Collective participatory performance
performed at AGORA, Berlin, Germany
"The distance between you and me is a story.
We are going to tell bedtime stories to each other, but there's a twist. "
Untitled (Goodnight Stranger) is a collective participatory performance where I invited strangers to sit together to exchange ‘bedtime stories’ — a traditional form of intimate storytelling between a parent and child, where a story is told to a child at bedtime to keep them calm before sleeping. Instead, as adult participants, the challenge is to narrate our personal stories that exercise emotional vulnerability.
some notes for participation:
1. In a dark space, each participant receives a candle from the artist.
2. The person who begins the storytelling has to lit his/her candle.
3. At any point, if participants feel like he/she relates to the story, or once had a similar experience, he/she is invited to lit his/her candle from someone else’s flame.
4. However, participants are not allowed to respond, so as to honour the storyteller with the gift of listening.
5. In old-school tradition, the storyteller has to blow off the candle at the end of the story.
6. Participants can share their story which resonated with the previous story, only after the flame is out.
7. Take turns, and embrace moments of silence. Participants can choose to participate or withdraw at any given moment.
The participatory performance explores building trust and creating intimacy between strangers through storytelling. Equally, it was a collective exercise on conscious listening in our louder world, and holding space for the other. I was particularly inspired by researcher Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, where she unpacks being vulnerable as accepting all our emotions, as well as writer Celeste Headlee’s book, ‘We Need To Talk: How to have conversations that matter.” Some conversations are harder than others, but the best conversations always come with a story and active listening - defined as ‘hearing, understanding, responding and retaining’.
Having lived in a total of 17 local homes in my recent summer backpacking trip, connecting with strangers made me realised how our emotional vulnerability can turn small talks into conversations that matter. Vulnerability doesn’t have to come from a place of shame, and can be an empowering gesture that reveals our commonalities despite our differences. It could mean trying something even when the outcome is uncertain. It could also be a personal encounter close to the heart.
In all its emotional intensity and intimacy, the short-lived performance brought shared tears, silence, laughter, authenticity, and vulnerability. A significant memory was listening to a participant's recount on her present experience coping with the grief of her dying best friend, followed by another participant who resonated with the same mix of feelings when confronted with her grandfather’s sudden death. In that moment, all the candles began lighting up one by one as we each took flames from each other in the darkness. It was a beautiful moment witnessing the original flame being used to light two, three, and even more, because we all knew what that meant. There was something poignant about the gesture of receiving a source of light from someone in silence, and subsequently being able to do so for someone else. How often do we get to connect with someone else who has wounds in the shape of ours in the everyday?
In the 21st century, the ways in which we consume information has changed how we actively listen, slow down for ourselves and each other. Yet, it’s amazing what happens when we do. We begin to see that the distance between you and me is always a story. We begin to see the humanity that binds us. We begin to trust.