In case you haven’t heard of Improv Everywhere, they’re a NYC-based organization dedicated to producing flash mob events and other happenings. They do it all with an attitude towards fun and laughs, towards brightening people’s days. Many of their “missions” could indeed be classified as pranks – no one ever gets hurt or humiliated; that is never the goal. But people do get confused, amused, and bemused. Some of the missions are truly excellent.
But while I’m all for that, one really must acknowledge that the line between flash mobs (for fun and laughs) on the one hand, and “happenings” (for the sake of art) on the other hand, is pretty fuzzy. Sure, one could define “art happenings” as something which makes you think, which breaks a paradigm or invites one to ask questions or otherwise take a second look at the world, through a new lens, defying or breaking down the dominant discourse. But do we really need to be so hoity-toity about it? In truth, a great many happenings conducted for the sake of art do bemuse and amuse, and a great many others simply frustrate, annoy, or bore.
I’ve been aware of Improv Everywhere for quite some time, and in fact happened upon a gallery in Chelsea (in NY) at one point a few years ago devoted to guerrilla art, including the activities of Improv Everywhere.
But what really inspired this post was the following “mission” conducted by Improv Everywhere this past March:
In “Subway Art Gallery Opening,” Improv Everywhere transformed a subway platform into an art gallery. They got a cellist, bar (serving non-alcoholic sparkling cider, but they didn’t tell anyone that), and coat check, and put up gallery labels describing the things already there – ads, trashcans, “woman sitting on bench” as a performance piece – in the most wonderfully crafted hoity-toity artsy language.
A wonderful prank, that certainly seems to have succeeded Improv Everywhere’s mission – to make people smile, to amuse, bemuse, and confuse (not words that actually show up in their mission statement or anything; I just came up with that just now totally by accident, but I must say I rather like the ABC structure and the rhyming)… to just make life in NYC a tiny bit more interesting for a small number of people for a short while.
But it’s hard to not see how this truly does address the everpresent (and ever obnoxious) question, “what is art?” .. Given my own personal attitudes and opinions on the matter, my own predilections, I really can see this going either way.
On the one hand, it’s a parody of the total bullshit the art world pulls each and every day. Two hundred years ago, people devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to becoming a skilled painter, and produced amazingly sublime, picturesque, sometimes Orientalist, images that really strike you as a viewer, drawing you in, and moving you emotionally. Then, roughly one hundred years ago, Marchel Duchamp comes along, declares a urinal “art”, and ever since then, people have been worshipping at the feet of Foucault, Derrida, Griselda Pollock, Hegel, Freud, and the like, regurgitating meaningless nonsense, using big words that no one else understands, playing at making something out of nothing and cultivating an appreciation and aesthetic of, frankly, bullshit.
On the other hand, it really is true that everything, anything, can be art. While I am not of the camp which believes that one deserves to be famous for putting a crab meat label on the inside of the can, and the can on a pedestal, nor deserves to then sell that can for some ridiculous sum, an exercise such as this one engineered by Improv Everywhere does serve to draw attention to the fact that anything and everything can be aesthetically interesting, if we only take a moment to pay attention to it and approach it in that way. Our modern, cosmopolitan, globalized world is oversaturated with visual culture and other sensory stimuli. We subconsciously block it out, we ignore it, because otherwise we would never get through our day. But nearly everything manmade has conscious design choices built into it, and everything in the world, manmade or natural, can be seen as aesthetically interesting, if not aesthetically appealing, not to mention the discursive metaphorical societal semiotic roles (and I mean that, I’m not just playing at using big words) which anything and everything can have – that is to say, anything, if approached in the right mindset, has the potential to inspire realizations about the world around us.
The locked fuse box on the wall, along with most other things in this exhibit, speak to an aesthetic of urban decay, something quite popular, and gaining (or maintaining) currency in a myriad of niche trends/fads, such as the Showa nostalgia of Japan – an appreciation for the aesthetic of dark, rundown, old wooden shops and fading 1950s advertising posters, reminding us nostalgically of all the good things we associate with our parents or grandparents, with the “good old days”, etc.. But I’m drifting off the rails here.
I thought it brilliant that they put up a gallery label for the occasional passing of the train, as though it were an A/V installation piece, though I did not manage to read the label in the video. The passing train, aesthetics aside, can inspire one to ask questions about the role of transportation in our lives, the role of hurrying in NY society, in NY life. The sound of the train, though generally despised or ignored by New Yorkers (why they can’t quiet those damn things down is beyond me; the trains in Japan are never that noisy), can be seen as, if not pleasant, then perhaps as an integral part of New York life. If you take away the obnoxiously noisy trains, clanking and rumbling along, the horrendous, terrifying filthiness of the subway platforms, and all the other things labeled as art objects in this exhibit – the ugly, the dirty, the broken – is it still New York? Have you not destroyed or erased essential parts of the character of the city? And I don’t mean that disparagingly, as if New York has a bad character – it goes back to the concept of the aesthetic of urban decay. Health and quality of life issues aside, grittiness is just as valid an aesthetic, just as potentially intriguing or attractive, as sterility.
Long story short, no matter what answers you may have come up with, this art exhibit / prank makes you think, makes you ask questions. That makes it art; that makes it a happening, and not just a prank… and much as I may hesitate to admit it, if you look at it a certain way, that makes all the Improv Everywhere “Agents” involved “artists”.