Rosana Cade’s performance piece, Walking: Holding, is designed for one audience member to make their way through a city as they hold hands with strangers. It is an explosion. It is a whisper. It is the brush of a hand, and the strength of fingers clasped together. It is two people standing strong together, looking into a dusty mirror and watching the world pass by. The intimacy the piece explores through the power of touch and gentle conversation is unique, and the experience of each participant is entirely different.

In a world of turmoil and violence, Cade sees the act of holding hands as one of radical softness, a concept she was introduced to by a friend. “I think actually being caring and offering yourself, making yourself vulnerable, in some ways that’s a political act,” she says.

Rooted in sexual politics, the idea for Walking: Holding stemmed from personal experiences of ‘not always feeling comfortable holding hands with another woman in Glasgow.’ Cade’s previous work had always taken place inside arts venues. “I was realising that when I was in those art spaces, I felt quite safe,” she explains, “but then when I stepped outside onto the streets of central Glasgow, it felt like a very different environment and one that could still feel oppressive.” Over six years of touring Walking: Holding around the country, the piece has developed new meanings. Cade is increasingly more interested in the ‘potential of intimate interactions that offer something that feels caring and nourishing to people.’

She draws on the idea of division between strangers as we walk along a street. “There’s this idea that other people are somehow separate to us. It’s something I’d like to challenge,” she says. She often gets people telling her, having experienced the piece, that they would look around at the strangers and wonder if they might be the next person to hold hands with. “That’s a really nice shift of that perspective in strangers,” she observes. The uncertainty makes everyone a potential caring partner in this experience.

The experiential performance also focuses on the relationship between the participants and the city. The practice of devising the route has strongholds in urban walking practices, mapping exercises and blind exploration. Often, Cade notes, walking in cities is not for pleasure. “So I like to plan a route that is not efficient or logistical, and ask people to walk in a different way partly as an act of resistance,” she says. As urban planning becomes more controlling of where people walk, often simply from A to B, Walking: Holding presents a chance to enjoy the journey rather than aim for the destination.

In its form and content, Walking: Holding is intimate, personal and delicate. But it’s also shattering in its wild request for public interaction, a task more troublesome for some audience members than others. At some point in every journey in Walking: Holding, the pair will pause in front of a mirror or shop window in the street, to reflect on their image. In a world where we are constantly connected, she notes ‘there’s a lot of anxiety around physical contact.’ It can be nerve-wracking for some audience members, even confronting, and the reception around the country varies.

The association of physical contact and femininity can be difficult for some audience members. “I do think two men holding hands is harder than two women holding hands, in our culture, so it’s a scarier thing for men to do,” says Cade. On rare occasions, men have been so confronted by the piece they have refused to hold hands with other men and come out feeling quite angry about the work.

Cade recalls doing the show in Dublin. “We were working with some young gay men who were in it and they had a lot of anxiety over holding hands with other men in public. It really felt like there was a defused, accepted sense of homophobia,” she says. The effect then, of doing Walking: Holding, was astonishing. “It helped them to realise that actually they should be able to hold hands with their partner. It’s not a privilege, it should be something they are able to do.” She says she thinks it reframed the concept for them, and gave them more agency to hold hands in public.

For many, it is a nourishing experience. If not in an intimate relationship, physical contact can be rare, and touch starvation is increasingly common in Britain, particularly amongst the elderly. “Some older women who take part say they feel invisible,” Cade comments, ringing true with my own grandma’s comments of invisibility when out in public. The age range is important to Cade in the work, as it provides a wider scope of life experiences. This is also why her work demands difference in the participants, though these differences are never specified. “I am really keen to work with people who have different experiences in public, perhaps people with different disabilities. I think it’s a really interesting way to learn about how people access public space.”

The range of participants and the brief encounters audience members have allows people the ‘freeing space’ to open up, though some prefer to walk in silence. “All of those things are allowed and valid,” Cade assures. “I’m just happy to offer it as a nourishment for people.”

Almost six years after the first performance, Cade’s own confidence levels have changed through the piece. “For me, it’s important to hold hands with my female partners. If I don’t, I’m going along with this idea that it’s wrong or that it should be hidden, which is not something I want to abide by. I think visibility can be a really important strategy for change,” she says.

Ultimately, Walking: Holding is about uniting through generosity. “Sharing and creating opportunities where we can hear about people who have very different experiences to us is a way of leading to a more open and caring society,” says Cade.

In a climate where justice is seemingly being tipped upside down, more caring work is needed. In a world where we can choose a man who has bragged about sexual assault over a woman who fights for women’s issues, where we can choose racism over inclusion, where we can choose homophobia over acceptance, we need more radical softness to go some way to counter-act the devastation and cruelty happening around us.

Walking: Holding is performed in Leeds on November 11 and 12 with Compass Festival and Live Art Bistro.