Square Roots

Paula Burleigh on Zoom and the modernist grid

Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada. Photo: Jon Evans.

FOR MOST OF US, the threat of disease is a largely invisible one. This is what makes it so pernicious: Often we cannot even see its symptoms. Coronavirus could be anywhere. But the pandemic has rapidly developed a distinct visual culture. The oddly beguiling 3-D visualization of the virus created by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins at the Center for Disease Control has become the default symbol for Covid-19, and as Americans have grown more accustomed to covering their faces, parody images of masked public statuary and even topiary circulate widely. But perhaps the most pervasive of Covid imagery has little to do with the actual disease: the digital grid of people congregating virtually on Zoom for “quarantini” happy hours, work meetings, and classroom instruction.

Even to the casual observer, the grid conjures associations with order, functionality, and work, its structure echoed on graph paper and in office cubicles. To the student of art history, it is the paragon of modernist purity, expunging all extraneous material—figure and ground, narrative content and illusionistic space, contextual information and, often, visual pleasure—in the service of art’s autonomy. And in a strange turn, the grid has now been reinvested with the messy, relational material of daily life, acting as our digital bar, workplace, classroom, and social commons.

Pandemic visuals skew toward austerity. In an essay for The Atlantic titled “The Pandemic Has Made a Mockery of Minimalism,” Spencer Kornhaber suggests that our current aesthetics of emptiness and order—unoccupied public spaces, Plexiglas dividers, people uniformly spaced by six-foot hash marks—represent a bizarre amalgam of hygiene and luxury. Noting that the sparseness of 1960s Minimalism informed the clean, muted Millennial aesthetic of the aughts, Kornhaber asks whether the popularity of understated design will abate in the aftermath of this period, marked by its grim ubiquity. The author identifies the paradox at the core of minimalist design as “conspicuously inconspicuous consumption.” It’s actually quite expensive to achieve the look of having little. 

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Grid IX: Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 2019, oil on canvas, 34 x 41 1/2".

The grid is a hallmark of Minimalist design and Modernist art. “Flattened, geometricized, ordered, [the grid] is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal,” Rosalind Krauss wrote, “the result not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree. . .” The grid did not reflect the outside world, but marked, rather, a world of its own making. Its rejection of nature was tantamount to rejecting much of art’s history, which is what made the form so desirable to the modernists, who sought to distinguish their work as resolutely new. The grid signified only its own present, and mapped only its own surface. While individual aims varied, many moderns shared the belief that the grid was a fundamental, universally legible form, a kind of Art Esperanto. Piet Mondrian, with his primary-colored geometric abstractions, might be the most famous champion of the grid. For the Dutch painter, the juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal elements represented universal harmony between various opposing forces, including the material and the spiritual, masculine and feminine, dynamic and static, positive and negative. Of course, Mondrian’s was not the only vision of the grid. Agnes Martin would later reflect on the form as conjuring the “innocence of trees,” while responding to the perpendicular lines of woven textiles. Art historians after Krauss have made compelling, alternative arguments about the use of the grid among modernist artists of various backgrounds. But the fact remains that the vast majority of the grid’s creators were white men, and that its structuring logic is one of repetition, a system that encourages conformity while muting difference.

How fitting, then, that one of the most iconic pop culture grids belongs to The Brady Bunch. When the sitcom premiered on American television in September 1969, the opening credits pictured the “Brady Box,” a modular 3X3 configuration of the household’s children, stepchildren, parents, housekeeper—a grid of smiling, unremittingly white faces betraying nothing of the social and political unrest that besieged the country that year. The Brady Box erased hierarchies between the genders and made no visual distinction between employer and employed. Considered radical when it debuted for exploring the marriage of two single parents, The Brady Bunch reflected the changing state of the American family, which increasingly included children from previous marriages. But at its core, the series reflected a deeply conservative vision of the nuclear family. It remained white and heterosexual, upholding conventional gender roles that were more at home in the previous decade. Indeed, The Brady Bunch quickly lost whatever edge it originally had, and was syndicated for decades to come as a nostalgic relic among a white viewership yearning for idyllic visions of supposedly simpler times.

Christopher Chapman, A Place to Stand, 1967, 35 mm, color, sound, 17 minutes.

The Brady Box popularized the “multi-dynamic image technique,” a method of combining independently shot footage pioneered by Canadian cinematographer Christopher Chapman two years prior with a short film called A Place to Stand. Showcasing various facets of life in Ontario, Canada, A Place to Stand premiered at Expo 67, the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. Chapman’s extensive use of multiple or split-screen imagery—allowing up to fifteen squares of footage to be visible simultaneously—was a hallmark of cinematic innovation consistent with the Fair’s emphasis on new technology and progress. Expo 67 brochures proclaimed the Fair’s theme, “Man and His World,” a celebration of “faith in Man—his achievements, his aspirations, his future.” Her future or their future was not a concern.

The grid is rife with contradictions between what it promises and what it delivers.

Chapman’s documentary about life in Ontario featured ordinary scenes of local farming, culture, sports, and nature. But form superseded content. With neither narration nor subtitles, it was the dynamism of the multiple moving images that critics lauded as innovative. A Place to Stand debuted alongside utopian architecture like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome (now the Montreal Biosphere) and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, a sprawling complex of prefab concrete apartments stacked in modular configurations. While not a regular grid, Habitat followed a similar logic of uniformity and repetition. Safdie marketed Habitat as a prototype for affordable housing design; every resident would have a seemingly identical home, complete with a garden and scenic views. As a prototype, Safdie’s Habitat was a sensation, and it remains an icon of architectural history. In practice, Habitat was a financial disaster: Building costs so exceeded budgets that the government set rents far above what could be considered affordable at the time, and early residents reported health problems from moisture seeping into the concrete. Today, Habitat is one of Montreal’s most coveted addresses, a luxury suite of apartments totally divorced from the socially and economically progressive intentions of its creator.

Sherwood Schwartz, The Brady Bunch (1969–74), opening credits, season 2.

It turns out that the gridded, multiple screen imagery in Chapman’s film was its own kind of visionary architecture, in that it anticipated the structure of our future digital commons. Facing the threat of contagion, it is no surprise that we find comfort in the illusion of physical autonomy that the grid offers. We congregate in neatly ordered zones of containment, each square as impermeable as the next, in a virtual space somewhere between the public and the private. But as we have now learned, even Zoom’s seemingly impervious grid is prone to breaches, with widely reported incidents of video hijacking known as “zoom bombing” and perhaps more insidiously, the company’s refusal to enable end-to-end encryption, thus allowing law enforcement to surveil users’ chats. (Unless, of course, you have the means to upgrade to a premium account.) The visual blur between one’s job, school, and play means that leisure loses its defining spatial boundaries, collapsing into a morass of scheduled online obligations. It is no wonder that articles about how to combat “Zoom fatigue” proliferate, describing ways in which the performative act of watching yourself socialize, work, or learn is profoundly taxing. 

The grid is rife with contradictions between what it promises and what it delivers. A nonhierarchical schema in which every square is the same size, the grid purports to be a democratic structure. In March, when the transition to remote living still felt novel, screenshots of digital grids circulated endlessly on Instagram, as social distancing turned into social spectacle. In spite of their banality, images of virtual happy hours and work meetings are status symbols: To be in a Zoom meeting of course means you not only still have a job, but that you have the privilege to work remotely, greatly diminishing risk of infection. As Nicholas Casey reported for The New York Times, video-chat classrooms highlight rather than diminish disparities among students’ economic situations, as one student might enjoy the picturesque background of their parents’ summer home while another tunes in from a food truck where they work to support their family. 

We are starting to see more gestures of refusal. In my experience of teaching online during the pandemic, toward the end of the semester, students simply turned off their cameras, exhausted and unwilling to perform attentiveness. On June 2, Instagram, another gridded space, was briefly dominated by the monochrome, as users posted black squares in solidarity with mass protests after a white Minnesota police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man accused of using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Looking at the continuum of black voids on my feed felt like watching the grid implode in real-time. But, as organizers were quick to point out, there was nothing democratic about it. Whether as a form of performative activism or brand management, the failed blackout threatened to overwhelm the grid that results from searching the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, a valuable tool for resource-sharing. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful and defining images of this year will emerge not from virtual space but from the streets, where protestors filled the city grids in a collective refusal of the brutality which lurks behind the guise of law and order.

Paula Burleigh is an assistant professor of art history at Allegheny College and director of the Allegheny Art Galleries.