By Marcus Whale
1 November, 2019
Partway through Body of Knowledge, Samara Hersch’s new performance for Liveworks, an attendee’s phone goes off. Except, it’s not exactly their phone, but one assigned to them—a smartphone. In fact, each of the dozen-or-so audience members has been assigned a device, and by the time it’s my turn to participate, almost everyone has a phone to their ear, chatting.
From across a seated circle, I’m handed someone else’s phone. It’s for me. I hear the voice of a young girl, thirteen at most, and she asks me a question.
Body of Knowledge might take place in Track 8 at Carriageworks, but the real arena for this performance is in the ephemeral sonic space of the telephone call. We are poised to respond to questions or instructions from a facilitator on the other end of the line, and these conversations then form and evolve the performance. The relation of audience to facilitator becomes a plethora of shifting one-to-one, two-to-one and even three-to-one conversations as phones are handed around, held up conventionally to ears, or with earphones plugged in, or set to speakerphone.
We are chatting exclusively to teenagers in a kind of ‘Ask an Adult’ format about everything from sex education to relationships to ageing and, in the case of my first conversation, how to deal with stress. Over an hour and twenty minutes, the sound in the room thickens from a single conversation to a thrumming of empathetic voices and understanding, as we attempt to play Agony Aunt to the anonymous youths awaiting our response.
In a remotely engineered collaboration that feels as natural as it does magical, we’re also each asked by our teenaged conversation partners to complete tasks that eventually transform the space entirely. By the end, I’m lying down, watching lights, talking about boyfriend problems. At their direction, we’re given an immersive and deeply pleasurable glimpse into the sights and sounds of Generation Z.
But it didn’t start this way. As each phone went off one-by-one, I felt a rising anxiety—I was brought back to my job answering phones and making cold calls selling instruments at a music store. Who even regularly answers the phone in 2019? My generation, so-called Millennials, are less likely to answer the phone than ever before. An article in The Atlantic tells me that, in the 20th Century, it used to be rude to not pick up the phone. Now it seems almost an affront to demand a real-time answer from a person in a world where textual communication has become prime. We will answer your query in our own time.
So, it seems pointed that we’re speaking rather than texting—this experience of talking deeply about our feelings on the phone is a nostalgic and almost universal adolescent experience for the generations of adults who may walk into this space. I can’t help but be brought back to the giddy excitement of setting up 3-way calls on my home landline as a pre-teen, our own private zone to gossip, debrief and play.
Through this method, then, Body of Knowledge forms a provocation or perhaps a suggestion that we might consider this telephonic zone as common ground through which we can breach our intergenerational boundaries. As someone raised by remote communication, instant messaging and forum-posting my way through the turbulence of adolescence, this felt like strangely familiar territory.
For me, being online involved finding people from different ages and locations who might share aspects of my life. Anonymity allowed for the opportunity to be truer to myself. In the case of the facilitators in this performance, Body of Knowledge might allow them an inventive route to openly discuss situations, problems and concerns in their lives. I find myself in a long and rich conversation with a nineteen-year-old woman about growing apart from her partner, going into a depth of detail I doubt I would have shared with my closest friends at that age.
Thinking from my own subjectivity, I’m also reminded of the valuable relationships in my life with older queer people: how our sharing of experiences carves a hole in the calcifying isolation that capitalist-led labour has imposed as a condition of living in a modern, globalised society. As a fellow audience participant said of his own conversation, ‘those are the conversations and relationships that are golden to a young person of a minoritised experience,’ something I would have wished for as a teenager.
Rather than mounting a conservative command for us to ‘get off our screens’ and ‘talk to a human’, Body of Knowledge offers our anonymised voices as a non-hierarchical way of relating to people of a different experience to our own, and encourages us to be changed by these encounters. This way of communicating allows us to realise how common our experiences can be. One vivacious facilitator towards the end of the performance put it best when he exclaimed ‘adults are just grown-up teenagers’. Too true, kid.