Earlier today I deinstalled the my New Public Site – Kiosk from Cohen plaza at MICA. As I enjoyed the warming temperature and beautiful sunshine, I found myself gazing as various throngs of relaxed students moved in and out of the Brown, Fox and Bunting buildings. After a few minutes the Kiosk was only a metal skeleton; and I was sort of glad I wasn’t waiting to lead a tour. The past three weeks of planning, fabrication, costuming, transport and tour guiding have been both exciting and exhausting. Yet it was through this marathon of movement that I successfully cultivated a deadpan yet genuine character to lead an enjoyable series of intimate walking tours focusing on overlooked features of liminal public spaces.
Starting out at Transmodern weekend, I was eager to see what sort of audience participation I might get. Initially I had hoped to lead tours on both days so that I might engage both non-art audiences on Saturday and the primed Transmodern attendees coming to see the Pedestrian Service Exquisite on Sunday. Not surprisingly I ended up working down to the wire on finishing the kiosk and costume, forcing me to skip my planned tours on Saturday. Nonetheless, Sunday proved exciting as I conducted three tours among a markedly weird array of performance artists and audience-participants. I spent a lot of time waiting around to collect a decent (4+) number of people interested in the tour. This mostly happened with other tours would hand people off to me. I only wish that there had been more time for us to perform before the Love Parade started at 2:30pm. By 3pm everyone felt scattered and the momentum of the PSE had all but dissipated.
Overall, tour participants were engaged, humorous and patient. Everyone seemed to listen carefully and followed my suggestions for interacting with features in the street scape. Many people commented that they enjoyed the walk while a few folks talked about other odd things they noticed on their own. For each tour I was able to garner approximately 8-15 participants.
My favorite moment during the PSE tours was when I was talking about some linear objects (pipes, poles, branches, etc) nestled between two low walls along Jasper Street and a local resident noticed what was going on. The friendly gentleman asked what I was talking about and then explained that he lived across the street. Without missing a beat, he looked into the crevice and then began explaining the various pile of things we were looking at with the same level of genuine interest I had been projecting. Among other things, the man talked about how he had originally seen one of the displaced signs at a nearby park and pointed out the aluminum gutter I had missed. After some conversation I was off again, impressed with the unplanned yet perfectly performed interlude.
The MICA audience proved to be equally engaged, fun and thoughtful. Naturally most of the participants were students, with a few teachers in the mix. Since I led tours everyday twice a day from Monday through Friday, I had the opportunity to lead a range of groups, from a few one-on-one tours to crowds of twenty plus. Even still I found many students unable or uninterested in going on the tours. Most would explain that they had to go to a soon go to class. Such reactions reminded me of how hard it is to convince people in public space to do anything out of the norm. Many people seemed hesitant to go until I mentioned that the tour was only fifteen minutes and offered them a free button. Overall, I estimate that eighty percent of the attendees had already heard about the project and were making a special effort to take a tour. This response has taught me two things: potential audience members need to be previously aware of the project and also have ample time to participate.
For my tour guide character I chose to embrace a serious, inquisitive and seemingly authoritative character. I wore an all white uniform adorned with four insignias: the American and Maryland flags, my name, a KIOSK badge, and my free kiosk logo button. I was pleased witht the comparisons my uniform drew; such as ice cream man, astronaut and sailor. I spoke using a mixture of architectural and poetic language in order to convey both a sense of precise insight while acknowledging my role as a non-expert layperson merely sharing my take on the ordinary. In addition, I embraced a humorously deadpan demeanor in an attempt to undermine my role as the authority figure while also holding the attention of audience members.
Importantly, it seemed obvious to most of the people who provided feedback that my character came off as truly genuine. This was imperative to me because I did not want my performance to come off as ironic. Indeed, I truly believe in the sublime beauty of the sites I talk about and honestly hope to instigate a radically transgressive gesture of temporary resignification in public space.
View New Public Sites – Kiosk Transmodern in a larger map
During the tours I featured various invisible sites and overlooked features of two discrete urban contexts. For the Transmodern PSE tours I led people through a path starting at Franklin Street, continuing along three blocks of Jasper Street, turning west on President Street and culminating at the grassy triangle where St Mary and Paca Streets intersect. The walk covered an urban transect ranging from barren industrial, to intimate residential, and finally to a ghostly presence of negative space. Along the way I charted a trajectory including a hanging block, empty signifiers, the transition between two voids (parking lots), accumulated horizontals, that which tells us nothing, and finally a daffodil filled triangle where all that remained was just us. Overall I hoped to string participants through a series of increasingly ephemeral sites that culminated at a traffic triangle that poignantly staged us in front a low-lying vista of the park to our south.
View New Public Sites – Kiosk MICA in a larger map
For the MICA tours I limited the area to the periphery of the parking lot directly north of the Bunting Center. Starting in Cohen Plaza I led people north along Lafayette Avenue, west on Dickson Street before circumscribing the parking lot clockwise. Along the way I discussed various points including a twisted No Stopping sign, two humming boxes, drooling voids, the Anti-Throne, the transition of an urban forest, and what I called the Paralax of Transit. I drew relationships between the various objects before culminating the arc of my narrative with the impressive vista of the valley before us. As we laid horizontal to appreciate the view, I expounded on the various parallel layers within this intense compression of visual space and then asked if anyone could hear that which made it all possible – Jones Falls river.
As I wrap up these two sets of tours, I am left feeling emboldened and unsure. While I have doubts regarding any large scale audience I might reach with this project, I am by no means deterred. I feel that I personally connected with an engaged, if homogeneous, audience while radically connecting to a gamut of invisible public sites. I say ‘radical’ because underneath the poetry of my tour lies what I consider to be a powerful resignification of the banal. From the everyday and overlooked emerges temporary monuments to functionalist chance arrangements within informal public space. Whether or not people agreed with my expositions of place, such fleeting moments during which we fluctuate our perceptions of the built environment represents a powerful act of transgressive pedestrian agency. Such walking agency is the the stuff of utopia, a visionary figment of place that will inevitably spring from our own appropriations of everyday space.
Videos to follow soon…