Collective Text: Oreet Ashery and students at the Ruskin School of Art

12.06.2020

I was moved reading an internal survey about the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown. It was self-initiated and self-organised by third year BFA students at the Ruskin School of Art, where I teach. The weight of individual content meshed with the faith of a collective voice is stirring. For this text on Auto Italia’s online public platform, I proposed a collaborative document in which student respondents describe their living conditions in lockdown, and the effects this is having on them and their practice. The importance of intimate data collection and the production of self-knowledge in the form of counter testimonials, as a response to the operational modes of surveillance culture, is urgent. Half the year group responded, and those who did not are as much part of this. The paragraph-length statements open doors to composite worlds where singular stars become a constellation.

Oreet Ashery

.

I can barely find a moment where I am calm enough to make myself a meal. I eat Weetabix three times a day and compulsively make myself hot beverages and smoke indoors. The expectation of artistic productivity during lockdown is absurd. People spend a lot of time complaining about how bored they are. I feel sad every day because I can’t even be bored or feel aimless or be depressed in my own home. I can’t go home because I don’t live in this country. When term ended, I went up to stay with this boy, we had a massive fight, and he then refused to drive me to the station so I could come back to Oxford the day the UK lockdown was announced. So I walked through some unknown farmland by myself and waited for ages for a bus that I realised was never going to come. Then I wept on the side of the road, alone. I’m staying in a grotty house in the Jericho area of Oxford with two friends now. I appreciate when I can speak to another human being during the day. Sometimes I even stand outside the house and breathe. I can’t stand elsewhere because when I tried to sit outside the closed-down pub across the road in the sun for a bit, the police drove by and told me to go home. Fair enough. If I went home home I would have to self-isolate for two weeks in a room the size of a wardrobe. I wish I had a real house or a garden to sit in or a pet to pet or a family to be around. I was also told by a white man on the street that “it was you lot who brought this over here in the first place,” which is silly because I’ve never been to China. And also, you know, racist. When I realise the current situation is real, I’m suffocated with a feeling so distressing it’s almost like guilt.

.

My partner had to self-isolate with suspected illness from COVID-19. As I am immunocompromised, I was unable to stay with them when the university told us to go home. I have diagnosed c-PTSD with depression and anxiety relating to abuse within the family home. Returning home for self-isolation presented constant triggers, which I have been trying to negotiate in therapy in recent months. Partway through this a grandparent with dementia started to deteriorate and I moved in with them to help with caring responsibilities, but found I wasn’t in a position to care for myself properly, let alone look after someone in that condition (I feel guilty for this). At the point of writing this my partner has just recovered and I’ve made it to London to be in safety with them. I have moved three times in three weeks. The uncertainty and stress of this situation makes it difficult to focus, let alone acquire the mental flexibility to approach a radical alternative to conclude my degree. I don’t know how to continue a practice right now, or if I even want to. I would like to postpone my studies and take the time to find rest and security, but I’m not sure that’s an option. I’m trying to redirect my reserves where possible to extend support and care beyond representation. I am strengthened daily by the ways people can organise to support one another and hope that this can continue on the other side of lockdown.

.

I am currently self-isolating in my college in Oxford. I am currently unable to return to China due to cancelled flights, however, this situation will likely change in early May. I have access to basic art supplies that I need, and I am working on some smaller-scale paintings, making drawings and doing some reading in my room. I am finding self-isolation a bit more productive than imagined, but I would love to go to some exhibitions when they reopen, and look forward to going home sometime in the future.

.

My current living situation provides several difficulties for carrying on making artwork in that I do not have the space or the resources to continue the type of practice that I was pursuing in the studios. I have a large family, many of whom are working from home and so take priority using the communal spaces in our house, restricting my art practice to the intimate and crowded space of my bedroom. One of my parents is also a frontline worker for the NHS, and so I am having to take on many more responsibilities to help them due to the increased pressure and hours of their work, and this responsibility will naturally come before my art practice.

.

I’ve moved back to my family home in Greater London indefinitely. I live with my mum, my dad, my brother, and my sister. My sister is very mentally unwell. I planned to live in the University until June, and was supported by the college to stay there due to these exceptional welfare concerns. For the past three years, family life has been putting out fires to keep my sister alive, and to keep us safe. Being trapped in a home with such a volatile young adult means I’m often worried and have a reduced mental capacity for other matters. Strangely, when you’re used to waking up feeling a nauseating slick of dread, a global pandemic doesn’t hit so hard. In the days when she was incredibly ill, I used to walk around expecting everyone else to feel as distraught as I did, and now, in some perverse way, it’s a relief to know that they do. After years of trial and error and great sacrifice from my parents, we’ve constructed a daily dance to make sure everyone has mental and physical space to work, and we’ve adapted this to fit the pandemic. Work continues, but it’s slow. Without access to studios, workshops, technicians, and the community of engaged friends at the Ruskin whose daily presence I’ve come to rely on, it feels as though I’m working in a vacuum. I’m overwhelmed with pride at the action our small year group is taking to ensure we get the best possible outcome of these changing working conditions. We’ve come together as a team to negotiate with the school for a COVID-19 action plan that is responsive to the needs of everyone on the course. We’ve worked creatively, conscientiously and with sharp focus, and have received overwhelming solidarity from MFAs, DPhils and the rest of the undergraduate cohort.

.

I’m staying in the same room in college that I moved into in October, thinking that relationships and graduation were going to be the biggest concerns I’d have to grapple with this year. Now, I don’t know how long I have to stay in this country or how long I’m allowed to stay in this room. If college kicks me out, I have nowhere to go and I can’t afford to put my stuff in a storage facility. In my practice I mostly painted, so I bulk bought tubes of acrylic paint and good sketchbooks before the end of this term, thinking that that way I’d feel free to Make without the heavy gaze of everyone who walks daily through the studios. I was wrong. I don’t know what to make, whether it’s worth it to make anything at all. I was just starting to engage with photography and film, mediums I had been too scared to venture into before because I was once bitten, twenty times shy from the last time I tried something new. Now that seems impossible, too. If I try to play with these mediums at home, will it just look pathetic? I’m scared of making something that isn’t good. I think I’m just scared. But I don’t know if it’s a culture shock thing from when I moved here almost three years ago, if it’s a woman thing, if it’s a family situation thing, if it’s a COVID-19 thing or if it’s a mental health thing. Not knowing means I can’t fix it because I don’t know what part of my life is cracking. Maybe it’s all of the above? I try every day to do something to have a better tomorrow but it feels overwhelming. Yet I know I’m one of the lucky ones because I haven’t had to sever the umbilical cord to this town the way my peers have. I’m grateful to be able to stay here and to have my personal space but I feel swamped in it at the same time.

.

PTSD is interwoven with my family environment. After starting therapy at the start of this academic year with a charity, amnesia kicked in pretty hard. I cut off contact with my family for that term. The Head of Undergraduates in my college advised I consider taking a year out. A tutor said it was okay if I needed to take a break. But harder than not making the most of the time on our course, was not having the studio space in which to process it all and not being surrounded by the community at the Ruskin. My friends helped keep me grounded when everything was foggy. In the second term, both my grandparents went into hospital in the space of a week. They are home. I took as much time as needed out, to step in as immediate support, which has happened before and may happen again. When the university started shutting down, I didn’t join my grandparents in self-isolation, even though I wish I was with them. They wanted me to support my younger sibling instead. I help support my family financially and due to the crisis our seasonal income has gone, unprotected by a government in a different country – the account is always on zero at this time of year. Looking for extra paid work will take time away from my practice. The Ruskin is a physical building that is a safe space for me, where I am allowed to focus on my own work. Being at home, the triggers aren’t over the phone (where I can hang up) but in person (where I can’t walk away). It’s tricky and can be debilitating. It’s taking time to readjust. My practice will be there for me when I am able to fully return to it. At the moment I have shifted to writing rather than making, reading rather than doing. These circumstances cut us all off mid-tracks, mid-plans, just before the final term of our degree. A loss I haven’t fully processed, faced more pressingly with the confusion of being home and the crisis outside of it. Everyone is struggling at different points, but I am grateful we are adapting as a community, trying to find a way to exist and connect outside of a building.

.

Currently living at home in London with my younger brother (15), younger sister (19), mum (52) and dad (54). My older sister (24) is not with us in the house. I have good access to WiFi, comfortable living conditions, a garden, lots of parks near me. We all have separate bedrooms, two bathrooms, Fifa, a communal cleaning system and I generally laugh a lot with my family. There is some underlying anxiety about my younger sister who is at high risk due to her Down’s Syndrome, and was in intensive care for five weeks with severe pneumonia at Christmas. My dad is really struggling not being able to go to Canada, and is very stressed because my grandma lives there, has terminal cancer, and is very recently bereaved. Artwork is something I have just started in the evening, sewing spread-out/not spread out/ different treatments of cotton wool balls as something which will require many hours of labour. Part of my plan for next term was to make body extension props as part of an epic performance in the degree show. I feel more comfortable making work whilst watching TV at my kitchen table late at night or early in the morning – it feels more natural than the studio. I spent most of my teenage years doing that. I am also taking family videos throughout the day with me as the star (although some people enjoy my brother’s contributions the most), which I always do, but this time I am putting them on Instagram for an immediate audience. I don’t think they are becoming detrimentally moulded to Instagram. I’m waiting for it to culminate and see what happens with it all, but I don’t want to force anything.

.

I am living in my student house, away from my mum and grandad, my dad and his wife, my two siblings. I didn’t want to come home and risk bringing illness to my relatives, they are far more vulnerable than me. They don’t have the space for me to stay there for more than a couple of days anyhow. Everyone has left this city, it feels so empty – I miss my housemates, and my family. It’s just me and my boyfriend in the house, and it’s comforting to have him here, but we haven’t been together very long so I am a bit worried about how the lockdown will affect us as a couple. I haven’t done any ‘real’ work in a few weeks. I feel like I needed a break, after the stress of last term, but I also feel really guilty about not being productive, I suppose. I don’t have the space to do any painting, and I’m scared of making a mess, and my landlord getting angry about it. My work is mainly printmaking, and I’m missing the print studio, and trying to think about ways that it can evolve into this new space. Everything feels like it takes way more time nowadays, the days are so slow but also seem to flow into the next.

.

Within a week of lockdown, the park across my road went from almost empty to overcrowded. The small green space became awkward to navigate as it became harder to avoid people. Morning walks became a source of anxiety about encountering others, so I stopped going. I am in lockdown in my family house in southeast London. Our neighbour works as a doctor for the NHS, and we’ve exchanged a few words over the fence about the situation at the hospital he’s working at. I haven’t been at home for this long in over a year, so when I came back from uni, I felt like I had been propelled back in time to my school days and I started to feel trapped with the overwhelming weight of stagnancy, reality, and the serious risk to life posed by the virus. The other day my dad said he’ll die if he gets it, he’s always been a straightforward man and I’d be lying if I said that it also hadn’t crossed my mind. In the initial stages of the outbreak, I was worried about him being a target after hearing personal stories and news reports about the surge in racist attacks as a result of the pandemic. I feared for his and my own visibility, the ‘outside’ was risk upon risk. Health-wise, I have mild asthma, but I’d rather be the one leaving the house for essentials than my parents. I’m gradually feeling more inclined to begin thinking/making/being creative. I had plans to travel to Asia for three weeks for a project, now I’m needing to readjust and find alternative modes of working. I’m mindful of keeping to myself and to not compare productivity levels with others because this is all a huge shift which not everyone can afford to adapt to with ease. l had a few moments of being utterly stunned/panicked by the whole situation, not knowing what to do with myself, but I’ve now settled into a hopeful state of feeling connected to others on a human/emotional level which hasn’t always been at the forefront of what we know as ‘normal’ life. I tend to bounce back and forth between these headspaces.

.

So far my family and I are well, and able to work at relatively normal capacity. My parents are both working from home, and my brother and I are doing our best to balance work for our respective degrees with some aspect of rest, while both uncertain about what the future of our education might look like. The atmosphere in the house has been tense; four of us in the house is a strain on both the WiFi and our patience. Not having access to my studio has meant that I have spent more time reading and researching than I normally would. I had previously been working on large sculptures, but now don’t have the space or materials to make works of such scale. Instead I am making small paper sculptures, and returning to painting for the first time in several years. The hardest part of isolation is not being able to see my fiancée. We are supposed to be getting married in August, but if the lockdown restrictions remain this severe then we will have to postpone until the government allows weddings to take place once again. But there has been contentment in the quiet of isolation. We find space to read, to think, to dream, to hope, to pray.

.

Everything feels cut off, like I have been uprooted and re-potted somewhere else. Rhythm and flow are out of kilter and I feel fried thinking about the thousands of people dying every day. COVID-19 is always with me. I don’t know if it feels appropriate to be fully continuing my art practice feels during this time, regardless of whether I have the resources to hand. Someone once asked me: “What do you think your art is doing for the wider world?” My artistic practice is second to anything else I could be doing for, and with, those that I love and care about (including the wider public). I don’t know what I should be doing, or where I should be putting my energy, but I know I need to use my skills somewhere to help. The start of 2020 was the first time I had felt truly settled at university. In October 2017 one of my parents developed Stage 3c Primary Peritoneal Cancer and went through rounds of chemotherapy. It returned in February 2019 again, stronger, and so did the rounds of chemo. This had to stop due to their body not responding well and they are now being treated palliatively. They are extremely vulnerable at this time due to COVID-19, and I am very worried. Spending my time with my family takes place over making art, yet me making art makes them happy. I feel confused. Art school was a safe space for many. I could get distance from the illness at uni, being able to think and work more clearly (I feel bad typing this, but it can be very overwhelming). I am really glad we are all communicating as a year group outside of the physical art school still, as a support team. Even though we may be swapping out ‘art’ for other mediums, creativity as a whole is playing a huge part in getting people through this period emotionally and playfully. I am proud to be part of this community.

.

I live with my parents and a cat in a large middle-class family home in London, with a garden that is disproportionately large for the area. My dad is self-employed but slowing down at retirement age, and my mum has a stable job at a school where pay continues through this period. In short, I am in the privileged position where money has little factor in our wellbeing as a family through this time. So my ability to make work can continue to a certain degree, apart from the obvious limitations of lacking departmental facilities to fully materialise projects in order to platform my beginning in the real-world during my final term of university. I would normally describe myself as the optimistic type but, as if graduating from art school wasn’t troubling enough, emerging into a brave new world when the pandemic ends is terrifying. Amidst the comfortable safety net of my current existence anxiety grows towards the future, and I now ask myself more than ever: “What is the point of making art?” Especially in the context of my privilege. So while I can continue in this limited sense, the grave uncertainty of the future makes my ability to think freely in isolation perhaps the most toxic barrier to my ability to produce.

.

Screens are portals into the interconnected community of our world, agitating and flickering, all-consumed, dying within this pandemic. Akin to screens, the windows of the small flat where I’m isolating with my family show scattered walkers and runners reluctantly passing by each other. I’m lucky though, the balcony’s flat is met by a pebbled water’s edge, a spacious tidal beach and a stretch of promenade. Although the winds howl at night, I am grateful for the sensory embrace of salty air and the varying textures of light caressing constantly on moving waves. As an artist, space is a breath of fresh air to me and this abandoned house, intended for our family renovation, has become my studio for now. It’s an ironically apocalyptic atmosphere that has become my retreat, a personal pavilion of solitude. I am careful on my mission to travel to this makeshift studio and skate there carefully whenever I can. In the garden the metallic body of a cement mixer is clunked still, like many, it isn’t fulfilling its usual purpose and just like the economy and the wider world, nothing here is rotating. The wheels of my skateboard keep spinning as I carve through Worthing’s silent concrete streets to reach my old home, my new studio. I now intend to use the emptiness of this frozen house to create an exhibition that I will share digitally. Technology will stream roots between us, while as individuals we simultaneously build the trunk of tomorrow.

.

I’m afraid of mediocrity and worst of all anonymity. There’s a constant screaming that I must be dramatic and exciting, so going to Oxford seemed like a logical choice. But for the past three years I’ve been plagued by this need to be the best and the most and ended up falling short every time. I’ve been pretty miserable at Oxford and lockdown has given me respite that I was too afraid to take on my own. I’m aware I’m in a very privileged position, living in a nice house in the countryside with an Ocado delivery en route. I am relishing the silence and slowness. I could pretend I’m anxious about everything and missing my ‘practice’ but I’m not. I’m grateful that the obligation and ability to work has been taken away from me so that I don’t have to pretend I still care. I no longer feel this oppressive expectation to fulfil the caricature of myself as a ‘bold white-haired creative’. I can write and bake cakes and make things without worrying if they are enough or if they matter. Maybe I will learn to love art again, but for the time being I am content without it.

.

My thoughts and practice have been disabled by COVID-19. I am finding it increasingly difficult to get out of bed, to communicate with people, to think, to make work. Despite having been dedicated to a routine for the last six months, I quickly fell out of that rhythm. It feels strange attempting to channel our isolation towards creative productivity; whatever I produce during this time will have an unwanted association with the virus. I cannot make work and I do not want to make work right now. I am struggling with the bombardment of new and conflicting information surrounding Coronavirus. My dad has cancer and his treatment was scheduled for this April but has had to be postponed. He has been in bed for twelve days with the virus and we are all anxious. Both my parents are self-employed and currently have no income which is another pressure and anxiety infiltrating the house. I’m scared.

.

Student contributors in alphabetical order:
Olivia Allen
Georgia Arben
Sophia Wee Blázquez
Anna Busuttil
Birdie Beaumont Epstein
Helena Greening
Megan Jones
Audrey Lee
Josi McGuffin
Ceidra Moon Murphy
Christopher Neal
Tegan O’Hara
James Scott
Ran Shi
Maia Webb-Hayward
Olivia Williamson

The fee for this essay from Auto Italia has been donated to Hackney Food Bank.

Image credit: Sophia Wee Blázquez