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Not a Time for Grand Gestures

Call Centre - Closing Correspondence // 9th September 2020

Julie Tomlin // Katrina Niebergal // Zahra Dallilah // Andrew Wilson

In June 2020 artist Andrew Wilson invited Julie Tomlin, Katrina Niebergal and Zahra Dalilah to contribute to the ACA Call Centre project as Correspondents.

In September 2020, following numerous conversations and written responses Julie, Katrina, Zahra and Andrew came together to reflect on the experience, the challenges of making work at this time, and the Covid-19 lockdown in general:

Katrina: I’ve been thinking about the question of form, of what form makes sense here. It just so happened that we (Andrew and I) were already engaged in this work, which we wouldn’t have consciously called work. Over the last twelve months or so we’ve moved through different forms, starting with email, then a little in person, and then with telephone calls that we are now recording.

I was then thinking about that switch, or that movement back into text, and your transcription of it (for the blog). It’s a loose and fragmentary transcription and, I say this non-derogatory, but it’s not super interested in being a complete reflection.

I was asking - ‘what if I started this project again?’ – ‘what would I know or what would I have done differently?’. I was amused by the idea that we could have just corresponded via text the whole time. None of this is lightning striking or anything but this has been my thinking.

There is so much we do in intonation as well. A lot of the research I was doing last year was looking at the differences between speech and writing, what are the possibilities that each has to carry, and how writing is often thought to be language. But, in fact it is not a language, it is a technology, a technology that reflects and holds information.

So, with our correspondences, I think we’ve been repeatedly opening up and closing back down again, like an accordion!

Andrew: Verbalising our reflections over the phone rather than writing, I think made our conversations much less pressured, which allowed for more spontaneity. Early on Julie, you articulated that you were struggling with your attempts to write?

Julie: Things flowed a bit more than being a struggle would suggest. I think part of it was letting go of the idea of it as ‘work’. Then it was surprisingly easy in that Zahra and I just wrote, and it seemed to hang together. But I think part of that was just stepping back from trying to work out too much of what it was we were doing.

Maybe it wasn’t really a time when you could nail things down to strong forms because everything was a changing pot anyway. It just really felt good to agree on a time to do-some writing.

Zahra: I think it’s interesting that there is an inverse here. How our thinking and writing has moved from conversation to writing and how yours (Katrina and Andrew) has gone from email to conversation.

I was also very surprised about the ease. I guess I wouldn’t have known before we started the extent to which we had been in a verbal conversation before writing separately meant that our writing was a direct conversation with each other.

Julie: You said at one point that there were pieces that either one of us could have written.

Zahra: Yeah, there were entire paragraphs which I thought could have come out of either one of our mouths, and I think that’s a pleasant surprise. But I also agree that it was getting past the point of thinking too much about what we have to create, or what is the product?

I think the way you conceptualized the form Andrew helped us get to that bit. We were liberated in that we didn’t have any expectations.

Katrina: I think it’s also interesting what you said Andrew, that others, other Call Centre artists or correspondents have been unable to make something, or pull something together.

It’s totally fine of course. I don’t mean it as a judgement or something, but it’s interesting in that there are a particular set of challenges.

I’d heard from a friend that - 'now is not a time to make any grand gestures or declarations'. It is, and was, a tricky landscape, just dealing with the ins-and-outs of how we are conducting ourselves right now, how we are a living.

Andrew: We’d also spoken of things that had been made in this period, asking if anything we’d encountered had been any good or not. Perhaps it’s too early to say? Perhaps it relates to the ‘grand gestures’ idea you mention.

Julie: It’s a different set of skills almost. Edging into things, sensing things, it's more liminal. I think it’s not a time for big statements because I don’t think anyone really knows the full impact of what we’ve been through, because we can’t, can we?

I get the impression with a lot of people that it's almost too big now, and yet too small, it’s within the small details of our lives. We’ve gone through something with the magnitude of which we will not know for a long time. So, asking what are the skills needed for that, I think is quite interesting.

Zahra: I just wanted to reflect on the thing of being ‘in’ it versus being ‘out’ of it. I feel like there was a shift for you and I Julie, a point when things had started opening up a little bit. Once you’d moved back to London, we were able to talk about a fixed past-tense, saying this, that, and the other happened, and this is how we experienced it.

I remember early on having conversations about a particular experience of lockdown, which is this very specific period of time where we are all not meant to be going out and doing social things, versus, whenever you want to date it from, say February 2020, when the future of the UK will never be the same again. Do you know what I mean? I think there is a very interesting thing in defining that, in order to process it, or have some sense of how to talk about that moment.

Julie: So, you mean the event of lockdown is kind of manageable?

Zahra: Yeah, it's like I can think about the event(s) of lockdown, but I find it much more difficult to think about or to speak of what is life now.

Julie: I think that is what we don’t know. That’s the thing.

Katrina: I was on this island on the West coast of Canada in the pacific and I could see all these Orcas come up to the beach and rub their bellies on the rocks, and there were also humpback whales in the distance, it was super beautiful. I was staying in a tiny little town, with my two very good friends and their two-year old daughter.

We’d stopped for a coffee and we went up to a farm where there was this honesty box and you’re invited to open up these doors and pick whatever you like: courgettes, eggs, rocket, Russian relaxation tea, whatever you want. And around all of this was now these hand sanitizer pumps. So, I was there with my friend Laura and her daughter Heidi, 2-years old, and when Laura pumps the thing for her hands Heidi is like ‘I want some’. Then a woman who we hadn’t seen was there, out of the blue just says - ‘for a whole generation of children, this is gonna be their memory’ -and we just turned toward this local woman, who was just standing there, observing us.

Those are the kinds of things that I’ve been thinking about the most in this, like what are we going to lose, and what are we going to keep. And what of that is good and what of that is bad, in both.

So, it was just a funny observation that came my way, a little surreal experience that kind of summed up quite a few things, including fears, including a kind of speculative perspective future…

Julie: I’ve been getting obsessed with how many face masks you just see discarded now and you just think ‘gosh more landfill’. It’s everywhere.

Zahra: Yeah, use once – bin it. It’s interesting, what you were just saying Katrina about the experience of a two-year-old growing up in this moment.

I was talking to a friend yesterday who is very hyper, efficient, and an effective person who likes to have everything under control and everything meticulously planned. She was saying that there is a massive part of her soul which just cannot deal with the pandemic because she cannot handle the uncertainty. But in all of the times that she does, she’s learning to hold uncertainty in such a different way than she has historically.

I think it’s fascinating, because I think, so often, that’s the thing that holds people back from being able to conceive of change, or dream, as people are like - ‘I know what I know and these are the things I can control or be certain of’. But when everything is thrown up into the air and we don’t know what next year looks like, we don’t even know what next week looks like, I wonder about the children of this era and what are the deep skills that they are learning.

Andrew: At the same time as this, it feels as though there is also a broad general consensus that this is a blip, a brief moment in time where things have gone a bit wobbly, and it will soon stabilise itself and we will just get back to normal.

Which makes it difficult, if you are thinking about it outside of those terms, which we are trying to do here, where this doesn't feel like it will ever return back to any kind of ‘normal’.

Julie: It reminds me of grief actually. It reminds me of that feeling I had after I lost Mark. The continuity of the world being so intense that you only feel like you are in the shadows because you are operating in this different zone, where you know everything can just break down in a matter of moments. Almost being an outsider looking at the world thinking this is just weird, but knowing that this narrative needed you to be gone, or to recover quickly, or to go through your how many steps really quickly.

It’s interesting because there was a sense of sort-of revisiting that investment in normality. But when that fell apart it’s like wow, I thought in a sense that a big loss was a preparation for that, but there is still something that holds. I think there is a huge thing in us that wants to hold onto some sort of normality. It’s a big narrative, it’s been sustained for a long time hasn’t it, we’ve built cities on it.

Katrina: The difference also being the scale, from a personal rupture or disruption of where the world continues going past and you are unable to carry along, where as in this there is a difference where it happened to all of us and everyone found themselves in this situation.

Zahra: Except, that’s the interesting thing in what you were saying Andrew, actually there was a level of choice where some people chose to acknowledge – ‘ok so this is the end' or 'the beginning of the end’ – and there is a lot of people who chose to believe that this is a blip, and I think the belief in how long that blip will last might vary.

But there is something interesting in this moment where we are still invited to do the ‘carry-on’, to ‘bounce back’, and all of that kind of language. Then there is the underside of it where there are rumblings or collectives of people thinking otherwise.

I resonate with that experience of watching the world go by, being like - ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard but there is a pandemic on?’. I’ve had this moment so many times where I can’t tell if others are pretending because they think I’m pretending; or they’re pretending to convince me to pretend with them; or they are so ok with it that they are not even bothering to pretend. It's a weird air of pretence and denial that we are on much more stable ground than we are.

Katrina: It’s also something that we are discussing all of the time with people that we meet and see right? - again, it’s happening to everybody. So maybe it's about getting onto the same page?

It’s like with each person you have to establish their relativity. Not only comfort - do we hug or not? - but also in terms of how people are collectively and individually perceiving this moment within each daily interaction (now that there are some, and increasingly).

Julie: I think a lot of it is this ‘how is it for you?’ conversation. One friend was saying recently - ‘I’ve been doing yoga everyday’ - and then another friend said - ‘I just drank, for a while’.

It's been interesting coming back to London, I’ve been back a month now and I really think I couldn’t have done lockdown here, I take my hat off to anyone who did, and I feel, in a sense, like I’m having a belated lockdown now because I don’t quite know how to – ‘just get on with it’.

My question is get on with what? - I can’t really remember what it is we are meant to do.


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