That Look: The “World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment” Is Sept. 23

Look me in the eye and tell me you don't hunger for intense human connection at Lake Merritt.

Screen grab from “Eye Contact With Strangers”/YouTube

It’s entirely possible you’re reading this while idly scrolling through a phone, oblivious to any ugly Mexican hairless dogs or hilarious vanity plates or burning mid-rises or whatever it is that you happen to be near. You might even be on the couch, sitting in companionable silence with your significant other as he or she scrolls through his or her phone beside you.

We live in an era when people pay increasingly less attention to others’ physical human presences, and to combat this sense of gradual alienation, a very committed group has decided to make a stand — worldwide. On Saturday, Sept. 23, The Liberators International and Include Yourself will stage the World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment at Lake Merritt.

They claim the idea is simple (although the accompanying website is quite elaborate). Basically, attendees will “sit down on picnic rugs with 2x cushions each and invite members of the public to come and share a moment of eye contact with you.” You’re encouraged to “allow yourself to be seen & calmly look into the eyes of the other person in front of you. When you create a safe environment of acceptance and love, the other will feel connected.”

Having drunkenly flirted in bars throughout most of my adult life, I can attest to the joys of sustained eye contact with certain strangers, in highly specific contexts, at certain times. And during Hard French’s Pride party, when I locked eyes with none other than Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes, I may have momentarily flatlined. But eye contact is also creepy as hell a lot of the time — and the idea of staring at someone I don’t know for a full minute (read: eternity) is probably not going to restore my faith in humanity. I might inadvertently create an environment of leery perving-out, and make somebody recoil in horror at the sight of my earnest visage.

But then again, I’m a jaded cynic and coarsened urbanite. Depending on one’s background and life experience, eye contact can mean any number of things, and anything that broadens people’s capacity for empathy across cultures is an unmitigated good. It might also just brighten your day for a few minutes, and that’s nice, too. Then again, the Liberators are the kind of slick spiritualists who don’t merely engage in ecstatic yoga, they extol its virtues in TEDx Talks.

In any case, they kindly request that you to bring a hula-hoop if you want to make eye contact while standing. I might also bring sunglasses just in case I have a complete freakout and need some emergency quiet time without making it worse by being the person who ran away desperate to check Instagram.

The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2 p.m., at The Lake Merritt Pergola, 599 El Embarcadero, Oakland, eyecontactexperiment.com.

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