We hopped and bobbed around the room. Huge, overinflated balloons. Us. Not the room. We had turned into enormous pillows of air. Air people.
We all looked the same. We were of the same puffy, peach-colored vinyl—the same soft material used for sumo wrestler costumes, baby swimming pools, air mattresses and inflatable rafts. We were all those things, the oddest of things combined. Hysterically ridiculous. No longer the cynical, lonely, college-age individuals we had been before.
We really struggled to tell each other apart. None of us stood out. We were all equally weird. We had no gender. No race. No face. No voice. Nothing to identify us. We couldn’t hurt each other. Not even if we tried. All our movements were buffered by our thick cushions of air. So, we just played nice. Sweet toddlers in a ball pit, bouncing most of the time.
We hugged each other a lot. At first, tentatively, then more affectionately. It didn’t matter who it was. We embraced. We couldn’t know, would never know anyway. It wasn’t sexual, but it seemed intimate—surprisingly, disarmingly, intimate.
The thought that we could ever or would ever want to become giant air pillows had never ever crossed my wildest fantasies. Who could conceive of such a thing? Who knew it would be so much fun?
We giggled each time we fell over and shrieked with glee whenever we hit the walls. Bouncing everywhere uncontrollably, we might as well have been drunk, we were so giddy, clumsy and confused!
Was this a dream? A nightmare?
It wasn’t unpleasant. We couldn’t touch anything directly, not with the thick layer of air that enveloped us. We couldn’t smell anything besides the soothing nursery scent of talcum powder and vinyl. We couldn’t feel a wide range of textures besides the subtle variances of bounces against walls, the ground, or each other. But it didn’t feel like our senses had been eliminated or numbed. On the contrary, we had become more sensitive to the nuances of different surfaces, the varied bounces they produced. Our senses had been altered, repurposed for other ends.
We were all wearing large vinyl body suits pumped with air, our human bodies were somewhere inside. We had the most minimal sense of orientation, unable to see anything directly in front us. Our eyes did not function like they normally did because we were wearing virtual reality goggles. They were large and clunky, relatively new prototypes at this time in the early 2000’s. This was actually the biggest challenge, far more bewildering than the air suits: There was nothing individual about our vision. We were all staring at the same feed, the exact same images the whole time. What we saw was the live recording of two cameras positioned in opposite corners of the ceiling. The result was a bizarre inability to identify ourselves in any of the usual ways or to isolate our perception from those of others.
If we wanted to differentiate ourselves in any way—which we realized we wanted to do desperately—we had to create the differences ourselves. We found that we could raise our arms. Unfortunately, a lot of air people came up with that idea at the same time. We could also bounce in special rhythms. Skipping to bizarre beats just to identify ourselves. But even so, it was too easy to forget which ones we were, as soon as another air person neared us, we immediately lost ourselves again. We were constantly disoriented, reshuffled.
We scavenged the limited information we could glean for anything resembling logic. To gain anything resembling understanding. Gravity existed, but it acted on us more gently. There was an up and down and a side to side, but it took us more time get there, to get anywhere. Two air people had the fun idea to volley a third air person back and forth across the room like a ping pong ball in slow motion. It was hilarious. We all saw it on our screens.
But we had to struggle to keep the laughter under control because our mouths were closed around snorkel tubes to breathe, they would otherwise become clogged with drool (leading to a slippery quicksand of uncontrollable giggles) and forcing us to turn back into our normal, mundane selves—something we definitely did not want to do (not yet). The snorkel tubes were also the reason why we couldn’t speak intelligibly.
Despite all the challenges, it was an experience that I did not want to end. It was so new, so intriguing. It helped that we were physically comfortable, the talcum powder between our clothes and the soft vinyl encasing us kept us dry. The soft air continuously blowing through the stretchy tubes at our feet kept us cool and well-insulated from our many exertions and falls. Most importantly, we could choose to end the experience at any time. When I finally did so (with reluctance), the artists who had created the experience gathered around to help me peel off the unwieldy vinyl suit, take off the snorkel tube and the goggles. I stretched, shook off the powder and breathed deeply. I emerged blinking into the world. I felt reborn. I squinted into the daylight, regaining that crucial, individual sight from my own eyes again. The artists looked at me kindly, knowingly. They looked like members of a traveling indie band. One of them resembled Jesus. I was sure I wasn’t the only one who found the experience transcendental.
We had achieved a state of formlessness. Though brief and temporary, we had lost our sense of self. Borne on the waves of intense emotions, confusion, wonder, fear—rippling, interfering, overlapping, we took our first steps into a strange new world. Where everything was an open question. Where love and joy could be transmitted directly, without inhibition, and without judgment. Where no one was the expert. A place where everyone was new.
This is a bizarre experience I had in college in 2001 as a participant in an experimental art project. It was created and run by a group of talented young artists whose names, unfortunately, have long escaped my memory and my Google searches. The art project was part of a guerilla exhibition of emerging (i.e. starving) artists in an abandoned military base. The “air people” experiment was conducted in a large, empty airplane hanger. Where weapons of destruction were once housed, artists were able to create an incredibly unifying and intimate experience.
Whenever someone implies that art or artists are useless or insignificant, I keep thinking about this amazing experience. I keep thinking of all the people we destroy before we even get to know them. Of all stories we silence before they are even fully communicated. Of all the art we burn or bury before it can even be understood. Of all the lives, including our own, that we quantify and limit, before we can even truly comprehend them.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker © 2018.