Nathaniel Sullivan talking about the importance of going into debt in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York City (click to enlarge) (photo courtesy Nathaniel Sullivan)

Expectation and experience seldom end up at the same destination, especially when you’re walking down a subway platform and see a sign that reads, “To Breuckelen” and realize — no, no, the MTA hasn’t sold the L line back to the Dutch to save money; rather, you are seeing a sign hung by artist Daniel Bejar (not that one) as part of his Get Lost! installation.

The Conflux Festival surprised me. Being new to the idea of psychogeography, I came out of last weekend’s event more aware of the people behind pranks and actions like Bejar’s. If effective art widens our view, makes us more aware of the world around us, then this festival made me want to explore my boundaries.

Conflux, started in 2003 by Christina Ray and David Mandl, is an annual event that shows off work and provides a venue for discussion of psychogeography, the study of how we behave and interact with the environment. It was held from October 20 to 21 at NYU’s Barney Building and featured objects, installations, talks, and off-site projects that dealt with the theme of transportation.

One of the main features of the festival was an exhibition of ephemera, both physical objects and documentation of past actions, gestures, and interventions. These included out-of-place signs, seats, posters — any object placed or action carried out in a public space that’s meant to be interacted with and discovered by passersby.

“I participate in a community that’s very active in making this kind of work,” said Angela Washko, curator of the event. “My instinct is to organize people, so I end up organizing these kinds of shows.” Washko, a member of the art collective Flux Factory and an independent curator based in New York,  brought together the work of 30-plus artists, activists, object makers, urban planners, and “pranksters” for this year’s event.

A former painter, Washko discovered this culture in 2010, when she curated a show called Expert Oddities in Troy, New York. There she met many of the artists featured in Conflux 2012, including Nathaniel Sullivan, Rob Ray, Jeff Stark, and Alex Young. “It was a game changer for me,” she said.

Photo documentation of Alex Young, “Site of Metropolis: Past/Future/Present/Future” (2010)

Photo documentation of Alex Young, “Site of Metropolis: Past/Future/Present/Future” (2010) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The gallery consisted of two floors inside the the Barney building and included documentation of the work of Caroline Woolard, Bejar, Steve Lambert, Chris Gethard, Jason Eppink, Emily Bunker, and Nate Hill, with an ongoing performance by Naomi Miller. Though a majority of the works were shown downstairs, upstairs on a balcony were pieces by Kristoffer Ørum and Anders Bojen, as well as Mare Liberum, an art collective based in Gowanus, Brooklyn, that had made two handmade, seaworthy skiffs out of paper.

The presentation of the work varied from artist to artist. Videos, photos, computers, and the objects themselves were all used and represented. This format differentiated one artist from the next, which helped considerably when you were looking at multiple artists working on similar themes and sometimes, in similar spaces. For example, the documentation for Bejar, Eppink, and Hill was naturally grouped in the same area because they all work in public space. But they’ve also all done projects in subway stations, and Eppink and Bejar even hung similar-looking signs. Wisely, Washko separated the two artists and represented Eppink with physical “Spoiler Alert” signs, Bejar through documented photographs.

Members of art collective Mare Liberum showing off their handmade paper skiffs

Members of art collective Mare Liberum showing off their handmade paper skiffs (click to enlarge) (photo courtesy Angela Washko)

Among the off-site projects, one of the standouts was Mark Shepard’s Serendipitor, an iPhone app that intentionally gives you the wrong, or at least most convoluted, directions possible, in order to create serendipity. “What does it mean to live in a world where we have to download serendipity?” Shepard asked during his presentation.

After pairing up with Shepard and another featured artist, Mary Flanagan, the three of us headed out of the gallery to test the app together. We walked down the street and received the first instruction: “Turn right when you pass a person wearing green.” We ended up at the Ottendorfer Library, the first free Manhattan public library; it’s an old, Queen Anne–style, red brick building from 1884 with the words “Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle” and busts of Euripides and Galenus carved on the outside, eyes staring towards Second Avenue for over a hundred years.

“All That You Desire: Get It All in an Era of Low Density Hope,” a performance in the guise of a seminar by Nathaniel Sullivan, was another one of the best projects in the festival. What was so great, and what I found so astonishing about his work, was that in little over an hour he had persuaded eight strangers to come with him in a limousine, gave them champagne, began a speech about the benefits of artists acting more like Wall Street bankers, took the group on a tour of Wall Street, and by the end had convinced several people — or at least created a real discussion — about the possibility of artists acting more like bankers in their methods of operating and making money.

“We’re not born with original sin anymore,” he said at one point, “we’re born with original debt.”

Sullivan also talked about the history of contemporary economics, abstracting your desire, living in a postironic state, going into debt, turning your desires into needs, and assuming formlessness, all the while visiting landmarks such as 55 Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, Federal Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank, and Cipriani, a luxury restaurant where Wall Street executives attract and sway new talent. But there was a lot of intended irony in the performance. He used his character to point out what these institutions are doing and how badly they are run. What would a seminar on becoming a successful banker look like if we based it on the real actions of people on Wall Street? The Fed has gone into massive amounts of debt, and we are somehow supposed to see this behavior as smart and correct?

Nathaniel Sullivan and his group in the limousine during “All That You Desire: Get It All in an Era of Low Density Hope” (photo courtesy Nathanial Sullivan)

Sullivan said  he usually picks a character and embodies it throughout the performance. “It was a very receptive audience,” he added. “This is about people and what drives them. I think I’m my best when I’m mixed up about something, whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea. Once it’s rolling, it’s just going to come out of you.”

“I felt like I was inside a time-warped space, departed from everyday life and everyday thinking,” said Carina Kaufman, an artist and member of Flux Factory who came on the ride. “The thoughts were super concrete. I felt uncomfortable, but that’s what performance art does; it forces you to think.”

I would have liked to experience more of these off-site projects, including Yoni Brook’s Mailman Walks, but the compacted schedule of the festival and the location of some of the projects (Alex Young’s intervention was held on Roosevelt Island) made it impossible.

Artist Naomi Miller presenting her work

Artist Naomi Miller gave a strong presentation of her work.

I also had some complaints about the talks, which made up a large part of the festival. Though many of them were engaging, some of the speakers strayed, talking more about their own oeuvres rather than explaining their work in relation to the festival and their interest in psychogeography. You can’t expect everybody to be a great speaker, but it felt like some presenters were explaining their work in front of a dissertation review board rather than a curious audience.

What’s more, it’s hard to talk about projects that are essentially ephemeral and show off objects that can only be seen, experienced, and understood in their proper context. The meanings of the objects changes outside of the original space and time; something placed in a subway station or on a street corner five months ago is understood differently when it’s hanging on a gallery wall. This, however, is more a limitation of the medium than the organization of Conflux itself, which is there to create discussions around these questions: How do you document and display ephemeral objects? Are galleries too limited a space to show them?

“Absolutely the meaning is changed,” said Jason Eppink via email, after the show. “One metaphor is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. But maybe a better metaphor is the blind men who can’t decide they’re touching an elephant. There are things I’ve done that only a few people know about. There will never be photos, and I’ll likely never write about them. I can think of one that I’m really proud of, but it never would have translated to the ‘documentation’ form. Documentation tells stories about what you did. There are things that translate well in this form and things that don’t. A lot of what I do is about rewarding participation. People in a gallery watching a video aren’t participating in the same way as people in the street. But both are hopefully thinking a little bit differently about how they can be active participants in their daily environments.”

“I think the efficacy and failures of ephemera really vary depending on the idea,” said Rob Ray. “If my idea relies on street intervention and I’m trying to describe that idea in a gallery space, then yes, I’m going to have to consider how much good work ephemera can successfully do. If I’m showing any kind of documentation media in the work then I can’t ignore ephemerality; it will be a part of the work whether I like it there or not. I’m cautious about interpreting Robert Smithson’s ‘site’/’non-site’ writing, but his thinking is quite helpful for me on this issue. But I’m not sure ephemerality is always going to be the biggest white elephant in the room. Sometimes other issues rise to the top of the list. Other times embracing and reworking the ephemera might actually let you see your own work in a new way! So it can be useful! It’s not something I’m afraid of; I’ll just make sure I’m attentive to it.”

Jeff Stark leading the discussion

Jeff Stark leading the discussion with panel members Steve Lambert, Caroline Woolard, Jason Eppink, and Rob Ray on stage (click to enlarge) (photo courtesy Angela Washko)

The last panel of the weekend featured Ray, Caroline Woolard, Steve Lambert, and Eppink, with Jeff Stark as a great moderator. Stark kept the artists on topic and got the audience involved by asking them questions as well. He kept answers within a time limit — even art critic Martha Schwendener when she talked about artists and their responsibility to contribute to the Occupy movement. The discussion covered a wide range of topics, including psychogeography and politics, the responsibilities and roles of artists in the public arena, storytelling as an aspect of public art, and working collaboratively.

“I chose the panel because the artists all organize in public space and also facilitate or run organizations,” Washko said. “They have developed a language to talk about what they’re doing that’s accessible, that’s concise, but still eloquent and challenging. They see things happening in public space and are responding to them — they’re creating structures, they get people together with different skill sets; it’s just to help empower people to participate in alternative communities and become skilled activists.”

In a way the panel was an analogy for my reaction to the whole festival: it left me wanting to speak even though I ended up just eagerly listening and sitting in my chair.

David LaGaccia is a journalist, covering art events and news stories in New York City. His interests are in performance art, film, and literature, but it's his curiosity and the art of the interview that...