In our playful but intense in-class improv activities this week with a local Tisch experimental theater professor, we engaged in lengthy non-verbal eye-gazing sessions with three different people. Lin and I paired for one of those, and I can certainly report having a much better sense of her now than before the exercise. It’s difficult to pinpoint how exactly, but there is a difference. I feel I “know” her better. This puzzling experience inspired a lengthy conversation after class with both Lin and another classmate, Maria, and we decided to team up to further explore eye communication as a possible entryway into our final project.
Lin and I designed a human-only interaction (Maria ran a separate one due to her schedule) that turned out to address some of my lingering questions from last week and present some new ones. We structured the new interaction with time limits and specified goals. Unlike last week, however, it included (a couple) more participants and directed participants differently depending on their role.
Here’s how it went. First, we found four people. One person was seated across from the other three and given a description of game with two parts. In the first part, they could choose to look at any of the folks across them for a certain amount of time that we, the observers, did not disclose. A ringing bell would mark the end of that time and a transition into the second part of the game, during which they could choose to do and look at or whomever they decided—whatever made them feel comfortable, again for a undisclosed amount of time. The other three players, clueless to what the fourth person was told, were instructed to compete for attention of that individual during part one. In part two, they were instructed to not look at anyone at all. All participants were asked to refrain from talking. When the “game” started Lin set a timer for 20 seconds only after the two people (in this case, Lu and Roland) commenced into their extended gaze; the second part lasted for around three minutes. We were curious about several areas: What happens when the attention you just received is denied? What happens when you do not receive any attention? And of course, what happens to you during a longer-than-normal non-verbal eye chat?
We specifically chose classmates from the floor who we thought might be open to try a vaguely-explained staring contest experience. While we recognize that different players might have provided very different accounts, our post-game discussion with and without the participants nevertheless yielded useful questions for further consideration. Roland reported that though it’s not socially-acceptable to stare at people, especially women, and that at the beginning of his stare with Lu felt long, at a certain point it was quite pleasant. Lu agreed and noted that eye contact acquires different meaning when accompanying verbal conversation. Shreiya and Steven both missed out on Lu’s attention and mentioned feeling confused and defeated…although Steven felt a brief sense of comfort when he and Roland momentarily glanced at each other during part two. I honestly did not expect our non-Collective Play classmates to accept the task we gave them so well, and their amiable reactions post-play impressed on us the significance of making connections with others.
I’m simplifying a lot here, but it led to a much longer discussion between Lin and myself about how to intimacy is forged between strangers. Aside from staring into someone’s eyes, what other norms might we disrupt/reverse/challenge? What if people fed one another during dinner? What if we investigated prolonged invasions into personal spaces? What if we encouraged lengthy periods of touch (hand-to-hand, hand-to-should, etc.)? Keys to all of these scenarios are extended durations of time and the inability to hide.
We ultimately wondered if it was possible to design a digital space to foster sustained connections or intimacy between those who are otherwise unfamiliar with one another. Keeping it simple, we envisioned a scenario in which two people in different physical spaces each sit in front a computer screen that initially displays a crop of the other's eyes. Continuous looking at the screen causes small sections to fade away and uncover each person's face. If either turns away, all that was revealed is hidden again for both participants. Would curiosity to fully see the other keep folks seated, attentive, and engaged in "slow looking" until the both faces are fully unveiled? It's a case that potentially rewards being with someone in the moment, something that we usually do not equate with technology-mediated spaces.