This blog post is written by Nicholas Thomas Lee, Assistant Professor, Ph.D., M.Arch.
The County Attorney and the Kitten Filter
On February 9th 2021, Rod Ponton, a county attorney in Presidio County, Texas, entered the 394th Judicial District Court room remotely via Zoom for a routine civil forfeiture case hearing. However, what ensued was anything but ‘normal’ with the lawyer appearing on screen as a talking kitten, unable to establish how to turn off a digital filter unknowingly applied to his camera feed. Immediately following the event, a video that is less than one minute long capturing this interaction went viral on the internet and ends with Ponton proclaiming the now iconic line, “I’m here live, I’m not a cat.”1 While highly amusing, this event highlights the blurring in conventional boundaries between professional / personal and public / private that many people have experienced due to an increased use of videotelephony since the start of the Covid-19 flu pandemic. This breach in established boundaries between public and private has become an everyday occurrence for many people that have had to work remotely from the confines of their home. During the 2nd quarter of 2020 alone, 40% of Danish employees were required to work remotely from their homes, with this statistic rising to an unprecedented 75% within the capital region of Copenhagen.2 With this in mind, we might ask, what has living, and working through successive lockdowns taught us about the boundaries, or perhaps more precisely, the ‘frontiers’3 between the domestic interior and the world outside?
The SARS-CoV-2 virus and the subsequent social restrictions that have been introduced globally with the intention of reducing the spread of its resulting disease Covid-19, have drastically disrupted our daily lives and domestic practices. Many activities, previously reserved for the public domain, such as working, educating, dating, fitness training, job interviews and, as we have seen above, even legal case hearings have suddenly had to take place remotely, within the home. Videotelephony platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime & Skype have become the dominant forms of communication between the domestic interior and the world outside. This ‘intrusion’4 into the home of digital devices, such as PCs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, which support these videotelephony platforms have made the boundaries between inside / outside, exterior / interior, public / private & work / home more porous.
Voyeurism, Vanity & Videotelephony
With the increased use of videotelephony vividly observed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,5 many people have experienced a greater public intrusion into their private homes while working remotely. This has placed greater scrutiny on our domestic interiors, décor and the personal belongings displayed within. Since the start of the pandemic, emerging phenomena have highlighted a simultaneous interest from the spectator and a concern by the voyeur for the ‘public’ display of the ‘private’ interior. Suddenly, topics such as voyeurism and vanity have become highly relevant when discussing these ‘threshold conjunctures’ between the home and the world outside that have been heightened by successive lockdowns. Representative examples of this are the Twitter accounts, ‘Room Rater’ and ‘Bookcase Credibility’, both established during the first lockdown in April 2020, with the latter’s sub-title being, “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”6 As the name suggests, ‘Room Rater’ allows the public to scrutinise the lighting, composition and content of other peoples’ videocall backdrops and then assign them a score out of 10, while ‘Bookcase Credibility’s’ thread contains an extensive archive of screenshots from videocalls where bookcases have played a prominent role. The composition and contents of these bookcases are then meticulously studied and critiqued by an avid and loyal group of Twitter users. Since the start of the Covid-19 flu pandemic and the establishment of lockdowns globally, one could say that the bookshelf has emerged as the preferred backdrop by public figures for conveying a sense of intellectual authority.7
Acts of voyeurism and vanity on the boundaries of the home are far from novel subjects when discussing the domestic interior. The academic and art historian, Linda Stone-Ferrier reflects upon thresholds between the domestic interior and the surrounding neighbourhood in the text, ‘Glimpses, Glances, and Gossip: Seventeenth-century Dutch Paintings of Domestic Interiors on Their Neighbourhood’s Doorstep’ (2020). By highlighting the importance of social interactions on the threshold between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood observed in paintings from the time, Stone-Ferrier challenges the presumption that there was a firm ‘borderline’ that distinguished the private from the public sphere in Dutch society. Of particular interest to Stone-Ferrier are the ‘voorhuis’, or front reception rooms that supported acts of commerce with the surrounding neighbourhood and that functioned as a stage for the private display of personal belongings intended for public scrutiny. Typical of the ‘voorhuis’ were distinctly designed windows and door openings, together with interior mirrored devices that were used to facilitate a reciprocal display / voyeurism between inside and outside. These open doors, windows and mirrored devices functioned as a ‘liminal’ intersection, occupying both sides of the threshold, which “served as the bridge, rather than boundary, between home and street.” (Stone-Ferrier, 2020, p. 29). Within the context of Stone-Ferrier’s study, these thresholds between the home and the neighbourhood are reinterpreted as a vital fluid discourse, rather than as finite boundaries, where the domestic interior was an essential part of its surrounding context. Stone-Ferrier’s reinterpretation of the ‘voorhuis’ and its various specular ‘threshold’ devices can provide us with useful insights on the contemporary phenomenon of remote working from home via videotelephony platforms.
Domestic Boundaries, Bridges & Frontiers
In his text, ‘A Topology of Thresholds’ (2005), the French architect and academic Georges Teyssot also explores ‘threshold conjunctures’, particularly within the domestic realm, through a historical analysis of mirrors, windows, frames and other specular devices. Themes such as voyeurism and vanity appear once again as Teyssot interprets the early 20th century writings of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and the 19th century French poet and art-critic Charles Baudelaire. While Benjamin’s popular description of the 19th Century bourgeois apartment as a ‘velvet lined box’ for its inhabitants, such as that for a compass casing, places emphasis on the home as a means of protection it also simultaneously highlights that the interior, and its contents are on display. On this point, Benjamin goes as far as to describe a fictional section through the home as being a façade, “…no matter where you open it and cut a section through it, my house remains a facade” (Benjamin, 1982, p.4) While reflecting upon the effect of specular devices on the ‘modern’ home, and in particular window apertures and mirrors, Baudelaire arrives at an analogous conclusion to Benjamin, identifying a collapse in the threshold between interiority and exteriority, whereby the ‘modern’ domestic interior became a ‘private’ façade on ‘public’ display, while simultaneously the person on the street became a voyeur. Teyssot identifies specular devices, particularly mirrors and windows as being central to this collapse in the established threshold between the interior and the exterior. He writes, “Perhaps the modernist inhabitant is not so much to become exteriorized, or nomadic, as to find the home no longer neither simply an interior nor an exterior. ‘Living’ is somehow to now occupy the space between the two, inhabiting the threshold.” (Teyssot, 2005, p.106.) Teyssot’s interest in the ‘space between’ is indebted to the 20th century French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s reconceptualization of threshold ‘limits’ as frontiers that becomes voidal and interstitial, thus turning the boundary into a bridge, an ‘in-between’ or rather ‘a space between,’8 which provides the opportunity for exchanges, encounters and ultimately inhabitation. This understanding of boundary thresholds as bridges is strikingly similar to the observations drawn by Stone-Ferrier earlier.
Let us now return to the question posed at the start of this blog post, ‘What has living, and working through successive lockdowns taught us about the boundaries, or perhaps more precisely, the frontiers between the domestic interior and the world outside?’ The increased use of digital specular devices within the home has undoubtedly led to a greater porosity in the threshold between the domestic interior and the world outside, contesting and condensing traditional spatial limits between private and public domains. In these threshold conjunctures, temporal liminal places are created by these videotelephony interfaces that foster acts of voyeurism and vanity, perhaps represented most vividly by the Twitter accounts, ‘Room Rater’ and ‘Bookcase Credibility’. Through the writings of Stone-Ferrier and Teyssot, we have seen that this greater porosity in the boundary between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood is neither unprecedented, nor necessarily detrimental. In current times, analogue specular devices such as mirrors and windows have been supplemented, and in some cases replaced by digital screens and videotelephony interfaces, whereby we have become accustomed to seeing virtual mirror images of ourselves. Perhaps it is the 17th century Dutch ‘voorhuis’ that provides us with the best analogy for the domestic interior during the pandemic, performing as both a bridge between private and public domains through the facilitation of important social exchanges between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood, as well as a place of commerce.
Over the course of successive lockdowns, many have experienced established boundaries relating to privacy breached, whether it be through the unintended attendance of a talking kitten at a legal case hearing or an impromptu work meeting from the bed. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus has tragically affected so many people globally, perhaps its associated social restrictions can provide an important catalyst for rethinking established boundaries between the domestic interior and the world outside. In the days following his viral kitten filter incident, even Rod Ponton acknowledged the much-needed entertainment that the video clip had given many people struggling with the then ‘new normal’ of remote working. The architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has even identified the bed, once a ‘symbol of intimacy’, as having the potential to become the new multi-purpose place within the home, through a metamorphosis into ‘a piece of public furniture’ (Colomina, 2020, p.29) by accommodating remote working, teaching, shopping and even socializing. Perhaps the domestic interior has once again become an essential part of its surrounding neighbourhood and it is on this ‘frontier,’ or rather, within this ‘in-between realm’ that we must now establish home.
Beatriz Colomina is one of four keynote speakers, who will speak at our conference ‘STAY HOME: New perspectives on the home’ November 10-11 2022 at The Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. Read more about the conference and our call for papers here.
- See https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-56005428 (Accessed 25th March 2022).
- Statistics quoted in the post are taken from Danmarks Statistik. See https://www.dst.dk/da/Statistik/nyheder-analyser-publ/bagtal/2020/2020-09-22-40-pct-arbejde-hjemme-under-nedlukningen (Accessed 25th March 2022).
- ‘Frontiers’ here refers to Michel de Certeau’s interpretation of the frontier as an ‘in-between’ or a ‘space between’, whereby the simple act of delimiting a boundary allows for the potential of a passage, a crossing or a bridge to be established. See Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. Chapter IX: Spatial Stories. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1. (pp. 115-130). Berkeley: University of California Press.
- The French philosopher and prominent cultural critic of the post-war period, Jean Baudrillard has written extensively on the ‘intrusion’ into the home of specular devices and their effect on the ‘virtual’ relations between the ‘outside’ and the allegedly closed sphere of the domestic interior. It should be noted that this ‘intrusion’ has been taking place over many decades, although arguably advanced and expediated greatly by the Covid-19 pandemic. See Baudrillard, J. (1981) 2020. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press. & Baudrillard, J. (1968) 2020. The System of Objects. London: Verso.
- Zoom’s sales in the last three months of 2020 were up 370% compared to the fourth quarter of 2019. Over the same period its meeting participants jumped from 10 million to 350 million per day. See https://www.vox.com/recode/21726260/zoom-microsoft-teams-video-conferencing-post-pandemic-coronavirus (Accessed 25th March 2022).
- See https://twitter.com/bcredibility (Accessed 25th March 2022).
- See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/01/arts/quarantine-bookcase-coronavirus.html (Accessed 25th March 2022).
- See Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. Chapter IX: Spatial Stories. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1. (pp. 115-130). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Baudelaire, C. (1947). The Mirror. In Paris Spleen. Trans. Louise Varèse. New York: New Directions.
Baudrillard, J. (1981) 2020. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press.
Baudrillard, J. (1968) 2020. The System of Objects. London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. (1982). Das Passagen-Werk, Volume 1 (2 Vols). Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Benjamin, W. (1982) 1999. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (based on the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. Chapter IX: Spatial Stories. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1. (pp. 115-130). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Colomina. B. (2020). The Bed in the Age of COVID-19: Uncovering a New Workplace. In Fehlbaum. N. (Eds), Vitra: New Dynamics in the Home (pp. 28-29). E-Paper, Birsfelden, Vitra International AG.
Stone-Ferrier, L. (2020). Glimpses, Glances, and Gossip: Seventeenth-century Dutch Paintings of Domestic Interiors on Their Neighbourhood’s Doorstep. In RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, 45(2), (pp. 25–46). Montreal: RACAR
Teyssot, G. (2005). A Topology of Thresholds. In Home Cultures, vol. 2, Issue 1 (p. 89-116) Oxford: Berg Publishers.