Holding hands with strangers, a review of In Many Hands by Kate McIntosh

May 13th, 2018  |  Published in April/May 2018


I am sitting at the center of a banquet table facing a black wall. The white cloth in front of me is clean and crisp and extends in either direction down the long skinny table. When I look in my peripherals I see the profiles of the people lined up next to me, their hands resting in front of them. The room is dark but the tables are lit from above. Our hands shift and fidget across the white plane – they are the only things we can see in front of us. The stage is set.

We are the performance. Our hands are the artists. The way we choose to touch one another and the time we take to do so are the content and pace of this work. In Many Hands was a transformative performance. I continue to unravel its layers weeks later, struck by how much it could say with so little direction from its creators. It is a performance that feels raw and human. It consists of the most mundane materials being passed through simple acts, yet the experience is novel and the materials are able to be seen in a new way. The structure puts its participants in an unusual position which asks them to interact with strangers in ways that feel unexpectedly intimate. This performance felt like returning to something basic. It felt like something I needed.

We’ve been sitting at the table for two minutes now. I’ve inspected my finger nails and crossed my hands over and under several times. To my right I see her bare arms and sharp pink manicure. The palms of her hands are resting flat on the table. To my left I see his hairy knuckles. His fingers are intertwined. My neighbor’s hands begin to move and soon she’s grasping my hand in the palm of hers. Unsure what to do, I follow suit and place his right hand on top of my open left palm. It feels strange to rest my hand on hers and to hold his in mine. I don’t know how to touch a stranger.

Objects begin to be passed down the line. From one faceless pair of hands to hers, then mine, then his, then gone. I hold a rock, a hammer and a deer’s hoof. There is something heavy, something light, something you want to poke and something you don’t want to touch. I hold some of them for longer inspecting them closely. Others are unidentifiable and I reluctantly smell them. There are things that are very fragile and precious and things that make you messy. The objects tell a story in senses.

Taken out of context these common place objects feel precious. I find myself looking closely at the construction of a feather and appreciating the weight of a stone. Each time a new item is placed in my hand it is a little gift, an unexpected but familiar surprise. As the items become more unwieldy they ask more of the participants. Our hands learn to work together to continue the chain. When damp sand comes down the line, she grasps my hand and packs the sand into it, patting my fingers around it firmly. The neighbor to my left pulls his buddy’s hand in close and smashes it down while laughing, wet sand splattering across the cloth. By the end our hands which once hovered over each other are comfortably situated in place having found their home in someone else’s. Covered in dirt, chalk and coffee our hands are well past pleasantries.

The performance shifts when we choose a new location at one of the three tables in the room. Now we are facing inward, towards each other. The focus of our gazes move upwards to faces. We are no longer anonymous. Now instead of objects we transfer movement down the line, creating waves of repeating actions across the room. I never know where a movement begins. I become aware of myself again and the expectations of me as an ‘audience member’. I want to do this the ‘right way’. Flustered, I struggle to keep my hands straight, criss- crossing the wrong direction and changing the flow. Now the row that follows after me is bending to the opposite side.

In Many Hands feels like an organic happening. The audience is only aware of a “performer” at the beginning when being led into the theater. From there it is a self- directed piece which is nudged along with suggestion – the passing of an object, the hint of a movement. The time it takes and the tone of the piece is set by the participants. This choice forces the audience to push past the awkwardness of the situation into a place of communal experience. I’ve found myself wondering what other iterations of this performance may have been like. Did they laugh as much as we did? Did any one walk out? Did others feel as close as I did with the audience when it was over?

Now the lights are dimmed to darkness. We sit in blackness, shifting in our seats. As items begin to come I experience a new kind of seeing. Our ears track the transportation of objects, deciphering clues about size and shape. I listen closely and can tell something wet will be here soon. I can hear giggles and gasps. In the darkness, I’ve lost my neighbor’s hand and when I finally grasp it I notice how soft her skin is. My other neighbor doesn’t let me go and we sit holding hands like lovers. I am struck by how safe and comfortable this feels.

What follows felt private. Something to keep within the performance in the hopes that readers will have a chance to experience it themselves someday. What I will say was that the conclusion of this performance was a surprise I never would have predicted. It created a profound sensory experience, again highlighting the multi-faceted beauty of common items. When it is over we sit in a comfortable silence, perhaps speechless as to what just happened. Again, the timing is left up to us- we wait until someone is brave enough to get up to leave.

Walking back into lobby of the theater it felt like emerging from a different dimension. The room we inhabited was an intimate place free from distraction. Its isolation allowed us to cross social boundaries and learn to hold a stranger’s in our hands. Even moments after the performance I could not recall the faces of my neighbors but even today I remember their hands and how they felt in mine. I remember the things their hands told me about who they are. From the mundane to the profound there is so much to decipher in a stranger’s palm – the way they handle something fragile or the care they take in handing you a stone.

In Many Hands accomplished so much with very little. It creates an experience I have never had with items I have interacted with my entire life. Artist Kate McIntosh masterfully engineered an experience I will not forget and I am grateful to have played a small part of it. I find myself revisiting the moment of sitting in the dark holding my neighbor’s hand. He is the only point of reference I have in this completely blackened space. I am thinking about how rare it is to touch someone this way. It feels good. I wonder to myself why we have eradicated human contact from our day to day and who stands to benefit from it. I want to hold on to this experience a little longer, extending this sense of playful vulnerability into how I move through the world.

-Chelsea Borgman

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