On “body-theatres,” experiments of virtual co-presence, and conditions of connections with others.

Transformation

Suzanne Morrissey

The psychologist Michael Thomasello says, “A fish is born expecting water. A human is born expecting culture.” Across time and space, cultures have enacted rituals to bring bodies breathing in proximity to one another; to express joy, grief, transition, gratitude, tradition, routine, and comfort. COVID-19 has accentuated our human drive toward culture and the corporeal; it has animated human imagination toward solutions to isolation.

 

At the height of the pandemic I joined an online health solutions network, Cambia Grove, just as my father and step-father were dying; and while the specifics of their deaths hurt, I was struck by the general sense of death, the way it immediately connected me with others in loss. Such is death: it lodges in your heart, beating as background noise, alerting you to all suffering, encouraging human contact and ritual. Yet, conventional ritual and physical connection were unavailable to my family. Instead, I was held by a chosen kinship at the Grove.

 

I discovered refuge and comfort in digital action: I joined the development team of kinnected.org, a global self-health digital initiative to gather intergenerational stories across cultures for healthcare innovation; I joined a virtual community task force to initiate a land trust for affordable housing in my town; and, I became an Advisory Board member for the Peoples Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA) and their acupuncture technical institute None of these spaces need walls to define them, to legitimize them as concrete and operational. People move within these spaces and produce new selves and knowledge as they go.

 

I am a teacher. In one of my courses, “Social Bodies, Diverse Identities: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender,” students encounter voices and experiences that, perhaps, both resonate and differ from that to which they are accustomed; they engage with lived intersections of genders, sexes, sexualities, races/ethnicities, and “locations” (broadly speaking but in reference to socioeconomics, religions, nationalities, and inherited traumas). And, by semester’s end, students share in the understanding of how bodily experiences at the individual level cannot be disentangled from the social experiences of all possible forms and axes of identity or without interrogating power disparities among social groups. We learn to meditate, we set our bodies in motion, and we consider perspectives that challenge our sensibilities.

 

In “Social Bodies” we read Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Drew Leder’s The Absent Body for entre into philosophies of bodily presence and subjectivity. Lenore Manderson’s Surface Tensions: Surgery, Bodily Boundaries, and the Social Self provides the framework for discussions of bodily expectations and vulnerabilities: on a theoretical level, bodies are considered in their contingent, complex, and hybrid forms; and, methodologically, students are taught the meaning and value of autoethnography. Alongside my students, I have started experimenting with autoethnography in my own research and writing on chronic disease and integrative medicine.

 

I am a practitioner of public anthropology and aim to translate things we know about the human condition into practical and ethical solutions. I am also fond of stories and an avid listener of Krista Tippet’s “On Being.” Recently, she hosted Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama; a lawyer for people unfairly on death row, for people with mental illness and incarcerated, and for children tried as adults. Stevenson speaks of, “staying proximate” in creating a just society; of his grandmother telling him that you cannot understand anything from a distance: you must get close to people who are suffering and in pain, “people who have been discarded and disfavored,” Stevenson says, to affirm their humanity and their dignity. In my world, where embodiment theory and methods of empathy meet, one must be open to humanity, to listen to those around us, to embrace them, in order to know them. It’s all about proximity – proximity of sharing and knowing without constraints of physical space.

 

For Feeling Digital my groupmates and I were assigned to experiments: thinking, feeling, being the body to understand operations of the body (simple mechanizations of the body). As explained to us, when we do a rote activity (e.g., picking up a glass to take a drink), we perform the action in a mechanical way without attention to the way our body is performing. Experiment 1 (a series of 4 activities done together virtually and recorded) draws us into co-presence: the project being about our body’s capacity to expand and deal with aesthetic material and with community practice of “letting in the noise.”

 

The inability to speak seemed like an insurmountable handicap, particularly in Exercise 1. Anna modeled using hand gestures and movement to signal ideas; however, the rest of us seemed stilted by comparison and frozen in our separate screen boxes. Perhaps sitting and staring into our cameras influenced the experience of the technology-mediated exercise? I felt like the constant sight of myself interfered with what information I could gather from others’ expressions. This was particularly evident to me with Exercise 2 because it was easier for me to concentrate on others’ hands when I wasn’t looking at my own reflection.

 

“Contact with others” came in the moments of laughter and in moments of silence and inaction, when we knew there was something else that needed to happen; I felt connected to others in failure. Eye movements, especially the raising and lowering of eyebrows, tilting and shaking of heads, shrugging shoulders, and sighs felt like generative communication (even if it didn’t lead to desired outcomes). We were nonetheless still communicating even if it was simply an expression of aggravation. 

 

Beginnings and ends of action were identified with accentuated gestures; e.g., Exercise 2 with throwing hand signs and in dramatic facial expressions in Exercise 3.

 

Meaning throughout the exercises came out in pauses, when we looked around at each other, and when we did focused breathing together, or moved our bodies and camera frames in unison. We could signal enthusiasm by clapping hands, identify the end of an event with thumbs up, show confusion with raised shoulders and hands, and understanding with nodding heads.

 

Experiment 2, the AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE, was an expression of a personal aesthetic experience to be shared with others to activate feeling in others. I produced two short videos involving skin, touch, and the writing of trauma on the body (now merged as one for exhibition here). I chose to occupy a state of vulnerability to achieve intimacy with my groupmates. Across my videos and those of my groupmates, there were themes of transformation and rites of passage: for me the transformation of trauma to beauty through tattoo production – breaking through trauma by suffering physical pain in the presence of others; through Ana I read transformation from low to high energy, from stark lines and figures to relationships between the organic and inorganic, and between humans and animals, from theory to practice, and medicalization to eroticism; through Glenda I experienced transformation from materiality to spirit through the juxtaposition of linear and capitalist imagery to poetry of hope, longing, and joy to arrive at a shared sense of moving forward, being soothed by her voice; and with Arzhia we were transported to a another world of animal sensuality and playfulness – we were transformed from our robotic selves sitting in our separate COVID spaces to beings with hair blowing in wind, with capacity for touch and smell.

 

Through the process – of producing my own aesthetic experience to being witness to my mates’ productions – I felt transformation at a visceral level, a transportation from individual, staid experience to collective, ambulatory movement.