Contributions from the United States

3 entries (click on the titles to navigate, or scroll down to read all three):

1. How artists in New Orleans are using social media to combat isolation

Author: Asad el-Malik is a PhD candidate at Columbia International University’s School of Intercultural Studies. You can contact him at asadelmalik@gmail.com.

Fieldsite: I am currently experiencing the lockdown in New Orleans, Louisiana where I have completed ethnographic research on African American Muslims. My current research is centred on the relationship of religious practices and psychotherapy.

New Orleans is a city where art grows like a rose through cracks in concrete. The city is plagued with poverty, inequality, violent crime and high incarceration rates. This is coupled with the fact that New Orleans is a politically liberal city in a deeply conservative Republican state. In the last fifteen years the city has faced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and COVID-19. The people of the city have made adjustments, adaptations, and alterations.

With the implementation of the stay-at-home order, artists in New Orleans have made the adjustment to social isolation and have incorporated social media to create new ways of engaging their audience, creating a sense of normalcy and cultural connectivity, and raising funds.

“Music is a part of everything in New Orleans”

Mayor Latoya Cantrell issued a stay-at-home order in mid-March effectively shutting down restaurants, bars, and music venues. The order also silenced many of the city’s musicians and bands. Without having venues in which to perform, musicians saw their revenue dry up almost instantaneously.

A popular DJ in the city took to Instagram and Facebook Live to provide entertainment to his fan base as well as to gain revenue. While spinning records in his living room, he also solicited donations via CashApp. After a few successful nights, with nearly a thousand people on his live feed, other DJs decided to replicate his success. I have observed at least six other popular DJs conducting live performances via Facebook and Instagram. These live experiences have now become known as “quarantine DJs”.

This new method of audience engagement appears to have its pros and cons. I spoke with one DJ that said spinning records via Facebook live diminishes the relationship between the audience and the DJ. However, he noted that the incorporation of social media and technology has opened new doors and revenue streams for all DJs. He was recently booked for a party in Atlanta, Georgia which will be done virtually.

Another DJ, who plays exclusively a local genre of music known as bounce, said that “music is a part of everything in New Orleans”. He felt that he was providing a cultural service to the people of the city as they dealt with the challenges of isolation.

Facebook and Instagram appear to be the main mediums that are used by the DJs. On Friday and Saturday nights my timeline is speckled with notifications that different DJs are going live. Each DJ has his or her CashApp information visible so that viewers can tip.

Louisiana Rising

The months of April and May bring huge festivals to New Orleans. However, all festivals have been cancelled including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which typically draws about half a million people. The cancellation left many local bands without benefit of performing in front of the large crowds that the festival brings. In response to this, a local TV station decided to film local bands in their homes and broadcast the performances on television and on their website. They called the series Louisiana Rising and have filmed over 30 individual performances from various artists. Contact information and their CashApp is also made available.

Mardi Gras 2020- Asad el Malik

Another group has taken a similar approach but with a uniquely different perspective. A group called Letters from the Porch also films artists from their homes but with a specific purpose of offering support to members of the medical profession.

“Letters from the Porch is a series of videos in which musicians and performers offer their gifts in gratitude to the medical community. Artists perform on their porch or on the sidewalk in front of their house either solo or with their accompaniment, maintaining proper social distance.”- Letters from the Porch

The videos are uploaded to the group’s website via YouTube and shared throughout social media. The artists offer original pieces of poetry and songs with the expressed intent of lifting the spirits of frontline medical professionals.

A Grammy-nominated group called Tank and The Bangas have also taken to social media in efforts to support other local artists. I spoke with someone close to the group who stated they worked with Billboard to organize a virtual concert to raise funds to assist out of work musicians. To date the band, through a series of virtual concerts on Instagram Live, has raised about five thousand dollars for local musicians.

Do you want the word? Pass it on.

I recently attended a virtual spoken word show curated by a group called “Pass it on”. The group typically organizes a monthly showcase of spoken word poetry and visual art but now does the show virtually. The show that I attended used Zoom as the platform.

Courtesy of Malik Bartholomew

I have attended several of the group’s in-person shows in the past. During the in-person show, the host would ask “do you want the word?” and the audience would respond “pass it on.” I was interested to see how the audience would interact in the virtual setting. When the host asked the question, the members on the Zoom conference typed the response “pass it on”.

I spoke with one of the organizers of the event and asked his thoughts about the virtual show. He stated that the last in-person show had an attendance of about 75 people and the virtual show had about 80 people. While he was happy with the participation in the virtual show, he expressed concern that the number of viewers fluctuated a lot throughout the show. However, he believes that the incorporation of a virtual platform with the live show would be a good idea because of the opportunity to include people who no longer live in the city of New Orleans. He speculated that one day poets in different cities could perform virtually at the live show.

Black Film Festival

The Black Film Festival is an event that has taken place for the last three years in New Orleans. This year however, the two week-long festival was forced to move entirely online. From March 29th to April 13th the festival showcased different films each night from independent black filmmakers. The films were broadcast via YouTube. Instagram Live was used to interview each filmmaker.

Overall, about 1,500 people viewed different films throughout this two-week period. The festival also partnered with the City of New Orleans Office of Cultural Development. The city saw the festival as an opportunity to offer entertainment to citizens as they traversed through this time of isolation.

Analysis

Artists in New Orleans have found creative ways to utilize social media to engage their audience and support the community. Some have also found a way to supplement their lost wages. While the citizens of New Orleans confront the reality of quarantine and isolation, the cultural bearers of the city are playing an important role. During normal times the city is alive with sound, colors, and textures provided by an eclectic group of artists. These artists have now found a way to continue to provide their much-needed contributions.

2. Individual narratives in a collective struggle

Original illustration by Lia Yue

Author: David Saad Per Asplund, B.A. Anthropology, University of California, Riverside

Fieldsite: Riverside, located in Southern California. While sitting in my apartment, I interviewed my participants by using the call feature in the Facebook chat. I was able to reach out to one participant in Athens (Greece), one in Minnesota, one in Wisconsin, and lastly one in California.

Two of my housemates had already left to return home. My third housemate and I sat down at the dinner table. He was telling me how frustrated he was, saying: “this stupid virus is ruining everything for me.” Social isolation was disrupting the life that he has struggled to build over the past seven months: the girl he liked had to move, income was an issue due to unemployment, and resources were scarce. Now that online classes had taken the place of his in-person classes, his motivation was at an all-time low. On the other hand, I was angry at him for not washing his hands as often as the government was recommending. I was also much more afraid of contracting something since I was planning on returning to Sweden to be closer to family. My mom has a very weak immune system, so my main focus was on keeping her safe.

The difference between what was important to my housemate and what was important to me was so significant, it felt like day and night. This piqued my curiosity about why social distancing revolves around certain issues more than others for different people. I contacted people that I knew and asked them if they wanted to be a part of a small project where they shared how their lives had changed because of isolation. I asked questions to find out what their lives had been like before and how they changed after the lockdown was imposed, as well as what the most frustrating thing about being self-isolated was. The purpose of this fieldwork was to let personal narratives of each participant be shared in a relatable way so that others going through the same things can find some comfort in knowing that they are not alone. Furthermore, I was also interested in knowing why we have different priorities when we are all facing the same pandemic.

Participants’ Frustrations

One of the participants that I interviewed shared with me how frustrating it was that she had spent so much time trying to recreate herself and forming a new identity.

I put a lot of effort into ‘recreating’ myself as the person I wanted to be [because] my family has held me back from being that person…the hardest part about quarantine for me is being trapped in my house with the people I have been trying to escape for so long and I can no longer go somewhere else to escape”, she says.

Another one of the participants shared with me how he misses going to the gym and seeing his friend, which made him depressed and frustrated. Going to the gym is a liberating feeling that makes him feel free, it is a part of who he is that cannot be substituted with anything else. He explained this by saying (I am paraphrasing here) “if 50% of me revolves around the gym, 25% around family, and 25% around friends, then if you take the gym away from him then half of me is gone”.

Another participant was frustrated because the routine and life that she had built for herself had been taken away from her. She no longer had a structured life of going to class, work, cooking, free time, and seeing friends. I asked her to walk me through her life during isolation.

My sleep schedule has gone totally off, so I sleep at like 5 or like 6 am in the morning, and then I wake up in the afternoon which is terrible, ’cause it not only just throws off my sleep it also throws off my eating habits completely, and home workouts are not just as fun.”

Reflections

After asking around and talking to people about what they were frustrated about and asking them to describe why what they said was a frustration, I realized that there was no one objective “thing” that is most important. My housemate comes from a very strict and conservative household where dating was not allowed until marriage, so it makes sense why not being able to see the girl he liked was important.

The first participant, who is also my Zumba instructor, misses going back to teach classes because her identity as an instructor was taken away from her, and she is now stuck with the people who try to identify her as someone else. Going to the gym might seem like a minor thing for someone to have as their number one priority, but for some, lifting weights is more than just about building muscles and staying healthy, it is a part of their character. As for myself, my mother was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2016, and her body took a huge blow after chemotherapy. My dad called me a Thursday night and said, “David, you need to fly back to Sweden because mom might not survive the weekend.” My urge to return healthy and safe became my number one priority, but that does not give me the right to pass judgement onto others’ struggle and where their priorities should lie.

My best friend taught me a saying many years ago as a tool to practice understanding others: “you have got to be bigger than your own emotions.” This resonated with me, and in times like this, I want to be bigger than what I feel today because each individual struggle stems from individual experience and mine was valuable and unique as everyone else’s.

What now?

I would encourage everyone to find out about what they are frustrated and worried about when being isolated. Ask your friends, family, and people that you care about what they are frustrated about, and avoid trying to justify to yourself why they should feel/think differently. When you are watching the news, you will see that people will have different priorities that are unlike yours, and that is okay.

Whether you miss going to the gym or it feels like your liberty was taken away from you for some other reason (maybe you are scared of contracting the virus because people you care about are in a high-risk demographic, or maybe you just struggle to build a routine and a new sleeping and eating schedule), just know that you are not alone.

3. The Power Of Bingo During COVID-19

Author: Carrie Ryan is a Teaching Fellow in Biosocial Medical Anthropology at University College London. Her doctoral research focused on the impact of community care in precarious ageing trajectories. Her new research rethinks the ‘problem’ of older adult loneliness.

Fieldsite: Carrie spent two years living and working in a retirement community in Los Angeles.

As lockdowns impose physical distancing, communities are imagining new ways to connect, and there is one surprising, shared tactic communities across the world are using to bolster social ties: bingo.

Stories of bingo play during the pandemic abound online. Neighbourhoods across England have joined together to play bingo in the streets, with many offering cleaning supplies and toilet paper as pandemic-coveted prizes. Young housemates in Amsterdam called bingo through a megaphone to the retirement community across the road, where older adults eagerly played from balconies. And Matthew McConaughey announced bingo by Zoom for residents quarantining at The Enclave, an assisted-living community in Round Rock, Texas. As more videos of bingo games emerge from India to Spain, the game’s global popularity in this pandemic becomes increasingly clear.

I am not surprised by the surge in bingo play during this pandemic. As a social and medical anthropologist researching aging and care, I spent two years living and working in a retirement community in Los Angeles. During this time, I played over four hundred games of bingo with residents. Though popular ideas depict bingo as a silly game, which creates idle, disengaged older adults, I found the contrary; bingo had the power to enliven residents and to form among them feelings of connection and community. This was a remarkable feat in an institutional setting that could at times demoralize people and divide them by class, ability, gender, and ethnicity. Bingo’s local importance to this Los Angeles retirement community, I think, helps shed light on why bingo is gaining popularity in communities globally during this pandemic.

Bingo As Game And Ritual

Levi Strauss (1966) argued that the difference between games and ritual was that games divide people by creating inequality between winners and losers, while ritual coheres people by creating equality between its participants. But bingo at the retirement community complicated this sharp divide between game and ritual. Though in bingo play some residents won while others lost, residents would often say that the outcome of bingo did not matter. This was partly explained by the insignificant prizes the retirement community offered. The biggest prize, given for the person who first covered their whole bingo card, was a pack of tissues. Smaller prizes, for four corners, for example, were rewarded with a small chocolate or a penny. These prizes were too small to create meaningful inequalities between residents. But residents insisted bingo was never about the win or the prizes anyway. Residents time and again reported that they did not play bingo to win, but rather to enjoy the game with others. By watching residents engage in bingo play over time, it became clear that bingo was both a game and a ritual at the retirement community.

Image by Carrie Ryan

Anthropologists understand the meaning of ritual diversely, but Victor Turner’s (1969) approach to ritual captures the effects of bingo at the retirement community well. While Turner believed society needed social structure to meet its basic needs, he also understood it had the unfortunate consequence of creating divisions between people. Ritual, Turner argued, was an antidote to social structure. Ritual created a ‘time out of time’ where the social divides of social structure collapse and humans join together through communitas, human community. By creating new ways for people to relate, ritual helps people see the artificiality of social divisions and therefore generates a space for communities to imagine how they can newly organize in the future. Turner’s approach to ritual provides an important framework to understand the power of bingo both in the retirement community and in communities globally in the midst of this pandemic.

 

The Power Of Bingo

Bingo is an inclusive game. While bingo does require skill, its reliance on chance makes the game accessible to most everyone. Because you win bingo by the luck of the card and attentiveness, and not by hyper-critical thinking or years of sustained playing, residents with dementia in the retirement community were as likely to win bingo as residents without dementia. The equalising effect of bingo in the retirement community was powerful. Residents without dementia often commented that bingo helped them see anew how residents with dementia could participate, something that was invisible to them before.

Bingo is having a similar equalising effect globally. As testimonies during the pandemic reveal, bingo games are bringing neighbourhood communities together, many of which were long separated by age, ability, and built environment. For example, neighbours in England observed that their bingo play during the pandemic has allowed them to get to know many of the people who live next door who they were too busy to talk to before. They also say bingo has provided a way for the neighbourhood to connect with their older neighbours, many of whom are feeling lonely during lockdown’s physical-distancing and who had been peripheral to the neighbourhood long before the pandemic. Bingo is remaking community relations, showing that all have the ability to participate and to relate with one another if and when given the chance. In doing so, bingo is helping people see that the social divides in our communities are not inevitable, but changeable, and that it is possible to come together collectively instead.

Bingo circumscribes time. In the retirement community, where residents often said time had a ‘heavy’, ‘interminable’ quality to it, bingo enabled residents to break from the monotonous flow and invest themselves in an hour of deep, engaged play. Bingo called residents into presence through its engrossing, ‘trance-like’ rhythm. While repetitive, bingo’s rhythm is never boring. As the game progresses and more numbers are called, the higher the chances of a win and the deeper the experience of suspense. Bingo’s rhythmic flow, heightened by surprise and anticipation, produced far more laughs and jokes than experienced elsewhere in the institution.

Today, bingo’s rhythm is absorbing people into the game’s play, allowing them to forget, if only for a little bit, the pandemic outside of the game’s bounds. Bingo’s ability to contain time is significant, especially as the uncertainty and the indeterminacy of the pandemic makes time feel like a relentless, unending slog. In establishing ‘time out of time’, bingo creates space for people to experience fun and laughter at a time when fun and laughter seem impossible, if not taboo.

Image by Carrie Ryan

Bingo is a malleable game, allowing players to easily adapt its rules, depending upon social context and circumstance. At the retirement community in Los Angeles, there were two styles of bingo games played throughout the week: Wednesday bingo and Mexican bingo. While Wednesday bingo used numbers for its game, Mexican bingo uses pictures of things – like el árbol (a tree), la bota (a boot). Mexican bingo gave Mexican residents an opportunity to enjoy their traditions and to share them with others. As bingo can reflect local custom, it can be adapted widely to reflect local meaning.

Indeed, communities in countries across the world during the pandemic are infusing bingo with their own local practices – for example, combining pandemic-themed jokes with older calling traditions. Bingo has also proven to be incredibly adaptable to the new and varied regulations imposed by global lockdowns – people can play the game anywhere, from parking lots to online platforms. The openness of bingo’s structure allows for the ease of its cross-cultural and social-organizational translation, but the basic structure of the game enables its common recognition. Though we play bingo differently locally, we can also share it globally.


Bingo During COVID-19

I am heartened in many ways by bingo’s rising global popularity.

For one, bingo is remaking community relations through its play, cohering people locally and globally where they were once separated. In doing so, bingo is providing communities with a model through which to rebuild a post-pandemic world, in the spirit not of division and competition but of cohesiveness and community.

The surge of bingo play in communities worldwide is also an essential reminder that the human condition is more than just suffering and death; the human condition is also about joy and renewal. Bingo is teaching us why games and play are essential features of human wellbeing and community, especially in times of crisis.

Finally, the global embrace of bingo challenges ageist narratives that have understood the game as a boring, ‘waste-of-time,’ older-adult activity. During this pandemic, more people are coming to understand what bingo-playing older adults have long known: bingo is a powerful game that can create community cohesion and fun. And if bingo works so well in bringing people together during difficult times, what else, besides bingo, might older adults know about community building that ageist frames have long made invisible? Indeed, it is my hope that global bingo play will not only clarify how ageist narratives incorrectly parse the worth of older adult activities and lives, but will also help more people see that older adults have much to contribute to visions of a post-pandemic future.

References

Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine Publications Co.

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This article was first published on anthropologyandgerontology.com.