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On Being in an Olek

A participant in Olek's knitted version of Yoko Ono's "Painting to Shake Hands" (2011) (photo by Julie Shapiro, via dnainfo.com)

“Something I Guarantee You’ve Never Done Before” was the title of the Facebook invitation I got. “Hmm.” I thought. The invitation was somewhat secretive, but the link that was provided confirmed what I suspected. Being somewhat familiar with Olek’s work from some of the press she’s gotten, I knew it would involve spending time in a full-body crocheted costume. A few weeks later after determining I didn’t have anything better to do (and I mean that in the best possible way), I decided to go for it. Crocheting is a very occasional hobby of mine. I’ve always had an affinity for it over knitting, which seems to be the hipper of these crafts, and I wanted to get more familiar with Olek’s work after her last show titled KnittingisforPus*****.

I got info on a fitting the next day at Olek’s LMCC studio from the project coordinator and arrived on the 14th floor, turning left when I saw the yarn explosion. Olek greeted me as she worked on something else, finished her thought and matched me with a suit. She explained the project and what I should do. A group of us would be suited up and shaking hands with participants through a painting, as per “Painting to Shake Hands” from Yoko Ono’s 1964 book of drawings and instructions, Grapefruit:

Drill a hole in a canvas and put your

Hand out from behind

Receive your guests in that position.

Shake hands and converse with hands.

Olek’s additions were the subtitle, “Painting for Cowards,” and bibliographic info on Yoko Ono’s piece: “1961 Autumn, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono”

One participant displaying the canvas used in Olek's performance piece (photo by Ned Eisenberg)

She had a couple of such paintings to use as examples, but explained that the ones we would be using would be larger so we would not be able to see the people we were shaking hands with. “I think of this as painting for cowards,” she explained, the mask and the canvas were two layers or screens between the people who were interacting. Our only contact was to be the conversation our hands would have. Interaction is the point of the piece, Olek told us. Once someone shakes hands with you (the performer, the suit) they become the work too.

We were going to be in a different high traffic area on each of three days: Times Square, Grand Central Terminal and Wall Street were on the list. We hoped for no rain and no heat waves.

*   *   *

Day 1: Times Square

Getting ready in the van; me in the background in green; JiaJia (front) waiting for space in the van (photo by Ned Eisenberg)

After meeting at the red steps above the TKTS booth, the project coordinator Todd told us where to find the van where Olek and the suits and canvases were. We arrived in batches and changed in the van in a commercial parking lot, hopping down to the pavement to get our masks attached to the rest of the suits:

Another performer and I chatted about being excited and nervous to be in the project. I learned that she had even practiced surprise handshakes with her husband and I asked for advice on her method. I have a pretty strong handshake, but I decided that I would flow with the lead that the participants gave me; if they were firm, I was firm, if they were limp, I was limp. I also decided early that I would shake for as long as the participants wanted.

We were led out to Times Square in batches and placed two per block in the street plaza areas. Our coordinator instructed us to stay off the sidewalks, as that requires a permit. At first I was waving and beckoning people to come shake, but Olek came by and corrected me: “Don’t wave, then it becomes something else. We want them to come to you by themselves, not like a clown that’s here,” here being the spectacle that is Times Square. Aside from all the lights and ads (less noticeable in the afternoon light), there was the Naked Cowboy (who stole some of my thunder after the rush of the first 10 minutes), comedy club ticket hawkers, Cirque du Soleil promoters in kooky umbrella outfits, bus tour salesmen and, well, the tourists themselves.

Participant Ned Eisenberg tickles the ivories as he waits for the rest of the performers to be ready (photo by Claire Sexton)

Lots of people shook hands and some people high-fived me instead, with the occasional dap, or secret handshake. We were scattered pretty far apart and pedestrians had to look hard to see more than one of us at once. A few times I heard kids exclaim, “Look, there’s another one!” as they passed by.

Many people seemed afraid, barely shaking my hand and dashing off, as if they were embarrassed of their participation. Others would grip boldly for a long time and seemed to be posing for pictures. Still others were very proud, walking off with puffed chests after working up the nerve. Kids were really interested. Watching from the sides of my canvas I would often see children looking at us with curiosity and/or longing, while their parents didn’t even pause to consider the handshake.

 At the end of our three-hour performance we were led back to the parking lot, snapped some pictures and got our “heads” removed. A few of us compared notes on the experience. The women I spoke to all got the same creepy guy who tickled us after determining that we were female. I debated how long to let it go on before I told him to fuck off, but he left as soon as I moved my canvas between my body and his hands. I knew he was going around to everyone, and I wondered if there was anyone else who made the effort to shake everyone’s hand.

Day 2: Wall Street and Bowling Green

Me and Cindy at the end of the first day

Things were much more relaxed and spacious the second day at Olek’s studio in the LMCC Workspace floor on Maiden Lane. We went out in batches onto the street and began performing in front of the building. One of my favorite side-view observations was there. A guy talking on his cell phone watched us file out and walked right up to a performer to shake his hand without, skipping a beat in his conversation.

Later we were scattered throughout Wall Street and Bowling Green, some near the Charging Bull. I was posted in front of the National Museum of the American Indian (in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green) looking photogenic for sure, but I didn’t get very many shakes.

Day 3: Grand Central

We met at the offices of a record label, PrimaryWave, near Union Square to change in their viewing/listening room before heading up to Grand Central Terminal on the Subway. It was by far the swankiest place we got to change in..The owner of the label is an Olek fan and after borrowing some of her works for the office he offered her the place. He came in very excited and made a few yarn jokes while praising Olek.

Off we went! I was excited about riding the subway. We split up into smaller groups on different cars so we didn’t get in people’s way. It’s pretty clear that some people were freaked out. I was smiling at them behind the mask, but of course they couldn’t see that.

Knitted-out on the subways (photo by Todd Florio, via Olek's Twitter, @oleknyc)

When we arrived at Grand Central Terminal half of us encountered police that said we couldn’t congregate in groups without a permit. Todd presented the officer with a press release, explaining that it’s a city sponsored art project and we would be spread out, but the cop still wouldn’t budge. Silly police, we were way more of an obstruction on the sidewalk than we would have been in the cavernous space of the Terminal. Olek and Todd spent some time trying to get the permit, but turned out the only person who could give us permission was on vacation. Ah well.

We’re gonna be on teevee! (photo by Todd Florio, via Olek's Twitter, @oleknyc)

Posted outside once again, I was thankful for the midtown building shade, and a decent breeze that kept me from overheating. Olek placed us in a few different arrangements around 42nd street and soon folks from a CBS show arrived to tape a segment. The cameraman and reporter asked Olek if she could reposition us a couple different ways for the camera effects, then used me as the example of shaking hands with strangers.

For the last 20 minutes we went back to Union Square to get a few pictures and handshakes in. The students, skaters, and weirdos of Union Square seemed to appreciate us more than some of the other locations.

*   *   *

The “converse with hands” part turned out to be confusing for some people. I had people ask me questions, get no answer, then shake my hand and ask me again, as if the handshake was the key to a conversation. Todd told us a story as we unwound (ha!) from the second day about a man who took the instructions entirely literally and tried to have a chat with the person’s hand, “Hello hand, how are you doing today?” In Union Square one guy made a joke about not wearing Converse at the moment, while one hippie made some kooky hand motions in an attempt to converse with the performer to my left. “Converse with hands, what does that mean?” she asked after she didn’t get much of a hand response, perhaps not realizing that the person she was interacting with couldn’t see her attempts at conversation.

I think most people didn’t realize that we couldn’t see them. Certainly the kids didn’t, as I saw a couple of children reaching toward my neighbor suits’ hand but not touching it, so my compatriot didn’t know.

Yarn-bomber Olek and three outfitted participants (photo by Todd Florio, via Olek's Twitter account, @oleknyc)

It was interesting that Olek chose not to put her name or information on the canvas at all. We each carried a press release tucked in the corner of our canvases, but that was in case of police or security questions, not for people to get a “wall label” for the work. Some observers thought it was an actual Yoko Ono performance and one made a pointed comment about her not being out there with us.

Though we couldn’t make contact other than handshakes, I was most tempted to talk to people when they had the gumption to come up and ask us what it was about, and who the artist was. I am fascinated by people’s reaction to the option of interaction in performance art. It takes a certain amount of bravery to participate in such an artwork where the expectations are unclear, I’ve often seen works or situations where the audience is too afraid or shy to interact with a piece or performers, and that’s usually even in an art crowd. I felt proud of the people that came to shake, and thankful, because time passed more quickly when we were engaged.

It was absolutely true that the best part was people’s reactions. I got used to our strange appearance quickly but I never got tired of listening to and watching the way people looked at us, passed us by, shook with us and grinned. Perhaps the original is a painting for cowards, but it took brave and knowing souls to approach and engage.

Overheard While Being in an Olek

“Are you hot?” and “That must be hot!” were easily 50% of the comments

“I saw one of your colleagues at Crest Hardware yesterday”

“You’re creepy, but I like you”

“It looks like Dr. Seuss.”

Said in passing and with complete disgust, “What some people do with their lives!”

“Get a job!”

“Is this Oleak [sic]? Hey it’s Sharonda, how you doin’?”

“What exactly is this for?” (no answer) (quick handshake) “What exactly is this for?”

“What’s the moral of this story?” (No answer) “Oh you’re not allowed to tell me. We have to figure it out ourselves?”

“Is this an art project? Who is it by?”

Animals interacted with: 2 (snake at Bowling Green, dog at Union Square.)

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