“Exchange” by Raegan Truax

Saturday, 29 June 2013
Time(s) Observed: 10:20 am – 11:30 am
(durational performance from 8:30 am – 6:44 pm)
Department of Art and Art History Lobby

Blog Response by Rebecca Ormiston

Photo by Jamie Lyons

You took a risk and decided to breathe with me, and so I feel that I must write to you.

Do not consider this as an open letter to the artist. Instead, I urge you to read this as my fumble for words after our exchange.

First, a confession: I am familiar with this piece (having already spoken to you about it months before), and so I came to the performance with certain expectations. Consequently, I was prepared in a way that your many visitors were not. Still, I was apprehensive.

When I came to see you last Saturday, there were fourteen white balloons scattered on the floor. While many visitors walked into countless moments with you, I could only infer that there were fourteen people who had engaged in an unspoken dialogue with you. Fourteen people had seen you, risked taking a white balloon from your hand, understood that this balloon needed to be blown up, handed this balloon back to you, and watched as you fixed your gaze on them, inhaled their breath, and exhaled on the scattered shards of glass hanging from the sculpture you stood in.

I remember biking to the space where you were waiting. I remember worrying about my breath, about brushing my teeth, about what I ate. I remember walking down the building’s side, through the courtyard, towards you. You were looking out the opposite doorway– your arm extended with a deflated, white balloon. Your right leg was shaking as you balanced on your toes on the grey cloth beneath you. I realized, moments later, that your body rocked from side to side while you audibly exhaled, your gaze was steady and intense as you surveyed those walking outside the lobby’s central open door.

You stood in this space for ten hours and fourteen minutes. You wore a red dress: spaghetti-strapped, sleeveless, short, with a plunging neckline, and its fabric gathering at your sides. Your hair was pulled back. You stood in a structure of taupe and cream fabric, suspended metal pipes, rusted buckets, and shards of hanging glass. The space was your cocoon, sculpture, vessel. As the wind moved through the open doors of the Art lobby, the glass periodically clinked and rang among birds chirping, footsteps, the building’s mechanical hum, the endless construction occurring outside.

The arm still up. The balloon dangled.

That’s when I thought that I had already gotten into this event all wrong.

I needed to walk back around and approach the piece from the front; I did not want to come into the encounter from the side. Before I could turn back and walk around the building, however, you turned your head and looked at me. I stopped.

We held the other’s gaze. Yours was particularly sharp and compelling stare. You had been standing there since the early morning, when I was on the beach and could not see anyone’s eyes with any surety. But this was not just a look of endurance. It was also a look of recognition. As friends and colleagues, we knew why the other was there. Nevertheless, I felt myself turn a bit to the side; unsure, wishing I could speak to you and knowing that if I did, you would not reply with words.

Instead, I approached the grey length of fabric on the floor. I did not hesitate stepping on it, although I wondered later if I should have (especially as I watched other spectators avoid stepping into the structure). You turned towards me. I grabbed a white balloon from one of the hanging buckets. After blowing into the balloon, I handed it back to you. You grabbed it by its neck. It now held my breath. You looked up at me, brought the balloon to your lips (with both hands), and began to inhale.
I could hear you taking in my breath. Your shoulders rose, your hand splayed flat against the belly of the balloon. You held my gaze for the duration it took for you to inhale. I stared back. Then, with a measured walk, you leaned towards a shard of glass to your right, exhaled on it. The glass fogged with my breath and yours. You dropped the balloon on the floor with the others. I was now part of fifteen people who had come to see you. You looked back at me. Held back a faint smile. Turned. Walked carefully down the grey length of fabric, one foot in front of the other. A tightrope. Backwards. Forwards. Your toes perched, and then spread. You smoothed out the grey fabric with your toes. The rocking continued. The wind passing through. Our breath fading on the glass. Your back turned, you waited for the others.

Others arrived and walked through. Some walked right up to the central door of the lobby, stopped and stared, then turned back. Tourists walked in, regarded you as you held the balloon in your hand, and walked through to the other side. Many people took pictures and left. Art department staff walked by with a measured curiosity, having seen you before and knowing why you were there. They merely checked-in with their glances and continued on to their task. I sat against the left side of the lobby’s wall and waited.

Maybe these unsuspecting spectators wondered if they needed permission to pass or come closer. It seemed that while you silently asked visitors to be vulnerable with you, you simultaneously needed their permission to live in that space. The arm with the balloon floated up whenever you saw someone approach the front doors, and the arm dropped whenever the target of your gesture passed over your invitation. You followed people along the grey fabric as they walked past, hoping to entice them enough to take the balloon. You refused to inhale someone’s breath if they did not meet your gaze, patiently waiting for them to make eye contact with you. When people stopped short of taking the balloon, you offered a slight smile.

I left after an hour and ten minutes. At 11:30am, there were twenty-nine balloons. During that time, I watched your collaborators. To conclude, I offer you some of my favorite moments:

Two friends approach and one of them accepts your offer. As you inhale his breath, he laughs and buries his face into his friend’s shoulder, clinging to him and unable to look at you.

A woman stands in front of your sculpture for a long time. Finally, she declares, “I need to get an idea of it.” She participates moments later.

A tourist wanders the perimeter of the lobby with the balloon after breathing into it. His friends urge him to give it back to you, “no, no! Just give it to her!”

A woman smiles after you’ve inhaled her breath. She stands in that same spot for a long time, watching shards of glass sway in the wind.

A man walks into the lobby from outside, looks at you, shakes his head with his hands up, and walks out. We exchange glances (there are four of us hanging out in the lobby now) and laugh.

Two children walk in, take a balloon, and walk out. Missed connections.

A participant watches you while sitting next to me. When he gets up, he shakes my hand and says, “nice to meet you.” We never exchanged names.

A man blows up the balloon for his daughter. She hands it to you. You look at her tenderly, and inhale. Her mouth agape and eyes-wide, she stares at you and turns to look at her father, amazed.

***

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I suppose that this lobby’s doorway or even this fabric and metal structure that you decided to dwell in, or even your benevolent gaze all served as the threshold to a deeply intimate encounter with you.

It takes a lot of nerve to walk up to the artist and engage in a dialogue with her, in whatever format that dialogue might take place. The artist offers her own vulnerability as a model. Without speaking, she dares us to come closer.

Here. Take this.
Look.
I am open to you.

It takes a bit of daring to contribute to such a work—to work and breathe alongside the artist.

Thank you for the invitation.

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One thought on ““Exchange” by Raegan Truax

  1. Pingback: “Exchange” Performance Response by Rebecca Orminston | raegan truax

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