In late November, I led a participatory performance, A Proxy for a Thousand Eyes, at the Sydney Opera House. Among the performers were three videographers and two photographers. Their role was to record a loosely choreographed routine of touching between myself and the participants who joined me at the specially designed, Covid-safe screens.
The pandemic has highlighted the desire and need for physical contact and the integral role touch plays in socialisation and well-being. COVID-19 has not only forced us to be physically apart but to perceive bodies — both our own and others — as risky.
Despite the risks, I was commissioned by the Sydney Opera House to respond creatively to the pandemic. My approach focused on social distancing and its alienating impact on communal gathering. Shielded by vinyl plastic, complete with the ritual of hand sanitising, I persuaded 50 people to act as my touching playmates on the day. Some were friends and acquaintances. Many were strangers.
Each participant was separated from me by a sheet of plastic. I stood on one side and they stood on the other. Despite the squeaking and slippery sensation of the plastic, I made sure the palms of our hands connected, our fingers and faces conjoined, the tips of our noses and lips caressed.
At the heart of this work is the desire to feel good. In a year of great uncertainty and grief, creativity has an enormous role to play in articulating the unspeakable, the unthinkable and what is often suppressed in traumatic times.
I wanted first and foremost for the participants to feel safe, to feel cared for and to trust me. And in return, to touch me so we could be together and safely apart.
The photographs and footage revealed the most tender encounters. An intimate and playful game of surrender is now a ten-minute video piece portraying touching as a form of public yearning.
Cherine Fahd’s ten-minute video piece Play Proximus will feature in Returning: Chapter 1 on Stream, part of Sydney Opera House’s new digital commissions launching on 30 April 2021 co-presented with the Japan Foundation Sydney.
An essay reflecting on this project will appear in Dystopian and Utopian Impulses in Art Making: The World We Want, edited by Grace McQuilten and Daniel Palmer, to be published by Intellect in 2022.