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Woman in Black
by Martha Ladly

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me
-- Pete Townshend, Tommy

Some nights ago, while reviewing video documentation and immersed in the worlds of Jean Dubois and Thecla Schiphorst, I found myself musing on the depth and quality of their work. I was puzzled. The sense of touch is integral to the installations of both artists. Both privilege a visceral sense of the body, of physicality and the place of the emotions, in their computer and video-based installations. It was a struggle: How, in the cold medium of online presentation, might we best represent these aspects of Schiphorst's BodyMaps and Dubois' tactile interactive works? I was on a mission, but I needed a break, a breather from the computer -- indulgence in a late night drive and a coffee was the answer.

I picked up my daughter and the coffee. While returning home to our quiet back street, she noticed a shape that caught her attention by the roadside. There was something there -- more like someone, actually -- lying in the ditch. We stopped the car, turned on the hazard lights and jumped out to investigate.

A young woman, dressed entirely in black, was lying in a crumpled heap on top of some garbage by the side of the road. Her eyes were closed. She was terribly pale and motionless, with her knees pulled up as if sleeping. There was no immediate sign of trauma or injury, but I could smell vomit. It was unseasonably cold that night, and she looked small and vulnerable, discarded almost. Was she drunk, sick, hurt or just incredibly tired? I spoke to her, then spoke again in more urgent tones. But there was no response, no sign of life. My daughter backed away, fearful, with that animal instinct that kicks in when we suspect death.

It was apparent that my voice was not getting through. But I hesitated to touch the young woman -- I was fearful too. I extended my hand and gripped her shoulder, then touched her hand, speaking louder. Still there was no response. I stroked her arm, touched her neck and felt for a pulse and some body warmth. As my hand rested on her neck she opened her eyes, without seeing me. She was alive, but definitely elsewhere. I sat down and, without moving her, put my arm around her and began to talk.

What had happened? Was she hurt? Could she move? Did she feel pain? How did she get there? Did she know how long she had been there? What was her name? Slowly, the answers came: She knew her name. She was OK, not hurt, not drunk, just tired. She lived nearby, not alone. But her husband, whom she named, was away on business. She had been out for a walk, though she could not remember when she'd left home, or how long she had been there. Or, more disturbingly, where she lived. She said she had a daughter. Was the child at home alone? She didn't know. We checked for blood and bumps and, finding none, helped the young woman up and into the car, then took her to our house close by.

We settled our new lost friend on the sofa, then I looked her up in the phone book, found her (relief!) and called the number. Mercifully, a man answered, so I asked him his name -- it was her husband. He was at home (!) with their infant daughter and son (!!) and terribly anxious about his wife's delay. He would come to pick her up just as soon as he could get a neighbour to mind the children. He told me she hadn't slept for four days.

The man arrived, concerned and somewhat confused, but very caring. He gathered up his wife and told me that he was taking her directly to the ER. (A call shortly afterward to the hospital confirmed this.) My responsibility was absolved, but something had happened. A tired, stressed young mother had somehow slipped and fallen out of the regular rhythm of her life and into a place of extreme vulnerability. We touched this young woman, offered her a hand as anyone else would have, and she responded. I was certain of that, and I was moved.

Running the story around in my head, I sat with my daughter as she lay in her bed. We talked about the young mother who had lain down to sleep by the side of the road. The urgency of work disappeared. I went back to my desk and switched off the computer.

Martha Ladly is Director of HorizonZero.

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