Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking
From Tim Jackson: “Putting it all on the line – a fine performance!”
A Bare Market Lasts One Morning
by Melena Ryzik
The New York Times
August 1, 2011
It was an early Monday morning like any other on Wall Street. Before most of the blue-shirted financiers descended, there came an army of helpers: the custodians and coffee fetchers, personal trainers and headsetted assistants who make the money street run smoothly. They marched along the sidewalks, in a hurry to start their workweek.
Zefrey Throwell, who devised the project, speaking with a police officer on Wall Street. Mr. Throwell also participated in “Ocularpation,” playing the part of a hot dog vendor.
Here and there, though, a few people were slowing down, like the trader barking into his cellphone in the calm before the market opened. He paused to loosen his tie. Unbutton his shirt. Take off his pants.
“He’s buck-naked — Lord have mercy!” a woman said, stopping to gawk at, loudly judge and then photograph a sudden expanse of flesh.
Seconds after 7 a.m. on Monday, trousers were dropping and skirts were lifting all along Wall Street. The mass dishabille was part of a site-specific work of performance art, “Ocularpation: Wall Street,” by an artist, Zefrey Throwell. It was intended as a commentary on work and the economy, Mr. Throwell said, though that seemed to be lost on the police stationed near the New York Stock Exchange.
There, three people — two men and a woman dressed (briefly) as a stock trader, a janitor and a dog-walker — were arrested and taken to a nearby precinct, where they were given summons for disorderly conduct and later released. By 7:05 a.m., the remaining 46 men and women who were part of the project had simply put their clothes back on and gone about their day. Mr. Throwell, who also participated — he was dressed, then undressed, as a hot dog vendor — pronounced the artwork a success and went off to the precinct to see about his compatriots.
“It’s like a Fluxus happening — it’s sort of jaw-dropping, it’s this moment, and it’s never going to happen again,” said Argot Murelius, a 43-year-old art writer who participated, her black lace lingerie peeking out from beneath her pink sweatsuit. (Her role in the piece: prostitute.)
For Mr. Throwell, 35, the moment has been a long time coming. Over coffee in Bryant Park last week, he explained his project. It was “an educational attempt,” he said, “to lend more transparency to Wall Street, a street which is so damn mysterious.” Drawing on the common fear of appearing in public naked, he hoped to create “an absurdist Freudian nightmare” of nude employment: “Wall Street, exposed,” as he put it.
The idea came to him after conversations with his mother, Jan Elliott, who retired as a high school counselor in Corvallis, Ore., only to see her nest egg disappear in the financial crisis of 2008; she was forced to re-enter the labor force to survive. Around the same time, Mr. Throwell was eking out a living in a cubicle for the first time, as a customs broker in San Francisco: “One of the most Kafkaesque jobs I’ve ever had,” he said, “like entering the void for eight hours at a time. It was horrible. I’d never been enslaved by labor before.”
For an earlier, one-man iteration of “Ocularpation,” Mr. Throwell sat naked behind a desk in the financial district of San Francisco for 10 minutes, part of a series of works questioning business and consumer culture. The authorities there barely batted an eye. He moved to New York in 2008, where his projects have led to detainment and once to arrest, he said — not surprising, perhaps, for an artist who considers the absurdist comedian Andy Kaufman a prime inspiration.
Mr. Throwell, an admirer of the performance group Improv Everywhere, has also staged an office worker olympics in Midtown Manhattan, with events like the 50-meter swim (held in a fountain). For “New York City Paints Better Than Me,” he donned a white jumpsuit and crawled the streets, becoming a canvas for a composition of trash and slime.
Mr. Throwell studied painting but supports himself as a photographer and filmmaker; he also runs Engineer’s Office, a very small gallery — it’s 6 feet high, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, in a decommissioned water fountain nook — in the basement of Rockefeller Center. “Nothing is for sale,” he said, “and it all gets thrown away by a janitor at some undetermined time.”
Though Mr. Throwell wants to push boundaries creatively, he said he does not set out to flout laws with his work. “I see it operating paralegally, alongside the law, in many cases,” he said. “It’s not necessarily illegal to give people 100 air horns and conduct a symphony in the streets and use the building as the resonator. It’s more paralegal, a gray area.”
For “Ocularpation” he was given use of a work space at 14 Wall Street through a program sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Aside from the residency, “L.M.C.C. did not provide any financial grants or support for the production of ‘Ocularpation: Wall Street,’ ” a council spokesman said. Being there allowed Mr. Throwell to canvass the area; his nonscientific survey revealed a labor force at odds with what people might expect.
“Kids in Calcutta and kids in Tulsa right now are talking about Wall Street, but they have never been there, and don’t know that there’s a Tiffany’s,” he said, or “that there’s more sandwich shops than banks, that there’s more gyms happening there than stock trading.” Demystifiying the street, he said he felt, was one step in educating people about the interconnected financial realities and critiquing the system.
Casting was not a problem. Mr. Throwell first put out a call to artist friends, “and I found an organization that I love very much now, called the Young Naturists and Nudists of New York City,” he said. “They’re a fun-loving bunch.” (Asked why he chose to stage the project now, he answered, “Because it’s warm.”)
Roger Gindi, 59, a member of the Young Naturists group, played the part of a janitor in “Ocularpation.” Wearing only a yellow sweatband, he carefully mopped a section of the street. “I like this kind of participatory art,” said Mr. Gindi, a veteran of several Spencer Tunick nude photos and, in his clothed hours, a Broadway producer.
Though Mr. Throwell hoped that the public would connect the nude Wall Street workers with the economy, most did not make that leap. Faced with a woman stripping off her bra and panties as she talked into a headset about ordering a case of Champagne for her boss, or with a man, all his bits dangling, leading an invisible aerobics class on the sidewalk, passers-by simply whipped out their camera phones.
“It’s a commercial,” someone said. “Some kind of stunt,” another person ventured. “The craziest thing I’ve seen down here,” offered a third.
“Is it a statement?” asked Aileen Carson, a health aide who stopped to take in the scene. “What are they trying to say?” Whatever it was, she liked it. “They had the boldness to do it, which I admire,” she said, surveying the bodies. “It looked to me that they’re free.”
Korey Smith, a newspaper vendor outside the Wall Street stop of the 2/3 subway, watched the proceedings as only a New Yorker might. “There has been a lot of nakedness this summer,” he observed. “That’s the theme this year. I’m not even shocked.”
One person who understood the work’s aim, since she helped inspire it, was Mr. Throwell’s mother, whose maternal support extended only so far.
“My son is very creative,” Ms. Elliott said carefully when reached by phone. “I’m a little bit more prudish.” She did not make it to the Wall Street installation on Monday morning.
“She doesn’t necessarily agree with it,” her son said. “But she said she appreciates the thought.”