Sitting In a Room Watching People Sitting In Other Rooms
What Netflix's "The Circle" and "Love is Blind" have in common with a 1969 work by an experimental composer.
The "pods" in Love is Blind. Image courtesy of Netflix
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.” –Alvin Lucier, “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1969)
I, too, am sitting in a room, typing this. You are probably sitting in some room reading this. Is this a show? Has interaction transcended physicality? How akin is this exchange to the all too-common conversation where two friends are talking and one abruptly says “we should have a podcast?” Does this, sitting in opposing rooms and what unfurls therein, a TV show make?
It seems Netflix has the answer this question. This year, the streaming giant released The Circle and Love Is Blind, two reality shows efforts you’ve likely already binged or at least heard about. The Circle, a game show, puts contestants in Airbnb-core apartments and has them participate in social-media-inspired games to determine who can be the last influencer standing, the winner of $100,000 and our hearts. Love Is Blind does have its participants leave their respective rooms, but it begins—obviously, with Nick Lachey—with men and women in “pods” where they can communicate but they can’t see one another until the man proposes and the woman says yes. The couples then move in together (into another room), and then after a month have a wedding (in another room, still).
Alvin Lucier’s piece is a profound statement about generation loss—his reverberation creates a reminder. The sound of Lucier’s voice bounces back onto itself into oblivion, into an ambient, cacophonous void, becoming a sonic sign of a physical space. The Guardian described Lucier’s piece as “music about listening,” and it’s true. Special, lasting art invokes a thought or a feeling anyone can circle around in their head, but not one that they can necessarily articulate, and as Lucier’s annunciation dissolves over 45 minutes he does “demonstrate a physical fact” of a kind of oneness between objects and the space they occupy, whether he intends to or not.
The Circle, then, should be described as television about watching and what it means to be watched online. The “Big Brother” elements of reality television have always been just below the paper-thin facade of the format and The Circle does its best to strip away many of the “real” elements of reality TV. These people aren’t going to get in dangerous fights. They’re not going to pushed to any physical limits. They’re not even going to see each other.
Love Is Blind goes even further in some respects, letting an audience in on a couple’s presumably most vulnerable, intimate, and blossoming moments. As opposed to The Bachelor’s beyond-parody connections, the relationships on Love Is Blind are meant to feel more pure, or more actual given that they’re made without the feeling of physical attraction (though, as everyone else has noted, They Are All Hot). The rest of the show plays out like one might expect a reality dating show to play out, and of course it gets recapped in the reunion episode by the cast in a room without an audience where they talk about what happened in their original rooms without a view. A different kind of Russian doll, provided by Netflix.
It can be easy to forget that watching a show or a movie on Netflix is not just picking an item off of a menu. It’s interacting with the Internet. It’s offering more data about yourself from your room to the faceless format on the other side of the screen. When an interaction like that is returned, when it goes both ways it becomes social media.
In some ways, The Circle and Love Is Blind aren’t representation as much as they are adaptation. The task of creating a show like The Circle isn’t just answering the question of ”What will attract viewers on social media?” but asking, ”What does social media look like in physical form?” The result is innovative, maybe, but it’s far from dynamic. The romantic hopefuls on Love Is Blind, too, can barely stop themselves from talking about how vacant and upsetting modern dating is. And yet, the conversations these relationships build their base on still sound straight out of Tinder or Hinge.
In Lucier’s piece, annunciation evaporates. Vowels, consonants, words are morphed into uncomplicated airflow, and in the process Lucier exposes an object’s ethereal relationship to its space. He asks these questions from a room and is able to answer them through an abundance of technology.
Recently, the phrase ”social distancing" has become the new standard for navigating real life. We distance ourselves physically, but staying social, staying tuned-in requires sitting in rooms and looking at screens. The shows on Netflix have always sought to reflect the interests of their subscribers, but maybe, The Circle and Love Is Blind brought us to our alternative reality, before we even knew it was real. How’s that for algorithm learning?