‘The Unofficial Department of Handshakes’ takes San Francisco City Hall

SF Arts Commission/Courtesy

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Inside the architectural wonder of the San Francisco City Hall resides a small information kiosk, occupied by an unlikely department: The Unofficial Department of Handshakes, which, in actuality, is an improvisational pop-up exhibit.

The “department” is a collaborative artistic effort undertaken by Alison Pebworth and Hannah Ireland. Together, the two artists aim to explore the handshake and its unique function as a ubiquitous form of manual introduction.

Pebworth and Ireland experimented with this intricate behavior at the improvisational pop-up exhibit playfully titled “The Unofficial Department of Handshakes.” The migratory unit currently occupies the information desk at the Van Ness entrance of the San Francisco City Hall, a buzzing site of formal and informal greetings between its occupants as well as countless fleeting visitors.

Handshakes have long been embedded in our daily lives as an intricate behavior, the archetype of nonverbal communication. They are laden with varying purposes — including greetings, agreements and celebrations — and can be succinct or complex. The contemporary etiquette allows for the formation of a certain tactile link between two people, even if they had just met.

“We (are) getting strangers to interact with one another by shaking hands,” Pebworth said. “Once you make that kind of contact and make the eye contact, then you’re no longer strangers anymore.”

In addition to their set-up at the kiosk, Pebworth and Ireland move about in a mobile research station to explore the interactions within the space. The station is a moveable wooden booth with the department’s title and logo, which serves as a mobile site for the activities and a backdrop for documenting handshake styles. The station moves freely throughout the building, opening up to interactions that saturate the space of the City Hall.

In this way, the art becomes site-specific; it places itself at the center of a rich playground where greetings are endlessly shared by strangers under the dome.

The unofficial department is largely improvisational and fully interactive. When viewers approach, the two artists greet them — appropriately — with a handshake. Visitors are then encouraged to engage in various forms of dialogue about handshakes, by learning handshakes with strangers or sharing their stories on paper.

The activities of the exhibit vary week by week. One example is the “Phoenix Rising,” a complicated set of movements collectively termed by the artists as the “official unofficial handshake of San Francisco.” The Phoenix Rising is almost a choreography for the hands, involving several rhythmic claps and holds until the climax, when the two participants cross thumbs and stretch their fingers outward to form the phoenix. As strangers learn this handshake and navigate through the complicated moves together, they are no longer total strangers.

Aside from becoming acquainted with strangers on site through this curious etiquette, the visitors are also prompted to share their own stories regarding the handshake. They can narrate their favorite memory on a small piece of paper, which might then be found displayed around the information kiosk inside a glass casing.

Similarly, short surveys invite participants to answer specific questions about their experiences with handshakes. The simple survey questions transform into a discourse when different answers are provided every time, depending on the personal background of the respondent.

So, where does all of this data go? Some of the surveys and stories are displayed on site, around the information kiosk at City Hall. Others are posted on social media, and still others are reserved for the creation of a comprehensive compilation.

“Some of it, we’re posting to Instagram under the hashtag #handshakeSF, so you can see some of the handshakes that people have been doing,” Ireland said.

“Eventually, we’ll put together something that’s a little document that kind of takes in a lot of different things — The Phoenix Rising, the regular handshake, interactions of people interspersed with some of their stories,” Pebworth explained.

In a way, the artists of the exhibit are not two, but many. Visitors to the exhibit also become its creators, shaping the expansive dialogue around the handshake. The interactive exploration of the handshake as a contemporary etiquette blurs the line between artistic creation and interpretation. Through these participatory activities, the artists of the Unofficial Department of Handshakes construct a unique experiential archive of tactile introductions.

The final day of the Unofficial Department of Handshakes at San Francisco City Hall is Friday, Feb. 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Contact Jennifer Jeong at [email protected].