Is some(my) body home?
Updated: Jun 21, 2020
And so it is, we had our showcase yesterday online, on zoom. I was pretty nervous showing so many people my first piece of work (embedded below), and if truth be told, was afraid of what people might think because of the vulnerability of the story. But it was a very safe space that HCAC and Giovanni have created, so I only received love and encouragement to do more. It's extremely affirming for me, because I tend to be very critical of my own work and not dare to show it on a public or semi-public platform. But 2020 is the year I stop caring about that and just start doing.
I thought I'd write about the process a bit here, because there are so many random notes everywhere - in google docs, in my phone, in my notebook, etc, that I would benefit from just having to process it into a coherent post. It's a luxury to be able to talk at length about your process - I think by talking or typing - in these times when nobody has any attention span for a post that doesn't have a TLDR version, and you need images to capture attention.
I joined Gio's class not knowing what to expect. I only knew that there were two parts to the 6-week process: Written on my Body (4 weeks) and Map of my Body (2 weeks), focusing on writing and performative aspects of our final piece respectively. I also knew that usually this was an ensemble piece and presented live, where you could feed off the energy of your ensemble mates and the audience. However, I had full confidence that we would create something interesting together. That's usually the kind of situation in which I find myself giving my best. I like not having expectations, and being surprised by myself and the group at every turn. We spent a good amount of time at the start just getting to know each other and doing some visual meditation and free writing in class. The sharing further helped us to understand each other's perspectives and where our headspaces were. Right from the start, Gio created a very safe space for us to be vulnerable, which was of course the foundation for real connections and for a kind of invisible thread that ran through our final pieces. Every Tuesday, as 8:15 pm approached, I would get excited about seeing these people online and sharing about our day. That it had to be online did not really dampen our spirits much.
Written on my Body
Gio gave us reading and watching "homework" and we had writing assignments that later helped feed into our final pieces. I document my pieces in another post. Because when a thought is planted in my head, it kind of gets watered and grows roots into every new thought I think (that is why I am very careful about what thoughts I choose to entertain). The first free writing exercise we did in class ended with a guided visual meditation by Gio, which allowed the words we had written to settle into our consciousness, I went with what my mind intuitively came up with. To the writing prompt of "What is the place......time....society...environment?" , I wrote about the politics of space, the inane consumption patterns we have locked ourselves into, and how in this system no one really wins in the long run. It was quite ranty for a while, but I did end on a hopeful note:
But there’s time, there’s always time.
Even if we have destroyed some bits beyond repair, we don’t have to restore them to exactly how they were before. We can make something new, bearing marks of the old, letting it remind ourselves of the good and the bad that we did. We can heal the cracks with gold, like the Japanese do with Kintsugi*. We can celebrate the artistry of humanity.
If we choose to ride the doom train to the end, the ride will be hell. We can choose: rebirth, or a slow death.
*Beautiful coincidence that when I asked my friend Alex for music for my final piece with a "healing vibe", they sent me a song (titled The Healing Song) they had produced for another short film titled Kintsugi.
The next two pieces of writing I did addressed themes of home, family, my body, the environment, and the economic system that has seeped into everyday life and taken our bodies prisoner without us realising.
What’s dangerous about this virus, is that it can be asymptomatic. And in some places, you can’t be tested unless you prove you’ve been in contact with an infected person. But no one knows if they have the virus because there are no tests. You might even have to be in respiratory failure to be tested.
I climb into bed next to your body curved like a bean, and wrap my arms around your body like you wrapped yours around mine when I was a child. You would pat me to make me go to sleep, and sing that Chinese lullaby about how children with mothers are the happiest. But you would fall asleep before me. Always. You were always tired from work, endless data entry work.
Map of my Body
The idea was to then use the autodrama technique to create a piece of work, drawing from our writing assignments. We didn't have to use the writing, but we could. I thought I would use the piece about my mother and my own journey finding home in my own body. Eventually I settled on doing a piece about my experience with loneliness, how it was embodied in eating disorders, depression and the healing process. I was reading a passage in the Omnivore's dilemma which made me think about how I used to look for food that had no calories, which begs the question: what is food? (this question makes an appearance in the final piece). I ended up writing lots and lots, being savagely truthful to myself, and the piece evolved a few times.
Here're some extracts:
I sought out food with as little calories as I could, sweetened with artificial sweeteners, made thicker with xanthum gum, noodles made from konnyaku, all so that I could eat without actually eating. It’s not as tasty, for sure, but I feel so virtuous, and that compensates for taste. My comfort zone? The supermarket. So. Much. Choice. And Anonymity. It was public and private at the same time. No one asked why I spent so much time in the cereal aisle. I could have produced a market research report on the nutritional profile of every cereal and granola they had in Fairprice, Cold Storage and even Jasons Marketplace. I could convert kilojoules to kilocalories without skipping a beat. Rattle off the simple sugar and fat content in 10 types of cereal and granola. Sometimes the information wasn’t in English. No problem. I learnt it in other languages. I was so proud of my single-minded focus. It felt good to be sure about something, at least. But sometimes I would not buy anything because I could not make a choice. A 0.5g difference in per 100g fat content could make me paralysed about a decision. I tried to hide my obsession with calorie counting behind my intellect. It was easy to believe that the nerd was genuinely just interested in food science if you didn’t pay attention. And not many people, nor did I want them to.
I drew from the embodied ecologies lens in approaching the subject.
From Taste Environments:
"Eating dissolves boundaries between the body and environment, as that which is outside the body is literally and figuratively incorporated into it. The mouth is a liminal space that begs the question of where body ends and environment begins. Recent studies on metabolism have emphasized the porosity by which food substances and bodies become intermingled (Landecker 2011; Solomon 2016). How might this understanding of food inform its manufacture, and what are the consequences when corporations take this body–environment relationship as a site of management? For scientists in the U.S. processed food industry, the constitution of taste and the bodily effects of incorporation represent pressing questions."
Filming the piece
I restricted myself to only using my own visuals and music from my friends, and filming whatever I could do during the circuit breaker. It was useful, otherwise I would have spent too much time trying to choose from a million possibilities. Even with these restrictions, it was hard to choose between all the visuals I had. I also worked in a sort of messy way, where I was modifying the text and the visuals at the same time.
One of the scenes in the piece involves me eating a mango in a very animalistic way. It had a powerful effect on me when I was filming myself doing that. We say "I think therefore I am", defining ourselves by our thoughts. But when I was performing the scene, I certainly did feel like an animal, although it felt artificial at first as I coaxed myself out of my usual, learned eating habits. It began to feel natural as I ate without care for my hair and cheeks that were becoming sticky with mango juice. And then I finished the mango and the scene. What was preventing me from continuing to act - be - an animal? My own learned habits, of course. I exited that world I created for myself for the duration of that performance, and brought the plate to the kitchen to wash up. I thought about how our actions can slowly define us, if we don't pay attention to them.
I am so lucky to have talented friends like Alex and Bharath who very generously let me use music they created, some of which was specially for this piece. And for friends (you know who you are) who held space for my vulnerability and gave me gentle criticism, much needed for this very first and vulnerable piece.