Reflecting on the “Zoom Gaze”

Like most people I know, I’ve spent a lot more time on Zoom (and a couple of other similar web conferencing systems) this year than I expected. I’m writing this post between zoom calls. I’ve also spent a bit more time supporting people in their use of zoom – both professionally and personally than I expected. In fact at the beginning of 2020 I really didn’t have any expectations of zoom at all! But from what experience I did have I knew that the ‘viewing’ experience of being in a zoom meting was very different to the “viewing” experience of a face to face meeting. Non verbal communication cues change, you spend a lot more time looking at yourself and others. Your gaze changes, it’s tiring.

Like a lot of people I know, this week I read The Zoom Gaze by Autumm Caines. If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to. It’s a really powerful piece about how technology mediates control and power of virtual spaces which impacts on behaviour, and expectations. It asks us to question just what the “zoom gaze” is.

As Zoom shifts the nature of the relationship between viewing and being viewed, it also shifts our awareness of it: It makes us more conscious of how visibility is mediated by technologies in general. That is, it calls our attention to what theorists describe as “the gaze,” which analyzes the power relations in looking and being seen and how these are consolidated in a particular way of seeing that may come to seem natural. Right now, our new conditions call attention to the different power dynamics that come into play as face-to-face interactions shift to online video spaces — what we might call the Zoom gaze (though, of course, it would apply to video telephony in general). It is critical to understand the Zoom gaze now, before it becomes so familiar that it seems immutable — just the way things are.”

Over the past 3 weeks as my local area has been in stricter lockdown measures, my life drawing class has moved to a zoom version. I was quite curious to see how/if this would actually work. I like life drawing with a real model, in a physical space. I’m one of those people who can’t really understand why some of the artists on shows like Portrait Artist of the Year, work from a photograph and at times don’t even seem to look at the sitter.

Conversely, I do work from photographs quite a lot in my landscape work. My only defence, if I need one, is that they are generally reminders of places I have been, and I often have sketches too. The weather here in Scotland can be challenging for “plein air” painting. My camera phone photo roll is a kind of digital sketch book for me now. I have incorporated that aspect of technology into my practice, I feel I am in control of that view and it’s static, one way if you like. But back to the life drawing and zoom


My tutor Ewen, worked really hard at making the classes work and was really open to trying new things and upfront about his lack of experience of how “this would all work”. Week 1, we had 4 different camera views to choose from ( we all of course had to have the same view), week 3 it’s down to one. Automatically I had my mic on mute (hello behaviourism), the others in my group don’t use zoom as much as me so didn’t. There’s not a lot of talking when you are life drawing so it’s been fine to have mics on, and there were only about 6 of use each week. We did of course have a bit of “external conversations” and “why can’t I see the model on my screen” in week one but that quickly got sorted.

The experience has really made me hyper aware of the mediation of technology on my “drawing gaze”. My gaze was restricted by having to viewing the model through my screen (a 14″ MacBookAir). The camera was fixed, the model was clothed, the lighting again mediated through technology. I was sitting at my desk not standing behind an easel, I was using smaller pieces of paper. I could almost feel a cognitive crisis seeping throughout my body.

I found the drawing hard, I had to work my way through all these changes. It was frustrating, there was an emerging foggy idea of what/how to draw in this new technology mediated way, but what my hands were actually doing wasn’t quite matching up to what I wanted – even though I didn’t really know what it was that I actually wanted to do. I was very aware of how the the screen was framing my view. Last night though I had a bit of a break through, I started using oil pastels and a bit more colour. I felt a bit more at ease, a bit more in control of my understanding of what was going on and the “zoom gaze” I was working within.

I also realised last night that what this particular zoom mediated gaze did most was to remove my emotional connection with the sitter and their surroundings. Sometimes you just get a feeling when you are drawing which guides what you do. Even though it might not be an “accurate” drawing, the overall feeling that the lines, tone and shade present make the whole thing just work. In our last pose last night our two models wore their masks (in our f2f classes we all wear masks but the models don’t) and I think that gave me a bit of an emotional hook.

Anyway it’s been a bit of minor revelation for me being able to think about many of the issues Autumm raised in the article in this context, particularly about how technology can simultaneously enable and block emotional connections. It has made me think even more about the different aspects of the zoom gaze and the need to seriously consider they way technology mediates and controls human interactions. Thanks Autumm.

photo of life drawings
sketches from zoom life drawing class 9/12/20

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