show me what your heart feels like
Through choreographing an instruction-based ritual performance, we explored notions of digital/physical intimacy and digital/digitally augmented community by utilising an embodied research approach. We primarily focused on WLW (women loving women, i.e. lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual etc women) communities, though this research would also hold value to other subaltern communities.
- A localised social group for WLW, based around and managed using an open-invitation WhatsApp group, providing us with the support network necessary to produce:
- A shared Google Doc for making consensus-decisions on the production of:
- A public ritual for sharing intimacy and intimate touch with an emphasis on consent and communication
produced by: Elinor Castle, Batool Eldasouky, Valeria Radchenko
Among WLW we know there is a common thread of isolation from other WLW by physical distance, alienation from those physically close to them, displacement from stable/supportive/safe environments, and resultant unmet need for physical and intimate touch, largely due to homo/biphobia and its effects.Through exploring these notions of alienation, displacement and community finding, we started to view virtual communities and networks as places of comfort and intimacy for WLW in particular.
We were interested in the functionalist concept of value consensus and how social groups are formed and strengthened by (working towards) a shared goal or by participating in a group undertaking (Hayward, Katy. Conflict and Consensus), though there may be tension in lifting this concept from its context as we are not interested in maintaining social order. Regardless, we facilitated a participatory performance with connection itself being the goal with multiple understandings of the term “connect”. On a physical level, participants would join together a series of “connectors”, designed so that a degree of communication was necessary to complete the process. After this, they could invite another participant/accept an invitation to interact in some way, e.g. hold hands, sustain eye contact or hug. The connector task served as a mediator allowing those who didn’t want to touch a given person to still participate, and to ease people into what were otherwise very intimate and physical interactions.
We wanted to create our own language for connection and decided on nonverbal gestures/communication (NVC) for its relative universality and physicality. By using NVC, we sought to address our culture’s typical over-reliance on linguistic communication, which is often unclear and carries extraneous connotative meaning. It is important for WLW in particular to find their own ways of communicating, as there is as yet no universal consensus regarding how to express and communicate consent adequately. We wanted the performance space to afford people the ability to ask for what they wanted, and decline what they did not in the most unambiguous and accessible way possible.
Interrogating both physical and virtual modes of connecting was part of the research process through meeting people on the whatsapp group Gaybourhood, working together from a distance on the Google document, and later through incorporating texting interactions during the performance. It provided a space to explore how people navigate within communication platforms, and to see how virtual and physical intimacy overlap and affect each other, addressing the wider question of how to navigate physical intimacy and care in a digital age.
As described by Starosielski in The Undersea Network, we also considered the structure and intentions behind networks; understanding that there is a preset mode of using app interfaces, and corporate and (sometimes) state intentions behind why an app is created or brought to the local app store. We were mindful of the level of structure we designed into the performance and remained open to adaptations and changes as participants created emergent behaviors.
In future iterations, we would like to take this one step further and explore the idea of access points, (“key words” or “search words”) that allow people to find certain places and communities online. How someone finds a network. We are particularly interested in how this relates to Starosielski’s explanation of the expansion of the cable network and what determines which parts of the world the expansions go to, which in turn effects which parts of the world get better connectivity.
The structure of the performance was built on a basic set of instructions giving the performance an algorithmic nature. We also incorporated a circuit into the fabric of the magic circle, which was intended to connect at certain points of the interactions. The circuit was made with conductive paint that linked to protruding wires at one end and the “connectors” at the other. We also incorporated texting (through WhatsApp) into the performance.
We would like to expand as well as simplify the interaction gestures by adding a gesture for “thank you” and possibly changing the “accept invitation” to a more intuitive one. We have also been considering expanding the network structure to include 5 participants to allow for more group interactions such as group hugs and provide an alternative to watching the engagements of the other 2 people while you are inactive. There is a concern, however, that part of the reason the interaction works as well as it does is because having an inactive participant provides a space where people who are not so comfortable with engaging can be encouraged by seeing others do it, and also creates an observer (and therefore accountability) for those who are interacting. It is possible that if everyone is always in an interaction it might be chaotic and lose some nuance.
Given the time, we would have liked to ground the work further in existing literature and contextualise it within a larger discourse. We found that we had to combine disparate theories (like Latour’s with Barad’s) and reappropriate (queer) them for our purposes. In real terms, this queering occurred when our performance grounded the phenomenological (Barad) in the material (Latour) via the connection of a circuit (material) and use of non-standard intimacy (phenomenological).
Our method of generating knowledge is autotheoretical as we focused on subjective experiences. Autotheory is “a feminist modality, a method of writing the self that shatters the academic fourth wall and asks how theory...can be incorporated and intermingled with real life, not merely used as a tool to measure, describe, and define it” (Stacy Young, “Changing the Wor(l)d”). Using our shared experience as WLW as the soil from which our concept grew, we developed a common intention and an approach to realise it. We gathered opinions through questionnaires, and used our own experience as participants in the performance to see if it aligned with our intentions and to ground ourselves in our own research. This also ties in with Barad’s perspective on theory - “Theories are living and breathing reconfigurings of the world. The world theorizes as well as experiments with itself”.
Overall, the research has been successful and provided insight to the ‘practice’ of the theory -- people taught/helped each other, came up with their own gestures (like asking for/giving a massage) and combined and experimented with sequences of gestures, confirming the utility of value consensus as a factor in social bonding.
Initial artefact and concept includes contributions from Yeonhee Choi.
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