2020 November: Frame Switching

Intrusions. Video, 22 min. 2020. (Second attempt at distributing myself across different characters within the same work (this time in two languages), but not as interesting as a result).

I began the academic year with a fighting spirit; I had a belief in my project and felt committed to it every day — learning, making, learning, making… it was going well in October, but something happened around the time I presented new work to my peers (the video Play is Play); I just suddenly stopped, and the project (at least, that’s how it felt) was stalling after a promising start. Maybe it’s something to do with ‘exposing’ myself too soon, too completely; the work was very raw and new when I shared it, and I was far too excited about it. I guess, somewhere in that, is a recipe for deflation.

After the presentation I felt a bit lost, and a bit baffled by the ways in which I could be misunderstood; and the ways in which what the work is doing could be misunderstood. It seemed to me that the work spoke very directly to you (the viewer) about what it was trying to tease out. On one level it exposed everything; the artifice of my performance, the theoretical interests of the discussion I had with myself in that video; on the other hand it was still not obvious what one should conclusively draw from it. I can’t help thinking that that’s precisely how I like my artworks… but I know some think me stubborn for always having a deflective answer to misunderstandings and criticism. Throughout November I tried, then, to explore the challenges or misunderstandings that arose from that presentation.

The result was that I made little artwork during the month. No progress whatsoever on the novel (I couldn’t concentrate on it, my mind kept going back to Play is Play), and not much performance experimentation. On the other hand, I’ve probably read more scientific reports (in sociolinguistics and cultural psychology, as it happens) in this month alone than in my entire life. When you start doing that — delving into a thread of reading within a particular subject outside of art that seems to lead on and on, deeper and deeper — I think you start feeling a bit disoriented and suspicious that you are going down a rabbit hole. It seems somehow absurd that an artist should attempt to cover as much of some aspect of another science as possible, and yet, I found myself somewhat determined this time, and kept reading and reading.

For some reason, this type of reading was the only thing that perked me up a bit after the post-presentation deflation I was experiencing. I felt insecure about facing my own artwork, but could fairly comfortably and enthusiastically read other people’s work in a faraway discipline. It turns out that managing a research project can mean structuring your activities around your emotions, not only around logistics.

Here’s the rationale for all my reading in sociolinguistics and cultural psychology this month – I am not at all yet sure if it was the best use of my time (even if the studies themselves are very interesting), but here it is. When I talk about my performance work, in which I take on different characters, yet in that artificial appropriation claim a degree of authenticity in the act; I am often led to refer to the ways people act and switch character all the time, in the everyday practice of being a person. As someone with a multicultural background, I knew about this readiness-to-switch-character phenomenon from personal experience, and presumed it held not only with multicultural people, but also so-called monocultural people (because of the existence of subculture/sub-identities within a single nation-culture). The way I explain this phenomena has always been long-winded, by way of anecdote; telling the story of how when I moved back to England I was afraid old friends would find my accent-switching inauthentic of me. At my presentation, a colleague then supplied me with the terminology for this phenomenon: “code-switching”. My colleague had been introduced to this term through intersectional feminism, however its roots seem to be in sociolinguistics, where studies of bilingual people and communities must involve some analyses of when, how and why people switch between languages (code-switching) — almost always this is motivated by social factors; i.e signalling group membership, distancing oneself from a group, negotiating class dynamics, negotiating different domains of speech.

In studies of race, this might refer to people of colour modulating the way they act and speak as they enter white-dominated domains, in order to suppress associations to their dominant culture that might come at a cost to the individual (i.e. in the domain of career, education or generally being interpreted as untrustworthy or threatening) – see Lucrece Grehoua’s excellent BBC 4 programme on code-switching for more on that, which of course, the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley also satirises to powerful and ludicrous effect. This kind of distinct pressure to code-switch can be expanded to characterise the way any member of any marginalised group must negotiate their mannerisms within the dominant culture (cf. this TED talk by Lauren Hough, on lesbian code switching). And expanding this further, beyond the marginal/central or minority/majority dichotomies, everyone must be code-switching to some extent, to negotiate different social situations, however subtly, and even where the power hierarchy is not obvious.

However, in trying to find out more about code-switching, I came across an even more useful term for this ‘switching’ aspect of my research: frame switching. One way of characterising the difference between code and frame switching is that the former seems to initiate from ‘external’ switching (it’s typically a language choice), and the latter from ‘internal’ switching (changes in values, world view, personality traits, self-description, cognition as well as behaviours such as accent and language choice). For the most part, code-switching is conceived I think as a conscious choice to switch, even if it happens fairly instinctively. It is a way of consciously negotiating social situations. On the other hand, frame switching seems almost to entail a significant switch in the person themselves — from their cognition to the way they see their own personalities, and thus can be both conscious and subconscious. Something known as ‘knowledge activation theory’ in cultural psychology is often used to explain how certain environmental cues (like language, the ethnicity of an interlocutor, or cultural icons/imagery) can activate a certain cultural knowledge structure within an individual, causing them to adopt a number of psychological dispositions that change when another cultural frame is activated by the presence of a cue that activates the individual’s other culture. I can relate to this phenomenon from my own experience of frame switching (as a multicultural in daily life), but it seems that my performance practice is a kind of deliberate, self-induced frame switching that enables to me to activate different frames through which to speak and produce stories. Another thing to point out is something briefly mentioned in West et al.’s (2017) Transformative Theory of Biculturalism; most (cultural psychology) studies conceive of ‘culture’ along the lines of nationality and ethnicity, in particular looking at the internal dynamic between ‘heritage’ versus ‘host’ cultures for immigrants. But culture could include many other characterisations, such as class, region, religion, etc… which can coexist within a single nation. Furthermore, nowadays people are significantly exposed to cultures through the media, not only heritage or residence. So does that mean you can ‘inherit’ another culture through sufficient exposure through the media, not only ‘first hand’?

The reason it’s worthwhile for me to ask this, I think, is because if ‘exposure’, rather than genetic inheritance or residential status is what really contributes to the construction of people’s cultural frames, then maybe my performance practice is an active attempt to cultivate the production of such frames, or knowledge structures, within myself. (Call it frame acting, not method acting). I say cultivate, because I am probably not constructing my cultural frames out of thin air; my performance method involves searching around for some manner of being already existing in me, from there I just try to fan that flame and then sit comfortably within the altered state of behaving for a while. I think the degree of ‘comfort’, ‘naturalness’ and ‘authenticity’ I feel when acting is important, and is what distinguishes it (I think) from Acting as a discipline or craft more broadly.

One of the studies I read was on authenticity and frame switching (West, A. L., Zhang, R., Yampolsky, M. A., Sasaki, J. Y, 2018). It concluded that, at least in the West, frame switching in biculturals is generally perceived by monoculturals and the biculturals themselves as inauthentic, because there is a close correlation in Western culture between ‘consistency’ of behaviour across social roles and perceived ‘authenticity’. This relates to my earlier story about coming back to England after living abroad for seven years, and worrying that my old school friends would find me inauthentic because of my altered accent. West and her colleagues suggest “the cultural aversion to behavioural inconsistency may be the product of two interrelated lay theories: dispositionism, which assumes that behaviour is primarily caused by internal attributes, and an entity view of the self which assumes that internal attributes are stable across situations and time.” In pairing displays of switching in works such as Play is Play with a claim to authenticity, maybe my works are in part trying to challenge these lay theories of personality.

At the very least, my reading over the past month provides a wealth of empirical evidence for the quotidian phenomenon I often cite when trying to convince my interlocutors that the switching in my videos is an extension of what a lot of people do anyway, without thinking about it. It also provides some theoretical basis, from the discipline of psychology, for my hypothesis that ‘character’ and ‘roleplay’ can activate a different knowledge frame and enable/limit one’s thoughts in a novel way. It might give me a vocabulary for talking about what happens to my mind when I do this kind of roleplay – frame switching.

In case these are useful reference points to include in my dissertation, I’ve begun writing a section on frame switching, while the recent reading is fresh on my mind. The two papers I’ve cited here (on authenticity, and on a transformative, i.e. not additive, theory of biculturalism) are by Alexandria L. West and colleagues. Another study I found interesting was by Dehghani, et al. (2015): “The Subtlety of Sound: Accent as a Marker for Culture.” Where visual cues, such as images of cultural icons, or language, has been used in the past as a way to ‘prime’ bicultural participants to frame switch, this study by Dehghani et al. found that accent also can activate a specific cultural frame for biculturals (in this case, it induced a frame-shift along the collectivist-individualist spectrum; i.e, being addressed by a speaker with an American accent induced the bicultural individual to think from a more individualistic perspective). There were many studies besides these that provided a great deal of evidence as to the depth to which frame switching alters the character and cognition of a person.

And now I feel that I am just about acquainted enough with the subject that I might be able to ask slightly more nuanced questions and maybe discuss some of these topics with the researchers themselves (should they be interested in that). One idea then, is to use the funds our department reserves for ad-hoc tutorials, and invite West (Duke University) and Dehghani (University of Southern California) to a conversation. First, I’d ask them to watch Play is Play in preparation for the meeting, and then record a one hour interview with each of them to discuss the implications of my video and their research. I think there is some strange convergence, and maybe they can help me think through it from their cross-cultural psychology perspectives, that is if they think the exchange might stimulate their thinking in a way that could benefit their research too.

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