Avery Shorts Live ••• Wednesday, May 13, 2020 ••• Face and Territory in Times of Pandemic ••• Marina Otero Verzier
Today, during one of many video calls, I decided to deactivate the option to see myself. It wasn’t about hiding my “COVID-19/2020 look.” I just suddenly realized that, in the last few weeks, I have looked at myself too much. All the time, like never before: my tired face, framed by grids designed by communication platforms.
There is something disturbing about seeing yourself while talking to others, or, more particularly, about looking at yourself while talking to others.
As the weeks go by, I am getting used to the unprecedented measures that states and governments have implemented to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Our digital infrastructure has drastically and immediately changed the social, cultural, and economic activities of millions of people – stepping in to provide some basic continuity to intimate contact with loved ones and to public life. What unsettles me now is that we have become a society of framed faces.
Social distancing forces us to withdraw into increasingly smaller, isolated political environments. While inhabiting the city once implied a continuous closeness with others, under the current climate, encounters with strangers feel socially condemnable, a whim taken at the expense of human life. The city now feels like an obstacle course of evasions.
This combination of fearing the other and constantly looking at oneself is dangerous. Social distancing has more profound consequences than separating people. It might be weaponized for political gain and serve as an alibi for normalizing the privatization of public life, the unrestricted surveillance of the population, the fortification of borders, and the increase of nationalism and xenophobia.
In the short term, the virtualization of life and work allows many of us to keep our jobs, to maintain some social contact, and even – hallelujah – to reduce planetary emissions. But these extraordinary measures have not yet weakened – nor are they intended to weaken – preexisting structures of extraction, exploitation, and discrimination.
Now is the time to conceive and put into practice alternative forms of organization and collective action based on solidarity, empathy, the redistribution of resources, and care for others. And yet we spend the time looking at ourselves, trapped in a grid that segments and separates while it sells us a false image of equality. An equality in which we are either faces without bodies, digitally separated from our neighboring faces, or faceless bodies, covered and protected against possible public encounters.
I have no magic formulas to get out of this quagmire. For now, I dare the privileged like me, who spend all day on video calls, to stop looking at themselves. For we are actually not looking at the self but its flat, commodified image. To dismantle the face is maybe to break walls, to dislodge oneself, to give rise to new developments, relations, and forms of solidarity. Not looking at this version of yourself means seeing yourself in relation to others: seeing others and imagining oneself with others. It is a political and creative gesture that connects us to the world in ways not yet imagined, without lines that frame and separate us.