Aside from a handful of flyers and stuff like that, this comments book is the main remnant of a piece of live art called Stare.
It was a performance that happened five times in total. The first time was in York at the Impressions Gallery - I had just moved back to the West Midlands, and so travelled up from Wolverhampton with a couple of friends. It took place at the opening of a show of wall-based work by another artist - two chairs were arranged in the middle of the space, a few feet apart and facing one another, with me in one chair, and the participant in the other. A helper went around asking people if they wanted to take part, and explaining the rules: namely, for me and them to maintain eye contact for three minutes without speaking, or looking away.
It was designed to be an experiential piece in nature, and so there was little documentation. Pictures and videos didn’t feel like the right media to represent the piece. Instead, each participant was asked to write in this comments book.
There is a little bit of video, however. The third time this piece happened was at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, and Central News called them up about the press release for Stare. They were interested in running an item about it, so a camera crew and newscaster came down to the gallery to shoot something. I explained a bit about the piece; about how it was about holding someone’s attention, offering an intimate first-hand experience, and stripping away all of the obstacles that traditionally lie between artists and their audience. Then, the news lady sat down to do a three minute Stare with me. She found it very difficult, and jumped up out of the chair squealing after less than a minute - the only person who failed to carry out the piece in it’s entirety. I think perhaps that she was very much about cultivating a professional, breezy facade or persona - but staring into someone’s eyes is very personal and revealing. She couldn’t enter into that quite genuine, intense moment of connection by letting her guard down on camera.
The same happened in New York at the D.UM.B.O. Arts Festival, where a boisterous American chap insisted on talking at me throughout, sarcastically saying things like “yeah I see what you’re doing here - very clever. You must think you’re very, very clever”. I looked back blankly, tilting my head at him, just taking in his response. Afterwards, I felt a bit sorry for him, because the level on which he decided to engage with me was hostile and suspicious. On one level, the piece acts as a kind of mirror by making the participant notice their own responses.
It was a different experience with every single person. Sometimes, they would start off laughing, from embarrassment or nerves, before sinking into a kind of restful trance, then start smiling again. Some people were so shy they could barely keep eye contact, and seemed to fear my gaze as if they might give away some secret without meaning to; some people seemed to see me as an opponent, and leaned in aggressively as if trying to “win”, once or twice to point where I felt quite threatened. Some looked on, calm and open, gazing happily into my eyes, and it often felt like there was a mutual and subtle psychological probing taking place. Sometimes, the air seemed to fill with sexual tension, with both me and the participant smiling and blushing.
With every single person, there was a connection. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone from looking at them and gauging their unspoken responses, actions and reactions, facial expressions and physical tics. It felt like a huge amount of communication was occurring without using a single word.
After a couple of hours of staring into people’s eyes, moods and minds, I felt oddly calm, but often mentally exhausted. It took a lot of emotional and psychological energy to engage with so many strangers in that quite intense way. I love looking back at the comments now - from “that was weird” to “a beautiful experience” to “it’s amazing how long three minutes can seem” to “any longer and I think I would have fallen in love”. It forged a direct and unusual connection with another person in a way I’d found frustratingly difficult via object-based arts practise.
Since then, the work that’s had the most genuine audience involvement and feedback is this blog, via social media. Tweets, “likes”, messages, comments, online chats and Tumblr re-blogs all feed into what the piece is, and how it lives and grows. “Things” tries to forge a different but equally direct type of intimacy, using personal experiences and the internet instead of eye contact.