trans-local, feminist, queer, intersectional, and modes that decentre the oppressor in practices of freedom and liberation – to influence art institutional practices.

Suzanne is an artist, activist and campaigner, working on climate justice, indigenous rights and mining issues, listed as one of the most popular voices on the Environment in 2018 by the Evening Standard. She is founder of the UK Tar Sands Network, which has worked for over a decade to campaign against corporations and financial institutions invested in the highly polluting Alberta Tar Sands. Suzanne has led high impact campaigns to shift the insurance sector from underwriting coal and tar sands projects & artistic interventions to highlight environmental injustice in the Niger Delta, Gulf Coast and the Arctic. She has been working to amplify the voices of indigenous delegations at the international climate negotiations and centre the voices of Indigenous, Black and POC voices in the climate movement internationally. She currently works as an artist, producer-writer, lecturer, anti-oppression trainer and research fellow at the University of Brighton examining race, media, art and climate justice.

Resources & links

Platform BK, an art policy initiative concerned with researching and advocating for the role of art in society in support of cultural producers

COVID-19 Resources for Artists

Find Help in Location for Artists

Exhibition - How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?

Podcast: Coronavirus: Wisdom from a Social Justice Lens

On the Move - Coronavirus: Resources: Arts, Culture and Cultural Mobility

Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change

Why a one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19 could have lethal consequences


Yale University - Key Readings on Climate and Coronavirus

Community Care: An Indigenous Response to Coronavirus by Jade Begay, NDN Collective

Historic Injustices Against Native People Put Them at Greater Risk of COVID-19

Rising Majority Teach-In w. Naomi Klein & Angela Y. Davis

How to Beat Coronavirus Capitalism online teach-in with Naomi Klein, Astra Taylor, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

An Afro Spiritual Understanding of the the current times and how to heal through crisis (Covid-19)

Ecological Reflections on the Coronavirus: Vanada Shiva

Charity So White - Covid 10 Resources

COVID-19: Link with Air Pollution? Italy’s and China’s Experience

What Climate Grief Taught Me About the Coronavirus

Airborne particles may be assisting the spread of SARS-CoV-2

Coronavirus is Going to Come Down Hard on India, Especially its Poor

Trump administration allows companies to break pollution laws during coronavirus pandemic

The Pipeline and the Pandemic: ‘The Biggest Risk We’ve Got Right Now’

Stories of Our Elders

L’Internationale Online