Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Thuy Linh Tu (associate professor of social and cultural analysis, New York University) spoke with Clare McGranahan (associate director of communications) about the importance of creativity in rethinking our conception of resiliency.
Clare McGranahan (CM): You selected a photo that you took in New York City for the time capsule. What was happening in the city when you took this picture, and why did you select it?
Thuy Linh Tu (TLT): This image was taken shortly after the protests against police violence began last summer. Apparently several people had broken into some stores in SoHo during the night in the midst of the protests. And though it was an isolated event, all the retailers in SoHo ended up closing their shops and boarded up their storefronts. Within days of the events, I mean like two days, SoHo became a complete ghost town.
Shortly after, all these people started showing up and started painting on all these wood boards that were covering up the windows. And for weeks afterwards, I saw all kinds of artists working on murals, collages, and all this other artwork. Most of the murals featured pictures of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but others were commentaries on the pandemic or commentaries on police, policing, or incarceration. So for a brief time there was street art everywhere, covering up all these wood boards. And for those of us who remember New York in the 1980s, we know that SoHo was this place where artists lived and worked before it became, basically, a high-end mall. The boards were eventually removed when the stores opened again, and they were thrown away, but for that really brief moment, shopping stopped all together, and SoHo became a place for artists again.
I chose this photo because when I was watching all this, I felt a palpable relief for a few moments. It reminded me that creativity was continuing to flourish, even in the midst of all this sadness and loss and anger. And I mean creativity of the artistic kind, but all kinds of creative work were flourishing in this moment, including things like the creation of these various vaccines; these are all of a piece for me.
But the second and more central reason why I like this picture is because it reminded me that we’re continually being challenged to be creative in our response to a world that’s not ours alone, but also belongs to things like viruses that are increasingly asserting their own will to live, their own desire to reproduce. To address all this, we’re going to have to have a high level of creativity and experimentation and imagination, and this image really reminded me of that, and it also reminded me of what can take root when we stop, literally stop, business as usual.
CM: We’re reaching a point in the pandemic where it seems like there may be an end in sight. Do moments like this give you hope for what comes after?
TLT: I think what I saw in this moment was a condensation of what other scholars were calling the twin pandemics of police violence and Covid-19. And by that what they meant, of course, was not just that these things were happening together at the same time, but they were linked—they were co-constituted.
Other scholars in this time capsule project have discussed the ways that race and class and other inequalities are continually being revealed in this pandemic, from racially differentiated rates of infection or death or hospitalization to essential workers who are more vulnerable every day, who are facing job loss and eviction, even as Wall Street continues to mint money. I think that’s one of the shocking things to a lot of us. We’ve been living through such a terrible time, and Wall Street just keeps making money. And other people have talked about the ancillary effects on humans of closing borders, migrants who are stuck or who are facing reverse migration.
None of this is really new to the readers of your project, but thinking about these two pandemics together offers us a way to think about the concept of resiliency. What does resiliency really mean? I think now that we’re on the tail end, or what we hope to be the tail end of this, the new thing for doom-scrollers like myself is the idea that this is not the only pandemic we’re going face—this is probably not even the biggest one. We’re all prompted in this moment to ask: How will we prepare for a future event that isn’t really known to us yet? How are we going to survive or overcome this crisis in a way that doesn’t just restore the kind of social and political institutions that have failed us? Because thinking about these pandemics together allows us to see that even though all of us at some level want things to get back to normal, for many of us, normal means suffering the kind of inequalities that are killing us every day.
So the question then becomes, what does resiliency mean after a crisis like this, and how can we build a deeper, stronger resiliency?
CM: Are there creative ideas for building resiliency you’ve seen that have inspired you during the pandemic?
TLT: Well, I think this—these moments, when there is a kind of unprompted, un-“organized” flourishing of creativity, like what I saw happening when the stores got boarded up. One of the things that will be important for researchers to do in the future is to return to these moments and to really think about what took root when business stopped.
For me, the image is a representation of that: this is what took root when business as usual stopped. And, for me, what future researchers can take away from this image is to be careful and thoughtful about finding these blink-and-you-miss-it moments where there were creative responses—it may be mural painting, it may be the makeshift shelters that people have built to eat in and to live in, it may be mutual aid networks and resource sharing—that are all experiments in living in a world that’s not ours alone. These are all about thinking or experimenting with a deeper and stronger resiliency.
And I want to be clear that I’m not trying to make an argument about creative destruction or anything like that. I think that what we’re learning through this is that some things really are not repairable. Lives lost to us will never return; some of the damage that we’ve inflicted will never be repaired. So it’s not about, “Oh, something better will grow.” It’s really about thinking seriously about how to not return to normal, and how to build stronger, more equitable, more inclusive, more just institutions. Gatherings like those of last summer prompted that thinking, for me, because it was a moment that I’m not sure we’re going to see again, but it did exist, however briefly.
When, in the future, we think about how to overcome crisis in a way that’s not just taking us back in time, we need to be sure that we’re turning to artists as well as policymakers, we’re turning to novelists as well as scientists, and that we’re taking the of creative impulses and the creative flourishing—that really is there—more seriously, and in a way that’s much, much more interdisciplinary. And I think that’s partly what the SSRC is doing here, with the time capsule—you’re social scientists and you want to look at pictures, right? That’s an impulse I want to be here for.
This interview was conducted on January 29, 2021. It has been edited for length and clarity.