“We r touching … in a way”: A haptic scan across the films of Hagere Selam (shimby) Zegeye-Gebrehiwot, erψn temp3st and Freya Björg Olafson

In the essay “Ecstatic Forms, Erotic Bodies,” artist Ayanna Dozier reflects on filmmaker Nalini Malani’s approach to abstraction as a source and site of potential. For Malani, abstraction is not “merely art for art’s sake but a process which [leads] to sight, a way of seeing that transcend[s] the surface.” When experiencing an artwork in the wake of Malani’s proposition, the function of the eye is altered. The practice of looking becomes the practice of touching as well. The eye seems to reach out to the artwork, moving along its surface in order to take in what is being offered rather than penetrating or interpreting the work in an attempt to “know” it, to conquer it. While most post-industrialist capitalist approaches to sense are hegemonic in their focus on sight, haptic perception upends any dualistic understanding of viewership, thus inviting a method of artistic engagement that is relational. When there are pathways available for different modes of sensory perception, whole worlds of affects and precepts can be cracked open that account for their own logics of sensation. When new logics of sensation are available, new approaches to worldmaking can emerge.

Three different moving image works in concert with Malani’s approach are Field of View by Freya Björg Olafson (2022), Çås¢a∂ing €®r0r Win∂0ws by erψn temp3st (2021), and yaya/ayat by Hagere Selam (shimby) Zegeye-Gebrehiwot (2010). Each of these works refuses binaried approaches to spectatorship and offers new configurations of space, time and meaning through the process of touch, of experiencing what is below the surface.

In Field of View, Olafson is seen dancing from above, the sweeping movements of their limbs caught in cascading lines that resemble cards tumbling across a computer monitor. Each gesture is frozen, fragmented and layered in swirling stratifications of time that extend the body beyond its corporeal container. Throughout the film, Olafson trails items of clothing across the screen – blue shirt, yellow pants, red vest. The garments’ empty forms remind the viewer of the materiality not only of the digital body, but of virtual space as well. From the software that has been manipulated in order to create strokes of static video frames to the system error that occurs at the end of the film, instances of electronic independence coalesce to establish a sense of the physical existence of digital media and the socioeconomic space it takes up. Field of View makes visible what can often feel hidden. Through digital manipulations, Olafson transforms seemingly obedient and contained technologies into wily explorations of the self-in-relation, materiality and immanence.

While Field of View augments the corporeal body beyond the parameters of space, time and form, temp3st’s Çås¢a∂ing €®r0r Win∂0ws refuses any singular sense of corporeality at all and exposes form through dispersal and glitch. Utilizing the screen space as assemblage, the film uses screen recordings of pop-up windows to impart the sensation that one’s computer has been hacked – an IT-style takeover glowing with vibrant hues that would make Pipilotti Rist squint. Later on in the film, reflections of the filmmaker can be seen on the monitor as they drag windows, hover their cursor, and choreograph the space of the screen. These moments trouble the delineation between viewer and artmaker (anticipating a mutual embodiment), reveal the materiality of the screen, and establish the labour taking place behind the digital scrim of electronic artmaking. The rhythms of artistic labour are also shown when recordings of someone dancing in what appears to be a studio pop up on the screen. They are often distorted by glitch and shadow, re-making abstract what is often forced into uncomfortable binaried ways of being, a categorization that is particularly militant in certain performance training methodologies. Çås¢a∂ing €®r0r Win∂0ws features instant messaging between two separate windows, respectively titled “Eliza” and “Parry,” who type back and forth about loneliness, presence and embodiment.

“We r touching, in a way …,”

“But I can sense that u r here.”

“Do u have a body?”

“Yes / Do u?”

The conversation between “Eliza” and “Parry” offers an approach to virtual space that is thick, vast and reaching, inviting ideas around how distance – how fissure – might allow space for new possibilities of being and becoming.

The film yaya/ayat by Zegeye-Gebrehiwot asks how distance shapes identity. The work speaks specifically to the filmmaker’s experience of reaching for connection with their grandmother, who is separated by language and the generational impacts of diaspora. yaya/ayat features a narrator in motion. Often, the 8mm camera appears to be jutting out of the window of a moving vehicle as shots of power lines, tree branches, and laundry hanging on clotheslines flicker past. Much of the footage is of the filmmaker’s yaya (grandmother), the eye behind the camera reaching across space and time.

“I found myself longing for you / because you and I have been separated by more than distance / because you and I did not choose this / because I am wanting and willing to transcend this huge ocean / I am going to go and find you...”

The places documented in the film seem to extend beyond the edges of the frame. Hands pour tea, hydro wires pull across the landscape, yaya’s body is stretched across the couch, feet past the edge of the screen. Zegeye-Gebrehiwot appears to create their own world beyond the limitations of any one corporeal body. yaya/ayat warms toward its subject, folding into soft crevasses and taking the shape of the process in a tender relational exchange that overspills the borders of distance.

All three of these films invite the viewer into spaces of transformation through processes of touch. Optical distance is eschewed in favour of yielding, and the experience of spectatorship shifts into a relational dynamic of negotiation. Throughout these processes, abstraction is offered as a portal for exploring new methods of being with and of the world.

Jillian Groening is a dance artist, writer and arts worker currently based on Treaty 1 lands. They are the Distribution Manager at the Winnipeg Film Group.