Sideways festival

This report from Sideways festival was posted on the Walking Artists Network site.

On August 22nd, day 3 of the first leg of the Sideways festival (Menen to Herzele), I let myself be tied for almost a day to Russian artist Yana Kraeva or Yana K.M, the name she officially goes by. Almost but not quite. When Yana, in response to my somewhat alarmed query, answered by saying that ideally we would remain tied to each other for 24 hours, I didn’t waste any time telling her that it would remain an ideal. I draw the line at staying tied to a stranger during the night. Such a breach of privacy struck me as beyond the call of duty. Yana didn’t try to persuade me right then and there but, come evening, she had managed to wear down my defenses, so much so that I found myself begrudgingly agreeing to lend myself to the experiment.

Yana K.M originally intended to spend the entire month of the Sideways festival tied to her partner in life and art, TJ; the resulting piece would have been titled Twinning 2. Of course in this kind of scenario being tied to someone at night would not present as many difficulties. But the relationship ended before Yana was given a chance to bid her lover adieu in the way that, say, Marina Abramovic and Ulay famously did, by walking towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, from the Yellow Sea and the Gobi Desert respectively, each covering some 2500 km on foot. Instead, Yana would be tied to any willing victim she could induce to thus spend the day in her company; failing that, to an object, such as her bicycle.

When I met Yana, shortly after I’d arrived in Menen, fresh off the Eurostar, she had just completed a five-hour-long meditation-cum-performance where she had sat still above a grotto in a park, a stone’s throw from the festival hub. I first saw the artist from across a small lake, where a group of us had congregated to witness the end of her performance. Yana, who is interested in shamanic practices, was sporting a five-coloured tutu skirt of sorts worn over a white outfit. Each of the five colours corresponded to one of the elements from Tibetan, and specifically Bon, mythology: earth, water, fire, air and space. She later explained to me that this particular week or stretch of the journey was dedicated to fire; on the day we walked tied together, in fact, she wore red.

My expression of interest in her work, following the performance, naturally designated me as a candidate for a more active engagement in Yana’s practice. Having taken part in Amy Sharrocks’s WALBROOK (2009), during Arts Admin’s Two Degrees festival, which involved fifty participants or so, all wearing blue, loosely bound together with blue ribbon and walking from the source of the river in Highbury to its mouth at the Thames, I cannot even say that this is the first time I had been tied to someone in the name of art. This felt different, though, in its sheer duration, roughly four times that of the WALBROOK piece, and in the exclusive nature of the bond.

Yana had asked me to donate (or sacrifice rather) an item of clothing, which, cut up into strips, and combined with one of her own, would serve to make a rope, using a Siberian knotting method she taught me. Supple enough to stretch a little, it would be tied to and around our waists for the next 20-odd hours. Its full extension, and thus the maximum distance between us, was three meters at best. The rope, effectively restricting our movements, symbolically acted as an umbilical cord of sorts. Thus twinned, ours was a peculiar circus act that complemented well the donkey, the caravan, the professional clowns and storytellers in our midst.

As the day wore on, I became increasingly aware of the rope as a metaphor for the invisible ties that bind us to someone – be it child, lover, partner or any relative we are responsible for. With no dependents to speak of, I take my freedom for granted: no one is there to restrict my movements in any significant way. The rope gave me a taste of what it would feel like to have to factor in another person’s wishes, needs, pace, interests. Two is also the basic unit of human relations. The day’s experiences put me in mind of the myth of androgynous beings that Aristophanes relates in Plato’s Symposium: split into two by vengeful gods, we are forever hankering after the lost unity, searching and longing for our other half.

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