The more virtual events I attend, the less connected I feel.
Take for instance the most recent virtual event I attended: a virtual zoom lecture by graphic designer Paula Scher.
I could not imagine an artist I wanted to see more or a lecture I enjoyed less than what I witnessed there.
While watching the lecture I could feel myself zone out, start thinking about the friends I haven’t seen since March 2020, my boyfriend across state lines, my family.
More than anything, what detracted from the experience was the format: Zoom.
This should be the ideal setup. No panicked searching for an open seat, in a tight, sweltering gallery. No running to make it on time. No waiting in line to scribble your name on an attendance clipboard, someone’s breath on your neck.
Even cheating is easier in a virtual lecture. The art students only attending for class credit just need to sign a digital registration and log off the nameless, faceless Zoom. No disapproving eyes following you as you sneak out during the rush of pre-show seating, mumbling some half-formed excuse about the bathroom.
Hundreds can pour into a Zoom lecture without ever having to leave their bedrooms. Viewers can cook dinner while they watch, play with their dogs, spread out on the couch. The possibilities are endless. So why do I feel so confined?
I should feel free, but instead, I am claustrophobic sitting in front of my laptop, like a kindergartner squirming at her desk. No one can see me, yet I am afraid to move. No one can hear me, yet I am afraid to breathe.
Zoom has this undeniable ability to make you feel like you are being suffocated. A speaker can look at every face at once, each small movement up close in perfect detail, every tick, every eye roll. Even on Zooms like this one where the audience does not have mics or cameras on there is still a feeling of being watched, of being an insect under a microscope.
All of a sudden, I am longing for that half seat in the back of the gallery, the feeling of my classmate’s arm pressing against me, the heat of it. The whisper that sort of echoes through the crowd when the artist walks out, that restless titter, like locusts humming, like a heartbeat.
Overall, trying to compare what is different about this lecture on Zoom versus the countless I have been to in-person is like asking what the difference is between listening to a live album and attending a concert, which is to say nothing and everything.
Watching this lecture reminded me that most of the reasons I go to these types of events are not actually for the lecture. It is for what happens after the lecture: asking questions while making eye contact, brushing shoulders, getting to say you breathed in the same room as someone with a touch of the divine, all of the things I can’t do in a virtual lecture.
Still, to say that this lecture was a bad lecture would be unfair. I came away from it convinced that it was just about as strong as any lecture can be in the virtual format, but it did serve as a painful reminder of how much is lost in isolation, of how desperately we need to feel connected to each other.
A year into the pandemic I thought I would be used to Zoom by now, to wanting more than this, but more than anything this lecture just reminds me how much more I still want.
Even Scher wants more right now. She spoke briefly during her Q/A about how her design process has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been pretty awful,” Scher said.
She is a titan in her field, but even she feels lost, as so many of us do right now, trying to work and live in isolation.
This lecture did not teach me much about Scher that I did not already know, but it did teach me a bit about myself. About how all the gratitude in the world, for vaccines, for breathing, for loved ones, for work, for health, for time, can’t stop the wanting, and it shouldn’t.
We should all want more than this. We should all put that wanting into action that moves us closer to normalcy in a safe way: getting vaccinated if possible, practicing social distancing methods, checking on friends and loved ones.
It may not be possible to be in-person with the ones we love right now, but we can still reach out to them. Zoom may be awkward at the best of times, but if you have to sit through one, instead of the next artist lecture, why not make it a friend or family member.
I left the Paula Scher virtual lecture feeling deflated, isolated and largely uninformed, but afterward, I called my boyfriend, and while it wasn’t the same as actually being with him, it was close.