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Missed Communications

Early on in the Fall semester, John Cartwright (a fellow 1st year MFA) initiated an idea about experimenting with partnering over Zoom. I was interested and joined him in the process, hoping we could experiment with new ways for digital bodies to interact with one another.

As we began our brainstorming, the countless videos that the performing arts community released within the first few months of the pandemic started to scroll through my mind. Many were well done, many presented relatable situations, many of them used the same tropes of video editing in order to manufacture something that looked like a live interaction over Zoom. The endless scroll of these videos flashing through my memory was already making me feel like the concept had been played out. So we decided not to make a video mimicking Zoom. Check.

In our initial brainstorming session we talked about the frustrations of using technology. We realized that we were not interested in exploring this technology as a ‘tool’ to make something that mimics the type of dances we’re used to creating (because ultimately if our goal is to make dance, technology as a medium will always fall short). Instead we began to brainstorm about the contemporary experience of digital communication. Even prior to the pandemic, our social interactions were becoming increasingly mediated through social media platforms and communication apps. I have family who I email, friends who I text, groups of coworkers with whom I Googlechat, international friends with whom I communicate via WhatsApp, long distance relationships that are sustained through voice memos and Marco Polo videos, and hundreds of distant friends and acquaintances with whom I only connect through Instagram or Facebook. John and I began talking about the feeling of being surrounded by all of it—engulfed in short-form, fast-paced written communication and blue light. How many apps do I navigate through on my phone in one day? Is the communication I am engaged in enhanced, hindered, multiplied, diluted and/or segmented by these technologies? When, by which programs, and how?

We decided to try to make a film that maps the choreography of two people attempting to meet in person by reaching out to one another using as many different digital communication platforms as possible. We wanted to include nods to relatable moments of navigating digital technologies, like when you can’t find the link that your friend said they sent to you, and you realize after scrolling through seven different apps that they sent it to your work email on accident; or when (if you’re like me) you avoid updating your apps because you never have the time, and when you finally do you have to re-sign-in to all of them but you forgot your sign-in information because your phone always remembered that for you, so before you can receive or send any threads of communication you have to reset all of your passwords.

Screenshot from Missed Communications.

We sat down together(ish)—mediated through Googlemeet—and wrote a script that included iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, FaceTime, Marco Polo, Googlemaps, Googlemeet, and Zoom. That was the easy part. The next was actually orchestrating the occurrence of and recording the communication. We decided that with the exception of the opening scene, our footage would be screen-captures of our phones as we navigate apps, and compose, send and receive messages. We each had to download a few apps—John didn’t have March Polo or WhatsApp; and I didn’t have Snapchat. Then came the problem solving—if we’re using all of these apps for the project how do we connect with each other about the project, or really anything else in general? So we both downloaded one more app, Slack, which we decided would be the one place where we were allowed to contact each other outside of the script.

Screenshot from Missed Communications.

The script we wrote that day remained relatively the same, with minor changes each day when we sat down to screen-record a portion of the script. This was a long, tedious, durational project. I don’t think we knew what we were getting ourselves into when we wrote the script. We had specific dates and times over a 2.5 month period when we needed to record ourselves reaching out to each other, many requiring us to meet in person in order to record sound to accompany our silent screen-recordings. There were many times when we would both forget to look at the script for a week and realize that we had missed a date, requiring us to shift the dates of the rest of the script, and if it was particularly time-sensitive content, we would also have to change the words of the script as well. However, these long, drawn-out gaps in our recordings allowed the final project to have a more exaggerated passage of time, which I think is a strength in the work. So, hooray for poor time management and distracted artists?!

The actual filming/screen-grabbing came with it’s fair share of ridiculousness. I don’t want to say too much here in case the people reading these words have not watched the video yet. But I will say that for the last scene, the recording involved two different days of filming, four different recording devices, lots of silent communication through eye contact, a laser pointer, and much trial and error. (This will all make more sense when you watch it).

Once we made our way through the entire script we entered the editing process. Again, I don’t think we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We thought that the recording process was tedious, but in hindsight it felt like a breeze when we realized how much work it would be to make two screen recordings play next to each other in dynamic ways. For each individual clip, we needed to crop and reposition the image so that the two phones could play simultaneously and be read as distinct by the audience. Then, once we had dropped all of the cropped and repositioned clips into the correct order in the timeline, we went through each clip to splice out any lag time between typed words and alter the speed of various clips in order to make our typing time closer to reading rate—otherwise the video would have been 25 minutes long.

Screenshot from Missed Communications.

(It was about now that we realized what we were expecting of our audience. In order to get anything out of this piece, the audience would have to be focused enough to jump their eyes around the screen and remain proactive the entire time. One cannot check out while watching this video. The audience is reading short form messages between two people the entire time, and the location of the text at any given moment is jumping to different locations on the screen, depending on which app is being used. Being a viewer of this piece requires almost as much digital literacy as it required to make it).

To require this much of our audience and make the video 25 minutes would have been too much to ask. We shortened it as much as we could/were willing, ending up with 14 minutes of screen-grabbed footage and transitional title cards. Next, we went through to add sound in, painstakingly matching moving lips to recorded words and adding app-specific alert noises whenever someone received or sent a message. Searching for music was a-whole-nother task. Most music options we tested either distracted us from being able to read the on-sceen correspondence, or made the correspondence feel too serious or doomed. Eventually we tried Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K 453: I. Allegro and it seemed to be the perfect lighthearted yet dramatic soundscape for our saga of missed communications. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite the right length (2 minutes too short), so we went through the song snipping and adding clips of repeats in order to lengthen the music. Doing this without butchering the composition or making the orchestra sound choppy was nerve-racking for two people who are new to sound editing.

This project was meant to be an experiment. A trial of new approaches to composition. It was that indeed, and it was also an incredibly large amount of work for something intended to be an experiment. I hope the work was worth it, and that you enjoy what you are about to watch. Take a deep breath, and get ready to participate with your eyes!

(And check out John’s blog – here – for his take on the making process)!

Missed Communications. Made in collaboration with John Cartwright.

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