Usually, people hear Kalan Sherrard before they see him. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and a half-crowded L train pulls into Union Square station. As passengers disembark, above the typical din of the subway platform they hear the sound of scraping metal cans and eery, repetitive harmonica music.
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“Who’s making that noise?” one man angrily demands.
“Not again,” mutters another subway rider as she pushes her way through the crowd, scarcely glancing at Sherrard, who is kneeling on the platform, performing his signature puppet show. Sherrard and his “trans-aesthetic,” nihilist anarchist puppet show have become a fixture of the L train over the years, especially for weekend and late-night subway riders (read: drunk partygoers).
Sherrard first started doing these shows seven years ago, during a trip he took hitchhiking from Seattle to Argentina. “In Peru, I met these kids who were doing this, and we all started doing it together,” he said. He then adapted the show so that he could perform it by himself when he didn’t have other people to perform with.
His show features marionettes made of animal skulls, dolls, and various other found objects. He describes his puppet show as a “dynamic sculpture.” “Fundamentally, it’s like finding different ways objects can interact with each other,” he said.
Inside the lid of his suitcase, there are pieces of Sharpie-scribbled tape that form the words, “OUR ECONOMY IS A CANCER.” Sherrard identifies as a nihilist anarchist, but he encourages various interpretations of his work, whether or not they are in line with his personal politics. “I’m interested in discourse,” he said. “People offer this pervasive analysis and critique and commentary that’s sometimes really instructive and helpful. I learn a lot most times I go out.”
Some people react to the puppet show with discomfort or annoyance, but a lot of people stop and take pictures. Some even place a few dollars into the ratty fur cap Sherrard has laid out for tips. Periodically during his performance, Sherrard holds up a cardboard sign that reads, “Support Street Art.” “I sort of feel bad about how often I remind people that you should support street performance. I used to be really against involving money at all,” said Sherrard, who used to have a sign that read, “Give if you can, take if you need,” with a crossed-out dollar sign on the other side. “I’m sort of against reciprocation, but I feel that giving is really important and people should proliferate giving. Sadly, most people don’t know how to give except with money.”
Sherrard feels that he has been concentrating a lot of his time on his puppet show lately, but now, seven years after its genesis, he says he may be ready to move on to other things. “Doing weird stuff in public is something I’ve always done and something I’ll probably always do, but I can see this particular thing sort of waning,” he said.
His short-term plans include moving to Mexico City in February to form a collective, and going to graduate school in Switzerland during the summer. And long term? “The big fake plan is to build an aircraft carrier out of garbage and have a floating island on it, and you can have a school on the aircraft carrier and zeppelins and stuff. It’ll be like a big stupid hippie Burning Man where everyone can feel like they’re using their privilege to leverage their guilt away,” he laughed. “Absurd.”