Ada Hao is a performance artist and researcher who is completing work on her PhD in digital art at the University of Brighton. In 2021 she created a work titled ‘The Best Facial’, which explored the connection between real-world physical touch and the online, virtual world we inhabited during the second wave of the Covid 19 Pandemic.

The body and the self

“The roots of ‘The Best Facial’ lie in my earlier work, exploring notions of the body, the body’s archive of conscious and subconscious experiences, and the self,” explains Ada. ‘The concept began with a project from 2019 titled “Tropes of death, Ghost in locker, I’m the voyeur shedding tears in the mirror,” where I worked on the idea of becoming, fiction and identity. For that performance, I was given a residency in the female changing room of a disused gym in Belsize Park, London, where I used myself, my body and telepresence, to create an online performance for Performance Istanbul’s Stay Live at Home! Program around the theme of voyeurism and space.

“The residency culminated with a performance on Zoom on 6 June 2020 and it was here that I first tried techniques that I would explore further in ‘The Best Facial, such as using a green screen. A green screen allows one to add new layers of images, backgrounds and action behind the performer, playing with the image of the self and transforming perceptions of reality.

From real-world to virtual world

“This work was still in my mind as the Covid-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns affected our lives. Before this, my main focus for performance had been live work, but the situation demanded that I think differently about performance. I was heavily influenced by my supervisor at the Centre for Digital Media Cultures research, Professor Paul Sermon, and his online performances – ‘Telematic Quarantine’ and ‘Pandemic Encounters’, both created in 2020.

“I began to think about whether we can experience touch through online performance, and whether we can awaken the memory of our tactile sensitivity through synaesthesia within the virtual, online world.

“Previously, I’d held off from online performances. While online is good for disseminating work and ideas, there are also restrictions within the virtual world. There can be a kind of ‘art exhaustion’, because of the quick flicking through multiple works, going from site to site, screen to screen in a non-immersive way. And there isn’t the ‘quid pro quo’ of audience feedback. There tends to be a lack of connection (and intimacy).

“However, the internet exists to connect us – it’s just that it can be lost in the crowd of other online activity; it’s so easy to move in and out of, and in between, multiple interactions. I wanted to find new ways of creating connection that also made use of our bodies. There tends to be a lack of awareness of the body in the online space, and the body is a big focus of my work.

Towards a virtual facial

“I thought about my work at the Belsize Park gym and the beauty clinics within gyms and the physical interaction between the aesthetician and the client, and the importance of touch. I wondered if this might be somehow achieved through an online beauty clinic and I decided to put it to the test.

“I made an open call to the public to join me for a virtual facial session, with myself as the aesthetician. From the start, I played with the expectation of participants, including ideas of “tele-magic”. That is, the idea of “tele-magic” being able to actually create change in the physical world. The whole project had to blur the lines between virtual and real-world reality.

“Twenty participants took part in ‘The Best Facial’. For them, the process commenced with a pre-assessment form, just as you would have at a real-world beauty clinic. The form posed questions such as:

  • What do you hope to achieve?
  • Have you had a facial before?
  • What is your skin type?
  • What products do you use?

“This documentation was important for how each virtual session with each individual client would unfold. The facials were thirty-minute sessions, set up online. The camera that linked myself as therapist with the participants was like a tunnel, an umbilical cord between us. So although there was physical distance, there was always a tangible link, between myself and the participants.

Physical touch in a virtual world

“Using the green screen, the participant would see their face on their device and see me, my hands, touching their face, massaging and giving the facial treatment as I spoke to them about the process, while a soothing audio soundtrack played. The process showed that our eyes can be part of touching as well as seeing.

“‘The Best Facial’ uses our eyes, along with virtual touch, to tap into meditation culture and the wellbeing it brings. Part of the facial is an application of a mask – like you would have in a real-life facial treatment. When the mask is applied the participant watches their facial features disappear and become translucent as a natural landscape comes into the image. It’s about looking inward – it’s reflective, as the landscape becomes part of you and vice versa.

“‘Glitches were also purposely inserted into the video, such as might happen in the real-world – for example, a doorbell might ring at a salon. (I have been inspired by Legacy Russell’s book ‘Glitch’.) During the facials, I acknowledge people’s glitches and work with them.

“At the end of each 30-minute facial, I had a fifteen-minute “aftercare” conversation with the participant to find out how they felt and what they experienced. Results included participants feeling tingling in their eyebrows when that part of their face was being touched on screen.

“Participants reported a range of sensations, including relaxation and the feeling of intimacy of touch. The fact that it all took place live, in real time and with carefully synchronised audio backing, also added to the immersive nature of The Best Facial.

“I’m looking forward to exploring the boundaries and links between physical touch and the virtual world further, as it relates to different personal experiences. The pandemic gave this work a sense of urgency, and connecting with participants at that time was self-care for me, as well as care for the participants. The importance of connecting with people took on a new relevance as our lives were affected by lockdown, but there is now scope for delving more deeply into the findings that have emerged through my research and performance.’

Video documentation of The Best Facial project

Ada Xiaoyu Hao’s current PhD project can be viewed here:

Publications in relation to this project:

Ada Xiaoyu Hao:

Ada Xiaoyu Hao (b. 1993, China) is a performance artist whose practice engages fiction, techno-biographical inquiries, multimedia technology, and philosophy with performance. She currently focuses on creating a theoretical framework that uses performance as the main methodological formulation to develop a series of processual, participatory and intersubjective engagements with the immanent possibility of being and becoming through role-playing. Probing the boundaries between auto-fictional and auto-biographical performance, she suggests a speculative envisaging of the concept of the self in a post-humanistic vision that challenges our perception of becoming, adaption, and sustainability.


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