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DETROIT — When was the last time you enjoyed a shared vibrational experience? Spend a little time around Detroit-based artist and educator Chris Reilly and you will likely get the opportunity, in one of his Intimate Instrument Workshops, which offer participants a unique interpersonal art activity.
I attended a workshop on Saturday, May 14, at Spread Art, where Reilly was recently a resident. The format is simple: Reilly supervises participants, working solo or in pairs, as they construct a “Linguaphone of Tremulous Communion” based on an easily customizable kit form of his own devising. The spring steel keys and frets of Reilly’s instrument resemble those of a thumb harp (or kalimba), but there are two sets of tines facing in opposite directions; the sounds generated by plucking them are not amplified within a hollow cavity (traditionally a gourd), but rather inside the skull cavities of its players. Participants engage two at a time with the linguaphone by biting down on either side of the fabricated hickory base, which is shaped like a thick tongue depressor and supports the frets and keys. The vibrations that result from playing the keys are barely audible to observers, but transmit straight through the bones of the players, creating a deeply phonic and physical resonance.
The project was initially developed during Reilly’s graduate studies at UCLA, and the first workshop took place in 2013 in Los Angeles. Much of the work Reilly developed during his time there was informed by his involvement in an intense long-distance relationship: there’s a sense of integral vulnerability to it. Reilly describes his work as “grappling with or articulating states of desire for connection or intimacy, but then lack of certainty or clarity about where the other person is.” For one project in this vein, he and his long-distance partner exchanged their used bed sheets over the course of 10 weeks, at first sending them by standard post but gradually increasing to overnight deliveries.
While the “Linguaphone of Tremulous Communion” allows for physical projection into the mouth and head of a partner, Reilly upped the ante even further with a 2015 performance at the Ann Arbor Art Center. Titled “Take A Nap With an Artist,” the piece involved him donning a sleeping mask and installing himself on an air mattress in the gallery, offering an open invitation to any visitor to join him for a nap, “to increase creativity.” A number of them did. Reilly manages to strike a balance between his own vulnerability and that of his audience; he conveys a sense of fair partnership in these interpersonal art exercises.
For the Intimate Instrument Workshops, Reilly’s approach is a little bit genius: he draws you into the technical concerns of construction while sitting around group activity tables covered in food safe dyes and pens, all of which distracts you from the endpoint of the workshop, which is quite personal. “People love it!” he said. “Constructing the linguaphone is a weird hook, and the distraction of that process gets them into an interaction that can be kind of uncomfortable.” Playing the linguaphone involves facing your partner from just a few inches away, bridged by a small object between your mouths. Eye contact is basically unavoidable, and activating the instrument engages both partners in what Reilly characterizes as “an objective, simultaneous feeling.” There’s a wide range of ways to get close to other humans, and a number of sensory experiences that can act as proxies for conversation — shared meals, cuddling, massages, dancing — but we typically reserve such intimate interactions for those with whom we are personally involved. Having entered casually into the workshop, I felt a familiar stab of social awkwardness at failing to bring a date.
Reilly himself came to my rescue, stepping up to the open end of my completed linguaphone. I helpfully customized mine to include ends labeled “You” and “Me,” because apparently I like to maintain boundaries, even (especially!) in intimate situations. Reilly’s warm and patient demeanor makes him a good facilitator of the workshop — he spent much of the time floating around like a diligent host, giving participants compliments on their customization choices and assisting in moments of confusion about the assembly process. From just a couple inches away, his dark eyes sparkled and I could see him smiling around his end of the linguaphone. Reilly comes from a musical family, and his approach to the instrument was more exploratory than mine; I was mostly preoccupied with squirming discomfort from this expression of intimacy. The vibration itself was deep. What sounds like basic plinking to an outside observer is quite loud inside one’s head.
Relieved by the conclusion of our short engagement — during which I fumbled for my camera, to capture a shot that effectively demonstrates the small space between us (and made both of us laugh) — I found myself suddenly grappling with a host of other unexpected questions about intimacy. Reilly does not provide any sort of protective barriers, so having used my instrument once with him, I now faced a conundrum of seeking another partner. It was one thing to put your mouth on a virgin body, but who else would want to play a used linguaphone? Would I agree to participate if someone else asked me? Reilly describes this as a risk/reward assessment process, and the crossover of these considerations into other forms of intimacy is unmistakable.
Even outside observation of couples test-driving their linguaphones made it clear how charged it feels to put your face so close to that of another human being. Perhaps because we sharply limit that kind of closeness to specific relationships, it makes intimacy feel more intense than it might otherwise. Reilly’s work blazes into our most private spaces, slyly proving that human connection might be the most elusive and captivating art of them all.
Chris Reilly’s Intimate Instrument Workshop took place at Spread Art (5141 Rosa Park Blvd, Detroit) on May 14, 3–7pm.