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Art & Creativity During A Pandemic: A Conversation with Dr. Wesley Hogan

As Summer begins and we continue to practice social distancing, we continue to reach out to WISH collaborators to learn from their experiences during COVID-19. We are inspired by many women, and we want to continue using this platform to share their stories and expertise with our audience.

We recently sat down virtually with Dr. Wesley Hogan, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and Research Professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute and Department of History. Dr. Hogan writes and teaches the history of youth social movements, human rights, documentary, and oral history. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

We can see how all over the world people are using art to cope. There is a huge uptake in the ways that people are using art to do things, to draw, to knit, to paint, to build. People are using music, dance, and film — even making playlists — to connect with others. People like D-Nice have used dance parties to help people find ways to connect socially even when they cannot participate physically.

There are ways that people are using the arts to express what they are feeling. Art is a way to process something that none of us have ever experienced. This enormous shut down of our daily lives has led to people using writing or journaling or the visualization of our daily lives and movement…People are using art to express their feelings about the incredible catastrophe and to express the ways that the pandemic is moving through communities in very unusual ways, but in some communities much harder than others. People have unequal access to cope with those feelings.

In the last week and a half, we have also seen the ways that police and systemic violence has wracked the United States, and national leadership has responded in unequal ways; some people are responding callously and others responding with great compassion.

Some people have very few outlets for dealing with the enormous range of emotions, so we’ve seen this outpouring of the arts.

People are using music, chanting, and theatre.

Artists are really good at helping us get out of old grooves that don’t serve us.

We know that when we get up in the morning there are certain habits and certain routines that we get into.

Medical care is no different. Hospitals, clinics — everything gets into patterns. Best available and standard levels of care is a thing. There are a certain set of habits and rules that we follow to provide a standard level of care and we are really proud of them. But what if something goes wrong and we need to dream and re-imagine the habits?

One of the things we have been trying to do is have artists help us imagine narratives for reproductive and sexual health care. How can we imagine an environment where sexual health is not something that women are ashamed of?

We want the gynecology exam to be something that is as normal as women going to get lunch. Right now, most women around the world dread going to their annual physical gynecological appointment.

The (In)visible Organ documentary investigates how the design of technology impacts healthcare, especially when concerning an intimate part of the female body. Directed by Andrea Kim and produced by the Calla Campaign, this film emerged from a collaboration between engineers, storytellers, scholars, physicians, and artists across ages and disciplines.

So, we have brought in artists to help us imagine that, because they hate boxes. For most artists, their physical appearance is self-modified and inspired. On the other hand, most doctors actually look very traditional. In part this traditional look is for doctors to reassure their patients, but in part that is the way that many doctors are wired. Artists on the other hand, are not wired to follow rules.

We are hopeful that by bringing artists and doctors together, we might be able to bring the best of both worlds and approaches.

A new project for the Center for Documentary Studies is bringing together story-tellers and physicians for a Latinx story-telling podcast series. We are at the beginning of the project, but we think that one of the things that we will learn is that when we work in this way with storytellers and healthcare providers, we will see some important lessons.

We know that by thinking outside of the box, artists are pushing us to think about how to provide better healthcare.

Since we are such deeply social creatures, social distancing stresses us out because we are lonely.

Wherever we are on the introvert-extrovert scale, it’s been disruptive for us to have to shift our connections to Zoom-land. It is very alienating to only connect with people through screens, to miss touch & hugs and the small things of grocery store connections, restaurants and all the little social interactions.

Artists both listen deeply inside themselves and share those visions, and they are also really excellent observers. They listen deeply to others and I think they form a powerful connection and a bridging function.

In non-social distancing times, artists have been doing that work (of forming connections) a lot. It is even more important in times like this where people are more acutely feeling that loneliness.

A little story about this…right now we have a lot of need for film and television. These are our modern equivalent to sitting around a campfire at night. People have often sat around a campfire and shared stories about their days. Since the 1940s when television was first created, it has done that same thing.

In the pandemic, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime have experimented with this. They have put things up that say, “Here is the number 1 thing that people are watching.” In a way they are creating a community by telling you, “here is what other people are watching.” That is new and used to be really private information — but now they are trying to give people a sense of feeling a little less alone. They are showing you what other stories people are consuming and sharing.

Both listening and sharing the same stories are ways that art can bring us together in moments like this.


We closed our interview with Dr. Hogan by asking her to share some advice that can be applicable for our society that is processing social distancing, adjusting to the losses and changes from COVID-19, and for those who are standing up to systemic violence. Dr. Hogan encouraged us to act and to be kind. We hope that you can find ways to act and be kind in your communities.

We encourage you to visit the Center for Documentary Studies for more resources as we all seek to be active.

Scene on Radio Podcast produced by CDS.

Books by CDS.

Opportunities to connect with Duke Arts.

Watch the full interview with Dr. Hogan and GWHT Post-Bacc Fellow, Keny Murillo.



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