The Hand Washing Project
This socially engaged project is a combination of public art, performance, video, and paintings meant to bridge barriers between individuals. By enlisting people to wash each others hands I'm trying to critique our contrived systems of injustice, prejudice, and notions of difference. This work is about highlighting the individuals interdependence to the rest of the world and creating videos and objects which display our interconnectedness.
Considering the Power of Touch
A review of the Washing Hands Project from a Mind/Body Perspective
By Matt Erb. Founder of Embody Your Mind
Nick River’s Washing Hands Project is a socially engaged endeavor meant to break down barriers between individuals and redirect the narrative of identity politics towards our inter-dependency, inter-connectivity, and universality. The project consists of grouped or paired participants washing one another’s hands in a large basin with soap, water, salts, charcoal, and other symbolic raw material brought to the interaction by the participants. This “dirty” water is then claimed and transformed into paintings formed through crystallization and evaporation. By enlisting people to wash each others hands a critique is made on contrived systems of injustice, prejudice, and notions of difference. The water, pigments, lye, and salts used in these hand-washing interactions are then used to create unique works of art. The paintings which result are formed through the evaporation of the water and what remains is the residue of salt crystals, oils, and pigments. These paintings become the shared marks of the participants, highlighting the individuals' dependence to the other and vice versa. The work emphasizes both the individual and the universal.
An approach to transcending difference is to replace popular divisive rhetorics with a visual and physical language of touch. The Washing Hands Project attacks failing proximities through touch. Scientific research shows that increased physical interaction decreases violence and creates greater trust between individuals. Touch can release oxytocin, the "love hormone," and stimulates feelings of compassion and trust between individuals. The Washing Hands Project cleanses and unites people and does so in a tangible, physical, and intimate way.
Interpersonal touch can be desirable or aversive depending upon context. There is a broad literature on the neurobiology of touch that looks at the mechanisms of “bottom-up” (ascending communication of sensory information from the body to the brain) as well as “top-down” (brain communication back to the body) processes. The external context of touch mixes with the internal state of the recipient and shapes the value and meaning of it. The unique history of each person’s nervous system, from in-utero onward to the present moment, can inform how touch is experienced. In addition, intention and meaning is communicated in subtle ways through touch. Healthy touch and interpretation of touch is considered vital to all aspects of health and well-being, and can also be seen as a critical piece of healthy social engagement.
Interpersonal touch is frequently used to communicate messages of reassurance, compassion, and pleasure. Touch can suppress sensations of pain and negative emotion, as well as evoke grades of displeasure if the perceived intentions or the identity of the toucher does not match the preferences of the recipient of touch. Softness, force, temperature, and velocity of touch can dramatically change the sensory experience and linked meaning. In essence, touch is powerful.
Historically, ritualistic touch can be found in many forms. Washing of another’s hands or feet has been used across cultures and religions to embody our shared humanity. In essence, ritualistic touch can be healing across common human divides such as religion, race, gender, culture, and nationality. Ritualistic touch can be used as a universal language and helps us recognize our shared vulnerabilities. A handshake as a greeting of respect and acknowledgement; a gentle touch to a shoulder as an expression of empathy; and the laying on of hands to another in need of healing, are additional examples.
In Nick’s project, the washing of hands is explored through art. The hands carry deep meaning and symbolism in our shared human experience. Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon (1891-1976), studied the representations of the body in the brain, creating a “map” called the homunculus. This map demonstrated that the amount of the brain devoted to certain parts of the body was vastly disproportionate based on the amount of sensation, relative importance of that sensation, and the frequency of use of each body part. The hands represent one of the largest areas of brain tissue devotion to processing sensory input from the body. It may be considered an interesting synchronicity that the hands, as reflected in the oldest documented ancient and indigenous symbols found, also represents the universal meaning of healing.
Nick’s work reflects a cross-sectional experiment where humanity, history, neuroscience, social engagement, energy, healing, and art collide. What is found within the resultant images reflect a complexity of interactions across physical, mental, emotional, mind-body, and quantum levels. This complexity becomes embodied and manifest in the resultant art; a connecting point where boundaries between the linear and non-linear realms disappear.
-Matt Erb, Founder, Embody Your Mind (www.embodyyourmind.com)