The Year of Living Separately

Distance defined much of what culture we could experience in 2020


While 2020 ends, the story of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the arts and culture is hardly over. We are wired to believe that a flip of the calendar signals change. But the reality is that we won’t understand, let alone quantify, the true impact of the pandemic for some time to come.

One thing we know — 2020 was the year we all lived separately. And distance continues to define our lives now. Distance certainly defines much of what culture we can experience.

Two considerably talented Austin dancemakers brilliantly captured our sense of life lived distantly — and gave me some of the best arts experiences I had in 2020.

Jennifer Sherburn staged “Elsewhere” with dancers performing inside a house while a tiny audience was invited to observe from outside, and we were mask-wearing voyeurs creeping around in the night. And though city officials shut-down Kathy Dunn Hamrick’s pop-up on-the-water dances, she nevertheless staged them guerrilla style. From the shore of Lady Bird Lake, I watched as dancers, each on an individual floating platform, move through through lissome, meditative sequences — and I watched the sheer delight of passersby.

Phillip Neimeyer, under the auspices of his Northern-Southern gallery, gave us three outdoor exhibitions perfectly scaled, deftly in tune for a crisis that both isolated us and gave us new expanses of time in which to roam alone. Both “Left in the Leaves” (impressively launched just two months after shutdown) and “No Outlet” had us wandering around town looking for subtle art installations. And the backlot of a scruffy, unoccupied commercial building made for a perfect exhibition setting for a solo outing by Sterling Allen.

We had the time to go looking for art.

Sara Fagan
A miniature sculpture by Sarah Fagan made of found objects and installed in wall at a dead end street as part “No Outlet,” a project by Northern-Southern Gallery.

Perhaps author Stephen Harrigan described it best, noting that in our separately lived lives, time became strangely elastic. “There’s the sensation of time speeding up and slowing down at the same time,” he told me when we emailed in April. Harrigan was one of the first people we got in touch with for Social Distances, a story category we created to capture the tales of how our creative community continues through a prolonged crisis.

We found Yuliya Lanina making paintings for frontline healthcare workers, Laurie Frick contemplating the sudden abundance of deadline-free time and Meghan Shogan of Vault Stone Shop setting-up walk-by window exhibits — all stories by Barbara Purcell.

Lauren Moya Ford found relief from crisis fatigue in an exhibition curated by Los Outsider who found a way to bring nature’s therapeutic force into the gallery. And she found out how roving photographer Bryan Schumaat re-trained his lens closer to home in the pandemic.

Cindy Elizabeth, "Boy flys into Givens Pool, Austin, Texas." 2019. Digital photograph. @Cindy Elizabeth
Cindy Elizabeth, “Boy flys into Givens Pool, Austin, Texas.” 2019. Digital photograph. @Cindy Elizabeth

Schumatt’s was one of several visual essays we published this year. Combining the intimacy of portraiture with the spontaneity of street photography, Cindy Elizabeth captures the essence of historically Black communal spaces in East Austin. Jessica Gritton is a trans woman processing her transition through cross-stitched artwork. Hope Mora’s “Pecos” is an ongoing photographic series offering a more nuanced picture of a rural town in the American West.  And Leon Alesi’s profound Proximity Series captured the economic inequities, gentrification and a disappearing sense of place that’s ravaging Austin.

Leon Alesi, “West Monroe Street, January 23, 2020”, Archival inkjet print, 12”x18”. ©Leon Alesi
Leon Alesi, “West Monroe Street, January 23, 2020”, Archival inkjet print, 12”x18”. ©Leon Alesi

Mark K. Cantrell tackled tough topics such as how local museums rushed to release statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, yet left many feeling that the effort was incomplete. Cantrell also wrote about how Pease Park Conservancy proved it was ahead of many cultural organizations producing a community-informed interpretive plan that confronts the park’s fraught history with enslavement.

The pandemic and social unrest upended how we live within and what we need from the built environment, and writer Penny Snyder brought us the first of a series that will track how architects and urban thinkers are re-understanding and re-imagining cities.

Distance, and also the digital define the arts during the pandemic.

A little over a month after shutdown last spring, the Fusebox Festival did a fast pivot, creating an engaging digital stand-in for its live event, a weekend livestream that captured the appreciation of our critic Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel, who joined our roster of contributors in 2020.

Also new to our writers roster Trey Gutierrez saw a volume of virtual theatre, appreciating shows like “La Ruta” and “poolboy00,” both from the University of Texas’ Theater and Dance program, for their embrace of the digital realm.

Big Medium move its Creative Standard artist talks and career workshops to well-produced versions online, along the way building a digital archive that demonstrates a diversity of talent. And its all-digital, citywide Austin Studio Tour of 420 Austin-based artists and collaboratives featured through 2500 works or art set up a big tent of talent when the act of coming together, in any form, was badly needed.

It’s interesting to note that smaller, less entrenched arts organizations and initiatives have proved the most creatively, and proactively, responsive. Large, traditional organizations stayed with what was traditional for them.

Nevertheless there were some extraordinary exceptions.

Texas Performing Arts partnered with Fusebox Festival to create a new production residency program that gave financial and practical assistance to locally-based performing artists. Such an initiative represented something beyond badly needed immediate and direct support for Austin dance-makers and theater-makers. It represents a kind radical re-thinking about the arts eco-system both within the emergency presented by the pandemic, and also how a major organization like Texas Performing Arts can serve its local artistiic community in the creation of new work.

Austin Opera also broke ranks with the tradition-bound nature of its art form. Thanks to a visionary $1 million donation from champion patrons Ernest and Sarah Butler, Austin Opera joined forces with Houston Grand Opera to co-produce and present a slate of new made-for-film opera performances. A slate of short contemporary operas were screened in a delightfully fun manner at Blue Starlite Drive-in. But it wasn’t just the fun of the offbeat drive-in setting that made these shows so impressive. The films were skilfully produced, their casts deftly handling a new (recorded) performance medium, a carefully curated repertoire right in size and tone. It was an often traditional art form ingeniously re-inventing itself and going forward in an unpredicted set of circumstances.

The story of the arts and how they adapt to and weather through the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have no definitive end. Likewise the time of living separately. Let’s hope 2020 represented the nadir of culture at a distance.

Austin Opera drive-in
Austin Opera at the downtown location of Blue Starlite Drive-in, atop a parking garage at San Antonio and West Third streets.


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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