2011 towards a transfiguration of the public imagination

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towards a transfiguration of the public imagination




The subway car door opens, a figure, clad head to foot in black neoprene, emerges from the adjacent car…what are we to think? The door opens and a slippage occurs, an unexpected momentary dance between the mind’s recognition and the brain’s sluggish cognition. The black figure moves along the distance of the car, at times losing its’ balance to the jerking of the train, passing each rider and then disappearing through the next door into the next car, where the surprise and the dance begin once again. Through door after door, car after car, till the entire length of the train has been traversed and this dark figure’s journey comes to an end. The subway car becomes a compressed space of imagination, when for a moment what we see challenges the usual narrowness of the mind. This mad proposition disrupts the conformity of thought that so often characterizes public experience. This foolishness embraces the potential of a liberating moment.

The banality of contemporary daily routine, exemplified by the back and forth of the daily commute, a time nowhere on the way to somewhere, endured by many with the plug-in of headphone reality—a distraction that serves to transport the listener to some place, any place, other than here. We are superficially connected as we try to escape this reality.

Our city is structured as a series of lines that crisscross a grid allowing for movement from one destination to another but never towards a central meeting point. Consider the structure of language, of discourse, as it relates to this architecture; the crisscross of brief encounters structured on the grid with no compelling pull towards a center. Consider a design of cities that moves towards multiple de-centralized centers, towards points of meeting and gathering; cities that embody the design of the commons.


The subway car provides a foil, it can be appropriated as a site of divergence, it provides an opportunity—on the outside it travels on that prescribed linear path, but on the inside it stands uncannily still, a place within which we are contained in an awkward proximity to one another. This is a rich site for the development of a counter narrative. The subway car functions as a potential space for discourse; it holds that possibility as a space for discourse not only in a metaphorical sense but in it’s reality—these are real people in a real space brought together not only by circumstance, but by desire—the desire we embody daily as we step out of our private doors and move into the flow of many.

Consider the condition of labor as a state of mind framed within the space of the mass commute, a condition that crushes the internal space of an individual. Crammed together in the subway car, by the folly of circumstance rather than of choice. Under any other circumstance this counter-instinctual density would not be tolerated. The performances ( frogman and balloon) were meant to interrupt that sufferable condition, to rupture and open up the possibility of multiple alternative narratives, to propose a strategic option.

As acts, they (balloon and frogman) occupy a slice of time within which an abrupt break occurs, an unexpected interruption of the banality of the daily grind. I intentionally chose rush hour, the time of day attached to mind-numbing routine, when the extraordinary rarely occurs (unless one might consider the phenomena of rush-hour extraordinary in itself!), but which I saw, theoretically, as a universe of concentrated collective imagination, with titanic potential. These actions introduced a quality of inventive disorder into the compliant homeostasis of the evening commute; they served as a form of benign provocation. The subway serves as a metaphorical space of engagement. That form of activated space can be transferred to any situation where people gather.



In re-considering subway stories and the ‘performative act’ within the frame of 2011, it is important to note the parallels between the 1970’s and this beginning of the second decade of the 21 century. Then, as now, the economy is depressed and austerity measures are progressively put into place; budgets are cut, conditions of labor are strained, social programs are challenged, and finally, we were and are under increasingly challenging pressure.

It is also important to note the differences. In the 70’s the ‘city’ experienced a population exodus leaving a vacuum in its wake. Although devastating for many, the vacuum proved an open frontier for some. For such protagonists this void afforded an opportunity of possibility, a creative Mecca. On the street we found ourselves up against the wall, the city was tough and felt in many ways a zero sum game. It seemed as if time might be on our side if we could manage to hold out long enough. There was plenty to do, and a need of plenty of space to do it in. Numbers of previously private, now derelict, spaces were newly designated part of the commons (think of the community garden movement) and participatory actions were organized. Art was not yet hyped as the next big thing to happen to the real estate market, touting 7 digit budgets and Hollywood style fame—all of which inevitably corrupts the artist’s relationship to audience.

Things have changed; the ‘city’ has now become the destination. As rents increase and personal space shrinks, privacy is marketed at a premium and free time lessens. That compression extends well beyond the single subway cars, to envelope every precious square foot of urban experience.



“If you see something, say something. . .”, this mandate the public is confronted with again and again, a repeated drone that has come to characterize (and ultimately personify) the current condition of the public sphere. Random behavior and events are immediately suspect. We are forewarned that backpacks will be searched. You are at the risk of arrest if your appearance is suspect. We have seen the restriction of critical discourse within public space, as we are urged to keep moving along barricaded pathways. Gathering in groups is actively discouraged, numbers of more than 70 now requires a permit. Additional restrictions apply to photography in public places.

Control of the public commons relies on the fretful anticipation of collective horror; the social contract becomes one of paranoid surveillance of one another. We linger compliant in our confined spaces wary of any perceptual move or gesture that is out of the ordinary that would prove, finally, to be the rational for our ballooning anxiety.

All of which might suggest the time is right, in fact urgent, for a creative renaissance.



subway stories considered in retrospect—detachment an inevitable consequence of time—is also colored by the experience of the present. This work came out of a place that no longer exists. It is simply a different time. The impulse that set the stories in motion, appears in hindsight, refreshingly innocent; there was simply an impulsive desire to participate in the ‘flow of things’.

The subway cars during rush hour seemed ideal because the space was so extreme. The ideal place to act, one among many, the way it can be in the big city, everyone crowded together and yet individually detached. The crammed cars provided a psychic mirror for the detachment from intimate connection one can feel in the presence of so many strangers. The decision to participate in the act of commuting was, however futile, a gesture at trying to fit in and be a ‘part of’. The subway series ultimately becomes a foil—as all attempts at inclusion inevitably break down.

In this way the work fails. And yet it is the work’s failure, the ridiculousness and futility of the gesture that becomes its’ strength. We gain when we can laugh at our folly. It takes an act of whimsy of imagination to open things up. It moves one away from a kind of rigid consensus and opens the question of ‘why are things this way?’. The act pushes at the limits of the conspiracy that this is how things have to be. The performances transfigure public space.

text for catalogue: Act / OUT, curated by Lene ter Haar, Onomatopee, Eindhoven, Netherlands