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.

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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.

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Text and images by M.P. Baecker © 2018.

 

32 thoughts on “The Air People

  1. “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.”

    Gorgeous paragraph!

    It’s so interesting that you used the word “destroy.” I think the habit to “quantify and limit” rather than to “comprehend” is part of that destruction. The automatic quantifier/classifier in us helps us live in the world with ease. But shrinking our vision to the quantifiable starves us; our conscious attention is cut off from the larger unquantifiable, sustaining whole. Artists and our own art, however amateur, help us re-vision ourselves, others and the world.

    I read an article that talked about “vision as requiring extensive labor” (McBean, ‘Seeing in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home’). It takes work to see things as they are, rather than as we find it convenient to do. When we don’t do the work, life is simpler, but it loses its richness and variety, playfulness and mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment is absolutely beautiful! It’s always a joy to read your comments and your blog for that matter! I’m looking forward to reading that article you mentioned.

      I think the tendency to make assumptions, quantify and limit is so automatic and its in all of us. But as you said so well, it can limit us and we can choose to become more conscious of this (with effort) if we want to widen our experience and understanding.

      I came to write this post because this negative idea keeps coming back to me that “Art and Artists are useless.” I’ve had a pretty bad experience after earning my Art Degree, to learn that in certain circles it has no value and to land in the wrong circles where it was even seen as a flaw or weakness and I was openly told so by people I respected. I told my husband (who has in all aspects the widely acceptable degree: a PhD in Engineering) and he brought up the Nazis burning “degenerate” Art, “Why would they burn this Art if it truly had no value?” he said. Hence the word “destroy” came into the essay! Art is powerful stuff, it makes fascists and absolutist ideologies shake in fear for good reason, it can destabilize the “normal” as much as create or support a new “normal”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much. And your response was a joy to read!

        Not only do I recommend the article, I also recommend ‘Fun Home,’ if you haven’t read it already. It’s a memoir in graphic form. It has some controversial content, but the beauty of it is not only the beauty of its images, but the way Alison Bechdel looks over herself and her family, over and over and over and over again.

        The alleged uselessness of the arts is a subtext in some cultures and in our tech-worshipping times. Even humanities are being questioned; I’ve heard some professors in those fields complain that they have to write justifications for the existence of their departments or programs. This is something I have not heard from engineering departments, who can get funding for projects framed as having applications consumer technology or national defence.

        I feel for you. I’m a person who’s about 50/50 artistic to scientific inclination, and I’m struggling in my program to keep that balance (and my sanity). Engineering students laugh in my face if I talk about art/writing. You know who doesn’t laugh? Art & Design or English students. Their passion is contagious. They know the importance of their work. It is vital.

        Your husband is right: the destruction of art is a clue to its power. A while ago, you and I shared comments about the glimpse of the machinic we have seen in bigoted people. Just like “outsiders” are seen as a threat to a homogenised group, art is a threat to the machine because true art’s essence cannot be broken down into bits and built back up in the image of the machine. Various industries try to do that, but you can often sense the hollowness of manufactured art, music and writing.

        Wonderfully said: “[art] can destabilize the “normal” as much as create or support a new “normal”.”

        (P.S. If you ever feel inclined to, you may email me through my blog CONTACT page.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Excellent!!! I am with you on that! I also love scIence, math and physics (I happily learned them together with Art and English (was planning on medical school my first 2 years)). A balance in these areas is so valuable and enriching. I’ll check out the book and let you know what I think! Thank you!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This takes me back to your post “The Center Everywhere” and your beautiful description of how we tend to view the world, on a daily basis, from our own subjective center without even attempting to step into and uncover the stories of others. Yes, how many stories and entire worlds we silence by the lightening fast action of our labelling and judging.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for mentioning the Center Everywhere! I strive to be more mindful in this way. Your comment reminded me of this meme I saw on Instagram recently, which means I am not sure of the scientific validity, but it went something like this: “Your brain already makes the decision seconds before you consciously decide it.” it showed a brain scan showing activity in certain areas before the actual decision was made. This may not be true in all cases and not always, but it made me wonder how often it is true, and if so, how do we escape it? Maybe we can’t escape this subjectivity completely and maybe we also need it in some way, but we can become more aware of it, especially in recognizing how it can blind us to greater truths and divide us.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great read. I was there with you boucing along in the balloon. This made me think for some reason of what the Ancient Greek Lucian said about how in the end, when our human costumes come off, we’re all the same, no matter how hard we try to believe otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love that you brought that up! It was something elemental and archetypical about it, like an classic opera or a Grecian play. A basic room with a group of actors. And yet the circumstances were so odd and indeterminate that we had to figure things out on our own, create our own roles. I also thought this could be like souls in the afterlife!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just found the quote. It’s from Dialogues of the Dead, a great little read if you can find it. ‘And when the procession is done, everyone disrobes, gives up his character with his body, and appears, as he originally was, just like his neighbor.’

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I am so happy to share it with you!

      It felt totally disorienting! It seemed to me that the artists wanted to create a solid state of disorientation that wasn’t too disturbing. Although I really enjoyed the experience the first time, I wondered what it would be like if it was a virtual reality state you could enter into everyday, or more often…it might be annoying or therapeutic. Like a dream, I was glad it was temporary though. Art has such incredible power to bring us to so many different places/states from the indescribable, to the mundane, to the ephemeral.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That was fun! Your ability to draw the reader (in this case, me!) into your experience(s) is unmatched. I was bouncing and lost right there along with you! And a little bewildered when I stepped away and looked at the real world again. 😂 Amazing stuff, MP!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so glad I could bring you with me Tom! It was such a cool, bizarre experience I wish more people could participate in!

      As I have written to you about before, I am often stumped on this idea of communicating something “new” to someone. I often feel it is impossible to show someone something they don’t know themselves or they are not willing to be open to. Take the debates on gun control or racism or politics, everyone seems to have already figured what they will accept as the “truth”. But then I think about an experience like this, which successfully destabilized the usually unquestioned and stable sense of “self”. Anything is possible!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I believe it! Like you, I try to keep an open mind, try to figure I don’t have all the answers, and discover something “new” from every experience. But most often I find I’m the only one in the conversation doing that! So, I cut ’em short. I’m in a dialogue to learn; if the other person isn’t, there is nothing to learn at all (or teach for that matter). Well said!

        Liked by 1 person

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