by Susanne Palzer and Camille Baker (October 2020)
Intangible Threshold investigates collaboration and the meaning of connection over distance through screens and available technology. Coming together as two artists from different backgrounds in performance, Susanne Palzer and Camille Baker were brought together to answer this question: what methods do we have at our fingertips to brainstorm, devise, and rehearse live performance in COVID times in 2020? Through performative acts, digital connection through cameras, as well as using video conferencing tools, we explored ways to comment on the meta-issues around distant relationships, virtual touch, connections with nature as replacement for human physical interaction, as well as the current restricted possibilities of performing live in-person.
Connection, dialogue and collaboration
With this project, the two artists, who only know each other through a mutual friend but are from different performance-based backgrounds, with different knowledge and practices, came together virtually to ‘face’ the global pandemic conditions through collaborative making and discussion on what the project is or could be. The collaboration is an experiment, is the work, is the connection.
Remote communication and connecting across distance were concepts discussed at length by Baker (2018), and the idea of finding ways to extend ourselves, our consciousness over space to somehow embody technology while we do so. But never has it felt more important and yet also more superficial than in these times when we cannot come together ‘in the flesh’ to meet and hug each other ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.
From Baker’s side, this has been an extension of the work and exploration she undertook in her PhD (2011) and more recent book (2018), around extended consciousness and embodying technology to reach out across distance to others (since she moved from Canada to the UK to undertake her doctoral studies in late 2007). Performing online in real time, is not new but part of a long standing practice and interest of hers, but never has it been required before, rather her projects were experiments and playful or artistic pursuits. Of particular focus has been the design of participatory, in-person experiences that use mobile and wearable devices, and for audiences to co-create the performance. The idea of connecting to distant others and loved ones is also not new or unfamiliar for Baker, in general or in digital arts, but it has become mandatory rather than a choice. So especially for very social people such as her, these locked in times have become very difficult and isolating. The social longing has increased ten-fold; even those in close proximity are now distant. Strangely, as the social has gone online, as well as the art, the work and everything else, motivation in being online has diminished and the isolation has increased.
For Baker, the feeling is pronounced since she just moved into a new home last year, which is even further from the closest town and much further from her work (2 hours on public transport each direction!), and she no longer drives, so everything feels even more distant when amplified by the restrictions necessary to stay safe from the virus. Efforts to teach students and keep them engaged emotionally and intellectually are now also required; efforts to connect for conferences and festivals via online portals and even VR, have been implemented globally; all the in-person and social engagement that makes the practice of virtual and media art practice emotionally balancing, has been removed. Having a pet and a partner make it all bearable, but for others this is not an option.
For many years Palzer’s practice has focussed on investigating ‘the digital with physical means”, often translating digital processes into physical forms. Concerned with embodying these processes as a performer, via a different approach to Baker’s, and the inter-personal energy that physical, present, in-person live performance generates, the current situation is forcing her to reassess her practice at a fundamental level. In a framework in which computational processes are nearly the only way to connect and come together with other human beings, rethinking performance in this changed digital context feels more like an expansion than an extension. Even though this opens up new possibilities, the call for ‘offline performers’ to ‘go online’ has manifold consequences.
As part of a worldwide Live Coding community, with an awareness of much previous networked performance, Palzer initially responded to the sudden shift for everything and everyone to move online with digital withdrawal. In terms of practice, simply reworking or adjusting what one did before to different platforms does not appear to be the right move forward. Her practice of translating and executing the digital in analogue form originally emerged as a framework for engaging with unfamiliar fields of knowledge in our increasingly digitised, fast-paced world. Performing ‘the digital with physical means” became a strategy for responding to information overload in a creative way. OPEN PLATFORM/RAP(s)-TwT., a series of micro events, subsequently expanded these ideas from her own practice to other performers and presenters by asking them, “How about switching off and going on?” Over the past few months, through the physical isolation of lockdown and other restrictions, a different kind of information overload has emerged, which now demands a revised strategy: switching on is suddenly a requirement, switching off at this moment in time equals social isolation.
Three important dimensions to enable this project for us, to find our way through and shape the experiment, were exploring the concept ‘connection’, through ‘dialogue’, by enacting ‘collaborative making’.
‘Connection’ for Baker is like an invisible thread between people like a spider web, but with emotion infused and keeping the thread strong and alive, even without regular contact and interaction. Of course, it has long been associated with transportation, telecommunication networks,, and since the dawn of the internet in the early 1990’s, the invisible networks of the online world. It also has its analogue of our blood vessels, nerve network, muscle sinew and the lymph connections of the body.
Baker’s idea of connection as an invisible thread between people resonates with Palzer’s general experience, and especially her experience during the development of this project: connecting directly but remotely via regular Zoom meetings online, but also feeling the ‘connection’ while performing collaboratively devised rituals on her own and offline. For her, ‘connection’ sits very closely with ‘communication’. Humans and modern digital technology are both about communicating and the idea of connecting: humans with humans, computers with computers, humans with computers and vice versa.
Dialogue is how we can find common words and a language to initiate and maintain interpersonal relations, but also was critical in this project to help us to formulate the ideas and share perspectives on performance, not to mention the performative dialogue and gestures we played with.
Collaboration is what Baker helps to facilitate in some of her European Community engagement projects, but also the preferred form of artistic practice. The cliché that ‘two heads are better than one’ when it comes to making work, has always been true for her and much of her practice is based on some form of collaborative interaction – to push ideas back and forth makes more interesting outcomes in her view.
Negotiating collaboration and exploring layers of exchange within artistic collaboration has also been an enriching part of Palzer’s practice. From collaborations with individuals, performing in bands and theatre ensembles to initiating dialogue and discussion within the medium of ‘performative dinners’, her focus is often on bringing people together and facilitating connection. This interest is most pronounced in her work around OPEN PLATFORM/RAP(s)-TwT. which specifically aimed at building a ‘digital network with physical means’: a community of performers and people interested in or researching into the issues around ‘the digital in the physical’.
The word ‘digital’ after all comes from the use of the digits in our hands – our fingers – and therefore the connection between the hands, touching the virtual space and the intuitive gestures and choreography in this project is a fitting.
Humankind has found itself in the midst of a global pandemic during 2020, where ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ have become key terms since late March. As part of a strategy to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, citizens have been asked to not shake hands, avoid hugging each other, and stay at least 1.5m apart ( Durkin et al, 2020) from other people – unless they are our family or support ‘bubble’. Official guidance (gov.uk/coronavirus, 2020) places restrictions on our ability to meet in person, except for essential activities. Much social interaction has moved into the digital realm: ‘socialising’ with family and close friends over Zoom, working from home, and even having basic needs met, like shopping for food, are now facilitated via a screen and the Internet. With this project, we explored the wider implications of social distancing within the context of the COVID‐19 worldwide pandemic and, in particular, the implications on human touch.
Touch is a basic, essential human need, as neuroscientists, medical and psychiatry experts, like Lewis et al (2001) have proven. To be deprived of touch can have serious health implications, from effects on child development, or death for babies, to increases in stress, anxiety and depression in children and adults, which have become much more evident during weeks and months of ‘lockdown’ around the globe, as studies of impact show ( Durkin et al, 2020).
During the development of the Intangible Threshold project, we have thought about and discussed the impact of the absence of touch. Collaborating remotely makes physical touch impossible (even outside a pandemic). Being asked to contemplate collaborative performance during COVID times immediately amplifies the lack of touch and the current impossibility of having bodies close together in the same physical space.
Reconnecting to nature has emerged during COVID times as a way to alleviate the absence of touch and isolation from other human beings (Barrett, 2020). Not only does the virus disperse more in open air, but also taking more exercise after long days indoors in front of screens has been shown to have many health benefits (Toth, E. 2020). Many psychologists have stated that a connection with nature is a way to stave off mental health distress, as our brains are wired to appreciate and engage with nature from evolutionary times (Begley, 2020), sometimes called Biophilia (Rogers, 2019).
During the weeks of lockdown Palzer found herself tending to the urban garden, which is part of her studio complex in Sheffield. Watching the first growth appear and nurturing young plants became a therapeutic daily activity, as the lockdown coincided with Spring. Reviving knowledge that she acquired as a child in her mother’s garden, she started experimenting with growing vegetables in this untraditional setting. Her renewed engagement with gardening has continued to this day.
Baker’s experience of connecting with nature during the pandemic has been in setting up her garden in her new house, and exploring nearby parks and trails with her family, new to them. Her previous life in Canada included outdoor activities such as: hiking, wild camping, and exploring the nearly untouched forests in the national parks of the west coast of Canada. Her childhood was spent on farms of her father’s and uncle’s farms in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, so she has a strong urge to be outdoors.
Reaching out to and touching nature became the subject of our photographs. Intending to reconcile with the lack of touch and the painful realisation of the consequential notions of withdrawal, we have devised the performative act of exchanging photographs by post to overcome the physical/digital divide. These photographs are physical objects, touched by us and able to travel in our place. These acts became substitutes by means of representation, which is an intrinsic property of the photographic medium. At the same time, they are artefacts of the process of investigation into and for our experiments around touch. The images we produced, and exchanged several times, visualise these attempts to reach out, and concurrently illustrate the many layers of this intangible threshold. Layering becoming a recurrent modality in the project.
We tested the idea of movement between locations through technology apps initially, but decided on the exchange of physical objects of digital representations of touching nature (plants and trees primarily), and the touch of the paper image of this touch of nature. But also creating the invisible trace of the travel of these images between our locations, as a renewed form of mail art with the layers of digital mediation.
Following this analogue to digital exploration, and during the online interaction of our weekly Zoom meetings, we then attempted to facilitate virtual touch in a playful and more immediate way. From touching screens, to absurdly measuring our physical distance from the screen, or locating ourselves via compasses, we tried to reach out to each other with our hands and used other non-verbal gestures. We repeatedly positioned ourselves in relation to one another, but were never able to touch the other person.
In these times, performers across the globe have had their livelihoods destroyed by the inability to perform live to an audience, felt hard by theatre, dance and live artists, who have been completely unable to practice their art in person for most of 2020, apart from solo, free, streamed performances. The same applies to musicians who only really live on live performances.
The Upstage project (2007-present) and software demonstrated, via Helen Varley-Jamison and Annie Abrahams (see the Cyberformance reference), how networked performance has been in development for many years, across continents, and connecting artists over vast distances – and the questions and experiences we have encountered may have been explored by them before us – what is new is the global pandemic.
For the Intangible Threshold collaboration, we were commissioned to explore what performance now means. For each artist, the online performance experience is different, for Baker who has engaged in and instigated online performances in the past, this is different as the context of being in the home and only using screen-based technologies to ‘perform’ is new. She has a background in using mobile video and wearable devices to transmit live performances. However, using the constraints and affordances of video conferencing tools and mobile still images, alongside old technology of printer, paper and post to make art, is new and unfamiliar, foreign.
For Baker, whose performance work has always been with others or participatory or interactive for audiences, either in rock bands, or modern dance, or in recent years using emerging wearable devices in hybrid presentation types, this has been a good challenge and extension of her previous work, to think of new ways to make performative work in particular.
Developing new performance based work specifically for an online platform is a complete departure from Palzer’s previous performance practice and diametrically opposed to her use of performance as a tool to unpack and understand digital technology by deconstructing some of its complex processes into physical (offline) performance pieces. Working with and through the body, exploring emotional positions through physical positioning within space, expressing emotions through movement are all key elements within her work. Some of these may be transferable in some way, but the rectangular frame of the digital screen of the video conferencing platform is a different, limited space for the performer.
With a further background in photography using photography for documentation and visual note-taking are familiar activities for Palzer, even so, the initial exchange of still images for Intangible Threshold felt odd and anachronistic. In the course of the project however, the photographs became something else, as they were both tool and medium: documenting performative acts and the performative act in itself.
As we move forward, much positioning and encounter of physical bodies will continue to be mediated by screens for some time. This collaboration has facilitated the exchange of thoughts, conceptual ideas and practical experiments, and as such has been a very valuable step towards the necessary expansion of Palzer’s practice and the specific challenge of a change in direction that the COVID situation demands. Having not worked together before, we had to negotiate what performance means to each of us, and how we could engage in this together, within the timeframe and COVID restrictions.
This project has helped us to examine how the screen constrains us and the software is designed to constrain us within its borders; it changes the way we physically move and gesture, how our brains perceive the exchange – the technology changes us in each interaction. We used Zoom meetings as the medium, to stage and mediate another form of connection: as the verbal-visual ‘live’ dialogue, and created another form of image exchange or type of dialogue, making screen grabs of certain gestures or acts, touching along the seam, the interface of the windows. But this action was also a lie – we had to change our screen orientations or reach the opposite way to make it appear correctly, and so the ‘connection’, the ‘touch’ was entirely fabricated, underlining the difference between real and virtual space, real and virtual interaction, non-verbal communication and touch.
We created a form of touch communication through image exchange and layers of images to explore a different form of touch communication: layers of images, layers of paper, layers of envelopes, layers of travel, layers of ideas, layers of nature, layers of gestures, layering experiences. This became one of our two primary modes of dialogue and connection, and through the performative acts, which we both performed in our own homes in Crawley and Sheffield, on our own computers and phones, we attempted to reach through the screens to connect hands, to embrace virtually, to perform and communicate this connection.
What we found ourselves doing in our weekly sessions were ‘call and response’ actions, at times to see what the other was doing, but also to see what it looked like on screen and perform a dialogue, a series of non-verbal phrases. We change which gestures we use, we change how we tilt our heads, where we look, how fast we move our hands. Utilising mobile phones, computers, printers, paper, envelopes and the postal service, we developed a collection of gestures to create a ‘choreography’ that can be performed “live” and be recorded as part of the output of our experimentations and improvisations.
When using Zoom or in other video conferencing tools, we see ourselves and perform for ourselves and the other, we change what we do for the screen in ways we would not otherwise, partly because we see ourselves interacting with the other, and partly due to the lags and delays in the network connection. On the screen, we see ourselves as much as we see the other(s) and our ability to control and monitor ourselves is increased, and unless we turn off our view of ourselves, we can find ourselves watching ourselves more than the other person, to determine and perform what “impression” we are making.
As Erving Goffman demonstrated, in his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in 1956, people are always performing, in every social interaction they have, every moment of the day, and usually have many different ‘roles’, such as mother, friend, colleague. In each role, they control and monitor their own actions to suit the situation and the level of intimacy with others (or lack thereof).
Is the screen, software, hardware network also performing since they are enabling us to make this interaction? These tools enable the intersection, interface of human-technology-human, they take us to but not over the threshold of touch. So then the constraints and limitations include understanding who is performing for whom?
What performs? Where is performance located? Can it be defined? These are the concepts that we intellectually and performatively played with in our experiments.
These questions are still to be answered, perhaps in a longer, follow-up collaboration.
After exploring different concepts and playing with the screen capabilities Palzer and Baker, started to realise that they had a collection of gestures that they thought were interesting and worth building upon. The sum of gestures that we have tried and ‘collected’, have become performative acts and building blocks of a ‘choreography’ that we are constructing for performance/performing in a live real-time online context.
We explored how our movement (performance) is infringed upon and confined to both the screen on Zoom, as well as when using the mobile camera. Constrained by the dimensions of the screen, the squareness, the size of the phone in our hands, in terms of capturing the image, the distance (or lack thereof) from our faces, hands, objects.
We performed a number of movements and gestures that we recorded to use, either as a form of choreography or a video, or animation of still images to then piece together, or both – trying to recreate the physical connection – the act is the connection.
We explored ideas of the layering or ‘montaging’ the live performance alongside or on top of the recorded and constructed – not to juxtapose the modalities to expose the difference or authenticity of the live, but to add to the layers of digital “touch” and connection of self or selves, as we construct a new form of touch and connection through multiple instances of the performative to create a less ephemeral form (though in view) and transmission. However, due to the nature of the commission and collaboration, the outcome will still be fresh and novel, and will demonstrate that the act becomes the connection.
Below is a selection of the ‘performative acts’ we devised to guide and categorise our activities to give us some sort of structure to the activity:
- Reaching out and touching nature
- Arranging and taking the photo
- Holding the camera/mobile phone
- Decision making as an invisible act (choices)
- Putting on masks and hand sanitizer
- Going to the post office/posting
- Invisible traces of items traveling by post
- Touching the physical paper of the printed photo versus the real person
- Touching and rephotographing the images
- Reaching out towards each other
- Touching hands through the screen
- Touching strings through the screen as a form of tracing
- Rolling and unrolling thread as a visualisation of connection
- Glass tracing of screen body in reflection
- Positioning ourselves in front of the screen and in relation to one another/framing
- Gestures while speaking
- Creating visual connections using props
These acts formed the framework of our activities from a fairly early stage and helped guide the outcomes that we eventually developed.
Through this collaboration, more questions developed rather than answers. We found some immediate responses to the initial question of: what methods do we have at our fingertips to brainstorm, devise, and rehearse live performance in COVID times in 2020? We developed a number of different responses related to concepts of digital connection, virtual touch, connections with nature in place of human physical interaction, and found ways to deal with the restricted possibilities of performing live in-person, through our gestural play, creating a partial answer to what performance can be and mean in these difficult pandemic times.
We discovered that in the act of rehearsing the gestures as performance, juxtaposed with the recorded tests and multiplied recorded layering that we developed, that we became confused as to which the real and the recorded version of ourselves were performing, resulting in a blurring of these presences – how do we distinguish these modalities after too many layers performing simultaneously? And this brings into play issues and concerns of many other theorists and artists before us, around liveness and presence in real and virtual performance (Auslander and Phalen for example), which we didn’t have time to address in this durationally constrained collaboration. These experiences and discoveries seem like the beginning of a longer investigation rather than the end, but we will see where/if the work develops from here.
As for outcomes of the commission, we made a video montage (performance) of our physical/analogue photo exchanges, as well as the digitally printed photos themselves, screen captured videos of screen gestures and performative actions that we devised, and layers of them. We have a choreography that we have distilled from these exchanges and will perform them “live” as the culmination of the commission. We wrote this text and have as legacy the digital archive of our collection of interactions and activities, and we conduct a live interview on the collaborative process, with Jake Harris, the Director of Access Space, that will be archived at the end.
Barrett, A., (2020). Pre-Pandemic Study Shows More Than Half Of Us Report Wanting More Physical Contact. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/a-radical-nature-based-agenda-would-help-society-overcome-the-psychological-effects-of-coronavirus [Accessed 19 October 2020].
Begley, S., 2020. We’re Hard-Wired To Crave Nature – Mindful. [online] Mindful. Available at: https://www.mindful.org/do-we-really-need-nature/ [Accessed 26 October 2020].
Cyberformance definition and history (last edited Aug 2020) on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberformance [Accessed 26 October 2020].
Durkin, J., Jackson, D. and Usher, K., 2020. Touch in times of COVID‐19: Touch hunger hurts. Journal of Clinical Nursing, [online] Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jocn.15488 [Accessed 19 October 2020].
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.
Green, J., (2020). Book Review “Community Without Community In Digital Culture” By Charlie Gere. [online] Networked Performance. Available at: http://turbulence.org/blog/2012/09/23/community-without-community-in-digital-culture-by-charlie-gere/#more-14465 [Accessed 19 October 2020]. Community Without Community in Digital Culture suggests that networks always involve this other aspect of touch, separation, distance and gap, as a necessary concomitant of our fundamental technicity.
Gov.uk (2020), Coronavirus/COVID-19. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus
Lewis, T. MD, Amini, F. MD, Lannon, R. MD (2001), A General Theory of Love, New York: Vintage Books division of Random Houses, online info here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_General_Theory_of_Love and http://www.thomaslewis.com/writing.html
Love Machines season exhibition https://www.furtherfield.org/love-machines-programme-2020/ explores how we might act together and start reprogramming all our technologies of production and control for better love and understanding between all entities on earth – human, creature and machine or other!
Rogers, K. (June 25, 2019) Biophilia hypothesis, Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago https://www.britannica.com/science/biophilia-hypothesis [Accessed 26 October 2020].
Toth, E. (2020) Use Nature To Support Your Well-Being During The Covid-19 Pandemic. [online] University of Birmingham. Available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/perspective/nature-wellbeing-covid-19.aspx [Accessed 26 October 2020].
Upstage Networked Performance https://upstage.org.nz/ developed and run by Helen Varley-Jamieson for 20 years
Wikipedia (2020) About Annie Abrahams https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Abrahams Available at: https://aabrahams.wordpress.com/about/ [Accessed 19 October 2020]. Also recent group video performance essay on online performance she organised https://aabrahams.wordpress.com/2020/09/19/appearance-%c9%99%cb%88p%c9%aa%c9%99r%c9%99ns/ and https://aabrahams.wordpress.com/2020/06/11/video-vortex-reader/
Wikipedia (2020) Live coding https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Live_coding [Accessed 19 October 2020]
About the authors:
Camille has been making and curating work in the interactive arts domain, from installation art to wearable technology, in dance and performance for over 25 years. Her practice has always been focussed on performance using emerging technologies, with emphasis on wearable technologies and mobile phones as a performance tool and collaboration. She makes work that is participatory performance and interactive art, VR and immersive experiences, fashion tech and wearable electronics, mobile media art, using responsive interfaces and environments, and often curating interactive art.
She has had ongoing fascination with all things emotional, embodied, felt, sensed, the visceral, physical, relational, performative and participatory and have developed unique methods and approaches to exploring the body through or with the aid of technology, to explore expressive non-verbal modes of communication and extended embodiment through interactive and immersive art and performance. She aims to connect people to each other in more visceral, felt and emotional ways over distance better, and in more embodied, emotional ways. She explores new mechanisms to elicit engaging experiences using evolving approaches to technology and the body in participatory and interactive performance.
Baker’s 2018 book New Directions in Mobile Media and Performance showcases exciting approaches and artists using soft circuits/etextile, wearable electronics & mobile media, as well as her own work, and she a co-edited book of essays with Kate Sicchio, Intersecting Art and Technology in Practice: Techne, Technique, Technology (Dec 2016), which focuses on artistic process for those making work across art and technology tools. She is the Principal Investigator for UCA for the EU funded STARTS Ecosystem (starts.eu) Apr 2019-Nov 2021 and founder initiator for the EU WEAR Sustain project Jan 2017-April 2019 (wearsustain.eu). She has also been running a regular meetup group with smart/e-textile artists and designers since 2014, called e-stitches, where participants share their practice and facilitate workshops of new techniques and innovations. She has exhibited, performed, presented and conducted workshops around the world since 2003. Her portfolio can be found at camillebaker.me
Susanne is a cross-disciplinary artist, independent researcher and performer based in Sheffield, UK. Her main practice investigates the intersection of digital and analogue forms. She is particularly interested in the fusion of digital technology and physical performance, and in linguistic aspects of both technology and performance. The intersection of language systems, specifically technical terminology in art/performance and in computing/programming, including speech and sign systems of physical gestures and movements, is where much of her work finds its context and the freedom of deconstruction and re-interpretation resides. Palzer created and was the curator of OPENPLATFORM/RAP(s)-TwT., a series of micro events that explore the digital with physical means by asking performers to present digital work without using anything digital technology. In 2018 she initiated Twelve Months Notice, a project which explores artistic strategies for negotiating the fundamentally changed situation following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
All aspects of her practice are concerned with what it means to be a human being in a shifting world and how we negotiate and continuously re-position ourselves in an environment of increasing disembodiment and continuous uncertainty.
Palzer’s work has been shown in the UK, across Europe and in North America. She has presented at conferences and symposia including International Conference of Live Coding, InDialogue and Algomech Festival of Mechanical Movement. She has given artist talks at La Gaîté Lyrique (Paris), Arcada University (Helsinki) and University of Derby (UK). Palzer has previously been a co-director at Access Space (UK).
susannepalzer.net is currently under reconstruction; Twelve Months Notice