by Diana Agrest, Mario Gandelsonas
9 Nov 2021

“The great empty.” The Times recently sent dozens of photographers out to capture images of once-bustling public plazas, beaches, fairgrounds, restaurants, movie theaters, tourist meccas, and train stations. Times Square is a ghost town, as are the City of London and the Place de la Concorde in Paris during what used to be the morning rush […] Emptiness proliferates like the virus. The images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful. Their emptiness trumpets an existence mostly divorced from human habitation and the messy thrum of daily life. They imagine an experience more akin to the wonder of bygone explorers coming upon the remains of a lost civilization.1

The physical city, usually perceived as background, suddenly became an apparently empty foreground. However, the “emptied-out” city, exposing what had been previously the physical support of urban life, the urban stage, was not empty. Urban space appeared as a void, as an empty stage where the bodies and actions that shaped it were absent. Those who could afford the lockdown were not there, but the so-called “essential” workers—the “invisible” bodies that kept everyday life alive in the urban realm—were.

But there is another, mostly invisible dimension of the city. Unlike the buildings and the bodies that inhabit them, which the pandemic made newly apparent, there is the digital infrastructure, buried underground or underwater, above ground with antennas and towers, or satellites orbiting in space. The perceived opposition between physical urban space and virtual space obscures their constant interaction, overlap, and mutual substitution, as in lockdown when the virtual played a crucial role in supporting communication among human bodies, as their actual interaction was all but eliminated from “normal” modes of social behavior by the fear of disease.

While absent from the actual urban space, the body constantly engaged in interpersonal interaction and direct communication through Zoom or similar media is at its most exposed mode; showing one’s face. A bodyless head facing the camera emphasizes the way we consume culture through the visual. The head without a body, set within the frame, acts as a gate that opens up a chain of private spaces, for the most part domestic, that become linked as part of a public exchange, particularly if institutionalized, blurring the boundaries between the private and public domain.

The Domestic Scene

As urban action is displaced by the virtual realm, the places of public appearance are also transported online, the screen penetrating the physical domestic space, framing and staging it. The ever-changing line that separates the street from the home, the public and private, the actual and the digital was made clear by the lockdown.

Activities defined as the exclusive business of the public sphere infiltrated the home, through the virtual spaces of Zoom. The domestic interior became a unit of a public chain of supports and of spaces, blurring the boundaries between public and private. The grid of the Zoom screen substituted the grid of streets, materializing the conjuncture of street and virtual media that constitutes the contemporary version of the public realm.

The space of domestic life is thus compressed to include both the place of work and the site of public interaction. The domestic space is transformed as the public domain claims a share of a space that is traditionally the site of a different type of production. The rapid transformation of the domestic space, into a place of both paid and unpaid labor on a scale not seen before, challenges the traditional binary oppositions between public and private space, as well as gender-assigned roles within the domestic and professional spheres.

Synchronized collaborations across meridians were made possible by this gridded virtual space in concerts of all kinds, with artists mostly performing from their own domestic space. In breaking down the hierarchies separating performer and spectator, the concept of “spectacle” was transformed in space and time. The frame of Zoom was also re-enacted in the city itself, through the window frames which became a site of collective urban celebratory performance, honoring those on the front lines.

Except for those who perform essential services, those who took to the streets for demonstrations of protest like Black Lives Matter, or those who decided to cast their vote personally in the 2021 presidential election, for over a year, people spent most of their time in the digitalized space of domesticity and away from the actual space of urbanity. In this constant virtual interaction, however, something crucial was missing: the bodily experience of interpersonal space and its experience among plural bodies, resulting from chance encounters that can only take place within the physical space of the city, an experience that returned instantly in all public spaces of social interaction as soon as restrictions were lifted or relaxed.

The Urban Question

Have the post-second world war modernist cities, in particular, the global hyper-capitalist city since the 1980s, produced a human body vulnerable to the pandemic? The interiorization of “public space” that is no longer public, the passive movement implied by the car as the dominant form of movement organizing the urban realm, plus the explosive growth of impervious ground and buildings—one of the major causes of global warming and pollution—and, as a consequence, the exponential reduction of forests and green space. All of these changes expose the multiple failures of the unhealthy, hyper-capitalist urban realm—regulated or deregulated for profit and totally devoid of the social consideration that it once had.

The lessons from the events of the Covid-19 pandemic that have inexorably changed the course of urban history must be critically incorporated into the urban question and considered both as a real object and as an object of study.

1.‘The Great Empty.’ Photography: New York Times, Introduction: Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, 23 March 2020.