Crossing a boundary sometimes requires a person or thing to invite you across. Likewise, being suspicious of the ‘other’ and the ‘unknown’, many people resist the urge and need of passing completely into virtual environments. However, it would now seem that COVID-19 has forced itself upon us as a most unwelcome host. Its virality has aggressively subsumed vast swathes of the world into a pervasive and invasive virtual environment which we can’t resist — even if we do disconnect. It has created a viral space that is virtual space made real.
There is a voyeuristic joy in seeing events unfold as we sit in our rooms, unaffected. But this fictional distancing becomes anxious fact once we can feel those events in our bodies, crossing geographic, screen and TV bounds. Is this the moment for digitally-induced ailments to become genuine physical symptoms? And so, even before catching the virus became a possibility for people in many countries, the idea that they could infected their minds due to the stimulus of social media and other news outlets. This created a sublime spatial disjunction between personal conceptions of the body and how virality merges those with a tumult of other bodies experiencing the same sensations. The virus connects an individual to a vast network of similarly affected bodies without the need for an internet connection. The individual body becomes, like virtual environments, limitless. With their shared characteristics they constitute a hybrid form: where does one viral body end and the other begin? Where does the singular body end?
This boundless, virtual bordersscape runs counter to the discussions around self-isolation spurred by the virus. Though confinement is among its byproducts, it is paired with a radical, expansive freedom, because coronavirus has radically rewired space —architectural, as well as personal— to create a new type of boundlessness that could well be the ubiquitous environmental experience of future years. For example, the space between apartment buildings has been breached by shouting, conversation and music; teachers and students share views of their personal space in the background of Zoom tutorials; supplies are exchanged from window to window, blurring the distinction between floors and —without tourists to feed them— wild animals have been exploring the deserted cities to feed, play and nest. It’s not just isolation. Viral space sits uncomfortably at the threshold between agoraphobia and claustrophobia —the two constantly alternating.
Interactions on a smaller scale are being affected too. Touching objects and surfaces confirms them as real —which is why it’s so rare to do so in dreams. Viral space is virtual when it erodes these connections to physical space, making people dread the few moments they have to acknowledge its presence. In past weeks, people have started wearing gloves to remove the possibility of any direct contact with bodily traces and residues, while also avoiding gestures of affection, hand and bus safety rails, traffic light buttons and even the air they used to breathe through the use of masks. And language is embroiled in how people choose to ransack shops, hoarding toilet roll as a last-ditch attempt to maintain an idea of cleanliness, to express —rather than discuss— their fears. If we simply move through space, without interacting with it meaningfully, or wanting to ignore it, then it is already in the process of becoming virtual.
All these complexities aside: what is more virtual than sporting events played in echoing, crowdless stadia with only distant, digital spectators, air made concrete through stigmatisation, imagining the world behind closed doors and the flights of fancy that subdue the mind when feverish, or spending too much alone? What happens to the collective imagination when all this is experienced on a mass scale? Immaterial thoughts become projected onto reality, transforming it into a panicked simulation — life becomes a drill as we await the main event. It’s a sensation that won’t disappear once the epidemic has abated. Trauma specialists use the term ‘milling’ to describe how, in the wake of a disaster, those who survive become disassociated from their environment: as if they were viewing it from behind a screen.
Matthew Turner is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as writer and assistant editor for LOBBY magazine while teaching at Chelsea College of Arts. His first novella Other Rooms was published by Hesterglock Press in 2019.