Cultural highlights of 2020

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2020 has been a tough year for the arts with cinemas and theatres closed and festivals and gigs cancelled. Despite this there has been an outpouring of creativity much of it inspired by the lockdown and Black Lives Matter. Socialist Review asked 10 of our readers and contributors to pick the culture they have most enjoyed under quarantine.

Schitt’s Creek - Netfliix

There’s nothing ground breaking about the central story line of Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek (rags to riches in reverse), but one aspect of the approach is certainly refreshing. The show doesn’t get everything right; the only black character is the (fantastically sardonic) town councillor Ronnie, for example. What it does do well, in my opinion, is it’s treatment of the central character’s pan-sexuality. When actor Dan Levy, who co-wrote the show and plays David, was interviewed about it he said they had considered how to deal with David’s sexuality and in the end decided that, as in life, it just should not be an issue, so they simply didn’t make it one. Over 6 seasons, on one of the only two occasions it’s mentioned, a female character who had assumed David to be gay but then has sex with him, questions this using wine as a metaphor. She says she thought David ‘only drank red wine’? David replies that he does drink red wine, but he also drinks white wine and had been known to sample the occasional rose, and a few summers back had tried a Merlot that used to be a Chardonnay. He likes the wine, not the label.

Jo Ellis Holland

Robert Eggers’s extraordinary film The Lighthouse had its UK cinema release in early 2020. Set in the late 19th-century on an island off the coast of New England, it is one of the most original, intense and memorable movies I’ve seen in recent years.

The film boasts epic, black and white cinematography, a haunting soundtrack and amazing performances by Willem Dafoe (as an old lighthouse keeper), Robert Pattinson (a young apprentice keeper) and Valeriia Karaman (a mermaid). I was bowled over by the movie when I first saw it in January. Watching it again in the autumn, I was struck by how powerfully its depiction of isolation, human frailty and resilience connects with the experience of living through the Covid pandemic.

After enjoying Aaron Sorkin’s recent film The Trial of the Chicago 7 (about the Nixon administration’s use of the legal system to exact revenge on leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement), I took a comrade’s advice and watched the 1987 TV movie Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (which is available on YouTube). The film portrays excellently the central role in the case of the court-sanctioned violence against Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale.

Mark Brown

Upload - Amazon Prime

Upload is a comedy-drama set in the year 2033 where if they can afford it, people have the option to live forever in a digital afterlife of their choosing. I wasn’t expecting great things but was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. One of the main characters is a woman who works for very low pay in customer service for a company that provides a luxury afterlife. The other is a man who has recently died under suspicious circumstances and was uploaded to the luxury afterlife on his girlfriend’s account as he could not afford it himself. The show raises lot of interesting themes; the main one being the problems with this kind of technology being developed under capitalism. The big companies make billions and force their uploads to pay for every little luxury item. If you don’t have much money, you get limited data that even limits your ability to walk around and even when you're dead you can’t escape advertising. The uploads are constantly being hounded by ads encouraging them to purchase add-ons that will improve their experience. Upload will make you think and laugh, ideal viewing for anyone wanting some easy entertainment that goes beyond the usual formula.

Jasmine Francis

Despite everything the outpouring of incredible music this year has kept my spirits high. Favourites of mine include the extraordinary There Is No Year by Algiers, Mandala of Fear by Huntsmen, Pyramid by Jaga Jazzist, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never by Oneohtrix Point Never and It Is What It Is by Thundercat. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, Abscess Time by Pyrrhon, Stygian Bough Vol. 1 by Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin and The Affair of the Poisons by Hellripper all hit the spot with my inner metalhead. Special mention goes to Sightless Pit for their peerless album Grave of A Dog.

Visually my highlight was undoubtedly the blu ray release of Czechmate: In Search of Jiri Menzel by Second Run. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s monumental documentary chronicles the life and work of this legendary director as well as the context surrounding the last great flowering of Eastern European cinema, the Czech New Wave. In 2021 I’m looking forward to watching How You Live Your Life: Selected Works by Kevin Jerome Everson’, the republication of Cathi Unsworth’s noir classic Bad Penny Blues and more pREServed CD reissues by The Residents.

Kevin McCaighy

The opening event for the second Leeds Literature Festival was an in person highlight in spring. Writers from Leeds based Peepal Tree Press, which publishes Caribbean and Black British writers, read from their work in the Leeds Minster. They included Roger Robinson, Malika Booker, and Seni Seneviratne. The festival plans to return in March 2021.

Moving online a number of poetry organisations have embraced the possibilities of virtual events. One highlight has been ‘fourteen poems’ who publish Queer poets. Their regular interviews with writers from their roster showcase some of vitality and diversity of the contemporary poetry scene. The interviews can be found on Instagram.

A great podcast discovery has been ‘One From the Vaults’. Presented by Morgan M Page it uncovers individuals and stories from trans history.

My favourite read of the year was 2018’s ‘The Perseverance’ by British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus (published by Penned in the Margins). Amongst other themes its exploration of historical and contemporary experiences of d/Deaf people, including Raymond’s, reveals discrimination and celebrates resistance.

As our lockdown nights get longer what could be more cheering than Patrick Stewart reading every one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets? Find them all on Twitter and Instagram.

Rebecca Townesend

Data Lords - Maria Schneider Orchestra - Only available from
“ one clutters the mind,
the other clears it

one seduces and exploits
the other nurtures

one ultimately isolates
the other truly connects

one clamors for our attention
the other simply awaits it

one force-feeds answers
the other inspires questions

one manipulates our thoughts
the other grants freedom of thought “

These sleeve notes summarise a “story of two worlds” by US composer and conductor Maria Schneider. The first CD addresses her attitude to the digital world, contrasting with CD2 about the natural world.

Recorded upstate New York over the Labour Day weekend of 2019, Schneider brings together 11 pieces written over the last four years and previously staged once or twice at various gigs.

As befits a student of Gil Evans, Schneider rigorously writes the scores for her chosen participants then conducts their performance with gusto, encouraging improvised moments and passages along the way. Her musical palette is purely instrumental. Drums, bass, piano, guitar and accordion drive four trombones, four trumpets/flugelhorns, and five reed/wind players.

So there is a lot of lung power exerted here at a time when black victims of police murder are still having theirs choked out of them. There isn’t anything as funky as her song Sue for Bowie’s last album Blackstar, though the sax player Donny McCaslin that she introduced Bowie to is featured throughout Data Lords.

Joining the Artist Share collective gives you access to many video pieces its creator recorded chronicling the various stages of its making. Fascinating work overall and an exemplary business model of production and circulation.

Nick Grant

Lava La Rue - “G.O.Y.D.”

The summer of 2020 was, for most, an eerie time. London emerged from a harsh lockdown to stunning weather but with most of the rituals to celebrate the summer forbidden; park and block parties were broken up by the police, travel discouraged and the all important Notting Hill Carnival cancelled. Ladbroke Grove based rapper and DIY hip hop artist Lava La Rue asked for video submissions from their fan’s experience of that “Summer of Love in isolation” for the clip for their new single G.O.Y.D. (Girl of Your Dreams).

The result is an intimate and textural record of London in the few months of summer wedged between two lockdowns. The song itself is a soulful hip hop bop which soundtracks images of Black Lives Matter protests flooding London streets and taking over empty roads in the night, iPhone shots of urban wildlife and parks in high sunshine and young couples and friends enjoying the momentary freedom. The video is moving and optimistic without being overly saccharine. If you enjoy it take the time to check out their 2019 album Stitches available on Spotify.

Jessica Walsh

The album I've had on repeat since its release in July is The Streets, None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive. Mike Skinner's first release in almost ten years was a welcome return and a step out of his comfort zone, collaborating with incredible artists such as Tame Impala, Idles and Ms Banks. The DIY approach, mixing tracks on Skinner's iPhone and recording music videos himself, was hugely experimental but, in the middle of a national lockdown it was incredibly fitting. The nostalgia and excitement I and other fans felt listening to it for the first time created an immense buzz around The Streets. This resulted in Skinner selling thousands of tickets to ‘Drive In’ venues - which sadly fell victim to the pandemic. The self described mixtape has a running theme of social media affecting and distorting our relationships, increasingly fitting as working people were forced to socialise from home.

Another highlight has been the ever improving podcast, 99 Percent Invisible by Roman Mars. Several episodes such as ‘The Natural Experiment’ looked at how design, infrastructure and the built environment affects wellbeing and the natural environment in an era of pandemics, climate chaos and economic insecurity.

Sam Ord

Before lockdown 1, I managed to go to a couple of great gigs. The first was Stormzy, in a small theatre in Kingston. He did 4 pop up gigs with cheap tickets as a thank you to his fans. His stadium tour has been rearranged for 2021 (and is already sold out) but he's the kind of artist who will do this again.

The other gig was to see Moses Boyd as he toured for his album Dark Matter. Two other albums to pick up are Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) by mystery group SAULT. They are both double albums, released within weeks of each other.

2020 has been the year of the live IG set for me, and my favourites have been by Jazzy Jeff, D-Nice and, topping my list, 9th Wonder. That also introduced me to the Dinner Party EP (and the Dinner Party: Dessert remixes) which is by a 'supergroup' of Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder and Terrace Martin.

Too much work-related screen time has made reading difficult, so I tried to find a couple of books to ease me back in. One was God Save The Queens - stories, interviews and the impact of women in hip hop - and the other was The Rio Tape/Slide Archive. This is the story of radical community photography in 1980s Hackney. It's a great project with photos showing working class life and many of the struggles, strikes and campaigns of the time.

I won't list any of the fantastic programmes shown as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, just say that I'm waiting excitedly for the film of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.

Liz Wheatley

The curtailment of the BBC Proms left a huge hole in my social calendar. The festival is where I go for a sublime summer long classical fix. In its absence I was consoled by the discovery a podcast for “classical newbies”. Classical Fix’s hosts Clemency Burton-Hill and Jules Buckley, a regular Proms conductor, curate and discuss a playlist with guests including Laura Marling, Nadine Shah and Rob Delaney. Meanwhile, BBC Four’s Black Classical Music - The Forgotten History was a highlight of Black History Month. Hopefully it will receive an early upload onto iPlayer.

Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter, Nubya Garcia’s Source and Jordan Rakei’s Origin are albums that highlight the continued excellence of the London jazz scene. Garcia and Boyd also appear on Blue Note Re:imagined, a collection of tracks that respectfully re-interpret output from a seminal label.

The pandemic also put paid to my visit to the Masculinities exhibition. Fortunately however the Barbican website retains a wide range of talks, short films reading material and a musical playlist for those wishing to explore “manhood under the microscope”. Favourite films? Celine Sciamma’s sumptuous Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Melina Matsoukas’s timely and poignant Queen & Slim.

Brian Richardson