Amid Crisis, Is There Room For The Creative Process?

FEATURE
From eco-anxiety to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, millennial and Gen Z creatives know the feeling of constant panic all too well. As catastrophe surrounds us, it’s time we rethink what it means to make art.
Back in 2012, when the collective consciousness around climate change was a combination of myth and blockbuster, a group of scientists were, unknown to most of us, contemplating how to change our atmosphere from the very skies themselves. These were geo-engineers, men who wanted to spray sulphur dioxide into the ozone and dump iron in the ocean to somehow fix things. Some of these were just ideas, some became action, and some of that action did change our climate. Yet we had little to no idea that the earth we were growing panicked over saving was being tinkered with as a curious Bill Gates-funded experiment.

This is often how I feel about the constant panic that seizes many millennials and much of Gen Z. As we experience anxiety and helplessness over how something terrible always seems to be happening, with little in our control to stop it, small groups of people are quietly shifting gears that could fundamentally change the ever-present state of crisis. They succeeded, it turns out, by making it worse.

Underneath it all are 20 to 30-somethings, suffocated by the weight of the world’s tragedies that they are either directly impacted by or feel deeply for. We’re distracted from doing anything about them because there are work emails that need responding to, industries that need disrupting and economies to gig. When it comes to the climate crisis, the American Psychological Association, along with a number of psychologists and support groups, have gradually begun attaching the term “eco-anxiety” to these feelings.
As we grapple with a public health crisis of a different nature, the medical bent of the term evokes unease. Concepts of eco-anxiety have manifested themselves arguably in different terminology for years before the current mainstreaming of the climate crisis, so it’s hard to blame them for how eerie it feels to create yet another condition to suffer from amid a literal pandemic.

Above all, it’s safe to say that anxiety doesn’t sufficiently describe what we’re feeling. “Personally, I have experienced anger and grief more so than anxiety or fear,” muses writer and educator Esther Vincent Xueming, who edits the eco-conscious journal The Tiger Moth Review.

I spoke with Esther before the throes of a global health crisis took a firmer hold, but revisiting the conversation still feels relevant. Amid immediate concerns to keep our lives and health in order, it is becoming necessary to harness our ability to cope in other ways besides survival. “My poetry and creative work give me purpose and meaning, and shines some light on the growing darkness,” said Esther, expressing the possibility of shifting towards finding meaning beyond present struggle.

Much of this struggle feels situated in our constant need to feel useful and productive, as the stakes of not doing so have been heightened and attached to our long-term survival. Yet as the coronavirus pandemic escalates, the disjunct between needing to do less – by staying home to stem the spread of infections – and the stakes and urgencies of continued production, can be maddening.
Conversations surrounding millennial burnout have been in vogue for some time, and they’ve even expanded from more traditional definitions of the term – namely, that it should occur within the parameters of employment or school, and that it’s in pursuit of institutional accolades – towards an exhaustion with the very state of our world at large. We are going to work, feeling it drain our physical and emotional capacities, and still feeling morally bereft when the day is done. So we email politicians and read articles on the weekends, before it all begins anew on Monday. 

Now that much of our activity has come to a standstill, the more privileged of us aren’t being buffeted from one task to the next. Yet it is hardly a welcome reprieve, when one’s free time feels so directly tethered to another risking their survival. In a conversation with a friend some weeks ago, we expressed one of our deepest insecurities: what if our parents were right, and we should have just become doctors instead?

The creative process, then, is radical in that it seeks to resist this very idea, that there is a way to offer something to a world that seems on the verge of collapse from any number of crises. Imaginations of the anthropocene – an era defined by humanity’s impact on the environment – have risen to prominence in arts scenes across mediums and forms. One of the most popular, Grimes’ explosive album Miss Anthropocene, released in February 2020, diverges stylistically and emotionally from another, the duo Funeral Lakes’ self-titled meditative record from December 2019 on natural disaster in Vancouver. Yet they emerge from a similar space: of sitting with a world in crisis and attempting to make something of it.

Faced with the current threat of a pandemic, artists continue to keep at this endeavour. Marion Wilson, a visual artist based in New York who has been diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease, told Hyperallergic that in her restricted circumstances, her imagination nevertheless “kept expanding”. “Unable to travel to my studio, I [began] to look around my house for supplies. First, there are all those herbs that I am taking for my immune system, then there are the spices, the teas – and suddenly my bed is my studio table.” 

The Tiger Moth Review, which curates and edits submissions from around the world, has its gaze similarly fixed on what can be done with what we have, as dire as the circumstances may seem. To this end, Esther told me that the submissions she receives tend to be a healthy mix of both optimism and pessimism. “People are still hopeful,” she reflected, “They still remember and want to believe in a more beautiful, bountiful version of the natural world.” The collective vision of editing and publishing submissions, ranging from odes to trees in Singapore and Australia to the U.S. 45 highway, as well as the co-existence of mediums like photography and poetry, seems to intervene on, and subsequently reject, the idea of the creative process as being solitary or disconnected from real life, even when one creates on their own.
As we struggle with self-isolation and its grip on our creativity, our surroundings are beginning to matter more. More people are taking walks simply to do so, with no other end in mind. In her book How to Do Nothing, artist, writer and educator Jenny Odell describes this experience pre-pandemic. She, too, was preoccupied with our constant anxieties – the subtitle of the book is “Resisting the Attention Economy” – and finds much of her refuge in investing attention into the ecosystem around her and witnessing how seemingly separate moving parts actually rely on one another to exist. That even when she is by herself, she is hardly ever alone.

When I asked Esther about her creative process, she too emphasized that her surroundings were important to the endeavour. “My process has been to use the physical and sensorial entering of a place as the point of departure,” she said, “to discover and arrive at what the poem wants and needs to say.

Letting the process itself take the lead, rather than the forces that surround it, seems like a simultaneously comforting and harrowing task. It feels disingenuous to pretend that creativity isn’t under pressure to seek an outcome that is legible to capitalism, even amid crisis. Several creatives on social media have been berating themselves for not using their time better as they stay home, attempting to keep up with massive influxes of news and information while staying sane in the process. Taking up a craft to fill the time is never as simple as it seems; a new hobby has to be a side hustle, worth little unless it can provide some sort of financial support or career advancement. 

Ultimately, seeking to make something, anything, while being subjected to constant existential chaos – from lost jobs to the potential of a lost ecological future altogether – is saddled with any number of pressures. These have been amped up in recent weeks, but they’re unlikely to disappear even after the current crisis subsides. What we can hope to gain by pushing through, then, isn’t the next King Lear. It might not even be something that leaves your drafts. Instead, it could simply be a small mercy, for yourself or anyone else.