On the 21st March 2020 I put out a simple message on my Facebook profile in response to the increasing use of online video communications due to the imminent Covid19 lockdown, “be creative with your videoconferencing, make it memorable, it makes a difference”. Having spent almost thirty years working with videoconferencing in my arts practice, I felt compelled to respond to the current situation with some words of creative encouragement. This sentiment has also been expressed through social media channels and broadcast news reports on the proliferation of creative video chat encounters, from living room performances and streamed DJ sets to family quizzes, karaoke parties and even Skype dinner dates. Whilst we have been quick to creatively experiment our way out of isolation, there are I believe further considerations and approaches to our new networked coexistence we can take. From my own experience of producing many telepresent video installations I have learnt alternative methods and simple techniques to increase our sense of coexistence in these videoconference encounters.
Since the early 1990s I have combined and relocated distant audiences in a range of familiar settings in social and fictional contexts, from life size projections of remote participants on shared bed surfaces and green-screened TV viewers sitting together on the same sofa to distant gallery visitors seated at the same virtual peace negotiations table and performers sharing the same telepresent stage. From the early days of fibreoptic telephone lines to internet videoconferencing these ‘telematic artworks’ have invariably involved customised video and computing technologies to converge duplicated installation interfaces in gallery settings to bring distant audiences together, creating a greater sense of presence and empathy between them. Although relatively complex, they are not impossible to set up at home with bit of video experimentation and some rearrangement of the furniture. Through this practice-based research I have strived to co-locate audiences into a shared third-space of coexistence, having been frustrated with the assumption that simply looking into a camera will convey all the subtleties of body language, expression and a phenomenological sense of self and other.
While videoconferencing has become commonplace in business, education and domestic contexts through applications such as Skype and FaceTime, peer-to-peer videoconferencing does not replace a look them in the eye handshake or a reassuring hug on the sofa with a close relative. However, when in your Teams or Zoom meetings I am sure you will have found yourself occasionally glancing at your own image in the smaller picture-in-picture window as well as looking at the person you are meeting – and they will be doing the same. In effect this is a means of relayed eye-to-eye contact. Switching between the views of ‘me looking at you’ and ‘you looking at me’ for each participant is another way of converging these remote spaces. This is the first step towards creating a third-space that my telematic art installations exploit by combining these views within the same specular image in mirrored installation settings, allowing the self and the other simultaneous reflection. The proprioceptive choreography of body movements, facial expressions and hand gestures are key components to any conversation, often used unconsciously, but by simply combing these views within the same image we become kinaesthetically conscious and in control of our combined coexistence, escaping our individual isolation.
These telematic artworks not only resolve the absence of body language they can offer more than our physical encounters permit. They allow the participants the opportunity to observe and reflect on the performed dialogue occurring in front of them whilst being directly responsible for it. In ‘Peace Talks’ a work I produced in response to the impending war on Iraq in 2003, I combined remote gallery participants at the same UN peace negotiations table. Where a participant maybe listening, but unaware of their hunched stance with arms crossed and head down, which is clearly seen as a stubborn confrontational posture by the other. But when the self is also the other, the participants are immediately aware of themselves both internally and externally, being confrontational to the other – as well as themselves. Thereby being in a position to reflect on the objective point of view they now find themselves within, they can adjust their pose and stance accordingly.
Through observations and reflections on these public performances and exchanges I have been provided the opportunity to witness emotional bonds and understand the subtle intricacies of the participant’s interactions and experiences within my creative practice. Enabling me to conclude that the act of moving our eyesight from the internalised position in our head to a third-person view outside of our own body offers an entirely new sense of self and conscious experience. Combined with another geographically distant participant, we are effectively sharing the same eyes – the same point of view, where one’s gaze of the other and view of the self can converge. The objectification of gaze is met on equal empathetic terms through this process of conflating our presence in a telematic third-space from the same single viewpoint. Justly seeing the situation from someone else’s point of view, which is simultaneously your own – opening the way to a greater sense of coexistence by expounding the juncture between empathy and presence in our videoconference encounters.
Whilst we look forward to the day that we can read articles such as this one as old news and return to our physical engagements and social interactions as we once knew them, we might want to consider one optimistic outcome from it all … its unprecedented positive effect on our environment. As pollution levels drastically drop in cities across the world and our carbon footprints have been significantly reduced this will be an opportunity to learn from our Covid19 videoconference encounters and ask ourselves if we really do need to jump on the next long-haul flight for the sake of a handshake or a memorandum signing. When so much more can be achieved and saved by reframing our approach to face-to-face coexistence through being creative with our videoconferencing. Making it memorable now could make a difference in the future.
Paul is Professor of Visual Communication at the University of Brighton