By Salima Punjani
“To begin with, please close your eyes and take three deep breaths. And on your third out breath, open your eyes. From this point on, everything that you see is a part of this experience.”
When you open your eyes, a stranger meets you, and asks to hold your hand. This is the opening of Walking, Holding, a performance that takes place in public spaces. Created by artist Rosana Cade, Walking, Holding invites audience members to embark on an intimate experience in which they are guided along a carefully planned route by a series of strangers, holding hands for a few minutes at a time, without knowing who their next companion will be. From people living with disabilities to people who are gender non-conforming, audience members have a chance to meet a diverse range of people they might not otherwise encounter in their daily lives.
When Cade first created Walking, Holding, she was motivated by her own experiences of being queer in public. At the time, she was exploring issues around gender and sexuality through her art, and started to question the impact of her work when constricted to arts venues. “Arts spaces seemed like quite safe spaces, and I was interested to see what would happen if I made performance work for public space,” she says. When she began her experiments with same-sex hand holding, she encountered people who questioned the relevance of her work, pointing to legislative developments in equality and rights for same-sex couples in Scotland. “The difference between legislation and people’s actual lived experiences can be quite vast. I wanted to give those people an opportunity to walk in the city centre in Glasgow (Scotland) and hold hands with someone with the same sex as them, and perhaps get a sense of how that can still be quite a difficult thing.” Cade’s motivation has shifted over time. “For me, now, it is more about opening up public space to people rather than trying to expose prejudice,” she explains.
When people sign up for Walking, Holding they are told to think of everything happening around them as part of the performance. She believes this gives people an opportunity to think about how people are behaving around them as well as reflect on the way they interact with and in a city environment. It can shift people away from thinking about daily tasks and consumption, and transforms the experience of a city centre into a space for listening and meaningful human interaction.
When planning the route for the performance, Cade includes elements such as windy roads, local pubs, public art, stops on benches and places where people can see reflections of themselves holding hands with someone new. By consciously integrating these elements into the walk, she hopes people will feel more free, confident and aware of their surroundings rather than try to get around as quickly and efficiently as possible, as often happens in a city centre. “I think people have preconceptions about places in certain towns and we all sort of build up our own maps of a city in our head about where we normally walk, where we feel good, and where we feel bad.”
Cade remembers a story that took place in Leeds, England where she had planned a pub frequented by older men, as one of the stops on the performance route. The performers felt uncomfortable passing through the pub, assuming the men in the pub would be racist and homophobic. “We had a young woman walking through there as part of the route and she was so nervous the first time she went in,” explains Cade. The more the woman passed through the pub, the more curious the men became about what she was doing. When she explained the performance to them, the men were delighted to learn about it and became involved in the experience. They would give a round of applause every time she walked in with an audience member, check-in on how she was doing and sit and have a drink together at the end of the day. “She was completely overwhelmed by this performance because she realized that she had been incredibly prejudiced towards the people in the pub, just assuming that they wouldn’t like this kind of thing, that they wouldn’t like her, that they would be judgmental about it, ” says Cade. However, even though they didn’t necessarily agree about everything, notably Brexit, the woman felt she had opened up a new space for herself and connected with people she was previously scared of.
A key concept in the structure of Walking, Holding is the idea of Ephemeral Intimacy.
The performance allows people to walk together for 5-6 minutes before moving on to the next encounter. Cade feels having short intimate encounters is important because it helps people let go of some of the fears they might have about meeting strangers. “You are able to let go of these fears because you know it is controlled, it can be quite scary and risky if there aren’t boundaries,” she says. Cade also feels it allows people to relax into the performance because they know it is only for a definite period of time. “For some people it encourages them to go into very deep conversations, and they feel comfortable going that deep again because they know there will be an end,” she explains.
Cade grew up in Britain and remembers being taught to mistrust and fear strangers from a young age. She hopes Walking, Holding can contribute to overcoming fear in society. “I think there is a lot of fear around at the moment. Fear of people that look different than you, fear of terrorism, so we can be scared of the people around us,” she says. Walking, Holding is designed so that audience members don’t know who they will be holding hands with next. “This performance asks you to view everyone as a potential companion, as someone you hold hands with,” Cade explains.
Cade feels this helps to change audience members’ relationships with how they interact with other people and public spaces. She hopes having these intimate connections with people can help them to understand different barriers they weren’t aware of before. “Perhaps if you are holding hands with someone in a wheelchair that might show you how the city disables this person because of how it is structured. If you are holding hands with someone that is gender non-conforming or trans and you don’t have experience with that yourself, you might find you are interacting in the city in a different way,” Cade explains. Cade hopes the performance will allow people to move beyond tolerating each other and build a deeper understanding to celebrate and embrace differences to create more inclusive public spaces.
For Cade, planning and facilitating the performance in different cities has made her more aware of challenges related to accessibility. “My understanding of how city planning really affects people with different disabilities has grown hugely. Before Walking, Holding, I had never properly taken the time to consider what it might be to get around the city in a wheelchair or try and get around if you are blind. There are many simple things that can be built a bit differently that would make the world a less disabling place for people.”
Additionally, holding hands with strangers isn’t always comfortable for audience members. Cade feels, particularly in smaller towns where there is less anonymity, people are hyper-aware of the judgement of people in their city. She remembers an experience in Cork, Ireland where she was the first performer in the piece. “People spoke about how when you are walking around in Cork, you are likely to see someone you know,” she explains. An audience member didn’t realize the performance involved same-sex hand holding, and asked if they could do the performance without holding hands. Cade said no, and convinced the woman to try to take part in the performance, and explained that if ever she was too uncomfortable, they would stop. When Cade asked her about her reluctance to hold hands, the woman replied, “Oh, well, I’m single, so if people see me that know me, they might think I’m on a date with you, and that I am a lesbian and that would be awful,” the woman explained. Cade was offended, but having grown up in a small town herself, she understood the vulnerability of the situation and shared her thoughts with the woman. “The feeling she had was probably the feeling other people in Cork who actually are gay might feel when they are first coming out,” she explained. The woman ended up completing the performance and found it worthwhile. Cade feels the experience was important for the woman to have to connect to the lived experience and challenges of others.
Moving forward, Cade hopes to use Walking, Holding as a tool for creating more understanding about accessibility and acceptance for people that work in cities such as police officers and city planners. “Having opportunities for more connection can be a really positive thing. I am eager to find more direct ways of working outside of it being an artwork,” Cade explains.
“We share our streets with hundreds of people every day but everyone could be having a different experience with that same place and that really comes through in Walking, Holding.”
To learn more about Rosana Cade’s work you can visit her website. You can also experience Walking, Holding while listening to some of her reflections via her Soundcloud page, or check out the beginnings of a documentary depicting the life of this performance.