Zoom as theatrum. Notes for a new aesthetic.

Come to think of it, Zoom didn’t exist until very, very recently. 
Wait, maybe it is better to rephrase this sentence: Zoom did exist, but more in our imagination than in reality. Like many of its more or less distant cousins, until few weeks ago this app had never been considered an integral part of our lives. Yet telework, distance learning and social isolation have made the free platform a necessity in a short time. 
Zoom has affected our habits so much, as our daily app downloads show. On a global scale, they went from 171 thousand in mid-February to 2.41 million at the end of March, an increase of 1,300% [1]. At the same time simplifying the whole issue, considering Zoom the only protagonist, would be reductive. In fact we have to consider that in recent weeks many other similar services have proliferated: Google Meet, FaceTime, Whatsapp, Jitsi, Houseparty and, of course, Facebook Rooms. The only one missing is Skype the veteran, who struggles to compete with the latest platforms. 
However, aware of the vast panorama that surrounds us as producer-spectators – for simplicity’s sake, for now we will use the term “users” – we must admit that Zoom is the most successful communication software, thanks to the access’ ease and the SM live sharing option. Moreover, comparing the viral capacity of these apps, it is certainly the most proud and active responsible for every kind of visual content: direct streaming, webinars, meme and screenshots of any momentum-mementum.
All these experiences can be traced back to the concept of participatory culture, a fundamental aspect of web culture, and it’s precisely from there that this brief reflection begins, from observation of the visual diffusion on the web of these screen-images.

If you look at the interactions during Zoom video calls, you may recognize some changes in our behavior. The consequences of this trend are so relevant that the term zoom fatigue has been coined, an expression that not only concerns the psychological aspects of our relationship with the screen, but above all takes into account our way of relating to the visual output of the application itself. 
These factors have pervaded reality and visual culture to such an extent that Zoom is becoming a real social network. Video, chat and screen sharing, initially designed as work-tools, show us which is the meetings’ potential to incorporate most social features, i.e. images, messages and sharing. In this way, the progressive shift to the app usage has influenced our visual universe in few weeks, with inevitable consequences on aesthetics and communication. And it has done it so much that in our feeds even Leonardo’s Last Supper appears, which online is resemantized and relocated, beyond the Renaissance perspective. Moreover, the app functionality assume the frame role, defining so another significant world through the shot; this was the case for the cover-picture of the May issue of The Cut magazine, whose photoshoot was made entirely on Zoom by the photographer Elizaveta Porodina. Even established realities like Studio Ghibli or Harper Bazaar, which certainly would not need visibility, for our video conferences provide backgrounds from their films or covers [2]
Frieze also debuted with the article The Aesthetics of Zoom, a title as programmatic as it is stimulating, rethinking the app in terms of the birth of a new aesthetic. Although the author Orit Gat remains skeptical about what she calls “a moment of unicorn-wifi-in-the-sky ‘niceness'”, Frieze points out an interesting comparison with the visual aesthetics of the American sitcom The Brady Bunch (1969-74), whose introductory scene consists of a static grid made up of several screens, into which, one by one, the protagonists’ faces appear. And we cannot fail to consider more recent experiments such as “Extra hot: the reunion”,  the final episode of the reality show Too Hot To Handle (2020) entirely recordered via video chat; and Eschaton, partly a performance art space, partly a nightclub, a sort of theater conducted on Zoom, completed with a paid entrance ticket.
When it comes to define a new aesthetic it is therefore inevitable to consider the relationship between Zoom and other media. McLuhan guessed the content of a medium is always another medium, and we can only pursue this vision. Unlike the interfaces of other video platforms like TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, which often offer playful interactions as stickers, emoji and editing effects, the aesthetic experience of Zoom is different. Like the other platforms it’s universal, but it hasn’t posed the problem of creating pastime formulas to make online socializing particularly fun. It is subject to few visual variations and it has only two options, alternating different backgrounds and use a single filter called “touch up my appearance”, which consists of retouching the video display with a soft focus, to obtain – I quote – “a more polished looking” [3].

Considering my daily use of Zoom and of other social media, I have made several considerations that revolve around a specific distinction. Through the Zoom interface, the user’s behavioural and visual routine can be traced back to two main aesthetic modes, which find a common denominator in the figure-background relationship [4]
In this case the background takes on a double value and refers not only to the pictorial sphere but also to the theatrical one. So please, reading these paragraphs always keep in mind the indissoluble link established between the set design (background image) and the stage (i.e. the space of the action, and therefore of the figure). In Zoom’s case we could also venture that we are the medium, since our medial narration contributes to an in itinere narration. In fact, through the platform, we act and become a vehicle for ourselves, regardless of the media world as it is usually and strictly defined. 
The most suitable term to define this attitude is performance, since it implies – at least in most cases – the making of a creative composition, more or less mediated by the space in which it takes place (setting). Moreover, Zoom’s video calls activate several levels of signification at the same time: the action of the user-performer is interpreted, filmed and remedied by the user-spectators at the same time, and is transmitted outwards, even if it refers to a domestic space of a bedroom or a private studio.
Another factor should be kept in mind, namely that in these performances there is always a gap between the instrument used (the app, the frame) and the space (the stage, the domestic environment where the action takes place). On the other hand, the cognitive sciences teach us that every form of intermediality is subject to a relationship through which we relate to the things of the world.
The specificity in this case is that we are in an indefinite space, a limbo between public and private space, between subjectivity and intersubjectivity. When through the Zoom interface we observe our video-performance, we are faced with autonomous but interdependent entities, a set of elements and actions projected into a space other than our own, sometimes real, sometimes virtual. Yet this distinction is not enough. Forgive the pun: we need to go deeper into the background.
Thames & Hudson‘s [5] Anime Architecture (2020), a publication based on the omonimous exhibition dedicated to the backgrounds of Japanese animated films, shows how much the scenario goes unnoticed with respect to the plot, even though it manages to reveal much of the director’s vision. In this sense the explicit narration (i.e. the live stream) is only what appears on the surface, and it’s the background instead that represents the user’s gaze on reality: a silent but non-neutral world, made of objects and constructions through which one’s vision is tacitly communicated. This spectator’s capacity to choose allows to convey certain cultural or social values in video recordings, and is a factor that affects in a more or less conscious way the very meaning of the processing of moving images. 
At this point, we can fully define Zoom as a creative and performative space. The real question that should then be asked is: how is this space used? 

If we keep in mind the relationship between figure and background as we defined it just now, the aesthetics of Zoom can be traced back to two different dynamics: on the one hand we find examples that take possession of the background interpreting it as a place of fictitious representation; on the other hand the scene becomes an apparently spontaneous plan of presentation.
In the first case, which we will call the fictitious representation plan, I refer to the background as a real scenery, which allows the user to show an image, a photograph or a video behind him or her. Whether they correspond to reality or not, it makes no difference. In many cases they are used in an ironic and disorienting way, in others in a symbolic and more functional one (without forgetting the blurred background, softer but equally alienating). These are avatar solutions, adopted in order not to show anything compromising or more simply not to show the disorder around us, giving the call box (the frame) that little extra as a fugitive terrorist.
Investigating the issue, on the Zoom website I find some clues about the possible cross-media implications hidden behind an apparently humorous and naive choice. I read several tips: “This feature works best with a green screen and uniform lighting, to allow Zoom to detect the difference between you and your background. You can also upload your own images or videos as a virtual background. There are no size restrictions when adding your own virtual backgrounds, but we recommend cropping the image to match the aspect ratio of your camera before uploading it” [6].
As can be deduced from these suggestions, the fictitious representation plane responds to the typical pictorial concept of frame and, of course, to the Gestaltic relationship between figure and background. In front of these scenarios it is appropriate to recall the concept of the Paleolithic display, a time when images were fixed but “portable” and, superimposed one on top of the other on the wall, gave back a proto idea of what today we could define a visual palimpsest of the screen (Cometa 2006). In fact, if we analyze the issue always according to pictorial canons, Zoom’s backgrounds are characterized by a certain flattening of perspective. However, it is a fictitious representation. Reflecting on these displays we enter into an uncertain territory, in which on one hand we have the perception of participating in a moment that takes place in the here and now, real and situated; on the other hand, however, the live factor overlaps the canon of two-dimensional fiction of space, which is reduced (perhaps extended?) to an autonomous image in relation to the context. Using a false image, we end up living in another place (this should not surprise us, in our daily life we experience it all the time, just think of Instagram’s stories where today, through a camera, fiction reaches reality and vice versa). 
Thus understood, the plan of fictitious representation owes much to television technology. In it the image tends to flatten and therefore there are fewer opportunities for the development of a deep and convincing linear perspective. The trend, however, has been emphasized by the green screen of the TV, which Zoom backgrounds copy, thanks to the era of post-photography that we’re living in: the images now circulate on the net, fast and dematerialized: there is no longer an idea of originality and property, truth and memory, we find ourselves in a universe where everything can be potentially false (Fontcuberta 2018).

Too Hot to Handle (2020) - Season 1, episode 9 - Netflix.

As already mentioned, these manifestations of a dual nature, imagined or real, allow us to broaden our reflection and put forward some hypotheses on possible media interconnections between the platform and other languages, especially pictorial, theatrical and television. The plan of the fictional representation and its functioning thus introduce a second level of analysis that allows us to talk about the apparent presentation plan, associating it with the symbolic and representative dimension proper of television. In many ways television and Zoom are similar mediums. They’re instruments of representation that have different relationships with reality. According to spectacular or functional procedures of various kinds (as in the case of the green screen mentioned earlier) they can stage the reality or, instead, they can faithfully reflect it. In the case of the apparent presentation, we live a dimension different from the previous one, in which the user presents his own micro domestic world  to the outside world. In doing so, we inevitably end up building a representation of our person. It also happens in less conscious cases, where a simple principle of subtraction from reality itself is applied. Let’s think about the more or less wide angle shot by which we decide to show our home’s  elements and environments, that appear as background images (photographs and prints hanging on the walls, objects on shelves, etc). These interface-with-the-world models could be defined as a phenomenon of a sort of do it yourself setting, a personal scenography, an extract of “shelf-life” far from the rules of poor theatre (the reference to “shelf” is appropriate, just think of the amount of libraries chosen as the background images by most of the protagonists of the culture filed during the so-called “IG direct”) [7].
In this case it is easy to understand how the screen has a  subjective the nature. We come into contact with the other in an apparently truthful way, we witness ourselves (and therefore our habitat, our life) in front of a group of people, but compared with what happens with other instruments, our attention is inevitably more self-referential.

The authorship behind private setting performances is more genuinely perceived than on other video content platforms. Let’s think of YouTube, which, although contributing to the diffusion of user generated contents, is considered to all intents and purposes a space of spectatorship (referring to the artistic field, let’s think of the scenography of Nico Vascellari’s last performance, DOOU (2020), interpreted by critics as a space specifically designed to recall to the memory of users white cube environments or music video clips). 
In the case of the fictitious presentation plan we notice a different situation instead, and it is as if we were in the famous Antonello da Messina’s San Gerolamo nello studio: although our conversations take place online, a perceptive conviction of realism and truthfulness prevails, at least at first glance. On the other hand, we know that there is a constant interaction between transparency and hypermediation in the construction of the digital self. Aware of these dynamics, it would be a mistake not to consider the possibility that our subjective scenarios bring a certain creative intention and some narrative potential. As Philippe Parreno claims and as the history of art and display have revealed on several occasions, there is no (art) object without its exhibition [8].
The ideas of narration, exposition and relationality exhibited so far, are staged in the apparent presentation plan through typical methods of the theatrical medium. The theatre has been defined by Foucault as the place of chronic heterotopia, an empty space where the scene changes in relation to time, in a succession of extraneous places; but the relational and social dimension, to tell the truth, belongs to the theatre as much as to TV. In this sense, Zoom exists only as a relationship with the other, and by establishing this relationship, it opens up to an audience that does not physically and visibly gather in a deputy place, but is dispersed in its homes. This spatial diaspora doesn’t make Zoom’s significance less relevant: much of the potential (and power) of the app consists in its ability to connect a large community of people, synchronizing the rhythms of each one instantly.

Party on Zoom - Santiago Felipe, Getty Images.
Party on Zoom - Santiago Felipe, Getty Images.

And precisely because of its dispersion, the television audience is a sort of ghost repeatedly evoked, since the medium itself continually appeals to it (Grasso, Scaglioni 2003). If we associate the concept with Zoom, we understand how all our appearances are protagonists in unison. We attend to the theatrum of ourselves: we watch, we are spectators, but we act at the same time. Theatrum is the most suitable term to express this new aesthetic, its etymology in fact refers to several media dimensions: it is the place where a certain event takes place, so the place or the environment staged; it is used in the meaning of “show”, a single performance or an entire genre; and finally it stands for “audience”, indicating the spectators attending the play. It’s a series of different force fields (I have identified three of them, but there could be others) that allow us to concretely rethink Zoom, its functioning and its theoretical reading in so far as a medium [9]. Talking about force fields, moreover, allows to problematize the ideas developed in this reflection, underlining the indissoluble relationship between them. In the wake of the theories on mediamorphosis, Socials and apps have radically contributed to redefine our roles. The apparent intimacy staged in our homes allows the viewer to feel involved, which in turn becomes a producer. Inside the screen, we are in the world as someone who has the world, who opens up his world (Galimberti 1987).
Performing in front of a group of people we become spectators and creators: screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, hair stylists and creative directors. We know that we are watched and we perform. We perform ourselves in an interconnection of singularities, as if we were “a small box in a screen” (the opening scene of The Brady Bunch comes to mind) [10]. On the platform everyone has much more control over their own portion of the world, the viewer’s agency (i.e. their ability to choose) matures more than usual an artistic license, as we might call it. Licensing is possible precisely because the media event is part of a living condition that transforms the house into an atomised public space.

To conclude, if in both cases the moving image, mediated by the screen and the video camera, is not truthful, on the other hand it gives back a hyper sensory experience imbued with reality. It is a performative process in continuous transformation and characterized by a strong authoritativeness, in which the figure-background interaction becomes a real setting.
Zoom becomes a place-non-place where certain relationships with the outside are activated, and where individual participants act through the registers of Serious and Ironic [11], according to a principle of desecration or adherence to reality. The relationship between spectator and actor-performer changes and transforms itself continuously: the two roles are interchangeable and biunivocal.
Comparing Zoom once again to theatre, one understands how much it has operated both in an anti illusionistic and magic direction, in a condition of undecidability between the “fake” and the “for real” [12].
We are facing with narrative, metamorphic or performative structures that claim the primacy of corporeal experience, presented and represented at the same time. Our body is the absolute here of every there. In fact without our body we could not say here or there, our space is not neutral. Let’s explain it better: once placed in a precise position, the body acts in a space that opens itself up, beyond that same position: it is the space of experience, something other than the geometric space of the room. In digital ubiquity, another body, placed in another position, has another lived space, autonomous from the previous one. The functions of Zoom emphasize these dynamics and make the most of the ubiquity of the digital frame, showing us how “body time is different from objective time [13]. Beyond kronos, a quantitative, objective, mechanical and absolute time, an inner time takes over and becomes kairos, a completely personal crystallization in which we determine our existence, which therefore takes on a qualitative connotation.
The double temporality between intersubjectification and subjectification in our video calls generates a performative legacy that gives life to many visual ephemera: “This is the way I feel most at home. As if I were a time traveler, instead of feeling captured in a [single] moment” [14]. This is how the actress, model and designer Chloë Sevigny, photographed by the aforementioned New York magazine The Cut, comments when she thinks about her first zoom-shooting experience and the creative choices hidden behind a simple – and apparently banal – photo shoot. An expanded but circumscribed temporality. A fetish autonomous from the original source maieutically remediated and shared in the net.
A future visual memorial in screenshot range.


The Cut - May Issue - cover by Elizaveta Porodina

[1] Ansa 2020, Per l’app Zoom boom di download, a +1300%, 27 march.

[2] Free downloadable images from Studio Ghibli’s website and from Harper Bazaar‘s website.

Zoom official website – “Touch My Appearance” section.

As implied in the previous paragraphs, this thesis is empirical and is proven by daily videoconferencing activity and website feeds.

Ronchi,G 2020 Il libro che raccoglie il meglio dell’architettura delle anime, in “Domus”, 20 april. See: Anime Architecture.

From Zoom official site – Virtual Background.

The word “shelf-life” is used by Mark Blythe and Paul Cairns in the publication Tenori-on Stage: YouTube as performance space (see bibliography).

Parreno, P 2013, in The Exhibition as Act of Creation, on Palais de Tokyo website.

[9] For the concept of “force field” associated with media theories see: Bechelloni, G 1974, Informazione e potere, Officina, Rome.

[10] Eichler-Levine, J, in Sklar, J 2020  ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens, in “National Geographic”, 24 april.

For an in-depth examination of the registers of seriousness and irony, see the text by Gérard Genette Palinsesti. La letteratura di secondo grado (see bibliography).

Valentini, V, Arte e teatro. Dispositivi mediatici, l’iperspazio mediatico della scena teatrale, in Scardi, G, Pietrantonio, G, Guerisoli, F 2020 (edited by), Perché non parli, Silvia Editoriale, Cologno Monzese, 2010.

Extract from a meeting of Umberto Galimberti at the Corriere della Sera Foundation, 5 February 2008.

[14] Sevigny C in Petrarca, E 2020, Behind the Cover: Chloë Sevigny, cit.


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