Essay: The digital death of collecting

How platforms mess with our tastes.

Hi everyone! This missive contains a recap of my columns on digital culture for The New Yorker and a B-side essay that helped me figure out my column on how social-media interfaces manipulate us. (That’s the official version; this is just if you want the lengthy behind-the-scenes.) The essay is also related to the themes of my upcoming book on algorithmic culture, Filterworld, and engages with one of its heroes, the 20th-century critic Walter Benjamin. Send me any thoughts!

New Yorker Columns

Facebook Wants Us to Live in the Metaverse: Mark Zuckerberg thinks Facebook is a “metaverse company.” What does he have in mind for this hypothetical virtual reality?

The Poetic Misunderstandings of A.I. Art: A.I.-generated imagery has become popular on Twitter, but the gap between the prompt text and the end result is the most interesting part.

Why Twitter’s New Interface Makes Us Mad: When social media design changes, it’s usually a way to push users toward new behaviors they might not actually want to do.

Ivermectin, the Crate Challenge, and Runaway Memes: What do horse medicine as a COVID cure and falling from a pile of crates have in common? They’re both bad ideas that spread on social media.

A Dent in Apple’s App Store Domination: Epic Games sued Apple when it wasn’t allowed to use its own payment systems in the app store. The lawsuit result means the digital economy will be a little more open.

The Digital Death of the Collector

I am rearranging my music collection — looking at the album covers, hearing snippets of the songs in my head as I see each one and recall the memories attached to it. There are the albums I listen to all the time and then those I only pick up once in a while so as not to dull their effects. The overall list is something only I could have come up with, a compendium of the music that’s important to me personally.

Actually, it might be more correct to say that my record collection has been rearranged for me: I opened the Spotify app on my laptop a few weeks ago and found that everything I had saved was in disarray. The albums weren’t where I thought they were. I couldn’t flip through them with my usual clicks, the kind of subconscious muscle memory that builds up when you use a piece of software every day, like your thumb going directly to the Instagram app button on your phone screen. Spotify had updated its interface and suddenly I was lost. I couldn’t put on the jazz record by Yusef Lateef that I play every morning when I start writing and I couldn’t figure out where to find the songs I had saved by pressing the heart-shaped like button. The sudden lack of spatial logic was like a form of aphasia, as if someone had moved around all the furniture in my living room and I was still trying to navigate it as I always had. Spotify’s new “Your Library” tab, which implied everything I was looking for, opened up a window of automatically generated playlists that I didn’t recognize. The next tab over offered podcasts, which I never listened to on the app. Nothing made sense.

In the digital era, when everything seems to be a single click away, it’s easy to forget that we have long had physical relationships with the pieces of culture we consume. We store books on bookshelves, mount art on our living-room walls, and keep stacks of vinyl records. When we want to experience something, we seek it out, finding a book by its spine, pulling an album from its case, or opening an app. The way we interact with something — where we store it — also changes the way we consume it, as Spotify’s update made me realize. Where we store something can even outweigh the way we consume it.

In 1931, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “Unpacking My Library,” describing these relationships with cultural objects. In the essay, Benjamin narrates removing his book collection from dusty crates, untouched for years. The volumes are splayed loose on the floor, “not yet touched by the mild boredom of order,” all set to be rearranged on shelves once more. For Benjamin, the very possession of these books formed his identity as a reader, writer, and human being — even if he hadn’t read all of them. They sat proudly on his shelves as symbols, representing the knowledge that he still aspired to gain or the cities he had traveled, where he encountered a book in a previously unknown shop. Collecting books was his way of interacting with the world, of building a worldview.

Benjamin’s library was a personal monument, the same kind that we all construct of things we like or identify with. Its importance was dependent on permanence — collections are made up of things that we own, that don’t go away unless we decide they should. “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects,” Benjamin wrote. “Not that they have come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” In other words, we often discover ourselves in what we keep around us. But the progressive relationship, the codependence or co-evolution of collection and person, wouldn’t happen if the order of Benjamin’s shelves and the catalogue of his books kept changing every few months, entirely outside of his control. That’s what Spotify’s interface updates felt like to me: a total disruption of the pieces of art and culture that I identified with.

Even if the change in the interface was minor — requiring an extra click to get to my playlists or moving the link to my saved albums — it’s a reminder that I don’t actually own any of what I’m listening to. I’m just paying for access month by month with my subscription fee to the streaming service. My relationship to music is ultimately dictated by the Spotify platform, both what I can listen to and how I listen to it. Unlike Benjamin, I can’t pack up my collection and take it with me. My cultural aspirations are at the mercy of a corporation in Sweden: If Spotify clashes with a particular record label or decides a song format is unsuitable, I won’t be able to access it anymore through the channel I use most often, and I might very well just stop listening to it.

We don’t often think about bookshelves on their own, separate from what they contain, but they are great devices. They display books or albums and you can choose from among the displayed options in a relatively neutral way. The collector is the only one who decides how to arrange her possessions, ordering books by author, title, theme, or even (unfortunately) color of the cover — and they stay in the same places they’re put. That’s not true of our digital cultural interfaces, which follow the whims and priorities of the technology companies that own them. They shift constantly and are far from neutral: If Spotify suddenly gives the category of podcasts a prominent new placement, for example, it’s because the company has decided that podcasts are going to make up more of its revenue in the future. The interfaces follow the company’s incentives, pushing its own products first and foremost, or changing familiar patterns to manipulate users into trying a new feature.

The same thing has happened with Instagram, lately, too — the changing interface makes me feel like I’m suddenly operating unfamiliar machinery, piloting an ungainly tractor in a construction site. I can’t perform the same actions I used to, and so I can’t use the app in quite the same way. These changes leave no trace; unlike an outdated television or microwave, once the digital app updates itself the older version ceases to exist, smoothly replaced as if it were never there in the first place (an erasure that lends a peculiar ephemerality to our memories of technology). The biggest change on Instagram circa 2020 was the replacement of the button at the bottom center of the screen. Instead of pressing that convenient spot to publish a new image on your account, it began loading Instagram’s relatively new Reels feature, a video-feed clone of the far more popular TikTok. The priority of the platform was no longer creation, building your own set of images, but consumption, passively watching videos.

I have never watched an Instagram Reel video on purpose because I have absolutely no desire to — I associate Instagram much more with photographs from friends’ lives than short, highly edited wannabe TV clips. But I have hit the button by accident many times and recoiled in shock when some dance routine set to loud pop music pops up. To actually post a photo, I now have to move my thumb to the top of the screen, hit a small plus sign, then choose which kind of format I’m trying to upload — Post, Story, Reels, or Live, which are all slightly different flavors of content. It feels like the app itself doesn’t know what it wants me to do, and thus I don’t know what to do with it. Should I still post mundane snapshots, or do I need to learn a meme dance? My personal Instagram archive, a decade-long account of my adult life in images, still exists on the platform, but that album of memories feels defunct, relic of an earlier era of the software. When I look back at it, I don’t feel nostalgic; I feel lost.

My lostness comes from the sense that our cultural collections are not wholly our own anymore. In the era of algorithmic feeds, it’s as if the bookshelves have started changing shape on their own in real time, shuffling some material to the front and downplaying the rest like a sleight-of-hand magician trying to make you pick a specific card — even as they let you believe it’s your own choice. And this lack of agency is undermining our connections to the culture that we love.


For Benjamin, the importance of collecting stemmed from its endurance and persistence, a longterm commitment that the collector makes to the collection. “A collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property,” he wrote in his library essay. Benjamin would have detested the era of algorithmic platforms not because they’re so all-encompassing and overwhelming — Benjamin had no problem with infinite copies — but because they’re so ephemeral. It’s very difficult to be responsible for what we collect on the internet; we can’t be stewards of the culture we appreciate in the same way. We very literally don’t own it.

You can accrue a delicately curated digital library of music only to have it thrown into disarray when the app changes. Or your collections can be lost entirely when it shuts down. Just as each new digital interface erases its earlier versions, the disappearance of particular apps throws the meaning of content gathered on the app to the wind. It’s not like a bunch of eight-track tapes found in the trunk of an old car that can be played again with the proper technology and experienced, essentially, in full once more. Building a collection on the internet is like building a sandcastle on the beach: eventually the tide washes in and it’s as if it never existed in the first place. Such is the feeling I get when I look back at my accounts on platforms like Tumblr, where I once collected 408 pages of anime GIFs, fragments of poems, and evocative video game screenshots for the better part of a decade, or the photo albums I posted on Facebook around 2007, a feature that is more or less gone, at least from its original purpose of publishing actually impromptu photos of your friends.

The shifting sands of digital technology have robbed these collections of their meaning; the context in which they originally existed can no longer be experienced and they only appear as nostalgic ruins, the remains of once-inhabited metropolises gone silent. Many of the images I once shared on Tumblr are now broken links. I could have downloaded these collections in their prime and made sure I could always access them, but that couldn’t capture the meaning of their flow and the social exchange that they once represented. What I see when I look at my Tumblr archive that’s still extant online is a glimpse of a slower, more intimate, linear, and coherent digital space than what now exists in the turbo-charged feeds of the algorithm era. It reminds me that things were once different, but also doesn’t give me much hope of recapturing that meditative pace.

Algorithmic feeds are by their nature impersonal, though they promise personalized recommendations. The more automated a feed is, the less we users feel the need to gather a collection, to preserve what’s important to us. If we can always rely on Instagram’s Discover page or the TikTok For You feed to show us something that we’re interested in, then we have less impetus to decide for ourselves what to look for, follow, and save. The responsibility of collecting has been removed, but that means we offload it to the black box of the automatic recommendation system. Over the past two decades, the collecting of culture — like maintaining a personal library — has moved from being a necessity to a seemingly indulgent luxury.

It goes back to the significance of the bookshelf: When we didn’t have access to automated feeds and streaming platforms, we had to decide for ourselves which culture to keep close by. As a teenager in the 2000s, my on-demand access to music was contained within one of those rubbery CD binders in which you slot albums into transparent cases, like pages in a book. I flipped through them aimlessly when deciding what to play on my portable discman, my range of choices limited to what I already owned but also deepened because I had a relationship to every disc in the binder. I still have nostalgic memories of that binder; I can feel the texture of the case and the sense of possibility that it held in my mind.

Yet that relationship has become increasingly abstract and indirect as the expansion of digital technology in our daily lives has accelerated. From CD binders I moved to audio players like iTunes, where I still maintained a collection of MP3s, scrolling through them to find a particular musician or album. Then came larger online platforms like YouTube and Pandora, where you could look up videos or songs whenever you wanted but also let the platform create a feed for you, a digital radio station curated by algorithm. Finally, in recent years, Spotify became the single international behemoth of mainstream music, an unavoidable iceberg of content. You can save or bookmark albums on Spotify and call up a musician to listen to, but the structure of the service drives you toward passive listening, following its recommendations without having to make decisions. As I’ve used Spotify longer and the interface has changed shape, I’ve found myself becoming a more passive user, saving fewer albums; thinking less about the specifics of the albums or artists I’m hearing; and losing track of my library. What’s worse for me as a collector and cultural consumer is ultimately better for the platform: I’ll keep subscribing to Spotify because it’s the only way I’ll have access to the music. There’s no CD binder I can take with me.

In the era of the algorithmic feed, these platforms have become the containers for our cultural artifacts as well as for our cultural experiences. While we have the advantage of freedom of choice, the endless array of options often instills a sense of meaninglessness: I could be listening to anything, so why should any one thing be important to me? The constructive relationship between consumer and culture goes in both directions. When we find something meaningful enough to save, to collect it, the action both etches it a little deeper into our hearts and it also creates a context around the artifact itself, whether song, image, or video — and context not just for ourselves but for other people, the shared context of culture at large. That’s what Benjamin described when he wrote, “The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.” Just as collections require permanence, they also need individuals, whose voices and tastes they express. The mass of Spotify isn’t actually a collection; it’s an avalanche.

Benjamin thought that the figure of the collector was vanishing even in his own time, the 1930s: Public libraries existed, of course, but those couldn’t compare to the individual, slowly gathering volumes at home. “Only in extinction is the collector comprehended,” he wrote, prematurely mourning the loss of a lifestyle and an identity that he held dear for himself as much as anyone else. Yet even with all its excesses of content, our era of algorithmic feeds might herald the actual death of the collector, because the algorithm itself is the collector, curator, and arbiter of culture. Not only does that represent a loss of agency and control, it’s also a loss of feeling. Benjamin’s library called up in his mind and heart an array of scenes, the places and people that brought the books to him:

Memories of the cities in which I found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris; memories of Rosenthal’s sumptuous rooms in Munich, of the Danzig Stockturm where the late Hans Rhaue was domiciled, of Siissengut’s musty book cellar in North Berlin; memories of the rooms where these books had been housed, of my student’s den in Munich, of my room in Bern, of the solitude of Iseltwald on the Lake of Brienz, and finally of my boyhood room, the former location of only four or five of the several thousand volumes that are piled up around me.

The placelessness and self-erasure of digital platforms and the enforced passivity of the algorithmic feed have removed these experiences. I don’t form the same kind of nostalgic memories using Spotify that I did with the binder of CDs that sat with me on the couch or in my car as a teenager, and in any case, after the stretch of time that nostalgia needs to develop, that version of Spotify’s software will be long gone, inaccessible even if I wanted to recapture it.

Digital art social clubs

And the vagueness of "creators"

Hello! Two new columns I wrote for The New Yorker have been published recently, which I recap here. Other than that not much to report; summer seems to be entering its doldrums phase, AKA August.

What the “Creator Economy” Promises — and What It Actually Does — The New Yorker

If you’ve been anywhere online lately, you’ve probably heard the phrases “creator” and “creator economy.” If you’re posting on TikTok, making podcasts, or writing newslters you’re now a creator. It’s the newest buzzwords for internet businesses: every platform wants to court creators and, supposedly, help people make money by selling their content. Creator might be a step above the previous cliche, “influencer,” but it remains an exploitative model in which platforms hold more control than the users making them money:

In some ways, the creator economy does appear to give more agency to the user. Rather than trying to game social-media algorithms, creators can theoretically rely on more dependable income from supporters. They can choose which kinds of work they take on, whether it be newsletters, livestreams, or audio chats. “They don’t have to care about fighting against the current of the platform,” Sam Yam, the co-founder of Patreon, a pioneer of the creator economy, said. In Yam’s mind, earning a living as a creator is an evolution of the so-called gig economy facilitated by companies like Uber and TaskRabbit. Followers are paying for access to someone’s unique talent or voice. “You care about the individual more than just the task that needs to be done,” Yam said. “It’s value exchanged for creativity.” The model promises a more human and less automated interaction. What were once called followers—the anonymous numbers racking up on a profile page like so many fungible eyeballs—are now customers, supporters, and patrons.

Why Bored Ape Avatars Are Taking Over Twitter — The New Yorker

Sometimes you see a thing online and just can’t stop until you figure out just what it is and why it’s happening. That was the case with this story, which profiles something called Bored Ape Yacht Club: a batch of 10,000 NFT avatars (scarce digital images) that sold for $2 million total and have now created a market of more than $100 million. That’s way bigger than a bunch of cartoon primates inhabiting a rundown Everglades dive bar, as the project’s website shows. What’s so compelling to me about BAYC is that it’s somewhere between an art project, a sports team, a streetwear brand, a hedge fund, and a creative studio: owners of the NFTs can make their own projects in the ape universe, which expands infinitely. It’s a form of decentralized culture, like if fans owned the Marvel universe.

I hope you read this one, if nothing else it’s a tale of an extremely wacky niche in digital culture. “I’m paying my rent by trading jpeg pictures on the Internet. That’s what I tell my parents,” one participant told me:

Bored Ape Yacht Club has sold branded baseball caps, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to ape sanctuaries, and offered each collector a dog N.F.T., courtesy of the Bored Ape Kennel Club. But it was also one of the first clubs to offer individual buyers the commercial rights to the apes they own: each member is allowed to brand his own projects or products and sell them independently. In the three months since the club launched, Bored Ape owners have put the cartoon primates on lines of craft beer and created animated YouTube series, made painted replicas, and designed skateboard decks. Kyle Swenson, the clothing reseller, launched a publication called the Bored Ape Gazette, to cover the community. One owner named their ape “Jenkins the Valet,” gave him a backstory as the Yacht Club’s chief gossip, and is crowdfunding an ape-themed novel.

Bad DTC brands / Good online novels

New Yorker column, New Republic review

Hello, I’m very proud to say that I’m now officially a Contributing Writer at The New Yorker! I updated my Twitter bio, of course, and changed my avatar to the one the magazine commissioned for me, an awesome digital souvenir. Whatever I say about this will be an understatement; the opportunity to be on staff there and work with amazing writers and peerless editors, copy editors, and fact checkers is a career highlight. My new column and another new review for The New Republic are below.

Programming note: I’ll be using this newsletter to alert you about my columns on a weekly-ish basis and give some more context to the stories, as well as post updates on my in-progress book, Filterworld, on algorithmic culture. 99% of my non-book writing will be for the column, with a few diversions.

Great Jones Cookware and the Illusion of the Millennial Aesthetic — The New Yorker

A great investigation in Insider revealed that the very Instagrammable kitchen brand Great Jones was something of a mess internally: last year, one of the co-founders and all of the employees left the company. I expanded on that report and wrote about how the branding of so-called direct-to-consumer startups is a facade: Products like Great Jones pots, Onsen towels, or Parachute sheets are usually a veneer of Internet-friendly design on top of quite mundane products.

There’s this gap between the marketing message — these new Instagram brands are made just for you, a millennial consumer! they’re adapted to your needs! — and the reality of small startups using readymade factory and shipping infrastructure with a sprinkling of digital advertising to look like they’re much bigger than they are. That leads to some quite dissatisfying products. Here’s my recent-history summary of how DTC startups actually work:

The direct-to-consumer wave began in the twenty-tens as a new generation of startups promising to “disrupt” traditional industries for consumer goods. Instead of leaving the market to century-old stalwarts like Gillette, for example, a company like Dollar Shave Club, founded in 2011, would set up its own supply chains to manufacture razors; add clean, millennial-friendly branding and marketing gimmicks; undercut its competitors with the help of a cushion of venture capital; buy enormous volumes of online advertising to reach digital-native consumers without the intermediary of big-box retailers; and then hope it grew big enough, fast enough to become attractive as an acquisition or for an initial public offering. 

The Rise of the Very Online Novel — The New Republic

I reviewed Patricia Lockwood’s first novel, No One Is Talking About This, but also took in the scope of recent “internet novels” — fiction, often autofiction, that engages with how the internet and social media shape our lives. I think often the internet is seen as un-literary, like not worthy of being fully represented in fiction. Novels aren’t just long text-message threads, after all, and being on the computer or iPhone is not usually that exciting. Many talked-about contemporary writers of novels — Olivia Laing, Kate Zambreno, Ben Lerner — portray the internet very negatively, a source of distraction and abstraction rather than real experience. Lockwood, a poet and memoirist, instead uses the native language of the internet to heighten her literary voice, embracing the memes and inside jokes of two decades of being extremely online.

Lockwood’s approach is more authentic to the way many of us experience life on the internet, I think — we’re there for a reason, and the turbocharged exchange of language and images with as many people as possible at once is enjoyable. Whether authentically embracing online life makes a novel better is another question. I’m reading the new Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You now, and Rooney lands somewhere in the middle, fully incorporating the tics of digital communication and ambient social media without being too pejorative either way: It’s just how we live. Here’s a paragraph:

Should a novel be molded by the same forces as tweets? In some ways, autofiction presents itself as a form of resistance to the digital content feed: austere, plotless, and self-referential, it can be inaccessible or alienating. Yet some of the same qualities can also make the genre ideal for the social-media era. The author is free to offer up small fragments of self, like well-produced Instagram selfies or front-facing camera monologues, and the reader gets the frisson of guessing which are true and how accurate they might be. The short, angular paragraphs—as in Zambreno or Lockwood—and the seemingly diaristic nature of the content—as in Rachel Cusk or Karl Ove Knausgaard—are well-suited to internet-shortened attention spans and a collective appetite for reality television–style, low-stakes drama. Many of these books are surprisingly entertaining and gossipy, contrary to their forbidding reputation as the literary avant-garde.

Endnote

Not much else to report right now; it seems people are traveling abroad and posting on Instagram about it, which I can only wonder at. The pandemic seems to have killed my ability to imagine life a month ahead of time. Instead I buy piles of books that I haven’t started reading yet and contemplate moving apartments, because another side effect of the pandemic is a certain nausea in contemplating the stuff that surrounded us in quarantine: buy new clothes, change the furniture, inhabit new spaces.

Main Character Energy

My new column for The New Yorker.

Some personal news: I now have a weekly-ish column for The New Yorker website! It’s called “Infinite Scroll” and it’ll cover digital culture, the impact of algorithms on art, and the platforms that shape what we consume online. The first edition was just published; it’s on “main character energy,” a TikTok meme that also happens to be a great description of the intensity of social media in the post-pandemic moment as everyone posts every birthday, picnic, and social gathering as if to reclaim our places in the outside world.

We All Have “Main-Character Energy” Now — The New Yorker

For this piece I began by noticing just how manic Instagram had been feeling lately — there seemed to be a pressure to publicize everything you were doing, to document each moment like it never happened before. Which is true, in a way: After more than a year, we can finally go back to casually hanging out in restaurants and bars, convening large groups of people. The photos and videos cast you and your friends as stars in a movie, reframing previously banal moments into something glamorous and spectacular. Before, it wasn’t that special to have a birthday party. Now, we realize that it is.

That attitude — being the protagonist of your life — fits perfectly with a monologue that went viral on TikTok during early quarantine last year. The column is the story of that video, and what its creator realized about being a “main character” afterward.

Last winter, Britta Grace Thorpe was in bed at her parents’ home, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in the depths of a late-night TikTok binge, when one video broke the reverie. Soft harp sounds played, and then a female voice began a gentle but insistent monologue: “You have to start romanticizing your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character. ’Cause if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by.” Onscreen, an overhead shot showed a young blond woman sprawled on a blanket on the beach, looking up at the camera, surrounded by friends who are oblivious to the lens. Sparkles from a TikTok filter bedazzle the footage. The woman gazes serenely skyward, as if wholly satisfied with her life.

Again, here’s my column on main character energy in The New Yorker. Hope you like it and also tell me what I should write about for the column!

Essay: Drawing during quarantine

I picked up an old hobby during the pandemic.

Over the pandemic, drawing in the park every evening was one of the things that saved my sanity. I wrote this essay about how it feels to look back on those sketchbooks now as quarantine is lifting, and how the drawings became connected in my mind with the ideas behind Impressionism in the 19th century. It’s also published on ARTnews.

Purgatory, Golden Hour

A month or two in to the pandemic in 2020, when the spring was breaking into an anxious summer and the weather made it blessedly easier to be outside, I took up a hobby. Or maybe I revived a long-lost part of myself: I started drawing every day, which I hadn’t done since high school, the better part of two decades ago. Back then I attended figure-drawing classes and loitered in the school’s art rooms — I even painted a mural that still hangs in the school. But my commitment faded in college with the pressure to study for a non-art major.

To pick up where I left off, I ordered a box of 12 recycled colored pencils in light pastel colors, a German sharpener with an attached container; and a new hardcover, ring-bound sketchbook, the first one in so long. It felt a little intimidating: colored pencils were never my chosen medium, but they were convenient to carry around and didn’t create much mess. Every afternoon around 4 or 5 PM, when being on my laptop even longer seemed pointless, not to mention the world was ending anyway, I would take a short walk to Kalorama Park near my apartment in Washington, D.C,, and draw from life, whatever was going on there.

Looking back at the year-old sketchbook pages now, the early doodles seem both simple and effortful, the kind of drawing where the artist is trying too hard to produce a realistic image instead of letting the marks be themselves — too stiff and careful to be graceful. I sketched small, tight figures in the midst of stretches of blank paper. They were each in the same pose that I was, sitting or laying on the hill of grass, in sunglasses or baseball caps, each alone and quite distant from everyone else. In the spring, we were all surrounded by empty space.

The figures read books or listened to music on headphones, sprawled on towels or blankets. A few experienced park-goers began bringing folding chairs. Like being a regular at a coffee shop, I could tell who, as I did, came to the park on a near-daily basis for that sunset moment of respite. When I would draw people, they would often simply be staring into space above the line of rowhouses that bordered the park, as if trying to comprehend the profundity of what was going on across the planet, in the air that we were breathing.

Drawing might have been my way of understanding COVID-19. I started out wanting to document the park in that moment — a bustling center of pandemic life that had become vastly more crowded and used. The increasingly packed scenes that I looked out over as the summer deepened started reminding me of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” from the 1880s, that masterpiece of Pointilism depicting a calm bourgeois crowd enjoying the lambent sunlight on an island in the Seine. The difference was that the peaceful Sunday mood was gone, made impossible by anxiety. Relaxation was replaced by a mania of escape, with people working on laptops outside; previously illicit drinking and smoking; and panicked parents setting up group children’s yoga classes.

There was a rigid pictorial order to the people in real-life Kalorama because each small group had to stay separated from the next for social distancing. The effect was painterly, as if the scene had been composed. Maybe it was more reminiscent of Poussin or Jacques-Louis David, the crisp logic of Neoclassical space in grand history paintings. The genre was apt: The image of the pandemic-era park captured one sense of what it was like to exist in this historical moment, the combination of total placidity and stillness with frenzy, the turmoil of having no idea what will happen next. I began thinking of the sketches as a series entitled “Purgatory, Golden Hour.” If you didn’t know what was actually going on, you might think the park scene was lovely, even utopian — just a neighborhood enjoying its public space.

As I continued my daily drawing, filling small sketchbooks and buying new cases of colored pencils, my hand loosened up and I drew larger scenes, filling in the landscape of the park and charting the movement of the thick, yellow sunset light on the bright-green grass. I drew dogs that wouldn’t stay still, picnics that looked like Alex Katz paintings from the 1970s, and trees in full leaf. From the pastels that I had started with, my palette expanded into more naturalistic colors and layered blending.

It reminded me of my high-school satisfaction with getting better at realism, the more exact rendering of a still life or body that looked on the page as it did in front of me. A drawing practice provides its own track record and motivation since you can observe your own quite literal progression by flipping the sketchbook pages back to the start. Each day is a chance to see something differently, to catch a new angle of an increasingly familiar scene. By drawing them over and over, I got to know Kalorama Park and the people in it. They’re fixed in my mind in a way that few things are from the lost year of 2020.

Extra motivation came from Instagramming my drawings, sharing them almost as soon I made them. It was a way of encouraging myself not to be too precious, to avoid worrying about them as careful finished work. But it was also nice to get positive reinforcement in the form of messages that friends would send in response. In mid-2020 it seemed that everyone was taking up new housebound hobbies — gardening, ceramics, rollerskating, dog training, baking — and we all needed the support to know that our efforts were alright. Of course the initial results might not be great, but at least they were something, a form of accomplishment in an otherwise changeless time. There was pleasure to be found in learning a new skill as an amateur, or regaining a lost skill, especially in the vacuum of quarantine.

The innovation of the Impressionists in the 19th century was to take their paints, palettes, and easels outside and document what was around them — not important scenes or historical locations but the mundane moments that comprise normal life. They painted the sunlight on cathedral facades, raucous boating parties, new factories rising over old rivers, the flowers that bloomed in their home gardens. Since we now think of Impressionism as an aged, kitschy style thoroughly digested into mainstream culture, it’s easy to forget that these were scenes from the artist’s lives, their contemporary milieu. What’s more, they saw and painted their surroundings in a new way, illuminating the variegated, sometimes clashing colors of light and the haziness of looking at something — maybe a sight you usually ignore — for a long time.

Something about that form of sustained attention became more meaningful to me during the pandemic. Instead of moving through my surroundings as quickly as possible, I had to slow down and notice them. There was no alternative but to study my neighborhood closely, to get to know every inch of it. If the pandemic quarantine can be said to have even a single bright side, it was this enforced engagement, a renewed focus on locality and community that also motivated mutual aid groups and the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Now, in the wake of the vaccine, restaurants are fully reopening and our social lives are gradually recovering; it’s possible to make semi-normal plans. The pleasant distractions have returned and I haven’t gone to the park to draw as often, though it’s still more crowded than it was in 2019. Having lost some of my fluency, I’m back to stiff doodles. Looking at last year’s drawings from the vantage of 2021, I can’t quite remember how I did them, much like I can’t remember how I got through the endless days of rising case numbers and the lack of any expectation for a solution. Now it all seems impossible.

Yet I value my drawings as artifacts of that difficult time and a way to recall how I passed it. Artists, writers, and other makers of culture are only just beginning to respond to what happened to us, making the things that history will eventually point to as representative of the period. These sketchbooks will be my personal version, the drawings a fragment of what 2020 looked like at the time, how we saw it.

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