The interactive masking assignment was a fantastic way to learn about the intangible aspects of Venetian masking. Reading first-hand accounts and historical text can give a person an accurate overview of what was involved in the masking process and why it was conducted; however, no matter how good the writing is, it is almost impossible to convey the exact emotions and change in self-awareness that accompany the use of a mask to hide one’s identity. The process of physically putting on a mask and walking around with it allowed me to understand connections between identity and physical appearance that cannot be explained without experiencing it first-hand.
The partner part of this activity made me feel anxious because I do not like being the sole focus of a person’s gaze. The A-B partner exercise was particularly uncomfortable for me because I knew that I was being closely watched. I became conscious of all my unique movements and felt as if I had to change them in order to conform to others ideas of what a man’s walk should be like. To my amazement, when we completed the same A-B partner exercise later with the addition of masks I was almost completely at ease. I did not feel as if I was being watched, but rather the mask was being watched. Because I changed my behavior when I was in the mask, I cared less what my partner thought of me because I knew my partner was only focused on the mask. I was even able to act according to my mask’s expression by looking shifty and untrustworthy without people wondering what I was up to or if they should be worried. This led me to think back to one part of the reading I didn’t fully understand. As we pointed out in class, most masks cannot truly hide one’s identity but people still act as if nobody can identify them. After the activity, I realized that people were able to act this way because the group mentality of masking creates anonymity. Each person is only focused on the mask a person is wearing when they look at them. Nobody is worried about being recognized because others are just as singularly focused on the mask as they are. Therefore, nobody is at risk of being discovered and may act any way they see fit. These observations lead me to believe that there is a connection between one’s physical appearance and his or her perception of individual identity. When a person changes their physical appearance their perception of their identity and their actions also change to the point where they are almost an entirely different person. This is an extremely difficult concept to grasp until it is experienced first-hand.
The other part of the activity that made me understand the text on a deeper level was the part where we created our own social hierarchy by using a pack of ordinary playing cards. We were instructed to treat each other according to the ranking of each person’s card and then rank ourselves from highest to lowest based on the treatment we had received. I was very surprised to see how well we were able to organize ourselves and how much of a gap was left unfilled between the higher ranked cards and the lower ranked cards. After being treated poorly as one of the lower cards and observing the treatment gap between the high and low class, I fully understood why the reading notes that one of the prevailing theories for the use of masks is that they act as a safety valve for the Venetian social hierarchy. If we were to continue with the card example, the masks would make social position completely unidentifiable and the negative effects of the hierarchy would dissolve with concealed identities. These moments of solace would appease the lower class and make them less likely to challenge the authority of the upper class.
The interactive masking assignment was a very useful teaching tool because the feeling of being masked is something that can never be fully understood until it is experienced. The relief of not being noticed allows a person to express himself or herself in a variety of ways without repercussions or social anxiety. A person wearing a mask is also able to adopt an identity different than their own, allowing for an escape from social reality. These intangible aspects to masking are the reason this activity was very successful.