COVID-19 and the Creative Process(es)

Lori Waxman

by Evan Carter


New Art Examiner: How are you doing?

Lori Waxman: Like most of the families I know, we are all exhausted and it's crazy, but we’re spending more time as families than we ever get to. There is a lot of good in that.


NAE: So you just wrapped up a semester of teaching?

LW: Yes. Classes are done, such as they are, but they've extended the grades deadline at SAIC to try and help as many students as possible complete the semester. So we are still grading for a few weeks. I like it. I'm kind of sad the semester is over actually.


NAE: Was teaching online a big adjustment or was it a fairly smooth transition?

LW: It was a huge adjustment, but it also was pretty smooth. I am not a technologically apt person. I have a flip phone. But I teach art history as opposed to studio art, and it does transfer. The kind of class I was teaching is a lecture with slides. I just kind of shuffled and tweaked a couple things, and I made some more participatory projects and discussion forums online. It’s the basic stuff that you can you do for this kind of class. It’s been fine.


NAE: How would you asses the larger cultural moment right now? What have you been thinking about in terms of cultural shifts in of the country and the community?

LW: I'm not looking more than one week forward at a time. I find that I am stopping myself from doing that because for me it's futile. It's fruitless. Who the [bleep] knows, so why am I going to expend my energy trying to imagine what there will even be in the middle of the summer?... I'm not able to do half of my normal work, which is review exhibitions, because there aren't any live exhibitions going on. The [Chicago] Tribune is not taking freelance writing, and I'm technically a freelancer. If I were a staff writer, I'd probably be reduced to covering whatever form of art is still being released online. I mean, there are online exhibitions happening and that sort of thing, but it's not the beat I'm being given, so I'm not really paying attention to it. I don't really want to look at a screen anymore. Even though I realize it's a massive lifeline right now, and it's how my kids are learning, and it's how I'm teaching—but it's so much screen interface. I have to stop it there. So, I’m not engaging beyond that.

The most useful thing for me has been to try and get all historical on this. Whenever I see something about the 1918 Spanish flu, or the bubonic plague, or all the various pandemics of the past, I read them. Or I’m like, “Give me something on World War II and Jews in hiding for two years!” I find that very helpful in terms of perspective and an understanding of the cycles of trauma and seclusion and fear… that human civilization has gone through. And then I can try and just relax into it and realize what luxury our version of that is so far. And not worry too much, even about my kids losing half a year of school or a year of school, if that's what it turns out to be. I mean, nobody went to school in war.


NAE: Looking to history seems like a great approach that I don’t hear too many people putting into practice. I mostly hear people coming up with ways to cope that responds to their immediate situation, and technology plays a big role in that. You are pointing out that technology can be exhausting, which I think is true. Do you have a critique for the approaches that you see playing out on a mass scale in addition to maybe look at history more?

LW: I don't really want to go critiquing whatever anybody is doing to get by.


NAE: Fair enough.

LW: It’s more about figuring out what is sustainable on a day-to-day and on a long-term basis for me and my family. And I know that I can't look at a screen all day, and I can't tolerate screens being on in my environment all day. It depresses me massively,because I am already screen-phobic. I have these fears that predate the pandemic, of reality being reduced down to two dimensions, like all facets of reality… I've had to ease up on some of that right now, because that is what we have. My kids are getting two-dimensional teaching, and it is working. I'm grateful for it, but I'm going to try not to give into it more than I have to right now. And I worry about that in the long term. I worry about us coming out of whatever and whenever the other side of this is and being so used to two-dimensional experience and so fearful of touch, everything tactile, and dealing with people outside our very immediate environment. That would be the other reality. That is my great fear.


NAE: Would you even be interested in reviewing or writing criticism of shows only seen online or on screen? Would you be willing to do that or do you do you draw the line there because it's not a full experience?

LW: I'm willing to do it if this goes on long enough. I will probably start up a new version of this performance project I've been doing; the “60 wrd/min art critic.” I'll do one for postponed exhibitions, and it will be anything anybody feels should have a review right now, except the show isn't happening. But the work is done, and they can send me some digital version of what they want reviewed. I will do it from the safety of my own home. It will all pass through the digital interface, because the project is already a lot about making do and getting by. There is always a deal that’s made. For example, I’ll review a lot of artists, so you get a review, but you get less… I’ll review a lot of art still, but it's going to all be digital because that's all there is right now. There is always this question, “Is it still worth it? It is still worth something?” So it'll be a new version of that question. Can worthwhile criticism still be generated in this temporary situation? We will see.


NAE: With your class on walking and your recent book it seems fair to say you are an expert on the culture of walking. Can you comment on how that particular form could be interpreted differently through this lens of diminished public engagement?

LW: It turned out to be a really nice class to do remotely, because there are a lot of art historical works on walking that anybody can recreate. There are a couple of days during the semester when I have my students recreate them. So when I was translating the course to be remote, I looked through my whole archive of walk scores, and I rejigged a [bunch] of them so that they could be done in the students’ apartments or in a safe way outdoors. I was able to give them all these walking projects to do, providing them with prompts and experiences to have, even despite the restrictions right now. Also, everybody's walking now. I mean, if you can get outside of your house pretty much the only thing you can do is go for a walk. So there have been all of these articles appearing in the newspapers about walking. Which is great for me and also hilarious. A dance critic in The New York Times has written a piece on walking, watching everyday people perform this new choreography of skirting other people. It is choreography. It has a whole new register temporarily. I've certainly been talking to my students about it.


NAE: Have you heard anything interesting from the students that stuck with you about their experiences? Have they expressed how they feel about walking, taking your class, and dealing with the public situation?

LW: The taking of the class has always made students just that much more aware of what it means to walk and different ways of walking. How their own walking can be changed by, like, taking out the earbuds or trying to get lost when you're not using GPS, that sort of thing. And so, they're already really aware as walkers so they've all been noticing this. What I found most interesting was that a few of the women and one somewhat female-presenting male student told me that they are feeling safer lately when they walk, because there's this bubble of germs around you, and people leave you alone. I teach a lot of young women. They are used to being harassed when they go for a walk. They don’t go for walks. Not in the same way. It is as if you have to find an excuse to go for a walk. You have to find a friend to go for a walk. You have to have a prop with you when you go for a walk, like a school bag or something. And it's easing up a little bit, I've noticed.


NAE: I wonder if that would be sustained in any capacity—probably not.

LW: I don’t think so. But for them it’s one of the silver linings that they found.


NAE: It’s sad to see things like [The] 606 [Trail] closed. If people can walk on the street, you’d think that maybe they could open that park up so people can have a refuge as long as they maintain distance. But perhaps I'm being too generous with people's behavior.

LW: I don't think you're being too generous. I actually think the city made a wrong move in shutting down all the green spaces. I remember the day they did it. It was that first beautiful day, and I was on the lakefront thinking, “Oh shit, this is not going to last.” They just shut everything down the next day, instead of realizing they need to do a better job of educating people, and to do that over the next couple months because the weather is going to be… all that weird spring weather. There are only a couple beautiful days ever, but otherwise people do actually need all that space and yes, they're getting jammed together on sidewalks and are desperate for whatever green space there is—which is getting overused. So I think it was short-sighted of them given that this is going to continue. They could have used this time to train us to be safe on the lakefront.


NAE: Are there any other things that you think this situation has revealed whether it be cultural or political? What are you thinking about that's really risen to the surface in this cultural moment?

LW: Beyond the president being an absolute and complete idiot? But we knew that already…

I don't know that I've had any wow moments, good or bad. I wish I could say I had. Bill Gates predicted this a couple of years ago. I read a lot of dystopian fiction. I read Severance a couple of months ago. It's basically this moment. It’s a very good novel, but I’m not reading any more dystopian fiction for a while. I think about this stuff normally in a very abstract narrative way, and now here it is, and I'm just not surprised. Looking at some of these historical moments, we've been kind of overdue for it. We are just woefully unprepared on a national structural level. We are also unprepared psychologically and familially in terms of the way our social lives are structured. I mean, my kids lose their [bleep] when the internet goes out.

And people are lonely who are living alone. People don't know how to occupy themselves. I read an interview, early on in the stay-at-home order, with a man who's in his late nineties, a Holocaust survivor who was talking about hiding from the Nazis for two years. And he’s thinking, no, we were never bored, there was this girl I liked, and you have to always have to be on watch, and we didn't have Netflix… And it just gave me a kick in the pants.


NAE: This is something we're all aware of but maybe now it's more palpable that we rely on these creature comforts that, though valuable, can still stifle resilience or adaptability in the in a situation like this.

LW: One continually hears that people are actually quite resilient and adaptable, children especially. I both believe this and don’t. On a day-to-day level, in contemporary times, I think it is nonsense. Make-believe. We wish we were. But I also know that I am being very short-sighted, that resilience and adaptability can take time (and desperation) to develop, to really show themselves. And hey, it’s only been a couple of months. Maybe we’ll turn out to be strong and flexible after all.


NAE: Imagining things are “back to normal,” what would you want to do the most?

LW: I want to let my six-year-old son play freely with his best friend, who lives two houses down the street from us. The other day he said to me, pleadingly, “If we wear gloves and masks, can we hug?” That was my little heartbreak of the day.




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