A couple of weekends ago Reading was Open For Art. This is an annual festival organised by fantastic local arts charity Jelly and always involves lots of exciting things happening here. Good stuff happens all the time in Reading but this festival is special and frequently offers opportunities to see where I live with fresh eyes.
This year I was blown away by Walking:Holding, a participatory performance piece produced by Rosana Cade. The work explores ideas of difference and diversity, and openly challenges prejudice. I knew I wanted to go as soon as I read about it on Rosana’s website:
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate these differences.” Audre Lorde
ʻWalking:Holdingʼ is a subtle, experiential performance that involves one audience member at a time walking through the city holding hands with a range of different people on a carefully designed route. Born out of a series of ʻholding hands experimentsʼ in Glasgow, with both same sex and mixed sex couples, the piece asks people to challenge prejudices in the flesh, and experience first hand what it is to walk in someone elseʼs shoes – or hands. The work is focused on exploring the experience of queer and minority identities within a city, and at the same time is a broader experiment into what can be learnt when two strangers share an intimate moment in public. It also asks questions of the social diversity and cultural codes within each city that it takes place.
The performers, or ‘hand holders’ are a group of local people from a range of different sections of the community. The aim is to get people who are different ages, races, genders, sexualities and social backgrounds to participate, to create a diverse and rich experience for the audience member. This performance is about bringing very different people together to walk hand in hand in public. It’s about flesh to flesh experiences of difference. It hopes to encourage greater understanding and tolerance amongst people who experience it, and to open up new possibilities for ways of being in public space, and ways of being with each other.
– Rosana Cade, taken from her website
Walking:Holding SPILL Festival 2013 photo © Pari Naderi and used with kind permission
Walking:Holding is an art performance produced for an audience of one. It works like this: you book an appointment for the start of your walk and are then led through the town by a sequence of comrades. You walk for around five minutes with each person, holding hands. To recruit people to lead on the walk, Rosana has an online open call. Folk who respond to the call attend a group workshop and a rehearsal, and are then stationed along the route, ready to meet with audience members.
Because of its deliberately inclusive premise, the walk is populated by comrades of different ages, ethnicities, abilities, sexualities and genders. Also, because of its performative and political content, the people who apply tend to already have some stake in representing a particular minority group, or a particular set of issues. What is interesting, though, is that unlike more traditionally political contexts, the intimacy of walking together and holding hands provides opportunities to talk about identity in a really different way than at the picket line, or at a demonstration etc. As each person takes your hand, you are somehow joined in ways that create a sense of fellow feeling and camaraderie. There is also something reminiscent of childhood, and of being small and filled with wonder, in the simple act of taking someone’s hand and letting them lead you onward. Walking together you can be quiet or chatty, and your conversation can really go anywhere. One of the surprising aspects of doing the walk was simply seeing a smiley face waiting for me with an outstretched hand at different points along the path through town. It was deeply moving to be greeted like this… to feel like someone had been waiting for me, and to have an excuse to say hello. It gave Reading a friendly, softer feeling, and it made me want to be good company for each person I met; to show up for them like they had shown up for me.
Other surprising experiences included a certain tenderness I felt at being greeted by a little girl for one stretch of the walk. I felt deeply aware of how young she seemed and was overwhelmed by feelings of protectiveness. As an adult, I felt a sense of civic duty towards this lively, joyous creature, but I also felt strangely disempowered because I did not know where we were going. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to swap fashion tips with my companion… She liked my dotty green dress; her favourite colour is black; and she bought the sparkly shoes as part of a special outfit, worn to a Wedding.
Taking the hand of a wheelchair user and bending to her level really brought home to me how, in a wheelchair, you are below eye-level with pedestrians and so very rarely enjoy eye-contact or exchanging smiles with strangers. A man who sells Big Issue on Broad Street yelled out a cheery greeting as we passed. “I love it when people look at me and say hello”, she commented.
A woman older than me invited me to contemplate our reflections in a window that we passed. “Who else do you hold hands with” she asked, and, standing there looking at us in the glass, standing with our bags and scarves, I realised I rarely hold the hands of my girlfriends these days, and that I miss walking down the street in pairs like we used to do as teenagers.
At points along the way the conversation sometimes drifted to identity-related issues… (had I ever met a trans person before? did I know about the disabled entrance to the Oracle shopping centre? what did I think about the lack of opportunity for wheelchair users in the BBC?) …and what I found was that at these moments I was terrified I may say something wrong or inappropriate. I wanted to share stories and to commiserate but I also felt the gaps in my knowledge, experience, and empathy.
Some of the encounters I had during Walking:Holding touched on things I’m thinking about at the moment. Like, as a white woman how can I meaningfully speak out against racism and xenophobia? As straight and cisgender, how can I better support my LGBT friends when stuff like Orlando happens? Also: how can I draw on what I know from my personal experiences of disability and sex discrimination to better understand how privilege and oppression operate in other contexts? These are awkward, difficult questions, but they need asking.
Walking:Holding photo © Rosie Healey and used with kind permission
On the walk we spoke about the Orlando massacre and the commemorative vigil held in Reading; I shared that using mobility scooters in the past had given me a totally different perspective on the layout of towns and cities; and I joined in with the rant about the lack of opportunities for disabled people in the BBC because it triggered both my own direct memories of disability and my latent rage at the difficulties a dear friend is currently facing in her quest for a much needed replacement power-chair. These are big things to discuss with strangers, but the framework of the project makes it inevitable that they’ll come up. In turn I heard how important it is to overcome shyness (“next time you come to an LGBT demo, say hello”); how sad someone else was feeling about the BREXIT outcome; and of the horrendously different ways in which a man who enjoys wearing dresses and makeup is treated depending on whether or not he is wearing ‘male’ or ‘female’ clothes. I also discovered that not watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer has created big gaps in my cultural knowledge; I heard from a mother about star tattoos (one representing the birth of each of her children), and from her son about superpowers (who is your favourite superhero). Several conversations reflected a collective pleasure in this work that had given us all an excuse to hang out in the streets and talk like friends.
Work like Walking:Holding is really important right now. It creates a space that prompts discussions. But it’s more subtle than that, too, because it also puts the audience and the walkers into an experience that creates real feelings of connection; it builds empathy in shared moments; and it facilitates new kinds of meetings. Walking:Holding gives the people in each town and city to which it travels an opportunity to explore each other and that place in a fresh and open way. Work like this offers things we desperately need at the moment; hope, kindness, provocation, and above all a space in which to remember what we have in common and particularly our shared vulnerabilities… the need for friendship; the desire to be liked; a wish to belong.
At the end of the walk, when the last person looked me in the eyes, said goodbye and left me on my own, I wanted to go all over again. I wanted more time with each person I’d met, and I was achingly aware of how empty my hand now felt:
Empty, but also looking, already, for other hands to hold.
Afterword: I think it would be over-optimistic to say that any individual art project can contest the huge social problems in the contemporary climate, but there is something important in Walking:Holding that I have tried to point to here.
Very bad things are happening. The incomprehensible violence of the attacks on Nice last night; the racist shootings in the USA of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and countless others, disproportionately targeted by police officers; the shootings of police officers; the heartbreaking homophobia represented by the Orlando massacre; terrorist attacks across Baghdad, Istanbul and Bangladesh; the xenophobic, Right-wing flavour of the LEAVE campaign and Brexit; the rise of the hard right in British and US Politics… it is easy to feel scared and helpless, but it does no good. Walking:Holding put me in mind of the immortal words of Alice Walker, whose books have been life-changing for me to read, and who asks “what is the point in being artists, if we cannot save our life? That is the cry that wakes us in our sleep. Being happy is not the only happiness.” My thoughts today are with Nice.