Reflections on an arts festival: How my internship taught me to connect in a pandemic

By Willow Bowen

Willow reflects on her time working as a Creative Production Intern on the York Mediale 2020 festival.

I began 2020 in the throws of the final year of my degree, watching the climbing cases of a new respiratory disease and slowly coming to realise this would be a year like no other, and not in the ways I had expected for the culmination of my degree. I remember sitting in the university library with my friends before the end of spring term, wondering what on earth was going on, before heading home for the break. Of course, this would actually be the last time I set foot in the library, and it would be a long time before heading back to York to see any of my friends. Almost from the moment you begin your degree, you are contemplating the end; your degree classification, job prospects, that sense of accomplishment and the pride of your graduation day. When you graduate during a global pandemic, these thoughts are thrown into harsh reality. At a time in your life where you are beginning to connect with the wider world and start thinking about making a mark on it, the loss of connection is felt keenly.

York Mediale’s 2020 festival centred on ideas of love, connection and loss of connection. I was lucky enough to work on this festival as a Creative Production intern, collaborating with the whole team to execute four major works. Although my role crossed a lot of territories, something that really stands out for me, which actually came in my very first week of the internship, was assisting the filming for ‘People We Love’. I spent two days with our Senior Producer and the artist, interacting with York citizens and really reconnecting with the beauty of strangers. The filming covered such a cross-section of the city, we met and engaged with people from all walks of life, with very different stories to tell. The filming process was a deeply personal experience, which participants emerged from often very moved. Although part of the creative vision for this piece relied on us not knowing who the participants were thinking about, interacting with these strangers before and after the filming became a breath of fresh air in the stagnancy of our enforced detachment throughout 2020. These everyday conversations with strangers that we take for granted, became even more poignant when we were able to see the work go-up in York Minster and the slices of people’s lives that they had offered up in front of the camera, simply through their faces – a rare experience these days with the necessity of face coverings. 

Working across this festival really helped me appreciate the importance of art and culture now. Of course, on one level it simply offers the chance for creative engagement during the empty hours with which many have found themselves. But it can also act as a kind of connection in itself: between audience and artists, between the viewer and the art, even between those who have engaged with the art. Perhaps we are not together, but we still share in these experiences. For me, the conversations about the artworks were some of the most significant interactions, as significant as engaging with the works themselves. I had the opportunity to speak with artists, with people who passed our information hub or were on the way out of the gallery exhibit, and with the people who took part in People We Love. These conversations can continue to flourish without face-to-face engagement. Galleries and venues may be closed for the foreseeable future, but if we can make art that is inspiring, accessible and timely, then we can continue to connect despite the barriers between us. The importance of art now is how it can bring people together, without actually bringing them together.