During the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves experiencing a period of profound collective grief. Grief hurts. One way we can process, heal, and/or cope in this moment of grief is by listening to our own hurt, and listening to the hurt of others in solidarity. Through the invitation of anonymously performing our felt experience with gesture for a webcam, this piece aims to create a lens for observation of our felt experience during the pandemic, one that opens up space for participation and solidarity. It is built with browser tools (Ml5.js, BodyPix) to make this lens of observation as widely accessible as possible.
We are experiencing a period of profound collective grief. In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, David Kessler, expert on grief and co-author (with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross) of on Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss, says that we are feeling a sense of grief during the COVID-19 pandemic:
“…we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different…This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
Grief hurts. One way we can process, heal, and/or cope in this moment of grief is by listening to our own hurt, and listening to the hurt of others in solidarity.
healing happens when a place of trauma or pain is given full attention, really listened to.
— Adrienne Maree Brown
The most profound way to process grief with others is being physically present with them. This is because, according to scholars and musicians Stephen Neely (professor of Eurythmics at CMU) and Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, our bodies are considered the first instrument; we come to know our world through the immediate tangible interactions with our environment.
“before any experience is understood in the mind, it has to first resound through and be felt in the first experiencing instrument, the body.”
But grieving with others becomes profoundly hard when we must be apart, when being close to loved ones means we might make them sick.
It’s hard to carve out a moment to take stock of how we’re feeling, and even more difficult to share feeling with others beyond text, video, and our own limited networks. In the words of artist Jenny Odell, art can serve as a kind of “attentional prosthesis.” For example, work such as Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books invite us to dig into our own libraries to create our own sculptural book phrases.
Taking a leaf from Nina Katchadourian’s book, I’m hoping to create a lens for observation of our felt experience during the pandemic, one that opens up space for participation and solidarity.
How might I create a capture system for expressing grief as a display of solidarity?
The general workflow
The subject: a body in motion
I chose to abstract the body in motion into an animated silhouette. It not only protects identity of participants, but amplifies our sense of solidarity with them. We can see ourselves in more abstract bodies. They also invite play.
The capture system
What tools like Ml5.js and others offer us is a way to make tools, or lenses of observation, more widely accessible to non-experts. Platforms like Glitch made deployment friction-less.
At the end of the capture, you can download the capture you’ve created, and submission is optional.
I opened up the tool on a trial run with my cohort, with several captures over 1-2 days. I processed their submissions into a collection of gifs:
We may find that we have lost a lot during this pandemic. 😢
Expressing sadness can be an act of release. How do you feel?
There will be a moment when the pandemic is over. Imagine it 😀 How will you dance?
What piqued my interest
A lens for reflection. I’ve created a tool for easily (and privately) expressing emotion through gesture, particularly in a time when body-centered reflection is needed. The project is less about the gallery of captures, more about the opportunity to explore with the body. Nevertheless, I am most excited about capturing (and remembering) the pandemic feels in a visceral way.
Bodypix. This is a relatively new port to Ml5.js. The browser-based tool makes capturing poetic movement in time more easy to use and accessible.
Glitches & opportunities
Tone setting / framing. I’m used to holding these kinds of reflective conversations in person. How I could set a reflective tone with no control over its context of us was largely a mystery to me. Early feedback seemed to emphasize the tool didn’t provoke them to reflect deeply.
Glitchiness in gifs. Inconsistency across machines produced wildly inconsistent (and glitchy) gifs. How quickly certain machines can run the bodyPix model and draw frames in seemed to P5.js vary wildly.
Seamless workflow for storage of gifs. My server (temporarily) broke. Lowdb didn’t readily store the created gifs in an image format, so . My server filled up after only ~20 submissions, after which I opted to only store silhouette frames (which I then post-processed into GIFs by manually downloading the frames from Glitch). Ideally, the pipeline from capture to gallery would be fully automated.
That discomfort you’re feeling is grief.In an article that shares the same name, David Kessler talks about how naming our experience as grief begins to give us tools to talk about it. After we acknowledge the presence of grief, the next, and most critical step, is processing it.
But it’s hard to take a moment and take stock of how we’re feeling, and even more difficult to share feeling with others beyond text, video, and our own limited networks. Taking a leaf from Nina’s book, I’m hoping to create a lens for observation that opens up space for participation.
I want to create a lens on our own grief (and other pandemic feelings) as a way to begin to process them. By using browser-based body-detection, I’m hoping to open up the possibilities for observing how our bodies are doing in light of this (traumatic) new way of life, and sharing that experience (in a safe + meaningful way) .
My plan for the rest of the semester is to work on a capture system in Ml5 for processing and recording our experience pandemic through physically “performing” (in front of their webcam) how we are feeling.
Our likeness from the webcam footage is abstracted into a silhouette. By focusing on the silhouette of a body as the capture, the tool helps us focus on the shapes our bodies create, and not our specific appearance. Further, when we look at other’s responses, we can more viscerally “feel” their presence.
By developing this project for the browser, I’m hoping to open up access to as many participants as possible for participation.
These silhouettes will be aggregated and displayed back for people to appreciate everyone’s, possibly feel some solidarity.
Inspired by David Rokeby’s Plot Against Time series, I thought it would be interesting to apply this “long exposure” (or what looks like video processing) idea towards the subject of pollinators in my community farm’s herb garden (Garfield Community Farm).
In particular, I’m interested in a (slightly) more micro scale than Rokeyby’s typical camera position. One photographer’s work, David Liittschwager’s “biocubes,” provides a compelling new form factor to study the motion of pollinators in one space. This is because the diversity of pollinators in an herb garden is critical to that garden’s health. An abundance of pollinators (bees, flies, other insects) can be best appreciated up close; a ton of movement and activity happens in the herb garden in a very small space.
Liittschwager’s study of life in 1-cubic foot, coupled with Rokeyby’s video processing for movement could provide an interesting look into the pollinators of Garfield Community Farm’s herb garden.