Britain on Lockdown: The online videos shaping the crisis #7

What will our descendants learn from these video time capsules from the coronavirus era?

10 July 2020

By Patrick Russell

The Coronavirus Time Capsule - Week 9: When This Is Over (2020)

You’ll not understand the art, history and impact of moving image in the year of 2020 without factoring in the online films produced and consumed in such large quantities during the COVID-19 pandemic: viral videos in an all too literal sense.

The BFI’s #BritainOnLockdown project is surveying the terrain. In this latest in our series of accompanying blogs, we consider a genre that, while not completely new, has exponentially grown and matured in the last three months. Related to, but ultimately different from, the video diaries featured in our last instalment, these films move beyond the atomised confessional world of the person-to-camera diarist by collating, editing and weaving together the contributions of a larger number of filmmakers to chronicle collective experience.

Where the powerful currency of video diaries is their vivid present-tenseness, these films have half an eye on posterity, hence the label they most frequently adopt: the video time capsule.

Ever since late March, a mammoth dispersed initiative to encapsulate the experiences and emotions of thousands of young people, shut out of school, has been taking place on a week-by-week basis, under the banner of The Coronavirus Time Capsule. At the heart of this national and even international effort sits Islington-based Company Three, a youth theatre group who, finding their everyday activities shut down, devised a videography methodology by which their community could document lockdown life. Episode one sets out their stall:

Thereafter, episodes both chart the ebb and flow of our plague year, and zero in on particular themes. Week 2, for example, starts by citing Boris Johnson falling prey to the virus before anthologising participants’ home routines and distractions. Week 4 reflects on what they miss about school, week 5 documents distanced friendships, and week 8 involves fellow household members.

Week 9 dares to imagine post-viral life, its contributors demonstrating both their tentative optimism and the care with which the project thinks through form as well as content. Filmed on phones while pounding the streets, they mostly move forward but are occasionally static or walking back:

Working with national partners like the National Association of Youth Theatres, Scottish Youth Theatres and Nick Hern Books, Company Three shared their toolkit with others, since when more than 300 organisations, not just theatre groups but also schools, have signed up for their stake in the free-to-use franchise, from places as far flung as Bridgend, Bolton, Bath and Birmingham, Colchester and Kidderminster, Falkirk, Plymouth and Totnes – not to mention Jersey, Ireland, The Netherlands, Spain, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Thailand, Canada and the USA. Crikey!

It’s fascinating and fun to compare these many groups’ refinements of the template. You can start to see how the mothership’s formats got both borrowed and built upon by comparing Company Three’s first episode above with those by, for example, the 11- and 12-year-old Lockdown Crew from a school in Stroud…

…or the teenagers facilitated by the Gulbenkian Arts Centre at University of Kent…

…then to observe yet more variation as lockdown proceeds. Gulbenkian got a bit meta-satirical in their week four focus on schooling, parodying teachers’ video messages to pupils:

From there, you can keep going, to Merseyside majoring on music, Aberdeen focusing on food, the Anna Freud Centre’s look at mental health, Coombe Academy’s collated thoughts on altered friendships or the creative self-portraiture of the young adults working with the London Bubble Theatre:

From Friday 17 July, material from the project will be collected together on a single website, Beyond this project, though, there’s also loads more capsule-ing going on, from one filmmaker’s edit of zoomed interviews with his far-flung friends to The Corona Diaries series, a thoughtful series put together by creative strategy company The Good Side, its broader age demographic facilitating adult subjects including local businesses, financial hardships and, below, the government’s handling of the crisis:

Macroscopic in scale while microscopic in detail, this cine-capsule phenomenon distantly echoes previous generations’ exercises in crowd-sourced but curated anthropology — from Mass Observation, started in 1937 and centred on the written word, to the BBC’s groundbreaking Video Nation, originated in 1993 and whose medium of choice was analogue videotape. No surprise that ‘mass observation’ today should deploy our own era’s defining medium, tapeless digital video, which thrives on democratisation, diversity and no little creativity. As many of the above examples show, capsules can incorporate montage, slo-mo, experimental camera angles, animation and more.

For inventive formal variations on the capsule concept, look no further than Project Isolate, an initiative by Manchester-based collective Whatstick Theatre. They asked their contributors for brief video or audio responses to unusually oblique questions or challenges, from ‘What was the last text you sent/received?’ to ‘Film yourself sitting in silence’ and ‘Sing a word that’s on your mind’.

Working each time to a 24-hour turnaround, Whatstick’s artist, animator and musician friends then collaborated to create playful audio-visual interpretations of the submissions. Each of the resulting ‘installations’ boasts a different combo of creatives giving each a different aesthetic. Below is Installation #5, in which respondents were asked to ‘Describe your last trip outside’:

There’s 18 installations altogether, none longer than four minutes, and I recommend you check them all out on the project website.

Project Isolate ran from March to May, but many other time capsules are still being assembled and published, even as lockdown starts to ease. Who knows how many hours have been shot, edited, uploaded, downloaded, re-edited then released, creating a precious collaborative record of a singular moment in our civilisation’s history.

Please keep telling us about your favourite videos, in this or any other genre: just fill in our quick and easy #BritainOnLockdown form. But for now, via their most stylistically stark video yet, it’s goodnight from Coronavirus Time Capsule week 14: