Talk Hole: Zooming Through the Quarantine with Jeremy O. Harris
Talk Hole is the bi-weekly spoken column of New York’s alt-comedy darlings Eric Schwartau and Steven Phillips-Horst, offering their oracular powers of cultural analysis on all corners of the zeitgeist (high, low, top, bottom). From a Zoom call between New York and London, Schwartau and P-H (as Steven is lovingly referred) prove talk is still chic, even in isolation. This time around, Talk Hole is joined by the playwright Jeremy O. Harris and discusses quarantine bread-baking, bottoming online, and the future of theatre in a socially distanced world.
STEVEN P-H: Hello?
ERIC SCHWARTAU: [Feedback on the mic] Too much feedback in this new world. Hearing my voice far too much. Is it working?
P-H: Yes. I’m just going to put on some moisturizer, one second.
SCHWARTAU: It’s recording. Recently, I was FaceTiming with my mom, and I was like—
P-H: Is this the conversation?
SCHWARTAU: You know what? I was saying that quarantine actually suits me, that I’m doing all these little projects in my home, my apartment is flawlessly clean, I’m sleeping better, barely drinking, talking with all my friends and family all over the world, I have this gorgeous boyfriend who loves me, and then my mom was like, “Yeah, I think the only thing is, if your friends and family start to get really sick and start dying and you can’t be there for them,” and I was like, “Oh. right. So there’s that.”
P-H: There’s two sides to every coin. I was thriving, but now I have it.
SCHWARTAU: Okay, everyone started blaming me for giving them all corona—
P-H: Because you were in Europe!
SCHWARTAU: Corona’s been around for a long time, honey.
P-H: But this current wave was started by gay people coming back from Europe.
SCHWARTAU: The gays returning from Milan Fashion Week were patient zeros.
P-H: The obvious takeaway is that Italy has always been the most horny country—the most passionate country—and this is god punishing horny. Now, suddenly everyone is sequestered in their sexless pods and can’t fuck.
SCHWARTAU: This is a common theme in scripture. Are you subscribed to this worldview?
P-H: I don’t subscribe to any worldview. I subscribe to Scruff Pro. I subscribe to, well—my ex-boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend subscribes to Showtime.
SCHWARTAU: I’ve spent most of the day trying to unsubscribe from small things.
P-H: Small things?
SCHWARTAU: Dropbox, Blink Fitness. I disputed a charge on my American Express. I’m trying to get my spending curve down.
P-H: Mmm, flatten the curve. My classic unsubscription strategy is to lose my credit card, so you cancel it and start getting a lot of “payment method failed” notices. But since you can’t leave the house, you can’t lose your card.
SCHWARTAU: I lost my headphones for three days in my house, so I think it is possible.
P-H: But in terms of “the great cultural reset” that some are calling this, I’d say there is a ground swell of conservatism. Not being able to touch people makes you want to touch people less. There’s a high possibility we all come out of this as incredible prudes. We’re turning into a nation of introverts and agoraphobes, so in that sense, Pete [Buttigieg] won.
SCHWARTAU: I don’t know, I’m getting pretty horny.
P-H: Cut to four months from now, and I lead you, via leash, to a sex party. And you’ll be cowering in the corner.
SCHWARTAU: I actually had to run out to the store to get some stuff for my ramen, and at the store I saw Dahlia Sin, who was the first from Drag Race to be eliminated, with her boyfriend. The ones who get eliminated early always have boyfriends.
P-H: And in that sense, a relationship is always a quar. Like, yes we are all living in a simulation right now—but perhaps we always were.
SCHWARTAU: Although everyone seems far more accessible now.
P-H: So here’s why: it’s way easier to interact with someone virtually because you have a lot more control over the conversation and the relationship. It’s lowered stakes. You’re supposed to be in your PJs. It’s a much less stimulating environment, and there’s a much lower bar to clear in terms of being witty, charming, and intelligent.
SCHWARTAU: You’re basically saying what it’s like to live in LA.
P-H: That’s a really good point. We’ve talked before about the Losangelesification of the world. So this is not a cultural reset, because it’s turning us all into the Los Angelinos we were becoming anyway. As you were mentioning, rotating the succulents every three days.
SCHWARTAU: This is what accelerationism is—we are going at warp speed toward the future that we sort of imagined, but were too attached to coffeehouses and going to poetry readings before. Now it’s the total other direction.
P-H: The organic vs. the artificial is an interesting question, because suddenly everyone became afraid of all the things that we were supposed to like: uncultured, unpasteurized, untouched, unfiltered. BO.
SCHWARTAU: We are all Lysol brand ambassadors now.
P-H: Okay, so how fucked up is this? I was on a Zoom meeting earlier today with coworkers, and this coworker was saying that their friend had been on a plane, and the first class was totally empty, but that coach was totally packed, and they wouldn’t let anyone sit in the empty first class to do social distancing.
SCHWARTAU: First class was the original social distancing.
P-H: The one thing you can’t hide in quarantine is your class. You see the signifiers of someone’s aesthetic real estate experience from the background of their video.
SCHWARTAU: Celebs are going to start making little stage sets of shittier houses.
P-H: Did you see J-Lo’s house that literally is the house from Parasite?
SCHWARTAU: I love how we keep circling back to Parasite in every column.
P-H: You can’t spell site without Parasite, and we are on a website right now.
SCHWARTAU: I actually think we’re on an app. This is the future that I’m talking about. Websites are gone. I’ve downloaded at least ten new apps in quar.
P-H: An app is sort of a Lysol’ed version of a website, so that tracks with the end of the end of Farm to Table. I guess I’m of two minds on what all this means. On the one hand, there is a sense of solidarity, people are calling the government to enact wide-ranging socialized programs, that’s good— but on the other hand the disintegration of the piazza of daily life means big tech companies are even bigger parts of our lives now. Your US passport will be replaced by an AmazonCitizen™ ID tag within the decade. I will say, though, quar has given me the time to unfollow 200 people on Instagram and get my ratio down to a much more respectable place.
SCHWARTAU: That is wrong, Steven. This is the time we are all supposed to be coming together as an app-based community. We are supposed to be following, accepting, liking. But also, Instagram feels like even more of a horrible stew of inane content than it did before.
P-H: This is the problem with anything that forces us all to be more online. All content is rising to the bottom. The bottom being you. Or me. Or any other bottom.
SCHWARTAU: God, speaking of bottoming, what are we doing sexually? I have no idea. My boyfriend downloaded an autofellatio book and has spent an hour-and-a-half stretching. Apparently if you stretch, starting at your foot and going all the way up your body, you’re way more flexible.
P-H: I mean I’d love to taste my sourdough, if you know what I mean. I’d love to see what all the fuss is about.
SCHWARTAU: Should we call Jeremy?
P-H: We’ll send him the Zoom and he can join. Next topic: Instagram Live. Is it wonderful or horrible?
SCHWARTAU: I did my first Instagram Live because I needed that performative adrenaline rush, which I did get, though I did accidentally call my boyfriend my friend, and he did get mad at me, and it was my first quar drama.
P-H: It begs the question, do you prefer virtual drama to “real” drama?
SCHWARTAU: I like both, honestly. I’m into each one for their different qualities.
P-H: Here’s my issue with Instagram Live: you’re trapped. It’s the most claustrophobic experience. The whole point of going on Instagram or Twitter is to be able to scroll the feed, but when you are on live, you are stuck in—
[Jeremy O. Harris joins the Zoom call.]
JEREMY O. HARRIS: Hold on. Let me get, uh, wine. Do you guys want wine?
P-H: I would love some, yes.
SCHWARTAU: Steven was making some point. Do you want to finish?
P-H: So, on live, you can’t go anywhere. You are stuck, and you’re not just stuck inside someone’s home—you’re stuck inside their phone in their home. And then, once people go live with someone else, it splits the screen in two, so you have even a tinier little window into their home. It reminds me of when my brother would sit on top of me as a child, and he would put a pillow over my face and then just punch the pillow.
SCHWARTAU: I was actually thinking about you and your brother, because [my boyfriend] Darryl was reading this Bertrand Russell self-help book called The Conquest of Happiness, and we were talking about the unhappy people, one type being megalomaniacs, and they all had something happen to them in their childhood that made them feel small.
P-H: Huh. Okay, so it was my brother, some might say physically abusing me as a child, that made me be, quote, “power hungry.”
SCHWARTAU: Possibly. That happened to Napoleon.
P-H: Right, but he was also short.
HARRIS: Aren’t you short too, though, Steven?
P-H: That’s such an insane thing to say. I can’t believe you just started this video chat with that violence. I am not short!
HARRIS: How tall are you?
P-H: I am 6’1″.
HARRIS: That’s short to me.
P-H: That’s the thing—who isn’t short to you?
HARRIS: My grandmother isn’t short to me. My grandmother is 6’4”. So if someone is shorter than my grandmother, they’re technically short to me.
P-H: Nobody from that era was that tall!
HARRIS: And my grandpa was 5’9”. He was also short.
P-H: Your grandmother sounds iconic.
HARRIS: She is iconic. It was her birthday on Saturday. She’s an Aries/Pisces cusp. And she told me that she was happy I couldn’t come visit her, because you don’t mess with death. I’m living in London now.
P-H: Are you quarring with anyone, Jeremy?
HARRIS: I’m quarantining by myself, which is something I’ve wanted for a while. I love my roommate so much, but I think a part of me has been desiring living by myself because I’ve never done it, and this gets to be my experiment. It’s also my experiment of being in jail. So I really like that.
P-H: I will say, as someone who’s spent a little bit of time in jail, it looks exactly like your London loft.
HARRIS: You’ve been to jail?
P-H: I’ve actually been three times. But I’ve only spent the night twice. One time they let me out early for good behavior.
HARRIS: A lot of protesting?
P-H: Um, no, none of it was protesting. One was for taking a selfie while driving, and the cops thought I was a terrorist following them, it was all bullshit. Another time they got some false tip that I was a graffiti artist, so they arrested me and my roommate.
HARRIS: Because I’m black and femme-y, I’ve been utterly terrified of prison my entire life. So I’ve never gone. Are you a femme-y top, too? Or are you vers? You look vers.
P-H: I’m actually vers. I hate to say it, because I love the binary. But I’m a bottom, emotionally, and then I top for work—and I love my job.
HARRIS: That’s true for me. I’m emotionally a bottom. I was a bottom born in the wrong body, or something, so I’m learning how to bottom now, later in life. Being tall and black makes it very difficult to make someone want you to bottom. I had a theory that I thought I created, but apparently Ty Mitchell spoke about at length, that I can only bottom when I am imagining that I am a woman, a little bit. I write a lot of sex in my plays and films, and I’m always thinking of fun things for people to say during sex, because people say the weirdest shit.
P-H: What’s the weirdest thing someone’s said to you during sex?
HARRIS: I had an orgy with a theologian recently, and he started whispering hymnals to me while we were having sex. We had been talking about them before the orgy started, and then he was like, this is my favorite one of the like, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or whatever.
P-H: Is a hymnal from this century, or is that medieval?
HARRIS: I think you can write a hymnal now. That’s all FKA twigs writes, right?
SCHWARTAU: Sex to me is quiet time.
HARRIS: Eric, I already thought I liked you, and now I fully do. Generally, because I perform in life so freely, I don’t need to perform during sex, and if anyone is talking during sex it feels performed.
P-H: I half agree with you. The farther away you are from your natural inclination, the more performance you’re giving. For example, for me, I think sucking your thumb, and being like “mmm, I’m a baby”—that’s honest.
SCHWARTAU: A nice, classic moan, that’s all you need.
HARRIS: A classic moan. I like the thumb in your mouth thing. That was a real point of contention in Daddy—that he sucked his thumb. I thought everyone did that. Is that not a thing that everyone does? I love sucking my thumb.
P-H: Me too. It indicates that I’m making myself vulnerable to you. I’m becoming the womb.
SCHWARTAU: Unfortunately, thumb-sucking is not okay right now, due to COVID.
P-H: I think we are all on the same page here, that talking should be kept to a minimum for authentic sex. However, now in the video sex era, I’m assuming there’s a lot of talking.
SCHWARTAU: The thing about video sex though is that you’re watching yourself so closely, so you actually don’t need to talk. You’re positioning yourself sexily to communicate how hot you are.
P-H: To me, that sounds horrible. Sex is the best when you’re not self-conscious.
SCHWARTAU: Maybe I’m turned on by myself turning someone else on.
HARRIS: That’s possible; photosexuality is a whole thing. My friend Michael Bullock wrote a book about Peter Berlin, and he coined the phrase photosexuality, because Peter Berlin got off on taking photos of himself. In the age of Instagram, we’ve all become a little photosexual. We all know the one or two great angles that we have. The most articulate I’ve gotten in the video sex I’ve had—because I have a long distance boyfriend as well who is in LA—it’s a lot of “oh can you move the camera?”, “no, go back”, “over a little bit”, “oh that’s great”. That’s most of the sex convo.
SCHWARTAU: You need to have a full studio now. I just ordered a ring light.
HARRIS: I want to have a Zoom orgy soon.
P-H: What’s funny about Zoom is that it changes who gets the focus of the video based on where the sound is coming from. So in your orgy, whoever is the loudest gets the most face time.
SCHWARTAU: But in gallery view, everyone’s equal.
P-H: Right. In a gallery, everyone is equal. In a group show. That could be the name of your first orgy: Group Show.
HARRIS: I like that! In my imagined version of this, there would be voyeurs, people in masks who have a quarantine boo, who are maybe fucking. The version I’m imagining is so luxe.
P-H: You’re really eroticizing the aesthetics of quarantine; it’s the mask as fetish object now.
HARRIS: Have you guys seen the COVID porn out there now?
P-H: Um, no.
HARRIS: I’m going to send you COVID porn right now, on Twitter.
[HARRIS DMs P-H and SCHWARTAU on Twitter.]
SCHWARTAU: Can you share your screen, Steven?
P-H: Oh my god. It’s in an all-white room too.
SCHWARTAU: Steven. There’s a button called share screen. Share the screen.
HARRIS: Did you guys see the thing that came out from New York State Public Health that was like, here are all the things you can do sexually, vis-a-vis COVID? And basically, it’s no kissing and no ass-eating.
SCHWARTAU: It’s just like, find someone with a six-foot-dick.
P-H: Wow, I’m looking at the document. “You can get COVID-19 from a person who has it.” Okay, iconic advice. “Your next safest partner is someone you live with.” So they’re saying fuck your roommates.
HARRIS: Do you have roommates?
P-H: No, I live alone, thank god. But my boyfriend is staying with me for quar. He’s a really good cook. I’m sitting pretty over here. Okay, wait, I love this: “If you usually meet your sex partners online, consider taking a break from in-person dates. Video dates, sexting or chatrooms may be options for you.”
SCHWARTAU: They’re not using very strong language. They’re like, consider taking a break.
P-H: Consider taking a break from your absolute around the clock hoe-ing. “Washing up before and after sex is more important than ever.” This is the cultural reset I’m talking about; we’re going back to a puritanical, Catholic-ass vision of sexuality. When this is all over, we are all going to be walking around with little day umbrellas, promenading in our petticoats.
HARRIS: Steven, do you not like taking a shower immediately after you have sex? Because I do.
P-H: No. And I find it so insulting when people do that. I’m like, what the fuck? You should want to be rolling around in my BO all week long. You should never shower.
HARRIS: Do you live in Bushwick?
P-H: I live in Ridgewood, actually.
HARRIS: That’s why. I live in Manhattan, and I’m someone who believes in inside clothes, and outside clothes. I don’t really like sharing my space or even my fluids with people for too long.
SCHWARTAU: I think this is a great time to rediscover ritual, in general.
P-H: We’ve realized that our constant busyness was always just a performance, and now we’re looking for ways to fill the hours. So we look to ritual.
HARRIS: I have to say the ritual of washing my hands every 25 minutes is wonderful for my psyche, but bad for dry hands. But you know, I’m so clean. And I have OCD, so I fear not being clean.
P-H: What are your other obsessive fears?
HARRIS: Oh, so many. I have rituals around how I open gifts. For opening nights, I can only open three gifts on the day I get them, and the rest I have to open one for each month afterwards. I still have gifts from the Off-Broadway opening of Slave Play that are in my office.
SCHWARTAU: So this kind of requires that you receive a lot of gifts, which is an interesting space to be in.
P-H: I don’t have a backlog of gifts. But I’m more of a tearer, you know, like rip, rip, rip.
HARRIS: But with regard to coronavirus, I’ve heard a couple interesting theories from wealthy British people about where it came from.
SCHWARTAU: Our column is all about spreading misinformation.
HARRIS: Someone said that they knew from their friend at MI6.
SCHWARTAU: Everyone has a friend at every single fucking place. I had no idea we had all these friends.
HARRIS: I can’t drop their name, but this person is a Lady. And she said that she heard it was an American operative in China who got it from the same lab that Gilead makes prep in, and that’s why Gilead has the vaccine. And that’s why the Chinese government was like, oh we have this thing, let’s use it to end the protest in Hong Kong. And then it got out of control. Because what is worse than a disease that makes it so you can’t—
P-H: They can’t assemble. They can’t protest! My jaw is on the floor.
HARRIS: I have to say, I really like being subjugated not only by the state, but also by nature. Having to bottom for nature is really attractive to me.
SCHWARTAU: Our editor Carina was also just saying it’s a return to nature. Like, it’s not natural to have a job. It’s not natural to go on subways. It’s natural to just be in place and intermittently fast and/or snack all the time.
P-H: Not true. Animals are so organized. They have subways, literally. Turtles get in the gulf stream and they all get in line. But in terms of the piping hot MI6 tea, I think we like the idea that there’s a simple explanation—an evil cabal of villains pulling the strings—because the alternative, that society is just so chaotic and uncontrollable no one can predict or organize it, is even more scary.
SCHWARTAU: I mean, I just imagine it spread like how it happens in Contagion.
P-H: So it’s Gwyneth Paltrow‘s fault?
SCHWARTAU: Exactly. I think Gwyneth Paltrow is spreading it around the world.
P-H: Jeremy, do you have a quar routine?
HARRIS: I wake up every day at 3pm. Take an hour-long constitutional in my bed, just reading Twitter and Instagram, getting all the news from reliable sources.
P-H: A digital promenade, if you will.
HARRIS: Exactly. And then I take an hour-long shower, or bath, and listen to an album. Today I listened to the Dua Lipa leak. Then I dress in a fancy outfit, and I walk around my house.
P-H: I’ve been putting on a blazer and nice pants to walk around, go outside, get corona, and then come back in.
SCHWARTAU: I just kind of watch the dishes dry. I’ve been so domestic. I might make some bread later.
P-H: My boyfriend’s been making bread.
SCHWARTAU: There’s been a lot of boyfriend talk. I wish one of us was single here.
HARRIS: I think we all wanted to talk about our boyfriends because we all sort of want to have a threesome. Oop!
SCHWARTAU: You said it. Well, maybe that’s a good time to go to the Zoom breakout meeting room. We’re closing down the physical world, it’s time to open up the virtual world.
HARRIS: I mean, honestly, what’s more queer than digital intimacy? Let’s teach them how it goes. Because we started that way.
P-H: Right. We didn’t have people in our hometown or in our school, so we had to go online.
HARRIS: Yes. I pretended to be so many different genders, ages, and races, as a young queer. I have performed so many identities on the digital landscape. I was so deeply in the closet that—Steven, are you peeing?
P-H: I’m about to, yeah.
HARRIS: Can we see it?
P-H: Well, I think that would sort of ruin the mystery.
HARRIS: I’ve already written a play called Watersport. So I think this is just an important part of us getting to know each other and my work at the same time.
SCHWARTAU: I was just drinking water this whole time and now you’re the one that has to pee, Steven.
P-H: Well, you know, it’s contagious.
HARRIS: When I was younger, in Virginia, I would go on AIM and just pretend to be anything I needed to be to get closer to people. I was so in the closet, so I could pretend that I was writing characters to perform more than actually engaging in queer behaviors.
P-H: Did you form relationships with people?
HARRIS: Yeah. I had a girlfriend who I met on a Harry Potter chatboard. We would write longform Harry Potter fan fictions together about the weird sex we were having at Hogwarts. I was like thirteen. She could have been, again, a 44-year-old man.
SCHWARTAU: I’ve been meaning to say, we need to see Slave Play.
HARRIS: Well, you guys saw my play Black Exhibition, and you thought it was too long.
P-H: Oh my god, don’t read me for that. No, I really did not think it was too long. Even if a play is 10 minutes, the last 3 minutes I’m always like, okay. Just because you know how plays are. They’re so play.
HARRIS: Are you excited that in the new world order, under coronavirus, theater is now completely dead? Because every theater in America is now completely closed.
P-H: I mean, as someone who is apparently coming out as anti-theatre now, yeah, I’m thrilled. Fuck your medium.
SCHWARTAU: Yeah, I really thought plays were just coming back.
HARRIS: Nope, plays and movies are now over. Done.
P-H: I did see Hamilton with my parents a couple weeks ago. And I thought I was going to hate it, but I liked it, even though it was very long.
HARRIS: You liked Hamilton even though you’re a Bernie Bro?
P-H: As a political piece, it was inoffensive liberal claptrap. Nothing that makes overfed, undersexed white people clap their hands and say, “Well, that was fun!” can be radical. But as a piece of Broadway showery, it was very fun, and the songs were good. What I liked about it was that it was just straight-up songs the whole time. You never had a chance to be bored.
SCHWARTAU: I think plays are best when everyone is just running around. And sets are spinning and changing.
P-H: Never let me take a breath. Because then I’m just going to be like, “I got to go.”
SCHWARTAU: Okay, speaking of going, we’re leaving. I’m ending this recording. But let’s talk soon.
P-H: This was wonderful. We all connected in a way we would have never done before.
HARRIS: Well, we would have done this at a bar.
SCHWARTAU: I’m excited to see where this all goes. Thanks for joining us from London. Stay safe.
HARRIS: Stay safe! Stay home!
P-H: Stay home!!!