2:45 pm Jun. 21, 2012
It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon last month, and I was standing with fifteen strangers on a pathway in Prospect Park, getting ready to smell them.
It was a moderately diverse group—mostly white, but not entirely, mostly in their 20s and 30s, but not entirely—and, amassed in a small clump, listening to our leader for the afternoon, dance artist Miguel Gutierrez (pictured below), instruct on exploring one's sense of smell. We were on a walk with Gutierrez, doing exercises called “sense work” to better understand our bodies and our interaction with the world. So far we'd covered hearing and sight; smell was up.
“I want you to walk around and smell each other,” Gutierrez said. “This is something we don’t usually do with strangers.”
“You have to get real close to smell someone,” he added.
And so I found myself approaching people whom I knew only to the extent of their first names, and smelling them. Nose in frizzy hair, nose hovering over exposed neck, nose near sweaty armpit: one by one, we stopped and sniffed each other. Like dogs meeting on the street, we began hesitantly, but the weirdness wore off quickly—after all, we'd been doing unusual things for 45 minutes already, including taking turns walking with our eyes closed as open-eyed partners lead us through the park and spending a few minutes trying to go “micro with sound” by honing in on a particular sound or way of listening.
I was smelling people like crazy but not getting very far with my efforts; I decided I must have a disappointingly weak nose. At one point, a man came over and sniffed me, then tried to pinpoint the pleasant scent emanating from somewhere on my body. After a few wrong guesses, I solved the mystery for him.
“It’s my shampoo," I said. "I took a shower this morning.” In my head, I added, “Good thing.”
THAT SATURDAY, OUR GROUP SPENT an hour and a half smelling, touching, covering and closing our eyes, tasting, and walking with a heightened awareness of all our senses. The event was a “sensewalk” called “Everything Is New” that Gutierrez created for Elastic City (the first of four sensewalks he led this summer). Elastic City was founded by artist Todd Shalom in 2010 to commission artists from various mediums to make and lead urban walks—not walking tours, but walks.
“Tours are about things,” Shalom explained when we spoke at Sweet Revenge in the West Village last month. “Tours are generally fact-based information about something, whereas the walks are the thing.”
But just as they are not information-centric tours, Elastic City's walks are also not aimless wandering; they are highly structured endeavors. An Elastic City walk is, really, an experience, or a set of experiences. A participant may, as I did, find herself smelling her companions or trying to see with her eyes closed. She may find herself, as I did on another occasion, underground considering the "ecosystem" that is the NYC subways with artist Neil Goldberg: watching people’s hair flail in the wind of arriving trains and spying on passengers as they run for and miss their trains.
The walks can be bigger, too: Last year, theater and performance artist Niegel Smith—who is on the Elastic City board—led a walk called “Total Detroit,” which, at a cost of $200 each, brought participants to Detroit (Smith’s hometown) for three days on a ritualistic, healing journey.
“It’s so easy to get pulled into destination,” said Smith when we spoke at Troost in Greenpoint several weeks ago, “so to have a form that is actually about how we get from point A to point B…. Walks have a beginning and an end, but it’s only about what happens in between.”
Both Shalom and Smith, who are frequent collaborators, see the walk as an art form, an artistic medium in and of itself. This notion, Shalom said, has “been around in different ways. The Situationists, their idea was the dérive —this idea of getting lost in the city then finding yourself anew.” He also mentioned a handful of arts festivals that, in recent years, have devoted themselves to the theme of walking or hosted artists who’ve done walks as performances.
To that list, one might add the walk that performance artist Marina Abramović did with her longtime partner, Ulay, in 1988, to end their relationship. Each started at a different end of the Great Wall of China, and when they met in the middle, they said goodbye. And while it’s unclear if he considers himself an artist, former civil engineer Matt Green is currently walking every street in New York City, after having walked across the entire United States.
But if walking as a kind of performance art—which, in keeping with the tenets of that medium, is often durational and focused on the performer—is not an entirely new concept, Shalom sees Elastic City and the work it does as utterly unique.
“As far as I know, nothing like Elastic City has happened before,” he said. “In other words, there have been people who have given walks as part of their artwork, or given themed walks, but there’s never been an organization that has taken artists from one genre specifically to bring them to this other one.”
NEIL GOLDBERG IS A PHOTOGRAPHER AND VIDEO ARTIST whose muse is the subway. His current exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (Through July 4) features pictures of trapezoidal patches of sky shot at subway entrances and videos of people’s faces as they emerge from underground and tentatively look around, pausing to get their bearings.
“Moments that are overlooked, moments that we’ve decided don’t matter—I feel like our lives are constituted of those moments,” Goldberg (pictured in green jacket at right) told us at the beginning of his walk. And so we descended—12 of us, another somewhat mixed bunch, including a couple from Adelaide, Australia, and a retired Federal Aviation Administration worker from Howard Beach, Queens—to the subway to try and witness some of those moments.
One of our first stops was the West 4th Street station, where we congregated in the no-man’s-land platform that sits between the two levels of trains, the B/D/F/M line rumbling below our feet, the A/C/E above our heads.
“This is the quintessential space that isn’t supposed to matter,” Goldberg said. As such, he wanted us to stop there and watch people as they moved across it. He wanted us to see what happens “when you spend time in a space that you’re supposed to purely pass through.”
Each of us staked out a pole. Commuters appeared, hustling up a flight of stairs or crossing from one side of the space to the other, or pausing, confused for a minute, as they tried to determine which way to go. There was a firm distance between us and them, and the effect was wonderfully poetic, like watching actors or dancers play out a choreographed scene. One member of our group compared the poles scattered throughout the space to the wings of a stage.
While watching I was struck by how self-involved we become during this underground rite of travel, how unaware we often are of our surroundings and the people with whom we share them. We assume that no one is watching us, because we’re not watching them. I wondered where these people were going: who they were planning to meet, who they were hoping to meet, if it was the end of their day or just the beginning.
“If a person can walk away with one new perspective on how to experience the everyday,” Shalom had said in our interview a few days earlier, “then I think it’s been successful.”
HOW DO YOU CRAFT AN IMMERSIVE perambulatory experience for a group of people? How do you help them, in Smith’s words, “reclaim the freedom of experience”?
Shalom characterized his approach to Elastic City as very “hands on.” After commissioning the artists, he helps them develop their concept by discussing ideas with them and working on descriptions. Next come the logistics and practicalities, for which Shalom rehearses the walks with all the artists and goes on everyone’s first walk. He tries to consider even the smallest details, like which side of the street a group should be on.
“I’m coming to it from three positions,” he said. “As a fellow artist, so I’m interested in that the concept is strong; a participant’s perspective, like, ‘What am I going to expect to find on the walk?’; and then also as an administrator: Are we doing stuff that’s safe? As opposed to wearing blindfolds, we should just instruct people to close their eyes.”
Pace, according to Smith, is as another key element of walk-making.
“Tempo is something we think a lot about. It’s like a score, cause you’re scoring people’s experience. How much time do you spend in one place, given another?”
And both artists mentioned the importance of a walk’s arc, which Smith described as “a shift, some kind of reversal or reflection.” This is the “aha” moment, the turning point when participants cross over from ordinary people to hyper-observers or -experiencers of life (whether they realize it at the time or not).
“One of the cruxes of making a good walk is having that moment where you’ve turned the world on its head or you’ve opened up a different point of view, so that by the end you’re then seeing or experiencing in a different way,” Smith said.
Part of this experience, and part of what makes Elastic City singular, is the accessibility of the artists; because they are leading the walk themselves, participants have an extended opportunity to interact with them. Usually when we experience someone’s art, we take it in passively, standing in a gallery or sitting in a theater. Even with performance art, which often involves the audience in some way, the relationship is fairly one-sided and weighted towards the artist. Traditional modes of art-making call for the creator to simply make a work and release it into the world, after which it’s out of their hands. Viewers then quietly accept or reject it.
When an artist makes and leads a walk, however, he has more flexibility, a chance to shape the piece on the spot. At the same time, viewers become participants, more open to a new vision of the world because they can see and interact with the artist leading them. Trust is established.
“The walks are like a series of instructions," said Shalom. "But they’re amenable, they’re personally engaged, and they’re adaptable. It’s not like, ‘You read this and do it.’ It’s more like, ‘I’m going to offer this to you, and if you have questions, we can always amend it, or we’ll see.’ It’s a dialogue.”
In fact, that dialogue may end up being more important than the walking itself. This year, in its third season, Elastic City has started a new program of what Shalom calls "ways"; these are essentially walks—interactive experiences and workshops led by artists—without the walking.
“There were artists that were coming up with walk ideas that were getting a bit more factual,” he said. “Or their craft didn’t necessarily lend itself to walking around, but it’s still really valuable and can help us understand our relationship to the city, our relationship to each other.”
This summer six artists, including Shalom, are offering ways, and another 20 or so are giving walks. One walk or way costs $20, a price that is reasonable for participants but still not quite sustaining for Elastic City. Even if the season sells out, the money raised from walks and ways won’t come close to covering the organization’s operating expenses, Shalom said. Elastic City is in an awkward but familiar transitional phase—expanding, gaining momentum, and in the process of becoming a certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit, but still not bringing in enough money to hire full-time staff or rent office space (his apartment serves as headquarters for now).
“We’re not in the best economic times to keep expanding, or to be raising prices, or to be asking people for money,” he said. “It’s not easy. I don’t know where this thing can succeed right now in the world. But New York’s a good bet.”
IT WAS NEARING THE END OF OUR SENSEWALK, and we’d just spent a few short minutes lying in the hot grass in the meadow at Prospect Park. As we slowly lifted ourselves up, taking note of where and how our bodies were in contact with the ground, Gutierrez explained his plan for the final 15 minutes of our walk. We would spread out and walk across the meadow, individually, each person at his or her own pace. As we went, he explained, we would practice some of the exercises we’d learned and play with the interaction of our senses.
“Notice that the fader-board of the senses can shift,” Gutierrez said.
We spread out and began to walk, all of us taking our time, trying to retain the heightened awareness we’d been building. Like many others, I walked barefoot, trying to really feel the grass underneath my feet. I stopped a few times to lie down or smell the ground; I walked backwards for a while and then briefly with my eyes closed; I jumped and ran and then plodded along slowly. I heard an airplane overhead and strained to catch the sound of the wind in the trees.
At one point, I was listening so well to the world around me that I heard a young man on the periphery of the meadow telling his friend to check out the “zombie horde of people.” He was sticking out his arms for comedic effect. I smiled because I knew he'd gotten it backwards. We weren't zombies anymore.
A full list of Elastic City's summer walks is available here. The next walk, Andrew Mount's 'Character,' takes place tonight and on June 27. All images by Caitlin Ruttle except top and bottom images, both by Jillian Steinhauer.