Imagine an association of people moved to shelter and care for those, whose pain prevents them from functioning normally in society, who then use their charges to study human suffering. In September 2019, I traveled from Ukraine to Denmark to meet its members. With a backpack containing my computer, clean underwear, and Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, I arrived in Aarhus, where my Ukrainian friends were working as actors in The Open Heart, a durational performance installation created by the artistic collective SIGNA. This was no ordinary night at the theater—and not only because the performance lasted 12 hours and I spent it wearing someone else’s clothes. My experience of this artwork was transformative: its effects would gradually manifest themselves in the subsequent weeks and months. A year later I still wonder: How does one speak of a public phenomenon that is designed to be inseparable from the personal history and subjective perception of each of its participants?
It’s around 6 a.m. After a nearly sleepless night, I am sitting on the floor, closely packed in a room with 100 other people, singing “Good morning, beautiful, how was your night? Mine was wonderful with you by my side” as the words flash across a screen at the front. This is the Morning Meeting — the collective culmination of a nightlong seminar on empathy with the fictional association, The Open Heart.
During the song, my mentor, Sharonna, turns to look at me warmly, and I suddenly get shy. Half an hour later, as I’m preparing to return to the world outside, she will say, “I must be a bad mentor. Nobody ever thanks me during the Morning Meeting.” It’s as if she sensed my hesitation around saying “Sharonna rocks!” during the meeting, the only chance we had to speak in front of everybody. It no longer matters that I thought it would be better to make some critical remark on the entire situation or ask a biting question of the seminar organizers in the common space. It only matters that I failed to do something that might make her feel better. And that her calling me out on it makes me feel like shit. Because that’s what this is ultimately about — suffering.
During last year’s Aarhus theater festival, SIGNA invited the public to enter a constructed world where the line between fiction and reality is perilously thin. The artists transformed a former hospital building into the facilities of The Open Heart, where the Compassionates (as members of the fictional organization are called) ran their seminar on empathy. From 7 p.m. until 7 the next morning, seminar participants lived side-by-side with characters called Sufferers, whose individual suffering and acting out their traumatic pasts were the central aspect of their existence. Unlike other visitors, I didn’t witness any of the rapes that occur on a nightly basis. Yet even ordinary interactions in this meticulously designed environment kept audience members alert to “the pendulum swings of power in the borderland between compassion and complacency.”
When I entered the conference room the evening before, breathless and toting all my belongings, it was already full. Confident that I already know something about empathy, I wonder how this staged suffering will differ (if at all) from what I witness daily in my adopted hometown of Kyiv, where poverty and hopelessness proliferate between the ubiquitous espresso joints, vegetable stands, and shiny black SUVs. Each seminar participant receives a booklet, meal ticket, and buzzer to press in case of an emergency. Before meeting our mentors, we are asked to repeat out loud: “I’m not disgusted by you; I’m not trying to take away your pain; I take part in your pain.” Soon we are lined up in the hallway, and the Sufferers walk up and down the row, scrutinizing us. I am chosen by Sharonna.
Carrying a large plastic bag, she takes me to a room and offers me a pair of jeans, a lavender tank top, a sweatshirt, sneakers, and a pair of thong underwear. The Open Heart proposes that each course participant identify with their Sufferer-mentor – literally, by wearing their clothes for the night. According to the association’s logic, witnessing at close hand the suffering of a particular person to whom we are bound through identity is supposed to make us more sensitive to the suffering we encounter in the world at large. As a finishing touch, my mentor takes one plastic butterfly clip from her hair and puts it in mine. Now I am Sharonna II.
Following our mentors, observing and sharing their suffering — though not trying to alleviate or prevent it — is expected of us as participants in this course. This close communication naturally leads to a certain degree of tuning and mutual resemblance, not unlike that between children and their parents. The Compassionates, who run the seminar, test how well I know my mentor by asking “What do you think Sharonna’s longing is?” or expecting me to behave as she would in a given situation.
Sharonna doesn’t like being around the people here. She doesn’t have many friends, and one is a girl who doesn’t speak. She says in a flat, dull monotone that she’s 23, that she is estranged from her mother and has little contact with her siblings. I was surprised at how much she resembled me, especially at that age. But for all the familiarity of her words and habits, her manipulative tactics to pull me close and then close off, she reminded me of that part of myself I no longer want to identify with.
For the first several hours, we are offered a rich selection of organized activities that resemble therapy sessions: talks, finger-painting, role-playing, etc. The Compassionates guide the Sufferers in describing their nightmares or unresolvable longings, in relating or reliving traumatic events of the past. Some are reluctant, others can do nothing but stutter, still others sob and wail in raw emotional pain. I vacillate between an observer’s cool disengagement and reaching out, feeling especially conflicted when I am asked to do something that will make them feel worse.
In the interest of sustaining The Open Heart’s research and educational activities suffering must be perpetuated, stimulated or generated. The Sufferers receive shelter, food and money for sharing their pain with the inquisitive Compassionates and seminar participants (who pay about $60 USD each to attend a performance of The Open Heart). Here these people–supposedly incapable of making a living or taking care of themselves out in the world–are actually needed (if not quite respected or appreciated). Suffering is institutionalized and monetized. It seems like a win–win situation. As an independent writer and movement artist, I am constantly doing additional work to secure the conditions in which to produce and share my creative work, plus other jobs to support myself. What if all I had to do was suffer?
At midnight the lights go out and there are no more officially scheduled activities until morning. Each mentee has been assigned a bunk next to their mentor’s. There is a mad rush to purchase toothbrushes from the resident Gypsies, and the night begins. Sharonna keeps a close watch over me since I’m more curious than sleepy, but the hallways are dangerous—and rarely quiet. As I wander around, I see a victim of sex trafficking having a breakdown; Niklaus and Peter scuffle in the laundry room; Jimmy is forcing himself on Michella. Lore is patrolling the halls with a flashlight when William, a Compassionate, sidles up to her with a creepy smile. “Am I making you uncomfortable?” he croons as she shrinks back into her oversized coat. “You’re making me uncomfortable,” I say. “I don’t care whether you’re uncomfortable,” he replies, “My job is to make her uncomfortable…”
I’ve been asked to open my heart, but instead I’m full of repugnance toward people, all of them: the Compassionates with their dubious methods, the Sufferers spreading their pain around, and the seminar participants who tirelessly offer kind glances, encouraging words, a gentle touch. This show shows you your worst self—not just yourself as individual but us as people (and as social beings). Everyone is watching one another for various reasons, each ready to jump and catch someone to fulfill their needs, whether it’s Jimmy prowling for women or the Compassionates looking to “help” one of the Sufferers, or someone waiting to steal my piece of bread when I look away from my plate. This is not the visibility of public space but like being an animal out in the wild, only here we are confined in a tightly regulated space. Is this what it’s like in a prison camp?
The thing that I usually want from theater is a distance or boundary from my everyday life. I didn’t get it here. On the one hand I felt uncomfortably close to my mentor and on the other as if we could never really connect at all. If the only available channel is through our suffering, there is nothing in between. It is yours, it is mine, they bond together and bond us together. In a late-night conversation with the Head of The Open Heart association, I learned about their latest endeavor: Share the Suffering Partnerships. This is an opportunity for course participants who feel called to intensify their empathic relationship with a Sufferer to exchange identities, where for part of each day, they live your life (in your home, with your family) and you—theirs.
The Open Heart suggests identification as a bridge between people whose respective experiences are impossible to share. You cannot judge another’s pain or argue about its reality. It is always only real to the person experiencing it. It’s like asking people to get inside one another instead of together inhabiting and caring for our common world, for what is between us.
Arendt, in “Thoughts About Lessing” (the essay I fortuitously brought to Denmark), elucidates the fundamental contradiction between compassion for another’s suffering and politics. The first is about brotherhood, the warmth felt for a fellow human being, wanting to alleviate their suffering as it causes one pain to witness it. While politics is charged with caring for the common world, which demands distance for people to act in and reflect on that world. Compassion is that special closeness between human beings, which appears especially in times of darkness, where the space of the common world — as something between us, human beings — collapses. It is the closeness of slaves or pariahs, of people on the margins (like the Sufferers of The Open Heart), of people who are not responsible for the world, whether because their status does not allow them the privilege, or their physical-mental condition denies them the capacity, or because the world as such has shattered.
I have experienced this warmth and closeness among Ukrainians, these remnants of the Soviet Union. And I can corroborate Arendt’s words that there is something very appealing in this warmth, which is a great consolation to those who have lost the world. But preserving this warmth and brotherly closeness comes at the cost of the distance required for sharing a common world, appearing in it, and reflecting and caring for it—at the cost of political coexistence.
Theater has traditionally modeled the public space of politics, as each individual audience member attends the same show, but views it from a unique perspective (both literally the seat occupied and figuratively). In The Open Heart, although the temporal and spatial boundaries of the action are the same for all participants, there is far too much differentiation inside for any two to see the same show. The fact that no two experiences (even on the same night, say, between people who arrived together or between two participants with the same mentor) are even remotely alike is one more way in which The Open Heart tests the notion of a common world.
Audience members are given the chance to experience how challenging it is to create avenues of communication when each person is like an island culture all its own. Each interaction demands the effort of both parties involved to learn where the other is coming from and what system of coordinates they function in, while sharing and teaching their own. It requires openness and trust, and one does get tired of making that immense effort over and over. Sometimes it’s easier to fall back on familiar modes of communication, whether it’s transactional or obedience or aiming to please.
Later that night, Sharonna asks how I’ve gotten through the low points in my life. My answer — most recently, social dancing — sounds silly against the mournful howling in the background. Why does witnessing another’s pain always seem to eclipse whatever else interests me? Compassion—etymologically “suffering together”—requires identification, while interest–from Latin for “being between”–requires distance. In social dance, it’s not imperative to know the same steps. What both partners have in common is the music. The dance happens between each partner’s attention to the music, themselves, and to one another. Each dancer can take liberties, deviate from the rhythm, lose track of themselves, their partner or the music—and risk disrupting the dance or the connection with their partner.
Watching the Sufferers wail, beat one another, and piss on the floor with abandon, their lack of inhibition can be mistaken for freedom. Yet their outbursts are wholly circumscribed by the rigid structure of rules controlling every aspect of The Open Heart. The rules are meant to protect us from being interrupted or attacked by one another, while nothing disturbs the power relations that determine who makes the rules. The Compassionates exude an air of approachability and kindness, but any attempt to transgress the boundaries of one’s role for the night are met with reproach. Only they are free to take interest in the Sufferers’ suffering, and some of their actions in the interest of their research raise ethical questions.
Throughout history people have tried to use political means to alleviate human suffering, whether for certain classes or individuals, or to overcome it altogether, once and for all. I came of age with a stifling sense of security, amidst great ambitions for equal, unbounded opportunities for all human beings. When compassion enters the realm of politics, it encroaches on the in-between space that political cooperation requires, slowly eroding humans’ aptitude for political life. The notion of mass equality, which must bracket off differences (at the same time as they are nominally celebrated) for the sake of legally protecting what is supposedly the same for everyone tends to prioritize bare life, the mechanics of creaturely survival, the opportunity to eat, drink, fuck, sleep, shit. And of course to suffer.
Sharonna’s activity — a workshop on self-harm — was not listed on the schedule and took place after lights-out. A small group of taciturn young course participants and a couple girl Sufferers gathered in a circle with my mentor, who had brought along a small collection of instruments. In a matter-of-fact voice devoid of either self-pity or suasion, she told us how she discovered inflicting pain on herself as a way to make the pain she felt inside physically palpable. Then, beginning with a small flat metal band, she demonstrated how it worked — first on herself and then flicking it against the skin of anyone who volunteered to try.
The small sharp sting of metal on skin did not excite me. But when Sharonna took out a leather belt, I asked her to try whacking it against my buttocks. Standing against a wall in the shadows, I discovered I enjoyed the sensation. And the opportunity to say, “Harder. Again. Other side.” Each utterance was met with a satisfying whack. Self-discovery requires distance from people who want to keep you from suffering. Here in the space of Sharonna’s interest in eliciting sensations of pain through her body, I learned something about myself. It was the closest thing to a moment of intimacy between us.
To my surprise, despite the unending noise and scrutinizing eyes, I had found comfort in the halls that were growing familiar, in the rapport I was building with my mentor, in the cozy bed where I rested horizontally for an hour, in the warm morning oatmeal. I did not expect that as the night drew to a close I would begin to feel anxious at the prospect of being thrown back into the world to find my way to the airport alone. Despite the constant din of people sobbing, screaming or fighting one another, I felt pretty well taken care of in The Open Heart.
When I told Sharonna about my anxiety at the uncertainty of what awaited me outside, she suggested that I stay on as a Sufferer myself. My pleasure at the invitation was genuine, but the prospect of staying was far more disturbing than anything I feared outside. Before leaving, I received a certificate indicating I had passed the course. What does it mean to do well here? Sharonna said she appreciated that instead of trying to change her situation I asked questions that made her think in ways she hadn’t before. But this didn’t make me feel less drained from so much blending and sharing with a depressive loser. The Open Heart is not an environment where you necessarily benefit from being good.
Each of these individually tailored performances puts you at the center of an existential conflict where you cannot deny the bond you have with another human being with whom you never would have formed a voluntary attachment. The Open Heart tests your willingness to empathize and actually care for another who is vastly unlike you—and also, at heart, frighteningly like you. “Opening one’s heart is a messy, violent process,” I had mused in the middle of the night, taking a large knife a Sufferer offered to a small, slimy duck heart and splitting it in half. Once opened and laid out, the animal hearts resembled that shape we use as an iconic expression of love in text messages.
In retrospect, the tightness in The Open Heart being “on” all the time, with no space to disappear, no time to take everything in or reflect before making a decision—reminds me of the world overrun by virtual social networks (even though mobile devices were off limits during the seminar). There is always someone screaming or having a breakdown somewhere, and you can hear it. The sense of being connected can be comforting or desirable, but I fear that no sum of my interpersonal relationships will salvage or reinstate the world we once had in common. If suffering is something all living beings experience, then each actual experience of suffering is unsharably specific to the individual. This is where identifying and sharing diverge. The louder the arguments between seemingly irreconcilable camps, the more similarity you can observe between the shouters and also ourselves, especially in our capacity for anger and tears, resignation or cruelty.
In the world of The Open Heart, the Sufferers can be wild or brutal or self-absorbed or withdrawn, and they will still be taken care of. Their actions will not disturb the work of the Compassionates who employ, sustain and study them. Like those warm folks Arendt describes in dark times, the Sufferers are free of responsibility for the world. We, who enter their world for one long night, are no better than them. And perhaps we are no better off.
A month later I will have something like a delayed catharsis as I realize that since attending The Open Heart seminar on empathy I am less willing to invest my time, energy, and attention in another’s suffering than before. But now I have just landed in Ukraine after spending the night on a bench in a Danish airport. On the way home, I am lucky to grab a seat on the metro to rest my tired body and heavy backpack. A man gets in and stands on the other side of the armrest, leaning against it and then sliding into a squat just above the floor. I reluctantly stand up and offer the man my seat. He accepts, much to the distaste of the woman who was sitting next to me. He is not particularly unruly or disrespectful, but on the other side of “normal.” A stop later I get a seat across from them and get to observe how my act to alleviate one person’s suffering has caused another person to suffer. But for the moment, I am sitting again, and watching both of them from a comfortable distance.
Larissa Babij is a Ukrainian-American writer, translator and mover based in Kyiv, Ukraine, with a particular interest in experimental performing arts. Her writing has been published in The Odessa Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Springerin, Guernica, among others.