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Reflections on The New Intimacy

COVID-19 has shrouded our entire social fabric and exposed all the threads and frayed edges. One of the core human values, intimacy, is at risk, with the necessary distance that human beings have to take into account. How do designers and design curators reflect on this? Jorn Konijn, Head of Programme DDW shares his vision.

The many social challenges facing us, such as climate change, inequality or poverty, have been further accentuated in a short space of time by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has accelerated the change in the relationship between each other, the world around us, our belongings, our health, our data and the relationship towards our government. On the one hand, our scope has inevitably become smaller and more intimate; on the other hand, the connection with the other is further away than ever. The search for a new balance has begun. A balance where an important human value such as intimacy cannot be disregarded. But on the other hand, our health and safety are also at stake and in conflicts with the desire for intimacy. Like no other, designers can take the lead in this. With optimism and creativity, they come up with new concepts that inspire, amaze and stimulate action. They give insight into how we can relate to each other and the world in the new reality.
 
One of the most difficult elements of the pandemic is that it’s invisible. It’s this that makes it elusive. It is therefore also that large groups of people question its existence. In the Netherlands, groups like Viruswaarheid openly doubt the forcefulness of the pandemic. “If it is not physical, not tangible... isn’t it a mean from the government for control? One only has to look at the numbers, have a look into the hospitals and the elderly homes to know how serious it is. Spain: 33.000 deaths, and counting. Brazil: 150.000 deaths and counting. US 214.000 deaths, and counting.
 
But when it’s not visible and not tangible, could we then read the pandemic in a more symbolically way? What could this pandemic mean on a meta-level? Could the corona pandemic be a way to symbolize our decreasing capacity for empathy? Our continuing inability to intimacy? The inability to communicate? An advanced result of how we communicate with each other through screens and phones? Everyday communication is done via screens, whether it is the laptop or the phone. Direct verbal face-to-face talks are more and more disappearing and it is exactly in these conversations that intimacy is layered. So perhaps this ‘pandemic’ started already much earlier than December 2019, when the disease was first registered in Wuhan, China. Perhaps we have to go back into time much further than we think. Perhaps the start of it lies in the start of mass consumerism, somewhere in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
 
During the first lockdown quarantine, I turned to my favourite movies for comfort. And while watching The Graduate, the 1967 Mike Nichols movie, I noticed something striking. For those who don’t know the movie, it’s a romantic comedy, in which Dustin Hoffman plays a recent college graduate with no well-defined aim in life, who is seduced by an older woman, Mrs Robinson, brilliantly played by Anne Bancroft. But during this emotionless affair, he falls in love with Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine.
 
Movie critics, but also design scholars, often refer to the movie as the perfect showcase of the start of the ultimate consumer society, with a constant focus on designer goods: The TV, the canned beer bottles, the toaster, razorblades, the bra, cigarettes, the sports car and designer sunglasses. These objects symbolize the moral aimlessness of Dustin Hoffman’s character. But with today’s pandemic framework in mind, I noticed something different in the movie. The number of screens that are placed between all the characters throughout the whole film is striking. Screens, glasses, mirrors, windows or even aquariums.
 
The symbolic meaning of this in the film is restrained feelings of the characters. Our inability for intimacy… and maybe even the inability to communicate. And whoever watches the film in our present state of affairs, can only conclude that it seems like we have been here before. The corona pandemic as the ultimate symbolic manifestation of our inability for communication, for intimacy. The Graduate as a foreshadowing of our times. 
 
At the very end of the movie, a solution is found. And it’s not so much the removing of the screens. It’s Dustin Hoffman convincing his girlfriend to take a step into the unknown. To step into a bus full of strangers, no knowing in which direction they will go. They embrace their new journey with a smile, and full of love. Full of life. In the company of strangers. This the only way we can approach the pandemic. Without fear and with optimism for the future. With the same smile as Dustin Hoffman in the back of the bus. Designers, but also filmmakers, musicians, artists, can help us point in this direction. Sometimes providing practical solutions for the daily thresholds that the pandemic has given us. But sometimes also with hope and daily beauty. With an object. With a form. With colour. With emphasizing the beauty of daily life.

Written by: Jorn Konijn, Head of Programme DDW