ON THE bench is a participatory performance in which members of the public are invited to sit with me for as little or as long as they want, on a small wooden bench that I carry around with me. Sitting side-by-side with another person is the foundation of this work, driven by my own experience as a queer, working class, northern, neuro-divergent* person and the challenges I face connecting ‘appropriately’ in a predominantly neuro-typical world. On one level, this intimate performance offers people a place to sit. On another level, there is the chance to think about how and why we connect with one another. I often find myself over-compensating in social situations in order to join in; not always understanding the rhythm and ‘timing of reciprocal interaction’ but resisting the urge to withdraw.
As a young person I always thought my ability to connect and communicate was flawed and often felt awkward and self-conscious. Society led me to believe that the most effective form of communication was conducted verbally and face to face, with non-verbal cues forming a large part of understanding. This project is important to me because of my desire/need to connect with people, especially strangers, in my own unique way. I love the anonymity the bench gives me. Chance connections can have a very lasting effect. A simple conversation or a moment of shared silence has the ability to really shape my day. The bench holds layers of stories; a palimpsest of my various identities intersecting with those of others; a meeting point where ghosts of previous conversations are always present.
Weeks after I submitted my application for ON THE bench to the Arts Council, the world is in sudden lockdown, as the coronavirus pandemic spread from continent to continent, country to country, city to city. ON THE bench took such a different turn, with my funding application to make a show cancelled and no future date in sight. Sitting side-by-side with another person, on a small wooden bench in a public space, would now be considered a significant health risk. All face to face conversations have stopped.
Government rules state that during lockdown we are allowed to exercise for one hour a day outside our homes. Non-essential travel on public transport is not permitted, only walking or cycling. I leave the house and walk within the City of London. I am in shock. The spring light is so intense. We are suddenly out of winter and I have no plans for the rest of the year. I realise as I step out that my clothes are too warm; unsuitable for the intense spring sunshine heat. I walk around the city and all I can hear is myself. It’s been so long since I’ve heard my own breathing, heartbeat and footsteps. I see no one and no one sees me. Everywhere I look there are empty benches. Some single, some huddled together, some in need of a dust down or a lick of paint. Bright sun shines down on the empty, dusty, saturated streets. In the city’s silent skies the birds are singing their hearts out. I feel joy and fear in equal measures.
I keep thinking about all the conversations I have had on my little bench. Conversations about betrayal, eating cat treats thinking they are scampi fries, early onset Alzheimer’s, burning incontinence pads on open fires, prolapsed wombs. Once, a woman in Leeds market agreed to speak to me, but only in Welsh. Another visitor sat beside me and wrote Christmas cards in silence for a whole hour. The bench still holds its stories; the ghosts of previous exchanges; conversations on pause. This has been a time of reflection. The conversations will continue but in a new world, on a two-and-a-half metre bench.
My daily walks in the city continue. One day I notice the empty benches dotted across the city appear almost in conversation with one another. Mundane mise-en-scènes appear off-beat, like abandoned stage sets amongst old and shiny buildings, looking like they belong to a play that has been interrupted mid-sentence. Bird song is a constant chirpy backdrop. I decide to start photographing empty benches, documenting the surreal absence of people; the atypical scenes staged since the appearance of the virus.
For most of the duration of this project we were only permitted to exercise once a day, for a maximum of one hour. I live in Golden Lane Estate so I stayed within the boundary of the City of London exploring the interior and the periphery. The City of London is a historic financial district, home to both the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England. Modern corporate skyscrapers tower above the vestiges of medieval alleyways below. Usually it’s busy with city workers during the day, especially lunch time and quieter in the evening and weekends when the city workers go home. The map screen captures below, mark my daily walks around the periphery of the City of London.
I decide to make a list of actions that would have been frowned upon before the lockdown but are now part of the new ‘normal’: Drinking alone, never getting dressed or wearing the same outfit to sleep and be awake, emphatically thanking delivery people with £10 notes, flinching when another human gets too close to you, having no clue what day of the week it is, cutting your own hair, making friends with neighbours, feeling up and down, staring into the void for hours, the list goes on… A particularly broad-spectrum point of solidarity has been created since the start of the lockdown “for how many of us exist in a state of “perfect” bodily and mental health throughout our lives?’ Perhaps lockdown has brought this question to the foreground.
*Neurodivergent is a person whose brain does not work as generally expected or accepted by society
Emily Howard a London based artist who began her training at London College of Fashion. Her work is a celebration of dyke decadence heavily inspired by camp icons. More of her work can be found on Instagram at @ehowardillustration
Efi Ntoumouzi is a London based user experience and interface designer with a particular interest in accessibility and universal design. She has collaborated with Tink on this project, offering her web design skills and curation experience. Her portfolio work can be found on:
Tink Flaherty is an artist making intimate, provocative work exploring disability, class and connectivity. Their practice includes public intervention as well as devised autobiographical performance. Tink is neurodivergent and committed to creating work that is accessible and engaging for neurodivergent audiences. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Contact Tink at firstname.lastname@example.org