Walking the Elastic City
Becoming suddenly conscious of time and place can inspire melancholy. The experience can also be pleasing, or beautiful; Todd Shalom calls this “heightened awareness.” He says he felt it most profoundly when he was traveling, living for long stretches in Israel and Argentina. The first glimmer of an idea for Elastic City, his Brooklyn-based art-walk company, came when he was semi-delusional, high on altitude sickness in the mountains of Peru. Now he’s curating the walks in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and while they might not change your life, it’s refreshing to find a deliberately constructed experience—a performance—that exists just for itself, or just for you. No one here is begging for an institutional stamp of approval, and yet the walks don’t exist in a vacuum, either.
When I asked if there was some conversation to be had between what he did on the street and what was going on in museums, galleries, and performance venues, Shalom mentioned Marina Abramović at MoMA. I realized, when he started talking, that I couldn’t stand to hear any more about Abramović from anyone (at least for a while). I regretted asking the question. I wondered if he had a boyfriend. Then I felt guilty for wondering that. I tried to focus on the Abramović connection, but then he started talking about Twitter. I was distracted. I apologized, saying, “I keep losing my train of thought. I keep listening to everything on the street. That’s what’s happening to me. Because of the walk, it’s true.”
I meant his “Carroll Street Soundwalk,” which he had just taken me on. It was post-walk; the two of us sat on stools in front of a café on Fourth Avenue. We were drinking tea and watching cars and people pass by. A friend on her way to a talk on experimental Jewish poetics rode up to us on a bike. When she told us about the talk, I found out that Shalom had studied poetry, too: “I felt like poetry needed to live off the page for me in performance in some sort of way,” he said. “The words themselves weren’t expressing all I had to express.” My phone rang and I answered it. Kids played around on their skateboards for a while at the curb.
Only a couple of hours before, I met Shalom and a few other people in Carroll Park, where he told us that the only rules on the walk were that we had to silence our cell phones and refrain from talking. We followed him past the basketball courts and then down Carroll Street as he pointed out sounds; the idea, it seemed, was just to notice them. At one point he mentioned that when John Cage and Merce Cunningham lived in an apartment together in SoHo, Cage threw out his records and said that when he wanted to hear music, he just opened his window. When I listened, the neighborhood sounds quickly transformed. It wasn’t much of a stretch to hear them as music.
About halfway through the walk I began to feel as if I couldn’t see so well anymore. Or maybe I didn’t want to see. Seeing was distracting attention away from the “soundscape,” a term coined by the acoustic ecologists that means pretty much what it implies: the landscape of sound. Shalom told us to pair off; a stranger watched me walk down the street with my eyes closed, taking responsibility for keeping me safe. He didn’t touch me as I walked, but every now and again I would hear him say, “here’s a curb,” in some thick, European accent. He had a nice voice. I tried not to wonder anything about him, accepting, instead, my own heightened state of vulnerability—watched but unable to see. I directed my mind even deeper into listening: for cars, for the breeze in the trees, and for my caretaker’s sometimes quiet warnings about walls to my left and broken glass in my path.
Those two hours later, then, as I was sitting and chatting with Shalom on stools on Fourth Avenue., my ears were still open—more open than I can remember them ever being—and the sounds of the city were distracting me. This, he said, is one of his greatest joys to hear. “I remember giving a sound walk in Tel Aviv,” he told me, “and I got a phone call the next day saying, ‘I’m walking down the street and I’m hearing things that I don’t normally pay attention to.’ And that was the best compliment that one could give me.” In this way, the walks can be interpreted as educational, though not overtly so.
The essential politic inherent in each walk is subtly recognizable but so experientially based that there is room for every participant to have his or her own private reaction. Niegel Smith, the other half (with Shalom) of the performance group PERMISO, and the creator and leader of popular Elastic City walks “Follow the Leader” and “Monumental Walk,” says that this is actually one of the most important components of his walks. “My walks are political statements in as much as I’m saying we need access to these spaces, but I want to give space for each person to create their own dialogue around that.”
My own dialogue about public spaces during “Follow the Leader,” Smith’s walk in lower Manhattan, went kind of like this: It’s amazing how deeply ingrained my obedience to the symbolic authoritative gesture has become. I’d rather refrain from questioning than deal, on any level, with an armed guard. Further, the parallels with this in my personal life are alarming—I’d rather talk aesthetics. When we spoke after the walk, I tried to understand, again, where this sort of site-specific experience fit into the performance landscape. We were on the grass in City Hall Park, doing that leisurely kind of park-sitting that’s almost like laying down, but isn’t quite:
Rail: I noticed, in both walks, these really interesting moments of aesthetic awareness. So let’s speak of this as performance, like what makes “Follow the Leader” a performance and not just a lesson about government and public spaces? Watching, for example, each participant walk so closely behind the passerby he chose to follow—I felt so aware witnessing that. It’s very beautiful to see everyone else’s little pair and to be in step with them as well.
Todd Shalom: That’s actually referencing Vito Acconci’s “Following Piece.”
Niegel Smith: But even more rudimentary than that, it goes all the way back to the principles of aesthetic design. The one I hold on to the most is repetition, which is how we get to ritual. Literally seeing an object repeated draws our attention to that object: seeing the lines, the form, the color, the shape, the momentum.
Shalom: I’m thinking of the concept itself of following someone in public, whereas you’re looking to all of these different components, and both ideas are present.
Rail: So there are intentionally layered art historical and design references happening the whole time.
Smith: Yes. But it’s also curious to me, because I started in the theater and later found out that a lot of my theater stuff had actually come from the visual arts world. I started to see that the theater is far behind visual art, and all these principles that we’ve been working out of came from performance art.
Smith then told me a bit about his theater background, which made me realize just how precisely directed the experience he had just led us through really was. “11 Tony Nominations!” he exclaimed and raised his hands up over his head—he’s the assistant director of FELA! on Broadway. He also recently directed Neighbors at the Public, and says that the most exciting thing about theater is that the audience is actually present. It’s easy to forget, in the rarified live-art world, how infrequently “liveness” actually occurs in most popular entertainment forms (theater being the exception, as Smith points out). On these walks, the audience is present, and they’re also participants.
The concept reminds me a little of Sharon Hayes’s street performances—the “Love Addresses”—though Shalom and Smith don’t admit to being on as direct a mission as she is to confront “the public.” Hayes sees two specific audiences: her performance, she knows, will be different for each group. There are those who come specifically to see her (and the reactions of those just passing by), and passersby who don’t know who she is or why she’s speaking into a microphone about her lover and current events (or why a small group is attentively listening to her speak). Passersby during Elastic City walks like “Follow the Leader,” who inevitably notice the participants at some point, are acknowledged by the artists, but never directly confronted. The work is not meant to offend them—this is to the artists’ credit. In a performance world where offensive behavior often seems rote, it’s refreshing to see people filling spaces with productive and energizing ideas.
Shalom and Smith started working together in 2006 as PERMISO (the name comes from the Spanish term for “permit me,” essentially used to barge one’s way into a situation), creating a shared vocabulary that combined free form performance art ideas with theatrical structure. They have a manifesto, cheekily titled “Our Core Values,” which includes a commitment to never create work inside or in private spaces. Elastic City is Shalom’s baby, though, and in addition to including as many of Smith’s walks in the program as Smith is willing to give, he’s curated walks in this first season led by artists he has, on some occasions, sought out and coached in the form. Neil Freeman, an artist whose work focuses on cities, lists, and maps, gives a micro-level view of the streets in Bushwick combined with a bird’s-eye view. Daniel Neumann, a German-born sound artist, gives a soundwalk in DUMBO, under the bridges.
As with everything about this small company—only a business because it “needed to be”—choosing artists and concepts for walks is more personal than strategic. “What do I want to explore?” and, “how can I find the experts?” are the guiding questions. A more body-focused walk led by a downtown choreographer or dancer is still on Shalom’s wish list, as well as a strictly text-based walk led by a poet. There might be a scent-walk in the works, led by a rosarian, and if it’s starting to sound shticky—exploring the senses!—don’t worry, he’s conscious enough of the danger.
I’m the first to run from gimmicks and insincerity, but there’s something about the way Shalom talks about his walks, which are sometimes one-man experiences, that makes me trust that he’s genuinely excited about his and others’ personal, performative interactions with the less dramatic bits of living. (This is, after all, a guy who wanted to create a gay zine entitled “Snuggle.”) Why else would someone do a solo walk through the suburbs on a rainy day, snapping photos and re-imagining childhood memories? Or advertise a free walk over the Brooklyn Bridge—one time only, for one person only—to mark his first time crossing that particular monument? “In doing this thing that I really want to do, am I their escort or are they mine?” Shalom wonders.
Smith also develops walks around his own interests and experiences. Upcoming for him is a walk through Harlem, designed to unearth tensions between black culture and counterculture, titled “This Ain’t Yo’ Mama’s Walk.” Both performers expressed a need to inhabit their own discomfort in the walks, which is why the performances have short runs and new ideas are continuously in development:
Shalom: If I don’t feel nervous before a performance, then I’m over it.
Rail: Then you’re just going through the motions…Though it seems these walks give you a lot of opportunity to feel nervous.
Smith: I can’t wait to do “Monumental Walk” in a cemetery, which actually came up because I had a make-out session in a cemetery once and it was one of the most intense, wonderful making out sessions I’ve ever had.
Rail: Because it’s a little scary?
Smith: It’s a little scary, but it’s also this pristine, Victorian landscape.
Shalom: I’ve never made out in a cemetery actually, have you?
Smith: It’s really hot. Maybe it will be a couple’s walk. Maybe you’ll have to bring someone to make out with.
And there you have it: what I’d want to understand as a queer, participatory (not to mention economically morbid, as in “you can’t take it with you”) response to Tino Sehgal’s politically backward “The Kiss” (2002), is first about nervousness, personal experience, and specifically, how fun it is to make out. For the record, however, Shalom shot the couple’s walk part of that idea down. His exact words were, “No, no, no,”—but still, you never know.