New Orleans

Holly Hanessian: Touch in Real Time

Anne Marie Rooney
March 19, 2013

The whole street is surreal. There is a dog behind a horse. Gangs of purple men walk by muttering Ravens, Ravens. People with neon green hand grenades stutter forward. There is a messiness, bumble, so many voices skimming and somehow missing each other. The crowd bucks on, a slow wave, leaving their traces in their gutters. What is touch, real touch? What does it balm, blend? How does it change us. And what is everything else.

Holly Hanessian, Touch in Real Time, February  2013; image courtesy the gallery.

Watching Holly Hanessian’s Touch in Real Time performance is as much about watching audience as it is about watching artist. Stationed in the middle of Royal Street on the Friday before “Super Gras,” Hanessian stands behind a folding table, body smock tied loosely, tupperware full of clay at the ready. Today she is a chef, cooking touch in the sun and press.

Here is what happens. You approach the artist, give her your hand. In hers is a piece of clay. She holds you, you hold her, for maybe ten seconds. Depending on who you are, she will say different things here, in different ways. She might tell you about the project. She might ask you about yourself. When it is time—when is it time?—you and she unstick yourselves and look at the dual prints your touching has made. The clay is shaped like some sort of a smoothed shell shard; on either side, your prints pock out.

I am her third charge. She lifts a kumquat-sized piece of porcelain from the tray, rolls it in her hand to get it warm. She asks if I am right-handed or left, takes my right hand in hers. Between us, the piece of clay heats, softens, catches something, transfers something. She tells me about “Touch”—how she will be firing these prints, displaying the whole vestigial crowd of us in Pittsburgh, where, in the spring, she will begin a residency in partnership with neurologist Dr. Greg Siegle. They will look at what is happening and lighting up in the brain during this long deliberate hold. Her gaze is steady, warm, as she holds me warm and steady, tells me about oxytocin and what our bodies remember. When I hold a stranger’s hand I feel I am falling slowly into a pit of water, a space without edges, without—strangely—proscription or protocol. Afterwards, I am asked to rate the experience, and how many hours do you spend with electronic media each day, how often do you hold hands, finally, how did this make you feel? Vulnerable and moved, I say, and wonder how my presence changes the experience for her, for me, the watching and being watched, my own recording, here, a sort of fired trace, an evidence. I have the desire to make my own print—these words—move as a hand moves, be a moment of squeezing, incident or accident, chance fired to earth. Later, with her tray of caught prints, she will fire the clay, making permanent our neural firings.

Holly Hanessian, Touch in Real Time, February  2013; image courtesy the gallery.

People’s eyes catch on this table, its black tablecloth both picking up and hiding the traces.
Sometimes she stops people, sometimes no, and they walk by, these folks in red and purple and black and gold. The police walk thickly down the street, and a woman with a comically huge pink feathered hat stops a second longer. A man looks slain in her touch and gaze and moves closer. His eyes dart back and forth at first, and then get caught in hers and there is laughter, an anchoring. Two huge army helicopters vroom by as I want to rock and roll all ... trebles from a door behind me. Bluegrass from The Drunken Catfish Ramblers scratches in and out. On her other side, a fake horse human statue, backed up by a man with a bike and dog, attracts dollars and celebrities. What is the chance of that. What chance of a street moving riverwards up through art and low rumblings. Girls in taffeta—purple yellow green—tutus stop to get their pictures taken beside us, and how a photograph is its own firing, immediate capture. But clay has its time to settle and cool before being stopped in heat.

There is a pull to some people, she holds them for longer, longer, steady in her cowboy boots. In her gaze they are rooted too but it is almost too much, an orbit that though gravitated towards her, the viewer can sense will soon careen away, back out into the sounds and smells of the French Quarter. A woman with purple beads closes her eyes as she holds on. Hanessian’s face is open, sometimes furrowed, even as her charges look away, up at the bead-throwers, at the band, at the small planes pulling the words “CATS Karaoke” across the sky.

We are each given a sticker, a remnant, the flattening of memory: this happened, and wear this relic. But a sticker is not just a sticker. I go through the rest of my day, and by accident actually the next few days wearing it on me, wearing it on my breast as I do the memory of the moment. Is this how moments get stitched together? Cinematically, discrete shots heated to speeding until the blur is so fast that we see them as set, of a piece? For even as I put on the sticker, my body is remembering touching too. My body is bonding in heat and chemical to the moment.

Holly Hanessian, Touch in Real Time, February  2013; image courtesy the gallery.

Heat and chance. Hormone and wrinkle. Both are their own prints, vestiges. Both are also their own message, experience made memory, memory made physical. Is the imprint the evidence? Is the sticker? The memory, the moment, or the more bodily, the chemical, that neurological memory? Is a memory a cluster of nerves? The internet is its own nervous system, a new sort of touch, and Hanessian seems to both acknowledge this and reposit the analog. How are our bodies changed, estranged? What, too, is gained? The street today is its own strange system: all these people yearning for interaction, yet few stop. A man walks by carrying a cross that says Are you ready? Phrases are inked into his skin.

The last of Hanessian’s printings I watch is with a woman in purple who tilts her head and smiles and looks like she could cry from being this present. Two people are here right now, it is a different sort of here, and she puts on her glasses to see the print of her moment come off her hand, to see the lines that her stopping and holding has pressed, to look down at the tangled white web. Now the street is busier still, and there is a messiness to the energy. The sun is on the other side of the sidewalk and the fake horse is getting more folded dollar bills in his bucket.

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