Adieu, 2020!

December 27, 2020

This year heralded the dominance of the digital medium in the arts

This year has been like no other, probably since the Spanish Flu that killed 50 million people about a hundred years ago. It has been particularly shocking since it had become an article of faith for many that such epidemics were now a thing of the past.

While the challenges suddenly exposed the immense potential of the digital media and the ways to communicate and reach out to the world, they also opened up the possibility of exploring this new medium for artistic expression.

The pandemic has been a challenge because it all burst upon our heads and nobody was prepared for it, or had anticipated it except for a few new age prophets like Bill Gates. Initially, it was like making a virtue of necessity. Like the thin ray of light filtering through a small chink or crack in the prison wall, it appeared to hold more potential than there was. The proverbial rozan seemed to represent life outside that was shut off or to which access was forbidden. In its denial, lay the potential for an exploration through the imagination of all that existed.

And it is no surprise that the potential seemed to be greater than the means available and no one had really considered it as a real opening. It was to be somewhere in the distant future and the two would coincide – the technological development and its potential for use artistically. But lo and behold, the means were burdened by the possibilities or the needs that overloaded it, and tapped it for more and more, sucking it of all its possible sap and the juices.

So, whatever was produced was out of the need to reach out, of the need to express and the most effective manner of doing so was left for later. And the rudimentary forms seemed blessed for their mere existence. Relief at being there was seen to be a sufficient cause for their being around. The next stage was to be considered later.

The frequency and the usage changed. What it was in the beginning of the year, was not what it is at the end.

As the Covid casualty figures started going down by the time the summer ended, there was hope that things would return to normal and that the circle of life would resume. However, it was not meant to be so.

Rarely did Covid itself become the subject or the theme of art. Most of the releases in the cinema, both in India and in Hollywood, were withheld for better days when the times and things returned to normal. Only one film that one knew had been made on the subject of the pandemic itself was released.

Brad Pitt impersonated Dr Fauci on Saturday Night Live, while a Canadian director Mostafa Keshvari finished shooting a film, Corona. It dealt with fear and racism targeting the Asian population generated by the pandemic.

After a wait, we all looked ahead instead of looking back and the choice was being determined by what was deliverable. A group representing several major film festivals of the world decided to pool resources and hold an online festival. The Oscar Academy Committee announced that the films streamed would be eligible for awards, relaxing the strict condition of a film being released in cinema houses to meet with the eligibility criteria.

In Pakistan, the theatres closed and the music programmes came to a standstill. The artistes were forced to come out on the streets to demand the resumption of activities and to return to times that were normal. The government and the other bodies made some gestures to alleviate the lot of the performing artistes. However, they were never going to be enough to compensate the loss. No government can step in to fully compensate such losses; least of all one surviving on loans to balance its budget.

Several television serials showed a greater capacity to strike a chord with the audiences than films. These included the Game of Thrones, Downturn Abbey, Fleabag and Sex Education. Netflix reaped a windfall. Its huge success over the past few years made the switch over to being a production house a seamless transition. It was clear that its turnover was rivaling that of the biggest companies involved in film production and other entertainment ventures. It soon overtook all of them. Given the speed of transition, its impact and consequences failed to register adequately.

The corona pandemic affixed a seal on the rise of online activities. The streaming is probably now the new normal. It can be so huge that it might prevent the ways of the past from coming back.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Adieu, 2020!