A few minutes before the end of her talk, Miranda July told us to do something.
All 1500 hundred of us had sat, mostly passively, sometimes laughing, sometimes completely silent and holding our breaths, for the past 80 minutes or so. Then she told us to do this.
‘Take hold of the person next to you, if they’re a stranger. If you know the person you’re next to, find someone else to hold. Not their hand, because that might get weird, and besides, who knows where that’s been. But grab hold of the top of their arm.’
I was sitting next to my friend Ash, who was sitting between her fiance and I, so we all turned to the people around us. The theatre filled with arms crossing over rows and crossing over each other until everyone had someone to hold.
The girl sitting next to me was having none of it. She wore a black shirt with tiny white spots and had her hair in a ponytail so it was possible for me to grab her arm without catching her hair or touching her skin at all. She kept her arms folded and her hands tucked into her waist but suddenly found herself grasped by the bicep by a stranger on either side.
‘One day you might see the son or daughter of this person, as you pass them in a restaurant, although you probably won’t know, because it’s unlikely to come up in conversation.’
‘Or you could be in that same restaurant and behind you there’s a very noisy table and someone is laughing with a very loud laugh, so annoying that you want to punch them in the face.’ The audience laughed, the sudden burst of energy in the previously tense theatre launching people forward and back in their chairs and into each other, but the spotted girl next to me remained frozen. ‘And you summon up the courage to go over and make that loud laugher be quiet and they turn around and it is the person you’re holding on to right now.’
‘Or maybe you might never see this person again, and one day they will be laying dying. And you won’t be there to hold them and tell that it will be ok.’
The spotted girl next to me exhaled. ‘Oh.’ And I felt her hand brush mine before it fell again to her lap. A split second of intentional, unguarded intimacy with a complete stranger.
This is why we need artists like Miranda July, for those milliseconds of connection. I felt like that when I had to hold eye contact with a colleague for 30 seconds at a work training event. I felt like that when I went to Marina Abramovic In Residence at Pier 2/3 last year and wore sound-cancelling headphones and was tucked into an army cot in a bank of a hundred other of other army cots filled other people wearing sound cancelling headphones and together we all looked up at the reflections of sunlight bouncing on Sydney Harbour all around us and the steel girders above us. It is these split seconds of connection that lift us out of the grind of everyday existence.