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Feeling Digital and Reimagining Fieldwork during COVID Times

Yichen Rao, Anna Castel & Lili Almási-Szabó*

During the outbreak of COVID-19, everyday life has been modified in accordance with the protocols that every country has implemented. These modifications have posed ongoing challenges for fieldworkers, artists, and practice-based ethnographic researchers, while they have simultaneously produced opportunities for these researchers to reimagine fieldwork, ethnography, art, and research practices. These modifications were also embedded into different ways of relating to the mediated presence of self and other, the shifted meanings of territory and space, and the altered feelings of body and home.

The signature image of the "Feeling Digital" workshop designed by our collaborating artist Franco Arriagada.
The signature image of the “Feeling Digital” workshop designed by our collaborating artist Franco Arriagada.

In August 2020, we have won the Universitas 21 (U21) Researcher Resilience Fund that supports scholars to develop research expertise, especially digital research capabilities, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic situations, we started our global collaboration through online reading groups that met biweekly on digital ethnography and research across boundaries. The groups consist of people in the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, education, public health who are interested in utilizing digital ethnography to understand the “forced” digital inclusion among our participants during COVID Times. During the reading groups, we are greatly inspired by Anna Castel’s sharing of digital embodiment, especially how our mutual connections are felt bodily through digital mediations. Anna is the director of Otro cuerpo Teatro e Investigación, a disability research theatre in Chile and Mexico. Therefore, under the encouragement and support from The University of Hong Kong (HKU) anthropology research network, we started an unprecedented workshop directed by Anna, which encouraged people to “perform”, instead of simply “think about”, our digital presence during the COVID times.

The “Feeling Digital and Reimagining Fieldwork during COVID Time” Workshop (or the “Feeling Digital” Workshop) was born out of the need to critically ask about the increasingly murky boundaries between “actual” and “virtual”, “online” and “offline”, from an incarnated, situated, and phenomenological scope: why do we experience Zoom fatigue and how does it manifest itself? Why can’t we resist staring at our own faces reflected in our webcams? How do we perceive, experience, and live the post-COVID world through the altered bodily feelings and mediated senses of connection bound by digital devices?

We refined these critical questions into a core question: What does “feeling digital” mean? To answer this question, we designed four sets of “experiments” to perform “body-theatres” in groups, each aimed at addressing one particular facet of “feeling digital”. We recruited 23 participants from different disciplines, professions and institutions around the world to form five focus groups, each practicing, reflecting and discussing one of the four sets of experiments.

The first experiment (EXP 1 – Virtual co-presence) consists of performing 4 simple action-reaction exercises in front of the camera to tune into the feeling of time-delay-response, which in virtuality is marked by the connection conditions. How are these gaps experienced in rapid reaction communication exercises? The four exercises are in sequence with each other and are intended to reflect on virtual interaction in “real time”. Furthermore, it seeks to discuss the criteria of virtual presence and co-presence, taking as a starting point the notion of the “face-to-face” encounter in Emmanuel Levinas.

EXP 1: action-reaction exercises.
EXP 1: action-reaction exercises.
EXP 1: action-reaction exercises.

The second experiment (EXP 2 – Virtual solipsism vs. presence) is to volitionally generate the sensation of separateness and solipsism to contrast it with the image and appearance as a manifestation of a “body in presence” (in the camera). The exercise consists of presenting 5 questions to the camera that each participant must answer by viewing their own image (in the camera). The objective is to react to the questions and their sequence, in a simultaneous exercise of asking the participants to look at themselves and answer the questions. This exercise seeks to question the concepts of “separateness”, “virtual solipsism” and “presence”, based on isolation (and the context of regulations due to the pandemic).

The third experiment (EXP 3 – Sensation and virtuality: atmosphere and situated body) is to think about the body and the atmosphere (space) that surrounds it in relation to the virtual camera / session projection. How do we bring the atmosphere closer and create a common space to transmit to others? What “presentation as staging” decisions do we make and why? Is it possible to generate a “common” virtual space? The experiment consists of carrying out a brief exercise guided by the camera / audio to present, feel, describe, and share the broadcast space. In the same way, it is proposed to think critically about the notions of “Private space vs. Common space” in light of the emergence of meaning generated by showing the domestic space.

The fourth experiment (EXP 4 – Virtual territory and connection misfits) is to detect the amplitude of the Wi-Fi network at different times of the day and the scope in the physical space where it is located. The experiment consists of manually tracing the perimeter where the Wi-Fi connection reaches a home or outside location and the description of where it is better or worse, as well as the interpretations of its fluctuations. We are interested in asking about the connection limits and adjustments that are made in order to maintain communication and relate them to the concepts of network and virtual space vs. physical space. We are also interested in asking: what are the adjustments or imbalances that occur in these relationships of space, movement and connection? What habits of transit and territory occupation have been modified to maintain or take care of this connection?

Within groups, participants connected these murky boundaries to ethnographic experiences as they interpreted the political implications of the altered bodily feelings and mediated senses of connections. They also delved into the potentiality of digital ethnography not as “online fieldwork” but as a broad system of inter-subjective connections that goes beyond its narrow empirical limit. The disciplinary framework in which this project is developed includes a cross between the studies of embodied knowledge, performance, and ethnography/anthropology. We understand the body not only as an epistemic object but as an epistemological agent that builds and generates knowledge from itself and about itself. The participants, as artists, performers, and researchers, produced the embodied records from their individual practices that could be materialized in a digital medium, reported and reflected on through a multimodal ethnographic diary.

The projects generated individually within each group were discussed in a two-day workshop (May 11 and 12, 2021). Each group presented their materials, followed by discussions and commentaries by a chair and a discussant invited (The details of the program can be found here).

The two-day workshop via Zoom.

Recently, we have launched our website www.feelingdigital.org to curate and display some of the products by our participants during the workshop. And we are now probing into a further development of these products into a more creative and collaborative initiative.

Acknowledgement

We acknowledge the generous support from the Hong Kong Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (HKIHSS), HKU Anthropology Research Network and HKU Department of Sociology.


* Yichen Rao is an anthropologist and a postdoc fellow at Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan.
Anna Castel is a Mexican theatre director and feminist-pedagogue working with artists with and without disabilities from Mexico and Chile.
Lili Almási-Szabó is a Hungarian economist and anthropologist currently working on a Ph.D. project in sociology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC).

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