Articles

Port Authority’s Human Side in a 24 Hour Performance

by Kyle Chayka on May 27, 2011

Man Bartlett during his “#24hPort” performance (photo Hyperallergic)

When I caught performance artist Man Bartlett around 4:30 pm EST yesterday, he had been in New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal for 23 and a half hours straight. Beginning on Wednesday, May 25 at 5 pm and continuing through 5 pm on May 26, the “#24hPort” performance saw the artist occupy both virtual and physical space, wandering through Port Authority and asking visitors where they were going, at the same time tweeting about the experience and asking Twitter participants about their memories of where they had been.

Part of Creative Time’s Creative Time Tweets series of Twitter-related artist commissions, “#24hPort” was a work about travel and transience, but also about the community of Port Authority, a crew of security and police officers, maintenance staff, commuters, travelers and drifters that move through the building all day, every day. It was that community that Man found himself moving through, under the watchful surveillance of Port Authority security and his online following.

Port Authority from the street (photo Hyperallergic)

One problem? Cell service isn’t great in the underground bunker of the bus station, so at times Man found it impossible to tweet, eventually marking the spots with good reception and monitoring the online feed intermittently. I also found it tough to reach the artist’s iPhone (complete with an extra battery pack) when I got off the A train and crossed straight into Port Authority.

Man tweeting during “#24hPort” (photo Hyperallergic)

After a few text messages, I ran into the artist around Port Authority’s mezzanine, a circle of sunglass and bag kiosk shops set around the locked-off control center of the bus station, a bank of TV monitors and computers behind tinted glass. Slightly haggard, as anyone would be after spending 24 hours straight under fluorescent lights, but surprisingly energetic, Bartlett was excited to finish up the performance as the end time rolled around. Creative Time Tweets curator Shane Brennan showed up near the end of the performance to discuss the final documentation and photo shoot.

At 5 pm, and after one final tweet, Man picked up the off-white suitcase that had held his supplies for the duration of the performance and walked towards a station exit on Eighth Avenue. Moving through the tide of travelers, most of whom were headed in the opposite direction, the artist walked through a set of glass doors and set foot onto the sidewalk. The sudden sunlight was bright enough so that even I was a little dazed, after spending only half an hour in the artificially lit terminal.

Man Bartlett leaving Port Authority after “#24hPort” (photo Hyperallergic)

The place isn’t so easy to leave and the artist admitted he had oddly grown fond of it. The single thing that stood out most to the artist was how human the experience was; despite its reputation as a circle of hell, Port Authority may be one of the most alive spaces in New York City, day or night.

I documented those last 30 minutes I spent with Bartlett and talked to him for a short Q+A, which is published below.

Man Bartlett leaving Port Authority after “#24hPort” (photo Hyperallergic)

Man Bartlett outside of Port Authority after “#24hPort” (photo Hyperallergic)

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Q+A with Man Bartlett during the last half hour of “#24hPort”

Port Authority Security Officer: Someone has to be with you.

Man Bartlett: We’ll be right here. Thank you!

Kyle Chayka: So someone has to be watching you all the time?

MB: Yeah, keeping an eye out.

KC: So they periodically brush by you, make sure you’re still alive.

MB: Yeah, well I think their concern was just, A, safety and, B, a kind of insurance, making sure nothing happens to me, and that I don’t do anything.

KC: Gotcha. So you brought this suitcase?

MB: Yeah this is a suitcase I used in Berlin [during my recent “#140hBerlin” performance]. I really like how its dirty and there’s history it, it’s been used a lot, I like the dirty, off-white color. Random splotches.

KC: At least there’s food and stuff here.

MB: It’s actually been pretty great, I had a budget. That made things a lot nicer and easier. Surprisingly, I was expecting, and still have 22 minutes left of this, I was really expecting the physical space to be a lot more challenging, in terms of navigating it and navigating the people and interacting with the people, I have been pleasantly surprised by the humanity in people and how nice people are. Even the craziest of the crazy people I met were just really nice. I was really pleasantly surprised by the types of interactions I had here and how much genuine humanity that I’ve seen in this space that has [according to a 2007 statistic] 200,000 people a day come through here.

It’s amazing to see all the different kinds of people who come through and how they move through the space, being someone who’s willingly here.

KC: Yeah, you’re kind of staying put but everyone else is going somewhere else.

MB: Yeah, but sometimes the late night crowd, if they miss their bus, they just kind of hang out. They’re not transients but they’re not in a rush either.

Like I talked to this guy Sam for maybe 20 or 30 minutes about what he was doing and how he had missed the express bus, and then he took his time, and then he took too much time and missed the next bus. He was sort of pointing to a bag like he had gotten drunk a little bit. He was still surprisingly coherent and intelligent, going home to New Jersey, but he was just taking his time. He had to be back here in New York really early in the morning.

Man Bartlett in front of Port Authority’s “#24hPort” posters (photo Hyperallergic)

KC: What was the density of people like late at night?

MB: Well they shut down different parts of the space. Between 2 am and 6 am only a small section of the space is actually open. [Waves to a guard] That was Andre, he was watching me for a while. The staff here at Port Authority, they’re amazing, I watched them answer questions all day, for their entire shift, and they never got frustrated about having to answer these people’s questions. I was frustrated and I wasn’t even asking questions!

The space changes dramatically; there’s definitely times when there are a lot of departures and not a lot of arrivals, and vice versa. That tends to correspond with the NYC rush hour, a lot of in-coming people in the morning, a lot of out-going at night.

Night shift people are a different breed. But some of them are college students, some of them are full-bled transients, some of them are just kind of on their way somewhere else.

KC: Did you get a feel for where people are going?

MB: Kind of all over. It’s interesting because a lot of them only go to certain places and then you transfer further out, and most of the people that I talked to weren’t really going that far. One woman going to Nevada, a few people going to Canada.

KC: As a work in progress right now, how are you feeling about [#24hPort]? We’ve still got 20 minutes left.

MB: As a work in progress, I’ve been really satisfied. I feel like it wasn’t at all what I expected from the physical component and the psychological component. The Twitter interaction has been really solid. I’ve been really happy with the people that have engaged and the variety of people that have engaged. Creative Time brought in a different audience to the project, so that was interesting to see.

But yeah, I’m happy. And I’m looking forward to finishing in a few minutes.

KC: Is there anything you’re going to do right away?

MB: Smoke a cigarette, and then get to bed. I’m going to Maine soon, I’m going on vacation. Fresh air and non-fluorescent lights. I don’t know how to put this other than … I’m shocked at how little I’m destroyed by this space. I really assumed in my walkthroughs and my conversations that it was going to ruin me, but I’ve actually come to kind of love this space in a really bizarre way, and I was not expecting that. And the people, not just the staff, but the people who come through here, it’s a whole new respect for them, and I wasn’t expecting that.

Man Bartlett, right, speaking to “Creative Time Tweets” curator Shane Brennan, left (photo Hyperallergic)

*   *   *

Creative Time Tweets will continue with “#5992 I Will, with Pleasure, Take Letters for You” by David Horvitz from June 17 to 27. Static documentation of Man’s “#24hPort” performance, including photos a tweet archive, will be published on Creative Time’s site in the coming days.

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