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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: The Body and the Pandemic Seeking Connection

18 November 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Courtney Helen Grile, a researcher in the field of Drama explores the loss of face-to-face connection during the pandemic, digital alternatives and the importance of physical presence.

Courtney Helen Grile, PhD Candidate, School of Creative Arts

I remember being optimistic in early March that if we closed down for six to eight weeks we would be able to get on the other side of things. Now, almost eight months later, it is easy to see my naivety in light of the ongoing current of the pandemic and the global deaths that continue to climb. The impact of this pandemic is global, local, social, and personal to us all. As a socially engaged artist and researcher in the field of Drama, my instinct is to think about the loss of connection that occurs through face-to-face encounters, both large and small. While I do marvel at technological and online innovations, I also firmly believe that we lose so much that we need as human beings when we lose the ability to share space with others —have a coffee/drink with a friend, attend a concert or festival, and celebrate holidays with our extended families.

My research looks at applied drama and how the praxis could be used to reimagine deliberative democratic encounters. Within my research, I simultaneously advocate for the idea of applied drama praxis as a potential means for operating within the public sphere and the idea that this needs to happen in the physical presence of others. Ironically, I was beginning my research on why physical presence was so important as the initial lockdown was starting. The aura that Walter Benjamin references in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in regard to works of art is easily translatable to human relationships and connection. Benjamin writes, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Extrapolating from that the idea of the “unique existence” of a collective group of people in a certain place at a moment in time, a singular experience occurs – though each person will experience it individually (as well as collectively) and take away different meanings – that cannot be replicated through mediatised or digitised means. Sensing the heartbeat of another human being in close proximity is not something that can be replicated.

Additionally, I discovered that what my body felt and instinctively understood about face-to-face encounters can be also explained through phenomenological approaches like kinesthetic intersubjectivity and kinesthetic empathy. Marina Rova writes, “not only are bodies made for action and environmental navigation, they also form the nexus of our cognitive and affective experiences.” Having to use technology to interact with others is often a disembodying experience. Largely, when we interact through platforms like Zoom and Facetime, we sit, we are seen from the shoulders and up, and we look into a screen. Not only aren’t our bodies interacting with the people we are speaking with through body language, proxemics, and haptics —we often aren’t using our bodies much at all as they remain fairly stationary and inactive during these online encounters. Essentially, we aren’t able to connect with our whole selves. Digitised alternatives to live, in-person communication are not able to replicate the wealth of information an individual is able to process in the physical presence of another. Sound transmits, but it is altered and has taken on a slightly different note. It might also be cut off, interrupted, choppy, or filled with static. A picture transmits, though again possibly altered: coloration, pixilation, etc. The information one is able to take in visually is stagnated by a fixed frame and the loss of peripheral views. Scent and touch/feeling are lost altogether. Any shared taste through food/beverages shared by the group is also lost. Meaningful connections made through eye contact are abandoned in this space.

As a human being who requires and thrives on physical connection and sharing space with others, the past months have taken a toll. In addition to losing in-person connection with my fellow colleagues and friends (who know me as a hugger and usually indulge me!), my family and partner are back in the US. My partner and I have made responsible decisions for the greater community to cancel planned trips over the course of the year because we take our responsibility as citizens seriously. The easing of lockdown restrictions provided me with a small respite from the disconnection I was feeling by allowing me to “elbow bump” (connection!), take walks with (kinesthetic empathy!), and see/speak to people in my life that I had only been able to see and hear translated through technological means. Sadly, my hug quota is still far too low and we are heading back into another six weeks of lockdown.

Despite being on my backup reserves of connective energy, I remain optimistic. Optimistic that when it is safe to gather again, the little moments that had before been taken for granted in communion with others will be cherished, celebrated, and sought after. Optimistic that the solace people have sought through the arts during the pandemic will be reflected in a revitalised interest and engagement in these activities. Optimistic that computer engineers and programmers might learn how to make interactions through technology more human because of the wealth of knowledge produced during this time. And finally, optimistic that we might emerge from this with the intention of creating a more intentional and healthy way of living instead of falling back into old, pernicious routines that had been our “normal.”

Courtney Helen Grile is a theatre practitioner and PhD Candidate in the Department of Drama, as well as an Early Career Researcher in the Trinity Long Room Hub. Her research looks at the intersection of applied drama and democracy, with a focus on deliberative democratic practices. She holds a BFA in Media & Performing Arts from the Savannah College of Art & Design, an MFA in Theatre (emphasis in Theatre for Young Audiences) from the University of Central Florida. She has worked in the United States and Ireland as an administrator, adjunct instructor, teaching artist, performer, facilitator, and director. Her passion is for using applied theatre and drama techniques to work in community settings. To date, she has taken her work inside juvenile detention centres, primary and secondary schools, orphanages, facilities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, city/town community centres, and after-school centres for young people in underserved communities.

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Public Outreach and the Pandemic (11 November 2020)

A Global Contagion (4 November 2020)

Gender and the Pandemic (29 October 2020)

Politics in Trying Times (2 October 2020)

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