June 22, 2022

“Survival is insufficient.”

Welcome to our spring issue of AMPLIFIED! As we near the end of the winter term and may perhaps see brighter post-pandemic days ahead, I find myself thinking about the role of the arts, media, performance and design in building a better world. How can we best apply the lessons of the past two years? How can a School like ours — diverse, multi-disciplinary, innovative — lead the way forward? Within York University’s commitment to creating positive change and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, this is an enduring question.

Of course, the value of the arts, design and culture is not only what it can do, but also the joy it provides for its own sake. It has been a great pleasure to attend some of the many wonderful student presentations, performances and events recently as well as celebrating our alumni in all that they continue to achieve. We celebrate our two excellent alumni recognized in the York University top 30 under 30 Changemakers and the numerous AMPD alumni receiving awards at the Canadian Screen Awards. (Read on for more details.) In all these, there is a balance between the utility of the arts and design and the experiences they provide. Sometimes these dimensions are fused; great design can provide superior function and its own pleasure, for instance. Sometimes they are distinct.

I was reminded of this balance between use and experience reading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven (2014) and watching the television series adaptation. (The series includes one of our Theatre alumni, Amanda Cordner, in an episode.) As some of you may recall, the book is set in Toronto, where Mandel came to study dance at the Toronto Dance Theatre early in her career. The television series moves the story to Chicago among other changes, but the core of both the book and TV show is the same: a sudden global pandemic kills 99% of the world’s population, bringing all contemporary civilization to a halt and ushering in a new post-pandemic landscape to be rebuilt. As we witness this scenario – an extreme reflection of our own recent experiences – we are invited to ask, what next?

Mandel’s answer is, in part, to centre the arts as essential to survival in even the most dire of human experiences. In the wake of their upheaval, Mandel’s characters fixate on stories to define their experiences. They create museums, design new aesthetics and perpetuate performance. A Travelling Symphony emerges from the ashes of cultural collapse, bringing performances of Shakespeare and original musical compositions to the dispersed communities of the plague’s survivors. The book and series title refers to a graphic novel beloved by two of the plot’s children, both of whom embrace its vision of a distant, failing space station as a guiding myth for their own strange existence disconnected from the world they once knew.

One of these children, Kirsten, grows up to perform in the Travelling Symphony and has the phrase, “survival is insufficient” tattooed on her arm. This phrase recurs throughout the book and series. Mandel recalled the phrase from an episode of Star Trek Voyager (season 6, episode 2, 1999) in which characters weigh the value of choosing either a shortened lifespan but able to think and live independently, or a longer life with limited capacity for free thought and expression. Considering the circumstances (less than a decade from the end of the Cold War), another character agrees that a life lived with agency – however brief – is preferable because survival itself “is insufficient.”

As Mandel deploys the phrase, it takes on new meaning suggesting instead that the distinction between the artistic functions and experiences is a false dichotomy. She adopts this phrase from its original context of post-war critique and positions it as a guiding ethos for human flourishing. In the wake of a devastating pandemic, knowledge, community and cooperation are critical to human survival. But so, Mandel argues, is art. To simply exist is not enough. A full human life must include imagination, industry, design, and joy. Encounters with the arts are not frivolous, but rather necessary for us to experience our full humanity.

In the stories that follow in this issue of AMPLIFIED, you will read about the many efforts of our faculty, students, alumni and staff, who are creating great art and design for the greater good. Their work, both individually and collectively, reminds us of the social impact that the arts can have as well as the importance of these works for their own sake. As we get ready to celebrate the most recent graduates of AMPD at this year’s June commencements, we may all be reminded that it is not only about making a living, but making a life. Or, as Mandel wrote by way of Star Trek, survival alone is insufficient. We all need and deserve more.

My warmest wishes for a safe, healthy and fulfilling spring season to all of you and thank you for your continued support of the students, staff and faculty of AMPD at York.

Warmly,

Sarah