“Feeling Digital”: a practice-led research of embodiment as knowledge

The forced leap towards virtuality following the quarantines implemented in response to SARS COVID-19 generated abrupt modifications in the habits, customs and uses of domestic space around the world.

These modifications compromised the body-system of the inhabitants according to sanitary protocols and restrictions that were enacted in response to the virus. The "Feeling Digital" project, which was born with the intention of thinking critically about the implications of these modifications, faced the following problem that gave rise to a research method: How can we study, describe, and ask ourselves about this phenomenon if we are immersed in it?

Taking this question as a starting point, I will explain the methodological framework and narrate the trajectory of the research in practice that led to the design and subsequent performance of the set of auto-ethnographic experiments of the Feeling Digital workshop.

 

The aforementioned question implies at least two problems of scope: on one hand, the recentness of the phenomenon and on the other hand, the impossibility of generating distance with respect to it, due to our being immersed (up until now, June 2021) in the pandemic and the changes we suffer from daily due to it. If this question compromises any attempt at objectivity, it also sheds light on the need to find a method that validates the variables of immersion, promptness, and experience. The option that emerges suggests moving from conceiving the body as an epistemological object and recognizing it as an epistemic agent. Placing the body of the researcher as an active agent in research suggests alternative ways of acquiring knowledge and, along with it, multi-modal and not necessarily textual possibilities of producing and presenting said knowledge.

 

This research method is what authors such as Brad Haseman (2006) and Borgdoff (2012) call research in practice. In this sense, Haseman mentions the characteristics of this kind of research:

 

Practice-led researchers construct experiential starting points from which practice follows. They tend to ‘dive in’, to commence practising to see what emerges. They acknowledge that what emerges is individualistic and idiosyncratic. This is not to say these researchers work without larger agendas or emancipatory aspirations, but they eschew the constraints of narrow problem setting and rigid methodological requirements at the outset of a project. (Haseman, 2006, p.94)

 

Ad hoc to what Haseman says, this research case required generating knowledge from and by the body of researchers through experience and in a context that is constantly updated.

The rhizome origin of Feeling Digital

 More than initial questions, the groundwork for this project was built from non-verbal stimuli, from intuition, and situated knowledge, in an attempt to capture the relationship between body-digitality and virtuality-co-presence. In this sense, the initial questions and stimuli served as a first bait to capture ever more complex conceptualization networks, that is, articulated multimodal knowledge. In the emergence of meaning, these relationships behaved like a rhizome. Therefore, the relationship among stimuli, images, concepts, manifestations, and the verbalized question was dynamic and non-sequential, allowing one of the fields to influence the other and modify it. This first operation can be represented as follows:

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Scheme 1. Relationship between the theoretical matrix and the research operations in practice for the design of the Feeling Digital experiments

Rules of the game: composition of the choreography of the experiments

The generation of the experiments began with a first process of selection of components and establishment of the various material. The result of this approximation and ordering of the materials can be represented in the diagram set out below. It is necessary to mention that this painting is the result of the process of disassembling and verbalizing the first draft, consisting mainly of images, handwritten notes, songs stored in the playback folder and drawings made by myself. This table therefore is the "translation" of the notes, the verbalization of the components of the experiments.

Scheme 2. Ordered table with stimuli, concepts, and manifestations of the experiments.

As in the design of a choreography or a game, each experiment was self-sustaining and governed by parameters that, rather than limiting the action, directed participation. Thus, as a game that has multiple possibilities[1] of realization or execution subjected to a few instructions, the experiments were drawn as guides / choreography guidelines where the body of each participant filled in the gaps, generating unique results. To achieve this result, each experiment required a framework that located both the premises and their relationship with virtuality and, finally, with ethnographic work. Ethnography was manifested not only as a component to carry out and approach the experiments but also as an excuse to generate the rules of the experiments, taking as a resource, for example, interviews, field visits, ethnographic diaries, etc. Using these components as devices to generate the performance, the results/products obtained would be a hybrid between embodied knowledge and auto-ethnography. In this way, the experiments presented in this website were designed[2].

 

This set of experiments were tested in 5 focus groups in which the results (products) were materialized in various media, such as audio, video, text, or image. In addition, I requested participants to keep an ethnographic diary of the experiences before, during, and after the whole experience. Although the main material for exploration and analysis was the non-verbal product itself. Verbalization (descriptive texts) was additionally used in order to communicate the experiences sent in virtual spaces. This point is relevant because, conventionally, the process of verbalization or translation of the materials after the analysis is what is known as the results and, in this case, word as a textual component was an accessory. This is precisely one of the characteristics that defines research in practice, as Haseman mentions:

 

The second characteristic of practice-led researchers lies in their insistence that research outputs and claims to knowing must be made through the symbolic language and forms of their practice. […] This insistence on reporting research through the outcomes and material forms of practice challenges traditional ways of representing knowledge claims. It also means that people who wish to evaluate the research outcomes also need to experience them in direct (co-presence) or indirect (asynchronous, recorded) form. (Haseman, 2006, p.99)

 

Due to the vital nature of experience in this kind of research process, we decided to record the participatory sessions of the experiments, in addition to the two sessions of the workshop in order to allow external agents to return to the records as many times as necessary for analysis and study of the cases. This kind of delivery of results constitutes a new paradigm in the generation and presentation of data; the difference that exists between the process and the result is, therefore, the editing of materials, selection of components and curatorship. As in the design of experiments, each product has its own system, framework, and needs; in an ideal processes, it is sought that every experiment generates a language that supports the product and provides both the instructions to examine it and the production itself. This type of product / result also reveals the usually opaque boundaries between background and form, where one constitutes part of the other.

 

For Suzanne Langer, presentational forms are not bound by the linear and sequential constraints of

discursive or arithmetic writing. Rather their “very functioning as symbols depends on the fact that they are involved in a simultaneous, integral presentation” (Langer, 1957, p.97). And so, when research findings are made as presentational forms, they deploy symbolic data in the material forms of practice; forms of still and moving images; forms of music and sound; forms of live action and digital code. When a presentational form is used to report research, it can be argued that it is in fact a ’text’ – in the way that any object or discourse whose function is communicative can be considered a text – and should be understood as such within the qualitative tradition.

[1] In fact, it is improbable to repeat a match of any game, I’m thinking about chess, Chinese checkers, or some sport such as soccer or football.

[2] The detailed description of each experiment together with the products of the participants, can be consulted by clicking on the experiments tab or by selecting the hyperlink of each title.

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The body as an agent: research in practice and embodied knowledge

I will now return to the question at the beginning, that is: how can we ask ourselves and generate knowledge about this abrupt change from presence to virtuality when we are immersed in the phenomenon? The answer, not conclusive of course, is the following: from and through the body. Placing the embodied experience and the knowledge that emerge from the frameworks of the experiments at the center has allowed us to build 24 theses, products to be broken down and reviewed from various filters, theories and experiences. The knowledge that emerges from this experience is still in the process of rooting its meaning (Deleuze, 1977, p. 24). It still mutates and allows varied readings; it is collective, situated, and anchored to the experience of various researchers with different backgrounds and from different geographical locations.

 

Putting the body at the center means using the genealogical, genetic, acquired, technical, experiential, sensory, and sensitive-affective repository at the service of living and at the same time interpreting experiences and problems. This is precisely one of the essential mechanisms of interpretation, adjustment, and readjustment of the body in situations without antecedents, in borderline contexts, in spaces of intra- or interpersonal complexity. That is, as Le Bretón mentions:

 

The body is already an intelligence of the world that is filtered according to the symbolism it embodies, it is a living theory applied at all times to its environment. There is no break between the flesh of man and the flesh of the world that he translates in terms of perceptions and meanings, without one existing without the other. The body is a semantic filter. (p. 17, 2008).

 

This aspect places embodied knowledge in the kind of data that must be filtered and analyzed from the same source that starts, considering the biases that correspond to each individuality.

This kind of methodology is gaining more and more relevance in areas related to innovation, precisely because of its heuristic quality that allows the generation of non-linear processes and that, consequently, allows complexity as a constitutive part of the results. Regarding a possible boom in the visibility of this paradigm, Haseman mentions:

 

Performative research will become increasingly important as a methodological approach across the arts, humanities and social sciences. Performative research is also being used by researchers involved in content creation and production across the creative and cultural industries, especially those engaged in user-led and end-user research. (2006, p. 105)

 

Finally, if the body is the agent that filters the world, placing the body of the researcher at the center also legitimizes a type of knowledge that, from a Cartesian perspective, is usually dismissed or even branded as soft knowledge: that is the field of the effects and affectations on the body. At the same time, legitimizing this type of knowledge places us, researchers, as sensitive, receptive, and fragile beings. Research and science urge the desensitization and disembodiment of researchers in a paradigm that assumes that knowledge is an isolated component of the entire body and the agent that generates it. 

 

This research is a bet, a first collective exercise that should continue to be reviewed towards complexity. We propose a space to generate research from practice, and we seek to deepen the implications, scope and limitations of generating knowledge from and through the body.