When hydrofeminism met digital healing – Interview with Francesca Mariano

Words by Angelos Angelidis.

On a frozen winter London morning, tucked in bed, I connected with Francesca Mariano (@serpentinedance) who is based in Milan, to discuss her somatic practice, hydrofeminism, healing and the vitality of technology in our lives and creative pursuits. Earlier this year I attended one of Francesca’s Water Info Transmission digital workshops, which in her own words is a surrealist spa experience, a space for shapeshifting and healing dance. Having the chance to chat one-on-one really opened up my mind about the breadth of her creativity and knowledge that she brings into her practice which in a way, like water, defies being placed into a clear-cut category.

Francesca’s academic background is in politics and as part of her degree thesis she researched eco-feminism. About three years ago though, she came across hydrofeminism through the writings of Astrida Neimanis, a post-humanist feminist philosopher who teaches at the University of Sydney. This school of feminist thought ended up resonating with her more. In “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water” Neimanis proposes a kind of feminism that understands our bodies as being fundamentally connected to the natural world specifically through water. Hydrofeminism encourages us to think about the trans-national, trans-species and trans-corporeal presence of water and to recognise that everything flows through everything else. It is by diverting our attention from humans to the natural elements that we can start fostering a stronger sense of solidarity amongst ourselves and between us and other animate or inanimate entities of our planet. Water thus transcends our boundaries and differences.

AA: How did hydrofeminism enter your somatic practice?

FM: it was a natural evolution from my engagement with eco-feminism. I found that even in the most open minded sides of eco-feminism, there was little consideration for technology and the ways it impacts our lives. There is this narrative of going back to nature and respecting nature which I really love and feel for. But with hydro-feminism I found a sort of more experimental post-humanist and metamorphic quality. On a somatic level it means you can keep mutating yourself, just like water and accept all of these parts of yourself… Water is a carrier of information.

There is a very beautiful study of Tabita Rezaire on how the cables of the internet run the same path of the slave trade in the ocean. I became interested in water and memory and how in our bodies we can reprogram our memory with more pleasurable sensation, less traumatic experience… I also realised that there is this transition phase that we all go through especially people that are sensitive and femme or queer, between adolescence and adulthood, the ages of 18-25 when you are discovering yourself, what you like and what you want to do. This is such a chaotic phase and I found that embodiment and somatic arts are very effective at accompanying us through this very important stage of our life’s development. I find that if we discover these practices during this age, we can save a lot of time later.

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It was Francesca’s dream to create a space where these people could converge and to bridge the human body with ecology, away from the hyper-performativity of contemporary dance. The Water Info Transmissions workshop embodied that perfectly, in that it allowed us to praise and learn from water in a manner that does not seek to be seen and validated. We live in a world where so much attention is placed on individuals and their public image; celebrity culture and Instagram influencers have so much subliminal power over us, that being in a space that encourages you to move beyond-the-human and think like a natural element, is so refreshing. The workshop was initially built with the intention to happen near bodies of water such as rivers and lakes, where participants can explore the raw sensation of communicating with water. When asked what it was like to adapt it for the digital realm, Francesca expresses that it actually worked quite well. There are aspects of the in-person workshop that can’t be recreated, but there is also the advantage of being able to share presentations and show diagrams. More importantly people have the ability to create a new relationship with their intimate space while being connected to a collective speculative consciousness.

AA: I liked the question that came up during the workshop about the way that machine/technology communicates with water. Because the two seem to be opposing each other’s nature, but you proved in the workshop that they can co-exist in the same space and time. Thinking about hydrofeminism and cyberfeminism, in which ways do you see them as connected or similar?

FM: In the beginning I didn’t see myself as a cyber-feminist because I had only read a few things and I was more into working with natural landscapes outside. But then I realised that I was, through the use of synth-music and this performance that we did last year called “Intuitive Gestures”. It was very tech-y, this sort of alien cyber dance and I didn’t really frame it in terms of cyber-feminism but I guess it is.

The way in which digital folklore happens within queer, femme and marginalised communities shows that our desire to connect and transcend is always present, using technology as a magical tool. If we are more alone than ever it’s not just because of COVID, but because of the ways in which we converse and connect through these tools. And how these tools can bring performative anxiety, I am talking mostly about social media. This is what healing is about: framing the question in a different way than what we are used to thinking automatically. I’m currently healing my relationship with the net, and Water Info Transmissions has helped greatly. I don’t feel as scared of online judgement anymore.

I think Francesca and I agreed that the same way water is our predicament (in that we envelop and are enveloped by it), technology is our predicament too. And as she puts it best, streams of water are very similar to streams of the net that connect and disconnect us in a constantly evolving process. This suspension between connection and disconnection is mirrored in the way Francesca’s practice suspends her between past and future. Her interest in imagining how the ancient comes to life in the present day (what she calls archaeo-choreology) alongside her fascination with the power of technology, positions her into this perfectly mystical now where possibilities are endless.

FM: I am wondering if there is a future, in 500 years, what will remain of this arc that has been produced online and how will they interpret our age? Because there is this melting pot of so much imagination and 3D art and so on, it is incredible! What will they think our religious rituals are?

AA: It is crazy how many worlds technology and the internet can hold inside it! Something else that came up is how there is an association between healing, caring and somatic practice with the feminine. You mentioned in the workshop that there is a desire to not be stuck in that mode and to be considered as more than just a healer but an artist in your own right. Can you expand more on that?

FM: I am still thinking about it, it is a recent realisation that I had … I realise how important it is for us as emotional beings, not just women, everyone, to give ourselves the space to feel through the body. Because I think this is the number one way of healing, being with it and moving with it. But at the same time creating more artistic dialogues amongst women and showing what are our references, how do we get inspired, because we tend to get stuck in this healing circle, trying to work on ourselves and thinking that we are never ready.

When this is what creativity is about – it’s about failing and doing and failing and doing. While for most cis-men, this creative process is an entitlement they receive at birth, this makes me wonder why women are expected to do most of the healing while men get to be free with their creativity without questioning this privilege? I’d like to see more open conversations on that. I am still wondering about this essentialist question. I don’t think that women are by nature more caring or closer to nature. I have met a lot of men who are like that and with all the fluidity of identity that we have today it is more about being comfortable with who you are and have a community of caring weirdos to support and being supported by.

AA: That fluidity of identity is facilitated by technology, which in its most democratic and ideal form would allow everyone to be able to create, share and learn from each other. Being born in the late 1990s I myself feel that I have benefited from the increasing access to information technology.

I am also privileged in having a certain degree of foundational skills that give me a sense of adaptability in being able to use technology for my personal growth. However, there is the risk of getting lost in the collision between the vastness of the internet and the vastness of the self. It is in a way what Georg Simmel called “the tragedy of culture” which suggests that the more societies allow individuals to express their own interests and talents the more society gets oversaturated with the products of that. This leads to a paralysis of the individual, who facing the myriad of content and knowledge produced by others submits to the inevitability of most of their creation remaining obscure, momentarily showing up in someone’s feed before falling behind digital shadows. And that is so prominent in the realm of the internet which is the largest archive of human knowledge that has ever existed. Every time I engage with technology there is an underlying negotiation of how do I make it inspire me instead of scare me? How does this help me create not just a digital sense of identity but a stronger sense of my concrete reality too? How do I fit into this archive?

AA: Going back to the topic of being a healer versus being a creator and how somatic practice is quite often undocumented and fleeting … Do you consider your musical pursuits and recordings as something that challenges that? That in a way asserts your identity as an artist and creator?

FM: I have a really intimate relationship with music. I started making it only two years ago. In a way the recording of it freezes a moment in time and channels all of the things that I am into at that time. At the same time the process is so subconscious that the album almost makes itself. It’s the music that is making you and not you making the music which is a very humbling process. You realise that the subconscious mind has so much creativity that is independent of the conscious mind. The conscious mind just does a bit of tweaking here and there to make it coherent in the end. But really the message and what comes through is completely a subconscious journey. I am less judgemental of the outcome of my music than when it comes to dance. When I finish a dance performance I have no idea what happened and so I start being paranoid. But, when you get really into it and the body with all its memory starts having a life of its own, that’s when the magic happens – it is a fleeting experience. The recording part is very important with music. I have a shy side to me and having that as a record is more like ok, I did that it’s done and I can move forward and build from there naturally. Otherwise if it’s never there, you don’t get to experience a timeline of it.

AA: I totally relate to that. Whenever I create something even if I know it’s not perfect, I’m so excited to share it and then move from that. The fact that I am able to share it lets me see where I’ve been, so it is a personal timeline as you said.

FM: Yes and maybe after some time you see that there is a pattern, sort of like a really unique thing that we all have … we are so much more broad when using these tools than we are in our limited reality of flesh. This is why music has made me more calm since I started doing it.

Francesca’s optimism and enthusiasm that emanated from the way she spoke and the things she said was infectious. It is invigorating that there are people like her out there, that favour different modes of learning. Modes that place emphasis on the kinaesthetic and on care and on utopian spaces where people can meet and imagine what life can be like away from the tentacles of capitalism. As she explained, the pitfall of the new age conception of healing is that it falls all on the individual. But she believes, as I do too, that alongside people doing the inner work there needs to be systemic change in order to collectively heal. It feels appropriate to end this article the way I ended my chat with her, asking for three words about her vision of what the future of the world looks like to her. Here’s what she responded:

FM: Fluid, sensual and regenerative. Embracing the cyclical and regeneration, mimicking nature processes and taxing the ultra rich!

Francesca’s Patreon and her latest album “IANASSA ALGA MARAGGIO” can be found here. She holds a weekly class for Patreon members or you can keep an eye out for the Water Info Transmission workshops which happen once a month (the next one taking place on the 28th of February).