Author: Victoria Irisarri. Postdoctoral researcher at IDAES/CONICET. Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires. You can contact Victoria at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fieldsite: Cultural producers in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Buenos Aires city is known for its cultural events, music being one of the activities that concentrates most of the attention compared to the whole country. In particular, parties have also been one of Buenos Aires’ main attractions and income generators. As it has been largely studied, while digital devices for music production have become massively available, recorded music as a source of income has significantly decreased, especially for those musicians that are not mainstream. In this context, live music has become a fertile exploratory terrain to generate new ways of becoming a musician for those engaged in this sector. Parties have become collective performances in which complex levels of production and knowledge intersect in live events that last a whole or part of the night. But what happens to these face-to-face upcoming, mobile and mostly body-engaged activities when there is a quarantine with restricted social and physical contact, especially for those that involve crowded events?
Musicians have developed new ways to relate to their publics through different social media. In this lockdown, the app Zoom has become a response to social isolation for everyone in general and also for musicians. In particular, DJs have started to throw parties through this app, which has become a global trend (see also Asad el-Malik in this blog). In this context, a new configuration of night sociability emerges. Even though the pandemic brings exceptional hours, the parties are still at night. Online parties introduce a full range of possibilities in quantity and type, including a variety of musical tastes and different kinds of audiences.
These kinds of parties have not only called anthropologists’ attention, but also that of journalists who have been writing at high speed a vast number of pieces to tackle the new pandemic phenomenon. These articles, in general, emphasise the novelty of the virtual dance and how all private living rooms have now been transformed into dance floors as a way of “resisting” the pandemic situation. However, this arguably romantic position equalises all parties and sets aside how these are produced and managed and all the interactions needed for these parties to emerge.
All together through a screen on your own dance floor
For these parties to happen, multiples subjects and objects take action. Digital technologies play a key role to bond all the actors involved. Not only because these parties happen to take place on a digital platform, but also because most of them are promoted through other apps. For example, the party Hasta la Pista, organized by Dj Villa Diamante, is publicised through Instagram and also enables access via Zoom. In order to get in, all guests need to send a direct message requesting the party’s Zoom ID and key. Together with that data, a set of rules is sent to the participants that needs to be followed strictly: cameras must be on in order to virtually dance together with the other participants, otherwise, it is suggested to leave the spot for someone else on the dance floor; mics are muted and only operated by the host, while private and public chats are available for everyone. In addition, the flyer says “please, do not insist if someone doesn’t want your attention and let us know if someone is bothering you”, while taking care of your own image by using a nickname or mask is eagerly stimulated to get partygoers into the festive mood, reminding the participants that the party could be recorded and played somewhere else. Also, dressing up, setting up your space for dancing and preparing a cool drink are encouraged. Body and behaviour discipline at Buenos Aires’ Zoom parties appears to be quite rigorous.
Once inside, the party starts, and music sets the rhythm and intensity of the dance in the living rooms. At each home, the view from any screen is a panel board of multiple squares with low, disco or coloured lights. Those haptic surfaces propitiate the path in between private and the collective, blurring the difference between one and the other. Some dance alone, others in pairs, and others just hang out trying to guess who is around. The way music configures emotional and embodied states cannot be predetermined by music. As Tia De Nora has stated, music not only affects how people feel emotionally but also affects the physical body by providing a ground for self-perception. Music, understood as a prosthetic technology, extends what the body can do. In these lockdown parties, through the Zoom fragmented windows you can see some people perreando (a kind of dance similar to twerking) in front of a mirror and a screen, others dancing traditional cumbia steps, or just hanging out. The first layer of overcoming isolation is through the own body and screen.
But are these parties just a(nother) narcissistic activity to cope with the confinement anxieties during pandemic times? I wouldn’t say so. Just like the production of the party, the interaction among participants also relies on a set of multiple technologies. Music and visual designs are played on YouTube, dancing is on Zoom, and chats take place on both platforms. At one point, the DJ mixes the images by overlaying Zoom dancers on YouTube visual designs. People smile, dance and cheer at home praising the juxtaposition of the images. The party happens through different platforms at the same time and each platform with its affordances helps the party to succeed.
Part of their success also relies on “party promoters”. As those known from face-to-face parties, Zoom promoters are also built by subjects that turn the party as visible as possible on social networks, through posts, reposts, likes, live-streaming and any other actions that might call attention to the targeted audience. Depending on their promoters’ popularity and music style, parties can vary between having 80 to 65,000 assistants. This disparity is not only due to the promoter’s work, but also, as a DJ suggested, responds to the number of followers that each party has captured on social networks, especially on Instagram.
So, what are Zoom parties? We can approach music activities as a diversified network of technical objects, material supports, instruments, devices, on which the musician must operate in order for music finally emerge as such, as Antoine Hennion has proposed. I would argue that from this ‘mediation perspective’, these parties happen by a collective redistribution of creation that covers an extended network of people, technologies, music, and social networks. In this way, Zoom parties are not just an aesthetic proposal with the power to make people “resist”, neither can they be reduced to “new virtual rites” stimulated by an unprecedented pandemic crisis. Thinking through Zoom parties allows us to identify the “progressive appearance of the work and its reception” (Hennion), which distinguishes one Zoom party from another and gives a taste of the local sense of the ways to overcome isolation and experience new socialities in Argentina.
 DeNora, T. (2000). Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511489433
 Antoine Hennion, The Passion for Music: A Sociology of Mediation, Translated by Margaret Rigaud and Peter Collier, Farnham, Ashgate, 2015, 339 p.