Lately I’ve been sketching in Tallinn, Taipei, Istanbul, Ironbridge, Ulaanbaatar and Greenhithe, as well as locally. Thanks to Google street maps and the enthusiasm and skill of urban sketchers, we have been meeting up nationally and globally to draw together. My local group in Gloucestershire meet regularly, talking with each other or sitting in companionable silence as we sketch; a welcome and sustaining group in the lockdown days.
We have been interested in the strange distortions of perspective that the online streetmaps display and not at all concerned with any possible distortions in how we relate to each other, in sharp contrast to the other part of my world, the psychotherapy network. Here there has been an understandable outpouring of advice on practicalities – which online platform, security measures, tips for lighting, backgrounds, seating and so forth, alongside a recurring preoccupation with “what happens to the relationship?”
It is a fascinating question, assuming as it does that ‘something’ must ‘happen’. It seems intuitively obvious that relating online, however doesn’t give us the same satisfaction as the ‘real thing’. We might be very appreciative of its value in these times, but it is second best, as all the media accounts of grandparents being unable to hug their grandchildren testify. We are social animals who need physical presence and contact. Our bodies communicate, mutually regulating each other and online relating cannot replicate these complex interchanges.
In my case, this confident statement has no basis in any research or evidence, other than ‘common sense’ – and that can easily lead us up the narrow path to nowhere. What is this ‘real thing’ that is missing? How might we define it? And whatever it is, how does it compare to the relationship between therapist and client, or group members and facilitator? I’m thinking here of process or analytic groups, where the members are used to constraints; they meet probably once a week for a limited time and otherwise have no contact with each other. They sit in a circle and rarely touch; bodily movements are restrained – the point is to try to find words not actions for self expression.
The online group has some particular challenges and opportunities. Like any group, it needs security, firm boundaries within which the members feel able to explore and relax some of their defences, and creating this online needs careful attention. Household members wandering into the room, internet interruptions, members sitting in cars, eating meals, noisy background intrusions – all potentially threaten the security of the group. But if we assume these are resolved, through time and experience and new sets of norms, the question comes back to the central focus – are the relationships that are being created and developed different from those in the physical group room?
We live in and are shaped by a culture that is highly digitalised. We spend hours engrossed in TV, films, downloads, podcasts, video games, with good and bad consequences. We can fall in love with a character in a soap or a box set, just like previous generations fell for film stars and screen idols. Our capacity to attach is triggered by the visual and seems not dependent upon touch or physical presence. We may call these relationships infatuations, because they are never tested in everyday life.
In the therapy group we might call them transference, and they too are never tested in ordinary everyday life. Are relationships in a therapy group ever ‘real’ then? They certainly seem so to the people involved; and they have the chance that their real life rarely offers, to talk openly about their feelings, examine and explore what is going on without moving from their chair/acting out. In these constrained and unique circumstances, people talk about forming relationships that are the most meaningful in their lives.
Is the online version so different after all, I wonder? Or have we become trapped in assumptions again, that ‘normal’ or ‘real’ is some sort of standard that has intrinsic value and must be preserved at all times? That, in sketching terms there is a ‘proper’ perspective that street maps do not display, and are thereby distorted?
This makes me think of David Hockney’s experiments with perspective, filming with multiple cameras whilst driving along a Yorkshire lane. The ways that we look at and represent the world have changed throughout history. Hockney and other artists challenge the idea that where we are now is somehow wiser, more truthful, than where we once were; that the contemporary version of perspective is the ‘real’ one.
Perhaps then, instead of seeing online therapy or streetmap sketching as ‘distortions’ of reality, we could consider the possibility that our idea of the real is itself an inevitable distortion?