Sunday, February 15, 2009

On Being "That Guy You Avoid"

posted by Zach Morris
Everyone in the subway car watched the man sitting next to me. Not a single person looked at him, but you could tell that the entire train was eying him.
In that particular way that New Yorkers have of detaching from everything and yet being keenly aware of our surroundings, we tracked his every move. It’s a strange thing, this peripheral awareness we develop. It’s like radar, or perhaps sonar. We look at no one. We do not make eye contact. We are absorbed in our paper or ipod or video game. But we know the locations, proximity, and activities of everyone around us. And with nearly imperceptible glances, or in our peripheral vision, or by checking reflections in the window, we had collectively clocked this guy. We all knew that he was guy to avoid on this Friday morning commute.
He was an older gentleman, wearing St Louis Cardinals jacket over a lime green hoody. Atop his bright yellow hat, he wore large metal earphones. They were not connected to anything. On his back was a huge, and clearly very heavy, backpack. Over his shoulder was a case that looked like it was for pool cues. He mumbled to himself.
He piped up, asking in a loud voice if anyone on the train wanted to play dice. He pulled two of those blue chalk cubes out of his pool-cue bag and rolled them on the floor. Clearly not happy with what he’d rolled, he shook his head, frustrated. After retrieving his dice, he blew on ‘em, and rolled again. Apparently more bad luck. He shrugged his shoulders and mirthfully said to no one in particular “you’ve heard of off-track betting. This is on-train betting. Don’t tell anybody.”
The two construction workers across from him discreetly whispered jokes from the sides of their mouths. They looked at him with amused half-smiles. But their eyes kept darting down. They were watching his hands.
In a kinder, gentler time (or perhaps a kinder, gentler place), I can imagine this guy being the grandfatherly type who delighted children by pulling shiny silver dollars out of ears. But even the little five-year-old New Yorker in her pretty blue bows was eyeing this dude suspiciously.
Eventually he put the chalk cubes away and started tossing a ball of paper up and over the handrail.
As we pulled into Chambers street, I got up and moved toward the door. I looked back and smiled at him. Because I was off to make a public spectacle of myself, too.
For the past two weeks, I and my collaborators, Tom Pearson, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, and Tara O’Con have been staging daily site-specific performances at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden here in Lower Manhattan. Every workday, promptly at 1:00pm, I appear somewhere in the Winter Garden dressed in my yellow shirt and businessman’s tie. Every day, I perform a new duet with a rotating cast of partners. The duets vary in movement style and tone. Sometimes they have me catapulting through space, sometimes goofily shimmying, and sometimes propelled towards and away from my partner as if by some strange magnetic force. Occasionally, my partner and I are joined by additional dancers who amplify our relationship. But, everyday, my fellow dancers and I are trying to carve out a tiny space amidst the daily routine to ruminate on the nature of human connection. We make a public spectacle of ourselves to the consternation, amusement, and hopefully delight of the Winter Garden’s daily inhabitants.
[See project description: "Undercurrents & Exchange"]
It’s been interesting seeing how people react to us. Here in the transitional space that is the Winter Garden, some folks watch with rapt attention, others with obvious dismay, and some who just try to pretend we’re not there.
These reactions have called a lot of things into question for me. Especially as a New Yorker. I’ve become acutely aware of how we relate to each other. How, when, and even, if, we choose to acknowledge the fellow humans that surround us. I’ve become fascinated by the way that we categorize, compartmentalize, and deal with other people, not only in the microcosm of the Winter Garden, but in the city at large: This person is doing normal things—they’re OK. Those people are talking too loud—but are not dangerous. That person is doing something out of the ordinary—put up your defenses.
And perhaps that’s what all of it is. Simply a defense mechanism. Bombarded by street corner canvassers, subway crooners, and pushy panhandlers, we tend to adopt a calculated detachment. We pack ourselves chest-to-chest into subway cars and elevators, carefully maintaining an impersonal isolation even while sharing close quarters. Given the millions of other people that we share this city with, maybe the only way to get through life (or just get to work) is to quickly assess the activities around you, pigeonhole them, and then detach and dismiss those that do not immediately effect you.
This dismissiveness is what I’ve been most curious about. How easily we label and dismiss our fellow humans. Whether it’s “that guy on the subway who you avoid” or “that guy dancing in public who you avoid”.
This almost automatic behavior came into sharp focus for me on the very first day that we performed. Sitting in my shirt and tie on the Winter Garden staircase, Marissa (dressed as a bedraggled mermaid who may have just pulled herself from the Hudson) started flopping in my direction. Apparently my businessman disguise was working, as a small group of young professionals sitting to my left were speaking loudly and frankly about what they were seeing. “What the #@!% is going on right now?! What the #@!% is going on right now?”. Clearly upset and perhaps a bit embarrassed, they spotted Tom who was videotaping the performance. “Is this some sort of NYU video thing? Is this supposed to be artistic?” Strangely, they clammed up as soon as Marissa had wriggled her way up to me and we started interacting.

Day #1 of "Undercurrents & Exchange" from Third Rail Projects on Vimeo.
What troubled me about this was not so much the fact that these folks didn’t appreciate what was happening. Or that they did not like it… and perhaps thought it was devoid of artistic merit. What troubled me was, in their attempt to rationalize the presence of a mermaid during their lunch break, they were so eager to compartmentalize and then promptly dismiss the experience.
To be frank, I don’t mind if people dislike what I do. I don’t mind if they think that it is rubbish. A good bit of it probably is. But what gave me pause in this instance was the repulsion which they uttered the word “artistic." I could be totally wrong here, but the impression that I got was that their problem was not that what was happening lacked sufficient artistry to interest them. It was that it smacked of artistry at all.
I wonder what we in the art world have done to ourselves if normal folks seem to have such an aversion to what we do. Have we become so obtuse, banal, or just flat-out lame that folks duck-and-cover whenever anything that smells of art rears its head? The same way that we duck-and-cover when a man starts talking out loud on the subway?
And I don’t think that it’s simply because the non-art going crowd lacks sufficient exposure to appreciate what we’re doing. I think, at least for me, that the onus must be on the artist to ensure that the work is legible to people from all levels of engagement with the arts. And I wonder if somehow, we’ve alienated people to the point where, instead of checking something out, they’d rather just chalk something up to being “artistic” and simply ignore it.
In other of our pieces, I’ve noted that, when we’re clearly “dancing” people immediately parse what’s happening, determine that it’s a performance and then walk away. However in the more subtle, almost invisible pieces, people linger (usually at a safe distance) trying to determine if what it is that they’re seeing unfold.
For me, I think this will be the challenge of this month-long endeavor- how to walk that line between invisibility and accessibility. How to create pieces that invite people to stop and watch without being easily dismissible.
The barriers that we draw around ourselves are strong and not easily broken. In recent days, I’ve begun to realize how these barriers keep me safe. I’m sheltered from “that guy to avoid” on the subway. But, I’m also separated from my fellow New Yorkers and never give “that guy” a chance to be anything other then a bother, a threat, or an annoyance. I wonder if there is a way to coax these barriers down, even if just for five minutes a day during lunch hour.

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