Last week at Crawl Space‘s closing party/opening reception, we stood outside in the dark with a bunch of art appreciators in an alley off Olive Way, behind a fence, next to a pick-up with speakers, looking down on the street. I really wish I had pictures to share. It was a compelling experience, beholding this performance by PDL.
A white, thirty-something man engaged with passers-by, wearing a mic. We up in the alley could hear his voice, coughs, muffled cursing, and whatever sounds were picked up from the people around him. We watched him negotiate with friendly strangers as they cut the handcuffs that chained him to a pole. We watched his collection of pennies spill over the sidewalk and into the street. We watched a sweet man pick up the pennies while his companion went inside Starbucks to get a new bag for the pennies. PDL-man asked the sweet guy, “Is that guy with you?” and the sweet guy replied softly but quickly, “He’s my husband.”
That was the only interaction that didn’t elicit laughter from the audience. We laughed when the busker with the violin stopped “playing” her violin, yet the music didn’t stop. We laughed when she darted around stealing clutches of the dropped pennies, nimble and giddy. We laughed when PDL-man hunched over his pennies and grumbled, Bitch. She’s not even playing the fucking violin. We laughed when PDL-man stopped traffic to retrieve his pennies. And when the guys who cut the cuffs were happy and chummy to have helped out, offering their names and handshakes. We stood, in a crowd, and laughed. Yet no one noticed us.
I felt terribly embarrassed for the people who didn’t know they had an audience. I felt guilty that I was having a laugh at their expense. I felt like I’d pulled off some massive accomplishment of fate to have gotten myself on the right side of the fence.
There was this physical fence, but there was also a social/cultural fence that was between this audience and its unwitting spectacle.
The latter is stronger, and more divisive.
People understand the physical fence. In most arenas of practical jokes (such as Punk’d or Candid Camera), people understand that they were simply on the wrong side of the fence. It could have been anyone. At the end, they’re let in on the joke and everyone is on an equal footing again.
Whether we like to admit it or not, Art makes a social/cultural fence that is much more difficult to reconcile. By virtue of education and circumstance, people find themselves so firmly planted on one side that they simply can’t imagine what it would be like to be on the other side. This is the fence that stands between many groups of people and the open door of a contemporary gallery. We in the gallery say, “Look, engage! It’s so easy!” unable to imagine why various members of the “public” won’t cross the meager threshold. They, on the other hand, can’t imagine themselves going inside the gallery; nor what they’d find there; nor what they’d do with themselves once they got there.
I’ve talked to a few art-friends who were, momentarily, on the wrong side of the fence that night in Capitol Hill. They happened upon PDL-man and were engaged, unknowingly watched by an audience, and laughed at. While at first they felt embarrassed to have been put in this position, they ultimately felt secure enough on the right side of the cultural fence to take the hit for Art’s sake and celebrate it.
I’m not saying that this performance wasn’t good or interesting. Actually, I thought it was amazing. The real-time unfolding of the world as a theatre was nothing short of sublime. While Candid Camera and Punk’d share the prankster ethos, they certainly lack the Turner-scale sublimity. That evening, PDL fucked up the way we perceive the world, and the way we inhabit it. That is really hard to do.
From where I’m standing, I’m grateful for it.