Free Hugs in a One-Room Democracy

"Social Muscle Club". Photo (c) Andres Castoldi.

Can free hugs make a better world? Probably not. But they do feel good. Berlin’s Social Muscle Club invited guests from their now-global network to host a Give-and-Take performance as part of the new „Shifting Perspectives“ platform.

2004: I was walking down the streets of the Upper West Side when I saw two people (I think their names were Ted and Liz?) sitting outside a bank on little stools next to a folded cardboard sign. It read: TALK TO ME. They didn’t want money, or a signature on a petition. They just wanted to talk. I was delighted. This was everything I had wanted from moving to New York City, from college, from my new adult life. A few months later, Ted and Liz invited everyone who stopped and talked to them to a bigger TALK TO ME event in Bryant Park. They planned to take the project global and just talk to anyone in the whole world who would listen. „Yes!“ I thought (I was 18). I ended up talking to an older gentleman, Raffi, in a burgundy blazer. He was maybe 60 and clearly profoundly lonely. We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. He sent daily animated „Have a Nice Day!“ e-cards. He invited me to dinner (I declined). He invited me to dinner again. He asked if, maybe, after I went home for Thanksgiving, I might bring him some leftovers? It got weirder from there. I asked the university to change my campus email and my dorm room phone extension.

I’m telling you this story for two reasons. First, because it shows that I fall knee-jerk in love with projects like Saturday’s Social Muscle Club performance in the upper foyer of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. I have drunk the kool-aid. In the case of Saturday’s event, this is a warm, hopefully-food-safe sparkly neon-pink gloop. I am told by some „aliens“ / table hosts (people dressed in glittery spandex and branded Social Muscle Club Ts, for the most part) that drinking this will transport me to Neutron Star– the farthest star in the galaxy tonight. I want to believe. But the second moral of the Raffi saga is that I’m not sure that a bunch of theater kids can save the world by laying their sweet hearts bare.

Giving and taking (and a lot of short breaks)

The premise of the Social Muscle Club is that we can train ourselves to live in community, to give and receive more graciously. So the basic idea– the one that they’re spreading from Jill Emerson’s living room to Sophiensaele to the Shifting Perspectives platform to Johannesburg– is this. Eight to ten people sit around a table, and each person puts a request and an offer in a bowl. The host then draws a slip and goes around the table to see whether she can find a match. Someone at my table wants an oversized jumpsuit. Another woman has one. A bell is rung. So far so good. I jump on an offer of a home-baked chocolate cake. We are taking down capitalism one gift at a time! I’m feeling great. I go get a beer.

There are lots of interruptions, actually (I suppose you could say interludes) and so our table only makes it through half the papers in the bowl, though we are supposed to do two rounds. We reach into another bucket filled with gloop (this time blue) and extract hard-boiled eggs to eat with mayo. I welcome the snack but am not sure I really needed the whole „these eggs are a sign of life from another galaxy“ thing.

A visiting dance student from Munich wants to learn a new dance, and a South African musician offers to teach us all some old-school 90s Joburg moves: what, if not this, is the Goethe-Institut paying for?! But just as we getting up, over the mic, we hear that we are now going to do „social dreaming.“ Five minutes of meditation followed by thirty minutes of sharing our dreams (yes, literal dreams) with blindfolds on. It seems like the organizers were afraid that the basic dramaturgy of the game wouldn’t be enough for Theatertreffen.

„UNTSCHÜSS!“

Just as we take our blindfolds off, South-African born Berlin-based performer Mmakgosi Kgabi starts asking people at our table our names over the loudspeaker. Our mother’s names. Our mother’s mother’s name. Our mother’s mother’s mother’s names. It’s interesting how no one can remember past the third generation. But she starts stuttering and skipping, „I d-d-d-on’t k-k-k-know“, amplifying the vocal tics of her nervous respondents. She’s clearly a virtuosic performer, but this is too clear an echo of middle school bullies („wh-wh-wh-what? No come back?“). We just shared our nightmares in the darkness for Christ’s sake. And I want to learn the dance. „Why is this taking so long?“ asks a woman at our table who has just offered us a few minutes of silent „understanding.“ An middle-aged white American guy who looks like my dad grabs his Asian-American wife by the arm just as Kgabi approaches her with the mic and they leave. Later, in the final round where unfulfilled offers and wishes are opened to the whole room, a young German man at their table will explain how hurt their table was that this couple left. He asks everyone in the room to yell at them, „UNTSCHÜSS!“ The collective taunt strikes me as extremely mean-spirited. How fragile, our one-room democracies. My trust is getting thinner.

By the final public round, it’s a little chaotic and after three hours, people’s attention spans are running short. At this point, it’s a mixed bag of naive utopian cliches. We all hug each other twelve times, which feels great, actually. We make a little choir and sing a kind of Kumbaya together, which also feels good. But what’s to become of all these good vibes? „Does anyone have professional contacts in Mumbai? Someone at our table is moving there and could use an introduction. Can someone help transport my keyboard down to Munich next week? No? OK– let’s move on to the next one.“ Someone asks for a room for their friend, a Nigerian refugee. Silence.

Broken promises

The South-African guy at my table has asked for „a great night out in Berlin– tonight.“ am, in fact, going dancing after the performance, a truly rare coincidence. I invite him to come along to the club. But at the end of the night, he’d rather see what his friends are doing. We took an oath that we would keep our word, but I get it. I offered handstand lessons, which no one at my table wanted, so I ended up with a line-up of six would-be handstanders against the wall. I way over-estimated my handstand-coaching skills: it did not go as planned. „Let me down!“ they cried. Another visiting dance student from Munich stepped in and took over my lesson auf Deutsch. Sometimes, we break our promises despite our best intentions.

Still, I thought of the South African guy on the dance floor. In the end, maybe a „great night out in Berlin“ with a stranger you met at a performance is actually not as great as an okay night in Berlin with your friends. But I did his moves and my Indian and Filipino and Canadian buddies learned them too and we all danced together, our own tiny attempt at more authenticity and openness. The proof, I guess, will be in the chocolate cake.

 

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