Mississippi River, including part of Jennifer Odem’s artwork, Rising Tables (2017).

We arrived at the Jazz Museum just after eleven in the morning. It was a Saturday and the French Quarter was busy. This wasn’t entirely a surprise, it is a popular area with visitors to the city. Yet the effect was heighted with two festivals in close proximity, RiverFest at the Museum and the Creole Tomato Festival at the nearby French Market. Festivals have become critical means by which cities draw in visitors, revealing or introducing distinct aspects of a place, and limiting any singular version of that place. Here, in the growing crowds between these apparently unrelated events, we became aware of the ways in which a relatively small area of a city can be simultaneously framed by quite different festivals at the same time. We noticed an echo between the independent stalls that were gathered together in the covered French Market, and the independent festivals situated in the French Quarter. 

RiverFest celebrates ‘the cultural, economic, environmental & inspirational impacts and contributions of the Mississippi River to the Crescent City.’ (https://www.nolariverfest.org/river-fest). This was the eleventh year of the festival, a day-long event which included ‘live music, presentations and panels, walking tours, delicious local food vendors and a full bar, and more’ (Ibid). The festival brought together practices and perspectives on the river. While it was held at the Jazz Museum, and while this year the theme was the Delta Blues, the remit of the event extends beyond music alone, speaking to the multiple ways in which the river is understood in the city and the Gulf South. Set just a short distance from the river’s edge, the Museum is well placed to welcome inhabitants and out-of-towners to gather and reflect on the Mississippi. 

This was the first festival we had spoken at in the city, and we were pleased to have a chance to share our emerging research with the public. As we set up for our talk, we watched the arrival of performers who had launched RiverFest at Jackson Square, before leading a ‘second line’ to the Museum gardens below us. We were struck by the contrast of setting up our Powerpoint in a top floor room, while below, the Treme-Lafitte Brass Band, the N’Awlins Baby Dolls, and the Original Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians gathered at the outdoor festival stage below. Close by the Museum and festival entrance, a crawfish boil was being set up. Audience members arrived in the room, we chatted a little, time ticked toward noon, and we turned away from the window to begin. 

The Treme-Lafitte Brass Band, the N’Awlins Baby Dolls, and the Original Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians at RiverFest

Our talk focused on artistic and everyday practices of ‘living with water’, a phrase that has become increasingly familiar in academic literature and professional practice. There is something positive, possible about ‘living with’ water, although we are aware that life ‘with water’ is not always so positive. Relatedly, in the talk, we noted the interest in blue/green architecture and design, in which places are increasingly being developed or adapted to manage water, to slow its course, and limit flooding. In this context, we introduced and reflected on ways in which artists in the city, and everyday practitioners of the city, have helped advance understandings of living with water in the metro area and in Greater New Orleans. 

From venues such as Music Box Village and Studio in the Woods, to artworks including Rising Tables and Float Lab, to everyday negotiations of water, and water management strategy, we considered ways in which people in the city are revealing new means of understanding, practising, and managing water. While we framed our work in terms of water, rather than the Mississippi alone, the work of preparing the talk allowed us to discover and trace the significance of the river to our forthcoming book as a whole. We made a note to look for other such aspects of the city and region that exist in the emerging book but that aren’t mapped in the list of chapters. 

In conversation with participants after the talk, we discussed the ways that the arts addressed the pandemic, we considered the limits to definitions of the city, and spoke of the value of thinking about New Orleans in the context of the Delta, region, and state. We shared our concerns about any use of the arts to appear to ‘fix’ resilience challenges, pointing more to the ways in which arts practice may reimagine challenges, and the ways these understandings can be placed in productive dialogue with resilience initiatives. Time moves quickly and soon enough we’re back outside, amid the music and dance of the garden. We’re grateful to the organisers of RiverFest for programming our panel and to our spectators for their generous reflections on the work. 


“Who folks do trust and hold in esteem and look up to for social guidance are the artists and culture bearers—the people in the community who make music, who make Indian suits, who are chefs and culinary artists or poets, spoken word artists, singers.”  (Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, our emphasis)

On the evening of Tuesday 6th June, we strolled from our apartment in the Warehouse District to Catapult, a multi-arts and incubation space on St Ferdinand Street, where the Marigny meets the Bywater. A warm, sunny evening with the threat of rain seemingly passed, we were pleased to be walking. Our two-mile route paralleled the curve of the Mississippi and skimmed the edge of the French Quarter, and while we passed businesses and bars, we only caught glimpses of the river’s edge; the city seemed quiet, the streets fairly empty. This was reflected back to us the next day as ‘the great exodus’ having begun – some folks annually vacate the city in the summer to avoid the most intense heats.

Despite the quietness of the streets, a crowd of 20–25 arts and indigenous cultural leaders, organisers, and cultural advocates have gathered at the venue for our event: ‘Pandemics: Performance as Response and Refamiliarization’. The event began casually, through the breaking of bread and sharing some wonderful food from a caterer called 1000 Figs. As people make up their plates, wise words from the then Director of the CAC Neil Barclay shared with us on the first day of our first trip in 2018 come back to us: that food is essential when gathering people together in New Orleans.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit New Orleans hard, the consequences and aftereffects of it are still being processed: despite the pandemic being declared ‘over’ by the WHO, it is of course still a lived reality for many in this city (and globally). It is not over in anything but a technical sense, a sentiment that reverberates in the room as we share our research.

In this event, we offered reflections on ways that arts and culture matter in the unfolding emergency of a pandemic. Not least in this, is the way that arts and cultural leaders are very often trusted voices in many communities, especially in New Orleans (as the Eccelsiastes citation above reflects). More broadly, while the pandemic had global impact and changed arts and everyday practices, arts practitioners and organizations turned to face the pandemic in dynamic and meaningful ways with incredible speed.

At the same time, emergency planners globally turned to the Disaster Risks Management Cycle in conceiving their responses to the crisis. But, we suggest, the neatness of the ‘Mitigation – Preparedness – Response – Recovery’ cycle fails to account for the complexity of lived experience in a given place, at least conceptually. This is particularly the case in an ‘extended’ crisis that unfolds over some years.

In the talk at Catapult, we reflected on the ways that the pandemic is not a swift nor neat event that can be easily compartmentalized; ‘response’ and ‘recovery’ in particular are messy categorizations, to say nothing of how we might recognize when we move from one to the other. As such, we need new ways of thinking and new forms of practice in the face of events like pandemics: performance might offer new insights towards this.

Offering reflections on multiple performances that happened in the city responding to the pandemic, we argued that performance and cultural practice offered means of ‘rethinking’ the pandemic (and thus practices of emergency management) and afforded opportunities to think in new categorizations that might be seen to sit across and between those of the DRMC. We reflected on the usefulness of practices that point to the usefulness of Remembering & Reminding, Refamiliarizing & Rethinking.

As organizations and individuals ‘flexed’ with the unfolding of the pandemic, so they offered innovative means of understanding how to live productively within that context. Goat in the Road’s Scavenger Hunt offered means to test what it was to be back on the streets after so long, to refamiliarize the street performance practices so central to life here. The city’s #SleevesUpNOLA vaccination campaign deployed the cultural vernacular of the city to encourage vaccination uptake in terms familiar to local residents. Remembering the city’s cultural performance practices and reminding folk how they might once again be part of daily life. Ashe Cultural Art’s Centre’s multi-form response to the pandemic through public health work, redistribution of food and finances, cultural organizing and performances of place and identity in things like I Deserve It! offered multiple perspectives on the crisis that enabled a rethinking of how people might attend to the complex context at play. In so doing, Ashe, we argued, offered a site-specific performance of place that echoed Arielle Julia Brown’s call for ‘Black site-specific performance artists must think about how to mobilize community, build through creative coalitions, and reaffirm our histories and rights in public spaces’ (2017, 238-239).

All these works offer nuance and a messier understanding of how a crisis unfolds and is managed. It was a privilege to share our research at Catapult, and to converse with a brilliant group of generously critical colleagues from across a range of disciplines, practices, perspectives and communities in the city. In particular we are deeply grateful for reflections on critical issues in the city, and prompts to think further about:

  • Means of documenting cultural responses to the pandemic to network ideas together. How might this reveal the power of cultural networks and map the importance of transdisciplinary practices and thinking?
  • How might we problematise ‘recovery’ as ‘an essential good’, how might we move from recovery to positive, equitable and genuine transformation?
  • Where is the social justice in systems of emergency planning and resilience?
  • How do we account for grief and trauma in contexts of response and recovery?
  • In what ways can we account for and celebrate indigenous practices of medicine making and herbalism in contexts of pandemic response? How might we expand understandings of performance in doing this?
  • In the context of the infinite complexity of the cultural economy of New Orleans, how can we think productively about ‘recovery’ and problematise the neoliberal logics of resiliency in so doing?

Next up: RiverFest, 10th June, 12 – 1pm: ‘At the River’s Edge: Performing Water in New Orleans’

Docville Farm

On Saturday 3rd June, we presented research from our forthcoming book at Docville Farm in St Bernard Parish. Passing through the industrial landscape of refineries, auto shops, and railroads, the lush green of the Farm and the surrounding area is striking. Presenting in a meeting room on the fourth floor of the Farm’s main building, the view revealed new (for us) perspectives on the land, the water and the city – and the interrelation of these.

The event afforded opportunities for discussion and reflection on ideas of performance, place and resilience through the lens of ‘situation rooms’. In conversation with an audience of St Bernard residents, artists, film makers, coastal and environmental resilience professionals, and representatives from the Meraux Foundation’s board, we explored the critical potential for cultural spaces, like Docville Farm, and the Foundation’s St Claude Arts a few miles away, to productively recalibrate understandings of resilience, place, and identity.

For us, Docville Farm is a ‘situation room’ insofar as it brings in information from multiple sources and perspectives, reflects on and processes it, and uses this to make strategic decisions about (and reveal new practices concerning) the interrelation of place, land stewardship, agriculture, water, people, and education. This in turn affords a strategic opportunity to interrogate and rethink the understandings of the relation between ‘the city’ and its near neighbours (especially for Meraux, St Bernard Parish), and of course the Mississippi. In this work, Docville, and the Meraux Foundation more broadly, is staging a long-form conversation and innovative exchange between arts, land stewardship practices and globally important environmental sustainability questions.

It was a privilege to share our research at Docville Fram, and to engage in such a rich and generous conversation about our work in relation to theirs. Next up: Catapult, 6th June: ‘Pandemics: Performance as Response and Refamiliarization’

Conversations with New Orleans: Towards Rethinking Resilience

This June (2 – 11th) we are back in New Orleans to share thinking from the book we are writing on the city, Rethinking Resilience: Performance Practices of Contemporary New Orleans (LSU Press, for submission Sept 2023). We are doing this through 1-to-1 conversations, small group meetings/workshops, and larger public events where we will share chapters of the book to share our emerging ideas with arts, culture and resilience stakeholders and the public.

In coming back to the city, we are hoping to come good on our commitment to move beyond, or at least to avoid inadvertently perpetuating, extractive research practices that have previously been an issue in writing on the city. That is, this work only exists because of our continued ‘conversation’ with the city: engagement, generosity, and challenge from the people and organisations who live in the city we are researching is vital to the work we do and it usefulness in the world.

On this trip we are having conversations at:

Docville Farm: 2nd June, 10.30am – 1pm – ‘Rethinking Resilience: Contemporary Performances of New Orleans’

Catapult: 6th June, 7 – 10pm – ‘Pandemics: Performance as Response and Refamiliarization’

RiverFest: 10th June, 12 – 1.30pm – ‘At the River’s Edge: Performing Water in New Orleans’

Conference Plenary Panel: Resisting Catastrophe: Performances of the Crescent City

American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) conference 2022

Plenary Panel: Friday 4th November 2022, 3.30-4.45pm

We’re looking forward to revisiting New Orleans next week to co-chair a plenary panel of key voices from arts and resilience in the city, for the 2022 ASTR conference, which is being held in the city. We’ll invite our panellists to reflect on the importance of performance to understandings and practices of the city, and we’ll think through some of the challenges of narratives that romanticise and catastrophise New Orleans.

Click here for details of our panelists and here for the conference schedule for the day.

Conversations across St. Charles

On 20th February 2022, we went to the intersection of Girod Street and St. Charles Avenue to watch the Krewe of King Arthur roll by. A little daunted by the aggression of some of the throwing of throws we witnessed on Canal Street earlier in the day, we approached with some trepidation (though Patrick was intent on getting a branded throw for is son, Arthur). As we approached, it became clear that the atmosphere here was much different to that on Canal Street: families were gathered, conversation was flowing and people were helping each other to catch and collect throws.

Crowds gather to watch the Krewe of King Arthur

A few minutes after arriving, we noticed three girls across the street trying to attract the attention of those opposite. Making eye contact, they bounced small bouncy balls across the street when the parade came to a halt every now and again. This became an ongoing means of communication across the space; a silent performance of community, joy and collaboration evolved over the next couple of hours. Hand signals, reaching to catch, eye contact, pointing, occasional vocal calling and much laughing came together to create a conversation between strangers; the girls and (what we took to be) their parents on one side, a slowly rotating/changing group of parade goers of all ages on the other. There was no hierarchy, no competition. The game was inclusive, spontaneous and joyful; participants laughed, feigned exasperation if a catch was missed, and actively looked to reengage one another if the conversation was interrupted by the passing of floats or marching bands.

An elderly couple dance on a balcony opposite our position. They laugh with one another and with those in the crowd who spot them and dance ‘with’ them from the pavement. They, and we, sing to familiar lyrics played by passing trucks or brass bands. These performances create and enact communitas; people are brought together through joyful practices that encode a sense of (perhaps temporary) belonging, equality and understanding. This is an experience of being together in time and space, of being part of something bigger than one’s self. Though perhaps an idealised reading of carnival – and one that needs more critical attention to some more problematic gendered representations of sex, sexuality and race, the performances on Girod and St Charles suggest means of understanding the political potential of carnival beyond its excessive consumption and histories of segregation.

This impromptu community of participants cut a striking difference to the seeming aggression of earlier encounters between parade goers and float riders. The ball game seemed, by design or accident, to enable revellers to participate in the embodied experience of carnival with a greater degree of connection to one another, rather than clamouring for only for the ‘magnificence’ of receiving a particular set of beads, a doubloon or two, or a sought-after handmade gift. This social performance lent weight and clarity to the experience: carnival became visible as an opportunity to connection across race, class and age lines.

Reflections on Travelling

Preparing to travel internationally for the first time in two years, in a global pandemic, has been an anxious time. I have been concerned both about a last minute COVID-19 infection scuppering the best laid plans of this research trip (some 12 months in the planning and execution), and about catching the virus while abroad. The former manifested in self-imposed isolation in advance of the trip. The latter continues to guide how it feels to be in another country, at a busy time in the Crescent City.  

Reflecting on the historical development of airport buildings and importance of architectural design to the embodied experience of travel, geographer Peter Adey argues that historically airports offered means of building and experiencing civic and national identities. He suggests that they held a role beyond their travel function:

Airports were places to not only travel through but places to travel to and, importantly, view from… It is vital, therefore, that the contemporary fascination with such sites should not release the airport terminal from its historical role as builder and purveyor of interest and identity (2008: 44)

I like airports. I have always been struck by the strangely out-of-time experience of them, the potential of the journey ahead, the excitement of travel. This is not to ignore the climate emergency and the problematic role air travel plays in this. And so, arriving at Newcastle International Airport I am struck by the familiarity of the experience: the mundanity of processes and practices of the place, and the way that transitioning through the liminal space of the airport seems ‘in’ my body. The process is like picking up a highly practiced hobby after a long break: I am rusty, but it comes back swiftly. 

The mundanity of the experience and the ease with which I slipped into the practices of the space – belt removing, coin searching, laptop placing, arm lifting, belonging scooping, screen scanning – served to alleviate the anxiety of the build-up. (The negative lateral flow test that enabled me to engage in the practice of airport transition may have helped too, of course). I found a near empty bar, bought a beer, sat by a window overlooking the airport apron and turned to my laptop to work. 

After an hour or so, I glanced up and spotted a bight dot on the horizon. As the plane approached the runway, its wings see-sawed quite violently but the plane landed safely, and I thought little of it. My wife messaged shortly thereafter: “So windy”. I boarded the flight and buckled in; as we taxied for take-off the captain mentioned it was a bit blustery so there may be some turbulence but, in the end, take-off was uneventful and the flight smooth. 

Cutting through the clouds as we came in to land, the mood on the flight changed a little as the clouds darkened and the plane began to be buffeted by the wind. The wheels came down and we approached for landing; the plane was see-sawing and being pushed around. Maybe 15 feet from the tarmac a gust hit the plane and suddenly we were pushed back into the seats, the pilots making the engines roar as we accelerated hard and lifted in a steep climb away from Heathrow.

A sharp bank to the left felt as though the wings were almost vertical (they weren’t, of course) and the turn was prolonged; there was complete silence for a few minutes until the captain’s calm announcement: ‘Sorry about that Ladies and Gentlemen, we got hit by a pretty big gust as we came in to land there and so performed what we call a “missed approach”. We’ll come around now and try again…’ 

I realise how tightly I have been holding the seat in front of me. This was not so much ‘in my body,’ though the experience of it was powerfully embodied: I braced muscles, uncrossed my legs, planted my feet on the floor, pressed my back into the seat, gripped the seat in front of me. The ‘fight’ between the embodied experience and the desire to hold on to the logic of flying as safe and trust in the pilots’ skill was pronounced, particularly when coming in to land the second time.  

Approaching Heathrow, the first time.

The missed approach reminds me how strange it is to be travelling again after more than two years of pandemic restrictions; it asks questions about risk and research travel. It is all too easy to look at research fieldwork in New Orleans, the ‘Big Easy,’ the ‘Birthplace of Jazz’, and think of fun, frivolity, and hedonism. As the Beyond Borboun Street podcast recognises, the importance of tourism to this city means that it is forever at risk of being defined through a particular set of restricted and reductive practices and understanding.  

However, Adey’s argument that airports hold a bigger function than might be first apparent makes me thing about how this is a city that can reveal new understandings of performance and resilience. We have known this since before our first PCR visit in 2018, but Covid-19 and Hurrican Ida have again raised the prospect that New Orleans’ performance cultures afford ways of thinking about place and crisis that can impact understandings internationally. 

Nevertheless, the jet-lagged early mornings (even on day 4 as I get set to publish this blog), asks questions of what the embodied experience of travel might reveal about ways of thinking and being in a place, far from home and catapulted there as such speeds that the body cannot really process it. This then might ask us to be particularly attentive to how we balance the positive impact of our work (we know, for instance, that our research influenced Covid-19 responses in the city) against the pressure is places on our families and on the planet.  

Reconnecting: New Orleans, February 2022

It is February 2022 and we are back in New Orleans to research intersections between performance and emergency preparedness. One of the prompts for this trip, as well as re-engaging in longterm conversations with the city, was our sense that New Orleans has been and continues to be extraordinarily impacted by the pandemic. Indeed, the city feels different this time – businesses that were once thriving and seemed powerfully secure have closed, practitioners have lost their livelihoods and public health has struggled to keep up with the pressures of the virus. Yet, at the same time, as we argue in our interim report Performance and Pandemic Response: Invitations to Innovate, with the #SleevesUpNOLA campaign the city has responded with creativity, skill and performative acumen to the challenge. So, in part, on this trip we are interested to explore New Orleans’ processes and practices of pandemic response.

Families prepare for the arrival of Mardi Gras parades, St Charles Avenue, New Orleans, February 2022.

During our time in New Orleans, we are meeting with arts, culture and hazard mitigation professionals, surveying key sites in which arts and culture bearers have addressed the pandemic and other challenges that have arisen since the last time we were here. We will feed back our findings to colleagues in the city and also in the UK and internationally, to demonstrate specific ways in which arts and culture enable new and vital means of pandemic response. 

As part of our ongoing AHRC-funded project Social Distancing and Reimagining City Life, we expect to publish this work in briefing and policy documents that we hope will inform ongoing responses to the pandemic, and to planning for future responses to public health challenges. Indeed, it was gratifying to hear from the current Hazard Mitigation Administrator, Austin Feldbaum, that our research to date has informed and led to innovations in the city’s pandemic response strategy (conversation with investigators, 18 February 2022).

The work will critically inform our ongoing publications on the city, significantly a co-authored book we are developing with LSU Press to rethink city resilience through performance cultures in the city of New Orleans. In this book, we address the ways that challenges in a city are rarely neatly delineated. Of course, Covid-19 is a major and ongoing frame to thinking about city resilience at this time; but equally, New Orleans continues to grapple with the climate emergency, with underlying ‘stresses’ of race and economic inequity, and emerging ‘shocks’ such as Storm Ida (August 2021) that the city is still actively engaged in recovering from.

Blue tarpaulin protecting the roof of a house in the Treme, New Orleans, February 2022.

We are in New Orleans from 17th-25th February. If you are engaged in thinking through or responding to Covid-19, or other such ‘resilience’ challenges, through arts and culture, emergency or resilience planning, or public health in or beyond the city, and you would like to be involved with this work, we would love to hear from you.

Invitations to Innovate

In case you’ve not yet had a chance to engage with our interim project report, and we wholly encourage you to do so, we thought it may be helpful to distil some key findings from it here. The report focuses specifically on how arts practices in cities can be useful to future pandemic emergency preparedness and response.

Mobile Vaccination Clinic outside O2 City Hall Newcastle, Oct 2021

In the report, we have identified five key emergency challenges that arts are already engaged in addressing:

1. Reach communities in and across a city.

2. Re-work city spaces for safe public access.

3. Engage local populations with key public health messages.

4. Manage perceptions of life during Covid and of vaccination.

5. Connect people to alleviate isolation.

In addressing these challenges our research finds that:

* Covid-19 has underlined the vital role arts practitioners play in identifying and responding to local and city challenges both creatively and at speed.

* The pandemic reveals, starkly, the lack of channels of communication between academics and professionals in the arts and in emergency and resilience management.

* To understand how the arts comprise pandemic response, we need to resist conventional and often simplistic definitions of arts practice.

* Arts venues offer strategic engagements with communities that can be beneficial to sustaining social distancing and communicating its importance at city level; this affords connections and relationships not always available to municipal structures. Emergency planning processes, policy and practice can account for this in pandemic planning and physical distancing strategy.

* ‘Signs don’t work’ but performative interventions in city spaces can. Artists can make strategic, local interventions into city spaces that enable communities to practice social distancing in more sustainable and sustained ways.

* City council emergency planning policy/strategy does not (generally) join up with cultural strategies, missing an opportunity for more nuanced understandings of places in emergency contexts.

* Performance can reveal how places work in the context of their urban politics, as experienced by people in those places; experiences which elude clear articulation in written texts such as, in this context, policy guidance.

* We need more properly to understand signs as cultural artefacts, as a critical part of the place in which they are situated, speaking to people who use that place. We thus we need to develop messaging that directly addresses those people, encouraging and enabling them to incorporate restrictions into their daily experiences and modes of being in the city.

There are more challenges and more means of response – we invite you to share your thoughts on this or examples of interesting cultural practice addressing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic with us here.

The full interim-report can be found here.

Our Crisis Response Journal article can be found at https://www.crisis-response.com/Publisher/Article.aspx?ID=618551.

Project Update, September 2021

It has been a while since we last posted on what we have been up to and what the next steps will be. So, here’s a bit of an update:

From June to August, we conducted research fieldwork in all of our case study cities for our AHRC funded project ‘Social Distancing & Reimagining City Life’ (responding to COVID-19). Having conducted this work in Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle, we wrote and published our initial findings and reflections. A short article for Crisis Response Journal outlined our project and findings to-date. This was distilled from our fist project report ‘Performance as City Pandemic Response: Innovations to Innovate‘.

These publications share our research findings and open up conversations with colleagues from across arts and emergency planning. We are seeking innovative new approaches to cities’ emergency challenges. The work invites new ways of thinking across and between professional practices in arts, resilience and emergency planning. We hope this opens up dynamic ways of thinking through questions of place, the pandemic, and urban resilience.

Ideas from these publications will form the foundations of the next phase of the project: interdisciplinary workshops to develop practical ways of using our research. We’ll work with colleagues across our case study cities, and beyond. Details of these free workshops will be forthcoming in October and early November. If you might be interested to be in conversation with us, please do get in touch. Both the publications are open access and available via the links above, or through our Publications page.

Some other things:

– On 15th October, we are sharing our work to an interdisciplinary audience at Pervasive Media Studio (Bristol). The event is open to all and will be an opportunity for conversation about the work in an open and welcoming environment (online or in-person). Find our more here: https://www.watershed.co.uk/studio/events/2021/10/15/art-and-performance-pandemic-response.

– We are continuing to develop our climate emergency focused Albuquerque project. We hope to be able to share more concrete news on this very soon.


It’s just after eight in the morning on our last day in Glasgow. The early light is greying a little with cloud. On the street below our apartment, a man slips the collar from his dog and it runs on ahead. People are out, walking, cycling, but there are long moments when the streets are noticeably empty. A man walks past at a steady pace. He wears a temporary mask under his chin. We’ve seen this before in our past days in the city, it seems smart, allowing people to raise or lower their masks easily when going in and out of buildings. It is a sign that people are going in and out of places, which itself marks a particular stage in the slow, staggered process of unlocking. It is a trick, a technique, smoothing one’s journey through a city. In contrast, we have become acutely aware that our practice of finding and fixing masks at entranceways resembles something of an operation.

We realise, of course, that this small practice is not likely to be happening only here. We remind ourselves that we see little of the world at present, and that our lives as researchers, our daily understandings of places, and our restricted movement in and between places, will inform our reading of the cities in and with which we are working on this project. While it may be a familiar practice here and elsewhere, that seems likely to reflect the cultures and practices of those places. Chandini Raina MacIntyre et al. reflect on the significance of mask wearing in ‘countries without a culture of mask wearing’ (2021, p.200). In these contexts, they found that ‘negative issues experienced while wearing masks reduced the likelihood of people wearing them’ (ibid. p.205). Practices that reduce these issues may well reveal a route to more-sustained mask use and more sustained engagement with the population-based responses to the pandemic that are so critical to containment. We watch the street a while longer, caught by the significance of these small individual practices and the significance of smoothing the interruptions of the pandemic for sustaining city life.

As we come out of our first field research in Glasgow, we’re developing two pieces of academic writing about interventions into city thinking that emerge from the work of arts organisations. Where one will look at ways in which arts programming might be useful to city emergency planning, the other will focus on the ways in which specific artistic and everyday practices in cities invite us to reimagine social distancing in those cities and beyond. Alongside these articles, we will share an emerging data-set that reports on artistic practices and programmes in Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle, which are about or which have directly responded to the pandemic.


Chandini Raina MacIntyre, Phi-Yen Nguyen, Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, Mallory Trent, Brian Gerber, Kathleen Steinhofel, Holly Seale (2021) ‘Mask use, risk-mitigation behaviours and pandemic fatigue during the COVID-19 pandemic in five cities in Australia, the UK and USA: A cross-sectional survey’, International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 106, pp.199-207.

Half-Hidden Signs

We are in the south of Glasgow, an area called Pollokshields, and have followed a painted green line on the road behind Tramway to the entrance of The Hidden Gardens. There, partly obscured behind blooming flower planters, is a chalk board with a beautifully hand-written sign inviting us to ‘Remember FACTS: F face covered, A avoid crowds, C clean hands, T 2m apart, S self-isolate if needed’.

The sign is ‘inviting’ because it is both aesthetically considered and because it requires one to get close enough to see past the flowers and read its detail. It is a sign that asks the viewer properly to engage with it, in order to enact its wishes. This sits in marked contradistinction to more ‘institutional’ or ‘municipal’ messaging signs which tell or demand something of viewer in quite mechanistic terms. Of course, we understand the potential need for such public health messaging but, based on our observations, such signs often seem to have little impact on people’s behaviour around them. 

In Glasgow, we have been struck by the relative lack of such municipal signage (in comparison to Newcastle, for example). This has caused us to consider the relationship between ‘formal’ social-distancing messaging and more informal, homemade invitations to abide by the ‘FACTS’ or rules of the places we are encountering.

Collaborating: Travelling and Meeting in Pandemic Times

Stuart Andrews and Patrick Duggan

In leadership and business contexts, theories of collaboration have multiple modes, models and definitions of what for many in the arts, and beyond, comes organically. For instance, business theorists Colbry, Hurwitz and Adair have developed a ‘grounded theory’ understanding of collaboration that differs from traditional ‘leadership’ models. For these scholars, collaboration is ‘any on-going interpersonal interaction not characterized by a significant power imbalance with the express purpose of achieving common goals’ (2014: 67). Since we first began working together in 2016, our work has always been dialogic and conversational, truly ‘collaborative’ in the non-hierarchical sense captured above. But what such theories perhaps lack, is proper account of the processes that underpin such collaborations. That is, our methodological practices have been about being in a place, together and over a period of some hours, days or weeks.

Where we have been trying to understand the relation of a city to its arts ecologies and practices (and vice versa) being ‘in conversation’ with that place – experiencing performances, walking the streets, meeting the people, eating local food as a shared practice – has been vital. We are ‘in conversation’ literally (with people in a place) and more experientially (being there). This has been at the centre of our work together and with participants and stakeholders in all our projects.  

More practically, when writing, we have often sat in-front of the same screen, passing a laptop or keyboard between us as we thought, talked and typed iteratively. Very often this has involved working in non-traditional workspaces: arts centre foyers, cafes and restaurants, parks and public thoroughfares, pubs and bars. Such practices have enabled us to work in unusual patterns and at odd times of the day.

In New Orleans, for example, we would regularly ‘end’ a day of research or workshops by heading to a favourite happy hour or for dinner, determined to decompress and move away from work and onto convivial discussions of family, art, politics or food, perhaps, only to find ourselves caught by an idea, question or possible action that would revive energies and see us working well into the night. Other times, it would be early morning coffee and breakfast that would seed this move into work; our field research has always involved living in self-catering apartments for this reason. Affording one another private space when needed but the informality of shared living space (as opposed to highly trafficked areas of hotel lobbies), we have found such accommodation provides opportunities for happenstance conversation, debate, writing and planning not often granted in other contexts. Perhaps unorthodox, potentially time intensive, these ways of working have been enormously generative for our work on Performing City Resilience. So Covid-19 has been a shock to our research practices, requiring us to renegotiate how and where we collaborate.  

This has been a journey of discovery, hesitation and frustration but we have found our way into it and now have a working practice that’s, well, working. It took time… and now we are planning our first field research for the new project we may need to journey to rediscover ways of working in-person (in Covid-secure ways). This return to embodied work – to being in the same place and time as one another and others, alongside the practicalities of getting there (including risk assessments, specific travel ban exemptions and ethics processes) raises real and relevant questions for our project more broadly:  

  • What does it mean to travel now (April 2021), practically and politically? 
  • Why are we meeting, do we need to do so?  
  • What does it mean to think about travelling in the context of sustained social distancing? 
  • How can we return to travel and to in-person collaborative working in ways that are generative, productive and safe?
  • What does social-distancing do to experiences of a place in relation to living, working or visiting that place?

As well as attending to the analysis of our online, digital, archival research to-date, these questions will colour the complexion of our meeting as we grapple with the implications of ‘sustaining social distancing and reimagining city life’.  

Beyond that, this trip marks a step change in this research project, an initial move away from digital archive trawling, Zoom performance watching and MS Teams meetings into ways of working and researching that are more familiar. Yet this ‘familiarity’ has been defamiliarized by a year of not meeting, a year of being physically distant from almost everyone around us. Early in the pandemic, psychologist Nisha Gupta contended that  

While social distancing is empowering in theory, it can also feel disempowering as a psychological reality due to the loneliness, restlessness, and panic that arises as the days slog slowly and uncertainly (2020: 594)  

We have all undoubtedly felt emotions akin to those described above in the last year and craved a return to ‘normality’, to social and physical contact, but what is perhaps less commonly part of the (popular, news media) debate is what that ‘return’ will feel like. What anxieties will arise as people begin to return to spaces of work and collaboration, leisure and community. The need for us to each request (at senior levels) institutional permission to make our impending research trip happen, reveals new practicalities and practices necessary for collaborative working at the moment. Such shifts in daily patterns of living and working, point to wider anxieties about being in proximity to others as the current lockdown lifts. This, in turn, foregrounds the impact of social distancing on the practical mechanics of lived experience and the potential for the emergence of fear and restlessness, a ‘panic that arises’ as the days accelerate towards busier streets and a return to ‘normal’.    


Colbry, S., Hurwitz, M. and Adair, R., 2014. ‘Collaboration Theory’. Journal of Leadership Education, 13:4, pp. 63 – 75 

Gupta, N. 2020. ‘Singing away the social distancing blues: Art therapy in a time of coronavirus’. The Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Special issue on COVID-19), 60:5, 593 – 603. 


Stuart Andrews and Patrick Duggan

Bristol, a case study city for our work on COVID-19 city social distancing strategy.

We began work on social distancing strategy and reimagining city life at the close of 2020. In those early days, we found ourselves unsettled by setting out on this work in winter – preparations seem the stuff of earlier months. In that particularly uneasy winter of COVID-19, we became especially aware that our work was starting many months into the pandemic. We would need to join existing conversations, take account of initial responses and subsequent revisions, and attend to the now rich strategies that are framing social distancing in UK cities. Looking ahead, we will need to be aware of further revisions and to consider the ways that these emerging strategies operate in the current context of COVID-19, and may help address future pandemics. 

We are fascinated to know how strategies change, how alterations are trialled and implemented, and what further changes might be made – now and for the future. We are particularly interested in changes that might be made through engagement with ideas and practices of performance and by attending to the ways in which we might understand and develop strategies for the practise and, thereby, the performance of a city. 

This new project builds on our established research and practice on the intersections between arts and resilience strategy, and, specifically, our work in New Orleans (2018-). Earlier this year, we reflected on the ways in which performance can contribute to contemporary investigations of the process of developing city hazard mitigation strategies. Drawing on our work in New Orleans, we developed, 

a model of strategy development as performance, which can operate in arts practice/management and in city hazard mitigation. Through this, we identified such aspects as terminology, form, place, principles for engagement, the importance of individuals and the rethinking of familiar practices as vital elements in investigating and informing the performance of strategy.. 

(Andrews and Duggan, 2021, p. 198)

Where that research focused on planned processes of strategy development (the generation of five-year city resilience strategy documents), this project explores the ways in which city strategy is developed and revised to engage with a live and ongoing situation, in this case, COVID-19. Specifically, we are working with three UK cities (Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle) to understand city-specific strategies of social distancing and the potential to develop these by drawing on intersections between arts and resilience strategy and practice in each city.

Research in allied fields recognises the value of accounting for local distinctiveness in strategy development, and the risks of more overarching approaches. Writing on lockdown strategies from an interdisciplinary perspective in Transactions in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), David O’Sullivan et. al find that, globally, ‘[m]ost responses to date have been applied uniformly, without consideration of the variance in risk or in case numbers that occurs regionally.’ (2020, p.968) They suggest that focusing on geography can ‘give a distinct advantage of allowing a tailored response that is more effective at minimizing harmful side-effects.’ (ibid) As cities or regions may experience varying risks or case numbers of COVID-19, so they may also vary in the performances that contribute to the daily practise and understanding of those cities or regions.

In investigating social distancing strategy through performance analysis in our three case study UK cities, we seek to discover effective means of strategising distancing that attend to local nuances, to the situated practices in and of those cities. In particular, and building on our established methodology, we will explore mutually productive intersections between resilience and arts strategists, to develop means of enabling social distancing over a sustained period and, in the process, allow for intersecting approaches to city strategy generation. 

This is a project that seeks to understand how we might sustain social distancing in cities. It is, necessarily, concerned with distance, duration, with staying the course, or rather, enquiring into the course, attending to its form and its ways. Perhaps it was important that we began this work at a time when the duration of separation was being keenly felt. In the UK, as the new year unfolded, we listened to news of the crowds that gathered in the snow on Town Moor in Newcastle, of parties broken up late in the night. In recent days, we have followed stories of the ‘Kill the Bill’ protests in UK cities, responding to the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill. With the partial release of lockdown conditions (March 2021), we watched images of public gatherings in parks, city squares, and on beaches.

In undertaking this project, we are reflecting on the limits, the impossibilities and the inevitabilities of social distancing. We are looking for ways in which we might begin to re-think and re-imagine what it is to be distanced from others for a time. We are questioning appropriate means of supporting life at a distance for a sustained period. Looking ahead, we are considering what will follow from the end of distancing in the three case study cities, what the removal of ‘distancing’ will involve and what the form and implications of distancing might be, should it be reintroduced in individual cities, in response to COVID-19 or future conditions. 


Stuart Andrews and Patrick Duggan, 2021, ‘Towards “Strategy as Performance” in Hazard Mitigation: Reflections on Performing City Resilience in New Orleans’ Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance Volume 26,- Issue 1: Performance, Resilience and Resourcefulnesshttps://doi.org/10.1080/13569783.2020.1844563 

David O’ Sullivan, Mark Gahegan, Daniel J. Exeter, Benjamin Adams. 2020, ‘Spatially Explicit Models for Exploring COVID-19 Lockdown Strategies’, Transactions in GIS, 24, pp.967-1000. DOI: 10.1111/tgis.12660. 

Funding Success: UKRI/AHRC COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant

We’re delighted to announce that we’ve been awarded a UKRI/AHRC COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant for our project Social Distancing and Reimagining City Life: Performative strategies and practices for response and recovery in and beyond lockdown.

We’ll be sharing more information very soon but, for now, here’s the Project Summary:

COVID-19 has transformed city life: we now urgently need to develop imaginative ideas and creative practices to understand and address its impact on how we live and work in cities. Performance theory and practice offer innovative, proven, yet under- explored means to achieve this. This project will provide new models for understanding and practising city life, helping people cope with social distancing, both practically and emotionally.

Working with strategic decision-makers in Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle City Councils (confirmed), we will investigate everyday innovations (social performances) and artistic interventions (aesthetic performances), to understand how performance can reimagine and facilitate city life in times of social distancing, and how performance theory and analysis might contribute to more nuanced, creative and sustainable strategies and practices for response and recovery across five urgent areas: social cohesion, new behaviours, community resilience, perceptions of environment, and crisis management.

Working with artists, arts venues and officers from hazard mitigation, sustainability and resilience, the project will lead to new understandings of the place and function of performance, broker creative thinking on response and recovery, and make strategic recommendations for arts strategy, pandemic planning and hazard mitigation policy. Impacts will be scaled, primarily, through Core Cities, a network of eleven UK cities, and arts strategy organisations.

This project builds on the investigators’ recent work in New Orleans, which led the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to fundamentally change their hazard mitigation policy and practice, and to significant changes in strategies for major arts organisations (www.performingcityresilience.com)