How to Chop an Onion: Anna Hawkins and the Textiles of the Online Tutorial
by Daniella Sanader
Where did the association between a computer cursor and a human hand come from? It’s one of those near-ubiquitous design strategies; one so obvious that it feels redundant to break it down. As a stand-in for a body, the computer cursor helps to transfigure the virtual plane of screen-space into something tangible, malleable, open to touch. Yet there’s something about the consistent smoothness of a cursor’s movements (scrolling, selecting, clicking) that feels detached from the textured specificity of touch in the world. For me, it’s those common instances of failure (glitching, freezing, stuttering) when I’m reminded the most of a cursor’s relationship to my body—moments of tactile resistance. It’s like those jarring occasions when your fingers drag and halt along an unexpected shape, when something suddenly touches you back.
(As a side-note: the hand-cursor may have been developed by Susan Kare, the deeply influential artist and graphic designer responsible for many of Apple Macintosh’s early fonts and icons from 1982 onwards. Working within a broader design ethos of creating a friendly and accessible visual language for point-and-click computing, Kare created many now-ubiquitous Apple icons designed to resemble the familiar and everyday: trash cans, wristwatches, grabbing hands.)((thenextweb.com/apple/2014/01/24/original-mac-designer-susankare- everyday-objects-made-computing-personal/#gref))
Anna Hawkins’ two-channel video installation, How to Chop an Onion, 2016, is filled with hands that touch, click, push, glitch and stutter. The Pennsylvania-born, Montreal based artist delved into YouTube’s seemingly infinite trove of tutorial videos—how to tie a tie, weave a French braid, fold a napkin, chop an onion—to collage together this rhythmic and textural project. Using processes of video masking and chroma-keying, Hawkins built fragments of gestures into uncannily cohesive wholes: faces that almost fit together, but not quite; hands that smooth out a napkin that remains once removed from their touch; a malleable ball of clay that forms dents and shapes unaligned with the fingers that mold it.
The artist stitched together pieces of online tutorials with footage of her own body before a green-screen, replicating the YouTube actions and merging both found and newly-generated content together. The resulting blend of hands smoothing, twisting, sculpting, folding—set to a percussive score and staged on flat, brightly-toned backgrounds—is an absorbing assemblage of gestures and instructions, playing with touch as it oscillates between what’s physical and virtual. In 2016, Hawkins’ sensorially complex video installation was exhibited at Montreal’s Centre CLARK and Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
How to Chop an Onion begins with just that: a disembodied voice declaring that they will “show you how to chop an onion.” The soundtrack accompanying Hawkins’ video installation then unfolds with the staccato noises of display and tutorial: knife chops, cursor clicks, napkin rustles, the occasional um, ah, or fragment of vocal instruction. Perhaps appropriately, the audio is stitched together with frequent and rhythmic drum riffs, sourced from an assortment of drumming tutorial videos from YouTube as well. Hawkins’ layered, disembodied hands visually match these audible forms of punctuation. They fragment, pausing to gesture, point, and frame: mediating between the acts of doing and showing.
How to Chop an Onion playfully breaks down the physical vocabularies for how we teach, how we share knowledge between one body and another. Like a computer cursor-as-hand, the embodied strategies are so ubiquitous that they feel slippery, redundant and difficult to articulate when divorced from their objects of focus. How would “how to fold” seem without its napkin? What would “how to chop” be without an onion, a knife? What does “how to” look like, feel like?
Of course, Hawkins’ collaged actions are specific, tied to a certain place and context. Most fall within the realm of the quasi-domestic; tasks necessary for entertaining, cooking, self-presentation and leisure. A perfectly woven French braid, smoothly-moisturized face, an evenly-tied necktie. Many of Hawkins’ sourced tutorials are used for endeavours stemming from inside the walls of a home—a bathroom, a kitchen, a dining room—places where instruction is intimate, less formalized, sometimes impromptu. For generations, these were mundane things learned through repetition, knowledge that was shared person-to-person, rarely written down. Tasks that were taught and re-taught until muscle memory took over, if they were even taught at all. Yet, given the influence of YouTube and other online platforms (such as wikiHow’s bizarrely placid, illustrated how-to guides), much of this everyday knowledge has been offloaded onto digital contexts.
Embodied and repeated learning seems less necessary when tutorials are readily available online, accessible at a moment’s notice for IRL execution. As writer and comedian Nancy Webb confesses in a text accompanying Hawkins’ exhibition at Eastern Edge Gallery: “My understanding of rice proportions lives solely on the Internet.” Admittedly, so does mine.
This interest in the Internet as an archive of shared understanding has been part of Hawkins’ practice for quite some time. An earlier video project, With Outthrust Arm, 2014, re-constructed art history’s famous Laocoön Group sculpture from YouTube sourced tourist footage from the Vatican Museum, segmented into choppy, video-masked pieces. It’s remarkable watching the sculpture merge together, each arm and leg and serpent tail rendered in jittery, varied off-white tones of handheld cameras. As a tentative mass, Hawkins’ Laocoön Group is perhaps the most accurate representation of how that well-studied sculpture exists online: an imperfect accumulation of individual memories, articulations and pieces of data, congealed together into something wholly legible and recognizable, if only just.
How to Chop an Onion also fluctuates between what’s idealized and what’s imperfectly physical. Part of the easy pleasure in watching how-to videos, regardless of whether or not you have a goal to meet, is the quick lapse in time between outset and outcome, skipping forward and seeing a task completed with perfect ease. Watching Hawkins’ superimposed hands wavering and glitching over a napkin being folded for a table setting, this presumed manual expertise of the how-to video is broken down, made hollow, fumbling. While how-to bodies work in perfect harmony with their chosen tools, the strange gaps formed between Hawkins’ collaged hands and the objects they manipulate speak to a more complex, textured negotiation between tactile senses and the surrounding (IRL/URL) world. It’s muscle memory as if sourced from the entirety of YouTube’s expansive, networked and fractured body.
There are frequent passages in How to Chop an Onion where Hawkins’ disembodied hands move smoothly over flat, colourful space, caressing skin or hair that is present only in fragments. The wavering expanse under her fingers feels hollow—like the chromakeyed void beneath a floating scarf—yet as her percussive beats grow more urgent, these moments reverberate with a tentative sensuousness as well. It’s an anticipatory feeling, like a cursor hovering, an open hand waiting to make contact: the possibilities of distance and closeness, felt all at once.
Watching Hawkins’ fingers smooth over disconnected skin, I’m reminded of Susan Kare and the early Apple icon prototypes; friendly, mundane items designed to bridge great distances between the physical and digital. Yet, what How to Chop an Onion makes clear to me is this: while we structure online worlds according to what reflects the familiar and physical, digital space also supplies unfamiliar textures to what we know and feel, how we learn. These are forms of space not totally separate, nor fully merged. Rather, they’re hovering close, anticipating contact in the tap of a finger, the click of a mouse.
Daniella Sanader is a writer and researcher living in Toronto, Ontario.
This article was originally featured in BlackFlash issue 34.1.