The Shelly Videos attempt to provide emotionally sensual experiences of Shelly's story that we can feel on our bodies.
We hope the physical experience it provides may challenge learned and embodied biases we may not even know about that lead us to discriminate against Shelly and those like her living with HIV.
If our learned fears of AIDS and HIV cause us to unconsciously brace ourselves against her and hold her at a distance, perhaps these videos can allow us to feel her story in a different way, if even for a moment. Then the rest is up to us.
We communicate through body language and visual cues.
We experience each other on our bodies all the time. When was the last time you walked into a room where the air was so thick with animosity that it made you feel uncomfortable. We can sense it on our bodies like a stifling, oppressive pressure. Or, when you arrive at a party and the vibe is so good you immediately relax, your mood soars and you can't help but want to join in.
We read the bodies of others and feel our sensations respond in our bodies. The field of neuroscience attributes this kind of mimetic experience to mirror neurons. We see an action or a gesture in someone and the same neurons that fire for them to perform the action, fire in our bodies too. Even if we don't perform the action ourselves, we will experience it on our bodies. Some neuroscientists claim this reflex has evolved to help us understand the intentions of others. They say it helps us quickly determine if an aggressive stance requires us to prepare to defend ourselves, or if the stranger with open arms could be received with hospitality. We are a social animal, and these are the tools we have acquired to navigate each other's intentions.
We interpret our body sensations by what we already know.
But we are also a cultural animal. It's not enough to just feel a neural response in our bodies, we must interpret it in order for it to mean something to us. We need to make sense of what we feel by comparing our sensations to something we already know. I remember visiting Hong Kong in my early twenties on my first trip to Asia. I grew up in a small town in Canada where almost everyone looked and behaved, more or less, the same, so this trip was a cultural awakening for me. I stepped up to a counter and attempted to order some sticky buns in my usual quiet way. The lady at the counter answered me back in Cantonese, her voice was louder and more forceful than mine with a quick and choppy cadence. I stepped back, my body rigid in defense, "What did I do? Why is this woman yelling at me?" I immediately regressed into the young boy I had once been, scolded by my mother for doing something I should have known better of.
Researchers have demonstrated how an emotional experience like the one I felt when scolded by my mother is recorded on our bodies. My quickened heart rate, the tensing of my muscles as I braced myself against her raised voice, even the temperature of my skin and the hormonal surge of adrenaline is recorded together with the emotional memory as a neural experience . It's an embodied emotional event. My embodied memory of getting in trouble includes everything I felt in that moment, even the sensations I was less aware of.
And the memory of an embodied emotional event can be recalled in full by experiencing even a portion of its embodied experience. That's why we can hear a particular song and feel the melancholic nostalgia of missing someone dear to us, because the song is attached to a moment we shared together. Or, the raised voice of the shop keeper that took me so off guard recalled the young boy in me .
I interpreted the Cantonese shopkeeper against my cultural understanding of the world. I grew up in a place where voices remained at a certain level, unless they were excited or upset, so of course my first reaction in that Hong Kong delicatessen was that she was upset with me. Her cultural experience was entirely different from mine and her tone of voice was likely entirely normal for selling sticky buns.
I had learned a way of interpreting the world from the context I grew up in that was challenged by a new situation. My response revealed a bias of how people should behave that was embodied in me and learned from my family, and my neighbours.
Art makes us feel.
Art makes us feel emotions on our bodies. We experience the same kind of sensational responses on our bodies through the brushstroke of a painting, the cut marks of a sculpture, or a dancer's leap across the floor, as we do when witnessing gestures and body language in others. And, our minds are involved in interpreting what we see and feel in an art encounter. Our sensations, our thoughts and our histories combine to make meaning of the experience.
I wanted to tell Shelly's story through dance because her performance is so emotionally charged, her movements so strong and clear, and the use of the camera so intimate, that watching it entices such compelling sensation responses in my body. I feel my chest recoil like an open wound as Shelly speaks of betrayal, while her sternum shudders under the touch of a finger. My neck and torso tense and my stomach turns in response to the trembling of her limbs and the clenching of her fists, while she talks of the isolation and quarantine foisted upon the early AIDS sufferers. I experience Shelly's performance through my body sensations, and combined with her words, I physically experience the emotional telling of her story.
I can't experience her story exactly as she does. I can only interpret my sensations from my embodied history. But, when I watch the videos my understanding of the world is challenged and expanded by my experience of Shelly's story. Once I feel the new sensations in the context of her story, I can't go back. I am forced to either reject the experience, or to reconcile it with my previous understanding of AIDS and HIV. It's up to me what I do next, but in the moment I watched the video, I physically I experienced Shelly with empathy through my emotions and body sensations in a new experience, one that brought me closer to understand Shelly and those like her living with the virus.
For example, it took me a long time to see Shelly’s point behind why charging someone who knowingly infected her with HIV perpetuates stigma around HIV. I understood how the threat of being caught would stop someone from getting tested in the first place, as if their ignorance of their condition would absolve them from the responsibility of infecting another. However, I always struggled with the notion of Shelly, or someone like her, not holding the partner accountable and receiving justice for the injury they suffered.
My habitual response to Shelly's words was that she was abused, and she needed to be vindicated. Hearing her explanation in the video accompanied by the emotional portrayal of her dancing gives me a glimpse of how she experiences the issue. Now, I have a new appreciation for the emotional struggle and pain someone in her position lives with. So, when she speaks about how some people charge their partners out of revenge as her fingers trace their way up her torso from her groin, I get a sense of how their pain is inscribed on their bodies. It helps me realize that putting another person in jail will not eradicate that pain, and how the stigma perpetuated by the criminalization of non-disclosure will still be felt on their bodies.
So, when Shelly declares, “It would have ruined his life, and probably my life too.” I am able to accept that statement. I don't have the experience to understand her completely, but this scene allows me to embody enough of what she is saying to challenge my habitual reaction. After reconciling the sensations I felt by her words, the new experience has expanded my capacity to interpret them differently and brings me closer to understanding her than I could, before.
My physical sensation responses to Shelly guided our creative process.
I remained aware of my body sensations throughout the project in order to help Shelly tell a story that could speak to my body. My body sensations in our first interview made me aware of the moments I was more concerned about my desires for the videos by my anxiety over not hearing the type of story I expected. My awareness helped me focus back on her and really listen to what she had to say. Attentive listening evolved my vision for the videos to include what was most important to her, and not what I thought I needed to make an engaging video.
As we created the dance phrases in the studio, I monitored my body sensations to know which of the improvised movements Shelly offered were most evocative and guided my idea of where to take them. Working this way, and always in collaboration with Shelly, we were able to develop the movement that powered her performance in the videos.
Listening to my body respond to Shelly made me open and receptive to really hear her.
And finally, in the editing suite my sensation responses helped me shape and fashion her words and movements into an arrangement that best told her story. My sensitivity to my sensation responses to Shelly guided me to listen, and be open and receptive to what she shared with me so that our artistic process could best serve her and her story.
Embodied storytelling is a way to really listen to Shelly with my whole body and tell her story in a way that I sensually respond to with my body and mind. I am touched by these videos physically and emotionally, and I hope they will do the same for others.