March 25, 2020

Degrees of Separation: The New Aesthetics of Isolation

We’re only a couple weeks into distancing, but it’s already quite profound to see how these changes are affecting art and pop culture. Flipping through TV channels, socializing with friends, even picking up your phone, you start to see a major shift in sentiment and how it’s portrayed. Some of this is due to expressing ourselves within massive new constrictions. People are now reduced to a 2-dimensional portrayal: one angle, up the chin, in bad resolution. It’s a new view into humanity, and not one without charm. I thought I’d try to summarize some of the emerging hallmarks of this time.

1. It’s Disoriented

Live TV shows are still recording, but with home setups in place of frills.

Flipping through TV or even your own social media, everyone appears tired, unkempt and natural, donning robes, sweaters or other comforting clothing. You can see them grieving, a certain amount of surprise still on faces. That said, they’re still showing up to connect, with more and more people (and celebrities) using Instagram Live. Due to strained connections, we can see and hear one another, but not that well.

There seems to be a natural time limit to Zoom hangouts after work hours, as people can’t handle more than 1 hour of staring at a moving grid of blurry faces. I personally have hit a wall with the amount of time I can look at my own face on camera. The Houseparty app has experienced a resurgence as people look for a place not so work-like to hang out with friends.

2. It’s Absurdist

We’ve been wearing funny hats on Zoom just because. I think a lot of people deal with a lack of power or control by turning to the random or absurd to cope. Humor is a great defense mechanism.

“Boredom drove me to this” memes are springing up everywhere, as people are gazing into one void or another from the comfort of their homes.

3. It’s Chaotic

Jimmy Fallon has embraced his children interrupting his show by calling them his “band” and “graphics department.” This also reflects what happens on business and social calls. The personal has invaded the professional in quite a physical, almost violent way, as children jump on their parents’ backs or cats flee, claws-first, out of embraces for the camera. I was in a Google Hangout with my sister that ended with the phone flying across the room after her cooped up children, in a Lord of the Flies burst of anarchy, threw something at her head. We’re seeing other people’s stress that we didn’t used to see.

4. It’s Expressive & Creative

Just like Italians started singing or playing ping-pong through their porches, Americans are finding small ways to express themselves and show solidarity right now. Walking through my neighborhood, I see a lot of chalk art from children encouraging adults to feel better. (They, after all, have the biggest futures at stake in all this.) There’s the new trend of propping teddy bears in windows for others to find, or conducting teacher parades. I’m sure these types of memes will only grow as people feel more and more alone.

5. It’s In Flux

Twitter cycles between calm one-liners, recycled jokes, confessions of fear and serious pleas for help. As the problems get more and more real, early jokes may need to be erased for their flippant tone. We’re testing our limits and seeing what’s ok and what’s not. As this gets worse and worse, the tone will inevitably change.

After seeing the governor speak today, I got really scared imagining how sick people will feel once they’re isolated and being cared for in a stadium. The prognosis gets less theoretical every day.

6. It’s Defined by Its Artifacts

As people stock up and prep for long weeks ahead at home, we’re finding more and more comfort in everyday objects: cans of soup, bags of candy, cases of beer and new slippers arriving from online orders. Toilet paper itself has started to become a major motif in works of art.

Lisa Tegtmeier

Image by Lisa Tegtmeier

Toilet Paper Andrew Beckman

Toilet paper animation by our own Andrew Beckman

Thanks to home video’s prominence right now, we can also see one another’s settings in new ways. Clients, celebrities and friends are now defined by their context, whether it’s a brick fireplace behind them, a guest bedroom, kids mulling about or old trophies or diplomas dotting the shelves. The idea of filtering and curating what appears online has been temporarily put on pause.

I’m curious to see how our distancing culture keeps evolving. Whatever happens, this new reality is bound to have a massive impact in how advertising and marketing evolve to relate to real people in these times.

As your brand considers how to pivot, it’s worth doing an audit of the textures, emotions and contexts people are sharing right now. By playing into these conventions, your message is bound to feel more authentic and sympathetic than resorting to what has worked in the past.

-Becky Lang

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