Touch Skin

Dear _,

The body is a flesh-suit for consciousness. What have you been made conscious of in the past year, as the world entered pandemic panic mode and existing inequalities imploded in nearly every country? As Naomi Shihab Nye wrote “So much of any year is flammable,” but I don’t think most people expected such great and enduring flames.

The physical body is a vessel with a specific interface - the skin, which stretches over ears, nose, eyes, mouth, fingers, toes, knees,... A sensing and sensuous surface with depth. There is space underneath against which the world - an object, a sound, another body - can press. Can leave a mark. Can create a feeling so rapturous that you’ll never be the same again. This remains true for the posthuman body, even as its tendrils and appendages and interfaces continue to extend our systems and surfaces ad infinitum.

During the pandemic, our skin has become particularly visible as a node of reception and transmission. Its natural state may be described as open: open to affection, to violence, to virus. Unable to switch off this interface at will, we’ve had to withdraw from one another to keep us safe from ourselves. We’ve had to dull orifices like our mouths by masking them, speaking less. As with other “ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another”, affection, violence and virus are wrapped up with each other; in order to be open to one, one often has to be open to all.

Withdrawn from public space, we became conscious of our bodies as conduits for contact and proximity, and, by extension, intimacies we may have taken for granted. Turning to our networked bodies, we were made conscious of their extents and limits, their enmeshed potential for intimacy and loneliness. It seems that more commonly-used technologies, such as Zoom, are not (yet) able to replace the immediacy of the body. The body, then, is still the most complex and nuanced sensory interface and assemblage toward which user-centric technologies often aspire.

Networked Bodies, an exhibition curated by independent art space Supernormal, presents counter-offers to our loneliness through a series of telematic experiments in intimacy. In doing so, it recasts our conceptions of technology and its interfaces, and troubles the commonplace demonisation and dismissal of new technologies as anti-social or non-biological.

A good place to begin is  Brian den Hartog’s A Dialogue with Cyberspace, which expresses the fog of confusion that rises from the gap between our physical state of being and our online selves. Following my initial premise of the primacy of the body and embodied experience, the body is also our first site of consciousness and existence, a site where a self might emerge or be conjured into being. Opening and closing with visions of a swarm, den Hartog’s film emits a sense of dread or terror at the distracted posthuman being. It points to the body and flesh as “an instrument capable of feeling,” where “one[ness]” is located in physical togetherness, and the relocation of personhood into the digital and virtual space as a kind of devastation. The narrator says, with an uncertain tone but pointed choice of words: “I don’t understand why you surrender parts of yourself to fit into this system that lies beyond your physical understanding.” Yet, prior to this moment, it already suggests one possible reason - the desire for permanence and immortality.

Unlike our online selves, our physical existences are finite, mortal. “In a body that knows a past, [we] feel how time passes by. [...] [We] wonder how it is to be eternal.” A small robot guides elderly wheelchair-bound bodies through physical exercises. Its body instructs our body. Its body is a proxy for our body. Similarly, our social media accounts, our second body, will probably outlive us. This avatar, like the plastic bags in our landfills, might go on forever. 

“We find each other in a single movement and disappear in a body that we will never fully comprehend.” We have come full circle, but not quite. Perhaps this line harks back to the opening of this essay, which is that we are ultimately tethered to what bani haykal calls “our wetware”. However, there is also uncertainty as to what the “body” here now means. Which body - physical or digital? Perhaps both, or all - since we each take on so many selves across social, physical, and virtual planes. Caught between selves, each existence becomes itself a swarm, each particle responding to those adjacent to it, but “[n]ot a single one can grasp the group as a whole.”

In Paul Sermon’s Telematic Dreaming, the body’s sensorial integrity is hijacked by immersive technology, which allows two bodies to bypass physical distance to “share” a bed through the mediation of live videoconferencing. Sermon explains that here, “the sense of sight [is] exchanged with the sense of touch”; while you cannot touch the other body, the immersive visual of seeing them next to you causes a kind of trip in your body. Intimacy feels possible like this. Beyond the meeting of two people, Telematic Dreaming might also be seen as the symbolic meeting of the virtual and physical body, with a tenderness and intimacy that might soothe the grief of den Hartog’s film.

Interestingly, the technological core of Telematic Dreaming is neither videoconferencing nor live projection. For Sermon, “[t]he bed was the most psychological, charged and complex piece of ‘technology’ in that whole piece”, an “interface that function[s]... as a portal between the human avatars we control inside the matrix and ourselves.” We are reminded that the word “technology”, despite its associations with man-made metallic devices and, more generally, cold, masculine, non-human qualities, is rooted in notions of art, skill, craft, and systematic methods. It is less a material presence and aesthetic than a kind of method and practice by which something comes into being. Perhaps a useful word is “assemblage”, which has been employed in new materialism. In Telematic Dreaming, by assembling the untouchable yet visually-immersive transmission (the live video) with the body-soaked material object (the bed), the former becomes real-er to the sensing body. A symbiotic relationship exists between the two components, which alters the way they exist to/for each other, and then to/for us.

The home as a site of intimate possibilities continues with Sarah Choo Jing’s Zoom, Click, Waltz, a voyeuristic vision of strangers who we watch through their windows. Following the provocation of Telematic Dreaming, might we consider the window the technological interface of Zoom, Click, Waltz? It’s slightly different since, unlike the bed of Telematic Dreaming, there isn’t a physical window and space in the work. Instead, there’s an additional layer there of the camera and the eye/I that looks through it.

I am reminded of the intimacy of a gaze, look, or stare, and how, as Dan Nixon derives from the work of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “[i]ntimacy, connection and compassion rest on our perceiving one another: [...] the felt sense of this embodied, sensitive and vulnerable being before me.” Much of popular discourse now is trained upon taking apart our eyes/Is, to examine the social, political, and economic biases that are (re)produced through it. This is an important commitment. Yet, alongside this unlearning, we must continue to commit our gazes, to look closely and tenderly at one another.

While den Hartog’s film thinks of the body with solemn existentialism, Choy Ka Fai’s Play.Ghost.Play.God 裝神弄鬼娛樂 is playful and irreverent, emerging as. a madcap cast of Internet personalities that riff off religious figures Nezha, Ongon, and Dao Mau. Reimagined as YouTubers, these deities cover K-Pop songs, play mobile games and attempt to make TikTok content. Crucially, from their mannerisms to hairstyles and voices, they are infantilised: they sulk and whine and participate in Internet culture in naive and seemingly uninhibited ways. Their high-pitched, high-energy behaviour is larger than life; it is rooted in the sanitised space of the cutesy, harmless, and funny.

The exhilarating absurdity of juxtaposing religious figures and these high-energy, high-pitched performances draws attention to the affective and social conventions of Taiwanese YouTube culture. However, though they are culturally-specific, infantilized Nezha, Ongon, and Dao Mau serve as a microcosm of YouTuber culture in general, where developing a simplified version of your personhood for popular consumption is standard operating procedure.

Here, the body is both preoccupied and pre-occupied - enthralled by an endless stream of memetic content, as well as inhabited in advance by religious myths and familiar Internet archetypes. Perhaps you can call it possessed. Like a medium whose body becomes a temporary vessel for a spirit, the YouTuber’s body is possessed by another, by an other whose existence comes to precede its own.

If Choy’s work emphasises the element of attention in an attention economy, Sudhee Liao’s Going Live: Enigmatic Perception considers the economic nature of net-based interactions. Taking the form of a dance performance streamed on Instagram Live, it invites viewers to offer prompts through the livestream chat function, which then direct the dancer’s movements. The involvement of the invisible viewer thus becomes relatively immediate, as interactions are incorporated real-time into the performance. For Liao, this is a way of “interweaving supply and demand, the virtual and the real, thereby exploring their similarities and differences”. And indeed, something about Going Live: Enigmatic Perception carries echoes of the market, as the performer also poses questions in the chat, such as “How old do you think I am?”, “Would you date me?” and “Rate me on a scale of 1-10.” She dances between the positions of subject and object, product and producer.

Here, the performer’s body is the site of bargain and exchange, underscoring the question of autonomy. What does this topography of power look like? While the performer leaves herself open to the public prompts and comments of the audience, she still retains control over the prompts she takes on, as well as how long this open connection lasts (the livestream). The degrees of separation made possible by the Internet provides a kind of protection, and preserves, to a considerable extent, the performer’s autonomy even as she offers herself up to the audience.

The implicit link between autonomy and choreography in Liao’s work is made explicit in Jonathan Chomko’s, which “leads participants in choreographed performance”. As “an exploration of the networks ability to guide movement through physical space - the name concatenates three popular digital services which perform acts of choreography on a mass scale.”

By each accessing the URL on a smartphone, participants are instructed to perform pre-choreographed movement and gestures. And as each person does their part, somewhat oblivious to the others, a synchronised group performance plays out for those watching. In a way, choreography is gamified, and the quiet ease with which technology can dictate our movements becomes obvious.

This is especially evident with the phone - a device most of us use 24/7 - as a physical collaborator; for while they occasionally need to sense each others’ bodies, the participants’ eyes remain more or less trained on their screens throughout the sequence. So watching them is a little like watching ourselves in our everyday choreographies, navigating the world with our faces angled toward our phone screens. makes clear that to participate is to perform, and to be a user is to be used in turn. This mutual choreographing underscores a symbiotic relationship between technology and us, where we are always negotiating control over the performance that arises.

Interestingly, and as Chomko himself expresses, technology’s control over human action in also facilitates collective action. While the participants’ movements are dictated and timed by the instructions, this leads them to move together without prior rehearsal. How can we, like Chomko has, use networks to bring people together in spontaneous, pleasurable, and intimate ways? Perhaps we can use them to invent new ways of meeting and nurturing intimacy. is a kind of prototype, for choreographing socio-political movements we could perform together.

Alecia Neo takes on this proposition in Care Index and Between Earth and Sky, projects which make visible everyday acts of care. Turning away from the abstract, both works are rooted in application, and the specific contexts and rituals that govern our everyday life.

The former is a repository of gestures of care submitted by the public. These rituals, collected and shared, offer a point of reference or guidance for our own acts of embodied care, while uniting us through our shared need for care. I am reminded again of Judith Butler’s proposition of “precariousness as a generalized condition”, where a common denominator of need and vulnerability is offered as a universalising instrument for existence. Of course, given the nature of Care Index as a repository, its contents are determined by its contributors; I expect differences and nuances to inevitably surface, and for contributions to form a repository which conveys not only the universal but also the plural and uneven.

Between Earth and Sky, on the other hand, draws our attention specifically to the lives of caregivers who look after persons with mental illness. The kite forms a key symbol and proxy in this project, where photographs of the caregivers and their loved ones’ clothing are attached to kites and flown. To Neo, these kites act as “surrogates taking flight where their bodies cannot yet go.” In a sense, then, they are not unlike the virtual avatars we use to traverse imaginary and alternative worlds; they allow us to network our selves beyond the reality in which we physically live.

Ultimately, the provocations of Networked Bodies invite us to turn away from the screen as default interface, and to expand our conception of technology into one defined more as method and approach than specific forms of hardware and software, or a certain aesthetic. It makes clear that our existing technologies are not necessarily anti-social or non-biological; placed within meaningful assemblages, they can give rise to intimacy and collective action, and our relationships with them are fluid, embodied, and subject to the natural rhythms of the body and the machine (which are in many ways one and the same). Perhaps there is no real “imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions”, which technological advancement seems to always call for. Perhaps there is no imperative because it will happen anyway. For now, what we can do is locate each other where we are, and to seek new methods and assemblages that will help us feel seen, touched and cherished.