We are living in a time of disconnect in the physical realm.
During this time I am also writing the final draft and conclusion of my Ph.D. thesis that started in 2014. When the world felt very different than it does today.
I am at home mainly. I am at home in a way similar to periods of time when I only went out once a day to get food in between the writing for the sake of clear thinking and productivity within a quiet environment and one in which there was no demand for me to be anywhere else. I would even, sometimes take myself on self-created writing retreats to silent places like the island of Jersey, Lake District, and Wales in order to incubate even more. Now, again, I am inside without the distraction of any social engagements nor other work requirements only, this time, it feels different. I, like others across this city, nation, and globe have been ordered by their government to ‘stay home’. The whole of England is inside, shut-in, told to leave only when ‘essentially’ necessary. We are allowed to go out for one of the following reasons: outdoor exercise, to buy food (as infrequently as possible) to care for the vulnerable or medical reasons. Now, even a walk or run feels unnecessary or indulgent given the force of the Coronavirus quickly spreading in this country. I just stay in. I am grateful for my large windows and roof terrace from which I lookout.
We have been told to physically distance ourselves to others at greater and greater lengths. The physical distances between people have grown wider and wider like a canal over flooding its banks and pushing us to either side. We have been instructed how to wash our hands (better) and, never, under any circumstances touch our faces. For some reason, for me, this has been one of the hardest things to do and remember to do. It feels instinctive to touch, scratch, rub, wipe and caress the face at some point in a day if not one-hundred times a day. This, too, must end and I try and train myself not to touch my face. All contact with others and even, to some extent, my own body has become taboo, dangerous and socially irresponsible. Yet, I am made hyper-aware of how my actions affect others even to this tiny degree of face touching. We are all connected.
How odd then, that this incubation period in which we are connected, are now told to stay at least two meters away from one another, other than those whom we are sharing our domestic spaces with. What is also profound is that my entire PhD thesis has been built to make a case for a live form of togetherness, of connecting in and across space. I make claims that dance is a quality of relating and that the dancer brings a particular understanding of social, spatial connection, of relating together live and in public spaces.
Yet, as my thesis argues, a connection is also imaginary. A connection can be imagined to the extent of becoming a physically felt sensation. I speak about this as a trained dancer. The dancer studies in ways as to sense her body in relation to space and to others across in that space with her. This can be close up, as in a duet, or across a stage or gallery floor. She has a heightened sensation, or knowledge, in spatial-social connection and in relation to ones’ own bodily position and in relation to those of others. Proprioception, also known as kinaesthesia, or what is more commonly known as the ‘sixth sense’ is a built-in mental, imaginary, but felt tool of the dancer. This ability to know something without depending on the other five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste requires one to step into the body and sense its positioning and relation in and across space. In this way, it is possible to feel a connection without actually being in the same space and time together. I am not referring to verbal communication or socializing, I am talking about creating a sense of connection through the body and out across geographic space and to other people. This may, at this point, sound somewhat mystical to the reader but this is not my intention nor the trajectory I am on. Follow along with me here as I try and make evident my thinking.
When I first moved to Los Angeles I felt a large sense of disconnect to my community in Amsterdam, the Netherland where I had lived for ten years prior. I felt out of place, literally, in LA and sought ways to bridge a connection back to the Lowlands which was some 6000 miles away, geographically speaking. One of the activities I devised was to connect across that vast physical space by, first, figuring out in what direction Amsterdam, where all of my dear friends and colleagues were, was located in relation to where I was standing. To do this I would first walk down to a small pocket park near my new home in the Hollywood area and find a relatively open area of grass. I would then figure out the coordinates (N, S, E, W) of my positioning. After that I would ‘locate’ Amsterdam which lies at a somewhat NE direction from LA. I would then figure out which part of my body was facing the NE corner of the park and outwards. I would close my eyes and imagine a line drawn from my body to the city I longed for. I would imagine where in the city my friends and colleagues lived and allow that imaginary line to split and spread out, creating a networked web of connection, of several strands of imaginary spatial relations that started at a place on my body, a shoulder, elbow or ear and sense how that line could make contact with another body, be it a shoulder, elbow or ear on the other end. A connection from one plane to another. I could imagine and feel a particular line of contact.
Similar to, but different from the lines drawn across maps on those screens in an airplane that track the trajectory of the flight. My lines are not only imagined as visual lines but they are felt lines of connection. The lines I feel seem to run straight across from where I am and the person on the other end of that line with whom I am seeking to connect within a sensory way. It is not the curved line of the flight route that flies over Greenland to get to America from Europe. I suppose, my felt lines are more like ‘desire lines’ (2) or the shortcut routes carved into the landscape and made visible through developed erosion or carving out of a path made by the repetitive footfalls of walkers in the countryside in England.
This reaching across space was also a part of a larger project of navigating the city in order to locate myself in it. I moved (walked) across spaces of LA in order to make sense of it and to ease my disorientation. Walking the city(1) as a way to understand it through the tactility of the feet on the ground. A body against the large-scale built environment of my new urban home. Having studied at UCLA, during that same time, with the late Edward Soja, I found a home in his theories (emanating from Henri Lefebvre’s) of ‘Thirdspace’ or ‘feltspace’ in the way it confirmed a body-centric way of feeling space, of understanding it through the body.
Now, in London, my current city of residency, in the confines of my flat in the city, I revisit the imaginary line of connection activity I developed in LA, now over five years ago, and as a way to re-connect with friends, family/loved ones. There is a vast network of these people who are as close as next door to me and through the wall of my living room where our friend Andrey lives (and through whom I met my partner) and whose friendship has felt like family. To my dear friend, Mikaela, whom I have known since I was eight years old and whose house is located in Greenwich, a section of London to the SE. I now have to close my eyes to imagine where she is located in relation to where I am sat and using my mental map of London. I am sat in the sun at my kitchen counter desk. I am facing west, the sun behind my left shoulder at 7.50 am in the morning. Which must mean the SE direction is behind my back. I pause and feel my back, sense it, and then imagine a line from my back, across the city, cutting across the Thames and along railway lines, up a hilly street through her front yard, into the house and landing in her kitchen where the sun also is shining into her window and where she might also be sat at her kitchen table.
Then there are the farther distances to imaginarily cross to my family in Ohio, a US state SW of England. A larger swatch of space to cross but no less as able to be felt. I climb the stairs in my flat and stand on my rood terrace and sense where SW is. This direction is towards the corner of the roof where the church, now converted to flats and with mobile phone towers attached to its spires, is located. I close my eyes and feel, again, an invisible line drawn from my body over the roof terrace edge, through the church steeple, over the thousands of rooftops, across the border of England, skimming across the top of the water of the long and deep Atlantic Ocean, over the skyline of New York City and through Pennsylvania to land in the heart of Ohio. The line zips up the driveway and through the front door of my parent’s house to find my mother waking, my dad eating breakfast. The line splits in two and ends where they both begin their day. The imagined tension of the line, a slight taut-ness, reminds me of our familiar, blood, connection. This connecting across distance is part of many physical, mental and spiritual practices I am engaging with through this quarantine period and will continue to do for however long it lasts. It is what will carry me through (in addition to my partner’s fabulous cooking).
As I conclude this short essay writing I reflect back to my thesis on dance as a relational practice in public spaces and that, now, feels ever the more pertinent to try and articulate in this time of physical isolation and need for social connection across space. I am grateful for what this time, and the way it shines an even more scrupulous light onto my ideas and theories on the social as a dancer, is teaching me. I am working to offer creative solutions to problems of public spaces, be they museums or civic spaces and this period will be very informative. My task now is to both finish my thesis by May 1 keeping on the trajectory I have been on before this crisis whilst staying mindful of its impact. Hence the need to do this parallel writing on my blog. Only in these ways can I take a slow approach to developing(3) ways for my practice/research to be of service to the cultural sector and society post this pandemic.
Until then I will continue to practice connecting with loved ones across vast spaces of land and through the borderless imaginary that comes from the sense of my own body and out across space, weaving an invisible but felt web of connection with others. I invite you to do the same.
1)It is of note that the thing I miss most, now, in confinement is the feeling of my legs moving, of walking the city, of feeling the city through my body. This is what I miss the most as my legs mourn the loss of movement. But this is for another essay perhaps to be called ‘The Mourning for Movement’.
2) The term was coined by Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space (1958).
3) Larger questions, what will our social lives be like coming out of hibernation. How slowly or quickly will we bridge that spatial gap between us? Between friends? Colleagues? Strangers? I have this running image in my head, like a film, of all of the people I will hug and some of those images include random shop owners and pub workers. I also sense that our re-emerging into the social sphere will be gradual and somewhat awkward.
Drawing & Text by Sara Wookey