Krish Raghav heard rumblings of a mysterious illness in the Chinese city of Wuhan on the first week of January. In Beijing, where he lives, things appeared unfazed. He ate dinner out, attended shows, and met his friends for drinks, hopping from one place to another while poking fun at stories on the news.
Suddenly, a different mood signalled. China reported new cases of the disease in Beijing. The neighbourhood establishments Krish frequented shut their doors. Travel restrictions were imposed. Offices closed. By late January, Krish retreated into his home where he could only leave twice a week for groceries.
Slowly, a new reality of quarantine settled in — one that many of us are only beginning to grasp.
The Philippines and Malaysia have deployed military troops to enforce government orders for people to stay home and avoid the coronavirus. Many European countries have sealed their borders, with Italy and Spain bearing one of the highest infection rates in the world after China, as of writing.
With this new reality comes an emerging culture where isolation breeds ground for novel forms of sociality.
“[I noticed] a part of the Chinese web where people were turning to to get away from the onslaught of bad news,” Krish told VICE. He was referring to a generation of young and busy people, reliant on take-out food, suddenly bringing matters into their own kitchens – not simply as a means of necessity, but also catharsis.
In response and overcome with creative fervour, Krish slaved away on his desk, illustrating a comic that was later published on The New Yorker.
Once reserved for the physical space, quarantine culture has turned cooking, a usually solitary activity, social by channelling earlier forms of the internet where sharing is done for the sake of it in the instant company of strangers. Those quarantined don’t only feel the need to overcome an overabundance of time, but also the desire to recreate the connection that comes with sharing a meal.
Krish takes Bilibili as an example – a Chinese social video platform where “bullet comments” drape across entire videos like a curtain, giving a sense of a real-time audience reacting together in a “primordial soup of memes.”
Creators of quarantine cooking content turn months-long experiences into guides for quarantined people around the world. Platforms such as Xiachufang and Weibo have become archives for these "cooking diaries."
“People order take-out meals and eat by themselves while listening or watching something,” Krish said. “And when everyone is in the same position, there is a compulsion to share something people might find solace in.”
Bilibili is a Chinese social video platform with a feature called "bullet comments," displaying real-time comments from users in the form of streaming subtitles. Photo from 유디티TV.
This compulsion to share resonates well to the boys behind Transit Records, a Manila-based music collective.
Matt San Pedro, Transit’s operations director, felt the urgency of COVID-19 when one of his events got cancelled in anticipation of a city-wide lockdown.
While quarantine helps contain the virus, the loss of a physical space has left those whose livelihoods depended on it astray.
In Australia and New Zealand, a campaign called I Lost My Gig tallies the amount of income lost in the events industry resulting from COVID-19 and the summer bushfires – amounting to AU$300 million as of March 24.
However, as Sean Bautista, Transit’s creative director, explained:
“Quarantine culture breeds a certain self-sufficiency. It pushes all of us to do what it takes to keep going.”
On the night their event was meant to take place, Transit live-streamed a DJ set from its sound director and music producer Patrick “Pato” Casabuena’s home, under the pseudonym Local Sun. They were raising funds to support front liners in a local hospital and the Philippines’ Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.
Not only did Transit exceed their target amount by 220 percent – they recreated the conviviality of listening to good music at a party with your friends, online.
“The keyword here is ‘experience’,” Pato stressed, referring to the new way he was interacting with his audience: one window live streaming on Twitch, and another on a Zoom call with his friends — all tuning in, bobbing their heads and wailing their hands to his music.
After their event was cancelled, Transit hosted a live-streamed DJ set to raise funds for front liners fighting COVID-19.
Quarantine culture is forcing us to consider what our future social relations will look like as we integrate remoteness into our lives. Now, people are turning to social game platforms like VRChat to connect with people. There, users create virtual avatars and interact with one another on multiple virtual reality “worlds” to attend group discussions, talk about problems, or simply hang out with friends. It’s very much like dressing up to go out in the real world.
A user who goes by the name Mantis, a medical student from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who worked alongside front liners in an Ohio hospital, told VICE that VRChat helped him cope with anxiety at home while waiting to receive his COVID-19 test results. He jumped from one synthwave world to another on cybernetic legs for six days before learning that he was in the clear.
This image shows Mantis' virtual avatar on VRChat — a virtual reality social game platform where users create virtual avatars and interact in multiple virtual "worlds."
“Some people might see it as just another game,” Mantis explained, “but your mind builds these neuro-links and you’re building actual memories of being there rather than just looking at a screen.”
The development of VR has been sluggish and perhaps it will never replace face-to-face contact. However, its potential during quarantine now appears unignorable as scientists warn life with coronavirus will be our norm for at least a year.
This is not only apparent in our work. On March 18, computer company HTC hosted its annual VIVE conference through VR for the first time, allowing members of the public to join. Likewise, XRHealth, a mixed reality telehealth company, recently made support groups available for patients requiring palliative care - many of whom are coping with loneliness and isolation as a result of COVID-19.
For Mantis, it’s about keeping in touch with a world that was rudely taken away from him.
“It seems like quarantine culture is bringing everyone together rather than keeping us isolated.”
Sai Villafuerte is a freelance journalist specialising in cultural reporting. Find her on Twitter.