Dr Alys Longley explains why art collaboration across borders in all our different cities and spaces is an essential service during a pandemic 

As an artist and academic, I love to make work with colleagues whose first language is not English, with artists whose creative language is infused by cultures and traditions of which I know little.

It is near-impossible for international artists to travel in these difficult times, which is what makes international creative collaborations more urgent than ever.

My commitment to international artistic collaboration intensified when I was in Santiago, Chile in 2019, when the city was engulfed by a sudden, gigantic wave of protests. These were inflamed by a brutal state response to largely peaceful protests against Chile’s extreme neoliberalism – the privatisation of education, medicine, pensions, transport and more.

Military and police had responded with violence – firing rubber bullets into the eyes of protesters who then lost their sight, and using tear gas and water cannons. Sexual abuse was used as a weapon of power as was mass incarceration, including of children and young people.

The creative arts were central to the protest movement in Santiago in 2019 – young people spray-painted anti-state graffiti in broad daylight, protests brimmed with music, theatre, costumes, songs – such as the thousands-strong performance of Victor Jara’s El derecho de vivir en paz (The right to live in peace), which occurred during a street protest of over a million people.

My friend and collaborator Máximo Corvalán-Pincheira helped organise an activist event in January 2020 in which 20,000 band-aids were turned into miniature art-works, each hand-printed with the words “basta-ya” (enough’s enough, or enough now) – that is, enough of the four months of brutal violence between state and people. The band-aids rained down over the Alameda (a main street in Santiago) in a massive artist-protest which brimmed with joy, beauty and solidarity.

Returning to New Zealand, I carried a sense of the responsibility to the Chilean people who were so committed to raising global awareness of the human rights abuses, and to the awesome, humbling political and artistic work exploding in Chilean streets.

I came to realise that complex understanding of Chilean political history and context wasn’t necessary for any of us in the international community to engage in small acts of solidarity that make a real difference – any act, creative or otherwise that drew attention to the human rights situation in Chile had some kind of weight.

I am now thinking about creative acts of alliance with the people of Myanmar, Hong Kong, Brazil, Russia, but also people across the globe far more affected by Covid-19 than we are in New Zealand. Care matters, artistic practices can enable the transmission of care, and transcend border closures and political divides. International creative collaborations are vital to democracy and political and cultural growth. This idea motivated and sustained me during Covid-19 when I developed new projects with my Chilean collaborators Máximo Corvalán-Pincheira (whose work was at the Space to Dream – South American Art exhibition at Auckland City Art Gallery in 2016) and Macarena Campbell-Parra.

Our driving vision was contact – contact with other artists in different parts of the world. We created three parallel projects. The first involved making a series of envelopes, each co-created by five artists from different countries. Each envelope was a hand-made work of art, filled with miniature art works and blank papers for the next recipient to work on. Each participating artist kept something they wanted from the envelope, contributed something that documented or captured their own place in the world, and then sent the envelope on.

Fourteen envelopes have now travelled to all continents of the world, evading border closures and inciting collaboration across countries. The ultimate destination of the envelopes is with Máximo in Santiago, envelopes that have travelled between Iceland, Mongolia, Johannesburg, the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Sea, the Canary Islands, UK, Sweden, France, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Japan, the US, Brazil, Korea, Russia, Finland and many more places.

Máximo and I had long conversations about the ethics of using the post during a global emergency – and we decided that yes, art-making and creative collaboration is an essential service.

In times like this, it is urgent that artists can make new work together despite near-impossibility. This urgency lies in the fundamental practice of shared imagination and creative exchange as ways to ignite hope and connection, for artists to stand together across the world, to resist dictatorial power-plays that can be inflamed in times of emergency.

The second part of the project involved sending the same digital map to more than 50 artists and asking each of them to make an artistic intervention into it. We now have a large collection of these maps from artists across the world, which we’ll exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santiago later this year, and in a linked online show with New York-based NZ artists Kate Stevenson and Chris White of DotDot Studios.

The third part of the work involves performance workshops (some over Zoom, some in satellite-events), where artists in different time zones and continents work with the same creative ideas, and share creative material through uploading videos, photos and sound files to a single drive. We have titled this work Language is an Intangible Bridge.

We can’t truly know what another is experiencing in all our different cities and spaces, but we can stand beside each other to recognise creative practice as an essential form of cultural work – as an essential service. In times of global crisis, such collaboration and experimentation brings people together to recognise that while we may be separated by border closures, we can continue to draw strength and inspiration from our ability to rewrite worlds through imagination and artistic form.

Dr Longley is a speaker at the University of Auckland’s Raising the Bar event which is taking place in pubs and bars around the city on April 20. She will speak on Making art across time, space and borders at the Dice & Fork in Victoria Street. Free tickets are available here.

Dr Alys Longley is Associate Professor of Dance Studies in the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries, University of Auckland.

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