Artist collects handshakes to mark moments of face-to-face interaction

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A handshake is a simple gesture of good will that we are all familiar with. But, to artist Holly Hanessian, a handshake can mean so much more.

Her exhibit “Touch in Real Time,” on display in Society for Contemporary Craft's Satellite Gallery in the lobby of the Steel Plaza T-Station at One Mellon Center, Downtown, is the result of two years' worth of shaking hands across the country.

Between 2011 and 2013, Hanessian, a professor and ceramics area head in the department of art at Florida State University in Tallahassee, crossed the country holding hands with hundreds of people, beginning with fellow artists she met in Maine at two residencies, the MacNamara Foundation and Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts.

“I placed a small patty of wet clay between our hands, squeezed and then simply held hands,” she says. “We looked each other in the eye, and I talked about the bonding hormone oxytocin that may be released into our bodies. I told each person stories about the project. When done, we looked at the freshly pressed piece of clay with the imprint from our handshake.”

MRI Scans of the hormone oxytocin's effect on human brain function reveal that it quells the brain's fear hub, the amygdala, in response to fearful stimuli. Research at the National Institute of Mental Health suggests new approaches to using oxytocin in treating diseases thought to involve amygdala dysfunction and social fear.

The story Hanessian told was always slightly different and took 15 to 30 seconds, the amount of time it takes for oxytocin to be released into our bodies. The clay handshakes were then fired and became another ceramic artifact of the moment, which Hanessian used as components in the installations on view at One Mellon Center.

Hanessian says that part of the project engaged each participant in creating an awareness of our online and social habits.

“During the handshake event, ... I directed the conversation beyond the initial introduction to different stories,” she says. “One of the stories that I return to over and over again is the ever-increasing amount of social media we consume.”

To that end, Hanessian says she asked each participant if we as a society will become less socially engaged. “I asked questions that draw attention to this human and societal loss by a face-to-face interaction,” she says.

Hanessian believes a disrupt in personal interactions is occurring as societal changes are experienced through digital interactions.

“We are continually introduced to electronic technological devices at younger ages,” she says. “Our time is now spent in a greater ratio using online social media and texting.”

Based on this context, the “Touch in Real Time” project focuses on re-creating a face-to-face, intimate and unmediated moment with another person.

To that end, Hanessian created “The Handshake Knotted Installation,” in which she knotted strands of the porcelain handshakes together. “I chose to use electrical wire as a physical binding material, as well as a conceptual connection/connectivity and aesthetic choice,” she says.

In another area of the exhibit, the handshakes are displayed on Plexiglas “Artifact Display Trays,” which she has digitally engraved with images, such as a brain or thumbprint, on the surface of each that link the ceramic handshake artifacts to the hand-holding event. In addition to the images, she says, “I engraved phrases that I often told during the moment when we held hands. The pictorial information of the thumbprint and brain were picked to signify emblematic aspects of the project.”

The exhibit culminates with what Hanessian calls the “alpha-gamma wall.”

Titled “(EEG) Wall Phases,” it references Electroencephalography (EEG), which records electrical activity along the scalp.

In the spring of 2013, Hanessian participated in research at an artist-in-residency called TREND (The Transdisciplinary Research in Emotion, Neuroscience and Development) with Dr. Greg Siegle, a cognitive behavioral neuroscientist, and his lab at the University of Pittsburgh, in which she and a team of neuroscientists measured the emotional arousal caused by shaking hands.

“We worked with participants who held hands or held clay in their hands while wearing an EEG headset that generated data from the participant,” Hanessian says.

Using electrical wire, Hanessian strung dozens of handshakes collected in patterns designed to emulate EEG brain waves.

Hanessian says the software data that resulted intrigued her with the visual patterns that emerged, and she wanted to emulate that with this piece. “The gamma, alpha, theta and beta brain waves were measured and signaled information such as arousal, calmness and memory,” Hanessian says. “And those patterns are relayed in the piece.”

It's worth noting that this is the first iteration of this traveling sculptural installation. After it closes Jan. 5, it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts at Western North Carolina University in Cullowhee, where it will be on display through April 2014.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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