It’s been a peculiar couple of months, with a host of experiences both familiar and new. In particular, there were two consecutive nights in March which — by proximity — seemed to share a meaning which I have so far been unable to convey to my satisfaction.
However, I feel an attempt must be made to rattle off these thoughts before they dissipate or become trapped in infinite revision.
This is a story of two rooms with utterly different contexts. In one, I found myself focusing on and surrendering to the literal physical connection between myself and others. In the other, great and strange barriers were placed in that interstice.
At the top of a staircase in a gray building off of Grand St, preceded by peeling wallpaper and wood that complains, there stands an off-white metal door. It was there that I found myself on a brisk night in March, accompanied by Andrew — a gentle Asian man who I believe is a physical therapist — and Cecelia (pronounced with “ch”), a striking Italian woman. Both smiled easily. We had just completed a vigorous parkour conditioning session at Columbus Park, and I had been invited to come along to the studio afterwards. Our strides on the pavement had been loose, facilitated by hours of activity.
Andrew opened the door, revealing a dim, amber-lit chamber. From the ceiling hung beige curtains that spanned the length of the room, sectioning off an entry corridor lined with backpacks and clothing. Low voices, rustling, and muffled thumps echoed through the warm air from the central parting in the fabric. Cursorily, my companions and I set our things down into our own little piles. I followed Andrew as he eagerly made his way through the curtains, while Cecelia disappeared to what must have been a side room, to later return in looser clothing.
In the adjoining partition, over a dozen people — mostly in pairs — leaned, stepped, and twisted to and fro over the wooden floor and around the stone support pillars. A few hugged the floor in sitting poses, stretching and moving with their partners. Most looked to be about my age, in their 20’s or 30’s, with the notable exception of one older man who swayed rigidly to an inaudible rhythm, his head tilted down.
This display was contact improvisation, a form of dance in which participants move while maintaining points of contact with their partner(s). They push, pull, shift, rotate, and otherwise modify these points, in constant communication.
For a few moments, I stood dumbfounded at the undulating crowd, unable to follow what they were doing. Thankfully, Andrew — who had been stretching and shaking himself loose nearby — shortly offered to introduce me to the form. We faced each other, bringing our right arms up to meet between the outer wrist and forearm. Then we turned such that the point of contact moved up our arms to the shoulders and eventually to the back, a place I would find myself using often, albeit uncomfortably, for the rest of the session. Things got strange after that; we turned in all manner of directions and rolled over and around each other, moving across and back the studio floor, flowing and stopping while touching. People would get in the way, but that was fine; they were additional obstacles, moving structures to interact with. The rest of the hour passed dizzyingly, culminating in a big train of people toppling around and onto each other.
Later, as I sat on the train with Allan (another participant) and Cecelia, I watched the former grasp and collapse onto the support pole, his body alternately turning to Jello and becoming rigid. Though at first it seemed a peculiar behavior, I entertained the notion that he was surrendering himself to a sensation of interconnectedness, the physical contact serving as but a metaphor for the connections between human beings and each other, and to the environment.
In that moment, I experienced a sensation of intimacy and belonging that has been all too rare in recent months. The urge I sometimes get to just lay and crawl on the ground and obstacles took on new context as a method of seeking connection with my environment, in an age where touch screens and digital media threaten to take precedence over the exploration of our primordial senses. I returned home emboldened, with no clue that the next day I would encounter something almost directly opposite.
In a Midtown office building, the elevator doors opened to an alien scene. All was lit in ultraviolet purple, with the room’s walls and floor covered in plastic sheeting. The people milling about within were garbed in white full-body suits, many of their faces obscured by hoods and the sanitary masks.
After removing my sweater and coat, I was handed rubber gloves, which I quickly discovered were filled with a thick, cold substance and hard granules. Then I was given the task of stepping into a suit and zipping up. It was tough to talk to the other visitors due to all the commotion in a relatively small space, so I confined myself to a wall and only spoke with Josh, a friend with whom I had ridden up.
This was my introduction an exhibit by our mutual friend Jane, whose work centers around identity and objectivity, told from the perspective of science and medicine. I had not seen her in a long time, but I showed up to offer my support and see what she was up to. So far, the night had been an utter surprise.
At length, the other visitors and I were ushered into an opening in the far plastic wall, entering a dark compartment. Its floor was covered with a brown, sticky fluid reminiscent of what I felt in the gloves, and — shuffling and wading in through the inch-deep mixture — I quickly discovered that the suits, made of some kind of cloth, were not waterproof; my socks were swiftly immersed, and the feet of the overly long suit coiled into sticky knobs. For a few long moments, the other visitors and I explored the area uncomfortably, with a brave few making stilted conversation.
Shortly thereafter, we were told to stand to the sides of the room. A troupe of girls in white face holding Petri dishes came into the center, before launching into an a capella performance, the meaning of which I am still uncertain. Then we watched a video projected on the far wall — I think it is called subjective object — as we crouched or sat on the squelchy plastic. The piece concerned perspective and identity. After another round of singing, Jane came in at the rear and brought up slides with diagrams and captions. We were made to read off the screen out loud, as she interjected her own words, in a peculiar imitation of a college lecture.
Here we were: a room primarily full of strangers, unidentifiable to each other and experiencing various degrees of discomfort. The entire time I could keenly sense the distance between us, amplified by the oddness of it all.
At the very least however, we were brought together for the exhibit, occupying a common environment brought to us that night by Jane. Even if we were separated by face masks, suits, and syrup, for one night we were closer than ever before (and likely ever after). From that perspective then, it was not much different than my previous night at the dance studio.
One room was adorned with soft curtains and few boundaries between its occupants, save for cloth and sweat; the other was wrapped with plastic sheets and imposed sterility and distance upon its occupants. Yet, in both were people, present for different reasons but nevertheless there at the same time, sharing a single collection of irreproducible moments. In that I find beauty, and I hope this story may serve as a reminder to treasure the moments that we are together, no matter why or how they come to be, for they will pass all too quickly.
Certainly, you could say the same thing about any gathering of folks, and that all this is romantic fluff about something mundane. But these two vivid experiences — through their odd similarities and consecutive occurrence — turned my attention to how important and remarkable it is when people meet, regardless of the circumstances. Such intersections seem to me to be the basis of human life, without which we would be utterly alone.