The Time We Killed: Twisting the Aesthetics of Isolation

“I’m six months a shot-in and now I miss New York as much as I missed escaping it.”

We stay home. This sounds like unity, community even, a shared experience, even if millions practice this resolution in isolation. But although all current hermits appear to be doing the same thing, the mass retreat comes down to myriad different experiences. There is no staying-at-home as such. This is what the Berlin video art institute Arsenal must have considered when it picked the streaming program for lockdown week 2. Along with thirteen other video works presented online, Arsenal offered the experimental movie The Time We Killed (2004) by Jennifer Reeves, a roughly ninety-minute portrait of the fictional New York poet Robyn Taylor, who for months does not leave her apartment. However, the threat she is trying to protect herself from is not a pandemic. Robyn Taylor suffers from Agoraphobia. The public space and the people who can gather in it cause her to panic. But because Taylor knows that the danger essentially exists in her imagination, she tries to treat her illness during the winter of 2003/2004. 

“My little sister June visits, but she never stays long. She’s afraid my condition is contagious.”

The rough black-and-white film and the analog technology inside the apartment do not change the fact that the setting of the film must seem strangely familiar to all Coronavirus hermits. The desk with the typewriter near the half lowered blinds. The couches’ surface, crumpled by endless sitting. The bed of the poet, Taylor, wrapped in her blanket, breathes heavily while her cramped neck is pressed into a pillow with a tree print. Branches grows out of the head with the paralyzed eyes. The camera often keeps a distance of one to two meters to the protagonist. If a close-up gets risked however, Taylor’s face shows distress. The aesthetics of agoraphobia are confusingly similar to those of the pandemic. Watched from one’s makeshift home cinema, this false resemblance makes The Time We Killed a thriller. 

“It’s always good to escape in a little fiction.”

The uncanny arises when the ordinary suddenly appears strange. In a pandemic, the eeriness of one’s home begins to unfold with canceling the usual going out and coming home and deciding to stay for an unforeseeable period. The seemingly familiar space turns into an unknown place due to its new use and the differing context, and the hermits have to get used to it anew. While before the pandemic, the arts were not necessarily known for promoting continuity, they now promise to support this process. Although theatres, exhibitions, cinemas have become unvisitable, one can still enter the many streams through a digital window. Many curators present works online that do not address this original viewing context, perhaps also in order to keep the promise of continuity:  You have entered a museum, theatre, cinema. You are not in bed. You don’t crump your sofa. And you haven’t just slammed your laptop onto your desk because after several weeks of screentime you can only concentrate on your computer when you’re sitting upright. One of the many possible experiences the lockdown provokes is feeling the pressure of being at home and wanting to think about things outside your home while streaming. To revisit your own home every minute and to experience quarantine as a performative essay is another of these infinite experiences. Probably most of the hermits even go through both states in quick succession. The connotations of staying at home are currently growing exponentially. 

“She thinks she would have liked to be a man. She wouldn’t have all these problems.”

In the twentieth century there was only one form of permanent staying-at-home: that of housewives. For some female artists, the domestic sphere they were tied to turned into a studio, the furnishings into material, and the patriarchal architecture an object of criticique, for instance in the video work Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), in which Martha Rosler reads the alphabet using kitchen appliances. By moving into their own apartments and claiming the home as a safe studio, this generation of artists also tried new, anti-patriarchal forms of being at home. Between 1970 and 1974, Martha Wilson experimented with drag in her teachers’ apartment in Halifax. That the mainstream would continue to read staying at home as non-existence for several decades rather seemed to provide the artists with the intimacy necessary for experimentation. But in order to make their performances accessible to others, these artists taped them. Usind the camera allowed to break down loneliness into two perspectives, both equally self-determined. 

“People seem as frightened as I normally do and I feel closer to them.”

Thirty years later, Jennifer Reeves also works with film. Yet, staying at home in The Time We Killed is much more complicated than in Rosler’s and Wilson’s work. The Brooklyn apartment liberates and encloses at the same time. It condenses prison and refuge in one place. During infinite glances through windows and peephole, Robyn Taylor struggles with the threshold to the outside world, wants to, but cannot go on to cross it. In the last sequence of the film, when she finally steps out onto the streets, her thoughts shared by the voiceover are more delusional than ever. Outside, her mind is unstoppable. Taylor’s urban walk on the leash of a young dog is suddenly the most disturbing thing one can imagine. And once everyday Brooklyn is distorted to hell, the walls’ promise of shelter becomes frighteningly fragile as well. The dog, a domesticated animal, appears as a patronus of this disconcertion; after all, it is this new roommate that forces Taylor to go out. Hence the question arises whether agoraphobia is also connected with the overly strict separation of inside and outside. This opposition is one of the many simple dualisms that emerged from the eurocentric civilization ideology.

“I left the cave today and there you were.”

Interestingly, under the conditions of the pandemic, the hitherto arbitrary separation of inside and outside takes on a real meaning. It becomes an act of solidarity. This and other twists in the theory and practice of staying at home are what now unfold. Never before have so many people of different identities stayed at home for good reasons. Never before have so many people with the most diverse privileges and disadvantages dealt with domesticity. Immediately before the crisis, staying at home was still the blind spot of mobile societies. On Instagram and Youtube, homes were mostly shown if representative; the interiors, paradoxically, were mere facade. All other housing experiences between high-speed everyday life and rent increases remained invisible and unheard. Now, however, many people revisit their homes and make millions of stressful and liberating experiences. In anecdotes and telephone calls, even in streams and stories, other perspectives on domestic space are shared, which have the historical potential to replace normative, privileged and economically blind staying-at-home aesthetics. 



Lena Schubert
Illustration: Janine Muckermann
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