A performative experiential report in nine acts
Close your eyes. Breathe three times. Open your eyes. The performance begins. Everything is performance.
My cold hand in your warm hand. We don’t know each other, and you ask me when I shook hands with someone today. With the doctor in the hospital before and after discussing the diagnostic findings for my mother, I reply. An intimate communication, in good hands in the warmth of your hand, which becomes familiar and conveys trust. Holding hands, we walk along a busy shopping street in Vienna together. I hardly take notice of the city, we are a little island. I change the side, so that my other hand can enjoy your warm hand as well, can warm up. You talk about the similarities between bats and humans. We have similar hands and are able to stand upside down for some time.
Our animated conversation and the familiarity that has just begun to develop are interrupted in front of Café Sperl. A young man asks me the way to Tanzquartier. I’m happy to tell him, I know the area and its paths well. I don’t even realise that this is part of the performance, and I’m confused when it turns out that he will be my next companion. So I fell for it. I completely forgot that I’m part of a performance, meaning that everything is staged. But the warmth of the hand was real, wasn’t it?
We head in the direction out of town on Gumpendorferstraße. You are diffident, I can sense that by the way you hold my hand, your shoulder is hunched, maybe my irritation has upset you – a bad start to a new encounter. We turn off into Laimgrubengasse. You tell me about a passageway that leads to a magical place you’d like to show me, and ask me to close my eyes because you want to surprise me. Can I trust you? The space opens up, you present me with a new perspective. A circular sky, with green canopy twined all around. An urban oasis.
We have landed in a park on Wienzeile. There, at a table, you, the new companion, are sitting. A striking appearance, a flair of urbanity surrounds you. I’m being passed on, from one hand to the next. Odd, this discrepancy of strangeness and closeness. A feeling of familiarity emerges very quickly where our hands touch, but we don’t even know each other, know nothing about each other, and yet our hands understand each other, the words we share are basically irrelevant. What matters is that we are walking together and that we provide support to each other. We walk through the alley of catering establishments on Naschmarkt. We are being watched, at least it feels that way. For the first time, I notice the looks of passers-by. You’ve already walked this way, walked with others, just as you do with me now. Holding hands. Maybe that’s what’s causing the looks.
An unfamiliar hand touches my shoulder from behind. This makes me jump. A laughing young face, a hand similar to mine. You lead me to a mirror. We see our reflections. That makes me feel a little uncomfortable. You – a young, fresh, happy creature, next to me – a woman exhausted by the events of the day. Our shared image looks cheerful, nonetheless. We become familiar with each other very quickly, I could be your mother. You ask me how I am, and I tell you about my mother and the exceptional situation my family is currently in. A moment ago, you were just an unfamiliar hand on my shoulder, now you have become an empathetic, sympathetic vis-à-vis.
Another farewell and a new hand in mine. We walk from the Secession through the passageway towards the Opera. You tell me that you’re curious about how this project will change your relationship with other people, that you generally don’t like the touch of strangers, and that, at the same time, you are amazed at the degree of closeness achieved by the gesture of holding each other’s hands. A kind of closeness that is regulated in our culture, socially tolerated in public only in the scope of intimate relationships and between certain groups of people. I notice your shoes and the sweat that has formed between our hands.
The next handover takes place at the Opera. You’re sitting in a wheelchair and ask me to put my hand on your shoulder. You don’t want to answer my question as to why you are in a wheelchair because you’re asked this question too often, find it trivial and tell me that, after all, you’re not asking me about my disability, either. You are, of course, absolutely right, and I feel ashamed. Quite challenging, this tour. I realise that I’m exhausted and notice how something opens or closes with each encounter. I’m glad that I can sit down now; we shake hands and talk with each other. This simple act relaxes the situation between us. You tell me that public space means something very different to you, anyway, as you are always visible, can never make yourself “invisible”. We are sitting under a tree that listens to us talking.
You sit down next to us, you’re barefoot and you ask if it’s OK for me to speak English with you. You smell of a strange place that holds a secret. Your fingers intertwine with mine. I ask you where you’re from. You’re from Scotland. I ask you if you know Nan Shepherd, tell you that I’m currently reading her book “The Living Mountain”. You say “Cairngorms”. These are the mountains that Nan Shepherd explored her whole life, and the way you pronounce the word I can feel the mountains. Your gaze becomes wide. I can feel the wind. You show me the scent of herbs. We talk about things we love. You ask what the word “love” actually means as we cross the street and head towards Burggarten. There, you tell me that, after a crisis in your life in which you lost everything, you walked for four days. Walked with others. And the weather was terrible, your shoes were worn out, the wind was icy, biting, and you wondered why this was happening to you and blamed the wind. And suddenly you realised that the wind was just the wind and didn’t care about you at all. We walk through Burggarten with interlaced fingers, and everything else you tell me sounds so outrageous and unbelievable that I remember being in a performance again, and I ask you if what you’re telling me is part of the production. You answer in the negative, I hold you and your pain in my hands, you are a stranger who is very close to me at this moment, and I don’t care if the story you’ve told me is fact or fiction. I’m worried about you and encourage you to stand by yourself and your truth. You were my last companion, and I was witness to a shared “universal dramaturgy”, woven by the touch of six different hands and people, and the echo of shared footsteps and stories.
PS: In the foreword to Nan Shepherd’s book, “The Living Mountain”, in reference to Merleau-Ponty, Robert Macfarlane writes about the knowledge that is in our hands. Our body makes sense of the world for us and is our means of having a world at all, and of sharing the world with other people. “My eyes were in my feet”, Nan Shepherd wrote. Thank you to all the companions (of the project Walking:Holding by Rosana Cade) for walking together, holding hands and being held.
Barbara Kraus lives and works as a visual artist in Vienna. She studied at SNDO in Amsterdam. Barbara Kraus creates performances and texts, which circle around the question of artistic influences on how to shape a sustainable and vital future of the world. She realized her Life Art performance dream and walk about, where in 2012 she walked across the Alps from Vienna all the way to Nice, in cooperation with Tanzquartier Wien, where she also presented shared space (2014). She shared the experiences of her journey with virtual fellow travellers in the form of her travel diary. www.barbarakraus.at
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