Lisa Park is asking for trust.
And in the midst of a crowded, sweaty, inebriated SXSW, that’s a hard thing to find within yourself, let alone other people. But after a long trek down several meandering hotel hallways, you enter a dark, sinister door where a woman awaits you with a single request.
“Please remove your socks and shoes.”
It’s a small act, taking off these things that cover your flappy feet. But you throw them into a cubby, unsure you’ll ever see them again when you know they’re the only things protecting you from direct contact with the grimy downtown streets of Austin, Texas. You sit there in silence, questioning if this was a good idea after all, watching as a few other equally curious and silent folk wander in. And then she pulls back the curtain.
“Blooming” is a strange digital art piece. About eight feet in front of you is a massive screen, at least ten feet tall and about 20 feet wide. At that distance and scale, it is all-encompassing. All you can see is a smothering swath of black and a life-size, dead cherry blossom tree.
You stand on this little circle in a floor of otherwise fluffy and luscious carpet, one in a row of three other circles. You are brought in with three strangers, each standing atop their respective circle with bare feet touching a cold slab of something. And then you are asked to complete another task.
“Please hold hands.”
Once again, a seemingly small task. You don’t know these people. (And it’s not lost on me that, as a physically large man embarking upon this with three women in nearly perfect darkness, this act of intimacy asks so much more from them than from me.) There’s an innate sense of awkwardness that forces you to look forward rather than at the people you are making contact with. And then it begins.
A pluck of a string. An orchestral swell. Music rises and fills the room, matching the pace of the blooming tree before you all. The muddy, grey dead branches now flourish with bright pink leaves, swirling in and around the entire screen. It is, in a word, affecting.
Not only can you feel your own heartbeat beginning to pick up like a train gaining up speed, you can feel the energy of the room light up. You don’t even have to look, but you can feel the smiles invade the other participants’ faces. You just know that, against so many awful odds, you are connecting with three complete strangers in a festival full of strangers that will otherwise mean absolutely nothing to you for the rest of your life.
“Now please let go.”
The music fades, the leaves fall to the ground, the tree becomes bare, dead once again. It is deflating. It is, shockingly, demolishing. As high as the high was from the past few seconds or minutes (who can tell), this was a low that craters you several layers down into the Earth’s crust. Even though you know they’re still with you in the room, you suddenly feel hopelessly alone.
Back outside where our little cubby’d shoes were waiting for us, we all sat on our dimly lit benches and preparing ourselves for the outside again. But rather than sitting in silence, curious but apprehensive of what await us, we were chatting. We were talking, laughing, and lingering. We were still connected.
And across the ten days of the festival, it was perhaps the only time I felt that way.