Program curator, speaker and music & culture journalist, programmer for Utopia, the Tel-Aviv International Festival for Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, editor-in-chief of Heavy Blog is Heavy, web developer and scifi enthusiast.
At the start of the CoVid-19 pandemic a plethora of articles flooded the web with talk about the future. The word-overflow was found in publications large and small, from the New York Times and the London Financial Times to a host of local outlets, focused mainly on the disappearing world, the one outside our doors.
This was an understandable and natural focus, the primary reason for which was that the first thing the pandemic took from all of us was the “outside”; the confidence we had, and demonstrated, when stepping “outside” – from the inside; from inside our apartment, our house, from inside our homes. This confidence is much more than merely an everyday reality that had simply vanished.
In the sense that the ability to move freely in public space is fundamentally tied to symbols of power, to the status and meaning of the ‘middle class’, the pandemic attacked the very foundations of the same social strata that produced the aforementioned opinion pieces, the “word-overflow about the future”.
For the journalist, the philosopher, the legal scholar, the economist – the street, the outside, the public sphere – they are the essentials for language, for the ability and the reason, to express any and all ideas.
Therefore, alongside many other reasons that led to that “futuristic word-overflow”, such as the actual magnitude and severity of the phenomenon, the clear economic interest of corporations and CEO’s to “get the economy back on track” – almost all opinion pieces and journalistic texts chose to discuss the street, transportation, economics, construction, and work. They did so, at times with great flair, while almost completely ignoring a topic and a figurative and actual space that’s as important, if not most important, the home, our homes.
The home space, our apartments or houses, our places of dwelling, much like other things deeply rooted in the foundation of our world and perception, tend to be imperceptible, even invisible.
The strong, for the most part, do not have encounters with the law – it definitely doesn’t impede them, it might actually help them from time to time; Members of a majority group are mostly unaware of minority sensibilities (to the say the least), because they see themselves as normal, and blind to the “abnormal”. In the same way, we – the ‘middle class’ and ‘upper class’ of the world (if you are reading this – there’s an assumption in this piece that you can associate yourself to one of these categories. apologies if this is incorrect – UA), take for granted the existence of a secure and consistent shelter, a house, an apartment, a home of our own. We’re not even aware of it’s implicit and undeniable existence.
It’s hard to know exactly how irregular the current situation is: homelessness is a problem that’s hard to define and even harder to measure, with each country having different definitions of what’s a “normal” situation vis-à-vis “problematic”. Despite these difficulties it can be said that the privilege most of us enjoy, i.e., to live safely in our home, to have the availability of clean and running water, regular electricity, sufficient space not only for basic needs but also for some comfort, is a privilege that is becoming more and more inaccessible, year by year, for hundreds of millions of people.
A report submitted to the UN 2020 GA (1) examines the relationship between the CoVid-19 pandemic and homelessness. According to the report, 1.8 billion people live in inadequate living conditions. These 1.8 billion people are basically unable to observe CoVid-19 quarantine, shelter in place, or social distancing requirements, instructions or regulations, either suggested or legally demanded by their governments; they might want to comply, they may not – it’s irrelevant, they simply can’t. Their housing defines their being. It defines their ability to be healthy, but also their ability to follow instructions, be cooperative, express solidarity, but also obey and survive. Live and die.
The pandemic, which has forces and is still forcing many of us to “shelter in place” and “quarantine at home”, exposes the inequalities that define the global housing problem for several decades now.
Obviously, our own living conditions define all these things for us as well, us fortunate ones who have adequate housing. All we have to do is fondly reminisce on the list of mega-celebrities who joined the “tear-jerking” Gal Gadot-led “Imagine” song compilation. Their purpose was to say: We’re all in this together. We too are stuck at home, sheltering in place, we too are isolated. These are extremely difficult times for all of us, but hey – it’s not all dark, there’s a silver lining, there’s hope! It’s quite obvious this is all bullshit.
It’s impossible to compare the quarantine conditions of Gal Gadot (as an example, who also took the lead for the “Imagine” project, there are countless names to choose from) with my own quarantine conditions, even though the writer of this article lives in the Northern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, in a lovely apartment. When I conjure the memories of the first weeks of the CoVid-19 lockdown, I’d definitely be happy for them to include a private swimming pool and a gym; more money than I could ever spend in my lifetime would surely sweeten the burdens of lockdown and social isolation. Of course, these facts about celebrity life must be kept hidden. They were not videoed in luxury clothing or had makeup and hair done. They did not include the private chefs or their household management team. We were not privy to their lavish home theaters, or their huge and opulent bathrooms. These videos gave celebrities their coveted image: to be “just like us”.
Those wishes, not unlike our own wish, to ignore that our homes are obvious for us but are not self-evident to hundreds of millions of people around the world – those are political wishes. It’s a wish to blur the lines that separate classes, gender, race, religion and place.
Opinion pieces published at the start of the pandemic focused, whether consciously or not, on changes that our society is comfortable focusing on, as they are palatable, not to say could actually be wonderful, from a capitalist perspective: more people will use the “gig economy” to order food and groceries. The environment will clean itself up without any structural-economic changes in our ways of life. True, people might be more hesitant, possibly even afraid of each other, but social media, Zoom calls and other virtual conversations will open up new relationship horizons, be a remedy for the alienation and loneliness of a capitalist society. When these articles did deal with our home space they mostly addressed and discussed one specific context: work.
True indeed, the office has been the form of workplace organization preferred by markets for about 150 years, and much will be lost in moving employees to work from home (i.e., the manager’s ability for supervision), but think about all we might gain! The ability to work all around the clock, as there’s no longer a separation between home and workplace. The ability to work and hire professionals, from anywhere in the world. Although these issues were presented in a slightly hesitated tone and some anxiety and fear by the writers of such articles, not exactly the ideal situation, they were presented as fait accompli: this is how it’s going to be, and that’s that. It’s because of CoVid, you see? There’s no choice but to import the existing forms of work and to apply them on the home space.
And now we finally arrive to the heart of the matter: our living conditions, and moreover, the parts of our living conditions which we take for granted, are political. And in politics, it’s important to listen not only to what’s being said but also, and more importantly, be attuned to what’s not being said. As I mentioned earlier, what determines what we do not see, what we do not hear, what exists and what does not exist, is power. Power determines what’s normal, what’s obvious, because it serves existing power structures. Why invest so many resources in maintaining and protecting the existing order, when the existing order can be turned into something obvious, something we’re oblivious to, something that truly cannot be resisted? Obviously, we have to work from home, because of the pandemic. Obviously, it’s not possible to reduce the quota of weekly work hours. Obviously, it’s impossible to pay people just to stay home, shelter in place, take care of themselves and their loved ones, and not work. Obviously, people need to dress at home as if they were in the office, during work calls and Zoom meetings. Obviously, work calls and meetings still take place, and it’s legitimate to ask people to turn their home space into an office, letting their boss and their colleagues into their most private, safe spaces. Their sanctuary. Their home.
It’s important to clarify – I’m not saying that these “obvious” claims that were just mentioned are necessarily incorrect. Some are certainly true. But why are they self-evident? Were we even given the chance to ask the questions that need be asked about them? Or were they presented to us exactly as the same fait accompli, a done deed, a fact? The pandemic has revealed many hidden truths, but mostly revealed how little choice, impact, and power we have on even the things most important to us, like our living spaces, our homes. The influence and choice were taken from us by the obvious, the normal, the self-evident. Behind the walls of the “obvious” were hidden the drastic changes we are experiencing and will continue to experience in the future, whether they are caused by a pandemic or not.
What else can we do but challenge the obvious? What else is left but to imagine a different domestic space – strange, uncanny, disturbing, hybrid and subversive? Such visions are much more than mere daydreams, flights of fantasy. When we reimagine home, our most private, cherished, familiar place, our temple, our bastion of self, as a bizarre, natant, mutated, fluid, peculiar place, we perform a political act. An act of resistance. Therefore, our purpose in this issue of Utopia is clear: as always, our purpose is to challenge the “obvious”, in this case rethink the clean, tidy and pastel-colored image of the new domestic home space that has been assimilated, naturalized and presented as obvious in the various opinion pieces and visions of the future from the past year. As we wrote in our Utopian manifesto, there’s no better tool for that, than science fiction:
“Science fiction uses extreme conditions to discuss taboo topics. When venturing into the unknown, science fiction also handles the unspeakable, the hidden taboos lying just underneath the surface, beneath the woodwork, presenting itself in plain sight, in broad daylight, when conditions actually become extreme.
What should we notice right now? What should we be attentive to? Science fiction will have important insight.” – Uri Aviv
Before I let you, dear readers, dive into the investigations and provocations we’ve prepared for you in this issue, our opinion pieces, our visions for the home and domestic space – strange yet familiar, welcoming yet peculiar, our perspective of the uncanny, let me recommend a few exceptional science fiction and speculative creative works that marvelously disassemble and reassemble the “obvious” home space:
Highrise, by James Graham Ballard, 1975 – A cornerstone of postmodern science fiction authored by one of the most feverish and unique creative minds of the past century. The novel, which has been adapted to film in 2015 (directed by Ben Wheatley, starring Tom Hiddleston) describes the social (and physical) disintegration of a state-of-the-art high-rise housing complex, in the not-too-distant future. The book deals with issues of work, class, status and living space (the characters are all middle class, but from very different parts of it) and points to the social and political structures created by our actual forms and conditions of living, in an accurate and distressing manner.
Ex Machina, by Alex Garland, 2014 – Although Alex Garland’s 2014 film (presented at a special screening at Utopia) is most often discussed for its presentation and discussion of anthropomorphic robotics, artificial intelligence intersected with issues of gender, almost the entire film takes place in the eccentric secluded mansion of an equally eccentric, neurotic and extremely wealthy man, who built the AI. The eerie villa becomes the battlefield over which the plot takes place, as access to different parts of the house gives access to knowledge, freedom, and power. The multiple scenes that take place in the various corridors and different rooms, well-utilizing their specific attributes, the different behaviors of the characters in these different spaces, with the added fact that the AI robot is restricted to one and only specific room in the house, makes the film a great example for the seamlines between our visions of the future, architecture, literal corridors of power and forms of control in our home, domestic space.
Swallow, by Carl Mirabella-Davis, 2019 – An excellent indie film released in 2019 (premiered in Israel at Utopia) that tells the story of a housewife with a rare eating disorder, manifested in eating things not considered food (from dirt to various objects, the disorder is called Pica). While not strictly science fiction (an extreme psychological drama, with horror DNA), it is replete with hints at existing and future domestic spaces, which in their cleanliness and power symbols hide, in plain sight, deep class and gender violence. The film excellently showcases how an “ordinary” domestic space, ordinary and obvious to most of its dwellers, can be the stage for an intense psycho-drama for the main character, oppressed and abused, becoming much more (or far less) than “just” a living space (for her it’s far from being a “living” space). The house becomes a theater of war, a path to freedom and inhabits possibilities for resistance and rebellion.
Footnotes and Other Stray Thoughts
1 // Report to 75th UN GA (2020) by the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing: COVID-19 AND THE RIGHT TO HOUSING Impacts and the way forward, here: