SVA Communication Coordinator Derek Parsons recently spent a day with participants in the College’s “City as Site: Public Art as Social Intervention” summer residency program (June 16 – 26). The following is his report for SVA Close Up.
Upon entering a large spacious conference room in the BFA Visual & Critical Studies department, I am greeted by a roundtable of artists focused on putting the final touches on the costumes and personas they had feverishly conceived over the past few days. The 11:00am deadline looms as props are hastily spray-painted and slogans brainstormed. Soon it will be time to perform, and they will face one of the toughest critiques of their lives: the streets of New York City.
The assembled artists are students in the “City as Site: Public Art as Social Intervention” summer residency program. Organized by SVA’s Division of Continuing Education, “City as Site” is an immersive two-week program that teaches non-traditional practice, and encourages artists to think outside the standard studio-gallery model of art creation for the open-endedness of urban space and public interaction.
The performances being prepped are part of the workshop “Interrupting the Habituation of Public Space,” led by instructor Ed Woodham. Woodham, founder of the annual Art in Odd Places festival, has been promoting and teaching “interventionist” art since the early 1980s. Beginning his artistic career in theater, Woodham has a natural understanding of theatrical space and collaboration, which ultimately formed his passion for performance and street art. Since then, he’s been preoccupied with “reclaiming” public space, meaning, in his words, using art to draw attention to the interests of private business and government policy that divide and distract people from recognizing that they are participants of the public spaces they inhabit. There’s an inherent subversive and political quality to Woodham’s approach to art in the public sphere, and he stresses with idealistic zeal that through the creation of visual protest not only can public space be reclaimed, but also a sense of humanity.
The chosen site of the students’ performances is the south side of 23rd street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. The only stipulation Woodham gave to the students when planning their performances was to consider “the absurd.”
As we make our way onto 21st street, it doesn’t take long for passersby to notice our group. Almost immediately upon hitting the street heads turn and one woman, interrupting her cell phone conversation, exclaims, “Love it!” Not all reactions are as friendly. Some look on with expressionless confusion, while others raise a scornful eyebrow at the motley parade.
The artists spread out along the 23rd street corridor, and the performances quickly attract attention, perhaps none as much as Joan Brook, draped in dollar bills pinned to her clothes. She brandishes a cardboard sign reading “Take it or Leave it” near the subway entrance at the corner of Sixth Avenue, inspiring curious onlookers to ask her if they can really take a dollar. Most are appreciative of the gesture, but one man persistently harangues Brook and takes several dollars, much to her chagrin. But, as Woodham explained to his students before taking to the street, the importance and meaning of their performances are dependent on the interaction of the public—for better or worse. On the street, you can’t choose your cast members.
Elsewhere, Daniel Shieh performs “Grocery Dilemma (Indecisive, Please Help)” after staking out space in front of a local market’s fruit and vegetable stands. Placing his tomatoes and bananas on the sidewalk, as well as stuffing them in his pockets, hood and socks, Shieh slumps over his wares with a look of crippling anxiety. Mostly, he is approached by those thinking he is selling produce, and some even walk off with handfuls, but others are simply unsure of what to make of the display. One man offers Shieh several plastic bags to help him carry the bananas and tomatoes, and, one would suspect, relieve some of his anguish.
The most provocative of the performances is Natalia de Campos’ “Softness, 2015 (For #BlackLivesMatter).” After scrawling “#blacklivesmatter” across the sidewalk in white chalk, de Campos stands defiantly holding a large printed ring over her head that reads “Please & More Softness.” Coupled with her striking appearance as a nurse with clown makeup, there is no escaping de Campos. But, not everyone is pleased with her overtly political sentiment. Police are called to the scene, and an angry bystander airs his disapproval of the presentation, though no formal action is taken and the police leave shortly thereafter.
Other performances include Duke Albada’s “Wayfinding,” in which Albada stations herself over a metal sidewalk grate, and, dressed in a metallic hoop skirt and colander headpiece, curtseys periodically to clang the pipes of her dress against the grate; Perryne Lee Poy Lokhandwala’s “Sting,” a living jellyfish sculpture; Josseline Engeler’s confident and strutting “I Am a Champion, I Just Don’t Look Like One,” in which she hands out over a dozen grand prix-style cardboard trophy cutouts; and Shine Liu’s veiled and vigilant bride waiting in front of Saint Vincent De Paul church in “The Church is Closed.”
For those not aggrieved by the spectacle, the goal of Woodham’s project—to raise public awareness of their surroundings—was evidently a success. The public couldn’t help but notice the performers, and, whether the reaction was positive or not, were forced to engage with each visual “interruption.” The message seemed clear that the disruptions are a provocation of the senses to bring into focus artistic detail in a public space and presence that would otherwise be overlooked.
When completed later this week, the students of “City as Site” will have participated in a number of other workshops with like-minded focus on integrating art into the public consciousness, including collaborating with members of the City’s Cultural Affairs department and examining info-aesthetics in the digital public space. But, perhaps none can match the thrill of taking to the streets.
Photos by Ed Woodham.