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Social connection and the arts

With Benjamin Law

Season 3 - Episode 5

12 Oct 2021
Podcast 18:20

There’s no doubt that in these difficult times, we’ve turned to the arts as a source of comfort, whether it’s our favourite book, listening to music, or discovering a new TV show.

In this extra special episode (adapted from our Instagram live recording of #SolidarityPancakes), we talk to Benjamin Law and discuss the importance of community, how the arts and the creative sector are keeping us all connected and inspired, as well as several ways we can actively support our fellow artists.

  • Transcript

    VicHealth ad: This series is produced by the folks at VicHealth, Victoria's health promotion agency.

    Ben: Early on in the pandemic, I said, you know, the things that we’re rushing to, exactly like you were saying before are books, are video games, our favorite albums, our comfort reads. And we all make those, you know, people in the art sector make all of those things.

    Dr Sandro: Hello and a big welcome to In Good Health. I'm your host, Dr. Sandro, I'm a medical doctor. Public health expert, Vic Health CEO and foodie.

    Dr Sandro: Well, today we have a very special episode for you. Recently, I was joined by creative and literary guru Benjamin Law in an Instagram live cook- off during our Sunday Solidarity Pancakes, in an effort to show our support for frontline and essential workers.

    Dr Sandro: Benjamin Law is an Australian writer and broadcaster, working extensively across the arts. Ben is the author of The Family Law and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer east. He also created and co-wrote three seasons of the award winning SBS TV series The Family Law, based on his memoir and wrote the play ‘Torch the Place’ for Melbourne Theater Company.

    Dr Sandro: Currently, he co-hosts ABC Radio National's pop culture show Stop Everything. In this episode, Ben and I discuss the importance of community, how the arts and the creative sector are keeping us all connected and inspired, as well as several ways we can actively support our fellow artists.

    Dr Sandro: Here he is!

    Ben: How's it going?

    Dr Sandro: Hey, good, how are you?

    Ben: I'm alright. I'm alright. It's a very loaded question in 2021 isn’t it? Like how are you?

    Dr Sandro: I know

    Ben: And then I just kind of overwhelmed.

    Dr Sandro: Is it like the Aussie, the Aussie ‘how are you doing?’, ‘I’m doing good’. Which is more just like a hello, or is it a proper, how are you doing?

    Ben: I feel like when people, I know that in Sydney at least, well where I'm at, I’m on Gadigal Land, I know, I know that people are just like they start spiraling a little. It's like ‘I'm not doing great, but I have it better than other people. And this is bad, but I'm totally fine.’

    Ben: So, it's kind of that, that kind of mental tennis, we're all playing within ourselves. Suddenly come to life, out of our mouths.

    Ben: So, I don't know. Like lately I've been asking people, if I can sense that question is loaded I'm like, what's good and what's bad at the moment? Because you're allowed to acknowledge both, right?

    Dr Sandro: Yeah. And I think that, I think for me, that's so true, Ben, and I think for me as well, it's also knowing that even if you're finding it really tough and you're maybe angry or frustrated, that doesn't mean that you don't support what's going on. It doesn't mean that you haven't got, you know, the backs of all of our frontline workers, that you're not first in line getting your vaccination, like you're allowed to feel frustrated, you're allowed to feel sad, whatever it is that you feel is okay.

    Dr Sandro: And that doesn't mean that you don't support everyone else. And, you know, and the important work that we need to do to keep everyone safe.

    Ben: Yeah. Like I think especially now in 2021, especially if you're one of the roughly one out of two Australians in lockdown, like all feelings are valid. It's kind of like when parents talk to toddlers. It's kind of like ‘what you're feeling, you're allowed to feel that.’ And I feel like we need to kind of just be gentle parents to ourselves as well.

    Dr Sandro: I think that's so true. So, it's awesome. Thank you so much for joining. I know you've; you've got loads of fans. I have to, I have to share a couple of fun anecdotes. So, we've been cooking these pancakes, I’ve been cooking these pancakes for about 12 months, for my nan, my 98-year-old nan.

    Dr Sandro: And it all went a bit gangbusters a couple of weeks ago. I tell you what, the reaction to you cooking on Instagram was like a hundred-fold from everyone around me.

    Ben: I'm basically better than Nigella is what you’re saying. Yeah, I'll take that.

    Dr Sandro: So, there are a few of my friends who are, who were very impressed that you're going to get online and join me to make solidarity pancakes. So really, thank you so much for joining and showing our support for everyone in Victoria, everyone in New South Wales, everyone around Australia who's, who is working so hard at the moment to keep everyone safe.

    Dr Sandro: Whether they're on the frontline, health workers, the wide, wider essential workers across society. But I think also giving a shout out to your sector, your industry. You know, I remember really early on it was something that you said, I think on the drum actually, that stuck with me.

    Dr Sandro: So, I'm you know, I'm an epidemiologist. I lead a public health agency. But really, in many ways, what's got me through this time is, is your sector, is the art sector. It’s journalists, it’s creatives, it’s writers. It's the stuff that I'm bingeing, including your own show.

    Dr Sandro: It's the books I'm reading. It's the podcasts I'm listening to. It's been so critical, so important, I think, to the solidarity of society and even to our public health response, because it's kept people, I think, you know, it's given us a sense of hope and solidarity.

    Dr Sandro: And within the 4 walls, it's allowed us to stay more positive. So, I just want to start by giving a huge shout out to all of our artists, our writers, our journalists, our creativities across Australia, have done such an amazing job.

    Ben: Well, thank you so much for saying that Sandro, because I think when we think of essential workers, obviously, we think of your sector, you know, epidemiologists, people in medicine, I think of a friend of mine, like Attari, shout out to Attari , who's a health worker in New South Wales.

    Ben: And a lot of people who are working in hospitals, including family members of mine, wherever they are in Australia, you know, everyone's kind of on the frontlines doing it tough. You see the kind of scars, like literally scars that people had on the end of the day.

    Ben: So, we obviously think of them. We have gratitude towards them. We think of people, you know, stocking shelves in our grocery stores and people like especially in the 12 so-called LGAs of concern here in Sydney, which is very much a divided city.

    Ben: You know, when people say Sydney lockdown, it's kind of like, well, which lockdown are you actually talking about, actually? Because if you go to the eastern suburbs of Sydney, it's a very, very different to western Sydney and southwest Sydney.

    Ben: But like, at the same time, I think you're also right. People in the art sector are often seen as this kind of luxurious extra, like arts are really great. They're an added bonus right, to our everyday lives. But first, we've got to get the essentials right.

    Ben: And I think maybe, hopefully the pandemic has reframed that for people. I know, for instance, you know, I've been working on a TV show during lockdown, but it's also meant that the stage projects that myself and other people have been making during lockdo wn, you know, they'll never, they'll either never be staged or they’re completely postponed.

    Ben: Think of all of those people involved in the Rising festival in Victoria. But I also think of all those people who are about to go on stage in Sydney as well when this lockdown happened.  And it's, it's devastating from a financial aspect, but from an emotional aspect, and I really, I remember like early on in the pandemic, Kate Mulvany, the actor and the writer, she said, you know, it's one of the first sectors to close down and it's one of the last to come back. You know, sports is so important in nation building and getting a sense of solidarity with everyone, but so are the arts as well.

    Dr Sandro: That’s so true.

    Ben: And I think we need to start thinking of the arts in exactly the same way.

    Dr Sandro: We're very lucky. I mean, so the agency I lead is a health promotion agency. And we, we’re actually doubling our investment in community arts this financial year , because what we're seeing is, it's more important than ever, particularly around giving people a sense of social connection, which is so important for mental wellbeing. It's about reconnecting community, but even having conversations about, well, what do we want our society to look like afterwards? What does health even, even questions like what does health mean to us now?

    Dr Sandro: You know, what does good health mean and what are the barriers that are standing in your way, in my way? Because the lived experience of the pandemic and the lived experience of health is different for everyone. There is no single lived experience of all of this.

    Dr Sandro: And, you know, the power of the arts community, the full breadth and depth of that, to be able to understand and empower and connect communities, but even to have important conversations, which I know you're really passionate about, you know, big, important social conversations about recovery, about where we want to head and today about pancakes, which is very cool...

    Ben: Yeah of course.

    Dr Sandro: To make it very light and fluffy once again.

    Ben: And I think like with what you're saying as well, like the arts are also important now, but will be important when we bounce back to, kind of make sense of a mess. Right?

    Ben: I think that's one of the key functions of arts and more broadly, arts and media, which is like when there's so much chaos going around, how do we take stock? How do we interpre t how do we process what's just happened?

    Ben: And I think a really good examples for those of you who are on Instagram, which you are right now, is going to Virginia Gay who's an amazing actor, who was about to go on stage at Melbourne Theater Company with her queered version of the Cyrano story.

    Ben: And she performed that monologue on ABC's Q&A. And I was just reminded one of what it's like to actually sit in a theater, you know, that it takes one person in front of a live audience doing something incredibly courageous, risky and brave. And the thrill and the electricity that you can't get from television, even though I love television and I'm working in television.

    Dr Sandro: So true.

    Ben: But also, the way that she spoke and what she was talking about, I think resonated with everyone, especially in lockdown at the moment, but also people who haven't seen their family members in such a long time, haven't been able to travel anywhere, which is all of us for a really long time. So, if you're looking for some emotional catharsis, if you're looking to reconnect, go to Virginia Gay's Instagram or Twitter page and look up that monologue. It's a good, you will have a good cry.


    Dr Sandro: There's no doubt that the art sector has been a critical part in helping us throughout the past 18 months. Whether it's music, film or literature. In fact, the Australia Institute reported that 73% of Australians have turned to the arts to improve their mood and quality of life during the pandemic.

    Dr Sandro: But the impact of COVID 19 on Australia's arts and entertainment sector has been devastating and disruptive. New research from the Center for Future Work revealed that 350, 000 people were employed in the arts and culture industries prior to COVID 19.

    Dr Sandro: However, by April 2020, around 80,000 of these jobs had been lost, and a staggering 53% of businesses had ceased operating. So, what can we do to support the arts sector? Ben's here to share his ideas.


    Dr Sandro: So, Ben, before we get cooking, can I ask you to, I suppose the first question I want to ask is what can we be doing? I mean, we talked about the importance of the art sector and the creative sector more broadly, and then the cultural sector more broadly than that I think as well. One that I'm really keen to give a big shout out to being so important throughout this period.

    Dr Sandro: What can we be doing to support artists, creatives like yourself and so many? At the moment, I mean, it's it seems easy to say, well buy, buy whatever, do whatever like. Does that make a difference? What can people be doing apart from, you know, I think also having this front of mind, when we do when, we do come together and collectively make decisions about what our recovery looks like, obviously making the art sector is a big part of that. And hopefully it will be, certainly here in Victoria. But what can we be doing to help?

    Ben: It's such a good question. And when I think about helping and effective, effecting change, I think sometimes it can be a little bit overwhelming. So, in my mind, I always try to break it down into three things. And I think this applies to any sector in a way which is individual, community and big kind of like macro big picture stuff right. The big picture stuff is always intimidating.

    Ben: But the way I think about it is this like take, take the arts, for instance. Like on an individual level, you can do the stuff that you were talking about before, which is I mean, I especially think of anyone in the live performing industry.

    Ben: So live music, especially like I don't think people realise that to be a musician, a singer songwriter in Australia, you barely get any money from making records. Everyone's streaming stuff, you get like literally a percentage of a cent for streaming.

    Ben: No one downloads the actual music. No one buys the physical stuff. So, if there is like a musician or an artist that you really particularly love, buy their work, so actually buy their record, buy their T-shirt, buy their merch, buy their tea towel, like that's a really great individual thing you can do.

    Dr Sandro: Awesome

    Ben: When it comes to community as well, like what do we think of when it comes to the arts? It's all about community. So, when the live sector comes back and eventually it will

    Dr Sandro: It will yeah.

    Ben: It must, like pandemic s end and it must, it will eventually happen. It doesn't seem like that at the moment, but this stuff's an inevitability. When that happens, get your community like rally your family, your friends and think about what arts do we want to go to, book in advance as well, you know.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah, book in advance is a good one.

    Ben: Completely. And we were doing that with Harry Potter and the cursed child. We were doing that with Hamilton. But think beyond that as well. What festivals are coming up? What do you want to see?

    Ben: What are the live comedy shows that you want to see as well? Because comedy is going to be really important on the other side of this.

    VicHealth ad: This series is produced by the folks at VicHealth, Victoria's Health promotion agency.

    Dr Sandro: What have you, what have you written lately that you're really excited about that, you know, people can go and find, because I mean, your writing, I think has got to be some of the most insightful contemporary journalism...

    Ben: Thanks Sandro.

    Dr Sandro: And particularly your ability to really get into the deeper layers of major social issues, but in a way that's not overwhelming or kind of fatalistic or whatever, I think you really find that balance.

    Dr Sandro: So, what, what's something that you have written recently that we can all get on and enjoy?

    Ben: Oh, that's so nice of you to say, Sandro. Thank you. I'll recommend two things. Look one at the start of the pandemic with lockdown v 1.0, I know you guys are in lockdown v 72.0. But when I did like when we were all coming into lockdown, v 1.0 I wrote a piece for The Guardian about the centrality and the importance of the arts and why we need to support, support them when we come back.

    Ben: So, if anyone ever questions the arts in your realm or their importance, hopefully that Guardian piece search, Benjamin Law - arts - guardian, will probably come up first. And hopefully that's a piece you can share around to articulate to other people while the arts are so important.

    Ben: And in terms of like, I'll give a shout out to all the things that I've read lately. Cathy Park Hong’s ‘Minor feelings’. I just did an interview with her at the Sydney Opera House online virtually. What's the other thing, oh you know, another great thing that Victorians especially should read.

    Ben: Sophie Black had a really beautiful piece in Crikey about just capturing and distilling feelings of what it's been like for this round of lockdown for Victorians, regional or otherwise. And I think sometimes the good power of writing is feeling like someone sees you or has articulated something that you haven't been able to articulate yourself.

    Ben: And I think a lot of people will see in Sophie's writing what they've been feeling for the last few months/years. Yeah.

    Dr Sandro: Awesome. A big thank you for joining me, Ben. I know it's a really, a really busy time for you. Awesome, awesome recommendations. I want to just again acknowledge the importance of the creative sector in getting us all through the last 18 months. And they will, we need to back them as we come out of lockdown. The art sector is so important in our health, our mental health and social connection, and really digging into the deep scars and challenges that this pandemic will likely leave us for a long time.

    Dr Sandro: But thank you as well. And also, a big shout out, of course, to all of our other frontline of essential workers. You know everyone who's testing, and tracing and vaccinating record numbers, everyone who stocks our shelves, the cleaners, the cooks, the couriers, the truckies, the paramedics, everyone.

    Dr Sandro: Huge, huge thank you, and a shout out from all of us. And wishing everyone an awesome solidarity pancakes. 

    Ben: Thanks so much, Sandro. Thanks so much, Doc, and thanks for keeping everyone's spirits up through your work, especially online and beyond. And you know, go off and be a good grandson now.

    Dr Sandro: Awesome. Thanks, Ben. Take care.

    Ben: Take care. See you later.

    Dr Sandro: Thanks for listening to the In Good Health podcast. To find out more about the work that we do, head over to our website, Oh, and make sure you check us out on social media under @vichealth.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.