I learned about this tool from a friend of mine, fellow artist Lynn Lu, whom I met when we were doing the Liminal Bodies project together. The exercise is so simple yet generates so much of the uncanny. Later on, when I was living in Madrid, I started working part time as a walking tour guide to foreign tourists. Bored of the usual tour guiding protocols, it occurred to me that I could spice things up a bit by using this tool to my ‘guests’. But in order to do that, I needed to establish a sense with complicity with them.
So, during my tours, I start with the usual practices of explaining to the tourists the historical contexts of places while they are sightseeing. I realized that tourism is all about the use of the eyes, explicit in the term itself, sightseeing. But of course, the ‘history’ that I impart to the guests are inclined to my own version and telling of the story, to expose, beneath the grandeur and beauty of the historic places, the underlying megalomania, greed, absolutism, human frailty, and exploitation that much of royal histories have been about. And because Im gay, I tend to emphasize the gay twists in Spanish history. The stories are always done with the doses of humour. Parallell to the History, I try to get to know the history of each participant.
After establishing a better chemistry and rapport with my new friends, I propose to them, as a last part of the tour, this exercise, that I have renamed ‘sightsensing’. I explain to them, how people have left it all up to their eyes to navigate, and experience the reality of a place with its visibility, leaving other senses relatively underdeveloped. The blind for example, because of their lack of sight, have the emergency to make use of their other tools for navigation: touch, smell, hearing, relation. In sightsensing, I propose to them to re-imagine the space without the overused eyes, and having to suddenly rely on their other senses, and in the company of other ‘blind’ people.
The exercise goes like this:
I ask the people to hold the hands of another person and make a line. With me guiding the hand of the person in front of the line, I begin to pull them. I ask people to only move, whenever they feel a pull from the other person. To trust the other person before them, and to rely on their other senses. During the walk, I try to vary the direction of the walk: straight line, curved lines, zigzag…and also the texture of the ground where they step on: concrete, sand, grass. I ask them to imagine where they are.
The small change of just closing your eyes yields so much change in the disposition of a person. Those who have trusted so much in them, suddenly find themselves threatened by this new handicap. Fear emerges. And imaginary boundaries within their bodies in relation to their surroundings surfaces. Because of this sense of emergency, the people are forced to channel into a reliance into their other senses, and in the company of the other people / tourists / strangers. They are forced to notice things, sounds and sensations that they have never given privelege before, like the sounds of birds, the variety of textures that the feet step into, the hand of the other person, the vulnerability of the body.