Will we still beg when this is over? On literary events, access, and the pandemic

In my latest poetry collection, there’s a poem made out of lines from other people’s poems – a form called a cento, which has a history going back thousands of years. The word ‘cento’ once referred to planting trees, but came to mean patchwork clothing, and then a poetic form made from fragments of other texts sewn or planted together. The cento in Much With Body is called ‘When all this is over is over’ and is made from lines from poems which include the phrase ‘when all this is over’ or ‘when this is over’ (obviously not a complete list). It is an early pandemic poem – a Plague Year Season One poem – responding to both people’s hopeful attachment to Kathleen Jamie’s beautiful poem Lochan that Spring, with its wistful projection ‘when all this over […] probably in June’ and to Boris Johnson’s claim in March 2020 that we could ‘send coronavirus packing’ within 12 weeks.    

My knowledge of pandemics is that of a voracious reader and consumer of culture, not of an epidemiologist, but even so to me the idea that we could be seeing an end to the pandemic within such a short time was nakedly unrealistic. The poem knows by the time it really is all over, so much would be broken, lost, reformed. ‘There will be no god when this is over’, the cento repeats, borrowing from Ruth Awad’s amazing poem, ‘The One where I beg’.

Now, in Plague Year Season Three, this poem has an increasingly ironic tone for me, when so many in the literary world are acting as though it is all over, has been over, continues to be all over.

There are fewer and fewer ways to track case numbers in the UK, but we still do have some statistics on deaths, and they are not good. Between April 19th and 22nd there were 1920 covid deaths recorded in the UK. Deaths represent the very tip of the iceberg of the damage covid is doing. By now it is clear how many people have ongoing debilitating effects from even ‘mild’ covid infections months and years afterwards, and recent studies have proved covid causes organ damage, including causing brain abnormalities, and a 72% increased risk of heart failure. The effects of mass infection will be being felt for generations to come. Those of us who know we cannot afford to risk these consequences are frequently made to feel foolish and selfish, for many of us repeating and reinforcing decades of medical gaslighting.

Yet here we are, in April 2022, knowing all this, with maskless indoor in-person events once more standard, and remote options falling away week by week.

I’ve been asking for people to consider retaining remote access for events – first gently; increasingly desperately and pleadingly – for two years now. I am so exhausted by asking. I am far from alone. Around the world I see the same anguished reports from those of us unable to ignore the continued presence of the pandemic, increasingly shut out of cultural activity.

As Vic Wreford-Sinnot wrote last month: ‘the way the arts sector is behaving when the pandemic is still raging is just not normal. The arts are facing some of the biggest moral dilemmas in living history.’

Vic Wreford-Sinnot, ‘Crucial Conversations With Disabled People: Just What is the New Normal?’

Many disabled people found that access to the arts and education opened up for them when nondisabled people needed it. For those who couldn’t attend events in-person before the pandemic, it was bittersweet to suddenly be told access was possible where it had previously been refused.

Many predicted how access would be denied again as soon as nondisabled people no longer demanded it.

This month, London Book Fair justified its decision to run in-person, without mask enforcement, ventilation, or checking of vaccination status or negative tests, after attendees from around the world were infected at it, on the basis that the gathering is ‘key to the publishing industry’.  

There are days when I feel there can be no place for disabled creatives in an art world so attached to presenteeism that it will risk the bodies and minds of those who constitute it. What I get back a lot from event organisers is that it’s too hard and/or too expensive to offer remote access. This doesn’t have to be the case.

I’m gathering some of the basic advice I and others have given about remote access here, so I don’t have to keep typing it out, and so it is easy to find in one place.

This is an imperfect gathering of some of my thoughts and some observations of what has been successful for others, and I hope to keep adding to it. If you have any advice or changes to suggest, please get in touch.

BEST PRACTICE FOR EQUALITY OF ACCESS

1. Accessibility for audiences and performers should be considered at the earliest planning stages for every event, not tacked on as an afterthought. If you build accessibility into your planning and funding applications it will be better for everyone.

2. Online & In-Person strands must be treated as equal variations – with benefits for different people’s needs. Don’t describe in-person events as live/real and online events as not real/not live. This reinforces a hierarchy that suggests all online events are substandard substitutes. (I know some of you feel this way but have a heart, I beg thee!)

3.  Offer hybrid options as standard for everyone – not just for people you know are disabled or people who make access requests. Remote options give amazing access to people who can’t shift their lives around to go to a town to watch events in-person for 5 days, for eg., but can watch events online whilst making dinner. Don’t make us beg!

4. No one should be made to feel like they have to do in-person or lose work.

5. No one should be forced to disclose medical conditions.

4. There are lots of different ways to make events or whole festivals hybrid. We need to be creative and thoughtful with how we do that.

5. If you’re running hybrid events advertise both strands equally! They are both brilliant for different audiences. You will reach many more people online if you make it obvious how you access your events online and easy to book online tickets.

6. If you are running an in-person event strand, make sure that your in-person events are still as accessible as possible to as many people as possible too. As well as all the normal aspects of making a physical space accessible, this also means putting in place as many protections against covid infection as you can, such as making sure you have good ventilation, and requiring masks unless people are exempt. This makes it safer for everyone.

7. We can’t meet the needs of 100% of the people all the time, but we can do our best, and that means a lot. Trying is better than giving up.

8. Be clear about what the event will involve and make sure everyone involved understands what will happens eg. if it is going online, how long for; how will recordings be used in the future.

9. Don’t forget your online speakers if most of you are in-person! Make sure festival instructions are not just geared towards in-person attendees, and if you usually give an in-person speaker access to other events at a festival with complimentary tickets, make sure you do the same for online speakers for events that are accessible online (even if that’s after the festival itself).

10. Show solidarity!
If you’re nondisabled and are invited to work at or attend an in-person event ask questions: will there be remote access options for performers and audiences? will there be masks and ventilation in-person?
If you’re involved in running events think: how can I make sure people who can’t attend in-person aren’t excluded from this event? how can I help create a more equitable future?
One of the most simple things people can do to show solidarity is to normalise mask-wearing. In an indoor place with other people breathing? wear a mask. It will protect you and others, and make it easier for other people to do it without them being singled out.

WHAT IS REMOTE ACCESS AND HOW DO I DO IT?

Remote access is enabling audiences and/or speakers to attend an event without having to be in a room together.

Remote Access existed long before the pandemic in many forms, from telephone interviews on the radio to videochats, including:

1. Online Events

When everyone needed remote access online events became common, and people got used to speaking and attending events which were online only, on platforms which enable audiences and speakers to interact to different extents including but not limited to:

  • Zoom
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Crowdcast
  • Instagram Live
  • Facebook Live
  • Skype

Some of these platforms enable you to record the event and share it afterwards too, so you can add it to an archive of events on your own website, or through a video hosting platform such as youtube or vimeo.

Provide closed captions on all online events. These can be edited afterwards for accuracy if you’re uploading it after the event has ended.
To include signing speakers or attendees, make sure you have Sign Language interpreters.

2. Filmed Events

A filmed event can be shared in real time as an event happens, through a live-streaming platform, or afterwards, on a website or through eg. a youtube or vimeo channel.

There are lots of ways to film an event, from using a smart phone on a tripod, to hiring a film crew, depending on your budget and the size of the event.

Provide close captions on filmed events. These can be edited afterwards for accuracy if you’re uploading it after the event has ended.

To include signing speakers or attendees, make sure you have Sign Language interpreters.

3. Audio Recording of Events

Many literary festivals and event series audio-record events to create an archive that can be shared online (for eg. through soundcloud) or podcasted. This is a form of remote access that can be pretty simple to do.

If sharing audio-only provide a transcript.

4. In-Person events where one or more speakers appear virtually on-screen from a different location.

This was one of the most common forms of remote access for speakers pre-pandemic, and as previous festival director Eleanor Livingstone recently noted, was something StAnza Poetry Festival had been doing since 2009, when a poet’s travel plans failed. Many festivals and conferences have done this to include international writers, or very busy writers who don’t have time to travel! This has also become a common feature of hybrid events.

WHAT IS A HYBRID EVENT?

The word ‘hybrid’ has generally been applied during the pandemic to events which are both in-person and online.

Lots of small events organisers and festivals are complaining (understandably) of the cost of bringing production companies in, but others have found more lo-fi ways to do this and were doing it long before the pandemic. Hybrid doesn’t have to mean expensive with high production values. Training up your own people to do the tech is the most sustainable option for a hybrid future.

Often people think making an event hybrid means having to live-stream an event whilst it is happening, which can seem daunting to some event organisers, and does require more technical know-how and a decent internet connection. Live-streaming doesn’t have to be complicated, but there are other options to provide remote access too. Jamie Hale is working on a guide to low budget hybrid events which I’ll add here soon.

Some festivals describe themselves as hybrid when some of their events have remote access, but not all of them, which can be confusing as an audience member trying to work out what you can or cannot access.

Often this means only events seen as big sellers get live-streamed, so some of the more unusual content is not made accessible. Whilst this seems on the surface to make financial sense (you think you’d get a bigger online audience for a famous writer than a lesser known writer with a small following) it doesn’t make sense if that famous writer has lots of other content available online.

What I’d like to see people aiming for in programming is equality of access and equality of experience.

We’re a creative industry, we should be able to be creative about how we make this happen, to make sure everyone gets a good experience. A good experience doesn’t have to be a glossy experience: often what we are seeking is simply to be part of the conversation.

This might mean not, for example, trying to run a single workshop which is simultaneously online and in-person, so the workshop leader has to go back and forth between remote attendees and people in the room with them, but instead offering two different versions of the same workshop: one in-person, and one online.

Some things to consider when planning a hybrid event might be:

  • What is it about events that make them work and how do I bring that into a hybrid format?
  • How do we create interaction with online events? (encouraging chat functions for eg.)
  • Some people are not comfortable being recorded or filmed, so can you think of creative ways to solve that? If pre-recording an event, you can edit out any parts you don’t have consent to broadcast. Do we always need to see people’s faces? Give options!

RESOURCES

Red Door Press Keep Festivals Hybrid guide to putting events online. This has lots of handy tech info including details of what equipment you might need for live-streaming.

The Inklusion Guide. Coming soon, this will be an easy-to-use guide to best-practice accessibility across hybrid, online and in-person events.

Guides to working with disabled writers & audiences from the Society of Authors ADCI group.

The Society of Authors statement on retaining event access.

Recorded zoom session on making events accessible from author Amanda Leduc through the Festival of Literary Diversity, in Canada.

 Brella blog on benefits of hybrid events.

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