Looking Forward: A Conversation with Emily Osborne and Sam Dineen.

Three weeks ago, The Jumble Magazine hosted a survey called ‘Looking Forward’ via Instagram stories. The survey was designed to get an idea of how readers feel about coming out of lock down, both as creatives and as students. Today, Sam Dineen from The Jumble chats to Emily Osborne, a Belfast School of Art Design Graduate, creative, and Ulster University’s Student of the Year to discuss those survey results and the future of the NI creative scene. 

In the questions for creatives element of the survey (which were answered by between 60-80 people, with numbers varying per question) it seemed clear that the majority (81%) of respondents felt that the way the world has changed since 2020 has had an impact on the TONE of their work. Would you say the same thing about yourself? 

Yeah, definitely. I found it really interesting to learn that so many people feel the same way. Personally, the introspective nature of the pandemic really reflected onto the tone of my work. The fact that I didn’t have loads of stimulation from the outside world to influence my creativity meant that a lot of the work I was doing was more introspective or existential. Back in the winter of 2020 that seemed really clear on socials too, there was a lot of creative work focusing on mental wellbeing and mental health, as well as addressing the greater part that we as individuals play in society. 

Most (64%) of those people said that covid has made their work more existential, rather than escapist. As an artist and creative, do you see this existential tone becoming more normal as the world moves away from COVID? 

I actually don’t know. At the minute, everything feels existential. It’s hard to be escapist and to dream of things because it’s literally impossible to plan anything ahead in this setting. My fear is that as soon as some sort of ‘normality’ is achieved we will immediately forget about all the self awareness we have gained throughout the pandemic. I think the excitement of everything will totally distract and consume people, making it much more difficult to create that sort of introspective work. 

That’s a really good point. I do think people at the minute are very quick to want to put this whole thing behind us, but that is understandable. In the survey 78% of respondents said they don’t want to see pandemic content in the future, with only 16 people saying they would be interested in that kind of material.

I do think that maybe as we move out of it people will pull on the heartstrings with all of the things that the pandemic exposed, you can already see it starting in advertising and marketing. I imagine culture events and museums will incorporate themes like the value of the NHS or the side effects of isolation. I think it’s important to remember that we are still in the moment, we aren’t yet ‘post pandemic’. 

I’m lucky enough to not have lost anyone to COVID in the past 15 months, and I understand that there is a luxury in saying “Oh, I’m not interested in any kind of art or media about this in the future” because it hasn’t drastically altered my life in that way. There are obviously countless creatives worldwide who have lost so much to the pandemic, whether it’s family members, livelihoods, or their own health- looking forward I don’t think it will be a case of ‘post-COVID’ content for people in that kind of situation. 

That’s a great point. A global pandemic hasn’t happened to the current generation of humans on this planet up until this point, so there’s no one to really ask about what the world is going to look like after it. We have this massive event that has affected millions worldwide, and we know that they have been affected, so we can’t really expect it all to just switch off one day, that’s not what humans – and artists – do. 

On a lighter note, 64/79 people who answered said that they have taken up a new creative skill or hobby over the past 15 months, which is great. Even The Jumble Magazine itself only had a chance to shine because of extra downtime during the early days of the pandemic… Have you ventured into anything new during this reflective period? Or do you think that such confinement and restriction can stump creative conquests? 

I think it’s a bit of both. At the start of the pandemic I was really suddenly furloughed, so I decided to literally try every craft under the sun. When I was back in uni that creativity started to die down. I think that was a result of not being in the city and being stimulated by other creatives. I think it’s normal in a scenario like this to ebb and flow. 

It’s a weird comparison, but back in the really early days, when it all felt very surreal, it sort of felt like a really scary half term. There was this constant anxiety about this world changing event combined with this sudden lack of anything at all to do. It was totally bizarre. I think that very quickly turned into an influx of ‘creative hustle culture’ online. Suddenly every outlet was telling you to learn a new language, read lots of books, pick up painting, or start a business. That got overwhelming very fast, especially if you were just trying to adjust to the sudden change of pace. 

Yeah, that was so strange. I think it started to change as everyone collectively went through a creative burnout. I don’t think that push is good for people’s mental health. The notion of it feeling like a scary half term is so accurate, lots of students I spoke to for ‘Students of Lock down’ felt the exact same way. Everything was on pause. 

There were also a few questions about the use of ONLINE events in lieu of in person ones. With 66% of people saying that online events make them feel LESS like they are part of a creative community. Some respondents cited feelings of disconnect and isolation. However, many respondents also pointed out that online events are more accessible for disabled people and those who are unable to travel to Belfast (or other cities) for in person activities. As well as highlighting that online events have the potential to reach a worldwide audience. 

Going forward do you think that a mixture of in person AND online events will be a good way to make everyone feel safe and involved? 

Yeah, I think that’s for the best. The accessibility conversation has needed to happen for a very long time, but I think more needs to be doable online too. For example, creatives tend to really rely on micro-interactions to move forward in their careers. Those little introductions after an exhibition, getting to know new people, networking in general. That’s something that has been really hard to replicate in online events. That’s what I really miss. Some online events can be really draining, but others are fantastic! I have found myself taking part in regular events that I would never have considered if I had to travel to them in person. The ability to access events from anywhere in the world on a whim is for sure a massive plus. It’s great for people who can’t afford to travel worldwide for events too. 

I agree with you that those micro interactions are a lot harder to replicate online, especially when you’re relying on internet connection to keep conversations natural and fluid. 

(Ironically the connection of our call dropped right at this moment)

The survey then moved on to the second element: questions about online learning, the subject covered in you and Dillon’s short film ‘Perpetual Limbo‘. 68% of respondents said they did NOT enjoy online learning. Respondents said they felt disconnected, isolated, and found it hard to find motivation. One respondent said that long hours of staring at a screen and not meeting classmates was a struggle, with another saying they would “always end up daydreaming”. In ‘Perpetual Limbo’ the character seems to have difficulty concentrating in online classes, and the mundane repetition of it all seems to get to her. I graduated pre-pandemic, but can you tell me a bit about your own experience? Does it reflect that of the people who sent these responses to the survey? 

Yes, it definitely does. Online learning was so much harder than I thought it was going to be. My wifi is really bad, and constantly being kicked from the class due to connection issues really took it out of me. I found myself opting for recordings of the class that were made available afterwards, ones that I could actually hear, instead of taking part in crackly versions of them as they happened live. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty for struggling with it. You also see another side to your university, you’re seeing lecturers in a much more intimate setting- in their own homes trying to teach whilst dealing with their own stressors. It really makes it harder on everyone. 

One of my favourite things about uni was the social and self-expression element. It felt like school, but with no uniforms or rules on makeup or hair dye. I loved going out spontaneously for drinks after lectures, growing into myself as a young adult and really just using it as an opportunity to play with my appearance and my interests with that new found freedom. I can’t imagine uni without that element, the idea of sitting at home the whole time seems like it would be a lot less fun. 

100%, it’s mind blowing how much it changes the experience. I personally don’t know one person who has enjoyed this year more. I at least had my first year in ‘normal’ circumstances, but I feel awful for the new students who didn’t get that. I really hope they get a year of normality. I wouldn’t have known how to cope with all of those new people without freshers and nights out and icebreakers, so my heart really goes out to them.

Of course, some people did find positives in online learning. People said they enjoyed that learning became more flexible to their lifestyle, that they saved time by not having to commute, and that they liked doing work from the comfort of their own home (or even their own bed). As a COVID student, do you agree with any of those sentiments? What do you think university is going to look like as we move forward? 

There are positives too, for me a lot of it was about time management. It was a lot easier not having to travel. My timetable beforehand meant that some days I had one class in the morning, then nothing for hours, so I found myself spending money to travel in, sit for an hour, and then spend lots more money getting food and occupying myself for hours until another class came up. Being at home has saved a lot of money and time that way. In the beginning, my work seeped into everything, but I eventually put together a working from home schedule which helped a lot. I do fear that current students may struggle in future workplaces as a result of being so in control of their timetables via working from home. I hope that this teaches universities just how important in-person learning is, not just for the sake of the content being delivered but also for the student experience. There are certain classes that could remain online in the future, but there should be a focus on how university also provides a really important physical space for students too. I hope to see a bit of a hybrid model in the future, maybe an option to go to classes in person and online too. 

The survey asked arts and film students if they felt that they had a decent online alternative to their end of year screenings and shows, 87% of respondents said no. Those shows are obviously so important for future job opportunities, so it must have been incredibly difficult to work through an entire degree only to lose out on that experience. 

I’m not surprised at that result at all. The thing is, it is so tricky, this scenario is nobody’s fault, and nobody was prepared for a global pandemic and all of the ways it would seep into and change life and studying as we know it. Creative education is often underfunded and lecturers, in my experience, were doing the best they could. Now you have this situation where students are graduating with mounds of debt after having paid full price for a year with less experience. It’s really difficult to gauge what to do with that. A lot of our graphic design work was individual, and the creme de la creme was the end of year show we had all been dreaming about since first year, so not having it cut has really shot us down. Had I known in advance what this year would have been like, I probably would have taken a year out.

Check out the full survey results below:

Questions for CREATIVES

Has the way the world has changed since March 2020 had an impact on the TONE of your work? 81% of 73 respondents said YES

If you answered YES has your work become more escapist or existential? 64% of 61 respondents said Existential.

Have you started working on a new creative hobby or skill in the past 15 months? 81% of 79 respondents said YES.

As things have moved online have you felt MORE or LESS part of the creative community? 66% of 79 respondents said LESS.

Looking forward to future media, do you want to see the pandemic being a feature of upcoming content? (movies, TV, etc) 78% of 73 respondents said NO WAY.

When it is 100% safe to do so do you see yourself going to more local gigs than you did pre-pandemic? 89% of 81 respondents said YES.

Do you think there are any benefits to having online events in a ‘back to normal’ post-COVID world? 69% of 78 respondents said YES.

Questions for STUDENTS:

Do you/did you enjoy online learning? 68% of 24 respondents said NO.

Were there more or less opportunities whilst learning online? 84% of 31 people said LESS.

Did you take those opportunities if/when they were offered? 63% of 27 people said YES.

In (hypothetical) hindsight, do you wish you could go back and take a year out during the pandemic/ online learning? 57% of 23 respondents said YES.

For the arts/film students, do you feel like you had a decent online alternative to your end of year exhibition/screening or show? 87% of 15 respondents said NO.

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