Art and ‘islandness’ in the time of Coronavirus

Image: Ten Days on the Island Artistic Director, Lindy Hume; CEO, Jane Haley; and Executive Producer, Vernon Guest

Art and ‘islandness’ in the time of Coronavirus

Waking up on March 20 to The Mercury’s brilliant (now iconic) headline We’ve Got a Moat and We’re Not Afraid to Use It, it was clear that the singularity of living on an island was coming home to Tasmanians in an extraordinary way during Coronavirus.

When Ten Days on the Island began in 2001 it was the notion of ‘islandness’ that set this Festival apart from any other. Visionary artistic director Robyn Archer and (then) Premier Jim Bacon conceived the Festival as ‘a celebration of island cultures. Island dwellers … have skills, characteristics and attributes which set us apart. Islanders have a sense of identity defined by a distinct coastline, not an arbitrary line on a map… an affinity with the sea…’

The words isolate and island have a shared etymology. This distinctive Tasmanian identity of being set apart from ‘the world’, has probably never been driven home is such a dramatic way as in these last few weeks. We are isolated, quite literally closed off to the world, and yet deeply connected to it. We are abundantly expressive on social media, meeting on Zoom for everything from Friday night drinks to script development to business meetings with colleagues around the corner or around the planet. ‘The world’ is closer than ever.

In 2021 as our communities emerge from the trauma and disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic, Ten Days on the Island, Tasmania’s biennial international arts festival has resolved to mark the moment with a 20th year program focussed on ideas expressed by Tasmanian artists across all genres. The whole team is energised by the challenge and opportunity of curating a landmark festival celebrating Tasmania’s creative ingenuity, brilliance, quirkiness and distinctiveness.

Prioritising locally made work and framing the program around amazing Tasmanian artists over the international and national program is a significant statement of confidence, but also a logical progression. Over the 10 festivals since the first festival in 2001, Ten Days on the Island has consistently celebrated Tasmanian artistic expression, creating an extraordinary legacy of bold local artworks and powerful experiences shared by artists and audiences across the archipelago. Moving headquarters in 2017 to the North West began another new chapter in the Festival’s story and a longterm commitment to the cultural life of regional Tasmania.

Nevertheless, the challenges of creating our 11th Festival in March next year are significant. The path ahead is by no means clear, the economy is fragile and so much is unknown. Travel restrictions, physical distancing, the public appetite for events and gatherings…we just don’t know yet.

What we do know is that the civic element of our work as artists and festival-makers has come to the fore in these last few weeks. We feel even more acutely our responsibility as humans, as citizens, neighbours, members of our communities, to nourish the artistic expression that is so vital for individual and community wellbeing, especially in times of stress and shock. This civic responsibility was framed eloquently by the German culture minister Monika Grütters, recently announcing that country’s 50 Million Euro relief fund for artists:

“Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation” said Grütters. “The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis. We should seize every opportunity to create good things for the future. That is why…artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now.”

It’s the classic lemons-to-lemonade scenario: Art conquers through adversity. Artists will find ways to make art, storytellers will tell stories, no matter what.

So, despite the destabilisations and hardships of the Coronavirus experience – and in a strange way because of them – we know that Tasmania’s cultural landscape will be even richer and contribute even more nourishment to life beyond lockdown.

What might a festival be in a post-Coronavirus world? What restorative rituals will we need after months revelling in the limitless imaginative possibilities in the digital sphere – yet craving the human connection of shared experiences? Whatever shape the program finally takes, some sound principles remain: a festival must encourage a sense of exploration and adventure; it must bring forward the stories – old and new – that we need to tell and hear; it must challenge and stimulate. Above all a festival exists to bring people together to connect through our shared humanity, to reflect on our time and place.

And what an extraordinary time and place.

Lindy Hume, Artistic Director
Ten Days on the Island
April 22, 2020