Pedestrianby Hrag Vartanian
Art in Odd Places October 2008
The ghosts of 14th Street must have been happy in October, when Art in Odd Places (AiOP) chose the thoroughfare as the site for its month-long exhibition/intervention/performance/festival—the choice seemed as much symbolic as aesthetic.
14th Street has historically delineated midtown from downtown, highbrow from lowbrow, rich from poor; today, those binaries are less evident as the conventional axis of New York has morphed into a checkerboard, with cultural and economic communities mixing with greater ease.
Spanning the breadth of one of Manhattan’s primary east-west thoroughfares, the fourth annual event of AiOP, Pedestrian, stretched from the Hudson almost to the East River, where it was denied a waterfront view by the power plant parked at the edge of Avenue C. Fifteen visual and 21 performance artists took part. Yet unlike other arts festivals, which count on venues to create cohesion, AiOP did almost everything to frustrate the notion of unity, preferring each artist to stand alone.
Tackling the Formless
Refusing to be an art tourist who, map in hand, pinpoints the next destination before proceeding, I came up with my own system to experience the boulevard-based festival. I picked one weekend (October 11-12) and walked down the north side of the street on Saturday and the south side the following day, crossing over if I spotted something that piqued my interest.
On Saturday I traveled west to east on the sunny side of the street and didn’t see anything for blocks that remotely resembled art. One pile of garbage looked like a mock-tribute to Joy Garnett’s web-based “Unmonumental” photo series but probably wasn’t, and there was a man lying in the sun on a sofa on the curb. This seemed out of place but I deduced it wasn’t art.
Trying to discern the consciously artful from urban noise became an exercise in frustration. I came across a Duane Reade cordoned off by police tape, an officer by the front door—it appeared to have been robbed. I even spotted three thirtysomethings staring at three broken frames on the sidewalk but I quickly checked my festival map (I cheated, I know), which told me that it wasn’t the art I was looking for.
I was disappointed by my bad luck and I even wondered if I were simply blind to the obvious. Finally, I looked across the street on the block between Seventh and Sixth Avenues and spotted a couple of people snapping pictures of two women cleaning the tiled pavement in front of a vacant storefront. I watched for a few minutes as the women, dressed in black and wearing industrial-strength breathing masks, swept and washed the sidewalk. There was nothing notable about their presence, nothing out of place except their clothing, which lent their actions a theatrical air...nothing, really, worth stopping for. I can only assume that the piece, “Meaning Cleaning,” by Hayley Severns and Angela Rose Voulgarelis Illgen, was a metaphor for the cleanup of the once grungy street. The piece was monotonous and few passersby even noticed; those who did were more intrigued by the three of us standing there with our cameras recording the event than they were by the performing pair.
Further down the street I spotted a pole painted gold in front of Virgin Records on Union Square but was again unsure if it was art or not—turns out it was: one of Kenny Komer & Boris Rasin’s “Midas” artworks. Well into the East Village I ran into one of the artists, Aakash Nihalani, who had just finished one of his characteristic street art pieces comprised of simple box forms of brightly-colored tape. His series for Pedestrian is titled “Landscrapers.” They are bold and crisp while not wholly out of place. A mash-up of construction signage and safety markings, Nihalani’s works are cool and poised.
Deep into the almost pastoral stretch of 14th Street that borders Alphabet City I came across Illegal Art’s “Personal Space” installations. Emergency tape, the same shade of yellow as the police tape I encountered at the freshly-robbed Duane Reade, was printed with the words “personal space.” Wrapped around odd spaces, and even on some displaced shopping carts, they were clever and served to highlight the liquid boundaries of private and public space on the street.
I also spotted Michael Knierim’s “Itinerant Artifacts” across the street, again thanks to a photographer who was busy documenting a man tweezering debris from tree wells. The performer was so well camouflaged into the streetscape that I would never have known he wasn’t a city worker.
This stroll across 14th Street made me acutely aware of how dramatically the boulevard shifts from the industrial chic of the Meatpacking District through the hodgepodge of discount stores hugging Sixth Avenue and chaos of tourists and shoppers at Union Square until terminating in the serenity of Alphabet City.
The next day I reversed my itinerary and began at Avenue C, walking in the shade. Convinced I was overlooking the obvious. I broke down and walked around with my nose in the festival map. I tracked down more of Kenny Komer & Boris Rasin’s gold-painted “Midas” objects: a payphone, a pole, and a “Siamese Connection” sign, among others.
Another work used gold as a medium, “14th Street Gold” by Renny Molenaar, but the target of the artist’s spray can was found garbage. I ran into him painting the contents of a trashcan near the Meatpacking District. The metaphorical use of gold seemed heavy-handed, and by now the difficulty of spotting art on the street started to feel as if I were trapped in a grown–up version of “Where’s Waldo.”
The most successful of the works featured in Pedestrian was Alicia Grullón’s “Revealing New York City: The Disappearance of Others.” Quietly parked beside a blank brick wall between First Avenue and Avenue A, Grullón sat in front of a small white table holding a small basin in which newspaper clippings about the housing changes in the city floated in papier-mâché paste. In front of the basin there was a small sign that read “Gentrification-Free Zone.” A collapsible shopping cart and another small white table, held bags of staples like rice, beans, and wheat tagged with exorbitant prices ($3000, $1000, $5000). From a distance, Grullón looked like any other Latin American merchant selling street food. Only her textured blue and gray papier-mâché mask, covered with cut-up headlines, and her Beefeater-like motionlessness triggered my “art” barometer. While I admit I’m growing increasingly weary of the gentrification binary that artists habitually draw attention to, Grullón’s silent protest drove home its pain, anguish, and poverty in a way that none of the other works approached. It exuded a sense of dignity that didn’t preach loudly (okay, not too loudly), and if the text tended to dumb-down the piece, her performance elevated it.
At the end of my trek I found Michael Knierim’s “Itinerant Artifacts,” small display cases attached to a tree between Ninth and Tenth Avenues containing a condom wrapper, a cigarette paper package, bottle caps and some other refuse. It was a little disappointing.
Art in Impossibly Odd Places
Then there were the works I couldn’t find even with the map, no matter how hard I tried. The missing works were: Terry S. Hardy’s “Glitz,” which promised to use one thousand mirror tiles at 14th Street & Ninth Avenue as a “homage to an area of 14th Street known for its speakeasies, dance clubs, and a seedier side of life”; L. Mylott Manning’s “Road Kill Stuffed Animals” which was supposed to be “mutilated stuffed animals soaked in dirty water”; Margot Spindelman’s “The Street Sees You,” comprised of “postcards from participating businesses along 14th Street: one side of the card has a picture of an unusual object to find on 14th Street”; and Elena Stojanova’s “Frame the Pedestrian,” which utilized “paper picture frames placed around everyday objects [to] construct an atmosphere and establish a context for understanding and interpreting the artistic nature of an object.”
A little perplexed and miffed by what I saw at Pedestrian, I contacted AiOP founder and one of this year’s curators, Ed Woodham, to make sense out of what I saw. I asked him how he would prefer people to experience the festival. He replied, “The unexpected encounter is my favorite. It’s an ongoing experiment in communication. I like it best these days when it just happens by accident. When a pedestrian is on full throttle daily automatic course from point A to point B, something is not quite the same and the course is thwarted by a visual. Then the ordinary corner becomes fresh at least for a moment.”
Unlike earlier AiOP festivals, which followed all the rules, Woodham said the organizers this year asked artists not to seek permits for their works: “One of the major missions of AiOP is to find different options for what is considered public space and the presentation of art in public spaces—looking for the loopholes in policies. Challenge the boundaries.”
If I was frustrated by Pedestrian, Woodham seems to say, then that’s the point.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.