COVID Nights

Coronavirus fight: Hundreds of trucks spray disinfectants in Luoyang. Youtube, February 11, 2020.
Will Straw analyzes nocturnal videos that reveal the scale of night-time cultures happening during the COVID-19 lockdown and the role of the pandemic in highlighting ongoing policy debates about urban lighting, urban noise, and spectacle.
[Ed. note: This is the final article in the dossier, “Media and the Physically Distanced City,” which examines how the pandemic and BLM protests offer a lens into the makeup, visuality, and legibility of urban environments and their relationship with various forms of media.]

How has COVID inflected the aesthetics, politics, and social dimensions of the urban night?

Disinfection Videos and the Pandemic City

One of the earliest social media clips featuring COVID-19 I remember seeing is a Xinhua News report about street cleaners in the city of Luoyang in China (posted on YouTube on February 11, 2020). In it, we see a battalion of trucks in perfectly symmetrical formation, venturing out into the night-time city streets to spray disinfectant. Although the clip announces itself as a tribute to the workers carrying out this labour, humans are only briefly glimpsed in the vehicles’ shadowy front seats. The controlled movement of the fleet of trucks unfolds against the spectacle of the city’s bright, commercial illumination. No city-dwellers may be seen engaging in leisure activities on city streets. The lighted facades of the buildings have lost their conventional association with the festive night-time city.

I begin with this clip so as to map some of the features of what would quickly emerge as a key genre of audiovisual production during the COVID-19 pandemic: the street disinfection video. Often filmed at night, when streets were otherwise deserted, these clips helped to construct that sense of strangeness and dispossession which came to mark the nights of cities in all regions of the world affected by the virus. I will suggest that nights around the world were being transformed by the pandemic just as the nocturnal life of cities was becoming central to new waves of political activism, administrative intervention and academic research. Finally, I will return to another, loosely-bounded genre of short-form audio-visual production representing urban nights during the pandemic, one I call the “Tik Tok quarantine clip.”

The Xinhua News report on street disinfection in Luoyang might be set within a larger corpus of pandemic texts showing acts of collective care. This is certainly one of the intentions of its makers, who proudly claim, near its conclusion, that more than 600 people participated in the disinfection operation. In its de-humanized display of machinic action, however, this clip is at considerable affective distance from other care-focused images (like those of health-care workers) in which displays of human compassion are central. At the same time, the Xinhua News clip indulges in two long-standing aesthetic systems for representing the night-time city. The most obvious of these is the visual nocturne, that celebration of urban night-time illumination which has been a recent focus of abundant scholarship.1Two significant recent book-length studies of the nocturne in art are Hélène Valance, Nocturne: Night in American Art, 1890-1917, translated by Jane Marie Todd (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018) and Hollis Clayson, Illuminated Paris: Essays on art and lighting in the Belle Epoque (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).With commercial activity in the shut down city of Luoyang, the clip is meticulous in deploying compositional schema which turn buildings into solid blocks of light and celebrate them as the colourful surfaces of seemingly unpopulated infrastructure. This has the effect of rendering the movement of the cleaning vehicles along dark streets seem almost secretive, clandestine. At certain moments, it is as if we are witnessing an attack launched against an unsuspecting city, an impression even more pronounced in other clips of street disinfection whose music and urgent tone add to the sense of military occupation. A second genre evoked here, then, is that of images of night-time invasion, like recent news footage of Chinese tanks entering Hong Kong at night in August of 2019.

The Xinhua News clip opens up yet another intertextual space, one it shares with other street-cleaning videos released during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the trucks move through dark streets, their bright headlights intermittently assume the character of eyes. With time, the vehicles reveal their unusual appendages, like the large spouts which spray disinfectant liquid into the air. We are close to that shift in urban visuality noted a quarter-century ago by Gérard Althabe, in which the transportation hardware of city streets is rendered beast-like:

The animalization of the machine becomes concrete when buses and subways, originally immobile in their hangars, shake themselves slowly in order to take possession of the city: the locomotive with its beetle eyes, the movements of a cranes arms, and, once night has fallen, the headlights of cars which shine like fireflies. By tearing machines and technologies from the people who have made them, we create a process through which we construct alterity. 2Gérard Althabe, “La ville rompue,” in Gérard Althabe and Jean-Louis Comolli, Regards sur la ville (Paris: Editions du centre pompidou, 1994), 66. Translation by Will Straw.

This alterity is almost as striking in another clip, “Coronavirus: cómo es la limpieza de la Ciudad a la noche” (Coronovirus: how the City is cleaned in the night), posted to YouTube by the municipal government of Buenos Aires in Argentina (and taken down shortly after I downloaded it). (Figure 1.) Here, we see a range of complexly structured cleaning vehicles, whose protrusions and lighting systems contribute to a fantastic imagery of night-time streets occupied by barely recognizable creatures. In another of Buenos Aires’ official clips human work is more central, but gives way, as the clip unfolds, to the labour of strange machines whirling, extending their appendages, and expelling liquids. In any case, the protective HazMat suits worn by human cleaners compound their own alien appearance and enhance the overall science-fictional character of these audio-visual texts.

Figure 1 : “Coronavirus: cómo es la limpieza de la Ciudad a la noche”. Government of Buenos Aires, June, 2020. (Removed from YouTube).

“Night Studies” and COVID-19

I began collecting audiovisual representations of pandemic street cleaning, most of them from Asia and South America, because at least part of my research and teaching for the coming year had come to focus on transformations of the urban night tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The spring and early summer of 2020 saw the rapid, international consolidation of an academic field called “Night Studies”, and this has provided a stimulating, collaborative context for my work. A scholarly interest in the life and culture of the night has been noticeably expanding for a decade or more, but it was headed towards its period of fullest visibility during months which turned out to be those of the COVID-19 lockdown. A steady sequence of special journal issues, talk series and conferences dealing with the night – including the first International Conference on Night Studies, in Lisbon – had been scheduled for the period April-July, 2020. While the special journal issues appeared, the talks and conferences were either cancelled, postponed or moved on-line.3Special journal issues on the night appearing during the first four months of the pandemic include issues of Ateliers de l’anthropologie no. 48 (“Alors vint la nuit”), Emulations no 33 (“La nuit urbaine”), Miranda no. 20 (“Staging American Nights.). Conferences scheduled for this period included “Night spaces: migration, culture and Integration in Europe,” organized by the HERA-funded “Nite” project for April, but moved on-line; “Media and the Night,” organized for late April by Dr. Jess Reia and myself and postponed indefinitely; “Poétiques de la Nuit,” to be held in Paris in late April, but cancelled; “Nuit des Suds,” scheduled for Rabat, Morocco for June 19-20 but postponed. Talk series moved online during this period include “Estudios sobre la Noche,” organized by the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico and the Berlin Nachtungen series hosted by the Berlin Technical University. For one account of “Night Studies,” see Will Straw, Luc Gwiazdzinski and Marco Maggioli, “The emerging field of ‘Night Studies’: Steps towards a genealogy,” English translation of the conclusion to Luc Gwiazdzinski, Marco Maggioli and Will Straw, Night Studies: Regards croisés sur les nouveaux visages de la nuit (Grenoble: Editions Elya, 2020) available online at

An academic community dedicated to “Night Studies” could not help but take up the question of how COVID-19 had changed the night, but this question resonated beyond the boundaries of scholarship. At present, across the world, academic investigations of the night unfold in close proximity to the activities of those engaged in strengthening night-time economies, campaigning for nights free of gender-based violence, or building new forms of “nocturnal governance”.4For a detailed look at the idea of nocturnal or night-time governance, see Andreina Seijas and Mirik Milan Gelders, “Governing the Night-Time City: The Rise of Night Mayors As a New Form of Urban Governance After Dark”, Urban Studies (2020), 1-19. The night-time cultural sector, which had been developing collective responses to the shutdown of cultural venues since the mid-2010s, reached its highest levels of institution building between March and June of 2020, with the consolidation of a number of associations and networks devoted to imagining a post-confinement future for nightlife. The banning of nocturnal cultural activities, after all, had been one of the first administrative acts carried out by governments across much of the world as lockdowns took effect. If, in mid-February, Western media were reporting on the novelty of on-line moshpits and virtual club nights organized under quarantine in China,5Krish Raghav, “Under Lockdown and Quarantine, China’s Punk Rock Bands Are Taking the Mosh Pit Online,” Hyperallergic February 13, 2020 by the end of March night-culture organizations like the European — formed before COVID-19 to defend club-based nightlife in the face of gentrification and excessive regulation — had turned their full attention to developing strategies for the recovery of nightlife as re-opening schedules were rolled out by municipal and national governments.6In my own city, Montreal, the period of COVID-19 lockdown saw, among other developments, the launch of the city’s first Conseil de nuit (night council) to address issues facing the city’s long-term treatment of its night, the city’s own appointment of its first Commissioner of Noise and of the Night and the formation of a Nouvelle association des bars du Québec, to advise and advocate on issues facing bars in their deconfinement re-opening.

Pandemic Politics and the Contested Night

From the perspective of “Night Studies,” clips of night-time street disinfection are meaningful in at least two ways. Perhaps most importantly, they lay bare the scale of urban night labour, of work which is too often overlooked in a field typically preoccupied with the festive or culturally expressive night. Recent documentary films like Midnight Family (on night-time ambulance drivers in Mexico City; dir. Luke Lorentzen, 2019), Closing Time (on the proprietors of an all-night restaurant in Taipai, Taiwan; dir. Nicole Vögele, 2018) and the expanding body of short-form documentaries produced by Julius-Cezar MacQuarie’s Nightwork project exemplify this wave of interest in the lives and practices of nocturnal workers around the world.

A nocturnal city dominated by the machinery of street cleaning, of the sort seen in so many disinfection videos, is a city dispossessed of other public communities of the night, such as those representing cultural undergrounds, dissident sexualities or insurrectionary political movements. The machines and uniformed humans which fill these videos, as agents of administrative control, run counter to any idea of the city street as a complex, contested social space. This was all the more striking given that the pandemic lockdown followed a year marked by what was possibly the widest global spread of movements of night-time political protest, in Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Sudan and elsewhere. The first weeks of the pandemic lockdown were a parenthesis in this spread, before the extraordinary transnational night-time protest which followed the murder of George Floyd on March 25, 2020. If this latter protest was not centrally about the night, it nevertheless laid bare the ways in which the policing of night-time space had, for so long and for so many, made the night an object of political struggle.7See, for an important account of the role of the night in anti-Black racism in the United States, Gladys-Marie Fry, Night Riders In Black Folk History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.) Longstanding genres of journalistic documentary which recounted the interactions of social types gathered in night-time social spaces, found, in this new climate of oppression and resistance that the night had become a key context for political recognition and deliberation.

The Sensory Politics of the Quarantine City

Other social or political movements focused on the urban night saw their momentum carry them into the political undercurrents of the COVID-19 lockdown. These include campaigns against urban noise and urban lighting. While both of these are movements with very long histories,8See, for example, with respect to noise, Lilian Radovac, “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2011): 733–760; and, in relation to lighting, Matthew Gandy, “Negative Luminescence”, Annals of the American Association of Geographers 107, no. 5 (2017): 1090-1107. each had found renewed purpose in the last half-decade, as new threads of political purpose became interwoven, often in highly heterogeneous clusters. These threads included the fight by urban gentrifiers against the perceived “nuisances” of urban music and lighting; the defense of sights (like starry skies) and sounds (those of birds or waterways) deemed natural and threatened with disappearance; new public health concerns about the negative effects of noise and light on sleep and overall health; and broader environmental opposition to the consumption of non-renewable resources by municipal lighting systems, and so on.

The previous five years had seen the spread of Noise Observatories in Australia, New York City, Barcelona and other sites, and while these are not uniformly committed to the reduction of urban noise, one of their important foundations is the diagnosis of noise as harmful.9For an acousticians’ overview of noise or sound observatories, see Dick Botteldooren, Timothy Van Renterghem, Damiano Oldoni, Dauwe Samuel, Luc Dekoninck, Pieter Thomas, Weigang Wei, Michiel Boes, Bert De Coensel, Bernard De Baets, and Bart Dhoedt, “The internet of sound observatories,” Proc. Mtgs. Acoust. 19, 040140 (2013), In the latter half of 2019, and well into the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and towns in Western Europe had begun extinguishing their public and commercial lighting, with rationales that combined the cutting of costs, the conservation of energy and the belief that an unlit city might attain higher levels of peace and quiet.10See, among many other press accounts, “Les commerces rennais respectent-ils l’interdiction d’éclairage nocturne ?” Ouest-France, January 17, 2020; “Éclairer ou ne pas éclairer, le choix cornélien des communes du Barsuraubois,”, L’est éclair, January 14, 2020; “Niort va expérimenter l’extinction de l’éclairage public dans plusieurs secteurs de la ville, ” france bleu June 19, 2020 Many others are archived on my website .”

In the early days of COVID-19 confinement, it was easy to believe that the sensory character of cities had been radically transformed. In Barcelona, it was claimed, one could finally hear the sounds of birds more clearly than had been possible for decades.11“El largo confinamiento enmudece a Barcelona y su mar” El Periodico, April 1, 2020 In Paris as well, on the same day, media reported that people were aware of birds as never before, bolstering this claim with statistical data showing reductions in sound levels, since confinement began, of between 66 and 80 percent.12“POLLUTION, BRUIT, LUMIÈRE… LES EFFETS INATTENDUS DU CONFINEMENT À PARIS,” C News April 1, 2020

Figure 2: Under Lucky Stars site, “Clear Night Sky.”

While changes in urban soundscapes during quarantine were typically noticed during the day, purported transformations of the visible in cities were mostly a matter of the night. In fact, claims about changes to the visual dimensions of the quarantined city were more likely to be contested, as some of those engaged in a politics of light reduction wielded evidence that was later revealed to be flimsy or misinterpreted. A widely shared set of photographs titled “Clear Night Sky” (Figure 2) was understood by many viewers as proof that the night-time sky of large cities had become more visible as a result of the pandemic lockdown. Visitors to the site were invited to drag their cursors across such images on their screens, revealing city skylines unobscured by normal levels of pollution. In a Forbes article, “Is the Night Sky Getting Darker under Lockdown?” John Barentine of the International Dark-Sky Association noted that these images, like so many others circulating since long before COVID-19, were not documentary proof that barriers to night-time celestial visibility had disappeared. Rather, the photographs had been digitally altered to represent hypothetical cases in which light pollution levels were lower. Like the debunked claims about dolphins appearing in the canals of Venice, photos of newly clear night-time skies in quarantined cities were used to bolster an understanding of confinement as a state of collective healing.

The variety and inconsistency of judgements about urban night-time visibility during the confinement period are symptomatic of the broader slipperiness of lighting and light pollution as objects of policy. Geographer Matthew Gandy has suggested that lighting policy unfolds in a void, marked by the absence of clear rules or normative standards. The result is that any discussion of lighting policy “has emerged from an increasing dispersal of expertise in the context of weakening state power. We encounter starkly variegated regulatory landscapes ranging from small-scale techno-bureaucratic dimensions to urban design to the emergence of vast “technoscapes” that elude any form of critical scrutiny.”13Matthew Gandy, “Negative Luminescence”, 1099.

Lighting policy under the conditions of pandemic, then, might allow commercial illumination to continue in Luoyang, to maintain a sense of continued life. Elsewhere, as in several locked-down European cities, it might exploit the lack of night-time commercial activity to hasten a move towards permanent nocturnal darkness.

The political incoherence surrounding urban lighting became even clearer during the COVID-19 lockdown, when the illuminated nocturnal city became as much a lost object of desire as a harmful extravagance we were learning to live without. The same was true of night-time noise, which quickly ceased being nuisance and was welcomed as a sign of a nocturnal effervescence which people now missed. Collective night-time demonstrations of gratitude towards health care workers leaving or going to work expressed communal gratitude, but in their more rambunctious versions they took on the character of noisy chariveri performances carried out with abandon on balconies illuminated by the apartments behind them. Their sensory night-time exuberance, as much as their virtuous intent, compelled huge numbers of people to record them.

The Night-time TikTok City

Images of these ceremonies of gratitude towards health care workers form part of the corpus of TikTok vlogs to which I now turn briefly, and with which I will conclude. Arguably, the greatest abundance of audio-visual documents of the festive, social city under lockdown was to be found on this platform. TikTok was host to a wide variety of representations of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a probable majority of them featuring images of solitary or small-group confinement. However, other clusters of TikTok clips engaged with the outdoor city at night. These clusters, I would suggest, revealed at least two stable or recurrent ways of rendering urban space.

In one of these ways, we see row after row of lighted windows as inhabitants of cities around the world offered the aforementioned tributes to health-care workers or otherwise engaged in displays of collective celebration (Figures 3-5). A striking feature of so many of these was their staging of the flatness of the modern apartment building, with the camera moving across lines of windows in a look which viewers would anticipate and follow. These sometimes evoked older urban thriller films, whose cameras roamed across buildings looking for narrative possibility,14The best known of these, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) but see, as well, the small corpus of 1940s films with “window openings” which I discuss in “Cinematic topographies and the 24-hour cycle,” CHRONOTOPIES Readings and Writings on a World in Movement, eds. Luc Gwiazdzinski, Guillaume Dervon and Olivier Klein (Grenoble: Editions Elya, 2017), 32-41. or the fascination with bare modern architectures found in the mid-1960s films of directors like Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Francesco Rosi. In some examples, these blocks of stacked windows mirrored another dominant graphic form of the COVID lockdown, the Zoom meeting. Through both structures, as Shannon Mattern suggests, we catch glimpses into worlds otherwise blocked from our view.

Figures 3-5 (L-R):;;

In another corpus of TikTok pandemic clips staging the night-time city, cameras move laterally across city space, seeking or gathering up images of festive human activity (Figures 6-8) . One striking aspect of these clips is that so many of them stray from the upright framing which seems to mark so many TikTok vlogs, in which the dimensions of the image appear to form around one or two standing human figures. In the selection looked at here, the camera looks across the space of the illuminated city street or public square, straining to capture that abundance of social effervescence which was one of the pandemic’s early casualties. The pan of cameras across clustered human figures, so as to gather up the elements of informal social exuberance is, as I have argued, a key stylistic device by which audiovisual forms attempt to show us social scenes as units of collective life.15Will Straw, “Foules et scènes: figures cinématographiques de la collectivité”, in Filmer le quotidien, edited by Sarah Leperchey and José Moure (Bruxelles: Impressions Nouvelles, 2019), 233-249.

Figures 6-8: L-R;;

Visibility, in these TikTok clips, is often unstable, as cameras are jostled by human movement or subservient to the poster’s uncertainty as to where the most photogenic dimensions of street life are to be found. This instability enhances our sense of quarantine night spaces as unstructured and unregulated, different in almost every respect from the tightly controlled spaces we see in street disinfection videos. The audio dimension of these TikTok clips is without exception dominated by music, but here we may distinguish between those vlogs which seek out the ambient music of site-based festivity and others which layer pre-chosen music over the visuals. In both cases, music seems to fill the visual space of the urban night, as a substance which has returned and healed the silent emptiness of the pandemic.

Thank you to Zach Melzer, Dave Colangelo and the editors of Mediapolis for their very useful and insightful suggestions for revision. The author is grateful to Lucia Bell-Epstein for research assistance with this article.


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