Walking Threads / Helen Slaney

Networks have become a dominant metaphor in discussions of relationships. We are accustomed to the abstract concept, but it is not often that we are confronted with the physical reality of entanglement, of connectivity. Despite speaking of ourselves as LinkedIn, we conduct ourselves as autonomous. The Walking Threads workshop provided a powerfully gentle reminder of the ramifications of action; not simply the immediate feedback of tugging on a string, but the cascading, unpredictable consequences of one small gesture that ripples through the web.

A group of some dozen people assembled in an anonymous conference room. The furniture was pushed aside. Standing in a circle, we passed around a ball of gold thread until we were lightly and loosely chained together, one by one. We began to feel the subtle tides of give and take that passed through the group like breathing as the thread was gathered and stretched. The ball continued its progress, however, no longer passing round in sequence but establishing further connections, fashioning lateral flyovers and spaghetti junctions until each of my fingers was wound with a separate spool, each could be twitched and called upon to respond if an action occurred across the room that reeled me in or travelled around the intricate whorls too rapidly for the eye and too randomly for the predictive guess to follow. Motion was constant. We ducked and stepped, spun and wove and recoiled, with no objective other than remaining connected via the threads. Our moving sculpture, our human installation took up the whole room. At one point, we added sound, humming and buzzing, changing our pitch along with the level of our strands and transforming the geometry of the thread into an immersive dome composed of sonic vibration. Towards the end of the exercise, we brought our glittering cobweb outside to let it evolve on the grass and dissolve in the sun.

Many characters in classical mythology are weavers: patient Penelope weaves and unravels a shroud, hubristic Arachne outspins a goddess, Philomela communicates her violation through tapestry. But their activity is solo; each weaves alone. Our exercise, on the other hand, was choral, a communal cat’s-cradle that did not precede our involvement and could not outlast it, but rather functioned as the coexistent imprint of our movements in space. I have participated in similar group-mind activities before, where the challenge is remaining alert and responsive to any offer perceived while subordinating personal impulses to the choral will, insofar as it is kinetically manifest. The thread externalised this relationship, making it possible to see as well as sense a collective consciousness.

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Helen Slaney has just completed a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and is about to join the Research Facilitation team at the University of Roehampton. She has research interests in kinaesthesia and classical reception, and for the last three years has been running the practice-led project ‘Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers’. Her monograph The Senecan Aesthetic: a performance history was published in 2015 with Oxford University Press.

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