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COVID-19 lockdowns

Godfre Leung

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From And then this also to We Wear One Another: A Lockdown Memoir

Justine A. Chambers, And then this also, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, March 7, 2020. Photo: Four Eyes Portraits.

After lunch on Saturday, March 7, 2020, L and I took the bus to CAG. This was two years before I started working at CAG, but the visit wasn’t not work. As art workers, our attendance at art events is always some combination of work, pleasure, showing up for friends and community, and social obligation. L was a few months shy of five, so we made a deal that he would be really patient and not disruptive while we watched And then this also, a short dance performance by Justine A. Chambers, and afterwards I’d buy him a sweet snack and we’d spend the rest of the afternoon at the park.

L and I were seated on the gallery floor during the performance, him curled in my lap. As I remember it, Justine began by popping in a pair of earbuds and theatrically queuing up something to listen to on her phone. I’ll be honest that I don’t remember too many specifics about the choreography—a series of difficult manoeuvres, executed off-balance and sometimes on one leg while each arm performs a different and unrelated movement. Looking back, I now understand these manoeuvres to be perhaps related to several directions from the score of Semi-Precious, another work of Justine’s that I’d seen a year earlier: “Let imbalance move you somewhere else.” “Continuously re-position centre.” “The world is built for asymmetry.”1

What I do remember clearly was the eye contact. According to the exhibition copy, And then this also—which was presented as part of the group exhibition The Artist’s Studio is Her Bedroom, curated by Kimberly Phillips—“explores issues of distraction, adrenaline, time, and care as a working mother and artist.” Throughout the performance, Justine’s eyes focused in on specific members of the audience with a directness and force that in grad school we would have called “interpellation.” This gaze simultaneously signaled that she was watching us and asked each of us individually to reciprocate it. It said, without saying any words, [Your name], hey, here, [your name], I’m watching you, stay with me here [your name], no, here, up here, my eyes, [your name].

Intellectually, there was a lot going on. The audience-performer relationship is confounded by the physical-emotional-attentive tether of the parental relationship. The finite physical stamina of the performer proleptically struggles against the waning attentive stamina of the audience—this is the very existential core of the performing arts. We are asked, insistently, to look at the performer’s eyes when our visual attention wants to observe what her body is doing.

But I think I got a slightly different performance than everybody else. The first time she made eye contact with me, Justine must have noticed me look back sheepishly (throughout the performance I was whispering to the little bundle in my lap trying his best to be quiet and still). And at various points she shot me a different look, which said, No, you’re cool. Don’t sweat it—he’s doing great! Justine describes And then this also as a durational work. It was certainly durational for L. And as we walked out of the gallery after the performance, Justine gave him a big smile and a high five.


Monday, March 16, 2020 was the first day we kept L home from daycare. On March 17, we placed a curbside pickup order at Ikea and after returning home rigged up a wall-mounted desk in our bedroom so Alex could remotely work her job in a room with a door. That day, the province declared a public health emergency and closed all bars and nightclubs. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was announced a week later, on March 25. As the province’s number of Covid cases topped 1,000, our daycare, one of the constellation of facilities administered by UBC Child Care Services, formally closed March 31.

As the city fell into lockdown, I became a full-day childcare provider for the next six months. My workday, such as it was, began at 8:30 pm—when I had the energy and brain cells left for it, which wasn’t very often. Two months in, I realized that, actually, I should go on CERB, which I filed retroactively to begin in April. At the time, I was an independent curator and the lion’s share of my contribution to our family’s finances was two Canada Council grants a year. I was extremely lucky that most of my projects went ahead reasonably as planned, even if to smaller audiences than expected, and moreover that I was able finish out my final reports, because most of the work for these projects had been completed before we pulled L from daycare. But being unable to conceive a new project, I still fell behind one grant cycle, which amounted to almost half of my responsibility to our collective livelihood for the year.

It made perfect sense, of course, that even though we proactively kept L at home on the cusp of the province declaring a public health emergency—all but one family at our facility did—the facility itself stayed open for another two weeks. During lockdown, the idea of childcare as an essential service became painfully obvious even to those without kids, as we were forced as a society to think about our supports as essential services.2 (This wasn’t the first time I took on prolonged stay-at-home dad duties, but it was the first time I did so without the protections of a union and tenure.) During my late-night doomscrolling in those months, I would often see social distancing in public space described as, fancifully, “choreography on the streets.” With the normal desperation of being an independent art worker now compounded by the desperation of watching even that precarious existence slip away because I could barely work, I was usually thinking about a different choreography: in the absence of sustainable infrastructure, “continually reposition centre.”


In the vacuum of interaction with other children and activities led by a wonderful group of licensed childcare professionals, L and I spent almost every one of his waking minutes together. He was at the most challenging possible age for this arrangement: he no longer napped, but couldn’t independently occupy himself whatsoever. I read to him continuously for most of the day on many days, punctuated only by meals and bathroom breaks. For my self-preservation, I slowly taught him how to read.

No story of 2020 can be told without an account of the reckonings that took place in the larger culture. In mid-June, between the province’s transition from phases 2 to 3 of its reopening plan, activists shut down traffic on the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts for a weekend in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, before being forcibly removed by police at 6 am on Monday morning. Meanwhile, from the desperation of our little apartment and on phones that at a certain point we probably should have put away, we helplessly followed—and, to be honest, let L overhear way too much about—the horrifying minutiae of the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, where L was born. In many ways, what unfolded was already imprinted on his earliest observations of the world; every day on the way to daycare, we used to pass the precinct that was set on fire, and on the way home we never didn’t see a young man pressed against the hood of a squad car for the “crime” of walking near a tier 1 research university while Black. We sent text messages to check in on friends back in Minneapolis and felt guilty about having left a community that at the time we had only just found and been taken in by. What else could we do?

In half-hour chunks of post-lunch “quiet time,” which usually ended far short of the scheduled interval, I summoned my brain to read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings over months, one small passage at a time, to give a vocabulary to the previously minor but omnipresent politics of our bodies’ presence in public space, now suddenly turned major. I found myself also compelled to revisit Johanna Hedva’s essay “Sick Woman Theory,” which begins with the chronically ill author imagining how they might act in solidarity with the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests from a block away, while confined to their bed. Mostly, I reacquainted myself with the medium of the short lyric poem after much time away occupied with other pleasures. L developed a passion for drawing for the first time (as a stubborn child of two art workers, he was very late on this) and learned how to make mixtapes. Together, we learned every inch of our neighborhood by foot, scooter and bike.

It was completely by accident that I sent him to kindergarten already knowing how to read and do math. Instead of him learning neither of these things, but being engaged at daycare in other equally meaningful ways, he was at home with me all day, every day, for six months—and we had the extreme privilege, unlike most other people I know, of not having to park our child in front of a screen for large blocks of those months so that we could do our jobs. Another privilege was being in Vancouver, where L and I were able to spend most of our socially distant days outside, rather than indoors in a little apartment like our friends in Toronto and Montréal had to. I tell people that lockdown was the hardest six months of my life, but it should also be said that there was a lot of joy during this time. Being that they were also L’s last months before kindergarten, I was very lucky to have had that uninterrupted time with him. It’s unlikely we’ll ever spend that much time together again.


A last privilege was the end of our time together. Unlike most places, in Vancouver school resumed in mid-September 2020, and but for masking and several other transmission-mitigating measures, L began kindergarten as usual. Moreover, with two very brief exceptions, his kindergarten continued through the year uninterrupted. For me, a big part of the moral of this adventure is what happens when our infrastructures fail, and what we collectively do to ensure that they don’t (if not eating in restaurants meant the schools don’t close, then so be it). Furthermore, as Ellen Samuels and Elizabeth Freeman have recently pointed out, in the societal push for the workforce to be able to continue its machinations from home, measures that we used to call “accommodations” became reframed as supports, a reorientation I hope we don’t forget.3

Vancouver schools reopened on Monday, September 14, 2020. L had his kindergarten orientation session that day, followed by two short gradual entry days before his first full day of school on Thursday, September 17. After I picked him up that Thursday, I drove us out to UBC, where we visited the Belkin Art Gallery—the exhibition Soundings, curated by Candice Hopkins and Dylan Robinson, had opened the week prior. We also went to the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), resuming our pre-Covid ritual of spending half an hour there many afternoons after daycare pickup, while we waited for Alex to finish her day at the MOA archives. As L’s and my half year together began with Justine’s And then this also, a work about the demanding labour of childcare, it was fitting that this time’s other bookend was Tanya Lukin Linklater’s video installation We Wear One Another—for me, the standout work of Soundings—a collaborative dance and music-based work with Ceinwen Gobert, Laura Ortman and Danah Rosales about mutual support, and reciprocal relationships that spiral out from body to bodies to land and beyond.

Installation view of Tanya Lukin Linklater, We Wear One Another, Helen and Morris Belkin Art Gallery, 2020. Image courtesy of the author.

On Friday, September 18, 2020, after taking L to his second full day of school, I returned to the Belkin to experience the exhibition professionally—I was writing about it for the magazine ArtAsiaPacific. From the gallery, I texted to my friend Maia, “L is starting kindergarten so i get to/have to start writing about art again.” She responded, from Ohio, with an aerial photo of her then-ten-year-old son H at school at a desktop computer, accompanied by the caption, “He has his desk downstairs and I’m in the loft.”

Godfre Leung

Godfre Leung is a curator and critic. He has organized exhibitions and art projects at Artspeak, The Bows, Or Gallery, Richmond Art Gallery, and Vancouver Art Gallery; and his writing has recently appeared in ArtAsiaPacific, ASAP/Journal, C Magazine, and ReIssue. He is the Curator at CAG, where he has most recently organized exhibitions by Dionne Lee, Sesemiya and Trinh T. Minh-ha.


1 Justine A. Chambers, Semiprecious: a syllabus for relating / a lodging for our relations, ed. Bopha Chhay, Artspeak, Vancouver, 2022, pp. 9, 12. Chambers notes that her scores are simultaneously values and instructions; I am using the word “direction” here, somewhat clumsily, to try to capture this nuance.

2 None of this, of course, is new information to artist- and art worker-parents; these conversations have assuredly circulated in word-of-mouth networks as long as women and caregivers have been in the arts. This said, I was first introduced to parenthood as a formalized artistic discourse through Amber Berson and Juliana Driever’s formative work on the traveling exhibition The Let Down Reflex, which originated at EFA Project Space in New York in 2016.

3 Ellen Samuels and Elizabeth Freeman, “Introduction: Crip Temporalities,” South Atlantic Quarterly, April 2021, pp. 246–248.