BY Priya Khanchandani in Opinion | 02 JAN 21
Featured in
Issue 216

Did the Pandemic Reinvent the Human Face?

The need for a digitally touched-up ‘public face’ has become constant and commonplace

BY Priya Khanchandani in Opinion | 02 JAN 21

Once predominantly the reserve of long-distance catch-ups with family and friends, online video communication has been thoroughly subsumed into white-collar professional settings. This has led to an increased awareness of our digital self-image. In contrast to the selfies we post on social media, which respond to social pressures but are not mandatory, video communication in this new world – necessitated by capitalism under the duress of a pandemic – demands that we constantly represent ourselves online. While it might initially have felt less stressful to be on video calls at home – and there certainly are advantages, such as avoiding the drudgery of a rush-hour commute – the inability to speak to colleagues informally, say while on a coffee break, has led to online meetings becoming a back-to-back affair. 

This is different from (and more exhausting than) being a physical presence in an office: there is a disconnect when we see another human without experiencing the more visceral connection offered by eye contact, smell, warmth and touch. Although we may not have to dress smartly or wear make-up for online meetings, we are constantly confronted by our own image, which makes us more self-conscious about our looks and mannerisms. The possibility of erasing our physical imperfections using tools such as Zoom’s ‘Enhance My Appearance’, or prerecording a presentation to edit out the blunders that make us human, has turned us into unnatural internet beings. In a 2019 essay for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino termed this look the ‘cyborgian face’, which she describes as having ‘poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly.’ Although Tolentino was referring to the aesthetic language of Instagram, it is not difficult to imagine video-conferencing platforms spawning a universe of mechanical and emotionally distant cyborg professionals whose interactions are equally removed from reality. In fact, we’re halfway there.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Narcissus
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1597–99. Courtesy: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, and SCALA

At a 1936 conference in Marienbad, the philosopher Jacques Lacan defined self-identification as our first encounter with our own reflection. Extrapolating from his theory of the mirror stage, I would add another instance of self-identification upon which Lacan might have mused, had he lived to see Web 2.0: the realization of our own self-representation via a selfie or the cognisance of our existence on video-conferencing platforms as an image capable of being represented in real time. If, as Lacan notes, our perception of selfhood is established by an encounter with our own image, then the realization that we can design versions of ourselves in the digital realm is crucial to our conception of who we are in a digital age. When ‘I’ becomes not a literal reflection in a mirror but a represen­tation on a screen, in which we are constantly mirrored within the stark boundaries of a defined context, we might wonder how we can possibly stay authentic. 

With our carefully curated backgrounds and top-half-only outfits, our online selves take on multiple layers of representation. In some cases, these add texture to interactions that might otherwise feel flat. The Josef Frank textile that ArkDes curator James Taylor-Foster chose as a backdrop to our recent conference call enlivened his presence in my orbit at a time when meeting face-to-face was not possible. Such decisions align with how we design the spaces in our homes to which we welcome guests, and can be seen as indicative of our collective efforts to replicate real-world interactions as the pandemic compels all of us – not only those who aspire to the cyborgian face – to spend vast amounts of time online. 

Women using snapchat filter
Women using snapchat filter, 2018. Courtesy and photograph: Getty Images/Lisa Lake/ Stringer

Yet, the internet was never going to be a surrogate for real life. Design, which as a discipline couldn’t be more rooted in the tangible, has devised ingenious solutions to equip medical staff with PPE and ventilators to deal with the pandemic, while emergency hospitals in Wuhan and the UK, constructed in a matter of weeks, physically played out design’s flexibility. Architects from BDP, the firm that converted London’s ExCeL exhibition centre and other sites across the UK into hospitals, not only had to be resourceful with the availability of materials – adapting interior structures that would otherwise have been used to build cancelled trade shows – but also had to grasp new concepts demanded by medical facilities used to treat Covid-19 patients. For example, a clearly marked threshold had to be created between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ spaces, so that medical staff could don sterile PPE or remove used gear in specific zones without risking cross-contamination. Such demarcations are a stark reminder, during a time when the digital realm dominates the daily lives of many of us, that ultimately it is the physical world that will hold our bodies to account and determine how our futures play out. In the longer term, it will also be where we once again find genuine joy.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 216 with the headline ‘Double Take’.

Main image: ContraPoints, 2020, screen grab. Courtesy: ContraPoints and YouTube

Priya Khanchandani is a writer, curator and cultural commentator based in London, UK. She is the editor of Icon magazine.