For my "Design for Discomfort" class, we were challenged to create a durational performance. I later refined my performance into my final project for the class.
My performance was inspired by Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present, in which she sits for hours at a time as participants sit across from her and hold eye contact. I was intrigued by the experience of intimacy with a stranger. I'm very interested in co-presence with others, and in the conflicting forces of uncomfortable tension and meaningful connection that arise when one is highly aware of another person's living, present being. It occurred to me that touch, rather than eye contact, would provide an interesting form of intimacy. So I decided to have participants sit across from me in a similar configuration, but to hold my hand. By blindfolding myself and plugging my ears, I would isolate the physical touch with the participants, at least for my end. This would also make the piece somewhat more of an endurance for me, as I would be temporarily blind and deaf. Thus, the performance becomes something of an exercise in trust for me as well.
I performed the first iteration of the piece in the lobby of the ITP floor. I wrote a sign with instructions for participants:
I sat at an empty table, and placed the sign at the seat across from me. Then I blindfolded myself.
This first iteration of the performance was the most emotionally challenging for me, at least while it was happening. I quickly realized how very anxious I was. It was very difficult not to overthink who the participants might be, or why they chose to hold my hand, or how they were perceiving me. A couple of the participants in this first iteration held my hand with both hands, and I wonder if my hands were shaking out of nervousness. However, once I finally began to relax, I found the experience to be intense in a more positive way. I was able to be the most fully present during this iteration, to empty my mind and focus on letting the physical contact with the participant play itself out.
For a couple of the interactions near the end, I experienced a very unique sensation - that of perceiving another person's body as merely a disembodied hand, floating in space. These moments were the most unusual and intriguing result of this experiment into touch-based interaction. Holding hands in particular is something we generally only do with those we know well, so we have large and complex mental images of the person we are touching. Here, I was able to strip down entirely to the tactile and spatial awareness of a hand (accompanied by the knowledge of the presence of someone to whom it belongs.) A very interesting experience in terms of the phenomenology of others' bodies. Unfortunately, in my later performances of the piece, I was not able to empty my mind enough to experience this again. My thoughts were too occupied with speculations about the participants, and even moreso with self-consciousness of how I might be presenting myself and be perceived.
Another thing unique to this iteration was the significant length of time some participants spent with me. The resulting intimacy may be as much a reason why this iteration was the most emotionally challenging as was the fact that it was my first. I believe these lengthy interactions were the result of the specific siting of this iteration - in a quiet place which, while visible to many others, was mostly empty and somewhat out of the way. This created a more intimate setting, and reduced self-consciousness on the part of the participants, who had little audience of their own. While I did not consider it in my original vision, site-specificity was to become an very significant factor in how the performance played itself out.
Placed as I was in the generally quiet lobby area near the elevators and front stairwell, I was seen by several people, but only by those exiting or leaving the floor. Thus, I had very few visitors. Wanting to interact with more participants, I repeated the performance later the same day in the ITP lounge area. This site was centrally located to all the activity on the floor, and very visible, being in the largest and most used open work space. The difference in nature and number of interactions was striking. Many, many people participated, but none held my hand for very long - presumably due to self-consciousness in a high-traffic area. Although, they may also have simply been in more of a rush to get somewhere than those exiting or entering the floor.
I also interacted with male participants for the first time in this iteration. Gender norms had unsurprising but notable effects here - men were much more likely to shake my hand as opposed to hold it, or to play fancy handshake games. It would be interesting to see the piece performed by a woman, and note how participants of different genders interacted with her.
I changed the sign for this iteration as well, and replaced my earplugs with shop-safety earmuffs. These were more effective at blocking sound than my earplugs had been, but I could still hear if participants spoke to me, so I was really not deaf - although I pretended to be. The earmuffs served to visually communicate acting deafness, without a need for a sign indicating that I was not allowed to speak. Thus, I was able to further simplify the instructions to participants, and to avoid calling out the performance as being a performance, as I had done with my original sign. This time I changed the sign to simply read "Please hold my hand" in large, all-capital letters.
The second iteration felt a little bit rushed and I was not very present to it, as I was short on time before class. However, it was an interesting experience, and reinforced my realization that site-specificity was a big part of how the performance interacted with the world around it.
For my final project for the class, I repeated the performance in a truly public site: near the fountain in Washington Square Park. My vulnerability in this situation was much greater. Site-specificity affected the performance in a few ways. First, lots of people stopped to take photos of the performance, with or without participating. Some of this is visible in the documentation footage, but according to my camerawoman, many more took photos from somewhere deliberately out of view of the camera. I became a small spectacle - something not uncommon for performers in a public park, but not something I had thought about going in. And not something I was aware of during the performance, as I was blindfolded.
Second, it was late November and outdoors, so my hands were cold. I tried to warm them up here and there, not due to my own discomfort but because I didn't want my participants to have to hold a cold hand. A few participants tried to warm up my hands - the bareness of my hands in the cold became part of the context and interaction of the performance.
Third, it was a far more diverse group of participants in terms of age range, versus the generally 20s-to-30s age of ITP students. This affected my own sensory experience, but also in subtle ways the variety of interactions that I had. Older men held my hand steadily with more ease than men of my generation. Older men's hands and older women's hands felt different. Usually I could tell the gender of the participant by feel, but not always. Several hands were gloved. There were children's hands. Someone lifted his dog up to shake paw with me, at one point.
I changed the sign yet again. I wanted to reduce the plaintive quality of "please hold my hand," while retaining the simplicity of it. Feedback from a classmate helped push me in the right direction, and I settled on "Will you hold my hand?" The phrasing is somewhat plaintive, but also reads as a challenge to the participant. Keeping it as a question (my classmate had suggested "Let's hold hands") seems in my opinion to draw one in more with a sense of possibility and open-endedness.
While I did not achieve the same level of present-moment awareness as in the first iteration, I was the most emotionally drained after this one. In iteration 1, I was very anxious going in, but relaxed before the performance was done. In this iteration, I felt more confident going in, from having done the performance before. However, I did not succeed at relaxing in the same way, and was caught up in my own thoughts most of the time. At a particular point near the end, I realized that though I was trying to send loving and caring energy to my participants through touch, I was not allowing myself to be vulnerable - I was, for my part, emotionally closed off. That realization suddenly shifted my perspective and relaxed me immensely, but it was so very close to the end of the piece. I left the performance feeling both dazed and hyper-aware of the presence and existence of all the other humans around me - an overwhelming level of perception to have in a crowded place like Manhattan. Perhaps it was simply that the arc of my anxiety and release of vulnerability during the performance had yet to resolve. Or perhaps I had overloaded on connection with strangers. At any rate, I was left in something of an altered state of consciousness, which soon led to lots of internal anxiety, and I needed about an hour and a half of rest to return to normal.
However, looking at the footage, I believe that this iteration was the most successful in terms of the core idea of the performance: exploring the intimacy of holding hands with strangers. The discomfort and awkwardness is often apparent, but most participants seem to my eye to come away looking at least somewhat touched by the experience. I suspect that my status as stranger intensified the impact of the piece, compared to the iterations on the ITP floor. Intimacy with a stranger is more uncomfortable and difficult than with an acquaintance, increasing the intensity of the encounter. Just as importantly, they will never see me again. So, unable to contextualize our interaction in terms of their relationship to me as a colleague or friend, they are more aware of the raw human nature of it. For my part, I felt a meaningful connection to all the participants whose hands I held, and an overall feeling of immense connectedness - so much so that I was extremely emotionally drained afterwards, and that, as described earlier, it took me some time to re-adapt to the normal level of social distance that allows urban society to function.