More than a substitute
In September 2020, on a lazy Sunday morning, I had an epiphany.
In September 2020, on a lazy Sunday morning, I had an epiphany. I was in bed with my laptop, watching one of my all-time favourite poets perform a Zoom reading from her home in the US. Before she came on, a number of other poets read first. One of these supporting poets, also in the US, read his poem into his phone screen, earphones in, while he briskly walked through his neighbourhood. Behind him the dusk light illuminated skeletal trees. Occasionally the camera would move to the top of his head and back down to his face.
There was something about this, the shaky handheld camera and his poem, half-whispered but clear as day, that was absolutely captivating. When the feature poet appeared for her reading (her name is Bernadette Mayer – look her up), she was sitting in her home, looking very comfortable in a multi-coloured patterned kaftan and red headband, somehow commanding the digital room of hundreds of us watching from our own homes.
The epiphany I had was that this moment, lying in bed on Sunday with my laptop, had transformed from a symptom of lockdown blues (at this point I was really struggling to see the point in getting out of bed at all), to an intentional moment of comfort and reprieve, a connection through art with others across the globe. It was a realisation that, when we come to something with intention, rather than out of obligation, we can find a new way into it – there is a possibility of joy.
It sounds corny. It is corny. But I don’t mind. There’s something very special about being able to watch an event take place on the other side of the world that you never thought in a million years you would get the chance to attend. Sure, you might be waking up a little earlier than usual, or staying up late to catch it, but again, this is mitigated by the fact that you can remain in your pyjamas the entire time. Unlike the dreaded Zoom meetings of work where at least some kind of respectable top half is required, watching digital events doesn’t usually require active participation in the same way. It has the added benefit of being a fun event you’ve chosen to attend, not a work obligation.
It’s not just these international events with inconvenient time differences that give us new avenues in online spaces. When digital events are run out of Melbourne, at less ungodly hours, we get greater access to them without having to turn nocturnal.
I am someone who often struggles to sit still. In a live event I become very self-conscious of this fact, and aware that every little fidgety movement is probably very obvious to those on the stage, and those sitting next to me. In the comfort of my home I can embrace physical distractions that help me pay more attention to the event without fear of bothering strangers.
For those of us who took up certain lockdown hobbies to cope last year, knitting or painting, or even cooking indulgent meals, all of these can be enjoyed while watching experts inform and provoke us. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched a panel of intelligent, articulate people speak about culture, politics or poetry while I stood in the kitchen in my tracksuit chopping garlic for a weeknight aglio e olio.
One of the few positives of turning to digital events under COVID-life has been accessibility. For those whose travel is limited already, or who live too far from the city to attend inner-city events in person, digital events can allow for more equal access. Considerate planning, too, means that a digital event can be made even more accessible. Captions and sign language interpreters, considerations for anyone with language barriers, including those in d/Deaf communities, and working to understand how low vision affects digital participation – all of these, to name a few examples, can create an event that is more inclusive. When accessibility considerations become part of the planning of an event from its conception, rather than an extra element to throw in at the last minute, digital events have the capacity to transcend the limitations of the digital. They go from being a consolation prize – an ‘instead of’ event – to one that has been shaped by its form. When all of us – organisers and audience members – become better educated on creating accessible spaces for everyone, these spaces become enriched by their greater inclusivity.
People living with a disability or chronic health issues, and those from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds, have long known how to navigate in-person and digital events that aren’t always considerate of their diverse audiences. For those of us learning this for the first time, we can listen and pay attention to what those in disability activism and culturally inclusive activism, can show us. In Melbourne Knowledge Week – an annual festival of ideas run by the City of Melbourne – there are digital events that allow us such opportunities to listen and pay attention to a range of communities. See, for example, the event Creatives of Colour and our Elders. Run by young people of colour from a range of backgrounds, and with First Nations voices, this event is able to encourage attention and listening, especially by asking white audience members to simply observe. A digital format for an event like this might on the one hand feel like a substitute for an in-person gathering, but by creating an online space, it allows a greater number of people access to observe and learn from the Elders in our community. Technology, too, might allow for better control over whose voices need to be amplified in such a space – we can create a space that clearly marks the audience and observers from the speakers.
Digital events can in some cases augment our sensory experiences too. An event might take place primarily in person, supplemented with a digital element. A Date with Nature, run by researcher Rose Macauley, explores nature’s impact on our psychological health. For those unable to be there in person, we might not experience the exact same nature as those in person, but we can experience a model of engaging with our natural surroundings and learn to apply this in our own lives and environments.
Ultimately, there are always going to be aspects of a digital event that can’t quite capture a real-life equivalent. But by turning to digital spaces as sites of potential connection across previously disparate groups, and as augmentations of what an event can offer, there may be more to gain from them than we might have initially thought. We can critically engage with the digital form, and learn to approach it expansively as a domain of human connection and experience.