Just when you think you've seen it all comes an illuminating exercise in the dark. A performance that takes you to a completely new place, through all the old and familiar ones.
Last Friday, I toured the streets of Vancouver blindfolded, guided by a woman I'd never met before – and had never seen. Do You See What I Mean? is a work of one-on-one theatre created by Lyon, France-based choreographers/artists Martin Chaput and Martial Chazallon, whose company Projet in situ describes the work as "the choreography of participation." They've mounted the piece – tailored for each place – in several cities, including Montreal; it's now in Vancouver, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
I'm not sure if it's a coincidence that Do You See What I Mean? has been programmed at PuSh the same year as two King Lear-related works. The parallels are obvious. With Shakespeare – and the PuSh spinoffs – we witness the impact of being blinded, physically or otherwise. With this work, we experience it.
Public fascination with interactive performance has reached a height of late, with artist Marina Abramovic's migration from the cutting edge to the mainstream. In New York three years ago, thousands of people lined up to participate in her work The Artist is Present, performed during a career retrospective of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art, and then documented in a 2012 film.
This piece – which has surely become the best-known work of contemporary interactive performance – saw museum visitors sit across a table from Abramovic and gaze silently, transforming in the process from viewer to collaborator.
By contrast, Do You See What I Mean? appeared to be designed to provide its insights in the dark. There would be no gazing, no encounter with an artist. At least, so I thought.
The PuSh program promised the work to be "deeply transformative," but I was somewhat skeptical. A 2 1/2-hour blindfolded tour sounded cool, but was it art?
All such questions vanished, along with the light, as a blindfold was placed over my eyes in the backroom of a small Chinatown gallery. I was then introduced to my guide, who told me her name was Ana. She explained I should hold her elbow and demonstrated how we could walk single file to get through narrow spaces.
We began slowly, so slowly, as I shuffled tentatively out a back door (I think) of the gallery.
Initial thoughts included: I'm going to trip; I can't do this for two hours; is everyone looking at me? Weirdly, throughout the tour, no passersby approached or asked a question or even commented out loud on what I took to be our strange appearance.
Not surprisingly, everything seemed very loud. The traffic, without a visible barrier, felt perilously close. There was construction, and much unrecognizable racket; I was surprised at how many sounds I could not identify. There were many snippets of conversation, generally innocuous. And sometimes, birds.
After about 15 minutes, I began to trust the guide, to walk faster. You think about what it is to be a young child and rely utterly on somebody else for guidance, for everything. You think about what it is like to be a prisoner or a hostage, blindfolded and guided to who knows where. A meal? Your death?
Of course, you think about what it is like to be permanently blind or partially sighted, not just for two hours. I wondered what vision-impaired people would think of this tour. A silly exercise? An important exploration and attempt at empathy?
There were stops along the way: the first I believed to be a vintage clothing shop (Ana was very careful not to confirm or deny anything); the second a bakery, where I could experience firsthand my heightened senses of smell and taste – and touch. A velvety bench evoked the living-room furniture of my childhood.
This was a rare moment: when my thoughts drifted beyond what was directly in front of me. During the tour, you are totally focused on your experience and its implications. You're not checking your phone, you're not casing the room, you're not thinking about anything other than the steps you're climbing, the lavender pastry you're tasting, the exchange you are having with your guide. Your mind does not wander at all. At least mine didn't – and that is a feat for me. I didn't – couldn't – take a single note. But I remember everything.
Our third stop was a residence; an apartment belonging to a guy named Steven. Unfortunately, Steven let it slip that he lives in a certain neighbourhood. I was floored; I had figured we were in a completely different part of town.
I didn't realize how much I had grown to rely on Ana until our next stop, when she informed me that she was going to leave me – for a short while – with a new guide. I felt the same terror I had experienced at the beginning of the tour. Then my new guide introduced himself, and this experience – already remarkable – grew even more exciting, more intense. Johnny let me use his cane, showed me his tricks for getting around this precarious space (I won't reveal what it was here). It was literally the blind leading the blind.
I didn't think it was possible to top my visit with Johnny, and then we reached our final destination. Around me were sounds I didn't understand. Sweeping? Running?
Again, Ana passed me over to someone, this time to Martin, who whispered hello.
The artist was present.
But I did not know that, yet. I did not know this was Martin Chaput, the co-creator of this work, a dancer, or that we would dance, and run, and stretch on the floor together in what turned out to be a large studio. (We were permitted to return and watch after the blindfold was removed.) He did not tell me this; in fact, he didn't say a word to me. I followed his instructions simply by following his body, which I could not see; our only contact was me, touching his elbow. This experience, this dance in the dark, took my breath away, in every way.
If I hadn't been so moved – and I was – I would have chastised myself for ever questioning the artistic value of such an endeavour.
The greatest performance is immersive. It takes us completely out of ourselves and our dreary everyday existence in an effort to make us think about ourselves, to shine a light on the human experience. It delights us; it scares us.
To sit across from Abramovic, I imagine, would have felt a bit like gazing upon humanity, and into ourselves. Terrifying and comforting at once, and raising some essential questions: How many people do we encounter in a day? How many do we actually look at? Who, in the end, really sees me?
Do You See What I Mean? is set firmly in the world we're already in, but have long forgotten to notice. We become intrigued again with the streets we walk every day. It is a profound, exciting work. Transformative? I think so; it may be too early to tell. But most certainly eye-opening.
Do You See What I Mean? is at PuSh Friday through Sunday, departing from the Access Gallery, 222 East Georgia St., every 15 minutes from 12 noon until 4:45 p.m.
OTHER INTERACTIVE SHOWS IN VANCOUVER
Sometimes I Think, I Can See You
PuSh favourite Mariano Pensotti, an Argentinean artist, places Vancouver writers (including Michael Turner, Anakana Schofield) in public spaces – the lobbies of the Vancouver Public Library and Vancouver Art Gallery – gives them each a laptop connected to a projection screen and has them write live accounts of what they see, or imagine. Friday through Sunday.
At the Vancouver Public Library during the PuSh Festival, take out one of 30 human "books" – such as Recovering Hoarder, Refugee, Kinky Dancer – and spend about 20 minutes with them. Friday through Sunday.
The Performance Art Trap
Radix Theatre's series features several interactive works including: The Relationship Trap, where, as the audience member, you get into bed with a performer and you have a conversation about your relationship; The Fame Trap, where you audition into a video camera; and The Death Trap, where you play chess with death (then cabinet minister Stockwell Day tried it out when the work was in Ottawa for BC Scene in 2009). Boca Del Lupo's Micro Performance Series, April 24-27.
Advice From Teenagers
Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex (Haircuts by Children) has adults send in their problems and gives teens time to deliberate and come up with a response. Then, during a live performance, the teens discuss some of the submitted issues and accept further problems from the live audience. Micro Performance Series, May 22-25.