Presence, Play, and Postmodernism: Rethinking Zoom
Published by The College Hill Independent in November 2020
Talking on the phone, I multitask—flip through an old journal, lint roll a sweater, brew coffee, butter a bagel. I do all of this while my attention appears unbroken to the receiving end. Phone calls are illusory in so far as I imagine attention where I do not confer it, presume the person on the other end to not similarly flip through journals, fold laundry, prepare breakfast.
On Zoom, though, there is no such ambiguity of attention. I only click Start Video once I have eaten my breakfast, once I can perform attention as we discuss a short story, or workshop some of our own.
Classes that foreground creative production experience the crisis of online learning in a distinct way. To take a visual or literary arts class on Zoom is to lose the materiality of art objects, the tools used to construct them, the physical spaces which participate in their meaning, and perhaps most importantly, proximity to other humans who are all thinking and feeling and making. Rhode Island School of Design, amongst other art schools, was understandably determined to bring students back in person this fall. This is a choice that presupposes Zoom as an untenable space for art education, if not wholly artless.
The winter surge of the virus has arrived, Brown University’s List Art Building has closed, and many such classes must be taught online. The adoption of Zoom has been met with controversy. I hear complaints of tired eyes and delayed social cues, students isolated and uninspired, artwork unimaginable. I’d like to set aside easy critiques of Zoom and its artlessness, and imagine otherwise.
In John Cheever’s short story The Enormous Radio, Jim and Irene Wescott listen to music in their New York City apartment. When their radio breaks down, Jim buys a new one. Listening to this new radio one evening, Irene hears a rustling noise interfere with the music. Flipping switches and rotating dials, muffled noises are made intelligible, and she finds that the radio transmits sounds and conversations of neighboring tenants of her apartment building. With this object, the couple listens in on their neighbors, one by one and without their knowledge. But just as the Westcotts intrude on their neighbors, the radio’s presence intrudes on their interior space. The device, meant to furnish their home with the pleasure of music, instead bestows the Westcott’s with a relentless, frantic paranoia that they too might be overheard—a paranoia reminiscent of my own that I could be unknowingly unmuted. “Please, Jim,’ she said. ‘Please. They’ll hear us.’ ‘Who’ll hear us? Emma can’t hear us.’ ‘The Radio.’” Listening to the private lives of others, and comparing those lives to their own, misalignments between private performances of self and the public emerge, and Jim and Irene become highly insecure.
Zoom, too, obscures the line that sits between private lives and public ones. The present-day domain of education, not to mention labor, orders us to unveil interiors. While I imagine myself to arbitrate such a line—between person and student—opting into Zoom was not so much a choice as a requirement. Each time I log on, that line softens and blurs. A bite of breakfast feels unsuited for exhibition, so I Stop Video. On the flip side, Zoom grants intimate voyeuristic excess. It nearly provides the illusion of cohabitation, even if in some distant form. A Zoom screen politely encases voyeurs in their boxes, lining them up in grid form. But such eyes are deserted in an instant, with a lowered screen, a sealed laptop. The radio is both more forceful and more imagined than Zoom. Jim and Irene’s relationship to the object is speculative, insofar as their voyeurs are not laid bare but are merely inferred. Just as the Westcott’s can only imagine their voyeurs, they too can only fantasize of a reprieve from them. Cheever’s radio reimagines the totalizing presence of Zoom. With the radio and Zoom alike, it is not just that private lives rub up against public ones, but that interiority actually becomes exteriority. “Irene shifted the control and invaded the privacy of several breakfast tables.”
Eating breakfast on Zoom is more like performing breakfast. Just as the radio intrudes the Westcott’s home, Zoom intrudes on mine, recasting the bedroom where my laptop sits. So much so that walking around my bedroom during a Zoom call feels like being inside of a mirror. The flatness of a pixelated sculpture is made tangible; that flatness becomes flattening—an experienced process more so than a fixed feature. Conducting myself in relation to the laptop camera, my room adopts a stagelike quality. Traditional patterns of movement are supplanted by their relation to the camera: moving towards my bed becomes moving upstage, moving towards my desk becomes moving downstage, and the margins of the frame—window, closet, fireplace—are backstage. A book or a glass of milk is no longer just an everyday object, but a stage prop too. The Westcott’s discover that they are being listened to, and I discover that my room is a stage. Their discovery casts doubt on their words, mine on my motions.
The Enormous Radio was first published in the New Yorker, for a readership reflective of the Westcotts (“the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins”), implicating its readers in its very critiques. Published in 1947, it was before its time. The short story anticipated a trend in media forms beyond just Zoom—a trend bending away from hierarchical one-way modes of production, and towards collectively dispersed modes that implicate the audience as creator. Where consumers once brought the world into their homes, we now bring our homes into the world.
The Westcott’s just wanted to listen to music. Their anxieties emerge from the very object from which they sought pleasure. They might still be able to find some music in this enormous radio, albeit music of a different sort.
The Apple desktop, originally developed by Xerox Parc in 1970 and elaborated by Apple in the Macintosh format, pays tribute to the top of a desk—sticky notes pasted around a flat surface, folders of ephemera, and a trash bucket in the corner. User-interface design often asserts a structural similarity to our physical lives. Much of our digital lives mimic our off-screen realities. Digital landscapes molded after physical ones bestow navigational ease, rendering the newer domain less intimidating. The desktop metaphor now refers to a set of unifying graphic user interfaces, notable for usability, that have developed in the shadows of the Macintosh desktop.
Emulating physical space, digital landscapes like these necessarily think of themselves in relation to our three-dimensional world, or rather, encourage users to engage in relational thinking themselves—to think of the desktop in relation to the surface of our desks, the Zoom gallery view in relation to a seminar circle. Zoom, of course, does not fold neatly into this metaphor, but is vaguely informed by it nonetheless. A feature like the raise hand tool elucidates the imitative qualities of Zoom, upholding conventions of an ordinary classroom just as the vertical desktop upholds conventions of the horizontal one.
Zoom was only popularized as a pedagogical tool when the shared classroom space became literally infectious. The technology marks itself simultaneously as a presence—a platform full of potentialities—and an absence—a stand-in for the physical space which it supplants. For students without classes in person, Zoom can only be approached as negative in the Saussurean sense; that is, it is defined by what it is not. Rather than a positive terrain of new possibility, Zoom is a disappointment, its metaphors serving only to eulogize the classroom. It follows that art-focused classes on Zoom navigate cyberspace as if it were a physical space. Professors read and treat artwork mediated by a screen as though such work were not in two dimensions, as though a sculpture did not become a work of digital art the very moment the laptop camera caught glance of it and delicately cast its edges in pixel form. Just like the treatment of artwork on-screen, Zoom is circuitously committed to the negative.
Clicking through online galleries, I experience the quiet urge to place my body in the same room as art, ache to stand intimate with a painting. Much has been written about this appetite for three dimensions, and just how out of reach a painting feels even, or perhaps especially, when accessed with mere clicks of a keyboard. Zoom, like the online art gallery, is sad and jarring not because it is sad or jarring in and of itself—not because a class discussion dull or a painting ugly—but because of our psychic commitment to the negative, to three dimensions, to the special things which we were accustomed, which remain just out of reach, and which I painfully miss.
In isolation from the physical space it stimulates, Zoom is a computer desktop without a real desktop beneath it.
I have found solace in looking to the strange and clunky presences offered by the interface. Certainly, Zoom has playful possibilities that the classroom does not. The chat box feature is a simultaneous and secondary dialogue that exposes a collective subconscious lying just beneath a shared verbal one. A forum ambivalent to the authority of the professor, the chat democratizes thought.
In an ordinary classroom, there is no such written succession of collective notes; my thoughts usually remain my own. The classroom itself, to which Zoom aspires, is of course imperfect to start with. The student lamenting Zoom forgets the dread of sitting in a lecture hall; the restrictive physical infrastructure, the singular voice of a professor lost in his authority behind a podium, or the constant impulse to check your phone, even while vexed by the guy one row over online shopping. This room, like most others, dissuades play. We conduct ourselves through the classroom in a specific, formal way that considers other bodies moving through space. To deviate would be to disrupt.
Zoom itself holds a capacity for simultaneity much like its concurrent oral and written dialogues. The platform allows frustration and joy to coexist; while adjusting to Zoom can be exasperating, mastery of its features can morph something mundane into something artful. When Zoom brings me a palimpsest of my old life, teasing me to grasp towards a room just out of reach, I reorient myself towards its unintended modes of engagement.
In a class with MFA students taught over Zoom, a Yale professor adapts an instructional excerpt from performance artist Yoko’s Ono’s GRAPEFRUIT. The set of instructions, from the winter of 1963, is titled BUILDING PIECE FOR ORCHESTRA, and reads as follows.
Go from one room to another
Opening and closing each door.
Do not make any sounds.
Go from the top of the building
to the bottom
Many of the students are working from different rooms of the same building on York Street of New Haven. Each open and close doors, carrying laptops like extended limbs, entering and exiting each other’s rooms and Zoom boxes alike. The harsh separating lines of the boxes are for a brief moment confused and compounded with the comparatively soft and yielding partitions between rooms.
Both the laptop and the room itself are momentarily exposed in full form here. As a student’s camera captures the back of a head or an entryway into a room, the backdrop of a carefully curated stage swiftly falls to the floor. Ensuing, nearly every feature of Zoom breaks down. To click Mute or Stop Video becomes futile when heard and seen through another laptop. Like a hairdresser swivelling a chair one-eighty after a haircut, what was once looking into a mirror becomes looking at a mirror through another mirror. Only when the laptop’s camera is enlivened by the motion of bodies encountering other bodies, cameras encountering other cameras, does Zoom really digress from the Desktop Metaphor. Rather than just emulating physical space, here, digital space encounters it, and Zoom grows variant and totalizing, leaving behind its performed, mythic flatness, swelling as it stumbles upon three dimensionality. A laptop lined with faces might be treated as a playground—one that fatigues and strains, but permits poetry and whimsy too.
This characterization of Zoom as a poetic space is enlivened through Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. This collection of poetry is loosely organized into the categories of objects, food and rooms. In Objects, Stein displaces household items (like a book or a glass of milk) from their ordinary contexts and descriptive language. She disorients the subject, just as she disorients the reader, turning still lifes into sustained abstractions. Imbuing a book or a glass of milk with humanness, she renders the mundane object a human one.
Zoom collapses numerous private, domestic spheres, providing newly updated and digitized entryways into spaces like the ones that Stein bestowed with endless poetry. Zoom’s tedium becomes more interesting when understood as two-fold; not only is it something tiresome and fatiguing, but it at once collapses and digitizes numerous tired, fatigued interiors, each filled with books, glasses of milk, and all the rest. Hence the platform can both contextualize art and serve as a medium itself. Zoom refers both to a singular classroom, and a plethora of bedrooms; it is both absent and present, public and private.
A friend holds a fictional networking Zoom meeting. Each participant presents fabricated backgrounds, interests, career aspirations. One participant requests a piece of advice. A participant who can assist with such advice responds, and then requests advice themselves. A chain of responses and requests are carried out for a half-hour. One participant is not aware of the fictional nature of the meeting, and contributions are sincere.
Of course, an art object's context heavily informs its meaning. From Duchamp on, a reorientation of context, if not a complete inversion of content and context, has been made the language of postmodernism. The objects and performances I have mentioned evade inferred contexts, reminding us that subversive art relies on there being something to subvert in the first place. Though context need not (and perhaps must not) completely determine and devour the thing, it is possible and necessary, still, to attribute contextualizing power to our screens. This is complicated by the fact that an artist’s arena of production has coalesced with their arena for both art consumption and exhibition. A two-fold studio/gallery space imparts profound difficulties not to be obscured. Nor should it be obscured that while a surrender to Zoom in search of some strange and subversive visual poetry has been illuminating for me, it is not a universal ambition, and poetry cannot be governed.
4’33’’ is a musical piece by experimental composer John Cage. The score instructs the performers to not play their instrument or combination of instruments for a four minute and thirty three second duration. On Zoom, a professor adapts the performance, designating the class as the collective composer, and instructing the students to sit through the four minutes and thirty three seconds of near-silence. The quiet soundscape becomes highly altered. Soft rainfall is rendered hushed and indistinct. A throat-clear and a glass-break amplified and yellow-bordered.
When signing up for online classes last August, I felt a brief and ambivalent tinge of relief at the prospect of a break from the academy and its spaces. But of course, the switch to online learning has not actually been a break, and even with Zoom’s redemptive qualities, I have only been brought closer to the shortcomings of an already broken space. Zoom feels oppressive not just because it is a poorly rendered replication of the classroom, but because the classroom space itself is already flawed and stuck in some way. Zoom does not disguise or escape such flaw and stagnation, but exposes and exacerbates the cracks and crevices of the original space. In this way, Zoom is an inversion; the limits of possibility and play in the public world are revealed through our specific and formal interactions on the platform. Zoom does not create a break from reality, but clarifies it.
In that gallery-view grid, interiors are collapsed and multiplied. My own bedroom has turned stage, breakfast turned prop. Something of my interior is made less my own as it is distributed to peers and professors. It is not just the classroom space that has been lost, but our homes too.
Alana Frances is is homesick.
Published in The College Hill Independent