Friday, March 13, 2009

It Worked?

posted by Zach Morris

It’s been a couple of weeks now since we finished Undercurrents & Exchange
. Normally about this time, I’m in the throes of mild post-partum depression, having poured myself into a piece that, after some brief strutting and fretting, has disappeared. I’m not experiencing that this time around.

Maybe it’s because we had a full month to live inside a structure that we created. Or maybe it’s just because my body is thanking me for not making it roll up and down that marble staircase anymore. But I suspect that it has more to do with what happened to me and to the project over the course of this process.

I have to admit, this piece was borne a little out of skepticism and doubt on my part…

About three years ago, we submitted the proposal for this project to The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, framed as both a performance and an experiment to see if public art could actually make a substantial, noticeable impact on a space that it inhabited.

This wasn’t simply a matter for curiosity for me. I’d been making site-work for a couple years at this point, drawn to the idea of bringing art out of the art-house and into the public sphere. I’d hoped that this type of work might get me closer to what I’m interested in as an artist – namely finding ways to integrate art more into the fabric of our daily lives. I’ve come to believe that art, and dance in particular, is one of the few ways that we’re able to begin approaching the ineffable. For me, it’s a way to begin to understand the aspects of our lives that are so complex, so contradictory, so multi-faceted and layered that we simply can’t express them using the devices of normal communication.

Anyway, the point is, I thought that this was important to get out into the world. Especially in a society so obsessed with quantifying and rationalizing everything. I wasn’t interested in preaching, or “converting” anyone, or even to making any sort of profound statement. I was just interested in putting it out there as another, alternate way of expressing and understanding our crazy lives.

So when we proposed this project, I wanted to know if any of this actually held water. If the presence of public art was actually something that could tangibly effect a space and its inhabitants. Or, was I just being a rather pompous artist, assuming my little dances were making an impact when, in fact, they might not be.

I’m tremendously happy to say that we certainly did something. What that was, I’m not rightly sure. But over the course of February, something changed in the Winter Garden.

I can’t quantify the success of this project. But I know its there. Small observations and interactions lead me to believe that over the month people not only noticed us, they began to recognize us, and even anticipate our daily appearances:

On our first day, when Marissa came flopping toward me as the mermaid, our performance was met with a decidedly chilly response. However, when we repeated the exact same thing as part of a longer piece two weeks later, people stopped, smiling. We overheard them saying “Oh there she is”, “ That’s the mermaid”. They followed her progress as she wriggled up to perch next to me. They stayed and watched the dance until I eventually carried her up the escalator out of the garden.

Every day, we noticed that the number of people who stopped and watched slightly increased. As the weeks went on, whole groups would stop and watch, forming a perimeter around the performances. And at the end of these dances, we were often met with applause from all sides. A marked change from the nervous smatterings we’d gotten in the first week.

We began to recognize repeat visitors. We know of a couple WFC workers came to see every single performance.

On Friday of the third week as I walked to my starting position, I passed a group of people. I heard them whisper, “There’s the dancer.” They then moved to get better view.

During one of our evening rehearsals, one of the guards walked up to Marissa, Tara, and I. She wagged a finger at both of them. “Which one of you is the Mermaid?” she asked suspiciously. Marissa indicated that she was. “Why did you steal the chocolate?” the guard asked with a grin, referencing one of the videos we’d put up on the Garden’s plasma screens. Likewise, other guards would pull visitors aside during these night rehearsals and tell them about us, about the mermaid, and especially her proclivity for candy stealing.

On the final week, Tom was preparing to film the daily dance from the balcony near the entrance to the AMEX tower. As the piece was about to begin, a slew of people came down from the tower and stood watching. Over the course of the performance, Tom heard them comparing this dance to other’s they’d seen. One person noted a repeated choreographic pattern that echoed an earlier piece. Others rated this dance next to their favorites. When the dance was done, they went back up to work.

The interesting thing is, we didn’t accomplish any of the things that we sometimes mistakenly equate as hallmarks of success in the business of art making:

Will the people who saw our daily performances seek us out when we have our next gig? Probably not.

Did we get a sudden boost in our individual funders, with new audience members eager to lend support? Not a one.

Will the contemporary dance world see a spike in attendance at performances due to our efforts? I wouldn’t count on it.

Do most of the folks who witnessed a performance have any idea who we are? No. I expect that most of them couldn’t tell you our names.

But none of that is really the point, of what we do is it?

Instead, for a short month I was just the guy in the yellow shirt who showed everyday at 1:00pm and, with his cohorts, kinda torqued reality for a couple minutes. And during that month, some barrier was eased down, just enough that I stopped being the weird artist you avoid, and instead became a person you could approach.

My last interaction at the Winter Garden was when I was standing outside, still in costume, waiting for a final photo to be taken. A man walked up to me:

“I’ve seen your dances. I’ve come to a couple now. What is it that you call that type of dance?”

“Um, Contemporary, I guess.”

“So is this what you do?”

“Yeah. It is. What about you?”

“I work up at AMEX.”

“Oh, cool. How’s that treating you?”

“Good. Good.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “Well. I should go back to work.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Well thank you.”

“Thank you. And thanks for stopping to talk.”

“Ok. I’ll see you.”

“Alright. I’ll see you.”

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