Essay’d Pandemic Edition #1 Dorota and Steve Coy

Essay’d has always played the long game. We publish a relatively small number of articles per year, and we hope that the writing will still hold up in five, or even ten, years time.

But that cadence didn’t seem to fit the speed of the current crisis, so we’ve changed a couple of things. First, we’ve accelerated the publishing schedule – you’re going to see more postings – and secondly, we’ve asked each featured artist to answer a quick “Crisis Survey.” 

Our first “Pandemic Edition” features the following conversation with Dorota and Steve Coy recorded and edited by Mariwyn Curtin. Mariwyn is also the author of a wonderful article on the duo, which can be found on the Essay’d Website. We hope that you enjoy both the essay and the interview.

Detroit Cultural Crisis Survey

Steve and Dorota Coy

Interviewed by Mariwyn Curtin on March 28, 2020 / Revised April 5, 2020

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. How has your practice been affected by the current global pandemic?

Our opening was canceled just when installation was complete. [The Five Realms, at Wasserman Projects] We are at home, so currently we are not physically building anything. We’re preparing for when the quarantine is lifted and doing research and development in the meantime.

Currently, we do a lot of interviews because people have time to write right now. We still have responsibilities with the current exhibition and trying to find a way to bring an immersive environment to people with the restrictions that are in place. We understand that this is a temporary situation. We’re just doing the stuff that we can do in our house.

2. What is the role of the artist in a time of crisis?

There are multiple ways in which art can engage society. It can challenge, soothe, distract. The role of the artist is to bring whatever is appropriate and needed for the situations.

Everybody deals with a crisis differently. At some point, depending on the gravity of the crisis, as things lift, and people heal, artists can open up dialogs. Let people come to terms with and manage what’s happening. At some point, there will be a time to open up dialogue about what we’re going through now. There will be a role for artists to be thought-provoking, to lead reflection about what has happened and inspire people to think about the decisions we need to make about the future. Artists can motivate positive change, provide meaning and create an engagement that serves as a coping mechanism for people.

3. In a time of crisis, what is the role of the art institution in a community?

Art institutions need to support the arts and art workers, and in times of crisis they need to strengthen that role. Art handlers and other museum workers are not working right now. A lot of artists and other art-world professionals have been forced to apply for unemployment. There are a lot of people in a bad situation. Hopefully, museums will support them in other ways. Let them work off-site and still get paid. Art institutions also have a responsibility to the public, to keep programming appropriate, to maintain art literacy in the world. Art – all the arts: dance, theater, Broadway, musical performances, opera – is necessary to our health and well-being.

Artists identify who we are as a culture, they are the ones asking the questions, asking “What is humanity?” The arts are usually the first thing to go when cuts are made but should be seen as the thing to inject money into. The arts spur conversations so we don’t go forward doing the same things. What we were doing before did not work; it did not prepare us for what life is now.

You can measure different cultures’ values regarding the arts by the money they are willing to invest in it. This morning in artnet News there was an article that Angela Merkel approved an aid package of 50 billion euros for art-related organizations and individuals. That’s $54 billion compared to the U.S. government’s $75 million injection into the arts and humanities in its emergency resolution. The U.S. money will keep a few museums open but not much else.

That’s a shame because art institutions can really help people have a moment to think and emerge with a different idea of what society can be after this.

4. In what ways can a crisis allow for artists to rethink their practices?

We are always affected by life and humanity around us. That’s what allows artists to reflect, respond, and create. This crisis is going to cause everyone to rethink everything. Or it should.
This is raw, our feelings are, raw, we don’t know how this is going to affect us. Maybe five years from now we can look back and understand how to process it. We can only process the feelings afterward. It’s all too hard to understand on the rollercoaster of ups and downs. These are scary times; people are losing their jobs, their lives. Detroit is very fragile–not all boats were lifted together. Many people are going through a lot, but we all need to know that so many people are enduring so much more. It’s a time to realize the privilege of having a roof and the ability to shelter in place. Society is rethinking who its most valuable members are, who is delineated as “Essential.” Grocery store workers are going in to work. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists. Detroit Public School response has been amazing. They send messages every day with information and activities. The superintendent really realized how important it was to let us know when things were changing by the hour. This crisis is hitting all people so hard. Artists have the responsibility to not look away from that as well as the opportunity to find ways for their work to help people through the crisis and to build something new afterward.


Image Credit: The Executives, Brush Park, 2011. From the performance Boardroom as depicted in the film Detropia. Photo by Craig Atkinson.