A Performative Sensory Journey

I was 15 years old the first time. They ask me to fill in a form about myself in advance. I am sitting in a barn in Vordingborg with eleven other disoriented and curious strangers. Soon I notice a beautiful dark woman holding my gaze. With a tender smile she stands up and gently takes my hand. She leads me through a forest, laughing playfully and running so fast, I have a hard time catching up. We leap into an old row-boat and an elderly gentlemen rows us to a little island. There we go down the path of overgrown trees and she secretively hands me messages written on leaves and eggs from nests that she finds along the way. She doesn’t speak English. Her mysterious spontaneity makes me laugh and when I least expect it she shouts and takes a photo of me. We arrive at an abandoned house and there she puts a blindfold over my eyes. Suddenly I am being pushed in a wheelchair and hear the most incredible sounds around me. The sun is warming my face like fingertips all over my skin. As she takes off my blindfold I find myself in front of a huge black-board with a big white horizontal line in chalk. ”I want you to draw your own time-line. From birth until today. I’ll pick you up in five minutes”. Then she leaves the room and shuts the door behind her. I have five minutes to define what I am. What major events have impacted my life? What has shaped me? I still have the hard-boiled egg with me today. As well as the polaroid photograph.

It was just me and her. Every moment was about us. About me. She saw me. Took her time to really communicate. We were present and only there for one another. Afterwards I kept asking myself if I am in control of my life or not. And I still do today. Did I ever chose to be a part of what has happened to me? Or did I just allow myself to be swept away by my surroundings?

This time I find myself in the hallway to a tremendously inhabited and cosy home. The telephone rings. I pick up a red receiver from the 60s and answer with a timid uncertain “.. Hello .. ?”. An inviting female voice responds. “Hi Tuva. Welcome. Are you ready? That’s good. When you hear the bell, walk to the red door on the left. When it rings again, it’s time for you to move on. Great. Safe journey.”
I am met by a pair of curious eyes in a hatch in the door. They look deeply into mine and she whispers “Close your eyes”. Her voice is sincere and comforting. She trusts me, and therefore I trust her. She grabs my hand cautiously and leads me into dark a nothingness. My hearing is sharpened, my touch sensitized. Her breath touches my skin and I shudder pleasantly as she carefully allows my remaining senses experience my surroundings. Every matter I encounter, it feels like I am experiencing for the first time. My being slowly relaxes and our innocent physical conversation becomes a dance. And soon a game. Free from self-consciousness, I am like the child playing with that foreign girl or boy by the pool on a holiday abroad.
Next, I am like a blind man who have just regained his sight. I stand amidst a verdant bedroom and I am met by an intense aroma of earth, moss and fresh cut grass . A voice speaks to me from a bed, a bed of grass. I lie my head down on the mossy cushion and as if my skin is full of holes, my whole body breathes. The young woman speaks to me of freedom. I can do whatever I want. I can cry however I want. No one can see what I am thinking. A bell rings. I crawl out through a childish world of stones and wooden figures. On the stone in my pocket it says “It’s okay to be human .”
In the end, I am being taken care of by an animalistic silhouette. She instils a primitive maternal feeling and describes a childhood memory to me. A memory about her father. We sink into a soft sheepskin and she holds me tight as I lie there in her arms like a helpless child. She whispers in my ear and her presence gives me strength in this powerlessness. We are all children, no matter how adult we try to be.

I am 20 years old the last time. I am picked up by an old van on a square in Copenhagen and where they are taking me, I have no idea. We are dropped off in front of a huge elder-care building from the 50’s and met by a group of men and women in different ages, dressed in white and with trustful tranquil facial expressions. We are all breathing in the same quiet rhythm. An older imposing woman walks calmly towards me with a warm intensive gaze. Her hand slips into mine and she whispers ”I pick you because of your curiosity”.
”How is paradise? Can two people be one flesh? Should you learn how to see with your nose, ears and tongue? Is what you see determined by your mood? Can we be one with the moment?” … I chose ”Is it possible to see your way of seeing?”

In one room I speak with a young asian man with Cerebral Palsy. He talks to me about love. A girl he gave everything to. A girl he loved, but whom he lost. He becomes emotional and impossible to understand. Then it is my turn. Is there anyone who means more to me than myself? … .
Another room alludes to the past. ”Is it possible to dream of a room you have never been in?”. Chaos. Death. Newspapers everywhere. It reminds me of a hospital room. From the wardrobe I can hear a story being told. It is packed with teddybears. I am alone. I can do whatever I want. I can feel however I want. Nobody can see what I am thinking. I am asked to write something on a newspaper before I leave. When I step out I think ”I cannot blame my past anymore. It doesn’t exist.”.

Do we perceive the world primarily through our senses or through our thinking? What is reality; our intellect or our emotions? These experiences are stored in my muscle memory. These impressions follow me every day because they are not primarily experienced by my intellect, but by my physical senses and nervous system.

No content forced upon you. No one who sees what you are also seeing. No correct or incorrect experience. The audience arrives ready to leave distracting everyday thoughts behind them. Instead of meeting an invisible fourth wall dividing the actor and the spectator and all focus on the actors, we meet actors who are not acting. A human who is their self and who is there for you. And you are there for them.

It’s called “human specific”, and I find it intriguing because it has contributed to some of the few experiences in life I have had of “being one”. Other times have been in a Meisner repetition, Per Brahe’s Balinese mask class, deep collective yoga meditation, sex, or on stage. However, the average person who does not practice anything creative does rarely have the opportunity to be so present with all of his or her senses that they can allow real contact with themselves and their surroundings.

It is natural to intellectualize conventional art, taken in with only sight and hearing. Art today often ask the spectator to use critical thinking instead of gut instinct. We will put more weight on concretizing what we see in words rather than let the art move us. The experience is broken apart even before it is revealed.

21st century’s capitalist society is deeply rooted in Lutheran work ethic. Even when we watch art, we feel the need to perform well. During the performance, we think about what we should say to our friends afterwards. We should analyze correctly and say what is socially acceptable. Our focus is divided. The subconscious and the nervous system reads the symbols and creates emotion but the ego and the survival instinct interrupts this process by judging whether the reaction is suitable or not. Through the presence of others, we look at ourselves from the outside and do not see the world through our own eyes, but how we think we are supposed to see it.

In a participatory human specific performance the audience can on the other hand decline any responsibility to self-consciously perform, but by actually willingly participating more than in a conventional performance. It creates a safe space where the audience can feel and think what they usually do not dare to. Human beings instinctively want to be in control in order to identify themselves. This concept allows the need for control, created by self-consciousness, to disappear. If the artist forces the audience to have an opinion about a specific subject, the spectator will be reluctant to take it in. If all responsibility lies within the spectator, as in conceptual art, what the audience see will be shaped by their thinking. No one wants to be controlled without first voluntarily relinquishing.

We have all been a part of an audience who do not dare laugh because the self-consciousness spreads, and we have all experienced how the laughter volume increases when someone dares to take the first initiative. The collective affects the individual. In human specific performances you are instead alone as a spectator and each installation differs, depending on the individual who experiences it. It is not possible to feel threatened by the presence of the collective.

The spectator is involved physically and verbally, perceiving creative, emotionally stimulating experiences through all of their senses, as well as exchanging energy with a stranger. All focus is facing outwards. Neither the actor nor the audience is in control.

I find it important that theater be political, that art should inform and transform. Nothing in this performance was explicitly political, but it was more powerful because the audience were guided to insights, not fed with them. Everyone left with an experience that had touched and challenged them, existentially, politically, socially and personally.

In the moment, the performance does not evoke thoughts but generates feelings. The thoughts come later when you least expect them, without having to force them. The context of the performance is individualized depending on one’s needs. This condition is common for an artist, with the stage as a free safe space, but to give a person, who expects to be only a spectator, that experience – is a unique life-changing gift.

Tuva Hildebrand, March 27th