Making Covid Life visible at last: Unlocking the Archive,

Ben O’Loughlin argues that, unable to connect to how people felt or how life was, the UK government’s TV briefings to the nation created an emptiness. At last, he says, a new digital exhibition, unlocked archive, enables refugees to make Covid life visible..

Through the UK government’s 5pm TV Covid press briefings Prime Minister Johnson has tried to connect to the British public about Covid. This has not worked. In 42 briefings in spring and summer 2020 the government wove between two tones of articulation. First, the flourish – bold or extravagant gestures, actions and statements designed to attract attention. Johnson and Raab brought military metaphors; Sunak metaphors of kindness and gentleness. The call was: be uplifted! Second, the abstract. All ministers referred to complex systems of circulation: the national rates of flows of germs, people, transport, healthcare equipment summarised in endless statistics. 

Between the flourish and the abstract in political discourse what was missing was the concrete. here was brute silence on what Covid is actually like, what a person suffering Covid experiences, or how life is for those in the family of someone with Covid. Apart from a few personal anecdotes, there was even a relative scarcity of examples of life in the UK is at all. This is perhaps understandable: throughout 2020 there was a basic lack of scientific knowledge of how Covid moved through supermarkets, care homes, schools or workplaces. But by avoiding discussion of navigating these everyday environments the government could not express the everyday experience of life during the pandemic. The present reality is missing. Unable to connect to how people felt or how life was, the government’s TV briefings to the nation created an emptiness. 

A new exhibition, Unlocked Archive, makes a first step to fill this gap. Researchers, mostly based in Swansea, South Wales and mostly refugees and asylum seekers and undocumented workers, have used artistic methods to express how their life is during Covid times. By crafting visual images, verbal tales, short cinematic films and music playlists, we find an accessible and authentic set of stories not only from migrants of many kinds based in  Wales but by people in similar situations around the world. They offer descriptions, performances, reflections, heartfelt emotional testimonies to the challenges they face but also their contributions to the local community. As Covid continues, this is a living archive. Some identities are open, some are hidden. A baby is welcomed into the world is by his parents on film but their faces are pixelated out. The result is a collection of chronicles of life under Covid layered with what, for marginalised people, are the enduring and now sharpened anxieties and insecurities of life.
One of the researchers who helped co-curate Unlocked Archive, Marie Gillespie, has used the term ‘cycles of insecurity’ in her own writing to explain how the dilemmas and forces people face across a range of issues compound each other. This can lead to a feeling of entrapment and powerlessness. This is a useful concept for making sense of why Covid has compounded further many difficulties of those contributing to Unlocked Archive. One participant uploaded a cartoon that reflects this compounding (Figure 1):

Figure 1

To maintain one’s security means dealing with dangers in all the fields identified above– health, economics, social, political. Unlocked Archive brings to life how people in local environments deal with the cycles of insecurity that come and go, intensify and then ease up but persist. 

Such cycles of insecurity affect the home and the camp. 

The camp is already a difficult environment of indeterminacy and waiting for many – bordome, frustration, loneliness, poverty and uncertainty. Unlocked Archive shows how during Covid, camp residents complain that social distancing is impossible because when food is scarce it is hard for people to queue in an orderly, distanced way. There are no materials to kill dangerous insects. NGO and media staff have pulled out of camps, leaving police unaccountable for how they behave towards the people in camps. Another film shows one camp being set ablaze. This shows how awful life has become in the camps but also invites audiences to consider whether some of these developments are happening outside camps now too. 

The home has become a positive place for some. Unlocked Archive shows us footage of people saying the home is a place of hygiene and of care for one another. It is a place for reading and reflection. Some Syrians say it has brought much less focus on war in their lives. Not all are positive, however. The fact that there is no indication of when play areas would re-open for children is both itself frustrating and points to the wider problem that people cannot make plans. Some note that racism outside the home has worsened for those of East Asian origin. A single mother makes a drawing about ‘community’ that shows the impossible entangled, confusing, muddled environment in which home exists within (Figure 2).

Figure 2

An asylum-seeking mother makes a drawing of her sense of ‘entrapment’ (Figure 3):

Figure 3

There is also joy, for example, among one family of Venezuelans in Argentina who, while under lockdown, at least have a laptop so they can watch music videos and dance in their bedroom. However, other families say they are deprived of access to digital devices, wifi and media and meeting people; that home is like jail after no trial. In some countries they report that prices have risen sharply, making it hard to buy essentials like baby milk, nappies, or food. 

A critic might say there is nothing new about using a crisis to call for poetry or artistic responses to sickness, social violence and suffering. However, calls for artistic responses in Unlocked Archive are intensified by an uneasy new context and an indefinite time frame. One undocumented worker on film asks whether the Covid crisis will last one, two or three months. Watching the film after Covid has been around for a year, the viewer may feel pity for the worker but also despair that after all this time there is still a risk that many cannot or will not access vaccines. Given how precarious that person’s livelihood was as an undocumented worker, we can only imagine what may have happened to her and her family. As the film develops she tells us that without this work her children will starve and die. This forces us as audiences to consider how we are not all in the same boat during Covid – as many like to proclaim. It encourages us to think of our different experiences, the people and things we are missing or that are hidden from us, untouchable. Unlocked Archives makes the invisible now visible. The critic must now see that Covid has brought a new urgency to tackling social problems and inequalities that these videos open up to us. 

Unlocked Archive is part of a wider project, Cov19: Chronicles from the Margins, which has an explicit political goal. This is to challenge the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy for refugees and asylum seekers and to use the process of research to build solidarities. Creative chronicling has that purpose. Again arts-based, it contains opinion pieces as well as poems, stories and music as well as research-based and reflective academic blogs. It allows all those involved to communicate with each other to talk about how to unravel the cycles of insecurity they face. 

In some ways, Covid has made the issues known so well to refugees, now known to everyone. Sensitivity to disruption to hygiene, new paperwork, and restricted mobility are unavoidable for all. Unlocked Archive lets us consider ways in which this is true for us all, but also in what ways refugees’ lives still differ.   

Unlocked Archive shows that we could use digital communication to build a much more concrete sense of how life is under Covid. The weekly family quiz on Zoom or a post on Facebook might let people stay in touch but they do not expose us to the range of creative chronicles we see in the exhibition space and the project website. It gives a sense for those living in any community to learn how refugees who have come to their area may be experiencing life. Any researcher could invite those in their local area or in similar situations around the world to create and share content about how they are managing, or trying to manage but feel they are failing. Government has provided an empty space. There is an opportunity to fill it with dialogue and let each other know what is really happening for those with different kinds of lives. 

January 2021

Ben O’Loughlin is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway College. Follow Ben on Twitter @Ben_OLoughlin


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