MASS MoCA is a contemporary art museum like no other. Housed in a former electrical plant complex in North Adams, MA, it has room to spread out and feature large, interactive, and unusual art installations like A COLD HOLE.
This interactive piece by Taryn Simon asks participants to do a polar plunge into a square hole filled with water “cooled to at or below 48 degrees Fahrenheit,” as other museum-goers watch from an adjacent viewing gallery.
As a true “articipant,” as one of my friends has called me, I took the plunge for my birthday in March.
I first had to secure one of the limited slots for taking the plunge via online reservation.
In her confirmation email, Ariel, the Cold Hole Coordinator (fun title!!), noted that I could wear anything I wanted for the plunge with the exception of wet or dry suits, swimming caps, or shoes.
Though I had seen videos of people jumping in everything from capes to regular swimsuits, I went with my long-sleeve rash guard and a pair of workout capris.
Upon arrival, I was escorted by Ariel to the dressing room, signed my releases, and given my explicit instructions for walking through the installation.
The floor, she told me, had just been re-iced, as a path had been worn down over the past few months from the previous participants. The ice was meant to be slightly uneven and craggy, not smooth.
The provided adhesive foot pads would help stabilize my steps on the ice floor, but I should still walk slowly and deliberately, taking as much time as I wanted to experience the installation.
Once I got to the hole, I should stop and stand on the foam pad at the edge of the hole, a smart inclusion so no one slipped in by accident.
From there, whenever I was ready, it was time to jump. Not to vigorously dive, or jump far out, but to basically step straight into the yawning darkness of the hole. It was only a 5-foot square, so you could smack into the ladder on the other side if you were too enthusiastic.
As I walked along the elevated walkway between the dressing room and the door to the installation itself, I wasn’t to talk to any other visitors. From the second I left the dressing room until I returned, I was part of the art.
I crossed through the outer door into a vestibule, where an EMT sat with a clear view and easy access to the ice room just in case anything should go haywire.
I gave him a hello and I think he asked me if I was nervous? At this point, the zen out-of-body feeling was beginning to take over, so obviously I was. I know we exchanged pleasantries, and then I opened the inner door and stepped into the room.
Walking in a straight line along the right side wall, the sound in the room was nothing but a whoosh of air conditioning. It was chilly, but didn’t hit you in the face with the change in temperature.
I made a 90-degree turn to walk toward the hole, and it was then I realized the viewing window wasn’t a one-way mirror, as I assumed, but just a piece of glass. I could see everyone—and there were a bunch more people than I expected!
Right in the center, I could see my pink phone being held by Dan.
I had a plan to do a signature RuPaul pose (the one she always hits when she says, “and may the best woman… win!” on Drag Race) right before I jumped in. But the nerves were raging and time seemed to have slowed down.
It felt like I was standing there for ages, poised on the soft pad at the edge of the hole. My brain was screaming, “Jump! Jump! Time to jump!”
The hole was dark and forbidding, and it probably was best not to think about it and let my brain take over. So I stepped in.
I hit the water and my brain immediately switched its repetitive litany from “Jump in!” to “Swim up!” Again, it felt like eons as I pushed my arms up until I felt the surface of the water.
Yes, it was cold. One hundred percent immersive cold water, but nothing I wasn’t expecting and nothing so terrible I regretted it. The cold was part of the overall dull nervous experience of the whole thing, exciting in its own perverse way.
I grabbed the ladder and hoisted myself out of the hole, my brain now reminding me to “Smile! Smile!” Carefully—and, now that I’ve seen myself on video, moving more quickly than I probably should have—I walked the wobbly, slippery path back to the door.
Dripping and now starting to vibrate with shivers once I was through the vestibule, I walked back on the platform to the dressing room.
Good thing I had brought my own oversized Cindy Sherman beach towel, because the ones provided were almost-threadbare tiny white towels that wouldn’t offer any warmth or comfort.
I stripped everything off immediately and cocooned myself from neck to toe in Cindy’s plush embrace for a few minutes until the shaking stopped.
Then I dressed again in my UNIQLO Heat-Tech leggings under my coziest sweater and overalls, and returned to the world to reward myself with a big tray of brisket, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, and slaw from A-OK Berkshire BBQ in the courtyard.
Though the installation is no longer on view, you can relive the moment through this video, or through the hashtag #acoldhole on Instagram.