University of Copenhagen
Four days in June, 2015, during summer solstice. Set in Nuuk, Tórshavn, Copenhagen. The days are long, the nights are never dark. The PSi cluster of Fluid States North is a hectic and intense telematic experiment that engages in relations and social interactions across geographical distances. We are executing the core idea of a dispersed conference of the Fluid States concept by dispersing the conference even more: we are distributing performances and presentations between three different geographical locations far apart from each other. We are dissolving the conventional notion of a conference as a physical meeting of bodies at one single location. Instead, we provide another type of co-presence that exists in a telematic space. Waving. “Hello!” A touch. A fallout. A blurred image. Uncertainty.
In this article, we report from the Fluid States North telematic encounter that was set up between the Nuuk Art Museum in Nuuk (Greenland), the Nordic House in Tórshavn (the Faroe Islands), and the Multi Hall at University of Copenhagen Amager Campus, in Copenhagen (Denmark). Fluid States North was one of the clusters of the PSi “dispersed conference” format Fluid States in 2015. Reflecting on issues of presence and telepresence, this article begins by outlining three examples of how different types of conference activities took place in a telematic space, and how they display or embody different types of technological and social misperformance. The three examples are Donia Mounsef and her talk Telemediating Temporal Distance; Cameline Bolbroe’s interactive performance Adaptive Architecture; and the telematic dance event entitled Queer Slow Dance with Radical Thoughts by Alvis Parsley, Heather Hermant, and Kaija Siirala. We continue by providing in-depth analyses of two performances of the Fluid States North project: Beau Coleman’s Let Me Tell You That I Love You (Distant Islands), and Siku Aappoq (Melting Ice) by the dance company Yggdrasil Dance. We discuss how misperformance in the two works affected the telematic encounter. Misperformance, in this case, is to be understood as a fruitful intervention that provides opportunities for intimacy and explorations of the unknown. We conclude that intimacy happens in one case despite of misperformance, while intimacy happens in the other because of misperformance. Both cases provide examples of how teleconferencing may provide new aesthetic practices and modes of interaction across geographical distances.
Presence at PSi Conferences
A large part of the activities of Performance Studies international (PSi) take place at the annual conferences. PSi members and newcomers meet in person at the annual conferences and exchange scholarly and artistic ideas on many levels. Artistic and academic encounters at PSi conferences rely on the physical presence and interaction of the individuals involved. To be present is to sense the bodies of other participants; to engage in various direct and live communication in words, with eyes, or other bodily gestures and signs; and to perform the micro-level everyday exchange of relating and responding to the physical nearness of other human beings. Activities span from reading an academic paper, presenting a performance, engaging in discussions, and being inspired or provoked by on-site events, to the everyday and casual activities such as sharing meals and coffee during breaks, sitting shoulder by shoulder in a crowded auditorium, or brushing against other bodies while attending a performance.
Yet for PSi, as well as for other similar organisations that rely on annual meetings as a core activity, recent years’ economic cutbacks in academic and artistic institutions worldwide have made it increasingly difficult for members to actually be present at the gatherings. Presence and representation have always been two intertwined agendas for the PSi community, and the challenges of being present at conferences have been significantly voiced by independent artists and scholars who face the reality of lack of institutional support for travel, accommodation, and conference fees. Discussions of where the annual PSi conference should (or should not) take place and how to reduce the carbon footprints are mixed with critical debate on the politics and practicalities of inclusion. Some of these issues were also at the core of the decentralised conference project of Fluid States in 2015.
The idea for the Fluid States North setup was inspired by the interactive video installation Telematic Dreaming by media artist Paul Sermon, originally set up in 1992. In a 1998 version of Telematic Dreaming, two rooms were connected telematically. In each room, a bed dominated the space as a clear invitation to engagement. A live recording of the action in one bed was transmitted to the other bed, and vice versa. The images were projected on the bedspread, and the visitor could hereby experience a digital representation of a person from the other space next door. Even though it was only a projection, people reported experiencing a physical sensation and bodily communication across the telematic setup.
During a four-week period, performer and new media scholar Susan Kozel inhabited one of the rooms of Sermon’s Telematic Dreaming. She engaged with anyone who visited the gallery and were willing to follow their curiosity, step out of their comfort zone, and accept the conditions of the telematic encounter. Kozel would invite people to communicate through telematic touch, and during the interaction she investigated how her different moods and attitudes would affect the relationship with the visitor. In her book Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology from 2007, Kozel argues that telematic and phenomenological experiences of touch, nearness, and intimacy can happen without the physical presence of another person. In her reflections on Telematic Dreaming, Kozel notes that “this piece is significant for revealing, in an accessible way, that basic human qualities such as touch, trust, vulnerability, pain, and embodiment are not lost when people engage with each other through technologies: we just need an appropriate methodological framework in order to see and validate this” (Kozel 88).
For the Fluid States North setup, we used a low-key, non-elitist approach by applying Skype, one of the most popular software programs for personal telecommunication, and available to many people on everyday basis. We set up Skype on laptop computers and projected the image on screens made in a D.I.Y mode of construction, using everyday materials such as whiteboards, sheets, or white walls. Telematic settings normally combine two places, but with Fluid States North we wanted to investigate what happens when three places were combined. The telematic connection between the three places was planned to function as a circular loop. By setting up a system that had one destination telematically present in one side of the physical space and another opposing on the other side, each of the three telematic spaces created a feeling of always being in the centre, always mediating between the other two spaces. Being able to see, for instance, Nuuk through Copenhagen when you are in Tórshavn, emphasized the feeling of being in the centre of attention. The setup pointed towards a circular infinity. Everyone present in one of the three spaces became observers and observed at the same time, and this shift between voyeurism and exhibitionism was constantly and literally on stage.
In technically advanced professional teleconference systems, users will have a high degree of expectations for the transmission to mediate a sense of “realistic” representation in the scale, sound, and colour of the distant conference partners. Every new step of technological development promotes itself as better than the previous version in terms of high resolution, fast speed of data transfer, a noise-free sound system, large flat-screen images, or whatever recent inventions offer. As artist, curator, and media scholar Rosa Menkman suggests, digital communication systems seem to aspire to an on-going quest for “complete transparency” that brings forth newer and “better” media within “an elitist discourse and dogma widely pursued by the naive victims of a persistent upgrade culture” (Menkman, Glitch Studies Manifesto 339). Such ideals towards more transparency aim at making the technology completely invisible or not noticeable — something that should “just work,” and not get in the way of the content of communication.
In the Fluid States North telematic setups, the space in Tórshavn seemed to have the most stable setup in regards to Internet connection and bandwidth. The telematic space in Nuuk, on the other hand, had weak Internet connection, and the connection was also very expensive — a fact that highlights critical issues related to the globalization of communication technologies and how some parts of the world are more privileged with smooth access than others. The weak Internet connection between Copenhagen and Nuuk resulted in a number of fallouts and interruptions. In some periods, the connection between Copenhagen and Nuuk was totally absent, so people present in the Copenhagen and Nuuk spaces could only see and interact with each other through the Tórshavn space. In these situations, technology did not “just work,” it was not invisible or transparent, but rather had a clear role to play when it “got in the way” of the content.
In addition to the technological misperformance of fallouts and interruptions, Skype also points out issues of social misperformance. One of the crucial elements in conventional use of Skype is eye contact: in most cases, when using a small screen on a computer or tablet, you try to mimic the social conventions of looking into the eyes of the person with whom you are talking. But when you do so, the webcam will not capture your line of sight because of the distance between the camera “eye” and the eyes of your communication partner on the screen. The eye contact only occurs if you look into the camera “eye,” but then you cannot also see the eyes of your partner. The current Skype platform has this built-in “social misperformance” because of the displacement between the webcam and the eye contact. In the near future, this will be solved by embedding the webcam into the actual screen, just around the area where the individual users would seek each other’s eyes.
In our setup for the Fluid States North telematic space, we tried to overcome the Skype system’s built-in “misperformance” of social conventions by enlarging the system. In our context, the Skype communication was no longer on a one-to-one basis, but expanded to include a larger space where many people could interact together. Hereby, the persons communicating would be so far away from the webcam that the distance between the camera eye and the human eye would become less significant. However, due to different material, technological and spatial conditions the webcams were placed differently at the three sites, and caused discrepancies between lines of sights in the three locations.
Negotiation of such discrepancies of eye contact and communication happened during presentations in the telematic space. During a talk the speaker would have three sets of audiences, namely the “live” audience in the room, and the mediated audiences in the two other spaces. Figure 1 shows Donia Mounsef giving a talk in the Copenhagen space: there are audiences in the space in front of her, while the screen to the left in the photo displays the audience in Tórshavn listening to Mounsef’s talk. At the back of the Tórshavn screen is a representation of the Nuuk audience also listening to Mounsef’s presentation. Figure 2 is the same situation seen from Tórshavn. Mounsef had a good take on her three audiences but often ended in an awkward position of turning her back to parts of the audience, accepting that some sentences would fall out and that interaction among the three sets of audiences was challenged by the degree to which they could (or could not) see and hear each other.
Sustaining the Social Code
During the first days of the telematic encounters of Fluid States North, other types of (mis)performance occurred when users tried to get acquainted with the telematic space. There was a lot of hand waving and “hello!”-ing as bodies moved around in front of the webcams and screens as a means of testing the spatial limits of the telematic space. How far can the webcam reach in its visual range? Am I inside the field of vision, or outside? If I move a bit to the left, will the figure of my body disappear from the screen at the other location? Can my partners at the other space still hear me if I stand at a distance and speak with a normal voice? All these small modes of communication involved a corporeal performance that was perceived as outside the normal situation of person-to-person interaction for several reasons: it took place within a kind of “stage setting” defined by the telematic space, and was visible for others who were present in the room but outside the telematic space. It was difficult for a user to look the telematic partner in the eyes, and therefore the technology became significant as a boundary for what is conceived as the ordinary and smooth bodily interaction of a face-to-face encounter. Everyday interaction was enveloped in technological challenges.
This contributed to an emphasis of what sociologist Erving Goffman, in his microsociology of everyday life, would call “sustaining the social code.” It is a situation in which a member of a group is expected to recognize the presence of others, and to “willingly and spontaneously” go to certain lengths to “save the feelings and the face of others present” (Goffman 308). Those who entered the telematic space in an attempt to engage with people at another geographical location would participate in the odd choreography of waving to and greeting the conversation partners. They would try to recognize the presence of others, even though this presence was virtual rather than physical. The technological and spatial awkwardness of the Fluid States North telematic space deprived interlocutors of the “normal” circumstances under which certain social codes are upheld, and hereby highlighted how such normative practices are in fact constructions.
The corporeal testing of the telematic encounter was highlighted in several of the performances: for example, in Cameline Bolbroe’s interactive project entitled Adaptive Architecture, seen in Figure 3. A number of white kinetic boxes were placed on the floor in the Copenhagen space, and Bolbroe had programmed them to react to the movements of red plastic balls in the hands of audiences, including those audiences located in Nuuk and Tórshavn. In Figure 3, a couple of participants in Nuuk hold up red plastic balls in a mirror game with Bolbroe and another participant in Copenhagen. In Figure 4, a participant in Tórshavn is following the movements of participants in the two other spaces. In this case, the built-in misperformances of the entire setup became aspects of investigation as well as basic conditions of the interaction. The kinetic boxes and the red plastic balls became a starting point for interaction to happen, but soon the red balls got more attention than the kinetic boxes because of their ability to clearly indicate the actions and interactions that would take place. A social relation was formed that depended on the communication between bodies in the telematic spaces.
At Fluid States North, three artists: Alvis Parsley, Heather Hermant, and Kaija Siirala, conceptualised and organised a telematic dance event entitled Queer Slow Dance with Radical Thoughts. Figure 5 features participants dancing at the Copenhagen site, with performers and participants in Tórshavn on the screen to the left. Coordinated by the artists, who were located in Tórshavn, the Queer Slow Dance with Radical Thoughts was performed by participants in all three spaces at the same time and to the same music. The misperformance of the system became obsolete and the meaning of the experience happened somewhere in an embrace of technology, other human bodies and instructions from the coordinators.
In his 1990 article, media artist Roy Ascott posed the question “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace” in a discussion of telematic art. The question was formulated as a comment on issues that are still highly relevant in today’s debates on social media and big data, namely the fear of technology and the dehumanisation of systems controlled by computers. Ascott proposes that in a telematic system, the artist does not create meaning and content. He writes: “In telematic art, meaning is not created by the artist, distributed through the network, and received by the observer. Meaning is the product of interaction between the observer and the system, the content of which is in a state of flux, of endless change and transformation” (Ascott 247). Content is embodied in immaterial data, “pure electronic différance,” and only becomes manifest with the data is reconstituted in the interface. According to Ascott, the status of art has changed because the interface has replaced the conventional objet d’art, while the aesthetics have shifted from observed object to participating subject. Telematic culture subverts isolation: creativity is shared and authorship is distributed, while the individual still maintains authenticity and a sense of creative capacity. In the Queer Slow Dance a telematic embrace happened alongside the physical embrace as bodies, voices, images, sounds, instructions, and systems became a continuum.
Shared creativity and distributed authorship in artistic telematic encounters were at the core of several performance events at Fluid States North. In the following, we will further elaborate on aspects of telepresence, intimacy and misperformance through the analyses of two different performances: the first analysis focuses on the idea of a tele-actor and how an extra personal layer can support the appearance of intimacy despite the physical distance, while the second analysis deals with an intimate aesthetic experience as a consequence of the physical distance and the misperformance of the system.
Tele-actor, Let Me Tell You That I Love You
On the third day of the conference, artist and performer Beau Coleman organised a performance entitled Let Me Tell You That I Love You (Distant Islands). It was a performance extrapolated from an earlier performance that took place in Toronto, Canada where Coleman invited people to join her in an investigation of intimacy. Coleman stepped into the role of a 1950s American suburban housewife who keeps on telling the participant in this one-to-one performance all the things that she loves about the person. As long as the participant stayed within the performance space, Coleman would compliment the appearance and bodily expressions, and she would place small stickers on the part of the participant’s body that was being praised.
In the Distant Islands version, Coleman was present in Copenhagen and her participants were either in Tórshavn or Nuuk. While Coleman had visual and verbal communication with the participant through the telematic system, she was not able to perform the intimate act of placing stickers on the physical body of the participant. Therefore, the performance became an investigation of intimacy despite the physical distance. For intimacy to happen, Coleman needed to find an ally at the distant place. She needed someone to share authorship and create a bridge between her words and actions on one side and the participant’s experience on the other. She needed someone to become a tele-actor — a person operating on her behalf. Figure 6 shows the performance from the point of view of Copenhagen, where Coleman as the 1950s housewife points to the ear of the participant Soley Danielsen, who was located in Tórshavn. The tele-actor, Hanne-Louise Johannesen, is acting on behalf of Coleman’s instructions, and is placing a sticker on the ear of Danielsen.
Artist and scholar in robotic and telekinetic art Ken Goldberg introduced the tele-actor as a field of research in 2000. In a research paper from 2002, Goldberg and his colleagues describe the tele-actor as a human tele-operated actor that will act upon the instructions from a remote audience (Goldberg et al). For example, one or more persons could watch a visit to an architectural site remotely, and the audience at the other end would be guiding the tele-actor according to their wishes of what to see. The selection of camera views and angles would constantly be connected to the question: “Where should we go next?” (Goldberg et al). For Goldberg, it was crucial to have an actor who can act on his behalf: one who stands in for his eyes and be a vision instrument for him to act remotely. The tele-actor, in the case of Coleman’s performance, was more like a mediator negotiating the conversation and supporting the intimacy. The task of the tele-actor was to focus the attention to the places on the body of the participant that Coleman praised. The tele-actor would put colourful stickers, mainly on the faces of the participants, but also on other body parts. For the tele-actor, it was a process of listening carefully to the words of Coleman and then transforming the words into actions of trust and confidence. The tele-actor became Coleman’s prolonged arm, but unlike Goldberg’s tele-actor, Coleman’s version became “invisible” and non-personal for the participant. The intimacy was between Coleman and the participant, and the tele-actor strove not to interfere with the intimacy bubble.
Being the participant was a different experience, but it underlined the role of the tele-actor as a crucial yet invisible link and guarantor for the intimacy to happen. The physical touch of the tele-actor, the virtual touch of Coleman, and the intimacy in words and voice became united. The participant might feel vulnerable being on a stage and exposed and magnified through technology, but this became irrelevant for a short while. Despite technology, despite glitches, and despite distance, the basic human qualities of touching and being touched were not lost for the individuals who engaged with each other through telematic technologies. Intimacy was created in the mutual trust between the telematic partners and in the concern about personal vulnerability. This underlines Kozel’s experience in the Telematic Dreaming setup where “human interaction was reduced to its simplest states: touch, trust, vulnerability” (Kozel 93). In Coleman’s performance, we saw a glimpse of Ascott’s telematic embrace, where “we can hope to glimpse the unseeable, to grasp the ineffable chaos of becoming, the secret order of disorder” (Ascott 244). Coleman became the caretaker of the telematic space during her performance, and guided the tele-actor to support the caretaking process.
Figure 7 is the same situation as in Figure 6, only here seen from the Tórshavn site. As mentioned, various degrees of trust and intimacy were built up among the three equally engaged individuals, and the separate telematic spaces were momentarily experienced as one with no physical distance. Johannesen had the opportunity to be both the tele-actor and the participant in the performance. Both physical distance and an exposure on a large-scale screen would normally work against intimacy, but here these circumstances played a significant role in creating a sense of nearness. The performance Let Me Tell You That I Love You (Distant Islands) created a sense of intimacy despite the telematic framework.
From Performance to Dwelling
The element of time was crucial for the intimacy to happen in Let Me Tell You That I Love You (Distant Islands): firstly, because of the carefully orchestrated performance that built up confidence and trust, and, secondly, because the involved parties had been active in the telematic setup for several days at the time of the interaction. In her experience from staying in the Telematic Dreaming setup mentioned above, Kozel describes how the four weeks of her presence in the art installation began as a performance, but transformed into a dwelling for her. By staying in the room for a relatively long period of time, the space became a dwelling in the sense of “feeling at home.” To understand how the space transforms from a performance to a dwelling, it is crucial to spend time in the space and to get to know all its details and peculiarities through appropriation. The concept of appropriation, in this case, refers to Martin Heidegger’s relationship between Being and being-there, a relationship always at stake and always in negotiation. Appropriation is an active relationship between oneself and one’s surroundings, one that can be described as an on-going event of emergency (Polt 3). In Telematic Dreaming, Kozel was placed in an event of emergency where everything was unknown and unfamiliar in the beginning. Through negotiation and investigation, what was set out to be a performance became an appropriation towards dwelling.
Dwelling cannot be taken for granted. In Heidegger’s words, building has dwelling as an end goal — still, not every building is a dwelling (Heidegger 141-143). The process of turning a building or a telematic setup into a dwelling takes time and commitment. This also refers to concrete design and interior layout, as well as the notion of ambience as discussed by architect Renato Cesar Ferreira de Souza. He argues that, “in order to be properly appropriated, places need to be comfortable, in terms of the layout needed, temperature, ventilation, illumination and the like” (de Souza 41). According to de Souza, ambience is a basic element that keeps the inhabitant comfortable while taking care of and acting in a space. Ambience is important when appropriating a space and making it into a dwelling. In the case of the Let Me Tell You That I Love You (Distant Islands) performance, appropriation was key in creating an intimate relation between the participant and the performer. Coleman’s performance as a housewife, her movements around inside the telematic setup, and the participants’ exploration of technological misperformances within the telematic setup were part of an appropriation process. For the Fluid States North telematic setup in general and Coleman’s performance in particular, all its technological glitches and distortions became a basic ground for performing and revealing aspects of nearness, intimacy and togetherness.
Glitch in the Dance Performance Siku Aappoq
Another example of how a technical misperformance provided new aesthetics was during the dance performance Siku Aappoq (Melting Ice) by the dance company Yggdrasil Dance. This analysis focuses on misperformance as it happened on the level of technology itself. Choreographed by Birgitte Bauer-Nilsen, the dance performance Siku Aappoq featured the two male dancers, Thomas Johansen and Alexander Montgomery-Andersen. Figure 8 is a photo of the performance at another location under different circumstances. According to the dance company’s website, the two dancers visualise a melting iceberg while also enacting the metaphors for existence and behaviour through the bodily materialization (“Siku Aappoq”).
In the Fluid States North case, the dance performance was staged at the Art Museum in Nuuk in front of a live audience, recorded simultaneously from each side by the two webcams, and transmitted through Skype to the Tórshavn and Copenhagen audiences. The scenography by Marianne Grønnow featured white transparent organza fabric, and was intended to evoke different forms of ice structure: from blocks to crystal, flakes, and fluid water. During the performance, the dancers would move around, on and within the textile, and enact the three phases of separation, transition, and incorporation (“Siku Aappoq”). Staged in a dark space, light of green and turquoise colour would create dramatic shadows on the human bodies and the organza while evoking the colour of ice and cold water.
However, at the beginning of the Siku Aappoq performance, the flow of digital information from the stage in Nuuk to the audience in Copenhagen was interrupted several times because the image would freeze, become pixelated, or the sound would disappear. During these interruptions there was a short instance of uncertainty, a brief moment where it was impossible to identify a specific malfunction or failure. This is what Rosa Menkman calls a “glitch”: a break or interruption in the flow, that gives room for an intimate, personal and ephemeral experience of the inner formations as well as the flaws of the system. The glitch draws attention to the ordinary as ordinary, and highlights the difference between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
On a theoretical level, the concept of glitch is defined by Menkman as “a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident or error” (Menkman, The Glitch Moment(um) 9). Menkman makes a clear distinction between a glitch and a failure: a failure is a phenomenon to be overcome, while a glitch remains unknown. The glitch can either be ignored and forgotten, or it can be included in a process of interpretation of what went wrong based on the cultural and technological context of conventions and histories. “Accordingly,” writes Menkman, “when the glitch opens up to the realm of symbolic or metaphorical connotations, the interruption shifts from being a strictly informational or technological actuality, into a more complex post-procedural phenomenon to be reckoned with” (Menkman, The Glitch Moment(um) 27). When a glitch happened in the Siku Aappoq performance there was a moment of hesitation and uncertainty, and different kinds of reactions would occur among the audience: some would turn their heads to look for a technician to come forward and fix the problem, as if they had already concluded that the technology had failed. Other audiences would attempt to focus their sensuous apparatus not towards what was missing, but towards what was still there — as if a distant and blurred sound could compensate for the disappearance of the image, or vice versa. In such cases, the individual would draw upon his or her own knowledge and corporeal experience to try to fill in the cognitive and emotional gaps.
In her definition of glitch, Menkman focuses on the relationship between technological and cultural dimensions of the glitch. The expectation of how a technology should work is related to the technical functionality, but more than that: it is also related to a social context. According to Menkman, there is a genealogy of conventions attributed to machines and computers. New technologies foster both euphoria (due to the quest towards complete transparency), as well as disappointment (because no technologies are perfect). By highlighting the imperfection, the glitch shows how imperfections can also be opportunities. The glitch opens the field towards broader social issues, in which “a distributed awareness of a new interaction gestalt can take form” (Menkman, The Glitch Manifesto 340). In the case of the Siku Aappoq performance, the audience in Copenhagen engaged in a social interaction while negotiating the various responses to the frequent instances of glitch in the telematic transmission from Nuuk. A new mode of engagement emerged: while the dance performance continued uninterrupted on the stage in Nuuk, the telematic connections to Copenhagen was cut off entirely in order to allow for a more smooth flow of data transmission between Nuuk and Tórshavn. The Copenhagen audiences turned their chairs and attention to the Tórshavn screen, and watched the Siku Aappoq dance performance as it was remediated through the Tórshavn screen.
Figure 9 is a photo taken in the Copenhagen space, featuring a webcam in the top middle part of the photo, and the screen of the Tórshavn space. In the lower part of the photo are the heads of two audiences in Tórshavn, who are watching a screen displaying the Siku Aappoq performance in Nuuk. It is possible to identify the stage area in the Nuuk space and one of the dancers standing wrapped in the white transparent organza. The view of the stage in Nuuk is partly obstructed by a vertical wooden strip in the middle supporting the webcam at the top, as well as a pillar that cuts down in the right hand side of the screen image from Nuuk. The soundscape was blurred by the transmission through several other spaces, and whispers and noises from audiences at all three sites mingled with the accompanying music. For the audience in Copenhagen, the transfer of digital information through not just one but two layers of mediation in a double transmission phase caused a blurring of the image, a delay in movements, and a disruption of the synchronicity of visual and auditive reception. All these elements contributed to a new aesthetic dimension that added to and emphasized the slow motion choreography of the dance. It provided a ghost-like appearance to the corporeal bodies that dissolved the representation of the human body into a posthuman configuration of digital information.
While watching the performance in Copenhagen with all the distortions and misrepresentations, things happened that seemed to contradict common-sense knowledge of physical presence as a precondition for intimacy. There were moments of telematic encounter that exceeded the diegetic representation of the other spaces and activities, where a high degree of tactile bodily contact occurred by means of the visuality of the telematic screen itself. To argue for this, we refer to the sensuous theory formulated by the film and media art scholar Laura U. Marks in her text “Video Haptics and Erotics” from the book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. In this text, Marks discusses the concept of haptic visuality in relation to particular erotic qualities, which might be a productive concept to use in analysing parts of the telematic encounter in the Copenhagen display of Siku Aappoq.
Marks discusses two types of visuality: optic visuality and haptic visuality. These terms are adapted from the 19th century art historian Aloïs Riegl, who identified a rise of figurative space as an optical construction in the late Roman art period (between the 2nd and 8th century AD). In the Egyptian period, before the Roman era, art objects were haptic because they were made as reliefs on a stone surface, and this type of image created a unified visual field related to the material surface of the image. According to Riegl, an optical image arose when figures became distinct from the ground, and the abstraction of the ground made illusionistic figuration possible.
Marks defines haptic perception as “the combination of tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies. In haptic visuality, the eyes themselves function like organs of touch” (Marks 2). In the history of haptic cinema, Marks argues, early films tended to exploit the contrast between visual flatness (the haptic element) and visual depth (the optical element). Using the screen parallel to the plane of the film camera lens creates flatness. Haptic cinema is often used in documentary film, in which viewers are invited to mimetically embody the experience of the people viewed, and hereby engage in a shared embodiment. Haptic cinema is related to the surface of its object rather than establishing a vision of depth, and tends to emphasize texture rather than form. Haptic film resolves into figuration only gradually, and instead invites a caressing look by using the eye as an organ of touch.
Flatness and Obscurity
Many of the aesthetic properties of haptic cinema described by Marks became visible in the Siku Aappoq performance, as well as many other instances in the telematic space described above. First of all, the haptic quality of the telematic space was created through the flatness of the screens. This flatness was present already in the conditions of the telematic setup connecting three sites because the two sets of screens and webcams were installed opposite and parallel to each other in the setup.
During the double transmission phases, when one connection was transmitted through another, as in the case of the Siku Aappoq dance performance, the screen presented blurry and cloudy obscurity. It was difficult for the audience in Copenhagen to fully understand the layout of space in which the performance took place. The pillar in the Nuuk space is parallel in the image plane with the wooden strip supporting the webcam on the Copenhagen screen. This collapse of planes in different visual fields underlines the sense of flatness. The visual connection between the remediated representation of a space and the actual material of the screen reduces the sense of spatial layout. The pillar is no longer an obstruction of the view of the Nuuk stage that stands in the way of something going on behind it, but rather signifies itself as part of the haptic experience of the total scenery. Furthermore, the blurriness produced by the layers of pixelation contributed to the formation of flatness in the bodies and objects moving around on the stage in Nuuk. The numerous creases and crinkles of the organza material were lost in this digital translation so that only the most marked folds and shadows were legible on the screen in Copenhagen. The organza appeared more like a screen in itself, amorphous and formless as it reflected the light.
The flatness was further created by the smaller frame of the Skype transmission inserted in the larger screen in the corners — whatever kind of “depth” was represented through the diegetic display of the other space, this small frame would constantly draw the viewer’s attention back to the surface of the screen. This happens with the small image in the upper right corner of the Tórshavn screen in Figure 9, which displays the Tórshavn audience as they see themselves. The optical image that addresses a viewer who is distant, distinct, and disembodied was obscured in these situations. Instead, the viewer was invited to engage in haptic speculation, and to dissolve his or her subjectivity when encountering the image.
This kind of incompleteness, this inability to ever see it all is, according to Marks, related to eroticism. In the Siku Aappoq performance, the two male dancers wore trunks and a short, skirt-like piece of textile around their waists, but their corporeal nakedness did not suggest any eroticism. There were no erotic content in the performance as such. Rather, an erotic notion evolved because the screen constructed a certain kind of intersubjective relationship with the viewer. According to Marks, the erotic quality emerges when the viewer gives up visual control. She argues that haptics move eroticism from the site of representation to the surface of the image as materiality. Marks notes: “The viewer is called on to fill in the gaps in the image, engage with the traces the image leaves. By interacting up close with an image, close enough that figure and ground commingle, the viewer gives up her own sense of separateness from the image” (Marks 13). The audiences in Copenhagen did not experience the Siku Aappoq performance in the same manner as those who witnessed the dance as a live event in Nuuk, nor those in Tórshavn who saw the performance mediated through a single layer of screens. Rather, the shortcomings of digital technologies, the misperformances of spatial distortions, as well as the double mediated images through many levels of screens, provided a totally different aesthetic experience. This experience was intimate and engaging in ways that dissolved separateness.
Our analyses of the two telematic performances that took place at Fluid States North demonstrate how the screen itself, as materiality and as a medium for representation, became a core element in the transmission of knowledge across geographical distance. In the case of the performance Did I Tell You That I Love You — Distant Islands, the screen was a medium for a transfer of touch and a mediator for intimacy. Through the performative elements of speech and direction, the concept of the tele-actor became an important mediator of intimate interactions. The person listening to the words of the performer through telematic transmission, while at the same time receiving the attention of the tele-actor’s touch, experienced a merging of co-presence near and far: a collapse of corporeal and virtual distance. The distortion of scale and the awkwardness of bodily coordination were caused by the technological inaccuracy of the telematic setup, but also made it possible for new modes of intimacy to emerge in which the physical distance between the separate telematic spaces seemed, for a brief moment, to be suspended. Intimacy happened despite of the telematic misperformance.
In the transmission of the performance Siku Aappoq, the representation of bodies in a specific narrative of melting ice dissolved into an abstract presentation of haptic visuality, in which flatness and obscurity became significant elements. Here, the subjectivity of the viewer merged with the materiality of the screen because the obscurity of the space and bodies gave way to a haptic speculation. The viewer must give up visual control and overcome the separateness between viewer and image. Obscurity, distortion, and glitch were significant contributions to this type of haptic visuality. The example points out how intimacy can happen because of telematic misperformance.
We would like to recommend teleconferencing as a possible format for future PSi conferences. During the period of preparations, execution, and reflections of the Fluid States North event, we have been able to draw some conclusions from our experiences that may be transformed into generalised advice for a teleconference format. First of all, the technology should include a non-elitist, everyday type of communication platform with laptop computers and projectors combined with low-tech materials of white boards, cloth, clamps, and duct tape. This will serve as a critique of an “up-grade” technology loop, and provide a sense of common life familiarity within the surroundings. Secondly, allow time for conference participants to get acquainted with the telematic space, and expect instances of negotiations that will take place in terms of behaviour, speech, and actions. Kozel’s concept of dwelling is useful to understand the processes of “feeling at home” in a telematic setting, where communication patterns are unfamiliar and unknown in the beginning. It is important to create possibilities for participants to acknowledge and adjust to what de Souza calls ambience — the element that makes a place comfortable, and something crucial for the process of appropriation of the space. Transformation from performance to dwelling will take time, and do not expect instances of intimacy and nearness, despite distance, to occur before the last days of the conference. It will happen in the moments where the unfamiliar and awkward is acknowledged and partly overcome, but while awareness and appropriation is still in process. Thirdly, we propose new formats that provoke unfamiliar situations, such as setting up the Skype communication in a large public space with many people interacting at the same time, rather than the individualized and private space of a conventional Skype session. The uneven access to Internet connections at various geographical sites, as well as a variety of technical issues, will create an awkwardness in terms of how to interact and behave, and will lead to an awareness of the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Such renewed attention to technological and social expectations will foster alternative ways of being involved with, and make meaning from, the telematic encounter.
We would like to thank everyone on the Fluid States North team for making this project possible. Thanks to Steen Linke Larsen and other staff members of IT Media at the University of Copenhagen for technical support during the Fluid States North preparations and events. And thanks to Bárður Nessan, Tórstein Olesen and the other staff members at the Nordic House in Tórshavn. For more images and reports from the Fluid States North event, please visit the website http://fluidstatesnorth.ku.dk and the blog https://fluidstatesnorth.wordpress.com.
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“Siku Aappoq / Isen Smelter.” Yggdrasil Dance. Accessed 10 Feb 2017, http://www.yggdrasildance.dk/siku-aappoq/