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If “war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography” (as one clever March 22 anti-war protester’s sign read), then war is also God’s way of teaching New Yorkers about New York. A lot of artists, activists, and sidewalk critics—not to mention alarmist aesthetes—argue that the city is changing in some way since the new Iraq invasion and 9-11, yet it’s always a challenge to quantify how fear, the war on terrorism, and the hole in the downtown skyline are affecting New York City on the street level. Some residents admit to being psychologically affected by a daily commute through Operation Atlas’s flourish of National Guardsmen, checkpoints, and barricades, and by lingering signs of 9-11. Others either genuinely or ignorantly pass through the city psyche intact. Fortunately, there’s evidence that suggests New Yorkers cherish their unique “culture of congestion” more than ever, and that they’d rather endure the Orange Alert zone than be relegated to the Yellow. Exhibit A: There hasn’t been a mass exodus from New York City.
As we try to relax and recreate in Orange Alertville or travel through these checkpoints and barricades to the Yellow, a barely connected network of maverick artists and unorthodox urban investigators are making fresh, if underground, contributions to pedestrian life in New York City, and upping the ante on today’s fight for the soul of high-density metropolises. A timely festival and conference called “Psy-Geo-Conflux” is coming to the Lower East Side this Thursday (through Sunday, at and around ABC No Rio, 156 Rivington Street, 212-254-3697), and it will likely spin New York’s sense of place in more ways than one person can digest in a weekend.
The event is centered around a seasoned yet growing field of creative recreation and alt-geographic exploration called psychogeography. Trying to define this obtuse field is an adventure itself, although a relatively straightforward definition includes “the study of the effects of the geographic environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” One of the boldest characteristics of psychogeography may be its ability to influence and bring together all kinds of artists, social scientists, philosophers, urban provocateurs and spelunkers, and even traditional geographers, in an entirely accessible venue—public space. Appropriately, the organizers of “Psy-Geo-Conflux” are “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” in the words of Brooklyn Psychogeographical Association founder, photographer, and WFMU DJ David Mandl.
To mention a handful of the many events: The artist and game enthusiast Sharilyn Neidhart organizes an outdoor human chess match powered by cell phones. Margrethe Lauber leads a tour and group photo shoot of “back spaces” of famous buildings such as those at the UN and Lincoln Center. The Brooklyn-based collective Toyshop fills the streets with “sound riots,” a “detritus band,” and a junk band. The Dutch creator of Socialfiction.org, Wilfried Hou Je Bek, will generate computer codes from pedestrians. Photographer and author Colette Meacher gives a lecture on discovering Immanuel Kant’s theory of the sublime on city blocks. Sound artist Sal Randolph organizes a weekend-long collaborative field recording pool, transmitted in via cell phones and back out as streaming MP3s on the Web. (For a complete listing of events and times, visit glowlab.com.)
The common thread through these events is that “they’re all about the meaning of living in a city,” says festival organizer, photographer, and Glowlab founder Christina Ray. Like many psychogeographers, Ray creates purposely aimless walks and scavenger-hunt-type urban odysseys, often based on some kind of algorithm or random element. (A sample algorithm could be: Take your first right, take your second left, take your second right, repeat.) According to Ray, psychogeography is a way for urbanites to melt down normal navigational routines, “find our own path in the city,” and “find out what patterns we generate.” And perhaps even subvert the war on terrorism’s often divisive and fear-inducing projections on the cityscape.
The Surveillance Camera Players differ from other surveillance awareness activists such as the Institute for Applied Autonomy (appliedautonomy.com) in that they not only count and archive the locations of surveillance cameras, they put on plays for them. Regularly performed works include George Orwell’s 1984 and Art Toad’s God’s Eyes Here on Earth (a play written specifically for surveillance cameras used to monitor churches). The group is giving a tour of the city’s surveillance cameras as part of “Psy-Geo-Conflux” on Sunday at 2 p.m., and though not able to give any figures about how many new cameras are on the streets since 9-11, player Bob Brown says that post-9-11 buildings tend to be stocked with them. “They have cameras installed on all four sides, so the total for each building is 16—or even as many as 20—per building,” says Brown, adding, “These cameras are relatively well integrated into the facade and are clearly part of the original building design.” It’s easy to discount the Players’ dramatic work as another flaccid conceptual art project until you’re in the position of a pedestrian just walking by, whose confusion elegantly lifts upon realizing that the “audience” is a cryptic camera trained on a public space.
It’s this same heightened attention to our surroundings that the Wooster Collective tries to foster. As part of “Psy-Geo-Conflux,” the team of street art, sticker, stencil, poster, graffiti, and culture-jamming artists and archivists are giving a rare tour of uncommissioned street art below Houston on Sunday at 1 p.m. Key member Mark Schiller maintains an archive of (now over 1,500) photos of various street artworks, many of which can be seen on their extensive Web site, woostercollective.com, along with capsule interviews by dozens of guerrilla creators working within the sphere of urban public space. A lot of the work out there is small, subtle, and stealthy, which Schiller describes as one of their main strengths. Notable examples include Swoon’s incredibly intricate paper cutouts of roughly life-sized people, jump-cut with city grids and folky designs, which can be seen adhered to walls in DUMBO and other neighborhoods. And also contrary to the in-your-face attitude of much street art are Vinnie Ray’s subway posters and banners on the BQE overpasses that have dreamy images of landscapes and cartoons, each accompanied by simple verbs like searching, listening, expanding, being, and loving.
According to Schiller, as pedestrians, just being in tune enough with our surroundings to notice these subtle gems and “little moments” is an essential part of not just finding street art but experiencing the pulsating city around us. “Are people really noticing how many little stores are closing?” asks Schiller. “It’s the same kind of awareness that makes us notice small street art. We can be numb to it or we can really tap into the fact that the country’s poor condition might be just as much of a threat [as restrictive security measures].”
Any spirited New Yorker enjoys getting thrown off his or her Habitrail to discover some parallel world, whether it’s a vagrant saying poetic things to a door or an Orwellian drama played for a surveillance camera. In a city where our eyes are rarely relaxed on any horizon line, and every politician and industry is battling for our attention, we can use the clarity and mental vacations that random psychogeographical walks and alternative public art offer. “It’s about becoming aware of what’s around you,” says Schiller. “It’s about being connected with the rest of the city.”