Thoughts from behind the screen

Still from a filming of Self-isolation dinner, April 2020

We are living through a moment in time where a physical proximity of others has become a threat. It is not a new idea of course, the idea of contamination has been here always, just as disease and infection have been part of our human history.

But this time it is different. We have got technology which enables us to connect while remaining distant. We are told now by various studies, that this pandemic has only accelerated the inevitable movement towards the digital and the virtual. There are people and companies that must be rejoicing now.

On a personal and artistic level, I am seized with terror. This is because much of my work of the past 15 years has been built on the growing understanding of the importance of our proximity senses (i.e. touch, smell and taste) in giving meaning to experience, underlined by the reality of our embodied existence, the sense that we make not only with our minds, but through the immersion of our bodies in the world.

Yet here we are, emerging into a new world, which operates under altered rules: we must keep a two meter distance, we must not hug, shake hands, touch our faces, in some instances breathe without wearing masks. Social gatherings are not permitted. Theatres, cinemas and exhibition spaces are shut. Teaching at universities has been transferred online. Having been encouraging my students to immerse themselves in London in order to research their dissertation topics, to visit exhibitions and museums, to move away from the desk, the screen, to explore ideas in a state that is not disembodied, I am now going to have turn my whole personal philosophy on its head. I will deliver lectures online, I will do tutorials online, I will read and mark online. And my students will receive all the learning through the screen too.

I find this very hard. How can one live in this new order, when it is so against one’s fundamental principles?! How does one rebel against that which is for the best, the only solution that we have?

Recently I made a short film, inspired by the lockdown. It is called Self-isolation Dinner and it captures a dinner between a man and a woman trapped inside a screen. The man has all the “substance” while the woman, I call her Ophelia, is disembodied, mostly a face…a mind that imagines the pleasure of touch, smell and taste of the food that her dining companion tries to share, across the screen.

The image above is a record of the filming process by skype, showing the same scene as the previous image, yet revealing both sides of the screen…

But ultimately the screen is in the way. It flattens everything, translates everything into a binary code and rebuilds a poor visual and audio representation, a tenuous link to the fully living world. I find myself feeling sadness for the disembodied woman behind the screen. She makes me think C G Jung’s idea of a spirit, who no longer has a body, hence no agency to affect the world. Ophelia participates, but only through empathy, imitation, power of her imagination to access the archive of her own personal experience, stored as memory: The taste of a tomato, the smell of basil, the pleasure of being stroked on her cheek. She wills her dining companion on the other side, to bring these to her but no matter how much she tries, she remains separated from the direct physical experience.

Yet isn’t all moving image by definition occupied by disembodied beings? Isn’t all the experience we perceive on screen only an experience by proxy, as film represents to us through image and sound, the richness of a world that we stored through experience, within our own bodies? And isn’t this mechanism so successful only because film utilises the components of the inner world inside of each of us, which has been archived there, over the years we have been alive?

My practice-based PhD at the Royal College of Art was concerned with a question of how our sense of touch (and embodiment) can be evoked by moving image and sound, by tapping into embodied memory. The concept of ‘tangible territory’ I arrived at, is not really a real physical space, but a network of relationships and dependencies, between the viewer/experiencer and the intangible artwork (i.e. film). This relationship has to be active, emotionally and sensorially engaged, in order to bring tangible territory to life, to animate it. Tangible territory therefore exists somewhere on the threshold between an exterior, objective, physical space and a subjective, interior one, defined by a person’s experience, character and imagination.

What the scholar Laura Marks calls haptic visuality is a form of vision that is acknowledging our embodied reality, is fully grounded and informed by the body. It is a form of filmmaking I have been exploring since I started my PhD in 2008, and which has later expanded to my interest of including also smell and taste, the other two proximity senses. I believe it has become ever more relevant now during the physical (or social) distancing period, when so much we rely on is communicated through the screen.

My Ophelia, the woman inside the screen, is like a film character that has become conscious of her own predicament: she is trapped inside a screen, she is an image, who longs to have a body. Yet she knows what she is missing, having had one, in the (not so distant) past.

Once the film is nearly completed, I watch the edit. I realise that another screen is in the way, so that now not only Ophelia, but also her companion, are only images that move, characters I cannot touch. Ophelia is now inside a screen itself inside a screen, and by the time you read this, inside your screen too.

In some way, we too simultaneously occupy both sides of the screen, as we try and connect with our families and friends across distance. As we speak on Zoom or Skype, Teams or Facetime to those “others” on the other side, “sharing” a drink while feeling the sunlight in our respective rooms, we may forget that we too have been flattened and re-presented by the screen of those who receive us. And while we raise a glass of wine together, it is not from the same bottle, underscored by the ambience of a shared room.

If one is to extrapolate this line of thought, we can say that perhaps this technological barrier is just a heightened version of all experience, which to a great extent remains subjectively coloured, as our bodies and minds choose to filter what makes sense, while ignoring the rest, based on our own tendencies, predispositions, associations. Yet it is precisely by being emotionally engaged and subjective, that we are able to empathetically connect to other person’s uniquely subjective worlds.

Text and image by Tereza Stehlikova, London, May 2020

PS. Just read this short article about E M Forster’s novella The Machine Stops. Terrifyingly accurate and very much connected to the above.

Other related text:

SYNAESTHESIASharing Food While Being Apart: Synaesthesia in the time of COVID-19, by Andrea Caroní Schweitzer Gil:

Self-isolation Dinner script:

Technology and embodiment


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