By Lisa Samuels

“Pressure tends to bring us to attention, so it’s no surprise that the COVID pandemic motivates art.”

Art is the eruption of energy in the form of made events amidst the forces of living. It tips over the edges of the utilitarian to perform imagination: paint leaves the building walls and finds canvas, movement exceeds the coordination of walking and finds dance, words leave the rules for assembling furniture and make figurations of despair and love. For humans, art is going to happen in any circumstance that permits us to garner materials, a modicum of safety, and an urge for serious play. In this sense art happens everywhere humans act, whether in modes of resistance and/or joy, whether in building community activities and/or in solo expressions of imagination as we co-make cultural meaning. 

Pressure tends to bring us to attention, so it’s no surprise that the COVID pandemic motivates art. But what kind of art? What position does one take to make ‘pandemic art’? For that matter, what does it mean for art to have a theme – or to exceed its theme and perform imagination that is other from what we might be said to know?  

Those questions were not uppermost for me when I was writing Breach, a poetry book that started in the 2020 Level 4 lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand. The book erupted outside my plans, as a response and record and release, and in writing it I became not so much “I” as a conduit for language under pressure and for aspects of human feeling that were, and are, experiencing the world in new orders. 

Hold on, how come artists can be thought to stand in for anyone else? 

Art’s materials are social and relational, and when we engage those materials we are also working with what it means to be human. Poetry’s principal material is language, and because language is our foremost tool for explaining cultures, poetry comes under the pressures of explaining. But writers do not choose their ground of cultural organisation nor the rules of language – art is in contexts larger than the individual maker. In that sense poets express the nexus they inhabit as cultural and bodily beings. That’s why poetry, like, yet also unlike, other art modes, enacts and expresses aspects of the times and pressures in which it is made. That’s why poetry, like other art, can be considered as not made by just one person nor as speaking only for and as that person. 

When we’re under COVID, in a lockdown (as we are when I’m writing this), when we know that someone we know has COVID and might die, then absolute life/death pressures collide with extant social controls and art material to produce something like Breach. Then, perhaps, the thematic infuses art whether we choose it to or not.

So creativity clusters around themes no matter what’s happening? 

Or we suddenly experience the thematics of creativity when we’re under pressure. We sense differently. Our COVID era is producing many responses seeking to record, historicise, and make sense of and hope within the difficulties, including multi-disciplinary online Pandemics Research hubs, journal issues addressing COVID’s impacts, and conversations about how art can be seen as prescient. Under pressure, people gather their materials and their collectivity to make things together, pushing back against the isolating threat hitting our global socius and our community socius. COVID’s advent continues prior body traumas, and it expands them: the masked figure in Snehashish Maity’s painting In between (2018) suddenly looks like we look now. 

To be fair, in writing books like Anti M, and creating theories like luminol historiography, I am already among those impelled to language by difficult social pressures: ways we organise, maybe optimise, and definitely sometimes hurt each other, and how we deal with and respond to threatening outside forces. Covid is one of those forces – it’s inexplicable and uninvited. It forces response. Poetry like Breach is one kind of response, and there are innumerable others happening and to come in the ‘serious play’ of art, which gives back to us, in its very making, signs of energy and endurance. 

Written in the eruption zone of COVID, Breach performs the palilalia trauma of lockdown. Starting with the dead, with Dr. Li Wenliang who raised the COVID alarm, the book surges through deflections, hungers, and political feeling in pandemic as suddenly ordinary life. The forced changes in relations derange the lines, chopped like “threats of / groceries / hands on techno / maps and wild-type / host societies”, “there’s a mask / between you and / every tangi- / ble growth”. The book performs one version of the stutter of feeling and knowing – and unknowing – that traumas like COVID make in our human arts. 

Here’s an excerpt, from the opening of Breach, coming out soon with Boiler House:

Naming the window
penny filter
stirs a sight oblique
the line
Li Wenliang
or next
garden toil
I awoke tilted after
the grocery aisles
aqualungs on speakers
who could tell
Li Wenliang any

Sheer window
passing thru
room to
savage room
treatise on nice
felt coasters
the ice cup
linear equilibrates
one coast line
for shore

ready to the lips
dictates wait
waving at windows
water splish here
tankards writ
every which
day there too
integument circles
those sweet green
carve caves
thru whom
treats of suffering are
over there
sit stead
for the plug fair
it’ll be in
arrears the spots of

time turned in
to busy modes the
conversation occurs
amidst some other
Li Wenliang than
here the terriers
nab incessant quiet
perky jointers
paka pak paka pak
the trucks are
on the road and
in front of


factizing re places
one is and is not
bare there happy to
think of some
one absent
more than one
if ‘everything’s connected’
waves of silicate or
personage flicks
over in-
side others
and what’s with
having drunk
advices? one’s
only doing the bet
one can
a drink out of
current spike in

thereby we re-
the local’s
far more self-
infused it’s
not coral close to
sea size
necessaire but
‘something in the water’
one drinks media
telly one
supers holding
out your
cup receipt
hold your mouth a
truth pours in
from outside

Lisa Samuels is a Professor of English at the University of Auckland. She works in experimental writing, multi-modal art, and ethical theory in transnational life and is the author most recently of The Long White Cloud of Unknowing (2019).

For more information on COVID-19, head to the Ministry of Health website.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

You might also like:

Why do people steal art? 🔊

How is art used to counter oppression? 🔊