A Domestic Picture of the Quarantine

Pictures belong to audience members of HomeFest 2020
May 20, 2021

One year after the state of emergency, the metaphor pictures sent by the audience of HomeFest 2020 tell an »at home« story of their own.

The front door viewer.
A woman with two children.
A »Pilot« pen.
An empty page in an agenda and a closed diary.
Baby bottles and children in front of a screen.
A hammock hanging on the balcony.
The plastered splint for the left leg.
A laptop opened to Facebook and a virtual romantic date.
Sanytol, soap, Domestos, and an air purifier.
A guitar, a drum, and a tennis ball.
A pillow, a phone, and a compass.
Windows, many windows ajar.
Plants and flower pots with seedlings.
Handmade wool objects.
Craft beer, bottles of wine and vodka, empty coffee cups.
Chinese food, pizza boxes.
Food and jars in a refrigerator.
Full ashtrays.
COVID lockdown statements.
A puzzle.

In May 2020, before the end of the quarantine period, we had the sixth edition of HomeFest, the Bucharest festival of home theater, performance, and related arts. The shows were given online, live performances in artists’ homes, attended by audiences from all over the country and abroad. Entrance tickets were symbol-pictures of the one object in their home, that signified the quarantine. The 70 images that we received reveal how people lived through this period of restraints – a unique time in the modern history of humanity – and how they felt about it.

Before HomeFest, there was lorgean theatre – actually, Jean-Lorin Sterian’s studio by Cișmigiu Gardens had actually been transformed into a theater and a performance stage in 2008. The audience would bring personal objects instead of tickets, each related to the theme of the show: objects that signified loneliness, or gift objects such as those you would bring to your cousin on your visit, unread books never to be read, symbolic objects you would place on a tray for your child to choose from on his first birthday or objects that suggested our technological connection. The stories embedded in these objects were integrated in the show, the audience would become active actors in performances, and those meaningful objects would cast bridges in conversations among the host, the artists, and the audience. Aside from the performance in domestic intimacy, the ticket objects were triggers for physical closeness, for connection, therapy, and socializing. The audience would bring pieces of their homes, which they were sharing with the others.

lorgean theatre has been turned into the HomeFest festival in 2014, an extended event where hosts from all neighborhoods of Bucharest, Romanian and international artists, and the audience of course, are brought together in houses and apartments. Given the large number of shows and the large audience, we decided that the entrance ticket should be one book. The festival was meant to take place exclusively in the privacy of the domestic space, but the pandemic edition was held online – which was unusual – and the audience sent photos of their home environment, or of domestic objects, which speak about life during the quarantine days of March–May 2020.

I think it was the second day of the festival when I set out to break the ice in the post-show discussions and talk about the object that most faithfully represented the days of quarantine and physical isolation. I have not taken pictures of Volume 1 of the La Medeleni trilogy. I just picked it up from the table and placed it in front of the phone camera. Eva and I were struggling with that tedious volume listed in the third-grade curriculum. The cumbersome language in Ionel Teodoreanu’s novel – rich with tropes, archaisms, and vernacular speech, which we often had to look up in the dictionary so that we can explain them to the child – made reading feel like marching in mud. Each page lasted for ages and my translation ability was growing weak. Though summaries were posted on our parents’ group online, we did not quit. By the end of the quarantine period we had managed to read the entire novel.

Parenting is a difficult process, the more so in such an extraordinary temporal flow as the quarantine days. The anxiety induced by the possibility for loved ones to fall ill, cutting off contact with the outside world, the questions left unanswered to your child, all of that will have you reconsider your family’s microuniverse. Your goal will be to build a home that is as safe and contained as possible, an emotional support to balance the temporary dysfunction of your relation to the immediate social circle with your family and friends. I would have expected Eve’s birthday to be the hardest for her. But it wasn’t – her touchstone was Easter, a time when the whole family would come together at my parents’ home. The restriction on leaving Bucharest during that holiday triggered surprisingly intense emotional moments which the virtual media could not appease.

To the children, the influx of activities carried out exclusively online generated confusion and uncertainty. The space that they had initially perceived as a playground to be used for socializing suddenly turned into a place where effort and learning for school had become the main activities. The children’s virtual space had been invaded, parents had to compensate for playtime and relaxation, and they had to come up with new ideas for exploring their domestic universe. At home, the three of us danced, cooked, played board games, watched TV serials, did some gym exercises on the mattress and, in between COVID lockdown statements, we learned to ride the bike.

It is not surprising that part of the symbol-pictures are takes of games and creation activities, new habits with the children, while other pictures are takes of crowded and suffocating spaces, doll houses, baby bottles, recurrent activities, and eating routines. All such instances highlight our need for safety and trust, and they are meant to restore the rhythm of the day. The pictures are representations of psychological mechanisms of adaptation to an unprecedented global situation and to an external reality perceived as dangerous and insecure:

»Our family got used to living only within the walls of our own house. We cook, we work, we play, all of us together. Most often, these activities overlap, so our attention has become more and more fragmented. When we left the house after the first quarantine, the little ones would walk in the middle of the street shouting ›Happy Easter!‹ to everybody, although Easter had long been over. It’s as if we’re moving in a continuous time bubble, where we don’t make plans for too distant a future, we don’t rejoice too much, we don’t meet our friends too often. We half-live over low heat

Deprived of social contacts, fuelled by anxiety and fears of the possibility to be infected with SARS-Cov2, people have developed survival mechanisms through new individual and group domestic habits. Such mechanisms become apparent when the quarantine objects are looked at closely and interpreted as symbols. Adapting to the new pandemic context, and particularly the impossibility of leaving homes, have transformed the domestic universe into a total social fact, an independent object to be studied, which reveals itself per se, to which the individual lends meaning and significance, whatever the researcher’s stand. According to the French ethnologist Marcel Mauss, total social facts are defined by their potential to render – either in turns or simultaneously – all areas of social life. As our social life was placed within brackets during the quarantine, the domestic space became the existential epicenter where we did everything – from family or individual activities, work and creation, to organizing, planting, and building the other reality where we can stay together, the virtual reality.

To those whom the quarantine isolated into solitude, the symbol-objects convey contradictory mindsets – hope and self-reinvention, as well as anxiety and depression, on the border between survival and distress. Whether they put their emotions in music or writing, or they took refuge in addictions that once used to work as a bonding agent, people alternated moments of solitude with online interactions, discussing the feature topics of the moment: »2020 was the year when disinfectants became a conversation topic among friends. I’ve found Sanytol. I’ve got one for you too. We’re saved! You’re welcome!«

During the quarantine period, some of us have integrated the loneliness and the intense emotional state into the global picture of the pandemic. But most of us have experienced a more intense feeling of abandonment. In the article »Social isolation in Covid-19: The impact of loneliness« psychiatrists Mayank Rai and Debanjan Banerjee speak about the mechanisms that individuals can use to reduce the impact of loneliness: the emotional readiness to transform your loneliness into solitude in times of crisis, the regular communication with your family or with the available psychological Helplines, and joining microcommunities.

As snapshots of the individuals’ memories, the metaphor photos received during HomeFest 2020 feed the collective memory with flashes of the rituals that have become mechanisms of resilience during the unique social situation we all have experienced. Behind the safely shut doors, the domestic space gained new values: the balcony, the terrace, have become indispensable, and the window was our only gate to the outside. Gardens, plants, and seedlings of all kinds have become personal projects aimed at existential interests; they were new hobbies meant to disconnect individuals from the all too present online media, to reconnect them to themselves and to time, meant to reinstate the relation with other life forms.

»The seeds that slowly sprouted a tiny bud – seemingly motionless, yet growing day by day – helped to preserve the feeling that time did exist, that life’s rhythms were still there. This spring, we started to dig in the backyard where, instead of the intended lawn, we are going to plant a garden with beans, peppers, radishes, kale, arugula and, maybe, some flowers

The need to assign rhythm to formless time and to the cadence to life issued domestic habits in parts of the house that had not yet been explored changing their de facto use.

People played with their space, thus obtaining new frameworks for the interaction between the individual and the object, new frameworks which they shared with others across digital media, social networks, and in online events.

Although the universe of social interaction was restricted to your own house, the new common practices spread worldwide via virtual media.

»We’ve all turned into Zoom faces« is not just a cool figure of speech of the writer Jean-Lorin Sterian. It is a faithful rendition of the dependency from these objects that have preserved their social relevance long after the state of emergency ended.

Virtual reality has ensured our dose of social life and it helped reduce the feeling of abandonment, through either the social networks where we shared emotions, opinions, pictures, or the internet platforms at the office.

The new, exclusively virtual paradigm has generated real changes within the inhabited space, each room was assigned a new purpose and a new significance.

I had been working from home for several years when the quarantine started, which coincided with the onset of a couple of new independent projects. So, most of my days were exhausting. Work moved exclusively online, I had many more phone calls and I carried out my daily tasks between the rest of my domestic routines. The kitchen turned into a space for experiment, my bedroom turned into a living room, and the living room turned into my office. The objects in front of which we used to spend most of our time – laptops, TV sets, and phones – turned into cult objects. They were the new interface with a reality that was too hard to understand and to qualify; they were social anchors that we would lower so as not to lose contact with the others.

»During the pandemic, I moved the office to my home, with my friend. We turned one room into office, living room, and bedroom. It had been a bedroom – no sofa, just the bed. We lived in that bed watching numbers of movies, sleeping, reading, sometimes eating, doing anything in there. The rest of the room was occupied by our two desks and a narrow passage.«

»The laptop = my (social, creative, professional) life moved into the laptop during the pandemic.«

As an activity specific to the domestic space, cooking has become our main activity for two months. Cooking for the family or cooking by yourself, this was both an area where you explored your creativity, and a pretext for socializing.

Whether we talk about recipes exchanged by parents and children on the phone and in video calls, tips on how to prepare the ritual Easter dinner, or about comfort food, we spent most of our time in front of the cooker.

»The office moved into the kitchen and, quite often, we had calls while a pot of stuffed peppers or a pan of pulled pork were cooking in the oven. The laptop-stove-laptop routine was quite reassuring. For a while.«

The new cooking skills acquired during such unpredictable times helped to restore individual routines and to temper the time dilation. In the community, posting pictures on virtual media, the reactions and comments received, fueled the feeling that we belonged to a social group that shared similar practices and interests: for instance, the already famous banana bread recipe, a cake that became viral on the social media during the quarantine. The emotional roller-coaster and the stress during the quarantine turned a simple act such as baking dessert into a mechanism of resilience, which facilitated communication among people. Cooking had the therapeutic function of reducing stress and insecurity. In the domestic space, the kitchen was one of the few rooms whose function did not change; but the time dedicated to the preparation of food increased significantly and it turned into ritual time.

For the first time in my life, I cooked the laborious salade de boeuf, the star dish of all holiday dinners in Romanian gastronomy. I experimented specific Oriental cuisine and I put an infinite number of frozen pizzas in the oven. Ingredients, food and recipes were daily topics of our chats. On Easter, we did have the traditional dish but we also experimented: red eggs and arugula salad, lamb kebab, and pork steak à la Jamie Oliver. I talked to all my relatives, but the video calls with my parents, with whom we shared Easter online, were the most intense and emotional.

Although the state of emergency felt different, common domestic practices shared online brought us together and helped us to more easily overcome the fears and the anxieties triggered by the possibility to get the virus, and by the absence of social contact.

The metaphor pictures received from the HomeFest 2020 audience illustrate how we lived both as individuals and in a group, how we worked, how we ate and drank, how we celebrated and how we kept in touch with our loved ones, all along the two months when we were locked inside the restrictive space of the at home, a space that had become a total universe. New meanings and connotations were added to each domestic setting, and new rituals took shape so as to grant a touch of predictability to life, during unpredictable times. The symbol objects might belong to any of us, and their ensemble is an eloquent picture of our memory of the quarantine from March to May 2020, as it was integrated by each of us.

Along with the photography exhibition »one shot_Isolation« – that was contextualized by the writer Jean-Lorin Sterian, founder of lorgean theatre/HomeFest, and curated by Luoana Breha-Vizireanu –, this article symbolically marks one year since the end of the quarantine and of the HomeFest 2020 festival.

Performance Ends, Objects Endure

On December 18, 2008, at 7:40 pm, in front of a block of flats near the Cişmigiu Gardens, a group of people begins to gather. As the group grows, it seems that they had came there for the same reason although most of them do not know one another. At 7:50 pm, a person shows up at the entrance, begins to stamp everyone’s hand, gives them a receipt in exchange for the objects people had brought along, then shows them the way to the place where they had been invited. At the end of the performance, the host opens the bag of objects, takes them out one by one, commenting on each of them asking their owners to tell their stories. This is somewhat unexpected for the audience, but few of those present are too shy to speak. The theme chosen for the objects (loneliness) turns this part of the show into a kind of public therapy.

The text above is the pattern of a performance event in lorgean theatre, where objects hold a significant place. At the very first performance, objects became an essential part of the show, and they were used as ticket substitutes for all subsequent performances. Marcel Mauss’s essay on the importance of mutual gifts was the most important input to the definition of the format. I did not want the audience to pay money but, instead, to offer something in exchange, something equally as personal as the performance they were going to witness – and, to me, the performance was a gift from the artist (and from the host). The objects were so important in lorgean theatre that, once, I was tempted to call the events in Șipotul Fântânilor the theatre of objects. In fact, in spite of its name, lorgean theatre was a space dedicated not to drama but to performance activities. If I were to use the term theatre, it would rather mean emotional and social operation.

Vintilă Mihăilescu used to say that you can only imagine Sisyphus next to the boulder, the boulder makes Sisyphus. Well, that which made lorgean theatre, was not only the fact that it happened in an apartment, but also the fact that the audience were bringing objects, generators of stories and integration. It would be lovely if guests of a possibly nonartistic event were asked to bring an object instead of money, as for barter, and people said »ah, that is so lorgeanish

In time, the objects filled my house, and they became part of the interior setting. The same happened to their stories. The objects brought for Home Alone represented loneliness; those brought for Gărgaland were fit to be placed on a tray for the child to choose from on his first birthday celebration; those brought for Ecaterina Hîţu were perfect gifts for your cousin when you pay her a visit; the objects brought for Authors would like you to come to their show suggested technological connection: cables, items to plug in, plugs; for The Bin Man they brought an unread book that you are never to read; for Lulu’s Room they brought glass recipients that I filled with water in the hallway, for the guests had to carry up to the ninth floor, most carefully so as not to spill them. When lorgean theatre metamorphosed into HomeFest, the objects were books because it would have been difficult to ask the audience to bring, every time, another object related to the theme of the show.

Us, Home Alone was the first exhibition I set after the last performance of Home Alone (the seventh), with approximately seventy objects brought by the audience. The curator was Mircea Nicolae, who had been in the audience, then a performer at lorgean theatre. I felt relieved when the objects left the house, as if I had laid down a suitcase that I had been carrying for a long time. I wasn’t there on the varnishing day. I hid in my studio, listening on the phone to a friend of mine who was describing what was happening. The objects were displayed in the showcase of the Cultural Institute of Venice and they can been seen here https://schloss-post. com/objects-of-solitude/.

In the presentation (statement) of the exhibition Us, Home Alone, Mircea Nicolae wrote »The play starts when somebody calls you.« The invites were usually sent three to four days before the show. Once they knew the theme of the play, the guests – still potential participants – would do their homework, even though they were unaware of the fact that the very object they were choosing would give them the opportunity to become active / activated audience. There were also people who brought along several objects, picked up one or another, on a hunch, or according to the actual circumstances. They would leave the state of passive spectator, to take on a public experience along with the rest of participants – how had been only strangers before – due to that wonder-object, the enabler between the artist, the host, and the audience.

The second exhibition was the result of our collaboration with the British Council. They sponsored one play reading and one radio play by an English playwright, where the lead character was Romanian. The audience brought objects related to Great Britain; the pictures of those objects, taken by Irina Stelea, were put on display at the Anthony Frost English library.

The third exhibition is part of a larger project, lorgennale, the international version of HomeFest, and it is yet to be done. The audience of artistic events in other European cities bring objects which mean at home to them. When lorgennale will have been held in at least five cities (our target is ten), the exhibition will allow a relevant comparison among the representations through objects of the at home feeling in different groups.

The fourth exhibition, dedicated to the digital ticket for lorgean theatre/HomeFest, is now open. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai said that »transactions that surround things are invested with the properties of social relations.« I chose such means to involve the audience in a festival defined by proximity, because they are the expression of the manner in which people related to one another during March–May 2020. Mauss assumed that objects had spirit, a hand was there to endow gifts with spirit. Be they even made of pixels, the objects in the exhibition have spirit. To offer something to someone, even by email, is to offer a piece of yourself.

Jean-Lorin Sterian


Raluca Moșescu-Bumbac is an editor and communication coordinator for the platform ISCOADA. She completed her masters’ studies in anthropology in 2029, at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, SNSPA, in Bucharest. Her graduate thesis dealt with the new spirituality, in the electronic music festival. She works with several non-governmental organizations, in research and community organisation projects and, as of 2020, she has been the project manager of HomeFest, the Bucharest festival of apartment theatre, performance, and related arts.