Helen Varley Jamieson

Helen is on Sabbatical


Foto: Andrea Ass

My Sabbatical got Hijacked by the Pandemic

Last year I spent a lot of time surrounded by 2-metre high mirrors, looking at myself in multiple reflections, but between these mirrors and all my other projects I had precious little time for actual reflection. At some point I began to feel that I really needed a sabbatical.

The word “sabbatical” comes from the same root as “Sabbath”, relating to a day of rest. A sabbatical is a period of leave that allows an academic to take a break from their teaching and administrative duties in order to focus on research, write a book, or for other professional development. How great it would be to have a sabbatical! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take time out from my arts practice, to reflect on my work and processes, to take some deep breaths between the endless funding and project deadlines and remind myself what I’m doing and why?

But I’m a freelance artist. How can freelance artists go on sabbatical when we have precarious financial situations, when there is constant pressure to keep producing, when there is the fear that stepping out for a while might mean missing an opportunity or, worse, being forgotten …? I needed a sabbatical, but nobody was going to give me one, so I decided I would just say it and do it!

I arranged to spend the first half of 2020 in my home town, Dunedin, in New Zealand. It’s a long way from everywhere. Just after I booked my travel, I had to say no to a festival invitation in Slovakia. A pity – but somehow it felt good to say no. Usually I have a lot of difficulty saying no to opportunities but this time there was no question, it was impossible, I would be on sabbatical in New Zealand. This is good, I thought; this sabbatical is really a good idea! I got more excited about it. I finished as many projects as I could and stopped making plans for new ones. Of course, I still have ongoing projects and ideas, I can’t stop my brain. Maybe the sabbatical will allow space for the best ideas to blossom, uncrowded by the noise of other activities that I couldn’t say no to.

I flew to New Zealand and settled in to begin my sabbatical, and then the world changed. Suddenly, just about everyone else was also on sabbatical! New Zealand went into lockdown and everyone except essential workers were sent home. The internet was full of advice about how to fill those long boring hours at home – all the things we could learn and do and make and share – and everyone was video-conferencing. As a large part of my artistic practice for the last 20+ years has been cyberformance (live online performance), it was impossible for me to ignore the rush online, everyone discovering things that I’d been exploring for two decades, everyone becoming instant experts in doing everything online.

I had to come out of sabbatical. I had to work with artist-colleagues around the world to make performances in UpStage in response to the pandemic. I had to at least look at the gush of new funding opportunities, and then of course, I had to write some applications. Damn it! This is not how my sabbatical is meant to be going! But here are funding opportunities that look like they were written exactly for UpStage and cyberformance – new ways of connecting online, remote collaboration, solidarity across borders, adjusting to restricted movement. At the precise moment when everybody is actively engaging in the online world, I really have to pay attention.

I’m on sabbatical

I’m not on sabbatical

I’m in lockdown

I’m performing internationally

I’m doing yoga online

I’m very concentrated

I’m very distracted

I’m taking care of four chickens and a vegie garden and my elderly mother

I’m percolating a new performance

I’m doing jigsaws and reading novels

I’ve got all the time in the world

I’m racing to meet funding deadlines

I’m reflecting and resetting

I’m plotting how to change the world

I’ve made a list of things to do during my sabbatical

I haven’t done any of them

I’m excited by the pandemic as a portal

I’m terrified of the pandemic being used to extend surveillance

I’m curious about the “after” and the “next”

I’m hopeful about the funding applications

I’m desperate to succeed with some of the applications

I’m enjoying listening to the birds

I’m thinking a lot about whether anything makes sense any more

I’m thinking a lot

I’m on sabbatical

Helen Varley Jamieson