By Florencia Marchetti, Celia Vara, Magdalena Olszanowski, Katja Philipp
The pandemic has demonstrated the often complicated and contradictory ways bodies need each other. Being separated foregrounded and consequently gave us an opportunity to explore the things we took for granted, and the ways in which we had to rearrange our lives.
How far into others/ beyond ‘you’ can your body extend in the hybrid worlds we inhabit? How is ludic play possible with/ through our computers and what modes of sensing/movement does it call for? In between these two questions, a number of playful experiments and two public iterations of our workshop have taken place to date. A multimodal narrative of this creative journey is below.
The four artists/thinkers/makers behind this workshop met through their active membership in the Feminist Research-Creation Writing Group, which was sparked by Florencia Marchetti in 2015 at Concordia University, in the early years of the newly created Milieux Institute. The group remained somehow marginal to Milieux’s operations, though it was always welcome to use the institute light-filled spaces on the top floors of the EV building at the downtown campus.
The workshop’s exercises have a direct antecedent in the group’s collective writing exercises. Facilitated by Florencia at first and then alternating between different group members, these varied from minutes of free flow writing to collective exquisite corpse compositions, corporeal awareness meditations, touch and object-oriented micro-storytelling, embodied filmmaking and image-based writing, among others. These techniques helped ideas cascade onto the blank pages staring at us, unblocking relational and conceptual knots, while consolidating a network of thinking-making writers who cared for each other’s work with genuine purpose. We had an inkling that these techniques, which had helped us work through the entanglements of bodies, words, and ideas, could be potentially interesting to explore beyond the confines of the group and began to concoct ways in which we could come together with others to do so. This was late 2019.
When the pandemic was declared and the separation of breathing bodies became the norm, our writing group took to the zoom-sphere in order to preserve a sense of social support in the face of acute isolation. The workshop idea during that first year of online encounters. Our desire to further explore how our bodies were involved in our research practices/ entangled in our research objects was transformed into the main thread of an experimental three-part workshop during the Uncommon Senses III Conference, hosted by the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia in 2021. The conference, originally planned for May 2020, had been postponed due to the first Covid-19 outbreak and was being held a year later online. Our proposal to explore the involvement of the sensing body in research practices thus gave into an exploration of embodiment with/in the online academic conference setting.
Unfolding Sensorial Unknowns, the workshop
The workshop begins by welcoming participants into the online Zoom- space, with brief introductions and poetic remarks by Florencia Marchetti, situating the practice in the specific time and spaces we are in. An initial moment of collective attunement happens next, when we invite everyone to close their eyes and join in a guided breathing meditation intended to ground us into the shared timespace we are co-creating.
The workshop then unfolds through three main practice-based exercises. Following Sara Ahmed-ian lines, each practice hones in on digital/analog interactions, which subsequently change the affective response to each other, as we collectively explore how kinesthetic empathy and relational sensing might be cultivated through somatic, drawing and web-based practices.
The first exercise, led by Celia Vara, explores our body position through kinesthesia and kinesthetic empathy. Based on different sources (Sklar 1994, 2008; Reynolds and Reason 2012; Foster 2011), Vara defines kinesthetic empathy as the potential to engage in with another’s movement or sensorial experience of movement (2021a, 2021b). Kinesthetic Empathy allows feeling the proprioceptive sense in relation with oneself, others and the world. This kinesthetic system also permits to gather knowledge through the sensorial.
One of the ways we practice kinesthetic empathy is by watching first and reenacting later the performance Petjades [Footprints] (1976) by Fina Miralles (1950). The artist proposes a reflection on patriarchal society with special emphasis on the female body in public spaces. The piece consisted of walking in the city streets of Barcelona while she wore shoes that printed the letters of her name on the pavement. She walks carefully and with a slow movement, feeling the contact of every part of the foot, and then moving the other foot to make a step and be able to leave her footprint. These practices in the context of the acute restrictions on specific bodies under the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) revealed a form of resistance based on perceptual processes, one that is subtle enough to pass under the radar of repression. Watching the slow movement that Fina Miralles develops in Petjades and moving with/as her increases our kinesthetic consciousness.
The second exercise, facilitated by Katja Philipp, creates collective drawings inspired by surrealist exquisite corpse techniques that produce hybrid bodies in their singular-already-collective fragmented states. The exercise of collectively drawing derives its energy and grounding from the kinaesthetic movements inspired by the first part of this collaborative workshop. Based on the history of exquisite corpses developed or invented by the surrealists at the turn of the 20th century, other more contemporary artists have taken the concept further. The Chapman brothers or artist Philipp herself have created iterations of the exquisite corpse: the Chapmans in intaglio plate drawing; Philipp playing alone in her studio with long-term exquisite corpse drawings that endure over days or weeks, letting the initial drawings rest in between to forget and create a real surprise for the artist herself upon unraveling the final piece.
Often played as a thrilling party game with writing or drawing, the creature or poem on the page takes form in consecutive steps. A piece of paper folded in parts invites participants to draw body parts in connection to the traces left by the previous participant that overlap on the paper. Traditionally, the paper folds into three or more parts: Head, torso, and legs, with the torso often split into upper and lower portions. Part of our initial reflections had considered mapping the body as an affective field that would express through visual abstraction rather than word description. Our idea was to highlight body movement itself as language. However, in the actual workshop iterations, this was left open for participants to take on as they wished (more literal body drawing or sensation by way of movement with the pen).
We invite participants to draw from the first exercise to bring their sensorial body field into the hand-eye coordination of drawing, enticing a surprise of the outcome. This exercise is rooted in process and collectivity, bringing together ways of being, feeling, and thinking in a non-verbal expression. It proposes to activate structures of the unknown, underlying senses that are often lingering, not expressed in words, and open to interpretation. It is an enticing play that gives a sense of freedom and surprise for a collective process to produce something that comes together differently.
The third proprioceptive exercise, led by Magdalena Olszanowski, explores what kind of hybrid screen-based embodied compositions can be created through a collective mediated body (of work) using Zoom. We attempt this with a series of gestural elements based on the previous two exercises and consider how and where we move, look, and perceive ourselves and others in our hybrid space. The participants’ gestures begin to explore their individual moves on the screen, then we instruct them to upload photos of their Exquisite Corpse drawings as ZOOM backgrounds, and then to take screenshots of themselves and others playing. These are immediately uploaded and also used as backgrounds of their Zoom box—layering themselves on themselves. This iterative process continues, until other people and objects enter each other’s screens, and bodies play with (the sense of) mediated touch in person and in real-time online, such as moving a hand in situ to ‘touch’ a hand that is a ‘screenshot’ on Zoom. This practice brings to light what Sarah Ahmed points out in Queer Phenomenology (p. 14): “when we follow specific lines, some things become reachable and others remain or even become out of reach.” The inclusion of further layering through other simple and available technological tools such as extra cameras and mirrors are encouraged.
This began as a response exercise to the shift to emergency online teaching in March 2020. It considered what and how researchers move when interacting online (writing in notebooks and on the screen, shifting in our seats, managing browser windows, etc.) and in what ways these gestures could become playful. Using Zoom’s faux green screen feature with layering screenshots and backgrounds allowed our online mediation to leak outside the frame, at least to feel leaky and permeable. In The Wretched of the Screen (2012) Hito Steyerl argues that in our current time, linear perspective is being transformed and displaced, which is productive and problematic, specifically in relation to surveillance systems (Zoom, in this case). Through this practice of multiple perspectives we also interrogate the supposed neutrality of the webcam and the space it occupies and how it sees us. The exercise is situated within a lineage of Olszanowski’s extensive VJ work, especially as part of Sensoria (2008-2011), a multi-media electronic music monthly event she co-founded in Toronto, and in direct conversation with Hito Steyerl’s feminist multimedia work, and Joan Jonas’s feminist video works.
A co-compositional multisensory finale wraps the workshop, aiming at collectively rearranging mediated techno-bodies through kinesthetic screen-based play.
I. Uncommon Senses III conference (online, 2021) : Body of the ResearcherThis was the first public iteration of the workshop and it began with words spoken by Florencia:
We are not just/ ever a body, just this body, a container contained right here and now, who’s looking at you from the other side of a screen. My body is also what you see and what you sense, informed by these other things that surround me, our appearances flickering as data, electronically transmitted through wires that re-compose my appearance and all the things that co-compose us, in front of you, on your side of the screen.
If we think of our bodies in this way, not ending where our hands do… how might we go about extending into this mediated realm, this room where we are gathering today? How do we get across the cold blue light of the screens? How do we create something together, even if physically apart? How do we touch (or feel like touching, or figure something towards it) across flows made of wire, metal, glass, stone, bits and coin?
The drawing part was one of the challenges we had to resolve, as we were used to playing this “game” in situ on actual paper with materiality/ hapticity given by the tools (paper, pen, crayons, pencils, folding). As we experimented with an online exquisite corpse game, we found a way to collaborate on drawings over a distance that was both accessible and free of cost.
During the workshop each of the digital exquisite corpses was drawn together by a group of three people. Drawing here was a different kind of experience, working with the mouse cursor as pen, a range of bold colors, and the capacity to alter line thicknesses of the digital pen. Screenshots of these compositions would then feed into the 3rd exercise of gestural play and layered interruption.
After experiencing and moving with/as Fina Miralles, the participants were invited to write words on the chat that spoke to their perceptions and feelings during the corporeal experience. An improvised poem was created:
I wanted shoes
Sticking to the floor
I could feel the pressure of my feet onto the floor and really enjoyed it!
In the third proprioceptive exercise, we were able to play with our body and introduce the previous EC drawing creating screen-based embodied compositions. Some participants took video recordings as screenshots and used those as their ZOOM background then toggled the ‘Green Screen’ feature, so the ZOOM call then had layers of mediated movement that was happening in real-time in its squares. We were playing not just with the drawings, but in the drawings. Moments of joy and pleasant surprise happened when participants kept taking iterative screenshots of their screen that featured the whole group towards an infinity mirror effect; they moved their bodies as a dance to and with their collective selves.
II. ISEA Barcelona (in person, 2022): Re-orienting bodies: unfolding sensorial unknownsThe second iteration of the workshop came about in a very different context: the hybridity of the worlds we had learned to live in became palpable as the workshop unfolded between Barcelona and Montréal. The four of us simultaneously inhabiting the worlds of digital and in-person hybridity, with Celia and Florencia in situ in Barcelona and Katja and Magda online in their respective homes in Montreal. We held a workshop on hybridity and collective forms of play and connection: multiple modes of facilitation and interaction at once.
With the new optic of online and in situ hybridity came a challenge in technology and connectivity. There were no multiple channel video conferencing tools available in the room and one of the two facilitators in Montreal felt disembodied and disconnected during the whole workshop, yet the other, ensconced in her screen, didn’t. The other two in situ, in turn, had to toggle between being physically in place, documenting the process and facing technological glitches on-site, across zoom and private messaging channels. This form of doubled hybridity came to a new level of distortion, collapse, play, and interactivity.
The two facilitators in-situ, Florencia and Celia, were able to feel the presence and fluid sensorial engagement of participants in a very different manner, compared to the previous online workshop. In this iteration we could feel in more depth what Florencia remarked a year before: My body is also what you see and what you sense. Being present in the same space with other bodies allowed us to sense our body and its relations with surroundings. Moving in the space, walking with sandals, walking barefoot, in the ground or the borders of a platform, between chairs or in our own space. While watching other bodies move with/as Fina Miralles did, it was possible to feel the haptic qualities of motion and how it produces a certain effect that is not simply visual but also sensorial.
III. Uncommon Senses IV (hybrid, May 2023)
We are now preparing a third hybrid iteration, with in person and remote participation through an OWL video conferencing tower. Once again, yet, differently, we will be exploring coalescing techno-bodies and environments. Some of the questions animating this latest proposal:
- How can we be together in a more hybrid world of connectivity?
- How might we decenter individually framed bodies to sense and move with each other, reconfiguring normative/ oppressive sensory ecologies?
- How do the proposed practices open a sensorial and playful awareness that goes beyond the limits of our bodies’ skins/screens in an empathetic fielding of a collective experience?
The workshop configuration changes over time with each new set of participants and circumstances as well as our extensive discussions before and after each workshop. We aim to address these modulations in the making. In this regard, it is a speculative and generative practice. Speculative in that we research through questions that don’t have to be answered during the workshop/process but are reflected upon through corporeal experiences and mediated practices. Generative, in that unexpected outcomes are revealed through facilitated somatic consciousness. We are committed to connecting body(ies) and decentering individuality through playful compositional collective engagements that foreground what is possible when we sense relationally. Finally, our iterative workshop invokes a series of minor gestures (Manning, 2016) that care for collective relational encounters, whereby curiosity and not knowing instigate neuroplasticity and exploratory play. Grouping bodies in space to relate and inhabit it otherwise, force fielding a collective premise that works analogue while being digital, creating ephemeral forms of co-existence in hybridity.
- Ahmed, Sara (2006). Queer phenomenology : orientations objects others. Duke University Press.
- Foster, Susan Leigh (2011) Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance, London and New York, NY: Routledge.
- Manning, Erin (2016). The minor gesture. Duke University Press.
- Reynolds, Dee and Reason, Matthew (2012) Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices, Bristol and Chicago, IL: Intellect The Mill/The University of Chicago Press.
- Sklar, Deidre (1994) ‘Can bodylore be brought to its senses?’, The Journal of American Folklore 107(423) (Winter): 9–22.
- — (2008) ‘Remembering kinesthesia: An inquiry into embodied cultural knowledge’, in Carrie Noland and Sally Ann Ness (eds) Migrations of Gesture, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 85–112.
- Vara, Celia (2021a) “Somatic Ways of Knowing: Fina Miralles earliest practices of sensorial perception”. Performance Research: A journal of the performing arts. Vol. 26, Issue 3 – On Perception.
- — (2021b) “Kinesthetic Empathy as Embodied Research: A case study”. Performance Research: A journal of the performing arts. Vol. 26, Issue 4 – On (Un)Knowns.
Florencia Marchetti is a multimodal documentarian and ethnographer based in Montreal ~ Tiohtià:ke. She is interested in participatory research methods, dialogical art, social change and collective thinking-making processes. She’s been paddling against the waters of time to complete her doctoral dissertation since the pandemic began (Humanities PhD Candidate, Concordia University). Her project hones in on the atmospherics of terror produced by the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina, her home country, during her childhood, exploring the resonances of violent pasts in everyday lives through sensorially and affectively attuned research-creative practices. Florencia loves bringing people together to activate collective assemblages –in the last decade she has been the main instigator behind a feminist writing group, a Ni Una Menos Montréal chapter, and this workshopping collective. She was the coordinator for the intercultural, transnational lab Sensory Entanglements from 2014 until 2021. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Documentation from the University of California in Santa Cruz, where she worked as lecturer and Field Studies Coordinator and a Licenciatura en Comunicación Social from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, in Argentina. Her productions have been showcased in national and international academic, art and community-based contexts.
Magdalena Olszanowski is an award-winning writer, artist, and educator. Her 2020 PhD dissertation titled, girl.is.a.four.letter.word: The Collective Practices of Amateur Self-Imag(in)ing and Personal Website Production 1996 to 2001, is currently being turned into a book. She is part-time faculty in Communication Studies at Concordia University, and teaches at Dawson College in Cinema and Communication. An exhibiting new media and video artist as well as a writer, she has written for, or been featured in, publications such as esse, Feminist Media Studies, Visual Communication Quarterly, n+1, nomorepotlucks, and SXSW, among others. The first phase of her documentary, microfemininewarfare, has been featured at international art festivals. She was CBC’s Featured Columnist for 2022. She was born in Warsaw, Poland and now lives in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, Canada with her family and neighbourhood cats.
Katja Philipp is an artist, designer and writer inquisitive about creativity as a process, more-than-human collective creations, and movement as an inherent language. She pursues her Ph.D. candidacy in Communication at Université de Montréal. Akin to a plant, she lives in process while creating, thinking, writing and dwelling in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal.
Celia Vara is a postdoctoral fellow (FQRSC) at the Moving Image Research Lab at McGill University. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication (2019) at Concordia University (QC, Canada). She is a psychologist since 1997, and her master thesis (“Feminist Video Art in the 70’s in Spain”) won in 2013 the 1st Prize-Award in Gender and Research by Jaume I University in Spain. She is a visual artist and curator and has had residencies and individual and collective exhibitions in Dominican Republic, Canada, Cuba and Spain. Her writings and media work have appeared in Journal feral feminisms, Institute for Research on Women (Rutgers University), McGraw Hill Editorial, Art and Politics and Performance Research (Routledge Journal, Taylor and Francis). Her research explores the use of sensorial body in 1970s feminist performance art and its relations with corporeal agency and feminist resistance in the current cultural and political context. It further develops experimental methods employing kinesthesia and kinesthetic empathy as research-creation methodologies. Her research interests include video performance, documentary, curatorship, visual anthropology, research-creation and feminist sensory ethnography.. https://www.mcgill.ca/english/staff/celia-vara