SPEAK: Realer than Reel

By Sara Kraft

October 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I am currently in the development stages of a new performance project called HyperREAL. My process always includes an amalgamation of research, contemplating themes and ideas, collecting, absorbing and digesting a wide array of sources of information and inspiration, along with improvisation, writing, composition, etc. Research for me is often a combination of mining both my own experiences and what I see happening in the world around me, working at the intersections, and connecting seemingly disparate themes, events and experiences.

If you’ve seen fliers for my upcoming performances of HyperREAL you may guess some of what has been on my mind lately…sharks! Having had some unforgettable shark experiences at a very formative age, sharks hold a powerful role in my psyche. The shark theme is complex and multifaceted and I don’t want to over explain. But recently my latent shark obsession resurfaced…pun intended. I found myself increasingly drawn to them and devouring everything shark related that I could find. In lieu of being able to experience them “for real” (a shark diving trip didn’t feel like a viable option at the time) I turned to the next best thing: YouTube. Soon I found myself repeatedly watching YouTube footage of sharks and shark attacks. I was fascinated by this seemingly disturbing compulsion to repeatedly watch footage of them—maybe what a therapist would call classic “trauma re-enactment.” And what was most fascinating was the unexpected and incongruous effect it was having on me. Rather than feeling re-traumatized, it seemed to be having a strangely healing effect. I found myself deeply moved to these sharks. Rather than letting my body recoil in terror, I began merging with them and identifying with them, and I felt my reaction to them transforming. Watching them became strangely ecstatic.

Reports started popping up in the news about experiments using virtual technology to treat soldiers from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We know that the military has been using virtual reality technology to train soldiers for combat. Now by repetitively exposing the soldiers to simulated versions of the traumatic violence, using that same technology, doctors hope to re-wire the soldier’s response to that trauma.

The irony that we are using the same video game technology that may be numbing our children to the reality of violence, in order to heal people traumatized by real violence, was striking to me. While I certainly don’t mean to equate a fear of sharks with the reality of combat in Iraq, they both exist somewhere on a spectrum that points to the many questions inherent in our complex and paradoxical relationship to technology, media and mediated experience, and some of the questions at the heart of my current work: What are the blurry lines between mediated virtual realities that traumatize us, numb us, and heal us? How does the nature of trauma and the ability to disassociate from the pain of our physical realities feed, and is fed by, our relationship to media technology? How is virtual and mediated experience impacting, forming and transforming human consciousness and our relationship to “reality”? How do we define and determine what is “real” in a world where more interactions are mediated through virtual worlds, and where even the basis of our “actual” physical experience can be doubted?

See my upcoming work in progress of HyperREAL 1.1, running Oct 10-12 at CounterPULSE.

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of In Dance.