The following performative text is an excerpt from a paper called “Always wanting you, but never having you: intimacy and desire in one-to-one performances by women,” in which I adopt an imaginary time traveling avatar self in order to virtually and fictionally “experience” three participatory performances that I have never seen. Though fiction, this account is based on a detailed written account by Susan Kozel, a Canadian dancer, choreographer, and writer who works primarily in London and Vancouver (“Spacemaking: Experiences of a Virtual Body,” 1994). Kozel has a Ph. D. in philosophy and specializes in dance and media. As performer of Telematic Dreaming, a live performance that used ISDN teleconference technology as an interface between individual visitors and her remote body, Kozel explored physical intimacy through (then new) media. The concept and technology behind Telematic Dreaming was conceived by a U.K. media artist named Paul Sermon, and the piece toured extensively in the early 1990s.
The intensely intimate proximity between bodies in Telematic Dreaming–one of flesh and muscle and the other of light and shadow–amplifies the emotional and ethical stakes of the participatory performance. This viewer-participant is given no instructions on how to behave; it is up to them to decide how to interact with Kozel’s virtual presence. Kozel, on the other hand, is obligated to make her body available, and to figure out how to make virtual contact with the “user.” In her essay, Kozel’s account of the performance focuses on the “relation between my ‘cyber-body’ and my fleshly body” and the “sexual and political implications of the technology.” She writes: “It was not a substitute for sex, it was a mimetic version with strong physical and emotional qualities… it was undeniably real, not a compromise…”
II. Paul Sermon/Susan Kozel, Telematic Dreaming (Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, 1994)
The gallery is dark. In its center is a full-size bed illuminated by a projection cast from the ceiling. A two-dimensional projection of a woman with dark hair curls around the left side of the bed, the folds in the white bedding slightly warping and twisting her body. She lies still, on her side, a profile on the linen. She seems to be resting. She reminds me of a Gustav Klimt painting—golden Danae curling across the canvas like a giant goldfish.
I stand, arms crossed, a couple feet from the bed, watching her, letting this live painting (literally) breathe for a few moments before I join her. I’ve been invited to lie on the bed “with her” if I desire, and while I’m there, within the frame of the bed, she will be able to see me, remotely, through a live video camera on the gallery ceiling, in a kind of horizontal “teleconference.” (I giggled when I thought of that joke, out in the lobby, but now it seems slightly disrespectful.) In the darkness of the periphery I am invisible to her. She displays herself for me. I consume her, giving nothing in return. I collect her beauty and store it up in my memory for later. I could write a song about the way she looks, another courtly lover wooing from afar, impotent and selfish. But that is not the invitation.
I tentatively, carefully, reach my hand into the light, holding it an inch or two off the mattress. She sees me. She smiles and reaches her hand toward mine. Her fingers slide over mine, a collage of fingers and fingernails suspended inches above the sheets. I expect to feel something, though logically I know her hand is just projection, not a real hand. I nonetheless expect some warmth of contact, just for a moment.
We line up the tips of our index fingers, a feminine re-enactment of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, she the goddess on the cloud reaching me through the miracle of ISDN teleconference technology. After a few minutes of acclimating to one another through this finger and hand foreplay, I am ready put my whole body on the bed, to lay into the light, as it were. I take a breath and hoist myself up onto the mattress, a little awkward and panting ever so slightly from the exertion. I lie on my side, still, shy, completing the frame of the bed with my body, facing her. And so we lie, facing one another, eyes downcast, every now and then flitting over each other. I giggle nervously and she smiles back. We begin playfully shifting in small increments, describing complimentary arcs and curves with our torsos and limbs. She nudges me with her head—or rather, I imagine the feeling of being nudged, and respond in kind.
We are, more or less, spooning or cuddling, getting to know one another within a prescribed “couple in bed” movement vocabulary. I blush, suddenly physically aware of the intimacy of the moment—and that we are sharing this private moment in public. A few gallery visitors stand in the doorway, at a respectful distance, watching us. Aware of their probing gaze, I briefly stiffen, and shift a little away from my electric friend, wondering, what is a respectful distance in a public bed with a virtual partner?
She notices me withdrawing and retreats several inches. She cannot see the others in the doorway, and so does not understand my sudden self-consciousness. Perhaps she thinks she has been too forward. She withdraws into the shadows beyond the bed, leaving only a disembodied right hand behind. This saddens me, and I feel ashamed for feeling ashamed. I’ve betrayed her trust already. I reach for her hand. Nudge it playfully with mine in apology, until at last she returns in tenuous forgiveness.
This first bump in our relationship mutually negotiated, we continue our game of overlapping, filling one another’s negative space, in small, incremental shifts. At times our bodies overlap, and it occurs to me that I could line myself up under her, making us one composite body. I could try her on, if she was willing. But what would that do to her identity, her autonomy? Would she be absorbed by me? Would she disappear, cease to be her? But no, of course, “she” exists safely ensconced away from me. She is protected there. This electric body is only a projection of her. I can’t touch her here. Not actually. No one can.
I am anxious about her telepresence, as if she has projected her soul into another dimension, like some hi-tech shamanic out-of-body ritual. In that respect, this is an extremely vulnerable space for her to be in. If she is damaged or hurt in this place, will she feel pain in her physical body? Is she psychically vulnerable? Her projected body must feel, because already I’ve hurt her with my carelessness. It’s not that she is “out-of-body” with me on the bed; here she is a “virtual body” enjoying goddess-like access and power her physical body cannot experience. Here she is liquid and electric at once.
The doorway voyeurs have multiplied by now, and I’m aware that I should give others a chance. But I linger. I don’t want her to be alone, vulnerable, isolated, and I’m not sure I trust others to care for her properly. Those people might take advantage of her, distort her, make her ugly. They could make fun of her, ridicule her. They don’t have the relationship we have. Hell, we’ve already had our first fight and made up! She notices me growing introspective again and strokes my shoulder. I shiver and gasp, amazed because I felt her touch. I really did.
Okay, reality check: there were others before me, and there will be others after me. Our brief tryst is ours to keep. Now it’s time to go. Reluctantly I move my hand to her face, my fingers melting through the edges of her cheekbone, the edges of her face bleeding into my fingertips. This is the best way I can think of to say goodbye. She nuzzles my hand as I roll off the bed into darkness as quickly as I came.
For more information on this piece see http://www.hgb-leipzig.de/~sermon/dream/.
About the Author
Allison Wyper is a Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary performance artist who creates intimate and one-on-one performances that challenge viewer-performer dynamics and the ethics of participation. Allison has been an Associate Artist of La Pocha Nostra since 2004, and a collaborator with Western Australia’s Hydra Poesis since 2011. Her work has been seen in museums, galleries, theaters, universities, and streets in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Germany. Her writing has been published by Itch Dance Journal, Platform (U.K), Emergency Index, Whore Magazine and the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles. More info at www.allisonwyper.com.