Artist Invites You to Go Rooftop Camping, or Bivouacking, in the City


For the legions of city-dwellers without air-conditioning, summer in a cramped New York apartment means lethargy in front of an oscillating fan, ice cubes, and a uniform of underwear and not much else. In the days of packed tenement housing, New Yorkers even took to sleeping on the roofs or the fire escape, which one New York Times trend piece from 1908 described as the “tenement plan” or “roof habit.”

At least one Brooklyn-based artist is trying to bring the roof habit back. This weekend, artist Thomas Stevenson will be hosting “Bivouac,” a seven-tent camping installation on an undisclosed city rooftop.

“I often don’t know anybody [who shows up],” Stevenson, who’s played the “ranger” at roughly 30 of these events over the last 20 months, told the Voice. “That’s the wonderful part of making participatory art–I don’t know what will happen.”

This isn’t Stevenson’s first public art project using the city as a “canvas,” as he likes to call it. Stevenson is also the creator behind Disco Transformer, a mobile unit that appears to be a food cart until you open it–at which point it morphs into a disco sound system with flashing lights.

“I think New York City–and Michael Bloomberg’s going to kill me–is a playground,” Stevenson said. “I look at space utilization in New York City and see how we’re all trapped indoors. There’s plenty of outdoor space, but it’s just not public. And then the question becomes, ‘what is public and what is private?'”

For Bivouac’s exploration of public and private space this weekend, campers will show up around sunset and bring an assigned food (starch, vegetable, or protein), prepare a communal meal in the canteen, and head off to sleep on felt pads in plywood and canvas tents by around 10:30 p.m. “Then we get up, make granola with soy milk and coffee, and people head off to work,” Stevenson said. “No TV, no computer, no electricity.”

The goal, Stevenson says, is to try and get people to disconnect from harried and heavy modern lives–days laden with careers, amenities, dishwashers, and indoor square footage. He also tries to secure rooftops (usually in Williamsburg or Bushwick) with a clear view of Manhattan, so “you feel like you’re on a mountain and looking at the next place you’re going to.” Stevenson hasn’t tried it yet, but he’d like to host a Bivouac in midtown, so campers can wake up amid a forest of steel and concrete.

But keeping the “magic” of so many people’s summer camping memories in mind, the Voice had to ask–does Bivouac, er, explicitly involve strangers sharing tents? “I’m open-minded,” Stevenson said. “If people want to do that, that’s awesome, but it’s not officially part of the project.”

Prospective campers can sign up for Friday and Saturday’s Bivouac on the site, though there’ll be another come July, Stevenson added. There’s also a refundable $200 deposit, but that’s just to make sure the people who sign up don’t flake.

“People are big variables,” Stevenson said. “They’re hard to work with. Paint and wood and metal? They’re pretty straightforward.”

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