Gone Virtual: Taking Our Creation Practice Online

FEBRUARY 27 2020


On Monday, March 9, we entered the Meridian Arts Centre to begin the first day of a 3-week creation residency supported by TO Live.

On Friday, March 13, we received an email at 6:55 PM from TO Live announcing the suspension of performances and events at all their venues until Sunday, April 5.

We weren’t (totally) devastated. We were (somewhat) prepared. 

We had already discussed the health risks of continuing to meet. We had held our own meeting that Friday afternoon. As the convenor / person whose responsibility it is to make calls like this, I had already announced that we would no longer continue the residency in person.  

The only question for us, was whether to go virtual. 

I won’t go into the details of my thoughts that Friday. Previous experience told me to not feel hopeful. But intuition said otherwise. 

Looking back, I am so glad we went virtual. 

The past ten days of the virtual creation residency have been beautifully complicated and simplified by the constraints of the situation. We’ve all had to learn new tools, and create new work flows. We’ve devised hand signals, in case audio fails us. Two fingers flipping a switch means the speaker needs to unmute their microphone. Two index fingers nodding toward each other is our symbol for ‘echo that.’

Daily, we practice patience and holding space for each other. The willingness to be with one another is immeasurable. Throughout each day, we discover ourselves slipping in and out of micro time zones. “Oops, looks like Naeem is 30 seconds behind us.”

“I don’t know if we can make it any more human,” says lo bil, one of the resident artists. “Everyone is so beautifully patient with the time it takes for someone to hear their name, poke forward, unmute themselves, respond, listening to see if they were heard, responding if needed, muting themselves again, and sitting back in their chair again.”

I’m still digesting what it means to create art with non-artists in virtual space. How the work is shaped by the processes, and how it is not. Why it is and is otherwise.

And I’m still looking for ever more ways to imbue these workflows and spaces with more humanity, handmade-ness, heartfelt-ness, playfulness... I’m sensitive to how insensitive / unsensing / immutable the machine space can be. 

Meanwhile, we make up for what the machine space lacks, with what our hearts hold. “I can go to a yoga class,” says Shuhe, “and still, I feel like I am practicing on my own. Here I am far from each of you, but I feel like we are together. It is ‘roomful’ - I feel I am not alone.”

The team has responded to the pivot with generosity and kindness. As we near the end of our creation residency, I hope they will feel the effort was worth it. 

For those who are interested, the two main tools we used to support our virtual residency were: for video conferencing (thank you to Udit Vira for the tip). Audio and video quality is higher than Google Hangouts. I prefer it over Zoom. I have made three rooms on there. If you arrive, and the door is locked, you get to look at the pretty photo that I’ve hung on the wall in the waiting room. There’s no waiting room music (yet), but we’ve gotten in the habit of beginning our meetings with background music (while we wait for everyone to arrive) and always starting with a dance break or body work. for a virtual wall to put up pictures, post-its, diagrams, comments, and other artifacts of a research / creation process. Although they are known as ‘boards,’ we call them ‘rooms’: For daily scrapbooking / tracking of conversations and progress, we use what we call the Main Room. For a specific exercise that required a lot of open working space, we created a Side Room. Sometimes things get lost or misplaced. This is normal whether we are IRL or in virtual space.

“I can’t find the thing I made yesterday... I thought I just saw it.... Maybe it’s actually in the other room.....”

So we have gotten into the habit of cleaning up every day, walking around the ‘rooms’ to tidy up the post-its, mind maps, and pictures. The project assistant makes sure everything is saved each night, and every new creation has its own place (known as a ‘frame’ in Miro-land).

We also use Google Drive, and especially Google Slides. Some of us on the team had already been using these products. Going virtual meant we give tutorials to better support each other. Everyone is now getting used to working with these browser-based applications.

We tried out Jamboard and XMind, but in the end Miro was a better combination of the two, that offered other features and benefits too. 

If you’re exploring going virtual, and feel like you could use some pointers, our friend Udit and his colleagues at Hypha Coop are offering free consultations:

Their next crash course on remote working is tomorrow: Thursday, March 26. The next one after that is Thursday, April 2. More details in the link above. 
© Laboratory for Artistic Intelligence
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