"7th Asiatopia Performance Art Festival & 1st S.E. Asia Performance Art Symposium"; Santichaiprakarn Park; Bangkok, Thailand. 2005
The venue for this performance festival is a public park by the Chao Praya River in Bangkok, where joggers, street vendors, students, tourists, panhandlers, etc. mingle.
Wearing street clothes, I approach an individual in the crowd, and lead them by the hand to the lit “stage” area. I remove my footwear, and indicate, without words, that we make an exchange. Wearing each other’s shoes, the participant leaves the stage, while I look for the next person with whom to exchange a corresponding article of clothing.
Each participant exchanges something with me: a pair of trousers for a skirt, bra for bandeau, sandals for a pair of high heels, etc.
This exchange goes on for about 20 minutes, during which my outfit continually evolves, and more and more people find themselves in ill-fitting shoes or a too-snug / too-large shirt damp with the perspiration of the original owner. Without touching one another, the odors of strangers mingle intimately with one’s own.
This piece, made for a demographically varied group (including curious passersby), is a literal exercise in “walking in someone’s shoes” or “wearing someone’s skin”. It is also a look at how our identity is reflected in our trappings, and what happens when we remove / exchange them.
Fully engaged in an immersive interaction, the participants and I exchanged perceptible signs to come to an agreement on what we would trade. In the earlier part of the performance, when it was not yet clear what, in fact, the performance was, I took the lead in removing the article of clothing I wished to exchange and waited for the participant to respond in kind. As members of the crowd caught onto the process, they began to assert themselves by letting me know what they wished to barter with bodily gestures. The exchanges were animated and cheerful, and at the same time respectful and courteous.
Operating in a psychological environment of mutual goodwill, Walking a Mile was an ongoing, amiable negotiation between the participants and myself. The distribution of power between us was balanced and the exchanges were particularly egalitarian: one person was as naked as the other in exactly the same way. A young woman, after removing her delicate lace top in exchange for my damp oversized T-shirt, pointed to her bra to see if I also wanted to trade that. I shrugged to indicate, “Sure, why not?” She raised an eyebrow to say, “I’ll do it if you do it”, so I did, and then so did she.
As the performance continued to involve more and more people, a sense of openness and communal trust began to grow within the group. A plump young woman smiled very nervously at me, as if to say, “I am shy about my body”; I traded my sandals for her high heels. In this environment of mutual respect and empathy, strangers of all shapes and sizes – confident in the goodwill of the crowd – readily placed themselves in a position of vulnerability. As a group, we lightheartedly came to terms with the reality of our own hairy, pimply, asymmetrical bodies in an unforgiving culture of the obsession with the ’body beautiful’.
The distinct sense of kinship that grew within the group also caused people to lay down their defenses in other ways: several of the men I had exchanged trousers with left their wallets and keys in the back pockets, despite fully knowing that their trousers would soon leave my body to clothe another stranger, who could very well vanish into the night. Sure, the atmosphere felt warm and open, but after all, this was a public park in a metropolis in year 2005!
I kept this worry at the back of my mind, not knowing how or if people would ever get their things back. When the performance came to an end, however, everyone spontaneously gathered around to undress and redress. Everything found its way back to its original owners; I heard someone say, “My shirt smells like apples! It must have been that student’s perfume...”
photos by: Kai Lam