Virtually Social

“I’m sorry I can’t make section today,” I thumbed into my phone, four minutes before class was due to start. “I had thought it might be difficult to paint outdoors at this time because it’s sunrise here, and the light keeps changing, but on top of that it’s now raining. Can I do the painting later?”

The email whizzed off. I made coffee and looked out the window. The droplets were mistier now, and the sun had almost wiped out the baby-pink streaks of dawn with fully-fledged rays. Maybe I could just get through the work now, rather than have the task (“Studio Assignment #8: Plein Air Painting”) sit on my mind for the next few days. Aurora pinged me back, consenting to my absence from class. I deliberated, gathered my brushes in the name of anti-procrastination and propped a gessoed canvas up in the backyard.

Ten minutes into tracing the edges of three empty pots in the crusted vegetable garden, I remembered that section was still happening over Zoom. Should I dial in? The inertia of my solitude groaned somewhere inside my body. I thought about the feeling of surveilling and being surveilled by pixellated classmates, and went on mixing paint.

After we’d been sent home in the middle of the semester, Matt and Aurora had done their best to keep our painting studio class edifying and enjoyable. Four days into my post-arrival quarantine at home, a large square package reached my door containing four canvases, paper, oil paints, gesso, solvent and extra brushes. I found the receipt in the box, realised how much they’d spent on me, and felt tired.

This is the first painting class I’ve taken. Three days after an email notified us to leave campus, I rolled up my splotchy paintings in my suitcase, worrying that this gratifying experiment had met its end. Physically splintering apart could twist this studio class so completely that, even with a personal tub of gesso mailed to my door, it was over.

In the past month, our painting section had morphed from studio time to breakout room discussions of each other’s photographed work. This week was actually unusual in that we’d attempt to return to live painting, and to evoke the coworking space that we’d had before.

I like having a routine to slide me out of solitude. Walking to class listening to music or coaxing the key out of the door gets me ready for public spaces, for giving and receiving attention. It’s like the feeling of grinding coffee in your pyjamas, the beans nudging your dozing nose awake for another day of breathing. I dread the cold-water shock of joining group calls; the sudden surveillance of a webcam is too rude. The thought of dialing in to section 15 minutes late was too weary to entertain, until guilt took over and I picked up my phone.

I get a similar feeling whenever I click on the link to attend my English seminar. I love this class, and the way it feels like book club, but it now requires 3:52am alarms (noon in Boston is four in the morning in New Zealand) and focusing my straggling attention on flat little people in flat little boxes on my screen for two-and-a-half hours. I’ll watch my professor explaining some line from Effi Briest, and imagine trying to figure out if the 23 muted faces, eyes directed somewhere unknowable, understood your take on the merits of Mr. and Mrs. Briest’s parenting style. I imagine not getting any feedback from the usual shuffling feet or coughing, and wondering whether the connection might have broken during a critical pedagogical moment.

Now he’s joking about people tuning out, and I anxiously raise my eyebrows at the computer—attentively, I hope—to stem the virtual awkwardness. Look, someone is paying attention to you!

I’m not such an eager student in other classes. The first week I had my video on in my quantum lecture. Only one other person did. I committed, stubbornly, to keeping the camera on. The norms for virtual attention were still malleable, I thought, and I didn’t want the professor to feel abandoned by default.

The second week, I’d quickly learned that I was not influential enough to change virtual classroom norms, and anyway, the administrators had decided to change the grading status of all classes to a universal pass/fail system. I switched the camera off, rolled out my yoga mat, and spent lecture stretching on the floor. Barely listening, I played a round of minigolf on my phone with a friend, thinking absent-mindedly about how all the difficulties of the game were missing in its digital manifestation — you didn’t have to remind yourself to use the right power, swing your arms just enough, don’t forget to maintain the angle. Everything had lost its physicality recently; minigolf was just another example.

If I looked up from my screens, I’d become distracted by the immense dimensionality that exists in the physical environment. Reflections in a fork! Puckered leaves on a basil plant! Does anyone else ever think about throwing their laptop into the bushes and running away from a life of pixels?

At the end of the class, I unmuted myself. In my best casually-enthusiastic voice I projected Thank you! into the microphone and left as quickly as possible.

Virtual socializing has its intimacies. I no longer meet people in neutral public settings in which we follow the norms of being a guest in a third space. No more coffee catch-ups during which jazzy café music and indifferent baristas subconsciously prompt us towards a familiar mode of public behaviour. Now, we exclusively show up in our homes, implicitly giving every single person we meet a tour of our most private spaces. I see nice headphones and cats walking across keyboards. They see the titles on my bookshelf and the dramatically green desk my dad bought me in high school. Professors and acquaintances can read my space, deduce that I’m messy. My sister bursts in to call me to dinner, even though I texted her that I was on an important call.

Public and private have inverted, and finally melted together.

What are the new norms we’re establishing? How are we behaving now?

I was scheduled to participate in some informational visits to various organisations in the Bay Area before COVID-19 really hit. Instead of seeing industry leaders lecturing in their offices, I saw the family photos on their coffee tables. One prominent researcher apologised for the presence of an absurdly massive panda floatie propped behind his shoulder; he was using it to block the sun’s glare through the window.

It would have been so easy to take a screenshot of him and his inflatable panda with the creepy eyes—that’s the thing with digital interactions, you never know which of your footprints others are keeping—but it felt like he was investing in us an unanticipated trust, and I didn’t want to fracture the intimacy of our understanding.

There’s a specific angle that I never used to see people from — throat-first, upward-tilted. Now I see those tipped, exposed faces all the time from the fixed viewpoint of the webcam. It’s accentuated by furrowed brows as people look for the unmute button, blurred cheeks as they hurry through their living room. I never asked for this particular intimacy from others, nor did they ask for mine. It just fell on us circumstantially.

Some days I love the limited interactions and the focused, quiet lifestyle I’m developing. I don’t have to engage in a social performance if I’d rather curl up in my thoughts. Other days I crave running into a friend at Peets and chatting about an upcoming concert, and I can’t quite stomach how different virtual conversations are from those accidental hellos. I plead with my brain to forget about that for a few months.

Often, I can only find out how introverted I’m feeling through having that online social interaction I’m being indecisive about. When I virtually entered the painting class, I sensed tranquility. No one was speaking. Some people had their microphone and their video off. My shoulders loosened.

I settled down and scraped burnt umber and ultramarine blue together with a palette knife as my classmates worked quietly, moving across my phone screen. It’s funny how a single sun can manifest as late afternoon rays on some pixellated faces and, at the same instant, as a feeble morning glow on others who haven’t quite reached that point in the day yet. A cricket chirped somewhere in cyberspace, and I heard it.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have known that this class would not exhaust my attention in the same punishing way that others tended to. We were gathered online to work alone.

“I wanted to ask something about lecture,” Emily, another senior, began. Matt gave her the go-ahead. Abstract Expressionism (this was the topic of his most recent lecture) is often the movement that people point to when they talk of the moment that art became pretentious. People don’t look at Renaissance paintings and say that, really. What was his response to that?

Wind rustled through a tree somewhere in San Diego. Solvent swished in Cambridge. I dabbed at my canvas with a caked paper towel, agreeing with Emily in my head. Matt mused on the question, said she was broadly right about that impression, ahh’d a bit about his opinion, and asked Aurora for hers. She, too, seemed uncertain. “It’s hard to justify making anything,” she said finally.

Amidst the ebb and flow of sighs and swishes and occasional questions, I would find inspiration in one sound or another, each pulling me into a new well of thought. I floated in the pools in my head, without feeling the usual obligation to climb out of the water and begin the effort of camouflaging the gap between this and The Normal Class Experience We Should Be Having using attentive-looking smiles and thumbs-up emojis.

We were hearing, feeling, painting together. A shared experience consolidated in virtual snippets of reality and unexpected abstractions, rather than the physical space of the studio.

I unfolded my legs and turned off the microphone and camera on my phone, then went inside to make a snack. As I stared at the closed blinds of the kitchen window, munching on a peanut butter and banana sandwich, birdsong emanated from the phone in my pocket. It sounded like someone was dialing in from a forest. I didn’t check to see who, just contentedly let another reality fill my ears. So many guessing games, so many unknowns — opportunities for speculation hid in every corner of a virtual interaction. Perhaps the birdsong broadcaster was unaware that they had their microphone on, or maybe they knew perfectly well that they’d set off ten different trains of thought (about bluejays or avian migration patterns or something else) chugging around the world. Maybe someone did suspect that I’d abandoned painting in favour of eating in the middle of class.

The professor’s keyboard clacked. The cyber cricket crooned, and the birds went on. I stood at the kitchen sink, letting the sounds from other people’s realities fill my own, become my own.