Recently the K-pop boy band Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) garnered around 750k viewers for its online concert Bang Bang Con. Con stands for Concert, one Bang stands for the band’s name, while the other refers to room (in Korean, bang). All in all, a great concert to view from the comforts of your room. BBC’s programming takes the room as the default living/viewing space in the pandemic era as its foundation: architecturally (BTS’s big-scale concerts give way to small studio floors that resemble different rooms in the house), in its logo design (a multi-storied house with many rooms), and even thematically (the performances are interwoven with scenes of the band members, viewing the concert from the comforts of their own homes). BTS’s typical large-scale synoptic concert design which keeps all eyes glued to the stage gives way to the seemingly informal format of amateur performances, where members hold Samsung cameras and perform as if in a selfie or insta-live session. Yet when interpreted differently, the intimate, haptic images of these stars split across 8 screens resemble multiple CCTV feeds projected onto a large screen in one’s own personal bunker. To view these images from the comforts of a darkened space, to focus on images while stonewalling the world outside has been the oldest imaginations of visual culture and its surveillance dispositives. The bunker has always been a secluded crypt. But with the proliferation of digital media, the once-specialized viewing of CCTV images pervades all our lives and spaces of living. Every room is a bunker.
Right after the Oscars when the pandemic took on a global scale, the Japanese twitter handle for Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019) released some stills of the film for people to use as zoom backgrounds. No other zoom background is more apt to index the social inequities laid bare by the pandemic than one borrowed from Parasite, whose own politics is inscribed in the sharp contrasts between the Park and Kim family’s homes. As all film scholars know, filmic backgrounds carry a wealth of meaning which greatly exceeds that revealed by the explicit dramaturgy or plot. This truism has been turned on its heads with the pandemic, where our homes have turned into workplaces. Under the benign surveillance of webcams, the corner of our house we work from has turned into mise-en-scenes that we must design and tend to: our material conditions and social station projected as an image for all to see. Even the refusal to turn the camera on or show one’s “true” living space implicitly betrays our material conditions. Zoom backgrounds intervene by swapping our real inhabited spaces for virtual cinematic screens to project our desires at large. These backgrounds speak of many things, but often run up against the limits of such a cheap quick-fix. As our digital body-images glitch or sometimes erroneously dissolve into our backgrounds, we are reminded that we as figures always inhabit a material space that grounds and anchors us. We come up against an old fallacy of western art history: the figure as an autonomous body, active and bearing the weight, distant and differentiated against a mute, unchanging background. Zoom backgrounds remind us yet again that the figure is always embedded in the milieu: shaped by larger forces that determine the possibility of action and degree of relative freedom.
In preparation for the limited return to campuses, the University of California system is requiring an online training be completed by all personnel who may be spending time on campus. In this training, the Coronavirus: Prevention and Protection, a variety of strategies for reducing COVID-19 transmission. Throughout the video, an ominous string score accompanies the images. The sound creates a sense of tension which is intended to convey the gravity of the pandemic. The viewers should interpret the tone as an imperative for them to follow the guidelines in the video. Building upon the unsettling score, the video opens with two visual imaginaries for the global spread of the virus to actuate the individual responsibility of the viewer to protect themselves against it. In the first, a growing counter of COVID-19 cases is centered over an image of a masked Asian man on public transportation (0:09). Bold font indicates the counter begins in China. As the case counter continues increasing, the background changes to various stock images of people in masks as the country designation moves from Italy to Spain to Germany. The United States is curiously removed from this global narrative. Instead, the United States is introduced into this pandemic imaginary through not an epidemiological figuration but a map of the country at night (0:46). The light clusters, representing the light pollution from metropolitan areas, acts as a stand in for the disease clusters in those same cities—reiterating COVID-19 as an “urban” problem rather than a national problem. Even as the voice-over emphasizes the ever shifting situation of a pandemic, the static representation of the United States as removed from the global and paused in the internal spread of disease does not adequately prepare workers for the still contagious reality of the university in the pandemic.
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) pierces the hallowed portrayal of Korea’s miraculous economic growth in recent decades. It is a tale of South Korean life after the dictatorship, carefully parsing out the terse, fraught relationship between the nation’s neoliberal grandiose aspirations and its penurious underbelly. This tension is written into a dialectical contrast between the Kim and the Park families, whose respective homes bear the mark of their class. A home is where wealth is materialy inscribed. It is where primitive accumulation finds its primitive expression. Parasite’s interest in these two contrasting homes reflects cinema’s larger investment in architecture and its material politics. Over and above its narratological purposes, cinema has always invested a lot of meaning into its mise-en-scene: a combination of all the visual cinematic elements, a choreographic relationship of sets, lights, decor, actors, and gestures, to the camera. A primary lesson in film school, or even in film studies, is to learn how to deftly read a mise-en-scene over and above a simple narratological reading. Parasite too relies extensively on its spatial mise-en-scene . It relays the stark class divide in South Korea as much through its intricate set design and the decor of the two homes as through the rapidly unfurling comic plot.
Perhaps, the world is in a way beginning to realise what cinematic mise-en-scene really means. Through the pandemic, as workplaces have migrated to homes, our homes have become our own carefully curated mise-en-scenes. It is always waiting to be captured on our cameras, and broadcast to our social worlds. We ourselves are enacting our lives against a carefully curated set. Minutes before our video calls, we are setting up our rooms to be that respectable space of existence we desire others to see: arranging that flower pot in the right direction, tilting our laptops to capture the best light in the room, tidying up our sheets, or most commonly, shoving every unseemly object inside the cupboard. We have all done it time and again. We recognize the politics of presentability – nothing expresses productivity and being in command than a tidied-up mise-en-scene of our homes. And if the mise-en-scene does not match up to our expectations, if our homes are socially unpresentable, zoom backgrounds come to our rescue. It is the perfect digital screen that replaces one mise-en-scene with the other, a background layer interfacing with our imperfect meatspace worlds. It is, therefore, not surprising that the makers of Parasite, realizing this very potency of the backdrop as a clear site of politics, decided to release some of the film stills of empty architecture as zoom backgrounds, one that could be used by millions of users on their video calls (Miyano 2020). One could transport into the vast expanse of the Parks’ lawns or their layered drawing rooms, or cramp up against the dingy toilets of the Kim’s. Either way, one could cast aside one’s own space and use the background to make a personal/political statement.
In this manner, zoom backgrounds in the pandemic have shown to the world what a screen could mean – zoom backgrounds literally screen the world for us, they cast aside our unpresentable rooms for more desirable ones. The verb “screen” means to conceal, protect and shelter, after all. Zoom backgrounds are screens in the sense that cinema scholars understand them – they are surfaces upon which one casts one’s projections. Countless films worldwide depict protagonists projecting their desires onto a cinematic screen, the filmic image become the site for representation of one’s desires. The only difference is that instead of seeing our desires projected up front, zoom backgrounds project it behind us. These backgrounds could be anything from Hogwarts, to Black Lives Matter posters, to the Eiffel Tower (in the time of restricted mobility, it is an expression of where we might really want to be). Advertisers also get this, and countless companies are offering people money to post their banners as a zoom background – nothing like a coke ad staring at your colleague in your digital meeting room. But zoom backgrounds are screens also in a more expanded sense. The media theorist Vilhelm Flusser had defined the screen as a piece of cloth that is open to experiences (wind, open to the spirit) and going forward, storing that experience (Flusser 2012, 55-58) . For him, the screen could be a tent (and not just a wall), a straw mat or even a lace, anything that registers these movements, gestures and pressures. Flusser’s definition moves against the white wall of cinematic projection that we commonly associate the screen with – empty and white, projecting our desires without itself transforming . Our ‘smart’ zoom backgrounds however register our bodily movements and and movements even without us realising it. Move your hands about or tilt your chair back considerably, or even reduce the lighting. Zoom backgrounds will not only not recognize you, but precisely as you turn into glitch, or blend into your background remind you it’s not a passive screen behind you. It is actively trying to configure and delineate you as an object with volume, density and spatial presence.
I cannot but think of this one time I was on a zoom call with an artist, who had a roaring tiger as his zoom background. The artist – famous for his work on tropical tigers – kept blending with his tiger or emerging from it, an inter-species relationship written as it were between the artist and his zoom background. The screen that was absorbing this experience, but in that process changing the artist’s relationship to the tiger. The artist was both emerging from the tiger and seemingly melting into it, a liquefaction of the body into the background. It was telling because his famous artwork features a white man blending in and out of a tiger on parallel screens, as each of them narrate a history of predation in the tropical forests. The artist, his art work, his zoom background and he had all leached into one for me. It reminded me of something that visual scholars had known all along, that the background is never too away, never too far and distant from us, the foreground. The figure is always tied intrinsically to the ground from which it stands up or emanates, and this relationship is much too far entwined than that could be accounted for. In our digitally contained lives, zoom backgrounds remind us that our backgrounds are alive, mutative and active, not the dying space of yonder that one would have imagined: a counter to the legacy of western spatial thinking that alienates the figure from ground. Zoom backgrounds help us think through what might be the political and mediatic conditions for our background, and what is a background in the first place. Even backgrounds are not flat anymore. They, in fact, never were.
Flusser, Vilem. 2012. “Shelters, Screens and Tents.” In The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. London: Reaktion Books, pp. 55-58.
Miyano, Miran. 2020. “‘Parasite’ Releases Backgrounds for Your Next Zoom Call,” Vice, June 08 2020, https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/n7wn5g/parasite-movie-zoom-background-video-call