While individuals from marginalised and vulnerable communities have long been confronted with the task of developing coping strategies, COVID-19 lockdowns intensified the conditions under which resilience and wellbeing were/are negotiated, not only for marginalised communities but for people from all walks of life. In particular, the pandemic has highlighted in simple terms the stark divide between the “haves” and “have nots”, and how pre-existing physical conditions and material resources (or lack thereof), including adequate income, living circumstances, and access to digital and other resources, have created different conditions for people to be able to physically isolate, avoid working in conditions that put them at greater risk of exposure to the virus, and maintain up-to-date information.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, and its conditions have tested our capacity for resilience to varying degrees. Poor mental health has become an increasingly urgent concern, with almost one in ten people contemplating suicide during Victoria’s second wave and prolonged lockdown in 2020 (Ali et al.; Czeisler & Rajaratnam; Paul). The question of what enables people to cope and adapt to physical distancing is critical for building a more resilient post-pandemic society.
With the understanding that resilience is comprised of an intersection of material and immaterial resources, this project takes as its focus the material dimensions of everyday resilience. Specifically, “Objects for Everyday Resilience” explores the intersection of material objects and everyday resilience, focussing on the things that have supported mental and physical health of different sections of the community in Melbourne, Australia, during the pandemic.
People in the Victorian city of Melbourne, Australia – including the research team authors of this article – experienced 262 days of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than any other city in the world. The infection rate was high, as was the death rate. Hospitals were in crisis attempting to deal with the influx (McReadie). During lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, all movement in the city was restricted, with 9 pm to 5 am curfews and a five-kilometre travel limit. Workplaces, schools, businesses, sports and leisure clubs were closed. One person per household could shop. Masks were mandatory at all times. PCR testing was extensive. People stayed in their homes, with no visitors.
The city limits were closed by roadblocks. Rare instances of air travel required a hard-to-get exemption. Vaccines were delayed. The state government provided financial support for most workers who lost income from their regular work due to the restrictions. However, the financial assistance criteria rejected many casual workers, including foreign students who normally supported themselves through casual employment (McReadie). The mental health toll of protracted lockdowns on Melbourne residents was high (Klein, Tyler-Parker, and Bastian). Yet people developed measures of resilience that helped them cope with lockdown isolation (Gerrand).
While studies of resilience have been undertaken during the pandemic, including increased attention towards the affordances of online platforms in lockdown, relatively little attention has been paid to whether and how material objects support everyday resilience. The significant amount of literature on objects and things (e.g. Whitlock) offers a wide range of potential applications when brought to bear on the material conditions of resilience in the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to unfold. As ethnographer Paula Zuccotti notes in her study of objects that people used in lockdowns around the world, “Future Archeology of a Global Lockdown”, the everyday items we use tell us stories about how we exist (Zuccotti).
Paying attention to the intersection of objects with resilience in everyday contexts can enable us to view resilience as a potential practice that can shape the conditions of social life that produce adversity in the first place (Chalmers). By studying relationships between material objects and people in conditions of adversity, this project aims to enhance and extend emerging understandings of multisystemic resilience (Ungar).
Objects have been central to human history, culture, and life. According to Maurizio Ferraris, objects are characterised by four qualities: sensory-ness, manipulability, ordinariness, and relationality. “Unlike the three spheres of biological life – the mineral, the vegetable and the animal – objects and things have been customarily considered dependent on humans’ agency and presence” (Bartoloni). In everyday life, objects can enhance resilience when they are mobilised in strategies of resourcefulness and “making do” (de Certeau).
Objects may also support the performance of identity and enable inter-subjective relations that create a sense of agency and of being at home, wherever one is located (Ahmed et al.; Gerrand). From an existential perspective, the experience of being confined in lockdown, “stuck” in one place, challenges cosmopolitan connectedness and sense of belonging. It also bears some similarities to the experiences of migrants and refugees who have endured great uncertainty, distance, and immobility due to detention or vintage of migration (Yi-Neumann et al.). It is possible that certain objects, although facilitating resilience, might also trigger mixed feelings in the individuals who relied on them during the lockdown (Svašek). From domestic accoutrements to digital objects, what kinds of things supported wellbeing in situations of confinement?
Multisystemic Resilience in Lockdown
It is especially useful to consider the material dimensions of resilience when working with people who have experienced trauma, marginalisation, or mental health challenges during the pandemic, as working with objects enables interaction beyond language barriers and enables alternatives to the re-telling of experiences.
Resilience has been theorised as a social process supported (or inhibited) by a range of “everyday” intersecting external and contextual factors at individual, family, social, institutional, and economic resource levels (Ungar; Sherrieb et al.; Southwick et al.). The socio-ecological approach to resilience demonstrates that aspects of individual, family, and community resilience can be learned and reinforced (Bonanno), but they can also be eroded or weakened, depending on the dynamic interplay of various forces and influences in the social ecology of an individual or a group. This means that while factors at the level of the individual, family, community, or institutions may strengthen resistance to harms or the ability to overcome adversity in one context, the same factors can promote vulnerability and erode coping abilities in others (Rutter).
Our project asked to what extent this social-ecological understanding of resilience might be further enhanced by attending to nonhuman materialities that can contribute or erode resilience within human relations. We were particularly interested in understanding the potential of the exhibition for creating an inclusive and welcoming space for individuals who had experienced long COVID lockdowns to safely reflect on the material conditions that supported their resilience. The aim of this exercise was not to provide answers to a problem, but to draw attention to complexity, and generate additional questions and uncertainties, as encouraged by Barone and Eisner. The exhibition, through its juxtaposition of (lockdown-induced) loneliness with the conviviality of the public exhibition format, enabled an exploration of the tension between the neoliberal imperative to physically isolate oneself and the public messaging concerning the welfare of the general populace.
Our project emerged from insights collected on the issue of mental health during “Living Lab” Roundtables undertaken in 2020 by our Centre For Resilient and Inclusive Societies, convened as part of the Foundation Project (Lam et al.). In particular, we deployed an object-based analysis to investigate the art- and object-based methodology in the aftermath of a potentially traumatising lockdown, particularly for individuals who may not respond as well to traditional research methods. This approach contributes to the emerging body of work exploring the affordances of visual and material methods for capturing feelings and responses generated between people and objects during the pandemic (Watson et al.).
“Objects for Everyday Resilience” sought to facilitate greater openness to objects’ vitality (Bennett) in order to produce new encounters that further understandings of multisystemic resilience. Such insights are critically tied to human mental health and physical wellbeing. They also enabled us to develop shared resources (as described below) that support such resilience during the period of recovery from the pandemic and beyond.
Arts and Objects as Research
The COVID-19 pandemic provoked not only a global health response, but also a reorientation of the ways COVID-related research is conducted and disseminated. Javakhishvili et al. describe the necessity of “a complex, trauma-informed psycho-socio-political response” in the aftermath of “cultural/societal trauma” occurring at a society-wide scale, pointing out the prevalence of mental health issues following previous epidemics (1). As they note, an awareness of such trauma is necessary “to avoid re-traumatization and to facilitate recovery”, with “safety, trustworthiness, transparency, collaboration and peer support, empowerment, choice” among the key principles of trauma-informed policies, strategies, and practices (3). Our project received funding from the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS) in July 2021, and ethics approval in November 2021.
Centring materiality, in November 2021 we circulated a “call for objects” through CRIS’ and the research team’s social media channels, and collected over 40 objects from participants of all ages for this pilot study. Our participants comprised 33 women and 10 men.
Following is a breakdown of the self-described cultural background of some participants:
Five Australian (including one ‘6th generation Australian’); four Vietnamese; two Caucasian; one Anglo-Australian; one Asian; one Brazilian; one British; one Caucasian/English Australian; one Filipino; one Filipino-Australian; one German/Portuguese/US; one Greek Australian; one Iranian; one Irish and Welsh; one Israeli; one Half German, Half Middle Eastern; one Middle Eastern; one Singaporean; one White British.
Participants’ objects and stories were analysed by the team both in terms of their ‘people, place, and things’ affordances – enhancing participants’ reflections of life in the pandemic – and through the prism of their vibrancy, drawing on object-oriented ontology and materiality as method (Ravn).
Our participants were encouraged to consider how their chosen object(s) supported their resilience during the pandemic. For example, some objects enabled linking with memories that assist in elaborating experiences of loss or grief (Trimingham Jack and Devereux). To guide those submitting objects, we asked about: 1) their relationship to the object, 2) the meaning of the object, and 3) which features of resilience are mobilised by the object.
From an analysis of our data, we have developed a working typology of objects to understand their particular relationship role to features of resilience (social capital, temporality) and to thematise our data in relation to emerging priorities in research in multisystemic resilience, materiality, and mental health.
Things on Display
Whilst we were initially unable to gather in person, we built an online Instagram gallery (@objectsforeverydayresilience) of submitted objects, with accompanying stories from research participants. Relevant hashtags in several languages were added to each post by the research team to ensure their widest possible visibility. This gallery features objects such as a female participant’s jigsaw puzzle which “helped me to pass the downtime in an enjoyable way”. Unlike much of her life in lockdown that was consumed by chores that “did not necessarily make me feel content or happy”, jigsaw puzzles made this participant “happy for that time I was doing them, transport[ing] me out of the confines of the lockdown with landscapes and images from across the globe”.
Another female participant submitted a picture of her worn sneakers, which she used to go on what she called her “sanity walks”. To counteract the overwhelm of “being in the house all the time with 3 (autistic) children who were doing home learning and needed a lot of support”, while attempting to work on her PhD,
going for walks every day helped clear my mind, get some fresh air, keep active and have some much needed quiet / me time. I ordered these shoes online because we couldn’t go to the shops and wore them almost daily during the extended lockdowns.
Books were also popular. During lockdowns, according to a female participant,
reading helped me connect with the outside world and be able to entertain myself without unhealthy coping mechanisms such as scrolling endlessly through TikTok. It also helped me feel less alone during the pandemic.
Another female participant found that her son’s reading gave her time to work.
Olfactory objects provided comfort for a participant who mourned the loss of smell due to mask wearing:
perfumes were my sensory transport during this time – they could evoke memories of places I’d travelled to, seasons, people, feelings and even colours. I could go to far-off places in my mind through scent even though my body was largely stationary within my home. (Female participant)
Through scent objects, this participant was “able to bring the world to meet me when I was unable to go out to meet the world”.
Other participants sought to retreat from the world through homely objects:
throughout lockdown I felt that my bed became an important object to my sanity. When I felt overwhelmed, I would come to bed and take a nap which helped me feel less out of control with everything going on in the world. (Female participant)
For an essential worker who injured her leg whilst working in a hospital, an Ikea couch enabled recovery: “the couch saved my throbbing leg for many months. It served as a place to eat, paint and rest.” (Female participant)
While pets were not included as objects within this project, several participants submitted their pets’ accoutrements. A female participant who submitted a photograph of her cat’s collar and tree movingly recounts how
while I was working online in lockdown, this cat tree kept my cat entertained. She was so enthusiastic while scratching (covered in her fur) she somehow managed to remove her collar.
I call Bouny my Emotional support cat … . She really stepped up her treatments of me during the pandemic. My mother had advanced dementia and multiple lockdowns [which] meant I could not see her in the weeks leading up to her death.
These objects highlight the ways in which this participant found comfort during lockdown at a time of deep grief. For other participants, blankets and shawls provided sources of comfort “since much of lockdown was either in cool weather or deepest winter”.
I found myself taking [my shawl] whenever I went out for any of the permitted activities and I also went to bed with it at night. The soft texture and the warmth against my face, neck and shoulders relaxed my body and I felt comforted and safe. (Female participant)
Another used a calming blanket during lockdown “for time-outs on my bed (I was confined to a tiny flat at the time and separated from my family). It gave me a safe space”. (Female participant)
In a similar vein, journalling provided several participants with “a safe space to explore thoughts and make them more tangible, acting as a consistent mindful practice I could always turn to”.
The journal provided consistency throughout the ever-changing lockdown conditions and a strong sense of stability. Recording thoughts daily allowed me to not only process adversity, but draw attention to the areas in my life which I was grateful for … even from home. (Female participant)
In addition to fostering mindfulness, the creative practice of journalling enabled this participant to exercise her imagination:
writing from the perspectives of other people, from friends to strangers, also allowed me to reflect on the different experiences others had during lockdown. I found this fostered empathy and motivated me to reach out and check in on others, which in turn also benefited my own mental health. (Female participant)
Creative practices were critical to sustaining many participants of this study. The Norman family, for example, submitted an acrylic on canvas artwork, Surviving COVID in Port Melbourne (2021), as their object of resilience:
this work represents the sentiments and experiences of our family after a year of successive COVID lockdowns. Each section of the canvas has been completed a member of our family – 2 parents and a 21, 18 and 14 year-old. (Norman family)
Likewise, musical instruments and sound objects – whether through analogue or digital means – helped participants to stay sane in long lockdowns:
wen I didn’t know what to do with myself I always turned to the guitar. (Male participant)
Music was so important to us throughout the lockdowns. It helped us express and diffuse big feelings. We played happy songs to amplify nice moments, funny songs to cheer each other up, angry songs to dance out rage. (Family participants)
Curating the Lockdown Lounge
To enhance the capacity of our project’s connections to the wider community, and respond to the need we felt to gather in person to reflect on what it meant for each of us to endure long lockdowns, we held an in-person exhibition after COVID-19 restrictions had eased in Melbourne in November 2022.
The decision to curate the “Lockdown Lounge” art and research exhibition featuring objects submitted by research participants was consistent with a trauma-informed approach to research as described above. According to Crowther, art exhibits have the potential to redirect viewers’ attention from “aesthetic critique” to emotional connection. They can facilitate what Moon describes as “relational aesthetics”, whereby viewers may connect with the art and artists, and enhance their awareness of the self, artist, and the world. As a form of “guided relational viewing” (Potash), art exhibits are non-coercive in that they invite responses, discussion, and emotional involvement while placing no expectation on viewers to engage with or respond to the exhibition in a particular way.
When considering such questions, our immersive in-person exhibition featured a range of object-based installations including audio-visual and sound objects, available for viewing in our Zine, The Lockdown Lounge (Walimunige et al.). The living room design was inspired by French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira’s immersive living room installation, “Dreams Don’t Have Titles”, at the 59th Venice Art Biennale’s French pavilion (Sedira), attended by project co-lead Vivian Gerrand in June 2022. The project team curated the gallery space together, which was located at Deakin University’s city conference venue, “Deakin Downtown”, in Melbourne, Australia.
Fig. 1: The Lockdown Lounge, living room. “What Got You through Lockdown?” research exhibition and experience, Deakin Downtown, Melbourne, 21-25 November 2022.
In the centre of the Lockdown Lounge’s living room (see fig. 1), for example, a television screen played a looped collection of popular YouTube videos, many of which had gone viral in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, admonishing Victorians to avoid non-essential activities through the example of an illicit dinner party held that resulted in a spike in coronavirus cases in March 2020 (ABC News). This short video excerpt of the Premier’s press conference concluded with his advice not to “get on the beers”. While not on display in this instance, many visitors would have been familiar with the TikTok video remix made later in the pandemic that featured the same press conference, with Premier Andrews’s words spliced to encourage listeners to “get on the beers!” (Kutcher).
We recalled the ways in which such videos provided light relief through humour at a time of grave illness and trauma: when army trucks were being summoned to carry the deceased from Northern Italian hospitals to makeshift gravesites, those of us privileged to be at home, at a remove from the ravages of the virus, shared videos of Italian mayors shouting at their constituents to “vai a casa!” (Go home!). Or of Italians walking fake dogs to have an excuse to go outside. We finished the loop with a reproduction of the viral Kitten Zoom Filter Mishap, in which in online American courtroom defendant Rod Ponton mistakenly dons a cat filter while telling the judge, ‘I am not a cat’.
The extraordinary nature of living in lockdown initially appeared as an opportunity to slow down, and this pandemic induced immobility appeared to prompt a kind of “degrowth” as industries the world over paused operation and pollution levels plummeted (Gerrand). In reflection of this, we included videos in our YouTube playlist of wild animals returning to big cities, and of the waters of Venice appearing to be clear.
These videos recalled how the pandemic has necessitated greater appreciation of the power of things. The spread of the novel coronavirus’s invisible variants has permanently altered the conditions and perceptions of human life on the planet, forcing us to dwell on the vitality intrinsic to materiality, and renewing awareness of human lives as taking place within a broader ecology of life forms (Bennett).
Within this posthuman perspective, distinctions between life and matter are blurred, and humans are displaced from a hierarchical ontological centre. In an essay titled “The Go Slow Party”, anthropologist Michael Taussig theorises a “mastery of non-mastery” that yields to the life of the object. This yielding – a necessary response to the conditions of the pandemic – can enable greater attentiveness to the interconnectedness and enmeshment of all things, leading to broader understandings of self and of resilience.
To understand how participants responded to the exhibition, we asked them to respond to the following questions in the form of open-ended comments:
- What if anything affected you most?
- Did any of the objects resonate with you?
- Did the exhibition provide a safe environment for you to reflect on your sense of resilience during the pandemic?
Fig. 2: Research exhibition participant standing beside artwork by the Norman family: Surviving COVID in Port Melbourne, acrylic on canvas (2021), The Lockdown Lounge.
Through curating the art exhibition, we engaged in what Wang et al. describe as “art as research”, whereby the artist-researcher aims to “gain a deeper understanding of what art, art creation, or an artistic installation can do or activate … either in terms of personal experiences or environmental circumstances” (15). As Wang et al. write, “the act of creating is simultaneously the act of researching”, neither of which can be distinguished from one another (15).
Accordingly, the process of curating the gallery space triggered memories of living in lockdown for members of our team, including one male youth researcher who remembers:
as the space gradually began to be populated with object submissions … the objects began to find their place … . We slowly developed an understanding of the specific configurations of objects and the feelings that these combinations potentially could invoke.
As we negotiated where my object might be placed, I felt an odd sense of melancholy seeing my record player and guitar at the exhibition, reminiscing about the music that I used to play and listen to with my family when we were all in lockdown … . As my Bon Iver record spun, and the familiar melodies rung out into the space, I felt as if I was sharing an intimate memory with others … . It also reminded me of the times when I had felt the most uplifted, when I was with family, near and far, knowing that we all were a unit.
Another of our youth researcher team members served as an assistant curator and agreed to monitor the gallery space by being there for most of the five days of the exhibition’s opening to the public. She describes her work in the gallery thus:
my role involved general exhibition upkeep – setup, answering visitor inquiries and monitoring the space – which meant being in the exhibition space for around 7.5 hours a day. Although it cannot be fully compared to living through Melbourne’s lockdowns, being in a space meant to mimic that time meant that comparisons naturally arose. I can see similarities between the things that supported my resilience during the lockdowns and the things that made my time at the gallery enjoyable.
Through engaging with the gallery, this researcher was reminded of how spending time engaging in hands-on tasks made physical distancing more manageable. Spending time in the exhibition space also facilitated her experience of the lockdowns and the material conditions supporting resilience. She reflects that
the hands-on, creative tasks of setting up the exhibition space and helping design a brochure reminded me of how I turned to baking so I could create something using my hands … . In the beginning, I approached my time at the gallery as a requirement of my work in this project … . Looking back now, I believe I understand both the person I was those years ago, and resilience itself, a little bit better.
Fig. 3: Research exhibition participant wearing an Oculus virtual reality headset, watching the film Melbourne Locked Down (van Leeuwen), The Lockdown Lounge, November 2022.
As these examples demonstrate, complex assemblages of people, places, and things during the COVID-19 pandemic were, and are, “suffused with multisensory and affective feelings”; exploring the ways affect is distributed through socio-spatialities of human experience enables researchers to better unpack individuals’ COVID experiences in ways that include their surroundings (Lupton). This was further evident in the feedback received from participants who attended the exhibition.
Feedback from participants suggested that the public exhibition format enabled them to explore this tension between isolation and orientation to the greater good in a safe and inclusive way (e.g. fig. 2). For Harry (29/m/Argentinian/New Zealand), interacting with the exhibition “reminded me that I wasn’t the only one that went through it”, while Sam (40/m/Chinese Australian) resonated with “many … people’s testimonials” of how objects helped support their resilience during long periods of confinement.
Sam further added that participating in the exhibition was a “pleasant, friendly experience”, and that “everyone found something to do”, speaking to the convivial and inclusive nature of the exhibition. This resonates with Chaplin’s observation that “the production and reception of visual art works are social processes” that cannot be understood with reference to aesthetic factors alone (161-2). In the quotes above, it is evident that participants’ experience of the exhibition was inherently entwined with the sociality of the exhibition, evoking a sense of connection to others who had experienced the pandemic (in Harry’s case), and other exhibition attendees, whom he observed “all found something to do”.
Additionally, participants’ responses highlighted the crucial role of the “artist researcher”, whom Wang et al. describe as qualitative researchers who use “artistically inspired methods or approaches” to blend research and art to connect with participants (10). In particular, the curation of the exhibition was something participants highlighted as key to facilitating their recollections of the pandemic in ways that were relatable. Nala (19/f/East-African Australian) commented that “the room’s layout allowed for this the most”: “the room was curated so well, it encaptured [sic] all the various stages of COVID lockdown – it made me feel like I was 16 again”.
Returning to Wang et al.’s description of “art as research” as a means through which artist researchers can “gain a deeper understanding of what art, art creation, or an artistic installation can do or activate” (15), participant responses suggest that the curation of Lockdown Lounge as a trauma-informed art exhibition allowed participants to re-experience the pandemic lockdowns in ways that did not re-traumatise, but enabled the past and present to coexist safely and meaningfully for participants.
Conclusion: Object-Oriented Wellbeing
From different sections of the community, “Objects for Everyday Resilience” collected things that tell stories about how people coped in long lockdowns. Displaying the objects and practices that sustained us through the peak of the COVID-19 health crisis helped our participants to safely reflect on their experiences of living through long lockdowns. The variety of objects submitted and displayed draws our attention to the complex nuances of resilience and its material and immaterial intersections.
These contributions composed, as fig. 1 illustrates, an almost accidentally curated diorama of a typical lockdown scene, imitating not only the materiality of living room itself but something also, through the very process of contribution, of the strange collectivity that the city of Melbourne experienced during lockdown periods. Precisely partitioned within domestic zones (with important differences for many “essential workers”, residents of public housing high-rises, and other exceptions), lockdowns enforced a different and necessarily unifying rhythm: attention to daily briefings on COVID numbers, affective responses to the heaves and sighs of infection rates, mourning over a new and untameable cause of loss of life, and routine check-ins on newly isolated friends and family.
In hindsight, as the city has regained – perhaps redoubled, a sign of impatience with earlier governmental languages of austerity and moderation? – its economic and hedonistic pulse, there are also signs that any lockdown collectivity – which we also acknowledge was always partial and differentiated – has dispersed into the fragmentation of social interests and differences typical of late capitalism.
The fascination with “public” objects – the Northface jacket of the state premier, COVID masks and testing kits, even toilet paper rolls, serving metonymically for a shared panic over scarcity – has receded. To the point, less than two years on, of this media attention being a scarcely remembered dream. The Lockdown Lounge is an example of a regathering of experiences through a process that, through its methods, also serves as a reminder of a common sociality integral to resilience. Our project highlights the role of objects- and arts-based research approaches in understanding the resources required to enhance and enable pandemic recovery and multisystemic wellbeing.
We would like to thank the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies for their funding and support of the Objects for Everyday Resilience Project. Thanks also to the Alfred Deakin Institute’s Mobilities, Diversity and Multiculturalism Stream for providing a supplementary grant for our research exhibition. Objects for Everyday Resilience received ethics clearance from Deakin University in November 2021, project ID: 2021-275.
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