New Times / Special Issue
Autumn Arts '09
You're either with us or you're with themAn experiment in art goes seriously awry
By ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH
Only recruit the county’s most talented artists—those bored by landscapes, uninspired by the mundane, eager to liberate art from the customary shackles of stage and gallery. I began by sending a barrage of e-mails to anyone I thought might fit the bill.
“My goal is to establish a team [what I unoriginally call my dream team] of people who are bored, creative, and possibly talented. Our goal is to brainstorm and execute performance art and art installations around the county, in as highly visible a manner as possible,” my e-mails of April read. “The goal is to explore what possibilities art affords when you take away the stage and canvas, to ask how we define art, and to question whether SLO has the necessary critical mass for such projects.”
It would be a glorious summer of art, discovery, and camaraderie. In September, I would write about the experiment, pronounce it a success or failure, and reveal the creative forces behind the summer of public art.
It took me exactly three and a half months to realize how naive my plan really was.
The beginning, or dream team, activate!
We met at the Sanitarium on May 14 at 7:45 p.m. Walking the pathway to the door, I was suddenly struck that the group might require a leader of some sort and, further, that having called them together in the first place, I might be expected to fill that role. I had already wrestled with the concern that no one would come. We gathered in the white dining room around a rectangular table that couldn’t possibly accommodate the more than two dozen participants who arrived. Introductions went around, though my woeful inability to recall names ensured that all I would remember were their faces.
Some people, I already knew. Jeff Claassen of the Jeff Claassen Gallery; Neal Breton who now owns San Luis Art Supply; Amy Asman, a staff writer at New Times’ sister paper; Catherine Trujillo, special collections curator at the Cal Poly library; Robert Kaye, informally known as Mayhem, a burner I met while writing about a bike art exhibit; choreographer Drew Silvaggio of Civic Ballet fame. And, of course, Steve Miller, New Times staff photographer and reluctant collaborator. His role would be an important one. By referring to the effort as an experiment, I had prioritized process over the final product. For the effort to be successful, we would need to document every stage via text, photography, and video.
Then came the ideas. Almost immediately, someone mentioned the concept of a flash mob. The question of what type of flash mob and where to stage it arose. We would later find that there are two distinct camps when it comes to flash mobs: those who want to re-create something they saw on YouTube and those determined to stumble upon an original idea, if such a thing exists anymore. Farmers Market was the most obvious location, being as how SLO isn’t equipped with a subway station or any other space high in foot-traffic.
Rob’s camp, which consisted of Rob and a friendly group of girls also promoting a monthly clown bar crawl, suggested the idea of guerrilla gardening. Incidentally, I knew Rob would be a good addition to our team after I located his website, which features a photo of the artist wielding a mammoth potato gun. Guerrilla gardening is the act of illicit cultivation of flora for the purpose of beautification. If Boy Scouts wandered around town planting flowers in public spaces, I expect they’d earn a badge; if Rob, whose hair is always a different color, and his team were caught placing plants in public spaces, I doubted that they would be rewarded with badges. This also led to a discussion of crop circles, and whether it would be possible to construct such phenomena within view of the highway.
Neal was particularly interested in establishing an impromptu gallery somewhere in public, essentially swarming upon the selected location, throwing the art onto the wall as quickly as possible, and vacating the premises. Just about everyone had their eye on Bubblegum Alley, though we had no solid plan as to how we would incorporate it into our art. There was also talk of statue reclamation: Knitting booties for the cat in the cat and the fiddle, dressing Puck, or placing unicorn horns on the Mustang statue at Cal Poly. It should be noted that none of these ideas would have damaged the statue. If anything, as it turned out, people seemed to prefer the altered statues. They, at least, were novel.
We had multiple and prolonged discussions about finding a way to pump the smell back into Abercrombie & Fitch. Anyone who has happened to stroll by the behemoth clothing outlet on Higuera Street would recognize the cologne wafting around, sometimes for blocks. Local police will cite you for noise pollution, but nobody seemed to be interested in resolving the issue of scent pollution. We figured we could gather on the sidewalk outside, aiming dozens of fans in the direction of the store. It wasn’t a terribly scientific plan but, for the most part, we’re not terribly scientific people.
When it came time to choose a name for our organization, we were at something of a loss. I had alternately been referring to the group as the dream team and mischief-makers. Neal suggested the New Arts Collective, which won the day. (“We’ve got a NAC for art,” someone quipped from the other side of the table.) I envisioned armbands, capes, and secret handshakes in our future. Then the question of how best to communicate. Bat signal was already taken, and it had been difficult enough scheduling a single meeting, given everyone’s busy schedule. Rob offered to start a NAC listserv and we compiled e-mails. That evening, at 9:44 p.m., we all received an e-mail welcoming us. A sense of uncertainty as to how to proceed was about to set in, but I didn’t know it at the time.
The inspiration, or a brief history of artistic mischief
The Internet is exploding with examples of what we hoped to achieve, people developing new ways to be creative and to share their work with the public. We should be well past the age when artists are forced to cater their work to galleries with available wall space. Granted, there’s no money in this amassing wave of guerrilla art—at least we weren’t looking to make any—but there’s an undeniable purity and beauty to removing commerce from the art equation.
Wikipedia defines a flash mob as “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse.” Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine, is credited with orchestrating the first flash mob in 2003 to protest our culture of conformity. He sent more than 100 people to the rug department at Macy’s under the ruse that they all lived in a warehouse together and were looking to purchase a communal love rug. The concept caught on like wildfire.
In March of 2008, tens of thousands of people in more than 25 cities participated in Worldwide Pillow Fight Day. There are subway parties. A world naked bike ride. My personal favorite is Improv Everywhere, a New York-based performance art group that has been around since 2001. Their missions are smart, well documented, and impeccably organized. They call their participants “agents.” Among their exploits are the No Pants! Subway Ride, now an annual tradition after eight years. In videos and photographs, confused and slightly creeped out travelers try not to stare at their pantsless fellow passengers, who have been trained to insist that they “just forgot their pants” should anyone be so bold as to ask. Another annual event is The mp3 experiment in which agents download an mp3 available online, congregate at an established location and time, flip on their iPods, and obey the commands they hear. This year’s event took place on Roosevelt’s Island and included more than 2,000 participants.
They staged agents on a subway escalator giving out high fives to commuters, a 22-agent performance in which one agent threatened to jump from a 4-foot ledge while two agents dressed as a firefighter and cop attempted to coax him down. They sent 111 shirtless guys of all body types to shop in an Abercrombie & Fitch, performed a musical at a food court, orchestrated a symphony with checked cell phones at a bookstore. The list goes on and on, and thanks to meticulous documenting, anyone can watch the videos online (improveverywhere.com). Why couldn’t SLO have a share in the fun?
We live in the experience economy, or so a book written by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore insists. According to this theory, an experience is like a product. Borrowing from that idea, it makes sense—in an economy that requires people to limit their spending—for people to seek an alternative. Why not new experiences? And what better method of giving the public these experiences than by creative collaboration?
However naive or enthusiastic I might have been in the beginning, even I couldn’t deny the challenges that loomed on NAC’s artistic horizon. The first of these, and the one that we never really overcame, is that artists are inherently individualistic and egotistical. This isn’t a slam. It doesn’t even apply to all artists. But there’s a very good reason that most galleries feature solo shows—the few collaborations I’ve seen in my three and a half years writing about this community have involved no more than two or three artists. To bring together dozens of individualists, many of them outspoken, each with their own ideas about art, is a delicate and hopeful procedure.
Almost immediately after the first meeting I heard that one artist didn’t like another. I think it had to do with a previous encounter. SLO’s a small town, after all.
Then there was the issue of funding. We didn’t have any. But what the hell, these people were artists and, if anybody should know how to scavenge, borrow, and recycle, it’s artists, right?
Lastly, we faced the question of legality. Our intentions were good: entertain, question, challenge, provoke thought or a smile. But this is a city that has laws about how long people are allowed to sit on public benches. And while we didn’t know of any law specifically prohibiting an artist from knitting boots for a statue of a cat, it was within the realm of possibility that this might be considered some kind of defacement. Similarly, if we dressed 15 adults as bunnies and sent them hopping down the street during Farmers, would security guards deem this act a disruption and act accordingly? Any time someone steps outside the boundaries of what is held to be normal behavior, they are regarded with suspicion. “Don’t get caught,” was the best I could caution. I also recommended writing all notes on tortillas so they could be consumed if the fuzz came after us.
In an effort to generate momentum, we scheduled our first event—a flash mob—for Thursday, May 28. We assembled in the back patio at Linnaea’s Café at 6:15 p.m., 17 of us in all. Everyone had been asked to bring a briefcase if they could, and to dress casually. We had six briefcases between the 15 active participants; Neal operated my video camera and Steve took photos. Our mission was to walk around, behaving normally and carrying the briefcases, which we would casually pass to other participants. Yes, we sort of stole the idea from action/ suspense films. By 6:30 p.m., our agents (to borrow a term from Improv Everywhere) were in the street.
We were uncertain at the beginning what the parameters ought to be—Farmers Market covers a long stretch of Higuera, and we wanted to make maximum visual impact. Most of the agents had never met before, so eye contact became an important means of establishing the intention of handing off a briefcase. We didn’t want to make the mistake of grabbing some poor passerby’s paperwork.
Within half an hour, the firemen, who were stationed with their truck at an intersection, had caught on to what was going on. One admitted he had initially suspected we were drug dealers or terrorists, but then dismissed both notions. There were too many of us, and, well, this is SLO. What kind of terrorist has so little ambition? One of our agents (Garrett Parker) gave a firefighter a briefcase and told him to see what happened. It wasn’t long before another agent came by to collect the briefcase, without any verbal greeting or indication of knowing the firefighter. By the conclusion of the flash mob—everyone was instructed to report back to Linnaea’s at 7:30 p.m.—the firemen’s mascot, a man in a dog costume, was in on the event.
Many of our participants reported crowd members asking them what was in the briefcases. A lot of witnesses reacted to the briefcase-swapping with a combination of shock and horror, most likely believing they had just witnessed some illicit event. I had instructed everyone to fill the briefcases with something absurd in case security insisted we open them.
From the start, Steve took issue with the premise. He can be heard in the video ranting to Neal (the video camera operator), “The point of all this is that you have this stuff going on and everybody’s like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ and then it’s over with. It’s a flash mob!” He would contend, throughout the entire summer, that none of our events were actually flash mobs. He may be correct, but whether or not our activities fell under the strictest definition of flash mob was never my primary concern.
The second we returned to the café’s patio, I heard someone exclaim, “That was fun!” I think we were all a little giddy with the feeling that we had just gotten away with something or were in on a particularly juicy secret. I thought, at the time, that it could only grow from there.
The lost month, or the splitting of an infant art group
On June 9, I left San Luis Obispo—and my fledgling art group—for a three-week trip to Morocco. I left instructions for the artists to document their every project while I was gone, and to contact Steve so he could take photographs. I was to be slightly disoriented by what I found when I returned.
In mid-May, Neal began recruiting artists. “Greetings, Comrades,” he would begin his e-mails, in true militant fashion. “This is a call to those of you willing to sacrifice time, paint, and canvas to the Guerrilla Art show.” The restrictions were few. Artists were to bring anywhere from one to four smaller works (no larger than 11-by-14 inches). The venue, or “location of first strike” as Neal called it, was a boarded-up wall on the corner of Chorro and Higuera. The response was next to nonexistent, so Neal followed this up with another call to arms, this time in early June. Jeff Claassen threw his weight behind the effort and a date was set. On Sunday, June 14, at 10 a.m., the artists of New Arts Collective would bring the art to the people. Literally.
The artwork went up quickly—stencils, sketches, and paintings. It came down pretty quickly, too, as a blue banner at the entrance to the impromptu gallery announced “ART SHOW, FREE FOR THE TAKING.” Fortunately, there were no arrests, or even harassment.
“I think with such a mob out there, we looked just legit enough that people thought we were allowed to be there,” Claassen related, via e-mail. “It was awesome. One police car even drove by, and I don’t think he even slowed down to see what was going on.”
Running on momentum from a successful guerrilla art show, Neal again mobilized the creative troops for a knit-tagging event on Wednesday, June 24. Knit tagging is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Artists knit various pieces and then place them in public spaces, on parking meters, poles, and—in the case of our intrepid gang—sculptures. The call initially went out on June 18, about a week before the event.
The knitting agents met at the Mission and combed their way down Monterey. A rogue group wound up on Marsh Street and outfitted Hey, Diddle Diddle, the cat and the fiddle statue, in an eclectic and vibrant vestment. Most of the knitted goods were removed within less than 24 hours, but in the days that followed, tourists were spotted taking pictures with the statue. The term tag, though self-applied, might carry some negative implications. But Neal insists that these particular tags added to the statue’s aesthetic appeal.
“Most public statues are stodgy brass things that don’t mean anything to the community,” he said. “We made it relevant again.”
When I left for vacation, I left one healthy, growing (I hoped) art collective. I returned to find two. I’m still not exactly certain how, when, or why it happened. Meioses perhaps? Here is what I do know: Catherine Trujillo and Mignon Khargie started an effort called Nothing Happened Here (nothinghappenedhere.com). They call their operators, not agents, but situational curators and interventionists. Catherine and Mignon would meet early on Sunday mornings at Big Sky Café to plot out their creative endeavors. The first of these was to be the first installment of Reading in Public (get it? RIP?) on Thursday, July 2, at Farmers Market in downtown SLO.
“Reading in Public is a direct response to the current state of the written word,” Mignon explained in an e-mail. “Dying newspapers and failing book publishing houses, an explosion of online blogs, and the emergence of the 140-word tweet as an increasingly leading means of written communication, and the sober realization that in recessionary times we’d choose not to buy a book.”
Participants met at Linnaea’s at 6:45 p.m. Each wore a letter which, together, spelled out “readinginpublic.com.” They brought books. They engaged in what can only be described as a playful and joyous literary orgy. It was not to be the last. Mignon and Catherine were unquestionably among the most active artists working in the public sphere, though no longer working under the designation of the New Arts Collective.
The second meeting, or an attempt to restoke the fire
I had judged the first meeting a success by the proliferation of ideas and enthusiasm. But in the following weeks, the missing element of the equation was action. So, I called a second meeting, scheduled for Thursday, July 16 at Neal’s newly opened San Luis Art Supply store. Our numbers had dwindled considerably: We had about a dozen people. I brought a calendar, convinced that the act of setting a date for our various events would mobilize people. Over the course of an hour or so, we scheduled flash mobs through the end of summer, a Tour de Mitchell Park Hopscotch Marathon, another impromptu gallery display, a flash mob at the Sunset Drive-In, and a sculptural assembly. Non-present members were notified of these events via a listserv e-mail. It was going to be a hectic August.
Once again, we rendezvoused at 6:30 p.m. in the New Times parking lot. Our gang was small: photographer Steve Miller, Neal on camera, myself, Ashley the Baby Snake, Ryan Miller, his wife Sarah, their two daughters, New Times Staff Writer Colin Rigley, and Matt Foote. We picked up Matt’s girlfriend, Kris Blaze, and one of Ryan and Sarah’s friends along the way, swelling our numbers to eight adults—which is actually fairly respectable for a protest in SLO. All participants were instructed to bring a vague sign of protest, and I gutted out cardboard boxes to create a dozen or so signs, just in case people forgot to bring their own. Among our complaints and frustrations were: “No more lies,” “A travesty,” “unethical,” “No more,” “Not in my backyard,” “Oh no they didn’t” and—my personal favorite—“It’s very preposterous” (carried by Matt).
Someone approached Neal, who was operating the video camera from across the street. He wanted to know what we were protesting. Neal insisted that he didn’t know what we were protesting; he was merely present to ensure that our rights weren’t violated.
We ambled to the corner of Marsh and Osos for a warm-up. Ryan would start the chant. “No more! No more!” we shouted over and over, developing a rhythm to our cries. This transitioned into “No more lies!” and, eventually, the more challenging “1, 2, 3, 4! We won’t take it anymore!” Passing cars sometimes honked, but mostly people just seemed confused, and a few people stopped to actually challenge our point. “What are you protesting?” they wanted to know. Our response, depending on who delivered it: “The facts support us!” “Open your eyes!” And Ashley (nicknamed the Baby Snake) would shake her sign at them and insist, “I think you know!” We marched toward Higuera with varying degrees of militancy. Ryan, as our leader. Sarah with two-month-old Tilly in swing. Ashley was rabid. “What won’t you take?” people called out. To which, Ryan disdainfully answered, “What we’re protesting!”
Along Higuera Street, people cleared a path for us and took photos. Some questioned us, usually with an anonymous shout. Some muttered about conspiracy theorists. A few cheered. “I guess you pick your issue,” one woman supposed, which seemed like a good metaphor for our times.
At one point, we attempted to chant, “Oh no they didn’t” which is not only difficult to chant, but immediately engendered mockery from the crowd. “Oh yes, they did,” people said, rather gleefully.
We rounded down Broad Street toward McCarthy’s, where we left our signs with the patrons. Forget arming the homeless—we were mobilizing the drinkers. It was the perfect ending to the perfect protest, the bar’s regulars waving their new signs at us as we turned down Marsh and headed home.
Ryan’s favorite march moments: “After marching down half of Higuera, we stopped to briefly rally in an intersection and decide our next chant. “Let’s do ‘No way!’ again,” I suggested. “That really gets our message across.” Several people walking by shook their heads.
“At the end of our march, a woman walked up to Lindsey, who joined our protest spontaneously. ‘What’s going on?’ the woman asked. ‘You’re either with us or you’re with them,’ Lindsey told her. ‘Then I’m with them,’ the woman said.”
Flash mob the third: Colored shirts
Everyone was instructed to wear two shirts—either a red or yellow on top, with an orange shirt underneath. In theory, participants would be divided into two camps. Those wearing red shirts would gather at one end of Higuera, and those wearing yellow would assemble at the opposite end. Slowly, the groups would approach one another, crossing paths at a designated intersection. Everyone would remove his or her shirt while passing, revealing the orange beneath. They were instructed to say that they had gotten too hot, if anybody asked.
But the turnout was less than inspiring: seven people in all, including the photographer. Four of us were New Times employees. We didn’t stand much of a shot at making the desired visual impact, but we had the shirts, so we figured we’d give it a try anyway. The yellow shirts gathered at the southern end of Higuera, while the reds looped around. We would meet at the Chorro intersection. Which we did. Everything went as planned, which meant that six people took off their shirts during a crowded Farmers Market. I had pictured it in my head, and it looked damned cool. But in my head, we also had 30 to 40 people. This particular effort would have to be categorized as a failure.
The first incarnation of Reading in Public went well, and the second was better still. But neither event met with Mignon’s original vision of the project, primarily because her vision came with a hefty permit fee. This was an issue that our experiment would encounter again and again: Despite the fact that our events weren’t generating a profit and despite the fact that we were investing time and energy for a seemingly pure motive—making people smile—bureaucracy did not smile kindly on us.
“The original concept for Reading in Public was a round-the-clock, multi-day, single location event, where the Reading Chair would be accessible to all,” Mignon explained. “We wanted to sign people up online for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and have the chair peopled by a continuous stream of readers. Think about how powerful that would have been, to have this beautiful chair, out in public, always with a reader on its seat. The plan was doused by process and a million-dollar insurance policy.
“I think our second attempt, where we became traveling SLO booksters, was very successful. We had no clue if someone would have stopped us that day, and it happened only in one location at Downtown Center. I’d still like to try to see if we could do it again as originally envisioned, whatever that means permit-wise. Catherine and I funded this all by ourselves. The first permit we came up against was $65! The second was a million-dollar insurance policy. I am not railing against anyone, I think this is what has happened over the years as people have grown more cautious of organizing events.”
A furniture designer and architect, Chris Allen, constructed a special chair specifically for the project. Catherine and Mignon wanted a piece that called literature to mind, made you want to recline, book in hand, in its seat. It also needed to be mobile, so that the booksters could roll it around downtown without damaging the chair or their backs.
“The design needed to have a connection to reading,” says the Reading in Public blog. “The lid opens to form a chair (and closes into a cube), and both seat and back rest gently curve at the hinge, which are all design elements drawn from the shape of books.”
Every detail was deliberate: The colored striations of the chair are a reference to pages. Two rollerblade wheels placed in the back of the chair ensure ease of mobility. Chris also crafted an ottoman, which doubled as more book storage, to fit into the empty cube of space under the seat. The reading chair is contemporary and beautiful, a throne befitting a contemplative and endangered pastime.
More than two dozen readers assembled downtown, starting with Sara McGrath, Bob Banner, and Jennifer C. Allen-Barker at the SLO Library at 9:45 a.m., followed by a reading at the SLO Little Theatre, and then happenings at the Children’s Museum, Blackhorse, Linnaea’s Café, parking meters, the creek at the Mission, Bubblegum Alley, and elsewhere. We read memoirs, plays, poetry, and short stories. James Darden was apprehended by security for singing at the Downtown Center.
Other media picked up interest in the project. The L.A. Times profiled the project in August. A green design website called re-nest also featured the event—and, specifically, the chair—on its site.
Our future media mentions would be considerably less glowing, not to mention less accurate.
They’re not making this up
As we painted, installed, protested, and read, we apparently left a great deal of confusion in our wake. Some people wanted an outright explanation for what we were doing, and the people armed with even a little information about our experiment often contributed to the confusion with even more mis-information. Our escapades were embellished in future re-tellings, were sometimes belittled, and the term “flash mob” was suddenly everywhere. Outside media did not help the situation.
In its Aug. 6 edition, The Bay News featured our group, via its BCA FYI column submitted by Barnett Cox & Associates. “OK, we didn’t make this up,” the write-up began. (I would take issue with that introduction, because so many of the sentences to follow contained inaccuracies or half-truths.) “A new artsy group called Flashmob is recruiting people for wacky events around SLO. Like a hopscotch marathon at Mitchell Park and an impromptu highway offramp art gallery.”
“Sponsored by New Times and the New Arts Collective,” the paragraph concluded.
Now, some of the above is true. We were a new arts-based group. We were recruiting. But the name of our group was not Flashmob. We were the New Arts Collective, which wasn’t technically sponsored by New Times. Yes, the arts editor had instigated the project with the purpose of writing about it, but that was the extent of New Times’ involvement. A flash mob is merely one type of event we hosted, so thinking that’s the name would be like referring to Rotary as Chicken Dinner Barbecue.
It’s true that part of the fun of participating in New Arts Collective is the feeling of being in on a secret. We wanted people to recognize unexpected things were happening—beautiful, poignant, or just plain funny—and to look for them, maybe even consider creating a few of these moments themselves. But speculations were often more absurd than the events themselves, and it’s difficult to recruit from beneath a cloak of mystery.
The Tour de Mitchell Park Hopscotch Marathon was scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 2. In my plans for the event, I pictured a sunny day and a park filled with hopscotchers of all ages, most of them wearing ’80s workout attire. (I feel that it should be noted that most of this scene, in my head at least, is in slow motion.) They’d hop for hours, circumnavigating the park, grabbing a cup of water from a table on the grass without stopping, in their pursuit of hopscotching greatness. The more serious hopscotchers—those sporting corporate sponsorships—would have angry coaches with stopwatches who yelled at them. It was beautiful.
The week prior to the event, I sent out e-mails and distributed fliers. I also requested assistance from anyone who could spend Saturday night in Mitchell Park chalking the sidewalk. The night before the event, at 9:30 p.m., my boyfriend and I arrived with two boxes of sidewalk chalk. We were alone.
We re-adjusted the original plan of chalking all the way around the park. It was too ambitious for two people. Instead, we chalked around the gazebo and down two of the paths forking from it. We could barely see the outline of what we were doing in the dark. My fingers blistered. The following day, I arrived at the park at 11:30 a.m. with a registration table, water, and some extra chalk. Mignon and her daughter showed up, along with Ryan Miller, his wife Sarah, and their two young daughters. That was it.
This was the point I conceded failure. My hands were raw, the skin peeled from angry sidewalk chalking, and I had that sense of social failure that generally accompanies getting stood up for a date.
“Don’t take it personally,” people told me, knowing, most likely from the look on my face, that I did and do. It was nice to see the chalk the following morning, veering drunkenly down sidewalks without much rhyme or reason. And it was nice to watch Mignon and her daughter Hannah hopping their way gamely through the course—on a very hot summer afternoon, no less. But the joy of the event was lost, for me at least.
Our flash mob scheduled for the Aug. 6 Farmers Market was cancelled due to lack of participation. But the more significant blow was our supermarket concerto—Live! Aisle 9—scheduled to take place at Spencer’s Market on Sunday, Aug. 9. Catherine and I had been recruiting musicians since May. We had a vision of a shopping experience in which a customer would round a corner and discover a saxophonist performing in front of the cereal, a duet taking place in the produce section, a mariachi band drawing people to the ethnic food section. For anyone who had become bored with the tedious routine of grocery shopping, the musicians would be an unexpected and welcome treat.
Everything seemed to be going splendidly. Musicians were signing up, and they were enthusiastic about the non-paying gig. In mid-July, Catherine received a phone call about the event, from someone she thought was interested in participating. The person turned out to be affiliated with ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), though we still don’t know how they knew. Employee? Snitch? Spy?
It would have been a grand concert, quite possibly one of the best you’ve ever heard—and certainly the most original. But ASCAP had shut us down.
“Nothing happened here,” Catherine wrote on her group’s blog.
“We admire and respect musicians and composers and our intention has always been to do right by the arts community,” she said. “Yet ASCAP’s fees and regulations were insurmountable for a fledgling art collective.”
On Aug. 10, someone placed a pin on my desk at work. It said, “Art goes where no one has gone before.” But we haven’t really seen any evidence of that this summer, I thought glumly.
We scheduled a Sunset Drive-In flash mob for Tuesday, Aug. 11. The plan was to assemble an entire living room (rug, couch, coffee table, potted plants, photos, etc.) in front of our vehicles, and watch the movie from the couch. That too, was cancelled, on the day of the event, due to lack of participation. As a compensatory gesture, Catherine organized a formal donut dining flash mob at Sunshine Donuts that evening. Ten of us assembled, each wearing our finest ’50s retro attire: Catherine and her daughter Cruz, wearing scarves in their hair; Mignon and her daughter Hannah, both sedate and elegant in black; Amy wearing an outfit she had once worn as Charlotte from Sex and the City; Vanessa in a dress with brown polka dots; Sara McGrath, Pedro Arias Lopez, and Guadalupe Arias McGrath, and myself in a bowler hat and tie.
We brought tablecloths, plates, silverware, and napkins. Catherine bought donuts for everyone. We were polite, formal, and bizarre. The single employee retreated to a back room from behind the counter the second she had served our sugary repast. As Catherine said on the blog, “It was utterly, utterly meaningless and we enjoyed it.”
Determined to finish strong with only two weeks of our experiment left to go, we successfully staged a repeat of the colored shirt flash mob at Farmers Market on Aug. 20. In an attempt to make people more invested in the project, I asked them to let me know whether they were coming and created a sign-up list. I also posted a listing on craigslist under the general category of the community section. Determined to be better organized, I walked down Higuera, mapping out cross streets to determine where the red and yellow shirts should intersect.
An unprecedented 25 people met at the New Times parking lot to participate. Most of the faces were unfamiliar—craigslist had come through where begging and pleading had failed. As I anticipated, the red shirts outnumbered the yellow, so some shirt swapping roughly evened out the crowd. One of the first-time participants mentioned a website called the Urban Prankster Network, a take-off of Improv Everywhere, which boasts a SLO chapter.
The red shirts looped down Marsh and onto Higuera via Broad Street while we yellow shirts simply entered the market, taking our time and looking casual. Again, everyone was instructed to deny any knowledge of what was happening. We walked sloooowly. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s difficult to pace yourself and act casual when you’re excited about something. Our first pass was to occur at 7 p.m. at the Chorro Street intersection. I was the first yellow to cross paths with a red and carefully (we’d learned previously that’s it all too easy to accidentally remove the shirt beneath the one you want to remove as well) but nonchalantly removed my shirt. From behind me, I could sense the quiet flurry of two dozen people simultaneously removing their shirts. But I didn’t hear anything from the crowd.
Someone asked one of our agents if we were a cult. It seemed like a fair question. Brent heard nervous giggling.
We had scheduled a second pass for 7:15 p.m. but we were all antsy. Colin called from the reds with two suggestions. Firstly, make it 7:10. They didn’t want to wait, either. Secondly, we all walk in a single file line, making us more conspicuous. We agreed. After our second successful pass a woman blurted to her friend, “Look, it’s a flash mob! It’s a little one but it’s a flash mob!”
Art is …
On Sunday, Aug. 16, Catherine posted a listing on craigslist, asking “What is Art?” She invited people to create a self-portrait, explain what art is, package it as mail art, and send it to New Times, attn: Nothing Happened Here, by Aug. 24.
On Thursday, Aug. 20, I find a guitar, stripped of its strings, resting on my chair. It is painted red with yellow spots. “What is art?” asks the neck. “Art is imminent,” it says. “Art is eager sweet patient vain correct quiet.” “Art is powerful accidental vast intentional purposeful.”
It is from Catherine.
On Friday, Aug. 21, a wooden spoon arrives. “Art cannot be spoonfed,” it says, in black ink. I am enjoying the game immensely. For once, the art is coming to me.
I receive three additional pieces on Monday, Aug. 24. One, a box painted and collaged gold with a woman drawn on the back, offers the following: “Art is the means by which our souls connect to others.” It is from an artist named Linda Wald. Mignon’s piece is a large red silhouette of a face. “This is a portrait of my kid because she shapes everything I do,” it reads in stenciled letters.
An egg crate arrives, labeled “Free Range Art.” “I like murals, art in public places. Art outside a gallery or museum setting. I like the way kids make art before they get to the stage of wanting to do it ‘correctly.’ I like seeing my daughter use a pencil or paintbrush for the first time.”
Written in black pen on the egg crate itself are the following words: “Quien soy yo?” The response: “Mother daughter wife sister friend lover aunt teacher artist granddaughter niece citizen human.” Little portraits on circles of paper are nestled into the place where the eggs should be: eyes, a face, a back.
Ilsa Brink sends a drawing from Minnesota. It says, “art lets me go home whenever I want.”
Drew Silvaggio was sitting on some un-used choreography from his series of spring performances at the SLO Little Theatre. In July, we discussed the concept of staging performances of his work around downtown SLO. In August, we solidified our concept: We would present a series of performances on a given day, announcing the time and location of each subsequent performance in a chain, creating a performance art treasure hunt.
The first performance, “React,” choreographed by dancer Dana Lossing, was to take place at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 22, in the gazebo at Mitchell Park. I set up a sign announcing Portable Dance Assembly, as well as the time and location of the next performance. Drew and his dancers—Dana, Chloe Rucker, Taylor Whitaker, Jenna Lee, and Leesa Minkel—arrived 10 minutes before “curtain.” The dancers wore crisp long-sleeved white shirts and black spandex shorts. While they stretched and talked, Drew swept the floor of the gazebo, establishing what was to become a ritualistic performance piece before the actual performance. He then placed a radio and iPod on the gazebo railing. The music began and the dancers took their de facto stage, walking up the stairs and into the gazebo. We had an audience of 15 or so people, among them such familiar faces as Ryan and Sarah, Catherine and Cruz, Mignon and Hannah, and Brent and myself. But we also watched as a few families who had been strolling through the park took a seat to watch. Ryan spotted a hummingbird lurking behind the performers at one point—proof positive that an escape from the stage breeds colorful new possibilities.
From there, the assembly ambled the four or so blocks to Uptown Espresso for an unscheduled performance. Drew had asked the café’s owner for permission, and we figured we had better take advantage of a captive audience. The audience at this location was, in fact, larger. The street sounds were also more pronounced, as the café is right on Higuera Street. The dancers again performed “React.” Of the five venues they would dance that day, this was the most formal—it, at least, offered seating.
From Uptown Espresso, we congregated at the uppermost level of the Marsh Street parking garage. While I didn’t necessarily anticipate a significant audience turn-out, I couldn’t resist the vision of dancers leaping skyward against the backdrop of a Central Coast landscape.
Drew selected our slice of pavement, about six unoccupied parking spots, about as flat as the dancers could hope. Their costume changed slightly to shorts and colored tank tops. Again, Drew swept. Again, he placed the radio, this time for Jenna’s piece, “Kanshaku,” which involved a great deal more whirling of legs and arms, culminating in a brief solo. Sometimes cars would drive by. A few waited for the dance to conclude before navigating between the small audience and dancers. It might have been annoying that people refused to stop and watch so remarkable and beautiful a sight as a troupe of well-trained dancers in a parking garage, but the vehicles rushing by became part of the performance—they helped establish a context for Portable Dance Assembly.
The performance on the parking garage was supposed to happen at 1:30 p.m., but the performers were filled with energy and we found ourselves pushing through from location to location. The next was supposed to take place at the Downtown Brew parking lot at 2:30. Drew was concerned that the texture of the asphalt would tear into the dancers, particularly in the phrases that involved a lot of ground contact. So, instead, we found ourselves on the sidewalk at the corner of Marsh and Broad Streets, near the 7-Eleven parking lot. Drew was nervous to say the least, quite certain that our performance of “No Children” would be interrupted by some authority or another. This nervous energy was to serve as an amazing creative catalyst.
“Let’s just do it,” he said, and his friend swept the sidewalk while Drew set up the radio. On the street, the dancers slid summer dresses over their heads, and began the performance with a playful, childish walk to the bitter sing-song Mountain Goats song “No Children.” Traffic flowed as the girls leapt and kicked, rebelliously, powerfully. “I am drowning/ There is no sign of land/ You are coming down with me/ Hand in unlovable hand,” the lyrics seem to pull the listener downward, even as the dancers scaled higher and higher in a performance so charged it could never be repeated. When they finished, Drew let out a nervous and elated laugh. He had never seen them dance like that, he said. Perhaps public street performances were the way to go.
“I feel like if the police had come to make you stop, you just would have kept on dancing,” he said.
So they did it again. It was simply that amazing. After the second performance, we trekked to Mission Plaza for a finale performance that would include each of the three dances already presented. We found a wedding party on the steps leading to the mission and decided to wait. Drew didn’t want to steal the bride’s glory.
“She might try and pull my weave,” he joked.
It was a rough 20 minutes of waiting after the energy charge of the last performance, but once the wedding party had cleared out, the dancers stepped into the center of the plaza. They performed “React” for the third time in as many hours. People stopped to watch, some of them for the entire piece. Others came and went. When they finished, Drew told them they had a minute before the next piece, “Kanshaku,” and then they were back in front of the wide steps leading to the mission, dancing the choreography they had performed at the top of the parking garage. Another minute, and then came “No Children,” which they were performing for the third time that day as well. While they danced, a jet flew by. And then they walked off the nonexistent stage to applause.
Most of the people who had watched didn’t know who they were applauding, but the fact of the matter was that they had experienced something unique and invaluable. Little 2-year-old Hattie hurried over to one of the dancers, Chloe, to offer her a flower, instinctively fulfilling one of the more traditional conclusions to a dance show.
The morning after Portable Dance Assembly, Mignon and Catherine met at Bubblegum Alley at 6 a.m. to fulfill an aim that many of the artists had been toying with since NAC’s first meeting: an installation in SLO’s gum-riddled corridor. The pair had been collecting high-heeled shoes for some time: six pairs in all. They sprayed the shoes red and placed them in the alley, walking them from one wall into the other as though worn by a fashionista ghost not at all restricted by silly human inhibitions like walking into solid surfaces. How long the shoe trail lasted is unknown, but for however long they remained, the shoes were an unexpectedly vibrant and fashionable addition to the city’s least hygienic landmark.
That same day, Catherine’s daughter Cruz installed a “botanical garden” in the restroom at the Madonna Inn. “Flushed Botanical Garden” consisted of a basket filled with bright blue flowers placed above the toilet paper dispenser. A sign attached to the flowers stated “Established August 2009”. The mother/daughter artist pair sat and watched as people exited the bathroom. Catherine later called the tourists’ expressions “priceless.” It was guerrilla gardening with a bizarre twist, the perfect installation for a SLO-based institution that has a reputation for being somewhat quirky.
We staged our final flash mob on Thursday, Aug. 27. I had spent the weeks leading up to the event recruiting a phony wedding party. Our New Times receptionist, Tanya Gallardo, would be our bride, “Sally.” Tanya has a background in theater and once posed for a photo with a live bull, so we knew she’d be a good sport. For the groom, we used Colin Rigley, a New Times staff writer. He was probably the most reluctant participant, though it must be acknowledged that the role of a groom abandoned by his bride is hardly appealing.
Brent, wearing a suit, pretended to be the wedding videographer and documented the confusion with my camera. Real-life wedding videographer Matt Zolynsky also videotaped, and Steve was on hand to take pictures. Matt served as groomsman, Rebeka Levin and I were bridesmaids (by virtue of the fact that we both wore purple dresses), Dora Mountain, who works in New Times’ production department, was our distressed wedding planner. Thomas Athanasion was an enraged father of the bride. All told, our wedding party was comprised of slightly more than two dozen people.
Timing was a key issue. We had to hunt our runaway bride, but couldn’t actually catch her. Also, smiling was strictly off-limits—and Colin insisted, right up until the event, that he would giggle.
Before taking off, we assembled for the standard wedding party photos. Then, Tanya booked off to a few cries of “Sally! Sally!”
Rebeka and I had agreed to bicker while we hunted for the erstwhile bride, each blaming the other for allowing her to escape before the ceremony and loudly exclaiming that we couldn’t blame her for abandoning Raul (our phony groom name)—but couldn’t understand why she had to do it on her wedding day. We were definitely drawing attention, but were initially uncertain as to whether people connected the two girls in purple dresses to the bride who had dashed through two minutes earlier. A security person asked us why we were dressed up. “Wedding,” I said curtly. “Have you seen a bride?” He immediately pointed down Higuera Street, brightening a little. As we wandered for nearly 20 minutes, dashing into stores, people would often point us in the bride’s direction without us having to ask. Matt and Colin caught us pretty quickly, with Brent on their heels, everyone perfectly in character. Most passersby looked amused, a few downright gleeful, and some worried.
At one point, unasked, someone pointed out that the bride was hiding behind the door at Marti’s. We had to chase her, or it would have looked strange, but were worried about cornering her. Reluctantly, we entered the bar, Rebeka hovering around the door, while I dashed around tables, calling out “Corner her!” Fortunately, she dodged around a bit before disappearing into the street. It was the closest I had come to laughing during the entire project.
We all turned toward McCarthy’s with one minute until the bride’s great escape, but were disappointed to find that she had left literally seconds before we arrived in the parking lot. Our groom had missed out on his final moment of despair, and the entire wedding party gathered to loudly conjecture where Sally had gone—and with whom.
At the tail end of the procession Ryan and Sarah toted 2-year-old Hattie, who was one of two flower girls. They talked worriedly about the runaway bride and occasionally queried whether anyone had seen her or the wedding party. Apparently the tale had already been embellished because people reported that men in tuxes had been sighted running down Higuera. No one in our wedding party was wearing a tux. The groom, in fact, had not even shaved, an oversight he would be called out on by numerous people.
Here’s his account of the day:
“I ran up to a mustachioed man who was wearing a tattered baseball hat and an equally casual T-shirt and jeans ensemble.
“‘Have you seen a girl in a wedding dress run by?’ I asked between gasps after running in a full suit and tie down a crowded street.
“He looked at me with a slight smirk. Maybe he was in on the joke, maybe he couldn’t believe his luck that he got to see a runaway bride, or maybe he was just enjoying a stranger’s agony. He pointed up the street.
“‘She’s got about a 10-minute lead on you,’ he warned. ‘You better hurry.’
“I managed to jog a few steps before I heard his voice again.
“‘You gotta run faster than that.’
“‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I really am a shitbag. I deserve to be left at the altar.’
“This happened a lot. Stop a stranger, ask them if they saw the fleeing bride-to-be, and see the slight disgust when I didn’t sprint but instead casually trotted away.
“‘You didn’t even shave?’ one guy sneered when I asked for help.
“It was remarkably easy to convince people this was real. Their faces were filled with a mix of genuine concern and the self-satisfaction that comes with helping a distraught groom.
“As we reached the finale, the same guy in the hat was there. He pointed me in the right direction; this time he was in a truck and I hadn’t asked for help. Had he been following us?
“We get to McCarthy’s only to see an empty parking lot and a patio full of hooting drunkards. It was genuinely confusing and humiliating: Where the hell did she go? That bitch left me?
“Whether real or staged, it’s hard to brush off the less-than-consoling jeers from the typical weekday McCarthy’s crowd. Some raised their glasses in what I could only assume was either condolence or ridicule. Most just laughed. One woman stood proudly with two middle fingers held high.”
Success or failure?
I’ll admit that I had despaired in August. I was tired, and the promises of May and June were falling through, one after the other. The only people I head from anymore were Mignon, Catherine, Neal, and Matt. And Neal was busy opening his own store. Maybe when the Cal Poly students come, people said hopefully. I began envisioning the cover of Autumn Arts: a giant, wilted paintbrush. “WHY WE FAILED,” it would say, in bold lettering.
But to label the grand experiment a success or failure at this stage would be a disservice to the people who invested time and energy in the project. Did it go as I had planned? No. But few things ever do. And that is the beauty of an experiment—the ability of the results to surprise.
Several people have pointed out that few movements or organizations achieve success in a period of three or four months. It can take years to build momentum, to establish a presence in the community, to expand people’s concepts and definitions of art. Another factor that must be taken into account is the season. Both Cal Poly and Cuesta College are out of session during the summer, and general consensus seems to be that the student population is a natural demographic for our efforts.
I don’t believe anyone who participated had any regrets about their role. In fact, when asked to evaluate our efforts, this is what they had to say:
“It was not a matter of success or failure,” Catherine wrote. “We have a spectrum of artists and arts here in San Luis Obispo County, and I see this experiment as more a means of communication and interaction between the artists, their work, and the community. It was more than determining what is and isn’t classified as art. Collaboration itself can be considered art.
“I was privileged to work with a small group of artists who were willing to say, ‘It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident.’”
For Neal’s part, if pushed to give the effort a grade, he’d assign it a C+ or B-. But he acknowledged that the attempt was a necessary one.
“The good part is that it became a part of a conversation that we needed to have about the staleness of the arts scene,” he said. “We brought art to the common man, whether he liked it or not. This is our scene to take care of, and it’s also our scene to nurture.”
Matt had his own take on the effort as well, specifically our pursuit of critical mass.
“It got there,” he said. “Especially as we went along, students were getting back to town. Craigslist was picking up—we eventually had some great turnouts. I think in a college town there is always critical mass for something, as long as it’s school season and only as long as you can keep their attention on a given day. So that’s what could make it successful in an ongoing way, is having a core group of people who geek out on this stuff, and an ever-evolving cast of people who get swept into the maelstrom and spit out the other side.
“It’s a small town, we made due, and I think it came off well. In places like San Francisco and L.A., they have similar groups, and they continually evolve and devolve and rotate because there’s a whole lot of crazy motherfuckers in those towns. In some ways, SLO is just too polite for some kinds of artsy shenanigans, but I think what [we] accomplished here was just their speed. It was enough to give pause. It was enough to shake up people’s days and send them home with a smile thinking, ‘Dude, I just saw some crazy shit at the Farmers Market.’”
Of course, even without labeling the endeavor a failure, it makes sense to assess what might have been improved. Leadership was always an issue. In the beginning, I expected someone would organically emerge as the group leader. I even had a few theories as to who that leader might be, but it didn’t happen. It took a good two months for me to realize I would have to try to step into the role, but my inability to outright tell people what to do made me less effective than I might otherwise have been. My reluctant leadership certainly led to some confusion. I had theorized that artists would naturally reject the imposition of structure or authority, but what we wound up with was a wishy-washy pattern of pushing forward and then canceling events.
The second challenge was our communication method. In our relying solely on the listserv, people simply disappeared into some void, like socks in a washing machine. You could send out an e-mail requesting help with a particular project, and the only response you’d get back was crickets. Or an echo. In order to create a sense of accountability, we should have been meeting regularly—at least twice a month. Catherine and Mignon had been meeting weekly, and acknowledged that the practice enabled them to accomplish as much as they did.
“It’s like an ‘I’m sorry’ message board right now,” Neal said, describing the listserv messages. “’I’m sorry, I’m working.’ ‘I’ve got to wash my cat.’”
Whether New Arts Collective survives its first winter is a matter of uncertainty, largely dependent on the level of interest from potential participants. Everyone has an idea, but finding people willing to translate ideas into action is the true challenge. The local art scene needs more collaboration and whimsy, less red tape, and greater visibility to the public.
If art is to be all of the things its practitioners imagine it to be—awkward, beautiful, truthful, clever, wild, courageous, a homecoming, accessible, satisfying, tender, mysterious—and still more besides, it can’t be bound by commerce and boards or confined to galleries and stages. It must belong to everyone. Our experiment in art became an experiment in living creatively: Would people make time for art? Would they live with it on an everyday basis? Would they collaborate for its sake? As it turns out, that’s not a question I, or anyone else, can answer for an entire community.
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is exhausted but still recruiting. Answer her call at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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