Posted on December 14th, 2016
During the 2016 Visualeyez festival, the students of University of Alberta professor Natalie Loveless’s Fall 2016 seminar course “Ephemerality and Sustainability in Contemporary Art” (ArtH 456/556) responded to performances at the festival.
I walk east along Jasper Avenue on a brisk, windy September afternoon. It is September 23, 2016. As I approach the entrance to Commerce Place, abuzz with people from all walks of life, I see Alexandria Inkster dressed in white, seated at a small, wooden table across from a young woman. They are folding a piece of white paper together. The woman smiles as she sees me approach to take a seat on the concrete benches lining the building to watch. They have folded the paper into a long strip. Inkster folds one end. The woman mimics her. The paper unravels. Inkster keeps folding, but the girl appears to become confused as her fold won't stay in place. She keeps looking over at me and smiling, as if unsure of how to continue the exercise. Once frustrated, she asks if I would like to have a try, appearing reluctant to leave Inkster sitting alone. We switch seats, Inkster thanks the young woman and we begin.
Inkster and I make eye contact and smile at one another. She folds an inch of one end of the paper. I follow her lead and do the same with mine. I watch the rhythm of her hands. She looks at me intently, inquisitively, and then smiles once more. I imagine we are speaking through this folding process; the ebbs and flows of a conversation, nods of empathy, breaking out in laughter, listening intently, all unfolding through the movement of our hands and the communication in our eyes. Not knowing what to expect or how the performance will end I keep folding, and folding, following Inkster’s lead, until there is no paper left to fold. At this point Inkster takes a rubber band off her wrist, bundles up the folded piece of paper and hands it to me. “Thank you for the conversation,” she says, smiling.
I sit down on the concrete bench once more. Inkster sits alone. She unfolds the unfinished conversation she had with the woman who invited me to come and sit. With her eyes closed, she begins to fold the paper by herself. She later tells me that this moment allowed her to meditate on her thoughts and to give herself a moment of reflection during the performance: she viewed this moment as an act of self-kindness1.
Inkster’s performance WE are in the Folds created a space for a spontaneous interaction between strangers to occur. It was an indiscriminate invitation for someone to sit and take part in a “silent conversation maintained through eye contact”. Every encounter took on its own unique character, responding to the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of performing in a public place. Inkster tailored the interactions so that each participant would feel comfortable, and, in our discussion following the performance, she told me that despite beginning the performance with a specific structure in mind, the structure became more and more flexible as the performance went on. Added instructions and introductions were often needed to make the strangers walking by feel welcomed to sit and share an experience2. Through this, she exhibited sensitivity to situations and individual’s needs; a quality that is required in expressions of kindness.
Beyond exhibiting an act of kindness in the form of a spontaneously shared, intimate experience, WE are in the Folds embodied the nuances of human interaction. Acts of kindness may be premeditated, as in the way Inkster invited strangers to sit with her on the street, or they may be reactive and impulsive, as in the way she developed new rules when needed to facilitate the comfort of new participants. Kindness requires an awareness of our place within the spaces we inhabit and who we inhabit them with. It involves being mindful of the feelings of others and their impressions of ourselves and how we can interact symbiotically. Just as two organisms may form a relationship in which both benefit to some extent, acts of kindness are mutually beneficial for both parties involved. Acting in a kind manner is not a demand placed upon us, but an act stimulated by positive motivations from within us. Kindness involves flexibility, sensitivity, and sincerity.
As the hour proceeds, many people walk by and stop to look at Inkster, but few take the time to sit down with her. A man stops for a moment to watch as he smokes a cigarette. He seems unable to take his eyes off Inkster. Once she finishes folding the piece of paper, he approaches her to ask what she is doing. I cannot hear the detail of their conversation from where I am sitting, but I do hear him saying he will come back later. A few minutes pass and a woman walks over to Inkster from the direction the man has disappeared to and introduces herself. The man soon follows behind her and joins them. Inkster and the woman speak for a few minutes and then begin their silent conversation. Once Inkster hands the woman the souvenir of their bundled conversation, the couple appear touched. The woman searches for some money to give Inkster, but at Inkster's refusal the couple appears increasingly moved by the encounter. They thank the artist thoroughly and encourage all those watching to sit and have a conversation with Inkster. An intimate chance encounter with strangers breaks the barriers that so often separate people as they pass one another on the street. We are privileged to watch that moment when two people become wrapped up into the folded bundle of paper, two strangers symbolically becoming one to have an impact on one another’s day.
We are in the Folds encourages us to live the spaces we pass through in new ways; to notice who we pass through them with, and to think of ourselves as united in that environment, in that moment. It invites people from various social and class distinctions to interact and to notice the inherent similarities of being human, of being emotional, of being kind to one another. Kindness is more than a gesture; it is an ethics to shape human engagement. It asks “how are we similar,” instead of “how are we different?” It asks: “how can I affect another human positively?” The inquiry is not obligatory, but sincere. It asks: “how am I affecting another individual consciously or subconsciously?” Kindness is awareness.
Inkster folds up her wooden table and chairs and begins walking west towards 104th Street. She unfolds them once more in Michael Phair Park and sits at the table. The sun illuminates her. She sits still this time. People walk by with their dogs, preoccupied, appearing not to notice her. After some time, Inkster’s eyes begin to well up with tears. A fellow artist sits with her and grabs her hands. They sit in silence. The kindness Insker has been modeling throughout the afternoon is met by the kindness of another individual seeking to comfort her. She begins to smile. They stand and hug one another. Inkster packs up her table, chairs, and papers, to signal that the performance is over. Her tears were spontaneous. She did not expect to become so overcome with emotion. She could not have predicted how these interactions would affect her. A symbiotic relationship.
—Kalyna Somchynsky, Fall 2016
Kalyna is a 4th year Art History student in the department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta. Within her contemporary research projects she explores facets of her identity as a second-generation Ukrainian-Canadian. This research includes topics such as memory and the transmission of tradition, the construction of “home” as well as a fascination with early twentieth century Eastern European art.
Photos of Alexandria Inkster's performance by Adam Waldron-Blain for Latitude 53.