by Amy Bell
photos by Jasmijn Slegh
After his sharing in Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum, Rotterdam based American dance artist Connor Schumacher reflected on his religious upbringing and his adventures in love, intimacy and identity in an internet age.
Amy Bell: Something that seems to reoccur for you is an interest in technology and online communication and how that relates to desire, intimacy and representation. I might be wrong, but I sensed ambivalence about those means of interaction in the sketches you’ve presented this week. How do you feel about it all?
Connor Schumacher: I feel both… I’m super interested in how people represent themselves online. There’s a whole dramaturgy to it, there’s a whole unconscious nature to it. I was talking with one of the artists in residence here [at the Jan van Eyck Academie] and she was talking about online culture and how vulgar it can be and how intimate your relationship with your computer is because your computer knows more about you than most other people. For instance I’m in a very serious, very committed four year relationship but if I’m on Facebook and I type the letter ‘I’ into Facebook the guy that I currently have a crush on pops up first, so Facebook thinks in a way that I’m more interested in that guy than I am in my boyfriend because I don’t click on my boyfriend as much since he’s right next to me. And so this online identity forms around where you click and who you block and what kind of things you look at all over the internet. How it forms this identity of what your subconscious or conscious desires are is quite interesting and you have a chance to be more or less aware [of it], you have a chance to be as vulgar as you want to be, to connect to your very basic wants, ‘I want this! (click, click, click, click) ‘I want that!’ (click, click, click, click)’. And then you get what you want, or… not…
AB: And how do you think that’s different to how we are in the physical presence of people?
CS: It’s much faster and there’s much less negotiation. Let’s say if you’re two people interacting on the internet, you can have long conversations that simulate a real encounter, but very quickly if you see that you’re not going to get what you want you can just move on. There’s less tangible evidence of emotional connection. There’s no squinting of the eyes that’s like, ‘You just fucking stabbed me in the heart’. A journalist asked about my sketch [where I interacted with random webcam partners on Gay Roulette] ‘What will you do for this person, will you drop your pants for this person?’ If they move on, in the blink of an eye you are in this exposed situation for a new person on another side of the world with completely different desires and completely different wants. So I feel it is a really strong representation of reality but happening in a split second and with the logic and rules all messed up. It’s very chaotic. It’s a bubble that’s disconnected from physical, social reality, a place where you can really learn a lot about how people interact with each other.
AB: Right. Do you think those interactions are damaging for so called ‘real life’?
CS: Uh yes, I do. But I think it’s how you deal with the medium. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the amount of information and knowledge and connections I’ve been able to make through the internet. That’s incredible. But the amount of these avatars, these other identities that are online can take over your life and that can be really detrimental to being able to key into how to be aware of real consciousness. I just find it an incredibly interesting research, like every morning I could say that I’m researching as I scroll through my Facebook. You learn so much about people by the way they represent themselves on the internet but then to the outside eye I’m scrolling down on this thing like a complete zombie! In one way my consciousness is really going but in another I’m completely divorced from the reality going on around me. That’s why the experience of doing this sketch in front of the audience and online is so draining because all of a sudden you’re aware of both realities and you’re splitting your identity in half, it’s very strange.
AB: But do you think that to some extent the creation of identities online is a kind of exaggerated, disembodied version of what we actually do anyway, face to face. Because we still create ‘avatars’, we still construct something of the way we are perceived in real life, albeit differently, consciously or unconsciously.
CS: Yeah, I agree. Like how I represent myself online when I’m doing this sketch, it’s the same as me getting dressed for the day knowing how people will look at the image of me, what kind of character I am, how manly or androgynous I am looking today. All of these things still come into play but [the online world] really is a second reality, it really does exist somewhere, somehow in the minds of others, and in digital space. I don’t think it’s the same but I don’t think it’s different, it’s just a shift of dimension. It’s really what you read in fantasy books like, ‘Oh, there are millions of other dimensions just like this one but slightly different’. Online it still works on our own logic and it’s not some completely foreign rationale or something like that. It’s built by us, it works for us, but it can be completely disconnected or completely integrated into your life. It’s very bizarre.
AB: Yes, it’s really complex. So I guess it’s kind of simplistic to paint online interaction as ‘bad’ in that it takes us out of our ‘true selves’ or it’s the end of true social interaction. Also because, like you said, the internet provides so much information of all kinds. I was thinking we’re in an age where people who do have diverse sexual or gender identities and who find themselves isolated in their own home communities can really use the internet as a window to what’s out there in the wider world which perhaps wasn’t possible previously.
CS: Yeah. Growing up I did have this online community to help me in my isolation because I grew up in Upstate New York in a homeschooled Christian environment and through going online and reading erotic gay stories, it really helped. Actually I have a crazy story… So I read this one story and it was very beautiful, it was fantastic. I wrote the author an email and we started corresponding. I was fourteen or fifteen and he was twenty-eight at the time and then we really started to become internet pen pals, me and this man. He told me the story he wrote was true, that it was his story and I was like, ‘Oh, so beautiful!’ and we eventually fell in love with each other, we loved each other very, very much. He kept me out of trouble, he was a role model for me about values. My parents eventually found out about him and they were like, ‘No, this is really fucked up’.
AB: They thought he was preying on you?
CS: Yeah, exactly, they thought he was completely trying to take advantage of me but it wasn’t… [laughs] it really wasn’t like that. He really did keep me out of trouble but there was a boundary set where he said, ‘You are never allowed to come here’. And it went on for seven or eight years, at some points emailing once or twice a day long pages of stuff and at other times emailing only like two times a year. And then I moved to Holland and for the first time in my life I watched this movie My Own Private Idaho and one of the extra side characters was an actor who was all of the pictures that I had ever seen of this guy.
AB: Oh no. He’d used that actor’s pictures instead of his own, made up an identity?
CS: Yeah and my heart just went, ‘Do-do, do-do, do-do!’ and I got a fever and I immediately started writing him an email that said, ‘Everything you ever did for me was so amazing, what you did for me to keep me out of trouble and help me develop as a person was fantastic, but I want to let you know that I did find out that you completely lied to me about who you were. I don’t know what’s true or what’s not true but I wanted to let you know that I still think that our friendship was one hundred percent valid and incredible, thank you so much for everything you’ve given me. I wonder if this will even get to you.’ And then two minutes later I got a reply, ‘This email address doesn’t exist anymore’. It had been such a long time since we’d last emailed, the email address had been removed or whatever.
AB: So he never got that email? He never knew that you had found out?
CS: No, no.
AB: Oh my god. What an experience. I guess this is the very fundamental danger of making deep connections with someone over the internet like that.
CS: Yeah in a way my parents were right, but they were also wrong.
AB: Well, he wasn’t trying to groom you for sex or anything like that as they feared.
CS: No, he definitely wasn’t trying to do that but he was trying to live a separate identity through me.
AB: Right. Yeah, I guess when you have no other way of connecting with him, you don’t have any friends in common, there’s nobody who can vouch for him, he’s just in the ether for you and then your feelings get involved, it becomes difficult because there’s a very, very huge possibility for, let’s not say lying, but for fantasy on both sides.
CS: Yeah. But at the same time another experience I’ve had with the internet was that I met my boyfriend. We met each other for ten days [in person] and then I had to go back to New York for a year and we used Skype every day as a window into each other’s lives, into each other’s apartments for ten hours at a time, we slept with our computers on, next to the bed with six hours difference. He would wake up and have his day, or he would go to sleep and I would see him go to sleep. So it’s very different having the internet like a window into your life. I’ve had quite a variety of experiences!
AB: Yeah! But was that year of getting to know your boyfriend positive because it led to the relationship you have now, living together and so on? Or was it also a positive experience in itself?
CS: Well on Skype being able to look at someone but only being able to talk for a year was difficult but to have the internet at your fingertips at the same time, the amount of information that we exchanged about ourselves or about the world was amazing. Also you can share screens, I could flip the camera around so I could see what he was doing on his computer as he saw it, so I got to see him working on photos, posters, paintings. I would be able to work with him on things like that. So we had a whole courtship that didn’t have to do with physicality, learning that we can communicate and that is enough for love to grow. So for a year, long distance, in this day and age we stayed committed to each other that whole time with only words and image and fantasy. It’s interesting, all because of the internet, because of Skype.
AB: And I guess you take both of these experiences with you into the ambivalence of the sketch you presented here in Maastricht?
CS: I guess you can’t help but take these things with you.
AB: Yes, also in a physical sense. I think all of us as people, but particularly as artists whose practice is body-based, we really embody aspects of the training systems and social forces we’ve encountered, we’re probably dancers because we’re quite responsive to that. I think you yourself must be holding a lot of interesting histories in your physicality. I wonder how that is to have come from a very conservative, religious background to then being a contemporary dancer doing some quite confronting work, intimate work that takes for granted diverse possibilities of gender and sexuality. Having come from the background you came from, how do you make sense of that now or do you make sense of that now?
CS: Well I think I’m still dealing with it.
AB: But I think there’s a very tempting narrative that I wonder if people put on you which is that you were really, really repressed in your upbringing and then, ‘Oh!’ you’re really liberated and you’re really joyously being naked, gay and free and expressing yourself. I wondered if and how it’s more complicated than that and how it manifests physically.
CS: I mean I think it does boil down to it being that easy in some ways, being repressed and moving to a place where I am willing to explore or something like that. It’s not necessarily liberation as if I’ve broken all the chains because there still is a lot of physical history, not necessarily traumas but histories.
AB: Like what?
CS: Well you saw me yesterday [at Carnival] when there was this drunk man in costume waving a crucifix around for a joke. My immediate reaction was like, ‘Blasphamy! Oh my gosh this is so wrong, I can’t believe that someone could do this!’
AB: Does it offend you?
CS: No, it doesn’t offend me it makes me really scared or something like that.
AB: So a physical reaction?
CS: Yeah like, ‘Wagh! Why are you doing that?’ [shakes, cringes] It’s just so rude to somebody’s culture or belief. It was like seeing people walking around in the carnival here with black face, in American Indian costumes, in these Asian costumes. They don’t just wear the costumes, they make a caricature.
AB: Yes, these very clear racial caricatures were shocking for me too. People were wearing a so-called ‘Chinese’ costume drawing narrowed eyes, yellow faces and wearing buck teeth, things that have been completely unacceptable in UK or US contexts for many years. I kept thinking these people would get a punch in the face if they went around London like that.
CS: Yeah it really makes me cringe.
AB: But coming back to the crucifix, you still have a certain respect towards the religion you grew up in, even if you moved away from it. It’s not as if you went, ‘Fuck you!’ to your background, is it?
CS: No. I think I think I learned some really valuable things. For instance coming from a kind of a passive aggressive upbringing where you don’t really want to hurt anybody’s feelings but you want to have strong beliefs, and being a gay kid in this conservative, religious setting I learned to be aware of the things that were being said and how to balance them in my actions or comments or how I interact with other people. I think that that built a strong emotional sensor, like my EQ is quite high for thinking, ‘How far can I push this boundary or should I stay in myself?’ I think that leads to being able to balance works in a very vulnerable place for audiences to know that I am going to be polite to them but that I am going to talk about something that might make them uncomfortable. Also [for them to know] that I’m just as nervous as they are because for the life of me I cannot abandon the opinions of everybody sitting around me. I wish I could just be like, ‘Yeah, just watch me jerk off on this webcam with these people’ and not care.
AB: Do you really wish you could do that?
CS: I mean I wish that I had the capability to do that.
CS: Not that I would want to do that to an audience, but I wish that I had the capability to take myself that out of context, or to have the ability to be in a bar in a dress and to dance on high heels and not give a shit but there’s just too much consciousness in the room and too many levels of acceptance, or tolerance or ignorance that I can’t handle it.
AB: I think I know what you mean but sometimes people go so far in provocative behaviour almost as a protection. This is a problematic word, but it’s not necessarily authentic. It can be that they genuinely don’t care what people think or it can be that they really want to give the impression that they don’t care because it’s almost easier to go to a recognisable extreme than to be wherever you really are, which is maybe lost in the middle somewhere.
CS: And that’s also how I feel about reacting to my background. It’s easy to go to extremes. My parents found Christianity as adults and so they sat down, they read, they researched and they decided that this is where they wanted their lives to go and I really respect that. Me and my sister were born into Christianity, we were born into the rules already set for us and so we grew up with that, thinking that that was the ultimate truth for us. I eventually realised that I didn’t fit inside of that so the bubble popped for me and I started going off… So this moment where I got to awaken led me to understand that you come to find out who you are through exploration and through circumstance.
AB: But do you think there is an essential ‘who you are’ that needs discovering or do you think it’s the circumstance that forms you?
CS: I think that everything about life is a transition including gender, including your job, including your nail length, doesn’t matter. Everything is in transition but until you recognise that everything is in transition, parts of you are moving but your consciousness is stuck. Your body keeps on moving, your body keeps on aging, everything around you changes but your brain moves at a completely different rate unless you recognise that things are in movement. So when it comes to how I am now versus when I was younger, I’m a pretty balanced person. I feel like when it comes to my history and where I am now, I constantly try to find a balance of how they’re all valid or something like that.
AB: Which is a difficult position, I think. Also because in the kind of liberal circles that dancers move in, it’s easy to be quite dismissive towards religion I suppose.
CS: Yeah, because no matter how cool and collected we claim we are, we’re actually quite close to an extreme of some kind.
AB: And quite judgemental when we see ourselves as pretty open. Sometimes I think we’re only open to a certain set of things a lot of the time.
CS: Yes! From this week especially, I would maybe want to try to be more open to things being in transition and to everybody’s transition being different. I’d like it as a kind of base for openness, that everybody is, it’s a cliché, but everybody is in a different place, everybody’s a different person. The thing is not to draw lines in the sand. Having said that, the thing I’m not open to is unconsciousness, people who are not aware. I’m not open to receiving more physical history from somebody who is not aware of what kind of history they’re putting on me, like, ‘I’m sorry you don’t know what you’re doing to my consciousness, to my energy, to my body. I don’t want to participate in this.’ Sometimes we too easily write people off too quickly because of some aspect of themselves, but often we’re too passive. I guess I want to just be more conscious of all those nuances.
Performing Gender, Maastricht, March 2014