hapticity: the labor of feeling across difference and precarity; the effort of feeling implicated or affected in ways that create restorative intimacy; how we feel with and through another in the absence of touch.
Similar to my last post, this one also finds me in a state of transition. As usual, I’m on a plane. No need to linger on points of departure or arrival. But I will say that I find transit an oddly generative space. Planes and trains, in particular, are like cocoons for me; places where my thoughts tend to gush uncontrollably in the confines of airborne capsules or their earthbound equivalents. I begin with this rumination on my own relationship to travel and mobility because the keywords I reflect on in this entry concern the ways black artists are transforming what it means to inhabit the world and our relationships to one another by blurring the lines between stillness, movement and motion. The terms it interrogates have been raised before, but they deserve to be revisited and unpacked in depth and with added precision. I explore them once again through the work of an artist whose practice challenges us to think these terms anew and in compellingly counterintuitive ways...
Translucent walls of plastic frame a raised wooden platform. The walls veil a series of stilled, ghost-like figures. But what registers at first as stillness is in fact a perplexing form of mobility; a mobility that sutures the fold between movement and motion. The scene is hypnotic and the conversations of visitors fade to a hush in this sublimely muted spectacle. Just beyond these silent, standing witnesses, half-circles of benches create another transitional space: a vestibule where spectators are transformed into active participants.
The ghostly figures emerge in fuller detail as they traverse an opening, then return to fuzziness as they pass back behind translucent walls. I am surprised that several of the figures are normal folks like me, not the purposeful dancers I anticipated. Yet the dancers are there as well, discernable by an inescapable focus and poise, though describing them as purposeful would be an overstatement. Their movements are ‘choreographed,’ but not in a traditional sense. Some gaze downward, others forward; some seem hesitant or restless, others are more confident and intentional. I am distracted by the sound coming from within the room. It is music, but I can’t make out where it’s coming from. I assume it’s a recording as I can identify neither its source in a body nor an instrument; nor can I locate any technological mode of delivery.
What distracts me from the search for this source is the figure that lingers at the threshold of the translucent room. He is the first I have seen to leave it; the first to exit the long slow swirl their movements create. I recognize him as Peter Born. I recognize him, because I recognize the girl in his arms. He carries a long-legged brown frame that mimics her mother’s equally long-legged darker frame. He cradles this frame high in his arms and close to his heart as he whispers her to calmness. He lingers for an excruciatingly long moment at the threshold, before slowly lowering her to the floor and exiting along with her. From there he moves toward me to initiate a new transition and entry into the piece.
Commissioned by the 2018 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Nigerian-American artist, choreographer, writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili and her partner Peter Born’s stunning work, Sitting on a Man’s Head, is most accurately captured in the words of its evocative subtitle: an unfolding score for a collective utterance, the ongoing making of an I, you, we, and us. As referenced in its title, the work draws inspiration from a protest strategy used by women in eastern Nigeria referred to as ‘sitting on a man’s head.’ A peaceful and powerful tactic deployed as a disruptive practice to create space for the voices of marginalized women, the work animates this practice and refashions it in the process. While protest, disruption and resistance were its original intent, Okpokwasili’s reworking of this tactic is markedly different, yet equally profound. The space she creates activates this moving dynamic in paradoxical and provocative ways.
He invites me into the vestibule to begin a conversation. His question is both unexpected and overwhelming: “What do you think happens after you die?” “What does it feel or look like?” The response he offers is similarly unanticipated: “I imagine it might feel something like the gap you experience when they put you under for a procedure. You count backwards and then you wake up and there’s an absent space you can’t account for.” To which I respond, “So maybe death looks like the absence of or a different sense of time?” And then he asks if I’m ready to enter the space.
movement: change in position of an object in relation to a fixed point in space.
motion: change of location or position of an object with respect to time.
His instructions are simple: take three breaths together, then begin to walk slowly through the space. Very slowly. It begins with a shift in weight. Transfer it from your heal to the outer edge to your arch, through the ball of your foot and into your toes. Lift it, suspend it, very low, a little higher, higher and higher still. Balance… breathe… lower… then slowly shift your weight, slower than that, slower still. Such intensely focused inwardness creates extreme intimacy and vulnerability, endless sensation, and heightened awareness. The focus required to break bodily movements into increments of centimeters, to sustain that movement, remain upright, and not succumb to gravity’s insistent downward pull; the focus required to hover in micro-seconds of non-movement and anti-motion is a haunting instantiation of the state of being after death that framed my entry into this unexpectedly precarious space. It is a liminal state that slowly becomes an equalizing practice of stasis – an effortful balancing of forces that suspends the body’s relation to space and to time. Returning to the question that preceded my sojourn within these translucent walls: what if death were the absence of or a different relationship to time?
In the translucent space of slow-walking created by Okpokwasili, Born and their collaborators, time is measured not in duration but as a relationship to space and proximity. Time’s passage is marked by how far or close you are from a point of origin or an unknown point of arrival. Where did you come from and where do you hope to arrive? What is the path you choose to take across the blank space of a room? What is the distance or proximity between you and the other bodies inhabiting this space alongside you? How do you navigate their nearness or farness? What mediates the relationship between self and other; when does it merge, intersect or diverge? How do you ‘feel’ another when no one touches?
Passing bodies ambulate in the stilled motion of time-lapse photography. The music I initially could not locate emanates from one of the dancers I had identified. It grows louder as he and the music slowly move toward me. “I am in me” – he sings over and again. As he comes closer his mantra shifts: “I see you,” “I am near you,” and as he passes, “I am with you.” I am moved by his words and the song that he weaves through them. I am touched by them and the strand of connection they forge between us. It is a bond of intense intimacy created in the space I share in deep vulnerability with strangers. I feel it as what my student Donovan Redd has taught me to understand as restorative intimacy. It is an intimacy that does invaluable, existentially regenerative, restitutional work.
We do not touch. There is no contact, or is there? In this shared space of slowness – a space where motion is reduced to almost-stilled-movement that neutralizes the passage of time and realigns the definition of space – touch and contact are rendered in a different modality: relation. It is a relational space of intimacy I call hapticity. Feeling across a shared spatiality requires communication and collaboration and a different relationship to space and time. Bodies must feel out one another, feel with, across and through one another to create a sense of navigation. Hapticity is not empathy. It is not ‘feeling for’ another. It is labor. It is the work of feeling precarious or feeling precarity in relation to differentially valued and devalued bodies in the absence of any guarantee of respite, respect or recognition. It is a gamble that will likely end in failure that is worth taking the risk nonetheless. It is the gamble to allow oneself to be touched and moved completely independent of physical contact.
I have no idea how long I spent slow-walking in Okpokwasili’s exquisite space. Time seemed to stop and maybe that’s what death does actually look and feel like. All I know is that, at some point, I began to hear my own breath. It was not an effect of exhaustion. It was presence and awareness. I had become part of the space and part of the random group of dancers and strangers who happened to inhabit it with me. As I turned toward the door through which I had entered, nearing a conclusion to my journey, a beautiful black male body passed behind me. Moments later, I could no longer see him, but I felt his proximity. I thought I saw what looked like the broad wingspan of a heron. Of course, I saw no such thing. What I felt was the movement of air; movement animated by his long arms moving slowly and eventually more dramatically up and down. As I shared with Okpokwasili later that day, I felt him moving my air. I felt his touch through the movement of the air we shared in an intimate space of slow-walking.