Humans are infrastructural animals. Nothing reveals this better than a crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill. It forces us to pause and reflect upon things we tend to take for granted. Mobility, physical contact, freedom of self-expression, connectivity: we count on them even if we know that they are not a given forever or for everyone. But we also take for granted material objects, technical devices and technologies, the invisible infrastructures that sustain our social lives, keeping us connected and mobile. Using them on a daily basis, almost automatically, we fail to notice them unless they… cease to work. Yet in this situation it is not their dysfunctionality that explains our interest. It is rather the changes in their working environment which makes things stop working, throwing them out of context, forcing them into temporary retirement or, by contrast, charging them with new functions or five minutes of unexpected fame.
As anthropologists of infrastructure, we turn our gaze to infrastructures and objects in the time of COVID-19. To empty park benches, closed borders and refrigerators exploding with their contents. To letterboxes, face masks, bottles of disinfectant, but also tractors, aeroplanes, television screens, balconies, camper vans and credit cards. Confined to our home offices in countries under lockdown, we write, in a freestyle manner, about these silent participants in our lives. And we marvel at how far humans can be called Homo infrastructuralis.
This thematic thread is coordinated by Emilia Sułek. If you’d like to contribute your reflections to it, email Emilia at: email@example.com
Emilia Roza Sułek
The postcard-pretty Swiss town of Thun. Blue lake, crystal-clear air, mountain range in the background –as if cut out from a chocolate box.
It’s Sunday. After a few cold days, people flock out of their homes to enjoy the sunshine. In their lively conversations and laughter there is palpable relief that the long coronavirus lockdown is over. I rejoice too.
In the six weeks of forced self-isolation I embraced gardening and also became an expert on wild plants. They replaced my social life. Now, as is my new habit, while I’m walking to the lake I scan the roadside for botanical curiosities, forgotten herbs and weeds to forage. On the left is the Aare river with its old shipping canal. To the right lies a long strip of meadow behind a metal fence, then disused railway tracks and a road.
Suddenly my eyes fall on something in the grass behind the fence: a piece of paper covered with handwriting. It is rolled up like a message in a bottle cast away on the sea. I push my arm through the mesh to reach it. A moment later it sits unfolded in my hands, revealing its contents.
“Dear Nobody…” So begins this letter in stilted English, signed by a (seemingly young) woman, to anyone who might happen to be passing by. She tells her story. “I thought that suicide would end this all […] I wanted to finally be wanted, but I ended up being in the dark”, she writes from her abyss. But hurting herself didn’t lessen the pain in her soul. “Please let me die”, she begs. “I feel so lonely and even though it’s corona time, pls leave me a message. I’m gonna check every day.”
On the reverse is a reply in another hand. It offers words of comfort and encouragement: “You are more than you can imagine”, says this other. “Darkness can be overwhelming, but remember that the light is going to find you.” There is enough space for my reply too. “Life is sometimes hard to bear”, I have to admit. “Don’t punish yourself for your suffering.” I search for words that could give some strength to this anonymous woman and add my address, in case she seeks direct help.
I attach the letter to the fence with a paperclip, then lean back to look at the river. Switzerland has a high suicide rate. In this postcard paradise, people take their own lives every day. Will the forced self-isolation of the COVID-19 era bring a surge of deaths caused by loneliness and despair?
The note is undated. The letters are slightly blurred by rain, suggesting it had been there for a while. We are only a short distance from the canal. Just a few steps and one jump to be in the water.
Did the woman ever check whether anybody had replied to her SOS? Either way, where is she now?
Meanwhile, people walk past chatting happily. The sun is shining.
Verena La Mela
Of borders and fences
June 2020: “Open borders in Europe”! For those old enough to remember the birth of the European Union in 1993, the choice of words might sound familiar, reminding of “A Europe without frontiers”. It was indeed a timely phrase, coinciding with the 35th anniversary celebrations of the Schengen Agreement, established in 1985, which aimed at gradually opening up borders across Europe. How can it be the case, then, that several decades after the establishment of the EU, borders need to reopen? Welcome to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The virus hit Europe so suddenly in late winter/early spring 2020 that the EU shut its borders in panic as one of the first actions to curb contagion. Cross-border couples in the likes of Germany and Switzerland or Austria suddenly found themselves separated by a fence. A friend living in Bavaria complained that he was required to fill out a form at the German–Austrian border and explain why he needed to go to Vienna: to see his girlfriend.
“Me and my girlfriend met before the pandemic and suddenly we were disconnected. But at least we can meet if we fill out a form explaining why we need to cross the border. At first it was only possible for me to travel, to Vienna, but now it’s working again in both directions… On the border they ask you to complete a lot of bureaucratic nonsense.” His story reminds me of a 2019 film entitled Zwischen uns die Mauer, “Between us the Wall”, which depicts a young couple who find themselves on different sides of the Berlin wall, madly in love and desperate to see each other.
But did the virus really descend on the EU entirely unexpectedly? One could have paid closer attention and taken more seriously what was going on in China in the weeks before the virus set off on its journey around the globe. It was naïve to assume that this novel pathogen was far away and would never reach beyond China’s immediate neighbours – Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan to name a few (which, if we decide to believe them, were more successful than most of Europe at preventing the virus from entering their territory). For many weeks we read in disbelief news from Central Asia that the coronavirus apparently remained almost unknown there. With the same scepticism we read that the Kazakhstani authorities claimed that the virus had been imported by two of its citizens arriving from Germany.
No disease pays any heed to borders or the fences put up to prevent illegal migration and uncontrolled trade. This virus makes ample use of anything that serves as a vehicle to bring it even to the remotest hosts. Closed borders and newly erected walls separate people and conjure up images of a long forgotten past, while Covid-19 just keeps on travelling.
Verena La Mela
Ode to the Balcony
Balcony, oh balcony,
You saved me from insanity.
Balcony, oh balcony,
Here I sit in chastity,
Waiting for the end of this calamity.
Balcony, oh balcony,
Fostering pathetic fallacy,
You became my new centre of gravity.
Balcony, oh balcony,
Here is where I meet my extended family,
Balcony, oh balcony,
Here is where I escape the tragedy,
And unfold my personality.
Balcony, oh balcony,
Because of you I don’t spend COVID-19 in agony,
Emilia Roza Sułek
A balcony speaks
From the heights of the first floor I send my greetings to the street. I position myself in the centre, at the balustrade, just like a queen on her royal balcony. To the left, I have pots brimming with luxuriantly growing radishes. To the right, proud leaves of courgettes and budding tomato plants.
Not much is going on outside. A ginger cat saunters leisurely across the street. Someone on a bicycle passes by. A woman is walking her dog. Her heels tap subtly on the sidewalk – almost to the rhythm of the second hand on the clock. Two steps behind trots her faithful dachshund. They have practised this routine for many years. When the woman stops to talk to me, the dog halts, too. With its head hanging down towards the ground, it waits for the conversation to finish.
On a normal day, in a normal week, when cars and passers-by are plentiful, nobody would notice me. Now, since traffic has died away and commuters are no longer hurrying to the bus stop, I immediately catch people’s attention. Everyone looks up and spots me. Strangers say hi. Unfamiliar neighbours ask whether I am new to the area – Yes, I moved in this winter. I had wanted to make an introductory round of all the houses to meet my neighbours. But then the COVID-19 lockdown began and we all became semi-prisoner in our homes (and on our balconies).
On a normal day, in a normal week, I don’t spend much time on the balcony. Now, I have moved my desk here, among the plant pots full of radishes and courgettes. They keep me company while close human contact and meetings with friends is difficult or impossible.
Other balconies nearby are also occupied. Some neighbours have turned this space into an outdoor home office. Others have shorter working hours at the moment, or forced holidays because their company has closed down during the lockdown. They have made their balconies into external living rooms, where they read the newspaper, drink coffee, sit tapping on their phone. We are all perched like birds on a stick in front of the birdhouse. I guess this is called self-isolation.
When I’m on the balcony, I see everyone and everyone can see me. People passing on the street are in no rush. They are more than ready to pause for a little chat. Thoughts don’t hurry much either these days, but memories sometimes do. When our mental horizon clears of the fog of to-do lists and things stuck in the pipeline, fresh air from the past comes bringing pictures we thought we’d forgotten.
A stately looking edifice built sometime in the 1960s. Solid grey walls, regular rows of windows. On the first floor, a window is open. A woman, her elbows resting on the windowsill, looks out onto the street. She is fairly young, perhaps in her thirties. Her hair isn’t particularly well kempt and she wears a thick bathrobe. She doesn’t see me. Her eyes are fixed on a man standing on the pavement. He is of similar age, but – compared to her – dressed quite formally, as he has prepared carefully for this appointment. Sometimes he holds a bag, a package or a bunch of flowers.
The couple stays in this pose for several long minutes. They exchange news and send each other smiles. Sometimes there is only one such pair. On other days, women peek out of more than one window, comfortably nestled at the sill. They are princesses of the maternity wards, captives of their hospital rooms.
In those days (this was the 1980s), young fathers were not allowed into maternity hospitals. Childbirth was not considered a manly business. But the men could talk to their wives through the window and bring presents, which they hoped to pass on via the healthcare personnel. Romeo and Juliet plus a baby. Divided by hospital walls.
I would observe this image as I strolled home from school, carrying books and a sports bag. I think I was seven. I reckon I saw it many times. Perhaps I didn’t fully comprehend back then.
Whenever I manage to escape from my home-balcony-office and bike through Switzerland during the lockdown, I witness this scene re-enacted in many contexts. People communicate across floors and levels, between inside and outside. One person stands in the street, the other at the window or on a balcony. One wears a coat, the other slippers. These exchanges often bear the features of casual chitchat. They seem fleeting, as the person downstairs is most probably going to the shops or carrying empty bottles to a recycling point. But these conversations can really last! Everyone has a common topic of interest: the virus is the thing to talk about even for those who normally do not speak with each other a lot. People also have the time now – more than they can handle in fact. The usual daily haste has given way to an odd sense of general relaxation or a constant slight boredom.
I don’t live in a royal palace, but in an old wooden house, Chalet Selina. When I peer – through the radish leaves – at the house opposite mine, I can see a cat. Nestled up against the windowsill, it sits there all the time, day and night. It is a Japanese cat with a battery in its little belly. It brings good luck and fortune. This “lucky cat” waves its metal paw at me, and to the whole street stretching in front of its painted eyes. One day life will go back to its usual state, similar to that before the pandemic. Cars will start driving again and commuters will be dashing to work. Only the cat will carry on silently waving a paw.
Emilia Roza Sułek
Considering a bench that divides
On the shores of Lake Lucerne, a new mountain rose out of the ground. It grew fast, appearing almost overnight, and was not made of stone and earth. This was a mountain of metal and wood – a vast heap of benches that had once been anchored to the lakeside.
Until recently, these benches decorated the lakeside promenade, one of the main attractions in the city. Placed at regular intervals, they pinned the sidewalk to the ground and set the rhythm of social life. They invited people to sit down and take a break, either from sightseeing or from their daily routine. With an ice cream or a book, with a supermarket lunchbox or without any accessory at all, one could lean back, take in the famous crystal-clear air and the soothing view of blue water and equally blue sky.
A bench. Average length 150–180 cm. Long enough for a couple in love to embrace tenderly and still have room for a bottle of wine, two glasses and snacks. Oh, I used to sit like that! But it is also long enough for two strangers to sit side by side without disturbing each other. Courtesy requires asking whether the free place is really ‘free’. A bench is a public thing, but as soon as someone sits down it becomes a partly private space.
The country is in lockdown, but people are not completely locked inside their homes. Going out – for shopping, exercise or a walk – is allowed, as long as you are alone or only in a small group. A COVID-19 version of the well-known saying might be ‘Four is company, five is a crowd’: anything above five is forbidden. Police patrol the streets to make sure that people do not form larger gatherings. But what to do with a gathering made up of solo walkers?
Tired of sitting in their home offices, people escape to the lake. They wish to look at something other than paint on a wall. They want to walk. But a human is like a pigeon, they must stop and rest. Following this train of thought, the city council ordered the benches to be dismantled, hoping that this would discourage people from gathering. On the first day, when deconstruction works started, the promenade was still full. ‘They may need to roll up the sidewalk to stop me from coming’, a stylish expat told me as she watched her dog urinate against one of the last benches standing. Neither the bench nor the dog knew that it was to be their last encounter. Seeing people’s perseverance in coming to the lake, even though there was now nothing to sit on, the authorities went one big step further: they closed off the whole lakeside with a high metal fence.
The bench. A species nearly extinct. Some specimens still hide in the remoter streets and parks. I can see one of these survivors from my window. I observe the changing shifts of its users. Teenagers tapping on their smartphones, each at her own end of the bench, as if they have just had a fight. A pair of men drinking their third beer, empty bottles filling the space between them. Two pensioners enjoying the afternoon sun. ‘Pardon?’ They lean towards each other to hear what the other one is saying. Their hearing aid was left at home and the bench is a bit too long to communicate without it.
These people all have something in common: the safe distance between them. The length of the bench turns out to be useful now when social distancing is recommended as a way to help prevent spreading the virus. When the bench is empty I notice a note glued in the middle: ‘Thank you for keeping a safe distance also on a bench.’ A bench sets the minimum and maximum distance at which you can legally sit together. Together, but separate. Separate, but together. You move one step closer and you are too close. You move one step away and you fall to the ground.
Verena La Mela
Bavaria’s abandoned benches
A thick layer of yellow pollen coats the bench. On an ordinary day in May pollen would not have a chance to settle like this. The Bavarian Forest is very popular with hikers. They come from all over the world to enjoy walking among the rolling hills covered with fir trees. So, pollen would not normally last long on a bench because weary hikers would sit there first.
But this May there are no hikers. The lockdown forbids their presence. Yet there is no need to tear up the benches here because the locals are busy working on their agricultural land or on their own properties and they hardly rest, even during the curfew.
The lockdown has freed the benches from backpackers and handed them over to nature, which is now recapturing its once besieged territory. Pollen rains down on the benches, drenching them in an entirely different colour; mushrooms form symbioses with the planks, mosses and lichens spread over the decaying wood, and the branches of trees shield the retreating benches from our bewildered glances.
Why are Bavaria’s benches disintegrating? Is it a consequence of COVID-19? Or were they running to seed even before all this? … Because people nowadays have less time to go hiking, to sit on a bench, to have a rest and to simply observe.
The bench as viral infrastructure
In Britain benches are often memorials to the dead. A small brass plaque carries the name of the deceased, the years of their birth and death, and, perhaps, a short inscription. Sometimes this will refer to the scenery, which now lies behind you, as you lean in to read. Turning around, you take in your surroundings briefly, from the perspective of the dead, someone well thought of in the community: she loved this lake at dusk. Benches, in other words, are for quiet and respectable contemplation, for looking at landscape and taking solace in it, as we have learned over centuries to do. Bench-sitting is largely a solitary act, though one which can, in the case of memorial benches, be tempered by a flickering kind of intersubjectivity, as one is encouraged to inhabit the precious point of view of someone no longer here.
For those who have mercifully managed to avoid the direct effects of the virus on themselves or their loved ones, the COVID-19 pandemic has nevertheless involved a profound rearrangement of the everyday. Confinement within one’s house is the most obvious aspect of this, but even when we venture out for the one daily exercise session or shopping trip which is permitted to us in the UK, we find our surroundings transformed. There are fewer people on the streets, most shops are closed, and pubs are boarded up. While most parks remain open, we are told that this is a privilege that we must not abuse. Wardens patrol, urging anyone who sits down on the grass to get up and keep moving. Flows are hygienic; to pause is to risk riotous proliferation, like the algal bloom which spreads across the surface of a motionless river.
Benches in parks are now covered in what looks like crime scene tape. But rather than safeguarding evidence of a crime already committed, this tape is designed to stop potential wrongdoing. Benches have become viral infrastructure. The tape that signals this is all the more shocking given the respectability of the bench under normal circumstances. Rather than affording repose and reflection, they are now platforms for the dangerous accretion of bodies. As viral infrastructure, benches no longer invite us to share an aestheticized enjoyment of the scenery with the dead; instead they engage us as clumsy mounds of flesh, unwitting hosts of a virus which thrives on physical proximity.
A little further out of the city, by a canal towpath, a rubbish bin next to a bench is overflowing with beer cans, testament to the current strains on council services, but also to the new role of the bench as infrastructure of illicit conviviality. The bench is a COVID speakeasy, at a time when alcohol flows freely but there is nowhere to drink it in public. Three men hover by the bench, sipping from cans while monitoring their fishing rods, casting occasional glances downstream, from where the police would come.
This pandemic has forced upon us novel ways of engaging with our everyday surroundings. In addition to becoming newly aware of benches and the affordances they provide for risky sociality, we have become more attentive to the material qualities of the things we touch. We avoid door handles and the keypads of card machines, and we read up on how long different surfaces remain contaminated with the virus. Some scholars characterise infrastructure as the unnoticed background to social life which only becomes visible when it fails: when cables snap, pipes leak, and transmission stops. But we notice viral infrastructures because, as ‘matter that enable the movement of other matter’, to use Brian Larkin’s definition of infrastructures, they are too successful. To see viral infrastructure is to see the unwanted work of transmission which might now be performed by benches, door handles, card machines, ping pong tables, shops, pubs, restaurants, public transport systems… Viral infrastructures proliferate at multiple scales. The question now is, once we have seen viral infrastructures, how long will it take us to unsee them?
It’s time for the tractor!
Verena La Mela
If you close your eyes for a few seconds and only focus on the sounds around you, what do you hear? Sitting on the balcony of a house in a Bavarian village, I can hear neighbours talking, kids laughing, birds chirping, the mouse clicks of a computer, the scraping of a shovel, mooing cows and the clattering of horseshoes. Amidst this cacophony, I also hear the pervasive noise of an engine – that of a tractor.
A connecting road between two major towns cuts right through the village. This is a busy road; on a normal day trucks, cars, motorcycles and buses pass by regularly. Due to the Coronavirus curfew, however, traffic in the village has almost come to a halt.
Spotlight on: This is the moment for the tractor! A walrus-moustached man in dark blue overalls sits proudly on his tractor. It’s a John Deere, not one of the very mighty ones but nevertheless a remarkable specimen, drenched in the typical green and yellow colours and with large tyres. Tractors are glamorous vehicles, yet they rarely attract much attention except among other farmers. Most farmers in the village have more than one tractor, property that is passed on to children and grandchildren. Intimate relationships exist between farmers and their tractors, and giving away a tractor might cause major arguments within families.
A tractor is viewed as a means to an end (Arbeitsmittel) by outsiders. A man in his late thirties who happens to be my boyfriend left the city and escaped to his mother’s village during the lockdown. He sits next to me on the balcony and remarks: “You only drive a tractor if you have to, it’s not a mode of transport (kein Fortbewegungsmittel).” Tractors are associated with slowness, dirt and the unfashionable job of farming. However, they belong to a group of people who, during the pandemic, are categorized as of “systemic importance”. This means that tractors are still allowed to be operated, whereas other kinds of vehicle should not be without good reason. So, this moment of the tractor turns it into an end in itself. The distinctive sound has the full attention of villagers and passers-by, no interference from other traffic noise. I pay my tribute in the form of envious glances at the moustached driver. Meanwhile, our car is parked in the courtyard for an undetermined time.
Emilia Roza Sułek
I well remember my first ever ride on a tractor. It felt – although I only realized this later – like sitting on a camel’s back. We were elevated high above the road, almost floating. The deep roar of its engine gave the tractor an air of seriousness. It felt like a very non-nonsense vehicle. Perhaps only a step down from a combine, which was even more majestic if not slightly scary, as it really took up the whole width of the road.
This must have been in the 1980s, on a dusty road in my father’s ancestral village. There were fields of buckwheat to the left, hops climbing on high poles to the right. Of course, this picture is a collage of little fragments that did not belong together. But in my head, it is a sunny day, a dry summer. Intense buzzing of flies. I’m eating strawberries still covered in sand and crispy salad with homemade sour cream. The tractor sits in this same memory-drawer. In the tractor’s cabin, there was an unexpected amount of space. Behind the tiny seat – which to my eyes always looked as if it was from a toy – two children (me and my cousin) and a dog could easily fit. Our dog, Cygan, enjoyed riding in the tractor. Through some hidden sense the dog always knew when people were about to go to the fields. In case they didn’t want to take it along, the dog bunkered itself inside the cabin, well before my uncle reached for the keys. When the tractor passed the last houses of the village, the dog emerged from its hideout. Everyone knew this trick and feigned surprise – in a special form of human–animal politeness – to make the dog happy. They understood that Cygan liked to look at things not from a canine perspective, but from a human or… a tractor’s point of view. Sitting in the rear windscreen, the dog looked down upon following drivers who had to adjust their speed to the slow-moving vehicle.
These pictures, which I had basically forgotten, appear in front of my eyes rather unexpectedly when I ride a bike in the Swiss countryside. I ride on the street because the bike track is crowded. Actually, you should not leave the house at all at the moment – to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But nonetheless the cycle paths are full of families on bikes, inline skates and whatnot. So, I choose the street. Exhaust fumes may not be the healthiest, but they are definitely virus free.
How often my path intersects with that of a tractor! And how I enjoy this sight: A tractor approaches the main road, as if shyly at first, from a field or a dirt track. It waits, as if hesitating slightly. Then with a handsome roar of the engine, it turns into the main road. Am I right that tractors are more visible these days? Proportionally, yes, as other vehicles are fewer: people are stuck in their lockdown home-offices, driving less, and public transport has been reduced.
When I pass a tractor, I always glance up. The drivers have that stoic look of someone who cannot go any faster than the vehicle’s engine will allow. But in truth they wouldn’t even want to. White Porsches and green Jaguar Cabrios should be ashamed of their haste. To overtake is so lacking in style. The tractor is a symbol of the slow-down part and parcel with the COVID-19 era.
I am even happier to ride behind a tractor and observe whoever is sitting in the back. Schools are closed because of COVID-19 and the children accompany their fathers to the fields, just like me and my cousin on that summer’s day in my memories. I look up to see the kids’ faces and I travel back in time.
The dog is gone now. My uncle as well. The tractor went for scrap. But strawberries still grow behind the barn. And the buckwheat fields are still there too.