Zoom Backgrounds

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.