Cosmologist’s reflections on my new film

Having recently completed my short film Self-isolation Dinner, I have asked a selected number of interesting thinkers from different disciplines, to write a short response to the film. The idea is to offer different viewpoints on the work, so that the film is not an end in itself, but becomes an inspiration to dialogue, which in turn helps to nourish my future explorations. This approach reflects my interest in the creative and collaborative processes.

The film will be premiered online in the coming days.

In the first instalment, Professor Roberto Trotta, cosmologist based at Imperial College London, reflects on Self-isolation Dinner. Many thanks to him for his generosity and time.

The paradox of lockdown is that being deprived of what we had always taken for granted made us realize how important it was for our wellbeing: a conversation around the water cooler in the office, a handshake with a colleague, a hug to a friend in a park. But it has also thrown in sharp relief and magnified the little blessings that we had not been fully aware of before: a bee buzzing from flower to flower, the slant of sunshine on a cobweb in the morning, the calls of blackbirds filling the air, a group of geese flying in formation overhead.

Technology has helped us stay connected, beaming us into work from our bedrooms and studies, bringing grandparents to the bedside of children for storytime and creating virtual classrooms for pupils to continue their learning. The arts have helped us stay sane: music concerts, exhibits and plays have given us a measure of comfort from our screens. Yet the virtual version of both the human and artistic encounter has inevitably fallen flat: the two-dimensional nature of the screen that has become our sole window onto the world simultaneously connected us and kept us apart.

Dr Tereza Stehlikova’s Self-Isolaton Dinner short film compels us to reflect on this essential question: how do we reclaim the multisensorial aspects of life that make us human, while limited to interacting with others through pixelated two-dimensional projections that do not allow for spontaneous interaction, and remove smell, taste and touch? How do we regenerate a fully multi-dimensional world of felt experiences from the paired down digital version that is all we have while confined to our homes?

The questions Tereza asks go far beyond the time-limited world of our recent collective lockdown experience. With her film, she cleverly interrogates the digital future of humanity, and questions the course of planetary bit-mediated interconnectedness. In a world where distances no longer matter, what does it take for us to bridge the final, infinitesimal gap between two human beings and thus achieve true sharing and emphatic participation? How do we understand romance and closeness, when technology puts a potentially unlimited pool of friends and lovers at our fingertips, but when isolation and alienation lurk behind every left swipe?

The film also invites us to consider the power of imagination, and the importance of materiality. Science fiction writer A.C. Clarke’s third law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Self-Isolation Dinner makes us wonder what kind of technology would allow the two protagonists to share through the screen vegetables, smells, and touch, as we witness them doing in their intimate rendez-vous. But we soon realize that the magic that’s required is of a different order altogether: not the product of Silicon Valley whiz kids, but rather the result of us paying participatory attention to the everyday that surrounds us. This has always been what the arts do best – giving us fresh eyes with which to look at and understand the world around us anew. In Tereza’s film, a cascade of couscous is effortlessly transmuted into a cluster of galaxies; a forest of delicate mushrooms into an enchanted wood; the turgid surface of a kale leaf becomes a moment of sensual delight; lemon and orange peelings, the tangy reminder of all that is invisible to the eye. Like dark matter in the universe, these sensations are everywhere around us, but unlike dark matter they are within our reach if we only focus our imagination, following Mark Twain’s invitation. The restrained, carefully calibrated beauty of this film is precisely that: to open up a new universe in the multitude of our sensual encounter with the everyday.

Professor Roberto Trotta

Professor of Astrostatistics and Director of the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication

Imperial College London


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