Are we neonormal beings?

As Marshall Berman said, a certain experience of rootlessness, displacement and alienation seems to be one of the characteristics of modernity. Industrialization brought some kind of disengagement of the human population from its traditional communities with it and, since modernity expanded to every corner of the world, this feeling of estrangement has grown to be quite familiar to everyone living in a modern city. Yet, despite being modern beings par excellence, modernity is still is quite unfamiliar to us, and we have not been able to become completely familiarized with it. This apparent contradiction of a strange familiarity adjusts better to the feeling awaked by these images taken during lockdown than the one of the “new normality”. Because, in fact there is nothing new in this pandemic normality. Rather, paraphrasing Lampedusa, everything has changed so that, deep down, nothing changes.

Halfway between a bad taste joke and absolute brilliance, the situation in the street reminds us of the 1952 John Cage “4’33” piece, a piece consisting on a white music sheet where the artist did not play a single note during the three acts it lasted, to the impatient expectation of the audience. Likewise, streets and iconic places of the different cities portrayed have become white music sheets without notes, cities without a crowd. When the viewer faces an image free of human subjects, the corners of the different cities portrayed are transformed into contrived settings that are easily recognizable, but at the same time so decontextualized that they might as well be in the third moon of Mars. There is a filmic air in them, and it is as if the viewer was waiting behind an invisible barrier for the director to shout “Action!” so something happens, so something moves. The feeling is equally uncanny when it comes to photographs where a living subject appears, both in the foreground or as a circumstantial element in the photograph. With the lack of a context or any other elements that may help us to recreate ourselves in the anecdotical, images with one or numerous subjects become contrivedly theatrical. The anonymous inhabitants of the city become icons, archetypes- the beggar, the nurse, the rider, the shopkeeper… We may infer their roles by what they wear, but not their actions. As the silent streets, human beings become somehow actors waiting for the director´s order to do something, because in the moment portrayed nothing is happening. As frames taken out of a sequence, we can only make an educated guess on what has happened before or what will happen after, but the quotidian action of the now makes us wonder why are they the main subject in the photograph.

With Cage´s piece is was proved that, although the audience considered silence anything that was not music, the so to be silence was full of sound, and so the urban life has not disappeared, it has merely changed its scenery. The crowd, the foule the French poet Charles Baudelaire talked about, has been forced to abandon its natural habitat- the street- and has been translated to an upper level: balconies, terraces, windows. By doing so, for the better or worse, we, inhabitants of the city,  are now, if I may say so,  a walking oxymoron, a crowd that has exited, in the etymological sense of the word, the darkness, abandoning the anonymity that had characterized us, inhabitants of modern cities from the beginning of industrialization. This is perhaps the terribly fantastic consequences of being neonormals beings.

Terribly fantastic, on one hand, because for the first time people living in an urban milieu has gotten to know their neighbours by their name, something that was, and is, up to today, characteristic of rural towns but not so common in urban areas. We now, as inhabitants of an urban housing block know that Pepe is the man that lives in the 5th floor, David is a divorced man that lives in the lowest floor of the building, Mari Carmen is the owner of the flat in the third floor and Luis lives in the second floor of the building opposite to ours. And perhaps, because of this personal identification ends anonymity, simple actions that would have gone unnoticed in pre-pandemic times, covered by the hectic rhythm in the street – although they sometimes were subject of occasional debate- have now been turned into actions with a deep moral and political meaning. Pepe has hanged a Spanish flag with a black ribbon on it in his balcony, David has taken his sound system to the hall of the building and plays loud music every evening to the amuse of his neighbours, Mari Carmen walks her dogs every day for quite a long time, but she does not come out of her window to join the everyday clapping in support of the health system, Luis systematically joins the pot banging protests from his terrace.

Terribly fantastic, on the other hand, because the theatre of the world has been translated from the street to the private sphere of our houses. Under a normal situation,  no one would have  access to it, and if that access was granted, there´s a high chance that the actions taking place would have been ignored; but not now: the personal space has now been turned into a showcase. The fact that we are prompted to look, with a justified total indiscretion, since there is no action in the street, at the bizarre everyday actions of our neighbour, reassures us that our own actions are not that odd. Consciously or not, we are playing to the gallery, physically speaking, and if we followed the literal meaning of this expression, we would be forced to be less natural than ever. However, we´ve being forced to stay at home, and by doing so, we have been freed from the social codes- schedules, dressing codes, hobbies, and so on- and we are revealing our true human condition. Contrary to what happens with the fictitious setting in the streets, normality and naturality still reigns in our homes like it reigned before the pandemic times.

Ana Pardo.