The pleated oak panelling on the walls of the Linenfold Parlour disappeared from view as I wedged on the heavy virtual reality headset, took hold of my high-tech walking stick and departed for Anxiety Island. I was visiting the Footnotes exhibition as part of London Craft Week and Dutch designer Eelko Moorer wanted to test my stability in three virtual scenarios. A number of research studies have shown the effect of Alexander Technique on balance, so I was curious to see what mine is now like.
Four artists, including Moorer, have responded to footwear from the London College of Fashion archives. The shoes are displayed at Sutton House, an atmospheric Tudor townhouse in east London, now run by the National Trust.
The exhibition theme in the Linenfold Parlour was Balance, hence Moorer’s involvement, with his inspiration being five shiny black leather orthopaedic shoes selected from the archive. According to the Footnotes catalogue:
“In his work there is an underlying preoccupation with balance, often taken to extremes through his focus on the psychological and physical impact that objects can have upon the human form.”
Headset on and guided by a fashion student following my virtual reality trip on a separate screen, I moved in jump-cuts towards a busy outdoor plaza as a computer-generated crowd criss-crossed around me. Many people find this disconcerting and scream. But I was calm and stable on my feet, not worried about being jostled or knocked over.
Next my guide directed me to a narrow gap in a towering black wall. Standing on the threshold I noticed virtual spiders, from tiny to giant, crawling over the floor and walls to a rhythmic soundtrack of lightly clicking arachnid feet. My heartbeat and breathing were steady but I declined the invitation to enter, calm but not quite ready to embrace the full spider experience.
The final destination was an outdoor space where suddenly the floor ahead dropped away, leaving a gaping hole and darkness below. I stood happily, seeing clearly through the headset that there was no ground beneath me as I looked down, but completely aware that my real feet were firmly planted on wooden floorboards and I was in no danger. After I’d taken the headset off my student guide thanked me for undergoing the experience, as not all visitors are up for it. At the same time she seemed disappointed it hadn’t unnerved me as much as she’d anticipated.
I, on the other hand, was cheered by ten minutes with the headset. It showed that I’m living more fully in my body than before starting Alexander work and have a more co-ordinated and accurate sense of where I am in space. I hadn’t been drawn in to the virtual reality landscape but stayed calm and grounded without going off balance. I’d given myself time at each stage rather than feeling rushed or disorientated by the changing visual cues. For me these are huge steps in improved proprioception, integrated body use and balance, and responding to the unknown.
Exploring the rest of the exhibition, I appreciated the beauty and craftsmanship of faded silk and worn leather, even though I can no longer wear narrow shoes with pointed toes. ” It’s not you, it’s me” I whispered through the glass of each display case. My toes are opening out, I’m putting my best spreading feet forward and I definitely need more space.