This online workshop with The Reading School was about reading and writing and the potential to create new content based on present technology: What happens when your physical body (or objects) meets the logic of a virtual representation—in a time when physical distancing is essential for human relations?
In April 2020, while the world faced the pandemic outbreak of Covid-19, our group consisting of seven people from around the globe connected online for the workshop. By using a reactive reading and writing method; and through discussions; we shared our inner thoughts and different perspectives on work related experiences of living under lockdown. This text is a collection of some conversations and a series of essays.
Melbourne, Zenobia A.
For over a month, nearly all of us have been living under partial or full lock-down implemented by governments around the world due to the spread of coronavirus, and it looks as though we may be living this way for some time. The pandemic has taken thousands of lives, completely disrupted our practiced way of life and shaken-up the global economy. The most affected are the vulnerable groups in society; the poor, working-class, homeless, incarcerated and indigenous communities who have lost income and financial stability almost instantly. More than ever, the Covid-19 pandemic exposes the inconsistencies and dead-ends of an economic paradigm that for far too long has focused on the interest of a few individuals, in turn generating inequality and the exploitation of both people and nature.
With such strict rules in place, we are now confined to the prism of our homes, with only necessary outings to buy groceries or exercise in the park as our only purpose to be outside. Unable to socialise or visit friends and family, life in our homes is now full-time – forcing us to find some structure within the same space. Our lives have gone from constantly working an administered 9 to 5 routine to a mellower, self-governed mush. Our previous lifestyle was defined by the 8-hour contract, yet within those hours we actually spent a lot of it in “para-labour”: from preparing meals, dressing, travelling or even just mentally preparing for the day. What free time remains at the end of the workday, on weekends and holidays? In Theodor Adorno’s 1997 essay “Free Time”, he defines it paradoxically as a ‘continuation of the forms of profit-oriented social life’.(1) Thus, free time is not actually free if it is constrained within a system of work. Choi and Krauss in their 2018 book Unlearning Exercises explore the notion of busyness—“the constant demand for productivity in terms of commodification, including production and reproduction”.(2) Now how are we coping when removed from our habitual busyness?
Life away from work has given people more time and energy for unlearning and changing some of these concepts, schedules and structures that have long dictated our lives. Reduced work and not having to travel allows us more time, a space for developing our talents and abilities beyond our functional job role. (3) How might we adapt to the simple life—a world less cluttered by the busyness of both production and consumption? I have enjoyed seeing a surge of interest in home-centred arts: making things, brewing coffee, baking sourdough, weaving or crochet. It seems the simple pleasures and hygge practices are finding a new relevance in an encouragingly wholesome way.
Perhaps we have a unique opportunity to reset our values—to question our subservience to prevailing systems of capitalism, wealth and obsession with economic growth. Can we build better conditions and respect for labour, time and energy? Let’s think of the Great Pause of 2020 as a chance to solve wicked problems, reconnect, support vulnerable communities, and tackle the climate crisis in earnest.
ME, MY PHONE, AND MY SPARE TIME
Copenhagen, Hanna B.
Regardless of where you are in the world right now, life in quarantine has changed traditional perceptions of society. Many humanistic ideas—the right to have a freewill, to self-rule, or self-govern—have been altered by government’s rigid lockdown rules. Yet even if we are not allowed to meet up in crowds or visit a museum, we can still use our screens to meet those people and go to those places virtually. Our homes have suddenly become the location for all our 24-hour activities such as working, relaxing, cooking, and sleeping. With time no longer defined by our specific work hours, a lot of people are in fact experiencing reduced working hours.(4) What happens in this residual time?
Our cultures and societies are already not as homogenous as they used to be with regards to working the typical “9 to 5”—a leftover from the industrial era where people had to place themselves besides the machine in order to perform. With time and space more fluid and defined by other structures, we now have the opportunity to change this concept even more. During this pandemic it can be unsettling to become so aware of your spare time, especially if it is spent on the same laptop in the same space used for our work. My computer and phone are my primary work tools, yet they are also the same tools I use in my spare time. When I visit apps like Instagram, I’m at work, on Facebook it is more half-work, half-leisure, and my yoga-app it is purely for leisure.
Reflecting on this personal situation: why do all my smartphone apps want to grab my full attention, all of the time? My freewill seems in part driven by tech companies. The industry wants us to continuously use their platforms, so our activity makes their data more valuable. On a daily basis I use Google Drive, Google Maps, Google Mail and Google Search in order to communicate, which makes their profit grow. More specifically:
“Data has become the currency of the business realm. Marry that data with expertise, and you are onto something significant. And that is why, apart from supplying traditional companies with technology solutions, tech companies can use data as a way into the traditional industries they have historically been service providers too. […] That isn’t to say all companies will succeed in executing this transition, but virtually all will attempt it and will invest heavily in data and software infrastructure to support their digital transformation.”(5) These businesses can be companies like McDonald’s, Walmart, Über or Airbnb.
So what is spare time and how do we define it now? Theodor Adorno describes it as “…those autonomous activities whose aim is simply to serve the criteria of the good, the true and the beautiful, as defined by each person.”(6) Preparing for a new world which will likely include a need for self-isolation and physical distancing, where typical social activities will become necessarily part-virtual and part-real-life, our minds have to find new interesting and creative ways to stimulate our free time. For me, it has always been interesting to reshape and rethink my own idea of the good, the true and the beautiful. This has often been in connection to the people around me and to my surroundings. If my computer is currently my only realm, I have to find the good and the beautiful through it. And if I’m in a small cottage surrounded by nature—the true and the beautiful seems reachable in a very different way.
When talking about objects for work and / or leisure at home, it could be interesting to imagine a new kind of Internet or app—one where work, leisure and privacy are incorporated together with the good, the true and the beautiful. Bo Ren reflects upon this recalling that: “We need new rules, new affordances, and, importantly, new players—those who are willing to think critically, creatively, and thoughtfully about how both new products and the way they are funded will impact long-term social norms.”(7) When money and growth is not the only priority for developing new digital tools or online content—new ideas can emerge. Could it be that our digital infrastructures can now be more supportive and help us form ways to define our lives of work and leisure time?
TIME PERCEPTION* AS SOCIAL PRACTICE
Cairo, Seif H.
As social creatures, thinkers and human beings, we desire to see ourselves as free-willed, conscious masters of self-governance, different to other creatures due to our distinctive capacity to see reason. And yet, we are far closer to our animal instincts than we may think.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, our lived patterns and habits have been forced to change. We have been asked to suddenly adapt, given unexpected free-time amongst measures of social distancing which in turn has caused a rising anxiety throughout the world—collectively facing a seamless, anonymous and an indefinable enemy. A total lockdown, a domino effect, is hitting metropolitan cities worldwide, one after another, and virtual communication has become the main method of self-expression and connection.
If we apply our survival instincts as described in Hypermodernity** in our present situation, we face our current obstacles by finding alternative ways of connectivity—finding our emotions and ideas through communicating with other human beings. This idea is expressed as far back as those historic cave drawings; an individual carving out their ideologies and beliefs into stone; to understand and try to fulfill his existence beyond an identity as hunter-gatherer. Far from a creature only designed to reproduce and survive, but with an egoistic perspective: to thrive. Perhaps as a species, our animal instinct tells us we cannot accept any long-term idea of isolation, even if we physically need it, as we simply can’t survive without any ability to communicate.
Far from the carving tools and effort required of the caveman, we have an easier way to share our chosen “content” of self-expression through social media or video-conference. With all the communication technologies we have today, their residues accumulate in digital archives; in social media reactions, website cookies, browsing history and search-bar recommendations, recording our cave-painting data by the apps/websites management systems.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have given us the missing puzzle-piece to allow us to conceptualize the future human interactions we are heading towards. The pandemic may create a manifestation of radical shifts in our self-perception as living beings, formulating new and alternative social-ecological systems of living. If we are only allowed to follow certain paths in public life outside—under surveillance restricted to minimal movements, gestures and bodily interactions, then the nature of our behavior may shift to suit the life we are heading towards through the virtual realities we have developed as a way of escapism and connection.
When isolated with no obligations for work or study purposes, all that is left is an endless inner dialogue, forced to face our true-selves. Our masks go down and we witness the reality of all the fake perceptions of happiness we have built up in our minds through years of practice. We are allowed to part from the peer-pressure and the relentless capitalist hamster-wheel. Within this unplanned pause—the pandemic situation may be the golden opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to analyze our past, empathise our mutual condition and start building upon the desired future we are looking for as a humankind, rather than individuals?
Copenhagen, Josefin A.
During this time of lockdown due to the spread of Covid-19, the concepts of ”rest and leisure” no longer function as necessities for the pursuit of work. Suddenly there is enough time for self-reflection and after-thought. Thoughts that have been festering a little deeper on an existential level are now beginning to emerge. Thoughts that speculate on given concepts of time, work and the accepted norms of everyday life. There is a tendency now for many of us, when globally confined to our homes, to have more time on our hands. This time should be spent on reflection, it is not a time for acting*. We should ask ourselves, what is rest and what is leisure when it is no longer at odds with work?
In an interview with Lauren Rotenberg, the artist Pierre Huyghe said, ”Leisure is not ”free time”, but a reified form of passive consumption.”(8) Huyghe in his personal artwork and collaborations, like many others, has been to an art that portrays and creates scenarios outside of the capitalist-work-cycle, to show us utopian ideas and alternative forms of pursuing life.
Most of us at some point in our lives have tried to visualise a different scenario of living and questioned the social-contract, especially in connection to the present climate emergency. But never before in modern history have our capitalist controls over our time been so abruptly interrupted. It may even shatter the quite disturbing quote by Frederic Jameson, that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism. It may no longer be possible to share Jamesons’ opinion. It may instead seem that this virus has done all the ”heavy-lifting” to break with the capitalist system and allow us to turn to new futures that artists like Huyghe have been portraying and worked towards—not acting*, but reflecting on a life we may prefer to lead.
Our homes and home-offices now function as modern leprosarium’s. Technology-wise, it is not hugely dissimilar to the first quarantines experienced during the black plaugue by lazarettos in the Venetian lagoons during the 14-15th century. At that time the virus travelled by ship, today it is airborne, from airport to airport. During the Venetian renaissance a mirror bore an expense more than a Rafael painting, an extreme luxury. Yet today, we constantly see ourselves reflected through video-call platforms, our situation mirrored in the spaces and positions of those we talk with.
We not only have to re-define notions of work and time, but also our cognitive abilities. Archaeologist David Lewis-Williams in his work investigating cave-paintings gave us an revolutionary theory on why we create images. His thoughts point towards a hallucinatory state of delirium as the driving force for our communication.(9) Might it be that we, with our own bodies, have become expressive artists? Using the screen as a canvas for our own performativity?
The impact of this unexpected and extensive use of video-communication is yet to be analysed and will be with hindsight. For now, it certainly raises interesting speculation on what will happen when we communicate in this way so frequently, always observing our own reflection in a miniature rectangle.
The temporary “anotherness” that we are currently experiencing, the question “what comes after?” and the unequivocal sense of change can feel overwhelmingly hard to anticipate. So far it has taught us to see time as a social and political construct not only as a physical entity. As time has been taken off the capitalist market, it is no longer a commodity to be “spent” or to be traded but instead, to be lived. So how shall we live it, and what shall we create from this gift of anotherness?
* Time perception is a field of study within psychology, cognitive linguistics and neuroscience that refers to the subjective experience, or sense, of time, which is measured by someone's own perception of the duration of the indefinite and unfolding of events.
** Hypermodernism finds its validation in emphasis on the value of new technology to overcome natural limitations and emphasizes a dismissal of an object-driven past in favor of a flexible, attribute-driven heuristic.