This project builds on my solo hand-holding experiment in Washington Square Park. For our "Recurring Concepts in Art" class, we were tasked with re-creating a previous art piece in a different way. I collaborated with Ada Jiang.
The project asks the question: what can be communicated through touch alone, without any further social (visual, auditory) cues? Specifically, what happens when the connection of prolonged hand-holding, which is generally a somewhat intimate form of contact, is removed from any kind of relational context and done in anonymity? The project explores themes of intimacy, but also of trust, vulnerability, and of the ways in which ideas we have about others and our relationships with them filter our normal social interactions.
For this experiment, participants put on blindfolds, and were then grouped into randomly selected pairings. Pairs were guided by Ada and I to stand across from each other, and then to hold each other's hands. Participants were instructed ahead of time not to speak, and that they would be holding hands for a few minutes. After three minutes had passed, we asked participants to let go of each others' hands and take off their blindfolds.
Below is our video documentation. The layout of the room required two camera angles to capture everyone - so there are two videos, but they are simultaneous.
Afterwards, we asked everyone for feedback and thoughts. Although I had done the durational hand-holding performance with strangers before, we knew that the conditions were very different in this version, and so the experience would be very different.
Most participants reported enjoying the experience, although a few felt anxious throughout. Some reported feeling calm the whole time, even describing the experience as meditative. Others reported initial anxiety - including some feelings of the intimacy being forced and contrived - before finding themselves letting go and enjoying it. I was most happy with this reaction, as that makes me hope that we had given some participants a memorable and fulfilling experience by challenging them to confront an uncomfortable form of intimacy and vulnerability. Many reported being more aware of their senses and of the small, subtle movements of themselves and their partners. At least one participant described a feeling like what I experienced at one point in my solo performance - an acute awareness of the oddness of having a disembodied hand (in this case, two hands) as one's only mental image of another person's body.
Many participants found the setup process, which involved them waiting blindfolded in a hallway and being led two-by-two into a room, to be a very interesting and even enjoyable experience of anticipation. We had not considered that aspect of the experience. As it takes some time to move blindfolded people around, and we had limited time for the entire activity (we were splitting the class period with several groups who all needed time to present their projects), this setup period was slightly longer than the actual time spent holding hands. Ideally, we would be interested in letting participants hold hands for longer, but either way the setup process perhaps adds something to the experience, allowing participants time to settle into the vulnerability and trust of blindness before adding the hand-holding.
As an artist, I'm very interested in creating what I call "radical presence" or "radical co-presence." Radical co-presence is an acute awareness of the living existence, the present Being, of someone else. This requires breaking down the usual barriers and heuristics by which we interact with each other. Unusual forms of intimacy, like the blindfolded hand-holding, are a way of attempting to do this.
I am not sure if this experiment accomplished a form of radical presence, but I hope it left participants with some sense of increased trust and connection. Unlike in my solo performance, where I interacted with true strangers, our participants had some pre-established relationship to each other - they were all members of a large but pretty tight-knit community in ITP, and they had been classmates in the class for a several weeks.
In future iterations, I'd be interested to see how participants react to this activity when meeting each other for the first time. I would probably still want participants to take off their blindfolds while still with their partners. During playtesting, we tried mixing participants back up before asking them to remove their blindfolds, in order to leave them with no knowledge of who their partner was. However, we found that in this case, discussion afterwards often centered around participants trying to work out who in the group they had been with, rather than the nature of the experience itself. Additionally, it would add an interesting layer to the experiment, to have two strangers meet in this fashion.
I'd also be interested to experiment with a longer period of hand-holding, and with a longer time afterwards for discussion. I can think of some other improvements in guiding that discussion, too. First, the class presentation setting meant that participants spoke mostly to Ada and I in the discussion, giving feedback and answering our questions. I'd like to generate more of a broad discussion among the group. Secondly, at least one participant expressed that he was uncomfortable the entire time, and seemed visibly a little uncomfortable afterwards. Should this happen again, I'd like to specifically give space for anyone who felt uncomfortable the whole time, to discuss their experiences, if they want to.