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Last year, the word “unprecedented” was being thrown around a lot to describe the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. Fast forward to today and we find the situation is still far from being predictable.
The dust did seem to be settling as we witnessed the slow return of live events in Buenos Aires. Well, until a record-breaking second wave shut things down again…
At the beginning of this year, it seemed clear that the comeback of live events would be very gradual, as people were understandably anxious about being among crowds after many months of lockdown.
Due to anxiety, guilt or a combo of other feelings, it was a difficult step for me to start going to socially distanced shows. But once I did, being around other people (albeit masked and standing meters apart) made me feel like there was a slither of hope that things would return to some form of normality.
The socially distanced arts scene sparked my interest and as someone who has been on both sides of the stage, it only seemed right to find out what performers thought about the situation. (Note: this interview was conducted in March, before the latest restrictions were placed.)
A big thank you to Damian Ensabella from On The Reg (DJ / Producer/ Label Manager), Marianela Pérez Salerno (Musician – Montarosa), Ale Andrian (Dancer), and Ce Kunsa (Comedian) for contributing to this article.
Prior to the pandemic, what was your opinion of the live performance scene in Buenos Aires? The turnout, the vibe, venues, etc.
Damian: Before the pandemic, it was possible to work very comfortably due to the place we had with my On The Reg production company called The Shamrock. This is where we invited artists from the local house scene; everything was going wonderfully and in full swing.
Marianela: The city scene was always super varied, different types of shows could be organized that put people in every performative situation. You could see a show in a theater room, in a canteen, on a monument staircase. Any place could become a stage. Shows where people could be so close that they became part of the scene, a shared scene.
Conventional shows too: immense spaces with a full crowd, concert halls with their numbered tickets and cultural clubs as an intermediate portal where the relaxed and performative prevailed. It was always the attraction of this city to find that place where “the Buenos Aires night” was happening.
Ale: Before the lockdown in Buenos Aires, the live performance scene was very active. The Buenos Aires night, and not only the night but also the afternoons, shone with splendor with outdoor cultural activities, in living rooms, large spaces and elsewhere.
The city of Buenos Aires has always been characterized by having a very lively and enthusiastic cultural movement and performances. It was enough to just take a backpack and the essentials, your bicycle or public transport to go around the city to be able to end up immersed in some kind of show, performance or activity.
Emblematic neighborhoods like Boedo could offer you a mini concert of street music while you had a coffee. The street corners at the traffic lights were always another splendid scene of art, as well as other places like Palermo with its cradle of bars equipped for bands to play their music. Not to mention theatres, with performances from 4 PM until late at night.
The tango scene that dominated these early mornings with its live shows of typical orchestras, pairs of dancers who stood out expressing themselves freely before the attentive gaze of hundreds of foreign and non-foreign tourists and, if the dawn still caught you with more desire to see a show, the transforming actors and actresses were waiting for you for their middle-of-the-night show in some beautiful little club in the city. So what else is there to say about the scene of live performances in the city of Buenos Aires, the city that never sleep that, before the lockdown, shone with its overflowing magic in every corner?
Ce: I think the city of Buenos Aires always had, especially in more recent years, a lot of variety in terms of shows. Spectator participation varied as much as the options. Today, knowing what we know now, I believe that many spaces were not prepared to generate a healthy and pleasant environment.
How did you react to the hard lockdown and this news that the country would be completely shut down?
Damian: The news was really very hard; as I said before, we had been doing really well since the beginning of 2017 and the pandemic arrived when we were at our best.
Marianela: It was shocking but it took time for me to realize that it was a complete change of everything we knew. At first I thought it would be something temporary. It affected us [Montarosa] a lot because we had just released our debut album.
Ale: I recognize that there were different stages; bewilderment and concern was the first one, where the information was very important for the development of the stages that followed. This stage was a mixture of excitement for living through something unprecedented.
There was anguish from being away from my family alone in a big city like Buenos Aires. I am from Entre Ríos, a town called María Grande. Then came the anguish and anxiety of thinking about the future of work, the economic crisis and empathizing with all my fellow artists who were expressing their pain, uncertainty, the rapid decline of their projects and having to return home.
This deepened my anxiety of feeling more alone. After that, the sun began to shine again and with the arrival of spring came the adaptation and reinvention through digital platforms and the hope of return. The last stage was one of conviction and reaffirmation of the passion that one has for what one does. This understanding that the arts are transversal to everything one does and the thousand and one ways to readapt to the new present that is happening in front of us, new projects, new purposes, new goals and the present working to achieve it. So if I have to summarize my reaction, we can say that it was like this: action, uncertainty, anguish, despair, acceptance, adaptation, intention, and action again.
Ce: At first, without knowing that it was going to last so long and without knowledge about the disease and its prevention, I agreed with the total closure of the establishments. I am a mother of three children and we were very affected by the closure of schools. It was a very hard change for everyone. I was very distressed; sometimes I would cry twice a day or get angry with people when I saw them go out on the street. I suffered a lot of anxiety but I respected the confinement almost strictly. As time went by and the thing dragged on more and more, I did not coincide with the total closure, basically because it is something that cannot be financially maintained.
Before the lockdown came into effect, what did you predict would happen or how did you see things changing?
Damian: Honestly, my positive way of looking at things never predicted the worst. And the truth is that the virus beat us all; we never thought the world would be on its knees for so long.
Marianela: I couldn’t imagine giving a show for an invisible audience through a screen. I hoped that the situation would take its course sooner rather than later and it would be possible to return to the stage. The first thing that directly affected us [Montarosa] was having to stop renting the rehearsal room when, after the second month of the quarantine, we understood that it was going to be something that would last.
Ale: By the time the lockdown came into effect, I was in an upcoming play with performances from Tuesday to Sunday, rehearsal for an upcoming premiere, two classes per day and my usual training, taking into account that the lockdown began in March.
I had been preparing for what was to come for a month, in a kind of deduced premonition I realized that what was brewing was big, and it would affect many of us. I have friends, colleagues scattered all over the world and through them I was seeing how things were unfolding; when my best friend living in China wrote to me in December telling me that a virus had appeared in China that was quite dangerous, I saw it coming.
Since then I began to prepare myself mentally and physically, equip myself with information and equipment for training, update my electronic devices, and activate a list of things that I had always pending due to the lack of usual time involved in being an artist and being focused 24/7 on our profession.
From there, everything was living in the present, learning every day from one’s own emotions and learning to deal with others. I imagined that what happened would happen, but what I didn’t think would happen was no return for certain activities such as tango in the form of milonga, or tango show houses or cinemas, for example.
Ce: Fifteen days before everything closed, I was with some colleagues at Taburete comedy club, chatting after a show. At that time there were only memes of what was happening in Europe and many saw it as a distant issue. I remember that at that moment I told them that I believed that in a month we would be locked up like other countries. I laughed at the jokes, but I was already very worried by then. They laughed at my prediction and recently one of my comedian friends recalled him saying “In the end, you were right.”
Although other industries were hit hard, do you feel much attention was put towards performers or do you think they were an afterthought?
Damian: In my case, I work in film and advertising and it also affected me on that side, being more than six months without working. The artistic side and the aid came a little too late for me to understand. The government gave aid but after several claims from different artistic sectors.
Marianela: Yes, I think naturally it gave rise to artists in general, who in a very concrete way took over social media (and a few of them, the streets or alternative scenic spots) to be able to continue with their activities. I think there was a first avalanche of livestreams that were backed by the general public and accompanied by the press.
Then came the general fatigue of the listeners, in addition to the unsustainable poor technical conditions offered by streaming that is most available to everyone (live on Instagram, filmed by a cell phone with a built-in microphone, poor audio quality in general, connectivity).
Ale: The attention paid to the artists was too late. What’s more, a year passed and policies directed at artists only are still being applied, understood as attention, not only to the economic aspect but also to the provision of space with protocols, the emotional and physical containment, and the support for the adaptation that is required due to the lockdown.
Let us bear in mind that we artists, in addition to money in order to comply with state obligations, also choose this life for what it means to live from and for art, the emotion it generates, the place that art occupies in society, what it contributes and builds.
Ce: I think the artists were the final thought. They weren’t given any attention until almost eight months after the quarantine. It was too late.
I suppose that “art” in general is not socially understood as a job that should be well paid. The use of the cap to collect what people want to leave at will shows that. The idea that the artist does his thing “for the love of art” seems to prevail. People lose sight of all the work involved and the people who live from it, directly or indirectly.
I think we artists had to juggle and find the way around. I don’t make a living from comedy, at least not yet, and I’ve had the privilege of not having to worry about my finances, but I have colleagues and friends who are still trying to get out of it. I know theatres and beautiful spaces that had to close. A few within my industry knew how to generate profitable content and reinvent themselves on platforms that even seemed to be here to stay.
What steps did you take during the quarantine to continue or adapt your work?
Damian: The quarantine in my case was not totally negative; not being able to do events, we started a series of podcasts; guest mixes called OTR PODCAST with more than 50 djs and producers from around the world of the stature of Mark Farina (Legend of world underground house) and that gave us a leap in quality in my opinion.
In the second part of 2020, we launched ourselves as a label with the idea of supporting more national and international producers of the music that we like and that I think many people do not know here in the country, while in other European countries it is all easier .
We continue working to bring more House, funk & disco music to the Argentine scene, which is increasingly dominated by other genres such as progressive and tech house.
Marianela: The first step for me was silence. I felt that silence was necessary in the midst of the shipwreck of the Internet. As an audience member, it was difficult for me to sustain listening to other productions; as an artist it made me very sad to present something that was seen or heard badly. After the first months, the first thing we did was find a way to meet again to rehearse, taking care of the protocols.
That was the salvation, to go back to making music with other human beings outside of screens. We were lucky to be able to participate in a live filming at the Recoleta Cultural Center that was released on YouTube with a very high technical quality. Then the friends of Vuela El Pez, a cultural center with a long history in the city, invited us to film a short show where the axis was more focused on the sensory experience, it was very interesting to participate in that proposal where the use of headphones was encouraged , to directed listening, to closing the eyes, there was dance, poetry and performance, in addition to music.
And from there and with the knowledge that the lockdown would last much longer, I tried to generate productions with the best possible quality to share, choosing when to do it and keeping another bit of virtual silence as well. I started studying sound equipment and hoped for the possibility of playing face-to-face again.
Ale: In my particular case, I focused on deepening the projects I have for the return to live peformances, intensified my studies and expanded the network of contacts for the near future, transformed my social networks into my new situation and used this space to continue creating and transmitting my way of seeing life through the art of movement.
Ce: I personally don’t like online shows. I don’t feel comfortable and I think that stand-up needs the public’s response to have life. I have a lot of respect for those who did (and continue to do so), I admire their courage. I feel that silence is deadly for a comedian. Surely the same thing happens to a musician, because the artist puts their body into it, but the viewer does too.
What I tried was not to take off from comedy by generating content for networks. I downloaded Tik Tok and took advantage of the application a bit to be able to do little things in a short time. I had fun doing it. It was my time of day (not every day, because with children it is difficult to find time alone), but it took me a little out of the negative thinking of the confinement.
What was something that inspired or suprised you during this time and why?
Damian: What inspired me the most was working on my own projects; making more music and dedicating more to the family.
At a certain point, all this brings out the most humanity and the essence of each of us; if you truly love music you wouldn’t stop making your tracks or recording mixes and that’s what I did.
Marianela: I think the most shocking thing was noticing and naming the immense global change that is taking place, which cannot leave us indifferent, which tells us about the modes of consumption and connection with nature. Broken links that ask us for greater attention and action. All the reflection and creation that emerged from that time of silence, of being inward, the revaluation of those most beloved ties that had been left far away was an important movement.
Ale: Well, one of the things that inspired me the most this last while was how this situation brought us closer as human beings, although it was only for a moment, since I consider that we are in the same sea but not in the same boat many of us, but that feeling of closeness, of feeling that the same thing happened to all of us.
A kind of empathy between the artists surprised me, endless opportunities suddenly opened up due to virtuality allowing us to access the artists’ houses that we admire to see them do a live show, classes with people who without this pandemic situation would have been impossible to access, and most importantly, to see how beyond the new virtual entertainment system that is being installed, people still retain their desire to leave their homes, socialize, share, watch music, theater, live dance. This encourages me a lot and gives me the confirmation that we are social beings and above all else it shows me with absolute clarity the fundamental role that culture and art have in society, that as long as there is a closed society or not, there will be artistic expression pushing to be developed in person.
Ce: I was surprised by the ability we have as human beings to adapt to negative situations. I mean, theoretically I knew it, but living it is something else. I didn’t think I could survive with six people in a house for fifteen days, and I did, for nine months. Almost a birth, where a thousand things happened, for example my dog died and we built a bathroom and a room. Today I look at it in perspective and everything seems surreal to me. It inspires me, perhaps, to see many people who rethink their lifestyle. Families who left the known, their comfort zone, to try their luck elsewhere. Others who went to travel the world in a motorhome. I think that is my dream and that is why I admire it; artists who took out of the gallery wonderful things that in another context would not have occurred. People who awakened their artistic side because they had time to take courses or reconnect with deeper desires that, sometimes in the whirlpool, are lost from sight.
How do you think you’ve changed as a performer since the quarantine?
Damian: Today I feel much more complete than before. I learned to see things differently. I dedicate myself to see what things I can do to achieve my objectives because I feel that if one does not propose it, one can achieve them. For example, the issue of production, I have several tracks on the way in labels in Europe and that is something that I saw very far off before since I didn’t have the time to dedicate to it, or also organizing events is something that I like and that I plan to continue doing.
Marianela: Creation mediated by the means of production themselves, learning to use other technical resources to carry a material forward, patience and caution was what I developed the most during that time. I do not see it as changes but as deepening.
Ale: At an organizational level I feel that I haven’t changed much, but at an emotional level I’ve seen an important change, when I had time to delve into being an artist, questions appeared that demanded really deep answers, the main change I feel has to do with the present and the assessment that I make, here and now, how important the processes are and, most importantly, enjoy it; I was always a tireless artist in search of perfection or in search of goals, many of them really difficult to access, and that led me have my gaze set very far, now I can assure you that my gaze is set inward, in the now, enjoying every second and every opportunity that life presents me, immersed in the universe of beauty that sheltered my art throughout the confinement and I believe that it will be with this new concept that I will face the return to the offline world.
Ce: I think I changed, yeah. I started singing and started to use my voice seriously when I was 35 years old. I was always ashamed because I thought I sang very badly. It was a discovery for me.
And I think Tik Tok helped me a lot to free myself. It is an application that allows you to play. It’s like when you were a little girl and made faces in the mirror. If you do it now you feel kind of silly, but on Tik Tok that is what you have to do, because that is the game. I feel that it allows a little reconnection with the inner child that unfortunately in adulthood is frowned upon. Personally, in that way, I discovered that something of the soap operas that I saw in the ’90s was inside of me. Maybe that’s why there is so much versatility on the platform, right? People of any age doing anything.
And I think now I enjoy the stage more. I value it because I lost it for a while and I put everything into it much more. I missed for many months that feeling of going up and not knowing what will happen. An adrenaline rush that I recommend to anyone who wants to feel good.
Anyway, I think I was able to make myself a little more visible on social media and that this helped me to have more confidence in what I do. They even asked me to do a play. And I laugh because in my life I would have never thought that this could be a possibility. Clearly I changed.
What were you most proud of during the quarantine? (doesn’t have to be performance related)
Damian: What makes me happiest is the support of my family and that of colleagues who are in the same position as me giving everything they’ve got for the most important thing, music.
I feel that electronic music is increasingly involved in glamour and in other aspects that are far from the roots and the essence of all this. The organizers should rethink several things; the only thing that interests them is money.
Marianela: The team that surrounds the project, the new ties created with cultural spaces, radio stations, musicians, friends and family that helped to sustain our music on the air. Both in the few shows that we were able to give, as well as in the promotion of and listening to the album, the possibilities to rehearse and create together, think together and find a way to make it work.
Ale: Being absolutely sincere and I hope I do not sound too narcissistic, I am very proud of the good sense with which I went through this pandemic, the humility with which I faced what was happening, sensibly opening myself to the world and my loved ones, showing my vulnerability to people who could help me.
I am also very proud of my principles and convictions that beyond the needs of material types could be present, I always kept my energy placed on the emotional and spiritual plane and the benefit it brings to life.
And there was another thing that made me feel very proud as well and it was that group of people who raised questions, doubts that did not remain locked up and afraid at home, but questioned, insisted, protested, asked and demanded an answer. We all know that societies were always built on the basis of interests and that in those interests certain sectors are often left out, we are not sure what was or what was the true reason for what is happening but asking is an excellent way to enlighten the way.
Ce: Of not going to buy cigarettes and never returning home [laughs]. Seriously. I am proud to have spent almost a year in confinement with my family, whom I love very much, but who I love even more with school and freedom.
Venues began opening up over the last few weeks. Do you feel confident about the full return of live performances?
Damian: Regarding the return of the events, I feel safe because the places work with protocols, not all! But most of them do it and honestly there is no other way that an artist can continue live streaming or doing things from home, so as long as the responsibility exists, I don’t see why not do events.
Marianela: Yes, I think that being afraid paralyzes us and isolates us in an unhealthy way. And not having a conscience sinks us, so we need to find the right conditions to be able to return to the stage, taking care of ourselves and offering a safe space for those who attend. Beyond the pandemic this has always been the case, it is a shared responsibility that we agree between artists and listeners, the building conditions of the place, the food, the fair prices, it is a wheel of which we are part and we encourage or neglect.
Ale: If I am sure that live performances will return, I am also sure that a new bureaucratic system of authorizations and protocols, etc. will be installed. That will absolutely complicate the return, but they will return, they will return, and there will be a fight for this to happen, too!
Theater, dance, music have survived many crises throughout history, I think this will not be the exception. I insist that it will be from action, we will have to show that artists exist and that we are essential in a society and especially now where people spent a year of great anguish and loneliness.
Ce: I’m just going to show up to open spaces. It is true that I did not take care of myself at the beginning, but I remain prudent and also respect those around me. So the answer is no, I am never sure, but I feel that in well-prepared spaces it is viable. As long as there is no overcrowding, because then it would be the same.
What changes do you think need to be made in order to make people comfortable to return to venues and live shows?
Marianela: Spacious venues or small capacity venues are encouraging to me. Ventilation possibilities are also very necessary. But fundamentally conscience and doing things well, respecting each other and creating a safe environment. Street shows seem like a great option, too. We must reclaim the public space that belongs to everyone and that it is not in the hands of a privileged few who can access its use and commercialization.
Ale: Well, mainly the corresponding hygiene, which is something that was never fully thought of, the possibility that the use of space is well distributed. I do not mean distancing because it is emotionally harmful, but that it is organized, that the capacities are respected. I think that will be enough, people love to see live performances and I think that is why many times they relaxed their comfort zones in order to enjoy their favorite artists.
Ce: Let the place enforce the rules. Take it as seriously as other guidelines. And that people respect basic instructions, because if they tell you that you have to wear your mask, that you do not drop it, that it is not a thong that does not cover even half of your mouth, what do I know? It depends on the place and it depends on you, too. There is a social responsibility that we have to bear, but I think it is essential that the establishment maintains the protocol. Either that or turn it all back. There are things that for the moment we have to do.
Do you think online streamed performances and concerts will remain as a common form of performing or do you think it will die off once quarantine measures are lifted?
Damian: The streams will continue to exist, not as frequent as in quarantine but they will accompany us for longer, without a doubt.
With my friends we really enjoy doing it and we plan to continue streaming from time to time.
Marianela: They will surely continue to be part of it, perhaps the massive consumption that occurred at this time will decrease, but the audiovisual record was always very important for the expansion of projects and the public. Being able to see concerts that are taking place in another part of the world seems amazing to me. Now, if your local artist is giving a show in a bar for 20 people, it is important that we go back with that same presence.
Ale: They always were, only now maybe they are no longer part of the television monopoly, but I think it will continue to be one more possibility and I also believe that their popularity will decrease with time.
Ce: I think they will continue. Maybe not so frequently, but what is streamed online reaches places that otherwise would not be reached. That’s good. It allows the visibility of very talented artists who might not have become known in another province or another country if it were not for that possibility. And beyond the naivity of my comment, it also generates money. Tickets are sold for a show that is done live but that is also sold to be seen online (and this is without limits) and it seems like a great business where everyone wins.
What do you predict is the future of live performance in Buenos Aires?
Damian: I think the future of music and art is going to have to resurface; there is nohing bad that doesn’t bring good things and in the future all this time lost doing shows or parties will come back stronger than before, without a doubt.
I hope that everyone has gotten the positive side of all this and that we can all do what makes us happy!
Marianela: Hopefully it will come back with all the beautiful potential that this city has to make music in every corner, square, bar or theater. I think this city will be alive as long as there is a stage light on.
Ale: Well, I think it will be hard for us to have the flow of performance that we had before the quarantine, since first we must recover the immense number of artists who were devastated by the extreme measures of confinements that were carried out for a year; it’s like after a hurricane, leave your basement, if you had a basement, and see that what was outside no longer exists. There are only ruins and we have to start again. I think that the future of the performances will have this precedent and the return will be gradual so we feel safe and acquire confidence again. They are going to return, of course. Let’s not forget that we are in Argentina and if there is something that the inhabitants of this country know how to do it is to get up after a crisis, since we have one practically every ten years. So we are going to move forward, we are going to return with the live performances and in a while this will be a bad anecdotal memory.
Ce: All this is going to happen, because everything happens. And people will want to go out and enjoy life, because 2020 left a mark that I understand makes us value what we have, because it was taken away from us for a while. And what we have in Buenos Aires is a culture of friendship, encounters, with excellent artistic performances that deserve to be shared.
Thank you again to our contributors.
Damian Ensabella – @hyperdam & @onthereg_music
Ale Andrian – @ale_andrian
Marianela Perez Salerno – @montarosa_
Ce Kunsa – IG: @ce_kunsa, Tik Tok: @CEKUNSA