Innovative events spaces in times of COVID-19: spring on the balconies, collective representation and technology

Innovative events spaces in times of COVID-19: spring on the balconies, collective representation and technology

People across the world have had to get used to a situation where cultural activity based on collective participation and occupation of public space is suspended. However, culture is still important and people instinctively want to come together to enjoy collective experiences. Frustration and fear of an uncertain future has been converted into creative energy, leading to the emergence of new innovative forms of social action and cultural participation – albeit at a distance.

When the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is over and we learn to live with the virus, there will be time to analyze, in-depth, the new experiences that have emerged during confinement. But there are already examples of immediate responses that are worthy of consideration.

Spring on the balconies in times of COVID-19
Spring on the balconies in times of COVID-19

New event articulations in times of COVID-19

1. Social response to the coronavirus: from the squares to the balconies
In Spain, a fascinating trend has been the way events have jumped from squares and stages to balconies, windows and roofs. New event spaces have been conceived to express and overcome the pain caused by the pandemic. The applause for the health system at 8pm each day has been moving from balcony to balcony, from city to city, an example of collective expression. Alongside the applause, other events including spontaneous concerts by musicians and singers have emerged as a means of supporting their neighbours. The phenomenon of Stay Homas is a good example of creative music-making for community benefit during lockdown. Technology and social networks have been crucial in convening, expanding and spreading forms of creative expression. Experiences like Balconi d’Italia and the crisis surrounding the proposal and suspension of the concert Barcelona, ens en sortirem show the hybridization capacity of these transformations that combine the face-to-face with the virtual, the top-down with the bottom-up, the popular with the institutional.

Stay Homas – The Barcelona viral phenomenon in the midst of a global pandemic

However, citizens have not resigned themselves to the suspension of traditional celebrations: they have, instead, reinvented them from their balconies. The processions Easterin Seville, the casetas the Feria de Abril, or the 75th anniversary of the liberation of fascism in Italy, are examples of how traditional face-to-face celebrations have jumped from the street to balconies to express the desire for continuity and citizenship.

In Dublin city, communal bingo has been a very popular activity, with videos of residents playing the game spreading on social media and encouraging others to follow suit. Meanwhile residential streets have been the scene of many different kinds of organised, socially distanced community gatherings. With all gyms closed, people have gathered on their streets to exercise or dance together; communities have organised children’s art exhibitions outdoors and art competitions staged in windows. Again, social media tools like WhatsApp seem vital in communicating and enabling social activities. In Cork, neighbours in a city terrace have taken to watching outdoor movies in their front gardens, with the images projected onto the gable end of a house and the sound broadcast to their radios. All of these gatherings are localised in nature. They leverage the resilience of residential clusters and aim to build solidarity and encourage communities to believe that withstanding the pandemic is best approached collectively. While there are many examples of creative responses from residents and neighbourhoods the local state has also responded institutionally, impacting on the use of public space. For example, in Glasgow, the local authority has started to explore how streets, in particular, could be conceived differently during the pandemic and what this might mean for how they are used post-COVID. Initially, this has led to the creation of more space for exercise and outdoor activity with some streets now closed to motorised vehicles and the development of new cycle lanes and pedestrian areas. Though these are temporary responses to the crisis of COVID-19, the learning from experiments will no doubt inform different uses of these urban assets in the future (e.g. socially distanced street festivals will need more space).

Dublin street bingo

In London residential streets have been animated with small gatherings and musical performances. These events haven’t happened despite COVID-19 restrictions, they have happened because of them. Adversity and a thirst for sociability have prompted people to come together at a safe distance. Despite the growth of apartment living in recent years, many Londoners still live in terraced houses that face directly onto the street. This configuration of space allows people to talk easily to neighbours either side without leaving their property, whilst also creating a natural amphitheatre for micro performances. People watch from their doorsteps or from upstairs windows, turning streets into makeshift venues. Some small scale events have reached wider audiences via social media coverage: for example this exuberant Tina Tuner impersonation in Bounds Green.

The Guardian newspaper ran a nice piece covering streets in Hackney and Streatham which have organised a range of events including group dances, exercise classes, DJ sets and music performances. These types of events are often timed to coincide with the weekly ritual of showing appreciation for NHS staff which happens every Thursday night in the UK. This communal clap has become an event in itself, particularly the one that takes place on Westminster Bridge which connects the Houses of Parliament to St Thomas’ Hospital.

Perhaps the most visible examples of COVID-19 street events in London occurred during the recent commemorations to mark 75 years since VE Day. There is a long tradition of street parties in London, which are particularly associated with national celebrations and Royal occasions. On 8th May, despite the lockdown restrictions, many households went ahead with planned VE Day parties. Rather than negatively affecting this anniversary, the context of COVID-19 made the events more poignant. As Jonathan Freedland wrote: ‘somehow the quiet made it louder’. Record sales of bunting and flags were reported and the absence of high profile events in central London diverted attention to local street parties with media companies covering these live via outside broadcasts.

There have been some concerns about whether the new breed of local, informal events contravene government guidance and whether people gathering outside their homes actually makes it harder for people to use street spaces in a safe way. But generally, these events have been very positively received: they have lifted spirits and helped people get through a difficult period in their lives. London is sometimes represented as a rather cold, unfriendly and transient city, but the street events we have seen over recent weeks, bolstered by the fact that almost everyone is at home, have helped to build a stronger sense of community and better neighbourhood relations that may endure even when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

2. Events and COVID-19: objects as collective representation in events facing a global pandemic
During the COVID-19 lockdown we have found evidence of other types of transformation consisting of the occupation of public space and collective events by objects of representation. Faced with the prospect of holding sports events behind closed doors, experiences have arisen that fill the stadiums with mannequins or robots that represent the public and even pay admission. In Japan, a graduation ceremony was held thanks to the participation of remote-controlled robots from home by the students. In Dublin also, universities are holding virtual graduation services. Private living rooms are being transformed into liminal zones where graduates become graduates in the physical presence only of their immediate family. Hoteliers in Berlin have spoken out against the closure policy the government has imposed on them by sending their seats to concentrate in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

3. Digital platforms in times of COVID-19: virtual events and streaming concerts
Finally, and perhaps most extensively, all kinds of collective cultural activities have turned to digital platforms for their continuation. Events, broadcast live or on a delayed basis, have made it possible to make cultural content accessible to confined audiences from much broader areas than their usual geographical area of influence. For example, the D’A Film Festival in Barcelona is offered to the public through the Filmin platform, or the We are one: the Global Festival, where the most important film festivals in the world come together, distributed via YouTube. In parallel, a large number of cultural institutions and companies – Teatre Lliure, Circ du Solei, Teatro del Liceo, Metropolitan de New York – have uploaded their content for free on the Internet, as a form of solidarity and to maintain contact with the public.

In the same sense, and even is not confined only to the arts and culture arena, they have been held and produced through multiple concerts and shows cancelled or newly created, using videoconferencing platforms that have become very popular, to make collective cultural products and events from a distance. Thus we have become accustomed to seeing orchestras, choirs and ballets, recorded from the houses of musicians, singers and dancers. An interesting example of how pop music has sought to maintain that collective experience when live concerts aren’t possible is Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties where people are asked to collectively play a band’s album at a selected time and that band then respond to questions, providing information to fans on the context for each song as it is played. They use the slogan ‘Together Apart’ to reflect the communal experience generated.

All of these experiences show a trend towards technological mediation of the events as confinement has accelerated and has reached more areas and people with greater urgency.

4. Implications for the future

The changes to the cultural and events sector produced by the shock of COVID-19 affect producers, consumers and regulators in different ways. The pandemic has implications for the democratic control of networks, the elimination of the digital divide, the preservation of face-to-face collective experiences, the division between the private and public spheres, among others. As researchers, the COVID-19 epidemic generates many questions, particularly for the future of events as the virus continues to affect us all:

The changes to the cultural and events sector produced by the shock of COVID-19 affect producers, consumers and regulators in different ways. The pandemic has implications for the democratic control of networks, the elimination of the digital divide, the preservation of face-to-face collective experiences, the division between the private and public spheres, among others. As researchers, the COVID-19 epidemic generates many questions, particularly for the future of events as the virus continues to affect us all:

  • What will the impact of the COVID-19 be on the routine and special events in a ‘new normal’?
  • To what extent, and for which cultural activities, can technology help us rebuild?
  • What do creative responses to COVID-19 (e.g. balcony concerts) tell us about the need for and nature of collective celebrations?
  • What impact will the emergence of virtual event experiences have on funding and delivery models in the future?
  • How do event organizers interpret the events experienced in times of coronavirus?

Over the course of the next year Festspace will be exploring these questions, but we can already be sure that we will not forget the lived experience of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. The virus has brought untold pain to the lives of people across the world and yet, like in any crisis, it has also produced unexpected acts of kindness, creativity and innovation that will have enduring effects on society and culture. While physical distance is likely to remain for some time, new formats and new spaces have emerged which will help rebuild social life under new conditions. For certain, streets, balconies, terraces, and roofs have been reimagined as spaces of festivity and this opens up many new possibilities for creative expression in our towns and cities.

Categories: Uncategorised

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.