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aisthēsis: Feeling Through the Skin of My Eyes

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Bennett, Naomi. “‘aisthēsis’: Feeling Through the Skin of My Eyes.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2020, https://doi.org/10.33303/gpsv3n2a3

Naomi P. Bennett

Louisiana State University

I reach out my hand to touch yours, feeling the warmth radiating from your palm. Our flesh meets, then slides through, coalescing as the images of our bodies meet in the space between sensations of the tactile and the visual. — Personal Observation, January 2019

An interactive projection installation presented at the HopKins Black Box performance laboratory in January 2019, aisthēsis draws on the Japanese concept of ma — the potential that exists in the space between — and the embodied dance practice of Contact Improvisation (CI) to question non-tactile experiences of intimacy, connection, and touch. By engaging the audience-participants[1] in acts of disembodied physical connection through live-feed video projections, aisthēsis draws on Laura U. Marks’s theory of embodied visuality as a way to examine sensations of touch felt between the body and the screen. Working from Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss’s concept of a mixed reality paradigm, described by Mark B. N. Hansen as the “fluid interpenetration of realms” (2), aisthēsis blends the physical and the virtual, creating new possibilities for connection between individual bodies.

Through telematics,[2] which uses digital technology to connect individuals in two separate locations so that they appear to be physically present in the same space, aisthēsis allowed audience-participants to engage in acts of touch via the activation of visual stimuli. Using two live-feed webcams that each fed through a laptop to individual overlapping video projections, participants were able to explore visual-physical connections, or what I call “virtual touch.” In this way, aisthēsis invited audience-participants to see through their skin and feel through their eyes, blurring the sensory boundaries of touch and sight.

This essay describes and analyzes the co-functioning nature of the senses of sight and touch in aisthēsis. In addition to analysis, I incorporate photographs, video, and feedback from audience-participants and performers, as well as personal observations, to further examine how aisthēsis elicited an affective sensation of virtual touch. Through this analysis, I argue that the experience of virtual touch complicates how we think about intimacy, connection, and embodied touch in virtual interactions.

Feeling Through the Screen

Part of a larger projection installation titled (dis)embodied in space,[3] aisthēsis included six ensemble members, serving as both performers and mentors for the audience-participants. Dressed in plain street clothes, they began the evening interacting with one another within aisthēsis, but were instructed to step away and yield to any audience-participants who approached the playing area. However, as I will describe below, the majority of audience-participants remained in an observational role and were hesitant to fully participate without specific instructions.

Configured using live-feed video projections, audience-participants in aisthēsis were invited to interact telematically with one another through the overlapping projected images of their technologically mediated selves.Physically located about twenty feet apart on either side of a large center projection screen, each audience-participant stood alone in their own space in front of a live-feed webcam (Image 1). The two video images of each individual were then relayed through overlapping projections, connecting their bodies on the center screen (Image 2). This configuration allowed individuals to see both the physical body of their partner along with their projected selves, creating moments of connection through telepresence in the virtual center space. Additionally, each individual’s image could be seen on the intermediary computer screen, creating a further mediation visible to audience-participants observing from outside the playing area (Image 3). These multiple layers of mediation in aisthēsis via physical bodies, computer screens, and video projections further called attention to perceptions of presence when connecting with other bodies in space.

Image 1. A visual floor plan of the aisthēsis set-up.
Image 2. Performers Josiah Pearsall (left) and Ethan Hunter (right) meet in the space between. Photo by N. Eda Erçin.
Image 3. Performers Josiah Pearsall (left) and Ethan Hunter (right and on the computer monitor) meet in the space between. Photo by N. Eda Erçin.

[Virtual] Touch

Touch works in conjunction with the other bodily senses, often creating an empathetic response via a co-functioning of the senses. In The Object Stares Back, James Elkins points to the role of empathy in proprioceptive awareness as “an involuntary sharing of sensation between our bodies and something or someone we see” (137). Crediting Robert Vischer as originating this theory of empathy, Elkins writes that “pictures of the body elicit thoughts about the body, and they can also provoke physical reactions in [the] body” (138). Connecting to another body through the medium of telematics, this sensation of touch can create a feeling of what I call “disembodied-embodiment,” in which embodied sensations are felt through traditionally disembodied mediums.[4] As Merleau-Ponty writes, “perception does not come to birth just anywhere, [sic] it emerges in the recess of a body” (9). Although I will address experiences of disconnect from the body that occurred during the installation, my focus in aisthēsis is to examine the potential for embodied presence through the digital medium, rather than the disembodiment and disassociation of the body.

Working with Marks’ theory of embodied visuality, in which the sense of sight can create a haptic response in the body in which “the eyes themselves function like organs of touch” (162), visual interactions in aisthēsis translated to physical responses in the bodies of both audience-participants and observers. In contrast to optical visuality, which sees the world at a distance, Marks defines “haptic visuality” as less focused on the definition and identification of objects, and more on the affective feeling as the eyes graze over the visual texture. Haptic visuality “tends to move over the surface of its object rather than plunge into illusionistic depth” (162), with the eyes acting as tactile sensors, much like the eye knows the roughness of a rock, or the softness of velvet.

Feeling Ma: Developing Space Between

It started with a firm, yet gentle touch. Rolling over and under and through each other’s bodies, connecting inches of skin I had long forgotten about. It started with weight. It started with an assurance that each of us was a solid, real object in space. As our bodies rolled together, the gentle guiding voice suggested a parting, a separation of flesh — but not a separation of weight. We were reminded to keep the connection alive, to keep the electricity that had been flowing freely through our entwined bodies. To give space between the physical and sensation of the air between, the distance, the ma, or the potential that lived in the gap. Stretching, separating, keeping the string of connection like taffy pulled just before it snaps. Sometimes our eyes met, but it was not necessary. The ma kept us tethered together. — Personal observations during a physical theater workshop at the Dance Complex, Cambridge, MA, circa 2008.

Coming out of my training in physical theater and CI, my primary question in the development of aisthēsis revolved around the boundaries, weight, and experience of touch outside of the physical-tactile pressure of the corporeal body. First conceived through a collaboration of experimental dancers including Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Trisha Brown in the early 1970s, CI has since spread to be a global practice.[5] Typically organized around an open “jam” setting, CI is a partner-dance based on the principles of “touch, momentum, sharing weight, and most quintessentially — following a shared point of contact” (Zemelman). A pioneer in the early modern dance movement, Paxton was an active voice in challenging preconceived notions about the methods of creation and types of physical movements that were considered dance (“About Contact Improvisation”). As my personal practice began to extend to challenge preconceived notions of what constituted touch, CI seemed to be a fitting method to push boundaries of physical movement, sensations of touch, and intimate connection.

Using CI as a grounding technique (Image 4), training with the six ensemble members for aisthēsis focused on spatial connections, bodies, and moments of touch without touching. Each rehearsal began with the fundamental elements of CI: sharing of weight, rolling points of contact, and a focus on embodied listening. As the ensemble grew more in tune with one another, our explorations expanded to a broader sense of proprioceptive awareness and sensations on the edge of touch, searching for the electric moment of anticipation just before the point of physical contact. Beginning with the reminder of touch, we began to separate, allowing space for energetic connections of ma to flow.

Image 4. Performers Montana Jean Smith (left) and Greg Langner (right) dance with each other during a photoshoot for (dis)embodied in space. Photo by Naomi P. Bennett.

Describing both time and space as interrelated and inseparable, the Japanese concept of ma can be defined as the pause or interval that exists between in which “phenomena arise through time” (Isozaki 156). Often misunderstood by Western readers, ma is more than a theory, but a fundamental perspective and way of existing in the world. In her chapter, “Being Ma: Moonlight Peeping through the Doorway,” Christine Bellerose describes ma as “a space-time concept of embodiment, ma exists at the threshold of corporeal experiences” (162). Applying ma to contemporary dance practice, Bellerose describes ma as an “embodied flow” which resides and moves through the relational experience of the lived body.

As a phenomenological experience in which space and time are relational, ma has evolved out of a rich historical and cultural tradition that can be difficult to understand from a Western perspective. Originally a Shintō concept, ma describes a fundamental perspective of the relational nature of space, time, and the fluid intervals between objects and bodies. In his chapter “The Skin of Culture” Derrick de Kerckhove notes that “for the Japanese, space is a continuous flow, alive with interactions and ruled by a precise sense of timing and pacing” (157). Although translated into English as “space-time,” de Kerckhove explains that ma “does not correspond to our idea of space” (157). Unlike the Western concept of neutral, or empty space, ma describes the “complex network of relationships between people and objects” (157).

Cultivating the potential of ma as a “connective awareness” (Bellerose 164) alongside the fundamental principles of CI as a shared point of weight and touch, aisthēsis offered a pathway for an affective experience of the potential for virtual touch, or what Brian Massumi describes as the body as “a transducer of the virtual” (135). In Parables for the Virtual, Massumi writes that “the virtual, as such, is inaccessible to the senses” (133). The virtual cannot be felt, cannot be achieved through the digital, except “through the analog,” or rather the lived experience of the body (138). Through the meeting of the possibilities of the digital realm of telematics, and the potential of the analog bodies of the audience-participants, aisthēsis offered access to the virtual in the felt sensations of the lived body.

Creating Space Through Ensemble: Potential, Perception, and Anticipation

Starting from points of contact and weight sharing, training with the ensemble gradually shifted from the full weight bearing of CI to the expansive taffy-like connection that allowed ma to flow freely between bodies. Cultivating this charged space, our explorations searched for the feelings of potential touch in the instance when not touching. As a group, we worked to develop a sensitivity to the physical and energetic connections that carried the weight of our bodies as we leaned towards and away from one another, sensing the near-but-not-touching of our bodies, gradually working towards connecting through the distance of the screen (Image 5).

Image 5. Performers Josiah Pearsall (left) and Ethan Hunter (right) lean on each other in virtual space. Photo by N. Eda Erçin.

In explorations of the possibilities of virtual touch, our work included sensations of body heat, spatial awareness, and extension of physical boundaries through imagery of the aura. “Feel yourself sliding off the edge of your partner’s aura.” This directive slipped out of my mouth one evening, searching for words to express the felt potential, expressed by one of the ensemble members as “the anticipation of a gentle touch.” Describing the aura as “the material trace of prior contact,” Marks refers to Walter Benjamin’s definition of the aura as a “temporal immediacy, a co-presence, between viewer and object” (140). This visual manifestation of the aura as a feeling of co-presence of bodies became a foundational image in our training, and even surfaced during the exhibition when one audience-participant commented to me that she felt like her “aura had just gotten a massage.”[6]

Liveness and Digitally Mediated Technology

Although Benjamin’s 1935 essay to which I referred above, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” argues for aura as an indication of liveness of the art experience and against the mechanical reproduction of artwork, I posit that contemporary artistic scholarship needs to be clearer in its distinction between technologically entangled art, and the technological reproduction of art. Technologically entangled art, as defined by Chris Salter, consists of “human and technical beings and processes [that] are so intimately bound up in a conglomeration of relations that it makes it difficult, if not impossible to tease out separate essences for each” (xxxii). This includes the vast genres of multimedia, new media, and intermedia art in which the removal of technology renders the artistic product lifeless and mute. Conversely, technologically reproduced art is more commonly seen in the act of reproduction, such as documentary photographs and video. While technological reproduction can be artistic in itself, it is not entangled as defined by Salter, but rather a new piece of art that may be only tangentially related to the thing that it is attempting to reproduce.[7]

As Philip Auslander notes in his 1996 chapter “Liveness: Performance and the Anxiety of Simulation,” technology is ever-present in our daily lives and often expressed in live performance that “itself is a product of reproductive technologies” (197). As a reflection on current cultural entanglements with technology, aisthēsis employed digital liveness in its use of telematic connections. Although telematics displaces the body from the physical, it is still “tied to his presence” (Benjamin 10), creating a form of mediated liveness or aura that mirrors our technologically entangled culture.

Audience Response: Absence, Presence, and the Space Between

Each night a crowd of observers gathered around the edges of the exhibit. Although several benches had been placed for audience-participants to sit should they want or need to, no specific area had been designated specifically for an “audience.” With no verbal or written instruction, audience-participants tended to watch, murmuring to each other and quietly questioning whether they could participate in the installation (personal observation, January 2019).

Audience participation in aisthēsis proved to be harder than I initially anticipated. Without explicit instructions, audience-participants defaulted to an observational role, gathering around the edges of the space regardless of the lack of intentional delineation between observer and performer. Night after night, crowds gathered around the playing space, watching with curiosity and wonder as the two solo bodies of performers moved together in virtual space (Video 1). Seeing audience-participants mesmerized by the movements of the performers and unsure if they were allowed to participate, I stepped in to quietly encourage those whose bodies seemed to radiate a physical interest. Some took me up on the offer (Image 6); some declined, not ready to cross the thin line that had inadvertently manifested between observer and observed.

Video 1: Performers Josiah Pearsall (left) and Ethan Hunter (right) explore movement and virtual touch in aisthēsis. Sound design by Hal Lambert, video by N. Eda Erçin.
Image 6. Audience-participants Alaina Carper (far left) reaches out to virtually touch her mother, Laura Carper’s hand (far right), while her father Rob Carper (center left) and brother Winston Carper (center right) watch. Photo by N. Eda Erçin.

Many of the audience-participants who did step up seemed at a loss: how do you touch a stranger? What do you do? Audience-participants shook hands, gave high fives, hugged, took selfies, and a few even started fights — not all of which were consensual. One audience-participant, noting the disconnect between physical and visual feedback, described a sense of embodied dissonance, a “contradiction and dissociation of [their] vision and touch” forcing an “awareness of [their] own action.” Others experienced an emotional or energetic connection, observing that “it was almost like they could feel each other’s inner emotion and guided themselves on what to do,” or described feeling “a sense of phantom touch [. . .] a thrilling sensation” or observed that “their bodies weren’t physical to touch but to see, they were existing without their body.”

Contrary to my original theory that one could feel physical sensations of touch with the eyes while actively participating in aisthēsis, the majority of the audience-participants — as well as the ensemble — reported feeling a stronger sensation of touch through the act of observing. In both verbal and written responses, the sensory feedback was consistent: watching two performers’ bodies interact via telematic connection created a greater sensation of touch for the observer than actually participating in the installation. Consistent with Marks’ definition of haptic visuality as the focus of vision being “over the surface of its object” (162), the intense focus on seeing two bodies connect in aisthēsiscreated a sensation of virtual touch for the observers, while not necessarily for the participants. This could have been partly due to the set-up and difficulty in navigating the position and displaced proprioceptive sense of the body: because of the limited space the two projected images were not equally placed, with the right-hand area (from an observational perspective) at a slight angle, causing it to be much harder to reconcile the navigation of one’s physical body with one’s projected body.

Virtual Violence: Possibilities and Implications Revealed Through aisthēsis

Initially inspired by performer and theorist Susan Kozel’s experiences in artist Paul Sermon’s art installation of Telematic Dreaming,[8] my questions for aisthēsis as performance-as-research surrounded intimacy, violence, and gender. During Kozel’s performance in the 1994 exhibition in Amsterdam, audience-participants entered one or two at a time into a dark room containing a seemingly empty white bed, which held the telematically projected image of Kozel. Lying on the bed in virtual form, visually engaging with each new audience-participant who entered the space, Kozel’s two-dimensional projected image was linked through a live-feed video camera from a nearby room in which she inhabited an identically plain, white bed. Able to see (but not hear) her visitors through several video monitors, Kozel was able to interact and react to each audience-participant in real-time. “In Telematic Dreaming,” Kozel writes, “human interaction was reduced to its simplest essence: touch, trust, vulnerability” (93). Although literal, physical touch was not possible, the liveness of her body (and the absence of her corporality) elicited physical responses of both tenderness and violence from those who visited the performance.

Movement and visual contact took on greater importance, and became, as Kozel describes, “an emotional investment which shocked and sometimes disturbed people” (94). Reactions varied widely, from audience-participants who approached Kozel with tenderness, taking great care in the presence of her virtual vulnerability, to those who took advantage of her lack of corporality to act out physical and sexual harm. Occurrences of violence manifested as “a betrayal of trust,” translating into a physical reaction in her body (97). Kozel describes her physical reactions to virtual stimuli, ultimately grounded in an embodied experience, as “the final reference point and the source of meaning” (100). Although aisthēsis had a different configuration in that the performers physical bodies were visible along with their telematic projections, similar experiences of both sensual and violent interactions occurred over the course of the exhibition. These moments often caused a disconnect in which the performers became hyper-aware of the potential for violence, even though there was no possibility for material physical harm.

While the majority of audience-participants explored positive interactions of touch, whether it was simple gestures of hands meeting, or more complex interactions of leaning, giving weight, or even overlapping bodies to create new forms of contact available through telepresence, there were two clear instances of virtual violence over the five-day exhibition. One was a consensual, impromptu video-game style fight that ended in laughter between a young woman and man. This pair embraced the nuanced layers of the medium, ending their exploration by taking a telematic selfie in which each individual was in their own space, yet on the center screen their bodies aligned for a perfect photo op.[9]

The second instance of violence occurred between a male audience-participant and one of the female ensemble performers. Approaching the playing space, the audience-participant repeatedly put his hand on the top of the ensemble member’s head, trying to push her downward into a submissive position. Seeing this, another (male) ensemble member stepped in to replace the female ensemble member and engage with the audience-participant, whose behavior immediate became competitive rather than domineering, physically shifting his posture to a fighting stance. With the freedom allowed for explorations in the larger exhibition, I had prepared the ensemble for the possibility of this type of behavior. Similar to the type of distanced violence that Kozel experienced, and that often occurs in online social environments, the audience-participant seemed unaware of the repercussions of his actions, appearing to be having fun engaging in behavior that seemingly caused no harm because of the lack of physical contact. This parallel was also noted in the audience-participant feedback I received, interpreting the space as “society connecting through phantoms or social media, without physically being with each other.” Over the course of the five-day run, this was the only notable instance of unwelcome violence — and with preparation, the ensemble was able to address and deal with this behavior before it got out of control.

Conclusion

As an exploration of virtual touch, aisthēsis was an overwhelming success in creating space, connection, and dialog surrounding my initial questions about experiences of intimacy, connection, and touch through visual stimuli. Although the results were not what I was expecting, I am excited to discover the importance of the role of the observer in eliciting embodied sensations of touch. Looking to Marks’ theories of embodied visuality, and Elkins’ writings on proprioceptive empathy, the act of seeing two bodies connect via telematic projections proved to create a sense of virtual touch in which the observers could imagine their bodies participating in a type of voyeuristic intimacy between observer and observed.

Works Cited

“About Contact Improvisation.” Contact Quarterly, 2014. https://contactquarterly.com/contact-improvisation/about/. Accessed 7 Dec. 2017.

aisthēsis. Created by Naomi Bennett, performances by Kalli Champagne, Emily Graves, Ethan Hunter, Greg Langner, Josiah Pearsall, and Montana Jean Smith, HopKins Black Box theatre, Jan 2019.

Audience-participant feedback. Department of Communication Studies, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Spring 2019.

Auslander, Philip. “Liveness: Performance and the anxiety of simulation.” Performance and Cultural Politics, Edited by Elin Diamond, Routledge, 1996, pp. 196-213.

Bellerose, Christine. “Being Ma: Moonlight Peeping through the Doorway.” Back to Dance Itself: Phenomenologies of the Body in Performance, Edited by Sondra Fraleigh, University of Illinois, 2018, pp. 161-179.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, Translated by Harry Zohn, Schoken, 1969.

de Kerckhove, Derrick. “The Skin of Culture.” Marshall McLuhan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory: Volume II, Edited by Gary Genosko. Routledge, 2005, pp. 148-160.

Elkins, James. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. Harcourt, 1996.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. Routledge, 2006.

Isozaki, Arata. Arata Isozaki, Edited by Ken Tadashi Oshima, Phaidon, 2009.

Kozel, Susan. Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology. MIT Press, 2007.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press, 2000.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press, 2002.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Rheingold, Howard. Virtual Reality. Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Salter, Chris. Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance. MIT, 2010.

Telematic Dreaming. Created by Paul Sermon, performance by Susan Kozel, Amsterdam, 1994.

Zemelman, Moti. “What is Contact Improvisation?” ContactImprov, www.contactimprov.com/whatiscontactimprov.html. Accessed 7 Dec. 2017.

 Endnotes

[1] I specifically use the term “audience-participant” to highlight the active, rather than passive, role of the audience in this installation. Because of the physical layout, audience-participants were invited to interact in the same way as the performers, often exchanging places and blurring traditional boundaries between the observer and the observed.

[2] Although telematics refers to the general use of digital technology to connect over distance, in digital artworks it is generally used to refer to the use of full or partial body video or video projections that create telepresence, or presence through telematics.

[3] aisthēsis was one of six interactive installations in the exhibition (dis)embodied in space, all designed to explore different aspects of virtual touch. For more information on the larger exhibition, see http://notjusttheater.org/disembodied.html

[4] Hansen also uses the term “embodied disembodiment” to describe how digital technologies have infiltrated our daily lives, changing the nature of embodied agency (93).

[5] According to the Contact Quarterly website, CI is taught on all continents except Antarctica.

[6] Audience-participant feedback came from student response papers written for classes in the Department of Communication Studies at Louisiana State University, and from personal conversations the author/director had with audience-participants during the exhibition. All feedback is used with permission and an agreement of anonymity.

[7] A current example is the recent trend to televise live performances of musical theater productions. While this kind of performance could be seen as technologically entangled, I argue that it is rather a form of reproduction and replication for the masses, as the performance is still designed for the stage, and would not lose its primary artistic qualities if it were not televised.

[8] Originally presented in 1992 in Helsinki, Kozel’s performance was part of a subsequent group exhibition in Amsterdam in 1994, Ik + de Ander (I and the Other) curated by Jeanne van Heeswijk and Ine Gevers at the Beurs van Berlage.

[9] Because of issues of consent and wanting the audience-participants to feel free to play and experiment, I only took photographs and video during the invited dress rehearsal, not during the public exhibition. However, audience-participants were encouraged to take photographs and video, as well as to post to their social media, but were asked to request permission of anyone they documented.

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