A popular coronavirus meme floating around online this week went something like this: “As we self-quarantines from coronavirus, we spend much of our time watching movies, reading novels, and listening to music. This is a reminder that, in times of crisis, we turn to artists.”
But that’s only partly true. A better aphorism would be: “In times of crisis, we turn to technology to give us access to artists’ content.” Especially now, we’re not going to the town square to hear a poetry reading or a live music performance. Instead, we’re downloading ebooks from Amazon and logging into Netflix.
That could be the end of the story, but it’s not. Technology is also bringing back the proverbial town square itself, giving us virtual meeting places where we can interact with artists in real time. This technology has existed for a while now. Skype was launched in 2003, FaceTime in 2010, Facebook Live and Instagram Stories in 2016. But I’ve never before seen such an explosion of enthusiasm, among artists and audiences, to join together in virtual town squares.
On March 25th, for example, while working from home, I jumped into a virtual town square for the inaugural Apocalypse Salon. Hosted by futurists Rachel Haywire and Brittney Mickel, Apocalypse Salon was a gathering of artists and thinkers on Zoom. The performances included a poetry reading by Sarah Fletcher, a philosophical talk by Raven Connolly, a talk on survivalism by John Schattke, and a short film by Mac Vogt.
“It’s the quarantine party of a lifetime,” Rachel wrote on Twitter. “Welcome to the very first Apocalypse Salon. We are pretty much over capacity, but so are the hospitals.”
As someone who’s followed Rachel’s work for a while (see my recent interview with her about art, politics, and futurism), I knew she’d pull off something unique and truly right for the moment. I wasn’t disappointed. More to the point, the event seemed like the perfect blueprint for artist gatherings in the year 2020, during a time of quarantine or otherwise.
Each presenter had 10–15 minutes to hold the stage. After each presentation, everyone chimed in with a few words of praise or appreciation and at least a few people clapped. The level of in-the-moment engagement from a group of strangers was genuinely impressive, even heartwarming. Then Rachel would jump in to introduce the next speaker. Aside from a few minor sound issues, the entire event ran smoothly with a real sense of connection.
At one point, audience participation came into play when the roundtable host Shane Bugbee asked if there is such a thing as dangerous art. And if so, what is it? I was fascinated to hear the variety of thoughtful answers to the question. The response by artist David Austin caught me off guard: “Dangerous art is that which makes you hate yourself.” Everyone else spoke about dangerous art in terms of challenging norms. But that particular response challenged the norm of the group. It gave us all pause. I liked it.
Apocalypse Salon is slated to be an ongoing event. If you follow Rachel Haywire on social media, you’re sure to hear about future installments. But Apocalypse Salon is far from the only game in town. Podcaster Collin Morris recently held “the first Existential Dance Party” in a Zoom room. Nearly every independent musician I follow on social media has held some sort of a live show on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, performing everything from The Beatles to Big Rock Candy Mountain. Recently, The New York Times featured interviews with a number of novelists who are planning to launch books and connect to readers through Zoom and other digital platforms. At least for the foreseeable future of mass quarantine, this is definitely the new normal for all artists, even those connected to major publications and legacy media outlets.
I don’t usually quote Deepak Chopra, but he recently described this current moment — the moment of the Apocalypse Salon rising — quite beautifully. On the Recode Decode podcast, Kara Swisher said to Chopra, “Talk about what you think is the most important, positive thing you see happening right now.” Chopra responded:
“If ideas, emotions, and creativity do not respect boundaries, and our technology is showing us that, then the collective harnessing of ideas and creativity…can transform the world. I am a big fan of what is called emergence and I think this is the way emergence happens. … Water is an emergent property of two gasses that are actually inflammatory, hydrogen and oxygen. So…creative emergence happens when you bring together maximum diversity of skills but also disciplines. Science, technology, art… You bring them all together. You have a shared vision. … You connect emotionally and spiritually. You have a totally open, transparent feedback loop from the world. And you are open to even bizarre ideas you incubate together as groups online… And emergence happens.”
Put another way, in times of crisis, we turn to technology to collectively harness ideas and creativity to transform the world. Welcome to the age of the Apocalypse Salon.