Quarentertainment: a guide to consuming art and media during the time of COVID-19

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I guess the question is do you want to lean into pandemania, or escape from it?

I have personally gone both ways, but because of my predilection for philosophical and reflective works of art, I’ve found almost everything I’m taking in somehow relates to our times. Though having said that, as many have pointed out, even the most non-COVID related content is seen through a lens of, ‘oh my God I can’t believe they are standing so close to each other’ or, ‘holy shit remember how good restaurants / bars / concerts / travel / hugging / getting into fights on the subway was?’

I’ve personally found it much harder to get into books than I usually do, my brain is fuzzy, distracted, and I’ve even found myself scrolling through social media while watching movies which is something I would NEVER usually do. Can’t focus. I’ve started regularly checking Twitter which I’ve never done in my life, and I’ve even gotten on a dating app even though I can hardly bring myself to use it. Why? Because I miss human interaction, and I think more than anything I miss random human interaction. It’s been absolutely magical being in regular touch with people who I sometimes only speak to every few weeks or months, something I would consider a major upside to these events. But living in NY, or any big city, so much of your day is interacting with randoms, and I genuinely miss interacting with that crazy mass of humanity that used to be out there. Yes, even the annoying ones!

Anyhow, focus. Here are some of my pop culture tips for quarantimes, not particularly contemporary or even organised, but I blame that on my foggy brain.

IF YOU ARE LEANING INTO PANDEMANIA:

Magazines / Online reading….

I’ve always loved The Atlantic and the New Yorker but they are really coming in handy during this time. Personally I can’t read TOO much about politics right now, and I certainly can’t watch Trump’s daily briefings, as it really gets me down. Macro level think pieces by people much smarter than me….or on-the-ground portraits of individuals and communities is more where my head is at. Two of my favourite writers right now are Ed Yong, a science writer for The Atlantic, and Peter Hessler who’s written a bunch about COVID-19 from the perspective of a person living in China. Both have published books which I’ve started reading also.

Glynnis MacNicol has written some amazing reflections on being in New York at this time, not least this breathtaking essay, and actually this one too.

Other sources of comfort were also constants in my pre-corona virus life…..The School of Life which looks at modern applications of ancient philosophy as well as Brain Pickings which also does that, but perhaps in a more poetic and personal way. Both are just amazing, beautiful resources for hours of mind expansion, self-betterment and rabbit-holing.

In terms of hard news I am mostly relying on NY Times and The Guardian….Al Jazeera as well. I’m aware I live in something of a Eurocentric echo chamber….open to suggestions (within reason) on that.

Listening…..

NPR is a mainstay for me and it certainly has remained so…there are various programs but the most pandemic relevant one is the corona virus daily.

The El Hilo podcast is for me a much-needed window into what is happening in Latin America during this time, in Spanish.

As for music… well it’s back to comfort listening innit. The great pandemic record is perhaps ahead of us. I’ve been listening to a lot of Rage Against the Machine when I run in the park, which is nothing new really but Zack’s lyrics are just really hitting home now more than ever. The system’s still fucked and the anger in his voice always soothes me. I’ve found this to be a good time to deep dive into bands I should already have done that with, like Coil and Low and Yo La Tengo. I’ve been craving lots of Black Sabbath in the mornings for some reason.

As for new stuff…the FACS album is brilliant, as are the new NIN (there are two!), and the Sorry record is very good too, but none of them are going to cheer you up really, if that’s what you’re looking for. Fiona Apple‘s new record dropped today which feels like a very good thing right now. This profile on her in the New Yorker alone has plenty to chew on.

Book reading…

Well I just finished Dark Emu, which I started a long time ago and only just managed to resume and finish because of the aforementioned brain fogginess. It’s an amazing book. So amazing, and emotional, and I would also say essential, not only for Australians, and especially right now.

An urgent global crisis like this, the first truly global one of my generation if you don’t count the climate crisis, is a great time to think about how small we are. In the scheme of things. That’s why I love the start of Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes, which makes the lovely example of taking the entire history of our planet and transposing it onto a calendar year. Dinosaurs don’t appear until the evening of December 26th. Humans appear 30 minutes before the stroke of midnight, at the end of the year. Barely a blip.

I have love for humans, and our planet, and sometimes I love being alive and part of this race, but our lack of perspective never fails to disappoint me. Dark Emu looks at how Aboriginal history in Australia has been misrepresented, and our whole history misframed in fact, and how the ‘truth’ has been rewritten, as it always is. I don’t want to get into the “controversy” around the book – you can read this quite balanced article for that – but I think regardless of the nitty gritty there is an important lesson here about perspective. Whose perspective you’ve accepted as fact. If you’ve ever read The Open Veins of Latin America you might recognise the nauseating feeling of deep injustice that you had reading that book while reading Dark Emu. If you’ve never read that book you really should – and if you don’t have time at least watch John Leguizamo‘s excellent Latin History for Morons on Netflix for crib notes

Anyway, I digress. A passage from Dark Emu:

Maybe the destiny of mankind is still in flux, and the present iterations, of which we are so rightly in awe, has within its genius some dangerous flaws. The drive toward excellence, fuelled by the system of private enterprise, has an embedded need for exponential population growth, and, as we’ve experienced in the last few decades, this system seems incapable of protecting key resources such as air quality, fertile soils, and clean water. 

It’s not the difference between capitalism and communism; it’s the difference between capitalism and Aboriginalism. Capitalism provides a platform for decisions among fellow capitalists, but shudders under the load of persuading communities over vast areas of the country. If that were not so, we would not have reached such an impasse with our management of the Murray Darling basin; we would never consider leaving a state in our federation without drinking water; we would not have laws that allow coal-seam gas miners to ruin a farmer’s land and threaten the very groundwater of the continent.

To acknowledge the history of the country, and the social, agricultural and philosophical achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island People, does not put the economy at risk. 

I’ve struggled a lot with having empathy for people who are behaving really badly during this time. Politicians, yes, but also all of those Americans who are protesting the lockdown right now in some states. It is hard to repress the disgust. I walked past a very large group of Hasidic jews gathering and chanting outside what I later found out was the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn yesterday, and my jaw literally dropped like in a cartoon. I have felt waves of pure naked hate in the face of this kind of behaviour, and then guilt for feeling such an ugly emotion. I want to be better. To that end I’m reading Strangers in their Own Land which chronicles one woman’s journey across dividing lines, from the liberal haven of Berkeley California to deep into the deepest red part of Louisiana.  Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist, and she wanted to ‘climb the empathy wall’ and try to understand why people are voting for outcomes that aren’t necessarily serving them. So far it’s great.

A feel-good counterpoint to all this despairing, is ‘Hope in the Dark‘ by Rebecca Solnit which was written during the Bush administration, but which helped me focus on the positive when Trump was elected, and will come equally in handy now.

For those who are isolating solo Olivia Laing‘s brilliant The Lonely City is, if not a road map, at least an examination of aloneness.

Seeing and watching….

Devs is my kind of show at the best of times; set in the near future, physics-heavy sci-fi, moody and mysterious. It’s an 8-part series made by Alex Garland, and if you liked his most recent films Ex Machina and Annihilation there is a very strong likelihood you will like this. His brand of sci fi is philosophical, atmospheric and extremely beautiful looking. There were times in the middle of the show where they almost lost me, but by the end I was fully there.

What’s it about? You could say it’s about a tech company in San Francisco that gets in above its head, it’s about determinism, destiny, free will, life after death, and some science stuff that to be honest went over my head at times. But it’s also about humans, relationships, loyalty, and love.

It’s heavy viewing for this time, so be warned. There were several breathtaking moments for me, and again, considering the time we are living in, there were some passages that hit home particularly hard. This was one of them. For context, this passage was spoken by a character who has the ability to view the entirety of human history on a screen, like a film:

Our people didn’t live in caves for decades or centuries, it was millennia. I’ve been checking through the timelines; some of the wall paintings are 5 thousand years apart. Five thousand years in the same place, making the same images. How could nothing have changed in so much time? When I was a kid the world changed every few years. These days it changes every few months, sometimes every few hours. Such acceleration.

Such acceleration indeed.

Right now, for the world if not individuals, is a unique time of pause. Will we use it wisely?

I’m not a massive TV buff but I will say if you’re diving into dystopia right now, aside from essential early Black Mirror, you should also not miss 2019’s Years and Years.

In terms of arts and visuals being created, I think you could say there is a coronavirus aesthetic. There are the photos of normally bustling locations that are now empty, of sports games taking place in empty stadiums, of people on balconies, there are screen shots of zooms calls, and of course endless photos of bread. Then there are the depictions of the corona virus itself, a now familiar spikey ball not unlike some kind of mean Pokémon.

Plenty of galleries and museums have made their collections accessible online, but the majority of people are opting to look at other people’s home made depictions of works of art. I’m in that category – my poison of choice being the Facebook Group Terrible Art in Charity Shops which was always a treat but has now become transcendent.

The work of artist Noiserover resonates with me so much with me right now, he has a touch of Joan Cornella misanthropy to him which I enjoy. Also, see Darren Cullen for brutal satire; turns out so many of my favourite artists have who have always been talking about the end times are even more relevant now.

Personally, I find this Noiserover illustration to be the single best image of the coronatimes so far.

CORONATIMES

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR ESCAPISM….

This is not where I excel so I will keep this short and sharp.

Reading…..

You wanna lose yourself in a different world? I’ve never managed to enjoy fantasy as a genre but one of my favourite books in the whole world is The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. It’s fantastical yes, but more importantly is just fantastic, and won’t insult your intelligence even though it’s suitable for all ages.

Obviously any number of books could be used to transport you to another time, but maybe your brain is not quite in the headspace to tackle Dostoevsky or Austen.

A really readable and absorbing book I can recommend from recent experience is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know everyone has probably read it by now but if you haven’t yet, now is a perfect time. So clever, so enjoyable, and manages to tackle so many issues in a story that is like candy to consume.

For long form journalism, Longreads still has a sprinkling of great non-pandemic related content, as does Atlas Obscura.

Seeing and watching……

Again, I know this could be just about anything but if I’m gonna recommend my favourite comfort viewing for not thinking too much, it’s gotta be the perennial comedy trilogy: Wayne’s World, School of Rock and Office Space.

In a time where even watching old episodes of Seinfeld can be triggering or at least nostalgic, it’s hard to find the right thing to watch. If you want to lose yourself in a completely different world Twin Peaks is a great one to immerse yourself in. Yes it’s dark, but it’s surreal enough to be so far removed from our times that it’s really pure escapism. Even when it gets soap opera-y in season 2 it’s fun to watch.

Two films I watched lately that are not contemporary but sucked me into their worlds are the bizarre documentary Shirkers, a movie about a movie which is essential for all cinephiles, and Greener Grass which so bizarre I can’t even explain it. If you’re watching Netflix this list was super helpful.

A lot of people have been talking about online dance or exercise classes, and though that’s not really my bag, I can throw in a recommendation for yoga with Lesley Fightmaster. Her videos are free, have a good range from beginner to more challenging, and if her smiley upbeat voice doesn’t cheer you up I honestly don’t know what will.

Oh yeh, maybe Jack Black being Jack Black, Dave Grohl being Dave Grohl, or this guy being outstandingly bogan and actually quite informative as a home chef.

Listening……

Seeing as so much coming out right now is coronavirus focused it was really nice to take a break and FINALLY listen to the My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast, which I know everyone has already heard. But even if you have, it’s worth revisiting Season 1 as it’s given me most of my much-needed laugh out loud moments of this month.

Hhhmmm so I don’t listen to a lot of danceable music but the new Melt Yourself Down record is in that category, and while you’re there check out their self titled debut from 2013, criminally underrated in my opinion.

And finally, if like me you’re struggling with separating the days, listening to Nouvelle Vague always makes it feel like Sunday morning.

Good luck out there x

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