I am standing in the lobby of the New Museum waiting for “Eventually they introduced me to the people i immediately recognised as those who would take me out anyway” to begin, a piece by Luke Willis Thompson commissioned for the 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience. I know it starts at 2:30, I know I am supposed to wait here and keep my coat on, but besides that I don’t know much. On the other side of the glass window is the performer. After a quick nod he looks away, and for the rest of the performance I almost forget that I happen to know him.
The security guard prompts me and another person waiting there: “Follow that gentleman in the black backpack. Have fun.” He walks north on the Bowery and we start to follow him. I don’t know how far we are going or in what direction. Neither of us approaches him to talk during the performance, and neither of us talks to the other.
If you haven’t experienced the piece, and you think that there is a chance you will, I encourage you to stop reading here. The work has cast three performers, who have created several different walks; more importantly, the power of the piece comes in part from the suspense of not knowing how and where it concludes.
We walk up to Houston and turn right, and it occurs to me that no one on the street knows we are following this man. We go up 2nd Avenue and right on 3rd Street. He glances over his shoulder to see if we are following. A lot of people in this city glance over their shoulders, to see if they are being followed, how closely, and if the person behind might be dangerous to them.
As we walk down 6th street, I realize I have never experienced the city this way. I am always in conversation with another person or alone, on my way to a destination I know and chose. I notice the street with new focus: the community garden we pass on the right, the sun refracted by the cans and bottles made into pinwheels that decorate the garden’s chainlink fence.
We arrive in Tompkins Square Park and follow him in a wide circle a few times around the park’s center. I remember that Tompkins Square was the site of a massive anti-Chinese rally in the 1880s, and the site of an uprising and police crackdown in the 1980s. We leave Tompkins Square and I see a sign that commemorates that strip of Avenue B as Charlie Parker Way.
On Avenue C we pass an NYPD car, we weave behind it as it turns onto the avenue, then we pass another a few seconds later. I know, from one of the curators, that this piece deals with the history of stop-and-frisk, and wonder if the cop cars would describe the performer as a race, as black, as an approximate height and weight, as a black hooded jacket and black boots, as a suspect, as a target. Or maybe that is how I should describe the performer to make the piece visual for the reader, or maybe that is just how I was taught to see him.
At 13th Street we turn right, and walk down a grand alley with a power plant to our left and the Jacob Riis houses to our right. We cross through a dense steam vent, then through a parking lot. In front of us is FDR drive, and beyond that the East River. The performer hops a low fence that separates the Riis houses from a sidewalk. He faces us for the first time. “Thank you,” he says, then walks quickly south. The other follower and I are silent for a moment, watch him depart, then walk back the way we came.
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I sat down to talk with the artist behind the work, Luke Willis Thompson, and the performer, Tobi Haslett, in the lobby of the New Museum after the performance. We discussed the interests that generated the work, the process of collaboration that gave it form, and the political double-binds that keep participants constantly unsettled.
* * *
Ryan Wong: How did the piece originate?
Luke Willis Thompson: It started with a residency, an immersion where I tried to get behind the mythic idea of what New York City is. Most immediately, that was about getting away from the borders that demarcate the New Museum. The global museum brings things in, and the artist works as a sort of scout. Immediately, I wanted to locate myself at street level and to look at the codes that govern social circulation. Rather than operating on my thoughts and assumptions alone, I tried to attach myself to others’ biographies and observe life that way. Through this process, a literal map began to form.
I knew I wanted to point to the structure of pursuits, which is present in the work of [Vito] Acconci and Adrian Piper. There is also a reoccurring trope in the reportage of violent crime in which we get an annotated map of the route the pursuit took, for example in the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Because there is a kind of terrifying intimacy in this, I wanted to see if we could use that to relight certain streets and sites across the city. Then I knew my authorship was insufficient. I couldn’t do a piece like this on my own, I needed to work with performers who had their own autonomy. It became a process of finding a cast who could co-write the works.
RW: How did you two find each other?
Tobi Haslett: Through Sara [O’Keeffe, one of the curators of the triennial]. I met them at a bar and we discussed the piece’s theoretical implications. I floated ideas past them of some possible routes, and here we are.
LWT: Do you feel like the idea of co-authorship is genuine?
TH: Yes. I quite literally authored some of the routes. I’m sure some people come on my walks convinced that it is my piece and only my piece because I am the face of it. Today some people clapped for me, which seemed to be an attempt to congratulate me personally.
RW: In those initial conversations, where did that knowledge come from within you?
TH: I’m the one cast member [out of three] who hasn’t incorporated something personal. The routes I’ve created use homage, memorial, or a pairing of the two. The Tompkins Square park walk we did is based on my understanding of the Lower East Side, and because one of William Pope.L‘s crawl pieces [The Great White Way performances] started there. I wanted to take the form of the acutely, agonizingly visible, black, male body being subjugated to something strange, and overlay that with the concerns of this piece.
So I wanted to enter Tompkins Square park, circle it as a kind of purification before entering a non-gentrified, more confusing element of that neighborhood. It ends with a walk that is surrounded by smokestacks, projects, and bodegas. Starkly different from the real estate before.
There’s another piece where I take people to East New York, and I end up taking them to where Akai Gurley was shot in the stairwell. It’s not only a memorial piece, because it was also a destination for one of the Black Lives Matter protests. On the Saturday of the Millions March, people ended up crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and essentially spanning the entirety of Brooklyn. The destination was the Pink Houses. I wanted to reenact part of that protest, and, whenever possible, actually walk in the middle of the street as we did on the march.
LWT: It’s really interesting to be present in an act of remembrance for another memorial. It is a doubling of the memorial, which creates a distance from the event itself, which is the same distance I think could be required to begin caring for something at a political level. You can’t, or wouldn’t want to, be present at every tragedy.
A lot of the works end up channeling another moment of somebody walking. They don’t recall an endpoint in every case, but remap or retrace someone’s steps quite literally.
RW: At what point did the black male body become the focal point of the piece?
LWT: It’s not all men, but it’s a full black cast — that was an intention at the very first moment. It was never going to be a work that wasn’t fully located in a kind of blackness.
RW: How did you know that?
LWT: All of my other work comes from that same place or position. While I can’t relate to it in the exact same way as the cast, we have a shared space of political blackness, perhaps in a utopian vein. But I also think there’s an interesting choice that artists of color always have to make — are you going to make a work that is perceived as being by a person of color? I’ve been really interested to note, in colleagues and artists I admire, a strategy of ambiguity around that. But I felt this was an opportunity for directness.
TH: And yet I don’t think the racial element is so flagrant, or even immediately apparent to the people walking. I’m just thinking of the experience this morning, where I led three college students, who I think perceived it as a psycho-geographic experiment with no racial element. The cast is fully black, but the audience might not know that. The audience is presented with an interesting choice: they can either choose to interpret, or over-interpret that fact, or to ignore it completely in the name of a spurious liberal colorblindness, or, they choose to believe we live in a multicultural society where any sort of person can be leading you around.
I do wonder, when I lead complete strangers around on my walks, and take them to sites that don’t dredge up some awful racial history so they have no racial referent — I wonder the degree to which they allow themselves to have racial thoughts. They are in a double bind, because if they force themselves not to think about it, they are — and this is in quotes — obfuscating the central questions of our society, and if they fetishize it, they feel an uncomfortable complicity.
If you don’t have wall text, if you’ve been kept — pun intended — in the dark, what conclusions do you come up with?
RW: I felt a similar internal conversation in thinking about how to write about this piece. It was very present in my mind. I also noticed that, even though I know you, in the process of following I felt like we were just two bodies.
TH: I noticed that as well.
RW: And you checking over your shoulder is a loaded gesture. Can you talk about your mindset on the walk?
TH: I find my face clamped in this stern expression, this affect that I think mirrors some idea of urban black maleness. I’m not proud of this fact, but it’s something I’ve noticed. I think in order to enact the distance, physical and emotional, I do need to transform myself into a less open, less garrulous person. I’m thinking about how can I fix the audience with my gaze that invites them to follow me, but discourages any real contact. Maybe that’s why I frown. Mastering that process has been an interesting experiment in unfriendliness.
RW: It never even crossed my mind to break that silence.
LWT: The piece oscillates in terms of control the whole way through. The glances back are these constant reminders that the audience isn’t in control of the piece.
They are designed to create a moment to register that the performer is aware of you, and that this ‘performance’ isn’t without consequence. This is important as the format of the pursuit teases you to give up your subjectivity. I was amazed to find how comfortable it becomes to not know where you’re going, to be inattentive to what’s going on, even to try and ignore the performer as best you can without getting lost. It can become quite boring. The look back implores the audience to stop the act of not thinking. For me, it keeps the tension of the performance alive.
RW: Is that common to all of the cast? That the only communication is non-verbal?
LWT: I didn’t want there to be any talking. But as we practiced, and as the work grew, it became clearer that there shouldn’t be a rehabilitative moment. There isn’t a conversation at the end to explain why this might be important, and no real comfort. This stays very completely in that traditional zone of contemporary art, it keeps it as a readymade. There’s no stable conclusion.
RW: Why do you say “thank you” at the end?
TH: It seems vaguely conclusory. It’s imbued with this perverse feeling that I’ve served them in some way. Making contemporary art look more like waiting tables is part of the gesture we’re making, so making this awful and banal vocabulary of customer service … people always say “thank you” back. I didn’t expect that.
RW: This piece is pushing the boundaries of the New Museum. But it meets here, and the audience is people who go to museums, who have access to them. That brings economic, sociological questions about who is following. What did you want to deliver to that audience?
LWT: In all my work, the function is to perform leaving the museum, either literally or symbolically. It’s an exiting of the exhibition, but not as a refusal or dismissal but rather a very practical question of how long the feelings and thinking we do around art last once you leave that space and a confirmation that what a museum does is bigger than its architecture. I don’t see this as operating differently to any other artwork in the show, except it has a different format. And it’s a work you don’t have to pay to see.
Of course there are class questions around a museum-going audience, but I still contend that a museum audience can’t be thought of as homogeneous. There will be people who relate to the work in terms of difference and in terms of familiarity.
TH: Regardless of who the audience of the piece is, in situating them in this history of urban wanderers, we are enforcing a certain class character on them. This, I think, is the imagined audience of all works of critical art: Benjamin’s wanderer, this flaneur who is aroused by the swarming masses of the crowd, but can also dismiss them at a glance. To feel yourself on the side of the oppressed, but be party to the discriminating judgments of the oppressor.
RW: That view of a city is so uncommon and difficult to have in real life now.
LWT: There are very different layers of audience that make up the work. The cast member and the museumgoer take on the roles of performer and audience interchangeably. But then there are the passersby; the ones who help make the work but who have no idea of its existence.
Another audience is the enormous police presence throughout the city. They of course are unaware of the psycho-geographical play in the work, but go about their constant process of surveillance. There’s no protection between the life of the artwork and the life it is situated within.
“Eventually they introduced me to the people i immediately recognised as those who would take me out anyway” occurs every day the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower Manhattan, New York) is open (Tuesday–Sunday) at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m, through the end of the Triennial, May 24. More information on the New Museum website.