tania el khoury and basel zaraa, as far as isolation goes (online) @ fisher center at bard, 20 March 2021.

Despite taking place over the Internet, Tania El Khoury and Basel Zaraa’s As Far As Isolation Goes (Online) explores issues of direct touch. It leaves its mark despite the lack of direct physical contact. Like a number of pandemic performances, it explores the stakes of how digital intimacy meets public alienation and distance through the model of connecting one performer to one audience member (see, for instance, the playlets in Theater For One: Here We Are, also performed this past spring of 2021).

The performance considers the traumas of a refugee’s life through a series of short encounters with Zaraa and additional film clips of hip hop performance. Tania El Khoury, artist in residence at Bard, helped to bring the piece to the Fisher’s online theater. The play build’s on Zaraa’s 2019 “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me,” which took place in person. In that play, audience members stuck an arm through a hole in a temporary wall so that Zarass could draw on it, mapping out his story quite literally on the flesh of the listener even as the wall conveyed how the borders and boundaries, policies and practices, of nation-states created his refugee situation. Forced to adjust by the Covid-19 pandemic in this sequel, the online incarnation of As Far As Isolation Goes intensified this sense of disruption. Now all that established a connection between performer and audience was the mediated space of Internet video. One could connect over it, but the relationship felt even more fleeting, temporary, and dislocated. Not even some kind of physical touch was possible.

Yet there is a stubbornness to the piece, so that even with the pandemic’s intensification of absence, maybe even because of it, a spirit of presence springs forth. Forced to interact beyond even arm’s length, we are drawn in. Zaraa appears in the video box, with a background that becomes a kind of placeless digital stage. We are all just bits and bytes, pixels and streams, separated. Nothing feels quite real. But then, as in person, what starts to matter most is that one is involved, one pays attention. Zaraa instructs the viewer to draw on their own arm as he explains his story, so that we as audience members wind up quite literally inscribing on our own skin a refugee’s sense of flight, loss, and fragmentation. We draw for him, on ourselves. We are a proxy, and we become proxy to the tale. Ostensibly we are safely in front of our screens at home, but the boundaries of body and screen, skin and ink, self and other, location and dislocation, begin to at once dissolve and take shape, disappear and then come profoundly into view.

The additional appearance of hip hop spoken word performances by a number of Zaraa’s friends only adds to the play’s explorations of marking, touching, and connecting at a distance. Prerecorded, they are interspersed with the direct, live moments in As Far As Isolation Goes (Online). The use of hip hop, with its traditions of glyphs, cyphers, and graffiti, of shouting out across appropriated, reimagined musical tracks, speaks in surprising and potent ways to the refugee experience. From temporary zones of the global modern world, it enables disempowered figures to leave their mark, flex their muscles, and reach for something more than merely what they have been handed.

In As Far As Isolation Goes (Online), it turns out that it only goes so far. Even as the marks fade, the stories get under our skin.

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