Touchy subject

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Along the State Street side of the Statehouse, a woman walks against a slow flow of foot traffic. Every once in a while, as she passes these strangers, she reaches out to grasp one lightly by the arm. They react in a variety of ways, including not reacting at all, while a camera hidden in a median strip across the street captures what it can between passing cars.

This simple act makes up the entirety of Nicole Langille's Touching Strangers, a video installation currently on view as part of the Ohio Art League's Annual Fall Juried Exhibition at the Cultural Arts Center.

And though the piece runs under two minutes, it easily transfixes for longer. It holds a fairly wide spectrum of responses (including from those who witnessed Langille's touch but didn't feel it personally), it recalls the personal-space loss we all know from crowd situations, and it can instill the tension that results when that space is intentionally breached by someone we don't know.

Discussing her work at the Nov. 21 opening reception, Langille said that when Touching Strangers has been seen in other exhibitions, it's inspired some nervous laughter in viewers, "as if they were one of the people being touched. It's uncomfortable."

The video generated a certain amount of discomfort on the artist's side, as well.

She's worked in many different media - Langille earned a BFA from Boston University in sculpture, she's currently studying painting and drawing in OSU's graduate program, and she's created photography, installation and performance pieces - but she admitted, "I'm not a film person. It's just serving my needs at the moment."

Langille has also never previously attempted to literally touch people with her artwork, but the act combined with the locale brought together the twin concerns of her practice: physical space and nonverbal communication.

The artist works in what defines an area, whether it's grids and mapping or a mindset that suggests her experiment would be more acceptable on the public grounds of the Statehouse than on a neighborhood sidewalk, and in the friendlier Midwest than the coastal cities Langille has lived in previously.

And whether it's drawing or extending a hand, she seeks to explore the many ways - traditional and unorthodox - in which objects can connect and boundaries can be broken.

"I was testing what's acceptable with my body, what interrupts the expected," Langille explained. "It's like marking the surface of a page; they're both very intimate. The project started as a desire to engage urban space and became an unintended social experiment."

The self-imposed challenges in creating this work came out of a frustration with being holed up in a studio. "By yourself and not engaging is really fine for a lot of painters," Langille said. "For me, the world is what I see in front of me, but also all around."

A similar thought inspired Langille last year to join the nearly century-old member artist organization Ohio Art League. Praising the nonprofit for keeping its membership fee reasonable for students, she explained, "It's nice to be involved in the community outside [OSU]. It's really easy to stay on Campus and not interact with the artists' community here."

Following the attention and feedback she's received from the piece created by her Downtown stroll, Langille said she'll be doing more with walking in her future work. She's considering repeating the experiment and seeing what differences emerge, and in January at ROY G BIV gallery, she'll present Touching Strangers with graphite works and a live opening-night performance on the subject.

"Walking's like drawing," she explained. "It's got a path, a direction. [Like a line], the body moves through space and carries the memory of that."

What: Ohio Art League Annual Fall Juried Exhibition

When: Through Dec. 28

Where: Cultural Arts Center, Downtown