The balcony: normativity lessons in times of crisis

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The balcony has become a powerful domestic space symbolizing corona-solidarity in the south of Europe. Movie clips of Italians singing their national anthem from their balconies were broadcast worldwide in the evening news. Such a moving and spontaneous event united people quarantined. Italians, too, killed time making and hanging hand-crafted signs from their balconies with the phrase ‘Andrà tutto bene’—everything will be alright. 

A few days after the lockdown in Spain, neighbors began to take to their balconies every day at 8 pm in a collective applause. Screams of ‘¡viva!’ and ‘¡ánimo!’ chanted to health care professionals would inundate the otherwise still streets. Newspapers such as El País in Spain, The Guardian in UK, and Het Parool in the Netherlands, described such acts as the ultimate symbol of solidarity and brotherhood. The balcony had become a southern icon in the times of the pandemic, a bond of people in dire crisis. 

During the past weeks, talking to family and friends in Madrid, however, I have come to see balconies as a space of friction, and I have become concerned about the tendency to take those domestic spaces as a homogeneous space of solidarity. 

I was in Madrid during the week leading up to the state of emergency to take care of some family business. While news from northern Italy was tragic, in Madrid the feeling was of anxious waiting. I left the country, hastily, with my 2-year-old daughter and partner on Saturday’s March 14 first available flight. That day the government declared the state of emergency quarantining citizens and mobilizing the military. 

Back in Amsterdam, where I live, I stayed in touch with my sister in Madrid. I asked her about her balcony. At first, she said, she was not paying much attention to the call for applause in the balcony. Her partner, however, would do the ritual every day, and she would see him moved to tears. As days passed, she went from thinking it was nonsense, to joining her family in a little ritual she captured for me in a video. They would put street clothes on, her partner will prepare a drink, Darío, their kid, would get super excited and jump into the balcony and scream with all his might ‘¡vamos!’, ‘¡ánimo!’. It was really sweet to see the clip, a scape, a hopeful space, a moment to just vent. But my sister was right in describing it as a privileged space. ‘Well, at least, we have a balcony,’ she wrote to me. 

Indeed, many in Spain do not have balconies. Not only that, quarantining in a city like Madrid, or Barcelona, probably means staying locked in a dark, interior, tiny apartment with small windows to the street and interior patio. My friend Laura, living in Barcelona, attests to this. She is confined with her boyfriend and their 2-years-old in an interior apartment of less than 60 square meters. No balcony. On a call, she tells me: ‘We go to the window every day for the collective clapping, but it also annoys me a bit. What about the cleaners, the supermarket cashiers, warehouse staff? What about them?” 

While interpretations of the joyous, inventive ways of Spanish people to pass confinement and continue community life by taking to the balconies may be well-intentioned, my friends teach me balconies are places of friction. Against the idea of balconies as novel iconic demonstrations of neighborhood solidarity, my friend Esther, like Laura, offers me a counter-narrative. She also lives in a small 2-bedroom apartment shared with a room-mate in Vallecas, a working-class neighborhood in the south of Madrid. She doesn’t have a balcony, only small windows to the street. She is also unsure of the homogenous reading of the collective clapping at 8 pm. She, indeed, finds this hard to relate to. 

“You get people clapping,” she says, “and it’s moving. But you also see your next-door neighbor calling vivas to the military or the police and that is unsettling to me.” 

Indeed, what visibilizing the scene of the balcony actually does is to make invisible not only the differences in how people are able to respond to the collective clapping but the significant differences amongst people’s lives. 

For instance, Esther has seen people in her neighborhood standing in balconies as eerie ‘vigilantes’. In a moment when the streets are taken by police and the movement of citizens is restricted, she sees neighbors on their balconies calling the police to report people who, in their belief, are breaking the rules. From their safe vantage above the city, they feel entitled to take the role of policing upon themselves. 

I read in the Spanish online daily paper a report of a mother and her kid in Madrid. They were having a small walk and some neighbors standing in the balcony insulted them for breaking the confinement. It turns out the girl has autism and is allowed to go out every day to breathe fresh air. The mother became scared to go out, as the screaming greatly unsettled her kid. 

During this crisis, new normativites emerge. Approaching to the balcony as the new symbol of solidarity is a compelling move. When we add the nuances and frictions that a closer look offers, we can begin to notice how new structures so quickly normalize, like the fact of the balcony as a site of solidarity, or that the army is in the street. The first is less scary than the latter, but they can go hand-in-hand.

Reading the balcony as an outburst of solidarity or brotherhood clashes with the nuances described here. These nuances do not deny the potential for solidarity, nor that there is something precious about cultivating a sense of togetherness in all the pain and uncertainty of the current situation. They do, however, ask that “the balcony” be situated amid the broader context of people’s lives. 

For example, my friend Esther insists that the networks of solidarity and care were already there, they just didn’t occur in the balcony. Her neighbors in Vallecas have, for years, developed a solidarity network to support other neighbors in need of care including women victims of domestic violence, elderly, and people who are sick. With the covid-19 crisis the networks responded as usual, taking extra measures. People were already practicing solidarity without balconies.

The worry: vigilantes at the balcony seem like temporary small things to deal with given the crisis, but often they also change what we take as acceptable. “History shows that you know when the restrictions on freedoms begin but not when they end,” writes the philosopher Josep Ramoneda. 

We may celebrate the cheering at the balconies today, not realizing how this legitimizes the extension of the army in the street tomorrow.

Rebeca Ibáñez Martín has degrees in the Philosophy of Science (PhD) and in Feminist Theory and Social Studies of Science (MA). She holds a faculty position in Anthropology and STS at the Meertens Institute (KNAW), Amsterdam where she leads the research line on Food, Body and Wellbeing. She´s wrapping up a project of an experimental nutrient recovery system from wastewater developed at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO) and implemented in a small village in the south of the Netherlands. She is concerned with the shifting normativities and responsibilities involved in the system under development, and with mapping the shifting socio-ecological landscapes of waste water treatment. You can follow Rebeca on Twitter at @rebecaibanezm.

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