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People who encountered a vending machine dispensing free compliments in the Meatpacking District or a group of women knitting and unraveling white aprons in Union Square over the weekend might have considered them part of New York City’s continually anomalous street life, or felt an odd pang of déjà vu. This year’s edition of the annual Art in Odd Places (AiOP) festival, which presents art interventions along 14th Street in Manhattan from the Hudson River to Avenue C, was titled Recall. Held October 7 to 11 and curated by Sara Reisman and Kendal Henry, its 47 artists were selected from the previous decade of AiOP festivals.
The first AiOP took place in 2005 and spawned from an action group led by Ed Woodham, who remains the director of the grassroots organization. Only since 2008 has AiOP been concentrated along 14th Street, and even in the last seven years that stretch of street has gone through many transformations (like the Meatpacking District area becoming more glossy, for instance). But in many ways it remains a grimy boundary between many different Manhattan neighborhoods, with the East Village, Flatiron District, Chelsea, and others edging up against this divider.
I covered AiOP for Hyperallergic in 2011, 2012, and 2014, so on Saturday afternoon I encountered some ghosts from the past, like Nobutaka Aozaki’s “Looking For Your Smile Bag.” He was attempting to track down portrait subjects from his 2011 project “Smiley Bag Portrait,” which involved sketching people’s faces on plastic bags. I also recognized the subtly subversive MTA interventions of Daniel Bejar’s “Get Lost!,” where he altered the subway signage for Brooklyn to “Breuckelen,” a reminder of New York City’s 18th-century self.
So much of AiOP is about chance, about what you happen to walk by, about what you recognize as art amid the street chaos. I almost missed Isidro Blasco’s “Not Really There,” for which the artist photographed close-ups of the 14th Street environment and installed them as mirror images atop the spot where they were originally taken. I walked through Union Square just as Edith Raw was prowling around sheathed in her quilt of plastic bags and consumer packaging, called “Collapse” (made with Maria Judilla), although most pedestrians seemed to willfully ignore this moving trash ghost.
There are always projects I wish I’d caught, like “Joan of Arc of 14th Street” by LuLu LoLo, where the artist posed as the French saint to call attention to the city’s lack of monuments featuring historic women (for the record, there are only five). Likewise, I missed the beatific manifestation of Carolina Mayorga’s “Our Lady of Fourteenth Street.” I did walk away with a free compliment from Leah Harper’s “Complimentary” vending machine, where visitors exchange good tidings, and was greeted by numerous “Chance Meeting Doorknob Hangers” by Linda Hesh, saying “What’s new with you?” and “It’s great to see you” from 14th Street door handles. And in Union Square, the manic focal point of AiOP, a team of women assembled by Olek was patiently crocheting and unraveling white aprons as a comment on women’s work never ceasing. Alongside, Brooks Wenzel offered to shine a 1966 penny I had in my wallet with his mobile “RealCoinz” polishing device.
As someone who appreciates the way the city morphs when you experience it by foot, and small, earnest art projects that occur outside a gallery or interact with an unsuspecting audience, I always find AiOP an engaging experience. Even now in the festival’s 11th year, with past projects by over 500 artists, it’s still an important reminder of our collective ownership of public space, and how the experiences there can be unexpected and meaningful.
Art in Odd Places: Recall took place October 7–11 in Union Square and along 14th Street in Manhattan.