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Affect / Effect: My experience at an affective writing workshop

Our class took a definite turn for the art school this week as we undertook an “affective writing workshop”. Our class split up into pairs, with the instruction that we partnered up with the person we “knew least” in class. Once arranged in unfamiliar pairs we then undertook two reflective exercises and were asked to write our responses in silence straight after.

For the first exercise, we were asked to touch fingertips while facing each other, and then close our eyes for a minute in silence. Then, open our eyes while continuing the touch for another minute. At this point it was recommended that we should only make occasional eye contact during this phase, as extended eye contact would make it “weird”. Sounds like an experiment for another time. Anyway, the exercise was quite meditative, and I’ve written my response to it below.

— Exercise 01: at the border of the self and the other —

Past the awkward shuffling, shrugs and laughter.
Sense the space. I start to form a picture from the low ambience around me.
Focus on the touch.
Warmth at my fingertips.
Bright spots of head and energy.
The room feels cooler as I focus on the bright pulses at the end of my reach.

A train rolls past in the distance.

An exhalation from nearby.

Once, years ago, I went to a restaurant that operated in complete darkness. Waiters were blind and at a sudden moment I became aware of all my other senses turning themselves up to previously impossible levels. I can still remember dropping deeper into my own body and feeling a kind of shocked disgust at this sensory overload. My aftershave was overpowering. My shirt sounded too loud. The smell of the food in front of me – lamb, rich and gamey – suffocating.

Thrumming at my fingertips jolts me from this memory. I can feel my partner’s touch oscillate slightly, and the deeper pull of tendon and muscle holding arms outstretched.

Our eyes open.


We repeat the exercise but with an adjusted method. This time, one person has their eyes shut and the other has eyes open. The person with eyes open must observe the subject through the lens of their camera phone. For the first minute the subject has eyes closed, then another minute with eyes open. Between the two of them it must be agreed whether the experience will be recorded or not.

It is agreed that I will be the subject and my partner will be the observer. We will not record it.

— Exercise 02: Contact zone at a distance — 
Eyes aren’t normally this hard to close.
Lightning, pink, my eyelids tremble in a sunbeam.
Am I a total narcissist for behaving in a way that believes I’m being surveilled at all times?
We live in a panopticon. Just relax.
Ambient booms, roars, a distant train.
The building creaks.
The sense of being stared at.
My forehead itches.
My posture needs work. Straighten up.
Sounds of movement, steps, my observer traverses.
And now it’s eyes open.
Light overwhelming, I forget myself for a moment.
The lens, black, hovering. Invisible boundaries between us.
My image is being processed by billions of circuits, electrons, calculations.
What’s my best angle?
Fix my posture. Where do I put my hands?
I can’t escape my own head.
The lens moves and I turn my gaze to follow it. Now we smile, a shared connection.
Is this a dance? Yes, it’s official. The camera is rotating 90 degrees. I turn my head sideways.
A performance.
All the world’s a stage assuming a camera is there to witness.

At this stage of my Goldsmith’s journey I’m starting to give it the benefit of the doubt when I feel like I’m in an unfamiliar situation. This was such an interesting and valuable exercise to undertake for multiple reasons which I’d like to mention now.

First, we’re at Art school. Despite being in the computing faculty and learning some pretty hardcore scientific and engineering concepts, we are also meant to be learning about creativity. How to learn. How to focus. How to reflect, how to express that reflection. How to be truthful.

At the commencement of this activity I was quite cynical, I thought it would be a bit of a laugh. And on a level, it is silly. There were some late arrivals to the class and as we all stood there with our eyes closed and our arms outstretched, there were some giggles. Those of us already in class doing the exercise collectively imagined how it must appear to a 3rd party observer, arriving late. We had a good discussion after the class from both the perspective of those who were busy with the exercise, and the person who was late, how the actions of one group of people affected the other and vice versa.

It wasn’t until Helen explained some of the rationale behind the “staging” of the exercise that it really clicked for me. The second part, where one of us was filming, I found a bit of a low-key ordeal. I hate being stared at and observed, so for me this was a bit of a challenging exercise. Additionally, the interaction might have been recorded, and finally, it was only a one way interaction. We wouldn’t then swap roles and do it again.

Afterwards, it was explained that this was intentional – an exploration of “power topologies”. This is a concept that we’ve been reading about, and I’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog, but at it’s most basic level the person witnessing (in this case holding the camera) has a higher elevation of “power” compared to the subject. “power-topologies … describe the ability of actors to affect places across distance and proximity.”

What really made it interesting was seeing how an ostensibly simple sequence of actions could be then deconstructed and analysed in an academic sense, or, to use the parlance, a “collection of learnings”. It has helped me realise that to create a meaningful creative experience I don’t need to throw all the bells and whistles at it’s execution so long as at the core it has an affecting truth, something that can connect with anyone on multiple levels.

References – Becoming topographical of culture