The World Under Lockdown: Empty Spaces in the Photographs of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Airin Rezazadeh Farahmand

Before 2020, we probably needed to rely on science-fiction movies and dystopian novels to imagine a global pandemic. By now, however, we are all well aware of what a world stricken by an infectious disease looks like. In late 2019, a number of pneumonia cases of unknown etiology were reported to the World Health Organization by Chinese authorities. Soon after, it was discovered that the cases were caused by a new virus (now familiar to all of us by the name COVID-19) that apparently has succeeded in crossing the species barriers. The anxieties over the rapid spread of this new virus was well reflected in the title of CNN’s report, published on 7 January 2020: “A mysterious virus is making China (and the rest of Asia) nervous. It’s not SARS, so what is it?”. This new virus was not nerve-wracking only for Asia. Proven to be highly contagious, it quickly turned into a global concern.  In the space of a few months, the virus caused a global pandemic, which is still on-going as I’m writing these lines today. 

Although the outbreak evoked different responses in different countries, the common reaction was the emergence of new norms and regulations. Handshaking was considered too dangerous. Face masks and gloves became part of daily outfits. Access to public spaces was limited and large gatherings were prohibited. The outbreak not only heralded fundamental changes in the ways people used to live and interact with each other but also changed the meaning of social spaces drastically. With people being advised to stay at home, work remotely and avoid unnecessary commuting, internet communication replaced face-to-face interaction. The ramifications of living in this new world, highly reliant on virtual spaces, were reflected in a number of cultural practices including photography. Photos capturing empty public spaces as the result of the imposed lockdowns proliferated social media soon after the start of the outbreak.  The photos of these emptied out spaces became an effective way of documenting the visual impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.  Like most crises captured in modern times, the camera not only became a tool of documentation, providing factual accounts of what was going on in the world, but also shaped a visual narrative through which the pandemic was framed. 

It is important to note that emptiness should not be taken at its face value, as it is never devoid of cultural and social significance. Courtney J. Campbell,  Allegra Giovine and Jennifer Keating, for instance, in their book Empty Spaces: perspectives on emptiness in modern history, show how emptiness is not merely an indicator of the absence of the usual content of life, but rather  a sign of disruption in more abstract qualities that are deeply implicated in our economic, political and social systems (5). Similarly, by depicting cities without human subjects and deprived of their social function, the photos of empty public spaces reflect on our anxieties of living in a highly globalized world, where the likelihood of a biological disaster threatening our very existence as human species seems more real than ever. These anxieties are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have been repeatedly depicted in fiction, most notably in post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the images of empty spaces depicting the recent pandemic bear strong resemblance to the already-existing ones in popular culture. The iconic opening sequence of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 movie I am Legend starts with an aerial shot of New York City that is peculiarly vacant. The protagonist journeys through the deserted streets of the city which have clearly fallen into decay and have been taken over by nature. Similarly, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), uses the same strategy to show how the spread of the virus has disrupted normal daily life. In shots that interestingly share a great deal of similarity to the photos depicting the recent pandemic, we see empty gyms, conference rooms, churches and stations indicating the interruption of the normal flow of everyday life.

In his analysis of the American zombie series The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010–) and the British production Survivors (BBC, 2008–10), Martin Walter explains that emptiness in these types of movies is used as a way of commenting on the structures of our contemporary capitalist society.  According to Walter, the familiarity of these spaces raises critical questions about the efficiency of the previous order which has clearly failed. As he puts it, “the repeated motif of journeying through empty landscapes conveys ideological viewpoints on capitalist spaces. These spaces increasingly address both a ‘perturbed familiarity’ and discourses of global (in)security” (134). Therefore, emptiness in these movies raises critical concerns about the reliability of the capitalist system that has left us vulnerable to threats such as a global pandemic. Similarly, Dora Apel argues, “by depicting our technologically advanced civilization in states of ruination and decay, post-apocalyptic narratives render our own society as other and encourage us to ask whether the empire of capital represents lasting progress or a road to decline” (152).

The fear of the so-called “next pandemic”, the one that will bring humanity to the end, is engraved in the popular culture of our time. The recurring theme of dystopian futures as a result of human activity in post-apocalyptic fiction, mirrors concerns over many pressing issues among which globalization, rapid technological advances, public health, safety, surveillance, (in)security and the possibility of human extinction stand out.  The photos of empty cities following the corona crisis, therefore, rely in part on the familiar iconography of the previous cultural products to form their visual narrative and evoke a sublime sense of fear in the viewer. Emptiness, in this context, is a key visual trope that addresses the same concerns and issues regarding the structures of our contemporary societies that are raised in fictional works. It gains its meaning when the depicted public spaces are compared to their pre-pandemic state when they were filled with people. In this sense, emptiness becomes a crucial aesthetic tool that dysfunctionalizes our social spaces, presenting them as eerie and uncanny. Freud used the term ‘uncanny’ (‘unheimlich’ in German, literally ‘un-homely’) to suggest a psychological origin for the eerie, peculiar feeling of fear that arises from the confrontation with something familiar that has suddenly turned into its opposite. Accordingly, the uncanny is located on the margin between real and unreal, constantly stressing the boundaries between the two. Similarly, in the photos of empty public spaces, popular destinations marked by their crowd suddenly have turned into unfamiliar venues with almost no human presence. The familiarity that lies at the heart of these barely recognizable spaces, stripped off their social function, adds to the uncanny quality of these photos. 

In his seminal work The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler uses Freud’s notion to explain the spatial characteristics of the places that can provoke this feeling of uncanniness in the visitors. As Vidler explains, what stimulates the feeling of uncanny in the space, is not related to particular spatial conformations as this feeling is not a property of the space itself. Rather, it is in its aesthetic dimension and is created when a space that pretends to offer the utmost security suddenly opens itself to the secret intrusion of terror (3). Uncanny as an aesthetic quality of space is what renders it strange due to an alien presence. It is, as Vidler puts it, “a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming” (11). If we look at the photos of the pandemic, emptiness seems to create a liminal space between reality and fantasy. Although the settings have remained the same, the absence of the usual crowd indicates the presence of an alien Other that disallows us to freely enter into these spaces. Being marked as unsafe, these public spaces, without their crowd, look almost like private properties. The emptiness in the photos, therefore, seem to ignite curiosity in the viewers to ask themselves what will happen to public spaces? What will remain of them? These questions are indeed important since they guide us to begin thinking about our conditions as human beings living in the twenty-first century. The photos, therefore, become the spatial visualization of a breakdown in our contemporary world systems by suggesting that emptiness might become the new normal. By visually referencing the already-existing apocalyptic images in popular culture, they build on our contemporary anxieties regarding the possibility of human extinction by emphasizing the human absence in urban settings. It may be too naive to believe that such a thing would be the case. However, even if we accept this prophecy as a form of cultural exaggeration, the criticism that is directed towards the capitalist system that has shaped our century is still very valid and mirrors deep concerns that are inherently embedded in the zeitgeist of our era.

Works Cited:

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (MIT press, 1992).

Courtney J. Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating, eds., introduction to Empty Spaces: Perspectives on Emptiness in Modern History ( University of London Press, 2019).

Dora Apel, Beautiful terrible ruins: Detroit and the anxiety of decline (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Martin Walter, “Landscapes of loss: the semantics of empty spaces in contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction” in Empty Spaces: Perspectives on emptiness in modern history, eds. Courtney J.Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating (London University Press, 2019), 133-51.

The Sounds of a Lockdown

Written by Vincent Meelberg


These are interesting times. Not only because of the new social normal that we are experiencing right now, which includes social distancing, but also because of the environmental consequences this has. Pollution of all kinds seems to diminish as this situation continues. For instance, there has been a dramatic drop in pollution across China because of the quarantine measures taken by the Chinese government, and it is expected that similar developments will happen in Europe as well. In fact, cities such as Venice, Italy, already experience the beneficial environmental effects that are a result of the city being on lockdown.

Another kind of pollution that urban life is confronted with is acoustic pollution, also known as noise. Noise are those sounds that are considered as unwanted by particular listeners in a specific context. For instance, a sequence of sounds can be considered music in one context, say by a
listener attending a concert, but noise in another, when that same listener is at home at night trying to sleep while their neighbour is playing that same music from their stereo. In normal circumstances urban environments are filled with sounds that many may interpret as noise. The current situation, however, has resulted urban life being devoid of many of those sounds. This means that the urban auditory environment has changed
completely because of the lockdowns.

An auditory environment can be defined as the totality of the actual sounds that can be perceived in a space, as well as the manner in which this space transforms, blocks, or amplifies these sounds. Such an environment may in itself be objective and measurable, but the ways it is experienced by its inhabitants is not. The Canadian sound researcher and sound artist Barry
Truax uses the term “soundscape”, which he borrowed from R. Murray Schafer, to refer to the experience of an auditory environment. A soundscape can be defined as a relation between individuals and their auditory environment, as an environment of sound with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by an individual, or by a society. A soundscape is listener-centred and acknowledges the subjective bonds between listeners and the auditory environment that surrounds them. Consequently, there are as many listeners as there are soundscapes.

The term “soundscape” was originally developed within the World Soundscape Project led by Schafer as an analogue to “landscape” to denote the collection of sounds in an environment. Some of these sounds can be considered natural “keynotes”, which are sounds that arise from the overall geography of a specific area. In addition, a distinction can be made between “hi-fi” and “lo-fi” soundscapes. Hi-fi soundscapes are those soundscapes that are relatively quiet with a wide amplitude range where it is possible to hear a large amount of detail. Lo-fi soundscapes, on the other hand, are loud and noisy, and generally consist of sounds produced by man-made machinery, masking any sonic detail that may be present as well. The cities that are under lockdown have thus exchanged their lo-fi soundscapes for hi-fi ones.

In line with Schafer’s distinction between hi-fi and lo-fi soundscapes, auditory environments reflecting human activity are generally perceived as more pleasant than environments where mechanical sounds are predominant. Listeners generally consider natural sounds such as birdsong and running water as positive soundscapes, and sounds such as traffic noise or construction sounds as negative or unpleasant. Other experiments corroborate these observations. In these experiments sounds of nature, birds, and “other people,” with the exception of angry people, some noises neighbours may make, and cellular phone use were labelled as pleasurable. Sounds produced by cars, traffic, and construction work, however, were considered unpleasant.

Cities under lockdown have auditory environments that are devoid of many of those so-called unpleasant sounds. At first sight, this may be considered a positive thing, and allows for opportunities to create new sounds, such as communal singing. It is quite wonderful to listen to the sounds of a city under lockdown.

Yet, the reason why the urban soundscape has become more hi-fi is
less positive, though. Despite the fact that a hi-fi landscape may be one that provides calmness and rest, the soundscape of a city under lockdown may still be experienced by its inhabitants as stress-inducing, precisely because it reminds them of the pandemic and the devastating consequences it has for many of us. In this sense, it could even be said that silence is the new noise, as silence is now considered as unwanted (absence of) sound.

We can, however, also see this situation as an opportunity. An opportunity to listen more carefully again, not only to the sounds of the city,
but also to your own record collection, for instance. Instead of treating your music as auditory wallpaper during your commute to work, school, or university, give it the attention it deserves. Now that we are  confined to our homes, why not fill them with the most wonderful sounds in the world and actually pay attention?

Pandemics as performance art: Walking under a corona-regime

Written by Anna P. H. Geurts


Mike Norton,
photo of Richard Long’s Full Moon Circle, Houghton Hall, 2016
(Wikimedia Commons).

Right now, West Europeans and North Americans have their mobility taken away from them at a scale probably not experienced since World War Two. Travelling to a neighbouring country, commuting to work, going to parties, meeting lovers… for the privileged among them* – for the privileged among us, I should say, these things are usually so self-evident that they receive very little thought (until we fall ill, perhaps).

Now, under the corona-regimes put in place everywhere in the world, ‘even’ we must accept severe limitations, limitations that may be especially hard to adhere to since it is so easy, with all our money, our health, our infrastructures, our passports and our safety, to overstep them. We cannot feel our limitations; we must think them, reason them; convince ourselves that we must stick to our self-imposed rules.

And while we are fighting ourselves, we also fight others: we cast suspicious glances at people walking too closely, people who cough, people without gloves on. These people do not only Spread the Virus and Kill the Elderly, they are also to blame for keeping us imprisoned in our homes for longer than strictly necessary. And finally, what we also feel about them is perhaps best characterised as envy: envy of their obliviousness to this Situation. Envy that they forgot to worry for a moment, and we did not.

This enduring feeling of always watching one’s step, of never letting go and going where one wants, reminded me of a work of art I saw many years ago. It’s by Richard Long, a land artist and performance artist.

I did not actually take a photo of the work of art itself. I just took a photo of the interpretive sign that accompanied it.


Photo by APHG, 2015.

Why did I not take a photo of the artwork itself? Richard Long makes wonderful art. As Wikipedia summarises one of his other artworks, the poetic piece Walking a Circle in Mist resulted in a “circular path approximately 75 feet in diameter”. And, because there is no such thing as coincidence, the “outside of [this] path fades outward creating a
corona-like effect”. You can see it for yourself on Long’s own website.

Wonderful art indeed. But the clue to the real wonder is in the title: ‘Walking a Circle in Mist’. The circle isn’t the art work. The walking is.

This is exactly what the interpretive sign to the work that I saw, many years ago, explained, too: ‘walking as art’; ‘Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.’

I looked up from the sign to see for myself. But the artist’s activity, his interaction with the landscape, in Vermont and New York where he found the slate, and back in the UK where he laid it down, this interaction, which is such an integral part of the work I was supposedly witnessing, was no longer visible.

Yes, its trace was still there: the red slate line which was the result of Long bringing the slate to the UK and positioning it in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield where I saw it. And such traces, too, form part of what Long’s art is about. But I confess I was a little devastated by the interdiction printed at the end of the interpretive sign, an interdiction that forbade all creativity and playfulness:

Strictly no walking on Red Slate Line.

For me, this took away all the fun – while fun, or effort, or suffering, but in any case: doing something(!) is such an integral part of land art and performance art. And with this particular piece of art looking so much like a red-slate version of Dorothy’s yellow-brick road, I could not help but feel invited to walk the Line. Yes, slate is preciously fragile. But isn’t the weathering of land art, and the fragility and unpredictability of  performance art, which is created not in the last place by an audience that is allowed to make her body felt, part of the deal?

I was dumbfounded that the makers of the interpretive sign seemed not to have noticed the irony.

And though I, of course, accepted the restrictions that were being placed upon my movements (‘of course’? Well, being a teacher, I try to set a good example. And I was accompanied by someone who is particularly good at helping me stick to this resolution), although I accepted these restrictions, I could not help but think: why does the artist get all the fun, while the audience only gets to look on? Indeed, I felt very similar to how we privileged people sometimes feel in coronaland. And similar perhaps also to how many people must feel all the time.

This tiny restriction (only a thin red line of slate!) that was being placed on my mobility, in an otherwise completely accessible park, and in a pretty free life, sparked some noticeable frustration.

So, what am I trying to say?

Not just that one of the more positive effects of COVID-19 might be to remind the mobile half of the global population that the other half isn’t mobile (and during a pandemic such as this, it’s the already-not-so-mobile who become even less mobile) – in other words, that the virus will hopefully teach me and people like me a moral lesson about inequality.

I am also trying to say that it might give us some time to think about our own mobility. Like Long’s performances, it might inspire us to approach our own walking, or rolling, or cycling, as a work of art. As play. As a privilege, in the better sense of the word. Something to savour. A wonderful capacity that we have. Something to treat with respect and use well.

COVID-19 gives me, at least, time to think how I most want to use my freedom once I regain it.

Now, what do you miss most?

* You’ll know if you’re not one of them.