Touch as Narrative: Neurodivergent Connections

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‘Touch’ is an online workshop, exploring memory and narrative, through mindfulness practice and touch. Hosted by DYSPLA, a Dyslexic and Neurodivergent arts collective based in London. Their first batch of Touch workshops aired between the 17 January and 21 February as part of the Living Record Film Festival. Review by Emma Robdale.

close up photo of fingers of a white person manipulating parts of their body

DYSPLA are currently in development of an Intimate XR (Extended Reality) installation which explores touch as an artistic pursuit, from the perspective of a neurodivergent woman, specifically exhibiting traits of High-Sensitivity and Tactile Synesthesia.

DYSPLA focuses its energies upon the potential of neurodivergent (ND) creativity and perception; believing that dyslexic/ND artists produce work which is particularly fuelled/stimulated by heightened sensory dynamics… and that this is in part due to these individuals being more sensitive and aware to light, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

“Touch is a sacred gift of multiple dimensions, transcending space and time. Extend your hand, and let the journey begin…”

DYSPLA believes that these vivid sensations also link to the way dyslexic/ND individuals process, connect, and store information and memory. The touch workshop is designed to ‘trigger’ memories through the sensation of touch…

Apprehensive, I sat down upon my sofa, took out my laptop, and waited for the workshop to begin…. A close-up of a hand, fingertips sliding over an unknown body-part, appeared upon the screen. I wondered what was being caressed…  an elbow, knee, thigh? Gradually the image blurred, and a steady voice uttered that, “Touch is exploratory. Touch is exploration.” The body came back into focus, and the self-massage resumed as the voice continued,

“Touch is a conversation that you have with yourself. For most of us our bodies are functional. Touch is mostly utilitarian, but what if touch could also be an artistic pursuit?”

For the first stage of the workshop, I was asked to ‘self-massage’… beginning with my touching my hands, then gradually moving up to my shoulders. Though I was being given instructions of how to ‘touch’, the voice also encouraged participants to “explore and touch your body in ways that feel natural”, using differing pressures, strokes, and rhythms. An image that stood out to me was a clip of trailing fingertips that suddenly gripped harder, grasping and kneading into skin like playdough.

I was instructed to continue caressing my arm while a very simple childhood memory began to play. These were Lennie Varvarides’ (joint founder of DYSPLA) own memories, but they had been simplified to be ‘non-specific’, and the register was second person singular, “You are three years old. You are playing.”… The scene started with the girl on a hill, in a park. She/you were being chased, tickled and hugged by her/your mother. It played twice. As it repeated, I subconsciously began to superimpose visions of my own mother playing with me; I was in a tree trunk, rolling down a hill, she was tickling me through a hole in its bark. For me, this reflective process was quite vivid; I felt myself trapped in the log and recalled feeling sick from the tickling… hilarious and traumatic.

The recording stopped. I was told another would play, but that this time, while listening, I should actively try to link/overlay the narration with my own memories. Again, the voice instructed me to self-massage, but this time my shins and leg. A new memory played: She/I/The Girl was nine years old, and now at school. She was in a playground and she was being bullied. Boys kicked her while she attempted to distract and disassociate…unfortunately, I had a very rough time at school, and so this ‘memory’ conjured a cascade of unpleasant, eclectic, and chaotic remembrances. This recording played twice, then stopped.

Lennie Varvarides and Kazimir Bielecki, workshop hosts and founders of DYSPLA, then appeared live on my screen. They asked if I felt comfortable expanding upon my experiences of the workshop. I had been the only person partaking; Lennie explained that, after recordings, normally several participants join together to reminisce.

For me, elements of the first memory, when the girl was three, had been quite tranquil; though there was a detailed section where the mother hugged her daughter, describing the mother’s ‘breath on your neck’… I remembered how much I had disliked being grabbed and hugged myself; when I was younger it had been too close, too consuming. The second experience/memory of the girl in the playground, for me, was a lot faster. More disjointed. Perhaps because this time around I had been actively told to link memories, visions rushed to me quickly in snapshots, but it felt like I wasn’t as actively inside them. The violent content depicted caused this experience to be more distressing and much less relaxing.

I had experienced two of the nine recorded memories; Lennie and Kazimir play all nine in longer workshop sessions. They had observed that female neurodivergent participants enjoyed/connected best to the recordings; I considered that this was probably because they might have undergone similar experiences… and also that men might have found it more difficult to imagine themselves with the pronoun ‘she’ and read in a woman’s voice.

The workshop explores whether both ND and neurotypical individuals are able to transfuse their own narratives/feelings over Lennie’s set autobiographical recordings. DYSPLA seeks to unveil whether ‘touch’, combined with meditational and mindfulness practices, could inspire personal reflective-style narratives. Ultimately, these workshops aim to blend the insights and perspectives of Lennie, a Neurodivergent (Dyslexic/ADHD) woman, experiencing high sensitivity and tactile synaesthesia, with the participant’s own personal images, memories, and sensations,

“The experience will intertwine narrative and human to haptic sensation.”

Using a range of technological artistic advances, DYSPLA explores Neurodivergent perspective/creativity. Experimental in its methods, this workshop is designed so that participants can appreciate an intimate, immersive and individualized connection to the recorded narratives. Contributors are encouraged to employ their own schemas of memory while listening and massaging themselves so as to “explore the value of physical touch and human connection.”

In what has been an isolating, and fairly ‘touch free’ pandemic, DYSPLA deems that, “There has never been a more crucial time to investigate the importance of human touch, and, to challenge the human need for physical contact and the transference of oxytocin.”

Believing the ‘art of self-touch’ to be transcendental, DYSPLA’s practice aligns itself to many grounding, self-soothing and mindfulness techniques that alleviate stressors and anxiety. DYSPLA is developing this a step further, asking, “can touch be an artistic pursuit?” They want to see if workshops have the power to unlock stories and sensations which can then be imaginatively channelled into art, stories, film, drama….

 “Can we relate to our body through this new perspective? Can this be the first steps for experimenting with touch as narrative?”

If you have been tantalized by the potentials of this explorative, imaginary and immersive experience…. then allow your senses to be tickled and memories be unlocked; keep an eye out on DYSPLA’s website for updates of upcoming ‘Touch Workshops’.