Touching Without Touching
In deepest darkest lockdown I was walking for at least an hour every day. It was important that I left my flat and perambulated – I needed to explore my neighbourhood, I needed to have a reason to be outside. The world had suddenly become window-shaped. We whirlpooled with people on the street, doing our best not to touch each other. The news was backlit and constant. They were jettisoning grey men from history. There was change and anger in the air. There was so much happening … somewhere. We watched the chaos through computer windows and felt disconnected.
On my daily matutinal strolls I noticed flat windows become art galleries. Gradually, as we became acclimatised to this ‘new normal’, we figured out other ways of touching. In my area there was barely a window without a Black Lives Matter poster, or children’s art, or messages of encouragement and hope. It felt collaborative and creative and communicative. We are ultimately outward facing creatures and these had become our windows onto the world.
We have all had to adapt and learn how to operate within this year’s boundaries. Creativity is often the response to limitations, and innovation in art can blossom within strictures. One art project out of Scotland that is born of this time, particularly, is Buff & Sheen. Buff & Sheen is a roaming comical dance show about cleaning and connection. It is a response to the measures put in place to keep people safe during the pandemic, when all social dance and live performance has been halted. ‘Buff’ and ‘Sheen’ are two window cleaners, played by dancer / musician, Alex McCabe, and dancer / performance artist, Suzi Cunningham, who arrive on bright bicycles and perform a show that reaches people in a very up-close and intimate way, without breaching social distancing. They use the power of dance, expression and clowning to permeate a glass barrier – which they also clean in the process! Who said art wasn’t useful?
I spoke to Suzi Cunningham about the project. I started by asking her how her creativity and mental health had faired through lockdown. “I knew for my well being, I needed to put a self-imposed timetable into my day. If I move, dance, get going in the morning – that helps me. My friends and I would send each other videos. My friends Mary and Lucie would send me these funny skits. It didn’t feel like creating, it was just a way of connecting.”
But Suzi was eager to keep making live work. The majority of the art world’s response to lockdown has been to create online content. In the bumf that Suzi sent me about Buff and Sheen before our chat, it says: “We understand that not all households have enough screens to go round and we know that too much screen use can aggravate anxiety, fatigue and isolation. We deeply believe that live, embodied experience of theatre is paramount, and that the form should remain alive and reactive to the difficult structures in place. Importantly it can have a potent transformative impact on spaces and the people isolated within them. We want to safely reaffirm the vital life contact that is being cut off, particularly from the most vulnerable in our society.”
When I ask how early the idea for Buff and Sheen came, Suzi says: “Really early. I remember a discussion at the end of March on a phone call to Alex. He works with a lot of disabled dancers, as do I, in care homes and with children. I said ‘this is awful, we can’t go to these people’, these care homes that I was going into weekly to do these classes. I was sometimes the only outside person that they would see. Some of them didn’t have anyone, you know? We were really upset and frustrated. I said ‘this is ridiculous, all of these places have got windows.'” One of them, Suzi can’t remember which, said as a joke that they should turn up as window cleaners and burst into song and dance. She continues, “Then we both went … actually, that’s a really good idea!”
“Imaginate festival were looking for ideas, how can we reach people? We had this idea. So we contacted them and they loved it, because the majority of things they were getting were for online – which is a great way of reaching loads of people – but they were really excited about something that could possibly be done live, even within lockdown.” It was not that long ago that the Chancellor’s remarks about artists retraining, and the national careers service sparked uproar. (I took the quiz, by the way, and it suggested that I retrain as a prison guard). You could say that Suzi and Alex have essentially retrained as window cleaners. “Imaginate hoped that by May we would get out. That increasingly looked like that wasn’t going to happen. Its funny you say about retraining because some people thought that I had become a window cleaner.”
It can be easy, I think, to see the performing arts as unimportant, or at least, to see them as less important when compared to hygiene and health. I asked Suzi why she found live performance so important. “I think some people don’t realise how much they need it until it actually comes into their life. Its like when we practiced in Hollyrood and we would get people stopping, seeing bodies moving that aren’t about getting fit but are about people interacting with each other. And seeing people dancing together was a really beautiful thing for people. Us being in a bubble, we were able to do that. I have studied a lot of the science behind dance and why we need movement or music and its the sense that, even if you can not do these things yourself, watching, you get the same feeling. Your pleasure hormones mirror theirs. It doesn’t do that in the same way through a screen – you’ll get a little bit – but nothing like the same energy. It’s the same as when you meet a person or when you are talking to them on the phone.”
The unpredictability of the ever-changing restrictions have meant that Buff & Sheen have not been able to get out as often as they had hoped, but I asked Suzi what the response has been when they have been able to perform. “Amazing. Really emotional actually. Alex was just about the only person I had seen, and just to see all these children – first of all, they didn’t know we were coming.” I asked Suzi if she had been doing any online performances. “I have. I’m working with a group of disabled artists in Glasgow. You do a thing on zoom where you put your hand up to the screen and someone else puts their hand up to the screen, and there is a slight feeling of mirroring which is a comfort and a connective thing, but nothing like … I didn’t realise how powerful it would be to put my hand up to the window glass and have someone mirror me. It felt like we were touching.”
Buff & Sheen would like to thank Imaginate Festival, The Work Room, Dance Base, Creative Scotland, Artlink and Abbotsford Care Home.