Since time immemorial, art in all its forms found renewed life during times of crisis. During war, pandemics and natural disasters, populations of all eras found solace in expressing the human experience in all its shades during troubled times. From plays, sculptures and paintings during Ancient times, to song and dance and film during modern eras of war – the art form might differ, but the intention is always the same: to share the emotions of the human soul. Call it a misplaced priority if you will, but there’s no doubting the cathartic release that comes with a powerful piece of art, and catharsis is in short supply during eras of massive human disasters.
A different brand of disaster
Today, we are experiencing a massive disaster, one that goes by the insepid and vitriloic name of Covid-19. The calamity in question is a novel Coronavirus, not unlike the deadly SARS virus that plagued the world in 2003. The difference is that this brand of biological killer is less deadly that its predecessor, but much, much more contagious. So contagious, in fact, that entire countries have been put under lockdown.
We’re not talking about small third-world countries the world is often quick to overlook. No, we’re talking about the heavy-hitting superpowers that often like to play the savior during the plights of others, countries like the United States, Italy, Spain, China, and the UK. Unlike disasters of the manmade kind, a virus does not discriminate between rich or poor, nor between political parties or races. No, this time, everyone is affected, and everyone is in danger: whether you live in Beverly Hills, or in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Sure, you are more likely to contract the virus in poorer and less medically-prepared countries, but the irony of the matter is that it has been the developed, so-called first-world countries that have been the catalyzers of global infection. Italy has been the gateway to the infection in Europe, for example, and the spread of the disease has become so rapid that we are seeing shocking a role reversal: Today, Africa, often dubbed by western media as the home to ‘third-world, developing’ countries and armed conflict, is banning European travelers, and not the other way around. Never could anyone had foreseen this, but that is the jumbled reality we are experiencing today.
So in these bizarre and challenging times, we are seeing equally bizarre phenomena of human expression and art. That is because probably for the first time ever in the history of humanity, a large majority of the world’s countries have agreed to enforce home quarantine for their citizens. Art is often born of social experiences, and with half the planet stuck in self-quarantine, people have had to improvise their forms of expression. The internet has completely changed how we express ourselves, and through it modern art can be something as simple as a meme, but more on that in a bit.
Enter the Balcony Theater
The pop-up theatres of past centuries have found new life on a new stage: the balcony. Banned from the streets and from social gatherings, people have been taking to their own balconies to express themselves.
Last week, several videos went viral of Italians under home-arrest taking to their balconies to let out a rebellious expression of the undying human spirit, given that Italy had unfortunately become the capital of Covid-19 in Europe. One video sees multiple neighbors play music in tandem as a band, with each member on their own balcony. Another sees a Soprano serenading her neighbors with a powerful opera performance that echoed across neighborhoods and moved listeners to tears. Over the weekend, Italians took to their balconies collectively to sing their national anthem in a heartwarming moment of solidarity, while others banded together on their balconies to thank medical personnel that are risking their lives everyday.
But the Balcony Theatre hasn’t been limited to the homes of the Milanese and the Napolitanos. People from many countries have taken to their balconies to express themselves. In Spain, one woman who had just gotten married performed the bouquet throwing tradition from a veranda. In Iraq, a musician joined in the musical custom by playing his violin to neighbors on loud speakers. In Lebanon too, neighbors took to their balconies to perform traditional and modern Arabic songs. Some people engaged in less flashy forms of expression, by reading on their balconies in front of neighbors, or even in a physical display of athleticism through public exercise.
(Video: The Guardian)
Soon, however, the balcony would become a tool for a different kind of expression.
Viva la revolución
While the majority of the world is focused on the Coronavirus pandemic, it can be easy to forget that many countries were already facing nationwide issues that in some cases are even more grave than the virus.
In Lebanon, the country with the 3rd highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, has been facing an economic crisis for months, and has been undergoing a revolution since October 17th. Greece continues to struggle with a debt crisis. Hong Kong has been embroiled in civil turmoil for almost a year now. The UK is still reeling from Brexit.
Now, to top all this off, Covid-19 has forced additional pressure on many of these struggling countries, pushing a country like Lebanon to its breaking point.
While governments struggle to make sense of everything, some people refuse to let something like a pandemic stop them from voicing their dissatisfaction.
On Wednesday March 18th, thousands of Spanish citizens took to their balconies to bang pots and pans in protest over a scandal relating to the monarchy while King Felipe gave a speech, according to a report by Reuters.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to develop, with existing political and economic pressures reaching a boiling point while people are cooped up at home, we could see more displays of this balcony revolution in coming weeks.
The Memes of Covid-19
While many are giving memorable performances on their balconies, most people are content creating humorous internet memes to break the monotony of solitude and drab tone that has taken over our media. While it might sound absurb, humanity has often resorted to comedy during times of crises, as history has shown us time and time again.
While not as lofty as the traditional seven arts, memes have grown to become a kind of contemporary art, whether we like it or not. In truth, memes are not too different from the street art of Banksy or other forms of 21st century works of human expression. They are hyper relevant to the time period they originate from, often encapsulating the entire zeitgeist of their time in a badly photoshopped image or video. Because of that, they are highly perishable, and few memes remain relevant after a month, and sometimes even a week.
Covid-19, however, seems like it’ll be extending its stay, and that means that many of the memes that will emerge could see a long shelf life. They will also evolve and change as the pandemic develops. Early in 2020, when breaking news stories about the virus in China began emerging, memes were focused on the Asian nation and the alleged origins of the virus, sometimes attributed to bats.
Later on, as the virus spread, and coupled with previous events throughout the year, like the wildfires in Australia and the US assassination of an Iranian general, online users began creating paranoia-laden memes joking about 2020 and it’s intentions on killing us. After all, one of the hashtags trending following the turn of the decade was #WW3. Covid-19 seemed to be another log in the fire towards that apocalyptic end.
Now, with the majority of the world under home-arrest, and people truly coming to terms with the reality of a pandemic, memes have shifted gears once more. A majority of these now offer comic commentary about the questionable efforts of hoarders, who have emptied supermarket shelves of toilet paper, sanitizers, canned food and more, leaving many with no access to essential home products.
In the GCC, this has not been an issue, and countries like Kuwait have reassured citizens repeatedly that supplies will be replenished at all times and that price gouging will not be permitted. In Europe, the US and many other countries, however, this has not been the case, and a majority of memes are criticizing the actions of hoarders.
Recent memes and commentary have also pivoted around the renewed reminder of personal hygiene, as well as the remote working trend that has forever transformed how we work, interact with our colleagues and bosses, and remain productive.
So, as people continue to be confined within their homes, one has to wonder what other forms of expression they will come up with. Regardless, it seems art always finds a way.
(This is an opinion piece. The views reflected in this article are not necessarily shared by AMEinfo)