Project News

The Second Gathering

By Philip Palios
30th September 2020

Last month’s fears that we were coming out of this pandemic and the engines of capitalism were launching us back into a pre-pandemic way of life have been abated, for better or worse. Not because the new dawn of a kinder world has emerged, but because the second wave has begun and not yet reached a peak. Lockdown is tightening rather than easing and our lives are now governed by a strange combination of the Rule of Six and an attempt to keep the economy afloat. Nicola Sturgeon, who has worked ceaselessly for the wellbeing of Scotland now acknowledges that the economic levers which allowed policy solely focused on public health without economic devastation are no longer available and the government is forced to strike a balance between the two, often competing, interests. Amidst all of this chaos and uncertainty, the Atlas Pandemica artists continue their research and creative work, building maps with the ambition of guiding us into a better way of life.

When originally planned, our monthly gatherings were intended to be held in-person and the trajectory of lockdown easing made this a reasonable plan. Our first gathering in August proved that we could make it work given the restrictions at the time. While the newly introduced tightening of rules prevent a group of our size from gathering for social purposes, they do make a provision for work and charitable activity that left us wondering what the safe thing was to do. Ultimately, the group decided to transition to our first online gathering. Not an easy decision, but one that attempted to balance health and the project.

I’m sure that I was not the only participant disappointed by this decision. Personally, I would have been willing to take the health risk because I think much more can be accomplished and stronger bonds are formed in-person than online, but the risk I face is lower than most. The decision to go online came at the last minute and Emma Jayne, who has taken up choreographing our gatherings in addition to her project for Atlas Pandemica, quickly adapted her plans to work by digital means. It was the best online event I’ve taken part in since lockdown began. Her ability to use, rather than embrace, technology made for a gathering that brought us together in the best way possible without meeting in-person.

While artists took time to share small bits from their research, the majority of the gathering was devoted to making maps for our map-making. It wasn’t as meta as it sounds. A gift had arrived for us in the post preceding the gathering, I left mine unopened until things got started and was surprised to find a bag of sweets inside. However, this wasn’t just for our enjoyment during the gathering, but part of the offline activity that comprised the middle third of our time together. We were to go for a walk that lasted the duration of one sweet dissolving in our mouths, as we walked it was our task to contemplate the journey of our project from wherever it currently was to its completion in December(ish). In addition, we were to take a square photograph of something with the colour yellow.

As I walked, I started noticing yellow everywhere – I was surprised how much the small task shifted my perspective on the world. First it was license plates and warning signs, I became worried that there was nothing yellow and beautiful near my house. However, it didn’t take long before I found some flowering plants in one of the nearby Incredible Edibles gardens. I made my way toward Matt’s house, since he lived nearby and I was itching for some actual in-person interaction during this online event – how silly to be talking via Zoom when we lived such a short distance away, I thought. Unfortunately, our paths did not cross, but as my mind contemplated the abundance of yellow and surprising duration the sweet took to dissolve I ran into a good friend and was relieved for some human interaction, even if it wasn’t with a fellow Atlas Pandemica-er. But I knew my time was limited and I still had work to do, so I shared one of the candies with my friend (I had brought the whole bag along with me, thinking surely one wouldn’t last all that long).

My discontentment shifted from the many ways in which the pandemic has limited our ability to be with each other. It wasn’t just not being with others at the gathering that bothered me, but also not seeing my family since December last year, our April and June plans had been cancelled because of the pandemic. Not only does my role as bibliographer, working to catalogue, connect and share the ideas and research of the artists, benefit from human interaction, but practically everything I do does. I feed off the energy of being around others, one of many reasons why sitting in an office at a computer all day never worked well as a career for me. And yet what was I doing as bibliographer but mainly sitting at a computer, alone at my desk, filling out spreadsheets, doing online research and responding to e-mails? While many artists were out in the field doing research and working with their hands to craft art, the gatherings and individual meetings with others involved were the only time my involvement brought me away from the screen, and now those were going online too. Woe is me! It could be worse.

So I wanted to make a map that brought me out of this mess, and this is what I came up with:

Clearly, I wanted to stay out of the woods and get out my paintbrushes. But how could I
paint the bibliography? No idea, but I was determined to find a way.
The gathering concluded with a rather corporate, spreadsheet appropriate, task of posting virtual sticky notes on a virtual whiteboard that consisted of the most important six steps on our journey toward December. Mine were basically: ditch the spreadsheets, find a new way forward, make sure Matt and Robbie are cool with it, do that. When I shared this plan with the group, they did a good job hiding their shock that their bibliographer appeared to be losing it. Most others had a pretty clear, albeit not necessarily linear, plan for the completion of their projects that did not require a massive re-think or new direction.
When the meeting ended, I was motivated to find my new way forward and now that over a week has passed I still have that motivation but offline options that will still allow me to get my work done are not abundant. I am still determined to do some handwriting and find other ways to make my work involve more time outdoors, hopefully with others, but that will be difficult to do as we enter the second wave of Covid. I’ve also made the difficult decision to fly into the flaming pile of shit that is present-day America, because I miss my family there and no longer see things getting better anytime soon – so best to go when I still can. Dumfries is my home and leaving for an extended period is not easy, but I have done it before and am confident I will be back soon.

For now, I am slowly coming to grips with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ words of truth
that we can’t always get what we want. Instead, I am going to try and work within the
constraints of the pandemic and hope that if I put my all into Atlas Pandemica, the most
meaningful project I’ve ever worked on, I will get what I need.

Oh and that bit of yellow? It was right outside my doorstep, but I didn’t see it until I came
home:

The First Gathering

By Philip Palios
31st August 2020

Before things get started, “how do all of these projects tie together?” I question whether my questioner actually expects me to have an answer before responding with wit.

Let’s get to know each other. Look around, settle your eyes on someone you aren’t familiar with. Listen to their story and don’t interrupt. We walk, she talks, I listen, then we trade. At the end, I think the silence hurt more than it helped. Some of these people already knew each other, some don’t, but we all share a passion to make maps (in the widest sense of the word) leading to a kinder world. What do you do to connect artists who have been brought together by this unique opportunity and should obviously (or so it would seem) connect, without forcing it?

A gathering along the left bank of the River Nith, looking up at the Old Bridge and trying to ignore the new one. A dozen or so of the best imaginations in Dumfries and Galloway sit around a burning cauldron trying to spark a relationship.

You see, Atlas Pandemica is a bit strange. These artists, with their separate paths of inquiry and modes of creating might be perfectly happy left undisturbed to go off and do their thing. But, does simply putting these ‘maps’ in the same ‘book’ make that book greater than the sum of its parts? Probably not. So where does the magic happen? Around this fire?

Trust games are shit. We didn’t play any, but the same desire to accelerate organic human processes was manifested in our activities, a desire held not solely by the curators but by most in attendance (I would reckon). We live in the age of yesterday was too late.

And yesterday everything changed. When specifically? It’s not like 9/11 (2001) or 9/15 (2008), everyone gets to pick their own date for this disaster, as long as it’s between January and March 2020. It was during this time that we descended (ascended? progressed? were thrust?) into the great pause and saw just how quickly the giant machine could go quiet. In this silence, an opportunity to imagine a new, slightly more human way of being as we emerged from the pandemic presented itself. But the window was tight; we had to move quick – or so we thought. Tinker with the machine before it powers back up, or end up with the same old, broken, heartless…

So our curators acted fast, assembled a proposal, secured funding, put out a call for artists, selected from an overwhelming pool of talent, and Atlas Pandemica was underway around 15 July. But were those whose wealth and power was secured by the dormant machine faster? From total lockdown to open pubs, it may have seemed forever when we were in it, but the capitalists worked to get their machine up and running before anyone could tinker with it. “Are we too late?” was not an unasked question, but further discussion was mutually understood to be pointless.

Some of the questions artists have begun asking: What’s the story of our waterways? Who has the power and how are they making decisions? What do people think of that? What is the difference between tending and mending? How do we talk to and about each other? How did we handle this last time? Does anyone care? And what about the people no one really noticed behind the shiny lights? There’s more.

As governments and corporations around the world begin trying to sputter their capitalist behemoth back into action, communities are just starting to feel the pain of the pandemic. No one was all that content when things were ‘normal’ and our opportunity for a new way forward is here, but now a vast system seeks to hide the truth from us once again. We must not lose touch with the clarity we had when this project was conceived. It’s through the shared vision and bonds between artists that we can more easily move forward. The gatherings are essential in keeping everyone’s vision clear. We remind each other that we’re in this together and if it’s a wild idea (it’s a wild idea), it’s one we all believe in.

As quickly as we gathered, we scattered. Back to our individual pursuits with the gift of a jar full of questions, comments and miscellaneous words from our collaborators. I scattered a bit further than most, immediately setting off for Iceland. I took my jar with me, it’s here on my desk as I write this. I read the purple, yellow, blue and pink ribbons of words inside and then returned them because the pieces of paper remind me of the people who wrote on them, and that’s more important than what they wrote.

Pictures from our First Gathering