If you got on a bus with only one other person on board, would you sit down next to them? Probably not, right? But when did we decide that this was the socially accepted behavior? Why would it be weird if you sat right next to them? Michael Kliën’s performance art piece “PARLIAMENT” seeks to unearth the arbitrary choreographies present in our daily life. 

Starting on Wednesday, March 7, and continuing through Saturday, March 10, the Nasher will be presenting “PARLIAMENT.” Stripped of their electronic devices and ability to use language, 100 participants will step into an open gallery space devoid of furniture. Here, for six to 10 hours, depending on the day, they will shed socially constructed ideas of personal space, behavior and relationships with the self and others. In this space, people will be forced to simply be. 

Kliën is an associate professor of the practice in Duke’s Dance Program. With this work, he wanted to challenge the normative ways people move about the world and approach life. He gave me the example of where to sit on an empty bus to illustrate how arbitrary yet deeply ingrained certain behaviors are. 

“I’m creating these openings,” Kliën said. “I’m trying to insert a stop sign to this everyday working and just expand these normative realities and insert a wedge of strangeness.”

“PARLIAMENT” is less performance art and more a “choreographic situation for citizens,” Kliën said. For him, the value of “PARLIAMENT” lies in its transformative and nourishing qualities.

“If it is a crazy artwork, it has done nothing. It is just a candy,” he said. 

The intensity of “PARLIAMENT”’s duration is both exciting and intimidating. Wendy Hower, director of engagement and marketing at the Nasher, will be participating all four days. 

“I don’t expect to be changed, and I don't expect to be the same,” Hower said. 

Given how radical “PARLIAMENT” is, people sometimes react extremely emotionally. Kliën said that some experience pure euphoria and others become depressed. Both feelings serve to move people to reevaluate their lives. In taking away all of the distractions that crowd modern American life, participants confront the purity of human existence in relation to others. 

“I think it is part of your civic duty to re-sense society and the people around you and to experience your own being with other people,” Kliën said.

At its core, “PARLIAMENT” is about being intentional. Participants will be keenly aware of their own thoughts and behaviors for six hours or more. This kind of fearless and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable presence in one’s own body drives a reorientation of reality. Kliën hopes that people arrive at a new understanding and question the current systems that are in place.

In Kliën, the social dance that we all partake in finds a disruptive challenger.

“All of us need to be all the time bewildered and not settle into our forms so safely,” he said. 

At the “high-powered machine” that is Duke, Kliën, a relative newcomer to the community, is thrown off by how fast paced and streamlined things are. He finds it absurd that six hours is so much to ask from students and that, from the perspective of the Duke student, time is an incredibly precious commodity that most are not willing to trade for a day of “doing nothing.”

Kliën sees “PARLIAMENT” as a way to create a desire for change. Whether that change is personal, professional or societal, people will never feel a need to change without the initial “loosening of the gravel” to which he compares his piece. While many may recognize the problematic nature of how we approach life in 2018, few really act on these realities. “PARLIAMENT” provides the activation energy for that change.

The four day event is not limited by duration, however. In the hopes of changing people’s perceptions, Kliën believes that this experience will unite people to form groups of their own where further exploration can take place. He also believes that Duke students’ feverish pursuit of distractions is worth exploring further. We lack flexible time to fully relax — and without it, creativity is impossible.

Kliën has not yet decided whether or not he will be participating in the event this year, although he has in past iterations in Europe. He likens participation to mental yoga but feels taking part might change the dynamics in that gallery space. “PARLIAMENT” has changed him by making him question more and more the normative systems in place while simultaneously making him realize that other systems are possible. 

“It is like a snow globe, you always want someone to come and shake it again,” Kliën said of the event. “Everybody needs to shake each others’ reality all the time.”