Live, online, in person, from an armchair, or under the rain:
100 different ways to deliver culture and create human connection in the time of COVID-19
At the beginning of the year, we knew 2020 was a stressful one because we’d put together a Salon to look at stress and anxiety with Inspire the Mind’s Prof Carmine Pariante and Prof Catherine Loveday to help us find out how we could manage the stress in our lives. However, this was in January, when we thought we were about to face a normal year, unaware that 2020 was about to reveal its own particular style.
As discussed in my previous blog on InSPIre the Mind, our work at the not-for-profit Salon London hooks up interested audiences with academics, speaker, experts and their ideas, to bring them into our lives to make them better, brighter, more fun, and to equip ourselves with excellent and reliable information so we can make the best decisions we can.
We’d run Salon for 12 years and over that time the subjects that interested our audience was really changing.
Our sell-out Salons used to be the ones where we focused on the wonders of technology, AI or industries of the future, but over the last 3 or 4 years, this has given way — perhaps because of the amount of time we spend with tech — to huge levels of interest in ideas for how to hope to cope with the way we live our lives. In fact, the January Salon ‘The Science of Stress’ was one of the most popular Salons we’d ever done.
So, when we look back at the start 2020, we already knew we were stressed out, anxious, edging towards being overwhelmed before we all started to fumble our way into the year.
For most of us, the subsequent year has brought dramatic change, it’s meant loss for all of us — varying from the huge (losing loved ones, our jobs, our income, businesses and companies) to the intricate scaffolding that holds our lives together, the time spent with those we love, the things we do for fun, the things we have to do to make our lives make sense, and the things we work for — trips, holidays, and travel.
And then there was the fear and misinformation and the U-turns. How on earth are we supposed to keep our mental health together? What had we been told about stress being overwhelming challenges and an inability to control what is coming?
How on earth were we, a live events organisation, supposed to survive? We had a few weeks of blind panic, and more stress — pivoting into a space that we didn’t know would exist, to recreate what we do for an audience we didn’t know.
We became one of the first to deliver our work in the digital space in March but, moving from being together in a packed room to broadcasting from our sofa out to an emptiness, was a completely different way of doing what we did. Audience members came from around the globe — posting in the Q&A boxes how glad they were to see us, to hear us, that Italy, Germany and France were going into something called ‘lockdown.’
We kept broadcasting our Salons and have done over 50 digital events this year, continuing to get helpful ideas to new audiences, and we learned that pre-recorded content doesn’t cut it — it has to be live — we humans need shared experiences — and if we can’t get them IRL (in real life) — we’ll take them on-line.
By August we got the go-ahead to do our 2020 LIVE Festival, normally a couple of thousand people in the field, with beautiful flower dressed tents, shared banquet tables, a disco bunker, a big campfire for all the family to toast marshmallows. All were banned, along with any dancing, singing, choirs, and any inside space whatsoever.
We worked with nine government agencies to get their approval, reduced our numbers to just over 500, set up our own track and trace system, provided private toilets for guests to hire, temperatures were taken on entry, wrist band put in envelopes 72 hours before.
There are three things you don’t want as an outdoor festival organiser, a North wind, torrential rain and freezing cold. All three arrived Friday night and didn’t let up. And yet the people on stage would not give in and we got to see first-hand how much performers need to perform, how they live for that relationship with the people seeing their work. Many of them found it increasingly emotional as they realised how much they had missed that feeling, as their audience braved the grim weather, refusing to give in either.
As I walked around the festival site early the next morning, I wasn’t expecting anyone to still be there after a freezing night under canvas. Instead, I nearly cried for joy when I saw the morning 5k runners come back from their — socially distanced — run — ‘we’re going round again’ one said to me — ‘great for keeping warm for the day’.
The whole experience brought home to me how essential human interaction was — how much people needed to be together for shared experience — and how we, as humans, will put up with a lot to get it.
We watched as people ‘self-medicated’ themselves back to better levels of health and mental health with nature, with being together — even at a distance, with music, and even dancing in their tiny household groups.
It’s clear that the need for meaningful human interaction is essential in dealing with stress and for our mental health and yet is something that has been in such short supply in a year that, for many of us, is already overloaded.
Where are we now?
We’ve learned so much and we know we’re not going back into a packed room any time soon. So, instead, we’ve really made building community on-line the focus of the stuff we’re delivering digitally, and a big part of this is our Digital Twixtmas festival, taking place between Christmas and New Year. And Inspire the Mind is our guest, as we will interview the Editor in Chief, Carmine Pariante, in a special session available for free to anybody who connects.
As much as we can, we’re bringing people together, to share an experience (albeit digitally), to chat, do something practical together (cooking, joke-writing, whisky tasting) and to learn something new. To that end, as part of the festival, we’re doing three events about processing the year and making them freely available to everyone.
We’d love to see you there.
Register to our Twixtmas festival here.