Pandemic Fatigue, Resocialization and Collective Health: Salima Punjani on Listening and Sensing Foreignness (2021)
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As part of her artist-in-residence project ‘The Cost of Entry is a Heartbeat’, multisensory artist and advocate for disability justice
Salima Punjani reclaims rest. She provokes resocialization through a bathing ritual and listening to a collective human heartbeat — raising complex questions about the community needs of people in a hostile pandemic environment, navigation of otherness and discomfort through cultivation of presence and accessibility in art practice and experience.
Hours before Hungary closed its borders to foreigners in early September 2020, Salima Punjani makes the journey from Montreal to Budapest. She arrives a month before she is expected to start her residency - taking a big leap of faith while going through the exhausting extremes of travel and relocation under the restricting circumstances that sees whole populations in socially distanced isolation.
As she contemplates her working practice during the pandemic, Punjani takes in her surroundings with the tense feelings of being an outsider in a withdrawn city. The discrete everyday reflections of otherness and her own resocialization process prove to be challenging - she shares with me in a Skype conversation.
While we continue to converse remotely and virtually, her work sensitizes to the dismal everyday experience and the new normal for human interactions in a fractured and transforming global and societal life. She voices concern and empathy for people facing mental health challenges, coping with traumatic stress, racial injustice and dealing with disability.
An immersion in the sensory impressions of thermal baths and collective heartbeats merging together as feedback to the inner cycles of our bodies, Punjani’s performances at the Spatial Sound Institute ran in ten consecutive cycles over two days on 31 October - 1 November 2020.
A guided experience for small intimate groups of people, her intention is to evoke a receptive listening sensitivity, which examines resocialization and collective rest as a ritual in a time of extreme isolation.
Intersection of Creativity and Care
Not trained through formal arts education, Punjani developed her creative practice through community theatre productions of The Vagina Monologues as well as socially engaged work. She started with an internship with the non-profit organization Oxfam Canada in Ethiopia, centred on strengths focused asset-based community development, engaging and working across cultures with different people.
“During my time in Ethiopia, I had hoped to make people’s stories more complex and support people in telling their own stories.” she says.
She developed and exhibited the works ‘Merkato textures’ and ‘We are still here’ with a photo-journalistic lens, documenting the analytic potential of everyday life and process of gentrification in the neighbourhood of Arat Kilo where she was living at that time and through the relationships she had formed with people who spoke about the changes that were coming to their part of town.
Punjani’s exploration served as a counter-narrative to the stigmatization of extreme impoverishment, looking at things from a strength-based approach that puts the agency back into the hands of communities. She felt this was important especially in a country like Ethiopia, where stereotypical undignified images are commonly portraying vulnerable children with malnutrition hit bellies, flies around their mouths and ripped by extreme poverty.
“Although it may serve a purpose in some way, these images had become a way of representation for so long and repeated. Such undignified portrayals are deserving of examination, but we don’t think enough.” says Punjani.
The ethos focused on strength and resilience has been central to Punjani’s artistic practice.
Living with Multiple Sclerosis, the disclosure and embrace of her personal experience of disability is a strong impetus that drives her work with marginalized people. Her aim is to show that the strengths they feel are present in themselves and their communities.
Punjani is connected to and collaborates with disability arts communities that have formed in recent years in Canada like VibraFusion Lab Collective and Critical Disability Studies Working Group at Concordia.
She is an Access Activator and dedicates herself to facilitating resources in ‘Relaxed Performances’ (RP). Her work often responds to the principles and framework of Disability Justice, where she collaborates with fellow access activators in an effort to create more awareness of ableism - how it impacts society and contributes to issues faced by Disabled people.
Such strong community ties and social engagement has brought her many valuable relationships, self-acceptance and a greater sense of belonging.
“The way that disability can just be ignored or people can feel that their existence isn’t valued is quite painful and I think I have been fortunate enough to find communities and spaces where dignity is a huge value and is considered from the very beginning of any event, project or creative work.” says Punjani.
Over the years, Punjani has developed a relational and trauma-informed practice that often responds to her own vulnerability and the social and political context she finds herself in. She pays attention to details of narrative, bodily forms and internal response cycles, as she commits herself to encouraging values and methods of accessibility in her work - whether it’s care setups for Disabled people, sign languages, captions, transcripts and audio descriptions of visual information.
“I have been treated with such dignity, respect and care.” Punjani says in describing the importance of accessible communities in her life and this has motivated her to extend that type of care to the people that come to experience her work.
Through envisioning collective access to her works, she experiments with multi-sensory storytelling - such as vibrational technology for the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities, tactile displays for blind and low-vision people and the use of medical and bio-data in accessible art and listening experiences. She rethinks physicality and presence as a caring vehicle to help people feel valued and to emphasize critical reflection.
Drawing inspiration from fellow accessibility advocates and speaking about “practices as promising practices”, Punjani says, “I don’t believe there is a best (practice). To assume there is, can be stagnating and gives an illusion of having an endpoint. In my opinion, there is no end point as such, needs and desires are constantly evolving”, reinforces Punjani.
On Culture of Productivity and Collective Rest
During the ongoing climate of crisis, lockdowns and worldwide uprisings within countries over many political, socio economic, racial and environmental issues, Punjani reflects on damaging narratives of productivity based on labour exploitation, and how it is used as a tool for control that tends to serve capitalist interests.
She expresses that the vicious cycle of productivity that has arisen since the onset of the pandemic - with blogs, social media posts and even books written as a prescription - has been incessant, is inappropriate and a shame, demeaning to human bodies.
Punjani raises concern of the trauma and uncertainty that people need to deal with.
“It just makes me feel quite sick and is heartbreaking.” she says. “What about dignity? What about respect? What about improving infrastructures to create enabling environments for people?”
Talking about the Western world landscape where her work is largely centered, Punjani says that marginalized bodies are constantly affected by colonial trauma, oppression through governments and their policy-making infrastructures and the inequity of late-stage capitalism that feeds off people beyond a point of exhaustion.
“What makes us human is not money or productivity, it’s rather existing together. The process of resocialization is going to be extremely hard for some people. A sense of fear, threat and constant control has gotten into our nervous system,” says Punjani.
With concern about the collective well-being moving forward like this, Punjani prompts to take advantage of this time of transition into a new order, without falling into old patterns.
“I honestly don’t think it's possible to challenge people's idea of the other and fear of the other when our bodies are exhausted all the time,” Punjani says.
In the wake of racist murders - with at the heart the loss of George Floyd that ignited the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement worldwide - collective grief and ongoing civil unrest against white supremacy - which has continued to discriminate against the histories and experiences of coloured and the most marginalized people in societies - the struggle for transformative justice and the work of communities and conversations to build the momentum for long-term change cannot be denied.
Punjani attributes key influencers who are working towards collective care and collective rest. Tricia Hersey’s Nap Ministry that looks at “rest as a form of resistance” through a critical performance art and community framework has resonated strongly with her, to “disrupt the grind culture and deprogramming of able-bodied normativity and privilege.”
Hersey experiments with ideas that deeply commit to “dismantling white supremacy and capitalism” by using rest as the foundation for this disruption.” She calls to study how the machine level of society is a “spiritual death” and has made the beauty of rest void.
Such approaches and changes that come from within a community have deeply impacted Punjani’s work.
As an artist and mental health practitioner, it is important for her to bring more empathy to ourselves and understanding of how our bodies react to what we sense and feel. She believes that “to create a more caring world is to slow down and find relief and rest with people that might be different from you.”
Punjani has named her project ‘The Cost of Entry is a Heartbeat.’
“The piece is saying that your heartbeat is enough. Your existence is enough. And even if you cannot be economically productive, you are still valued, you belong here, just as you are.” she explains and urges the need to support people in feeling welcome and safe.
Cultivating Presence, Holding Space, Listening as Sensing
Other learning models such as Trauma Specialist Resmaa Menakem’s Somatic Abolitionism that sets an embodied path for healing, Tara Brach’s resources on RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) for understanding of mindfulness and compassion and Developmental Transformations by David Lead Johnson aligns with Punjani’s worldview on the nature of experience and the paradigm shift towards cultivation of presence.
She further speaks to the importance of listening which to her signifies a full body experience and is tied to developing and cultivating an embodied sense of presence.
“Slowing down, honoring my boundaries and taking care of myself everyday allows me to be in a better position to hold space for others. It takes a lot of active work in order to cultivate presence, to create the conditions in my life to listen, and to be able to work through some of the collective trauma that we’ve been confronted with.” she shares.
Marina Abramović's 2010 performance The Artist is Present is also an integral influence, where Abramović sat across individuals, one at a time, keeping eye contact at MoMA during more than three months for eight hours every day in silent vigil. Abramović had written a memoir ‘Walk Through Walls’ that has been an essential read for Punjani’s Master’s research - and has inspired her to understand what presence can convey in an artistic process.
Touched by the inquiry, she explains, “It may seem simple but the performance was about the trust and vulnerability that people were offering her and she felt a deep sense of accountability to the people for entrusting her with that vulnerability.”
She integrates these influences and views into her practice as guiding principles.
On developing her residency project, the therapeutic alliance between rest and discomfort that she had discovered on her frequent visits to thermal spa baths in Budapest had triggered her to think about re-enacting such a vulnerable, listening space that places a lot of attention on the body reacting to the energies, different temperatures, massages, sounds and waters of the baths.
A physical and emotional environment, she finds that the vibrational nature of the bath is a “step away from listening as just audible”, and in fact listening taps into sensations, awareness and becomes a complex interaction of “internal response cycles, sometimes unsettling where you are provoked and eased, provoked and eased” — in a more honest, heart-centered communication.
“We have been in this environment of rules and regulations, constant stress, unpredictability and changes. If we are in a constant state of fatigue, hyper-arousal and distractions then how can we listen?” says Punjani.
To make the transition from the outside world less jarring, the entry ritual to the performance is for people to tune into themselves and regain balance - “You are offered a cup of tea. You get a blanket, you listen to your heart and all this is preparing you to enter your body into a space of rest.”
The use of the heartbeat sensor in the performances is thought of so that people literally feel connected to themselves and to each other, and becomes an important part of the experience around Punjani’s work.
The performances are spatially designed after four different kinds of thermal spa baths. Visitors can move and dwell within the four corners of the performance space. During the performance, the location of each person in the room is tracked using Pozyx position trackers.
In this way, each participant took with them the sound of the collective heartbeat of people in the room - as they got closer, the pulse expanded, amplifying the sound and vibrations of the heartbeat. As people separated, the pulse would contract, becoming fainter. This was meant to serve as a reminder that “the notion of well-being is not just an individual process.”
Punjani integrates her artistic view through empathy, critical thinking and advocacy to examine how we can come together in a safe way and how to mitigate fear on a social and political scale but also on an individual scale when we have been told that isolation is the safest thing to do.
The embodied inner turbulence and movement towards reclaiming rest that Punjani tries to reach in ‘The Cost of Entry is a Heartbeat,’ has many layers but is carefully developed in a safe, caring, supportive and focused environment.
She comes away from it thinking that rest could be our most productive resource and that more somatic activities are what she wants to pursue with groups that she is a part of - be it dance, movement, vibrations.
A future course of research is also to intentionally set up the piece with clear objectives to work alongside people from Deaf communities and explore possibilities for developing the piece so it can be listened to by feeling alone, without articulating any sounds.
“Listening isn’t just about audible sound.” remarks Punjani.
Working with Deaf and hard of hearing people through vibro-tactile means has shown to her how vibrations and the whole body can be involved in listening.
It shows what's possible when we expand our ideas from what is supposed to be, to what can be.” she says.