Interviews

Artist Confronts Our Fear of Strangers with Intimate Daily Gestures

George Ferrandi, “Bridge to Jihyun” (all images courtesy the artist)

George Ferrandi rides the subway. As passengers push and squeeze and avert their eyes, Ferrandi relaxes her joints and muscles, relinquishing any discomfort or fear that might linger in her posture. When she squeezes into a seat, she refocuses her attention on the border between her body and the body of her neighbor. When Ferrandi feels as though the gap between her and her fellow passenger has closed, when she feels the space has become warm and inviting, she rests her head on her neighbor’s shoulder.

Like the Fluxus artists before her, Ferrandi’s works leave no physical trace except for their documentation. Still images taken from cell phone videos of her interventions have received almost 800,000 mentions on Tumblr, so much attention, in fact, that Ferrandi was invited to give a TED Talk on her performance. In spite of her growing notoriety, many stills from “it felt like i knew you…” (2012–ongoing) are blogged and reblogged without attribution. As the work gains fame, its association with the artist’s name is lost. The art becomes ownerless, becomes meme. In the crowded, often impersonal space of the internet, Ferrandi’s images of the impersonal turned personal resonate.

As she explained in a conversation over breakfast, anyone who’s ever left the house knows how a gesture can affect the tenor of a day. Ferrandi is interested in intimate gestures, nonverbal and verbal. In her piece, “ok don’t look at the stranger…” she explores what she calls “server language,” the language of waitstaff, which is also the language of lovers. The language of: “let me get that for you,” “let me get this out of your way,” “what can I get for you tonight?” and “how can I help?” The language of relaxed and open shoulders, turned-up palms, a tilted head, a hot dish prepared and set in front of you so deftly that its aesthetic pleasure arrives as a surprise. In the safe environment of a catered to meal, space for the interpersonal opens up between diners. Restaurants, as Ferrandi sees it, are backdrops for engagements, celebrations, break-ups, and tough conversations.

In “ok don’t look at the stranger…” two people selected at random sit across from each other at a café table. Each dons a pair of headphones and listens to a simultaneous, yet separate, voiceover. Part audiobook, part instructional podcast, Ferrandi’s voiceovers direct the participants’ gazes from their partner’s mouth and eyes to an array of objects which Ferrandi delivers, arranges, and eventually clears from the table. At the end of the performance, the voiceovers instruct the participants to look into each other’s eyes for an undetermined amount of time. They replicate the endless lovers’ gaze. Ferrandi is interested in how the artist, like a server in a restaurant, administers rituals that in turn become emotionally resonant experiences when the participants become collaborators.

Ferrandi’s works explore the intersections of performance, sculpture, and theater. Through staged and improvised interventions, she investigates how gestures alter our perception of space and how narrative is used as a tool to sculpt time. She is interested in how intimate experience blooms within the confines of commercial ritual, and in how our fear of the unknown, our fear of strangers, should not just be acknowledged, but can be transformed.

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George Ferrandi, “it felt like i knew you…” (2012–ongoing), 2 Train, the Bronx

Jasmine Dreame Wagner: Could you tell me a bit about your background? Where did you grow up and how did you begin making sculptures?

George Ferrandi: I grew up in Baltimore. My family restored churches. I’m not sure when I started making sculpture specifically, but I mixed cement with my dad and climbed scaffolding as a little kid. I was developing material skills and thinking about space from different perspectives for as long as I can remember.

JDW: Has there been a particular project, piece, or event that has significantly influenced your development?

GF: I spent a summer at the Skowhegan residency in Maine. The camp overlooked a lake. I taught myself to swim so that I could take the measurements of a floating dock anchored there. Over a few weeks, working after midnight and in secret, I welded a steel house to mount to the dock. When it was finished, I enlisted two friends to help me pull up the dock’s anchor in the middle of the night and paddle the dock to another part of the lake. We installed the steel house and pinned sheer white fabric to it, leaving the bottom portion of the “walls” loose, so it could blow in the breeze, and so that swimmers could still use the dock. We left one side of the roof open, so the sun still came in.

We spent all day attaching the fabric, intending to paddle the dock back for dinner, but we hadn’t realized we were making a gigantic sail. We also hadn’t realized we should have packed water and sunscreen. We were all completely scorched. The wind blew us — in what was essentially a box kite — towards the other side of the lake, fast — way too fast for us to stop ourselves with the oars. We were sailing farther and farther away, with no idea how we were going to stop or get back. Eventually a woman in a speedboat rescued us. Her kids climbed into the house with us and she towed us back to camp.

Over the next week, people would sit on the shore and watch the house change shape in the moonlight. They’d put blankets into trash bags and swim out to sleep in the floating house. One night at mealtime, Mel Chin paddled a raft out to it and we watched his silhouette as he ate his dinner alone in the house. Another night I stayed up all night watching it glow and shift, talking to an artist I wouldn’t have otherwise met about St. Augustine. I named the piece after her: “Bridge to Jihyun.”

That piece changed what my goals for my art were in a lot of ways. I had so many:

  1. a response to a site and situation
  2. a push outside my comfort zone
  3. a secret
  4. a conspiracy
  5. an adventure
  6. a rescue
  7. an honestly beautiful object
  8. an immersive experience for an audience
  9. a symbol for a thing, but also the thing itself
  10. a bridge to relationships
George Ferrandi, “ok don’t look at the stranger,” montage 300

JDW: How did your performance pieces “i felt like i knew you” and “ok don’t look at the stranger” originate?

GF: My work usually draws from my life experiences, but I agree with Adrian Piper who is credited with having said something like “just because my work is autobiographical doesn’t mean it’s about me.”

it felt like I knew you was a project born of loneliness. I remember standing on a packed train with my head an inch from someone’s shoulder, exhausted from the day and wanting so badly the comfort of human connection, but recognizing how transgressive that tiny gesture of intimacy — moving my head one inch — would be.

For a long time I’ve wished that our eyes changed color when we fell into or out of love. Then we wouldn’t be able to deceive each other or ourselves about the beginnings and endings of things. “ok, don’t look at the stranger” started with reflecting on that.

JDW: Could you talk a bit about series and duration? Your performance piece, “i felt like i knew you” is improvised over and over again, but “ok don’t look” is staged like a theatrical performance.

GF: I think of both of these projects as ongoing because their meaningfulness won’t depreciate if I repeat them. I’ve done other projects that resonate specifically because they only happen once. I read once that the difference between a beautiful thing and a gorgeous thing is that “gorgeous things lack duration.” I’m interested in testing the truth of that.

JDW: Could you talk about how you transitioned from creating sculptural objects to sculpting interpersonal space? I’m curious about the evolution of your practice.

GF: I’m always planning on making changes to the way I work! To be more disciplined, to make a daily drawing, to start a journal, to experiment more with materials. I think I’m still using the practice I had as a grad student in sculpture as a barometer — I was in the studio, moving physical materials around all day, every day.

The reality of my work and my life are so different now. Honestly, my studio practice involves a lot of staring blankly, trying to isolate a feeling or locate the core of an idea. The process is often slow — a photo I saw on Facebook was the screensaver on my computer for over a year before I isolated why I was so interested in it. David Denby once said: “Every love affair is an improbable narrative wrung from non-being and loneliness.” I imagine each new project as an unlikely romance, and coaxing it into existence as a kind of courtship.

George Ferrandi, “ok don’t look at the stranger”

JDW: Earlier this year, Mandy Len Catron wrote about her experience recreating psychologist Arthur Aron’s study on romantic love in the New York Times. In Dr. Aron’s study, two people sit facing each other and ask each other a series of questions. After the participants answer the questions, they stare into each other’s eyes. When I read Catron’s piece in Modern Love, I immediately thought of “ok don’t look at the stranger,” how participants continue to gaze into each other’s eyes past the end of the performance.

Dr. Aron says that the goal of his study was to develop a feeling of closeness. He defined closeness as “including other in the self,” and the feeling produced by the procedure as “an interconnectedness of self and other.”

The “interconnectedness of self and other” is a theme running through your work as well. From the intimacy forged through shared narrative and gaze in “ok don’t look” to the reshaping of emotional space between subway passengers in “i felt like i knew you,” your work sculpts what might traditionally be considered the “negative space” between the performers’ bodies. Negative space becomes emotionally charged material that tethers the performers to each other, transforming the participants’ inner spaces.

Could you talk about love and intimacy as sculptural objects?

GF: I recently learned that the heart and the brain both generate electromagnetic fields. The field surrounding the heart is 60 times stronger than the one surrounding the brain and it’s measurable several feet away from the body. I love to think about our connections to each other in these terms. Magnetism is so much more evocative to me, in a tactile sense, than “chemistry.” I picture us hovering just off the ground, propelled through our lives by our attractions to and repulsions from each other. It renders ‘the Mystery of who we come to love’ pragmatically unavoidable. It renders our heartbreaks necessary, if for no other reason than their generation of momentum.

George Ferrandi, “it felt like i knew you…” (2012–ongoing), 2 Train, Downtown (click to enlarge)

But to answer your question, that study is fascinating. One key difference is that in “ok don’t look,” the two listeners sitting across from each other carry very different charges in their gazes. One has been asked to search for something in their partner’s eyes, while the other has been asked to conjure something particular in their mind. They both are reminded several times during the piece that they’re experiencing different stories, but afterwards they’re almost always shocked to learn that the person across from them hasn’t shared their experience. They can’t fully internalize that fact while they are looking in each other’s eyes. To me, that’s the part that feels like falling in love.

Like Colum McCann writes in Let the Great World Spin, “There is I think, a fear of love.” I’m curious about what we can feel when we remove the fear of certain types of contact (eye contact or resting one’s head on the shoulder of a stranger, for example) and allow ourselves a human closeness. I like to think of removing these types of social barriers — the carving away of psychogenic material — as a sculptural process.

JDW: Could you talk about the Jump!Star festival you’re planning?

GF: H.A. Rey, the author of Curious George, wrote a children’s book that remaps the constellations. Through his illustrations, I learned that the North Star — the fixed point in the night sky that helped lead slaves to freedom in America — is not the same North Star that helped the Egyptians align the pyramids. Because of a wobble in the Earth’s rotation known as Axial Precession, a thousand years from now, another North Star will replace our current one. This continues to unhinge me. How is it possible that our quintessential, ever-reliable “Guiding Light” changes?

The work I’m doing now attempts to unpack questions related to this phenomenon. I’m working with the Washington Project for the Arts to develop Jump!Star, a festival celebrating the transition of the North Star a thousand years from now. Jump!Star will be a nighttime fiesta involving a line-dancing choir, a league of women drummers, a performance projected and mapped on giant paper sculptures, light poems on car windows, hundreds of paper lanterns, and a Starcake contest. I’ll be working with Alan Calpe, Mindy Abovitz, and TomTom Magazine, Laurie O’Brien, Saito, and others, to invent the traditions — songs, dances, imagery, and food — to be passed down through the millennia to mark the moment when the next North Star rotates into place. This summer, I’ll be in Japan on a fellowship from the Japan-US Friendship Commission researching star festivals, especially the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori City.

I’ve been developing a piece called Star!Star!Star!Circle!, an immersive synchronized sound play where nine people become both listeners and performers in an experience that sits somewhere between a celestial bedtime story and a séance. The performance text and the work in the space oscillate between functional and fictional. I’m hoping poetry can exist in the middle of that contradiction.

Star!Star!Star!Circle! opens at Wayfarers Friday, May 29th, 7–10 PM, and continues at Bushwick Open Studios through June 21st. Performances after sunset on June 12th and 13th. (Reservations required for performances. Visit georgeferrandi.com or brooklynwayfarers.org for available times and additional info.)

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