On the street

At the corner of the wide, clattering commercial street there’s a huge man screaming at a woman, her shoulder shrugged slightly away. She’s holding hands with a small boy in a blue school blazer. The man’s long arms stab the air, his head vibrates from the force of his voice. Spit flies, or maybe it’s sweat.

“You are o-ffensive, you hear me. Offensive. That’s what you are.” He steps forward, leans down to her face, so close, his nose must be touching hers. She doesn’t flinch, she doesn’t lean back. He’s jamming his finger at her, still yelling. I walk past and then I turn around. I see her eyes are ringed with red. He’s got the boy’s hand now, leading him away, still yelling. She’s sobbing. The boy is sobbing.

“Miss, do you need help?” I don’t know if this will make it worse for her. It might. She calmly says no, thank you, without looking at me, without taking her eyes off the man and the boy.

“You get out of my business, you bitch. Mind your own.” His voice is so loud with rage, it’s shaking. “You’re nothing. You hear? Don’t you talk to her.” He takes a long, fast step at me, jerking the little boy with him. I keep walking, raise my hands palms out, submission. I keep walking past him, my back is to him now and I imagine him coming down on me, my head hitting the sidewalk. I’m terrified. And I wonder what she’s doing.

There’s a leggy man leaning against a street sign maybe ten feet in front of me. He’s got his phone out, idly scanning it. But he’s watching. A few houses down there are three men on a stoop, watching. There are eyes on the street here, on him, on her, on the boy, and on me. The sound of the man’s screaming starts to fade with the distance I put between us.

Farther down the block there’s a gorgeous, big woman shaking her head. I catch her eye and say, “You taking all that in?”

“Yeah. That shit awful. I feel for that boy, he gotta listen to it. I bet he’s listening to it every day.” We fall in step together. “That’s why I got nothing to do with all that. I’m like the MTA. Bus says NEXT BUS PLEASE. Me, I say, NEXT WOMB PLEASE. Nothing coming out of this womb, not ever. Unless I’m making seven figures, kids are expensive. And I'm not relying on no man, you just saw what that can come to, right? Gotta be ready to walk the hell away. Kids, they’re cute, but they’re a trap. You got a kid?”

I nod.

“Hmph. See, good luck honey.” We’ve reached the corner together and she turns to cross the other way. “You have a beautiful day now, nice talking with you.” She’s still muttering, next womb please, cracking herself up.

On the bus

We scramble onto the nearly empty bus and my daughter makes a beeline for her favorite spot, the crow’s nest of the broad back row. We’ve gotten our backpacks off and she’s tucked herself into the space beneath my arm. One of the other passengers gets up to wait by the door. She smiles amiably in our direction, and says, “Kids always want the back, don’t they. Why is that?”

“She says it’s bouncier,” I poke a thumb off to the side, in my kid’s direction.

“That must be it!” She laughs.

My daughter turns her face up to me and asks, “Do you know her?”

“No, we’re just chatting and being friendly.”

“That’s right, we are,” the woman replies to my daughter, warmly, bending a little.

I tell her, like I often do, “It’s good to be friendly. I mean, if you’re with one of your grownups.” She turns her face into my armpit. “And you never have to if you don’t want to.”

“That’s a fine way to put it,” the woman says. “My grandkids are always asking that when I say hello. ‘Do you know them, why are you talking to them?’ I tell them that too. It’s good to be friendly.”

I nod, my daughter furls tighter under my arm, and then peeks out and smiles at the woman.

She catches the flirt and grins into it. Then she looks back at me. “Especially right now, the way things are,” she says, “it’s important. Being friendly.”

She touches a long finger to her forehead, then at me, back and forth, once, twice, describing an arc between our faces. It takes me a beat to see what she’s pointing at. Her dark skin, my light skin, the space between us. Especially now when there is so much hate, is what she means.

Amen to that is what I want to say, but those are words I have no claim to. “That’s right,” is what I manage, here on this bus, which for one long minute is the great grand church of tolerance. My daughter flashes her shining grin.

“You have a beautiful day you beautiful ladies.”

I whisper in my daughter’s ear. “Say ‘you too’ and tell her thank you.”

“I already did, Mom,” she says, a little petulant about my instructions. “I told her with my face.”

In a cab

He’s tapping my destination into his GPS and says to me, “This thing, you know, I use this and now I learn nothing. I follow it around, but I don’t learn how to get anywhere anymore.” He shrugs.

“I know what you mean. I can’t even read a map anymore.”

“You know what is amazing though, this works even in Cairo where there are no names on the streets. It still tells you how to go.”

I tell him that I used to have family friends from Egypt and I loved the food. “You like Egyptian food? Foul, tabouleh? You must have loved the lamb, yes?”

I didn’t, but I don’t tell him that. “I used to,” I said, “but now I don’t eat meat anymore.”

He bangs a hand on the steering wheel. “Are you a vegetarian? What is this vegetarian, my seventeen year old son says he is one now. I say what do you mean eat nothing that’s living. Trees, eggplant, they’re alive too but we cut them down, we eat them. Meat is good for you, you need it to be strong.”

I nod, and look out the window. He’s right, he’s wrong. But it’s his son’s fight, not mine.

We’re stopped in traffic and he turns around. “You know what, I have killed a lamb myself.” He draws a finger across his neck. “We have a holiday in Islam, Eid-al-Hadah, about Abrahim, he is the founder of our religion. The story is God tested him, he told him to kill his son Isaac. Abrahim says to Isaac, God tells me to kill you. How can I do this? Isaac says, look you have to do what God says. So Abrahim does, he pulls the knife across his son’s throat, but then instead of him there is a lamb. God tricked him. So we kill the lamb too, a sacrifice to God, to remember. Every year we go to the special butcher who kills them the right way, halal. One year I said, I want to do it myself.” Again he draws a hand across his throat. “He showed me how, I did it. The next year he told me how he gets the skin off too. Every year now, I kill the lamb myself.”

We ride on a while. This story of God as a trickster, I love it but I have no idea if it is true. I don’t know enough about Islam to know if a single word of this is accurate. I only know it is this man’s story. I only know that he gets both a thrill and moral balance from the act of killing the lamb himself.

“Religion is tricky,” he picks up the thread again. “This story, do you believe it? For the Christian story, it’s different. God stops him, not tricks him. All different religions have different stories. Chinese have the Buddha,” he encircles an invisible belly with his arms. “Hindus, so many gods. Which is true? Which is right and which is wrong?”

We’re so involved in our conversation that he misses a turn the GPS voice told him to make. We’re both laughing and squinting at the street signs trying to figure out where to go. We narrowly escape heading into the tunnel.

“No, no, please, don’t take me to New Jersey!” It’s our own little comedy, the two of us. We loop around one-way streets and finally find our way.

He’s quiet a while, so am I. I’m trying to memorize the conversation.

“I am Muslim because my parents are. Growing up I see this. If they were Jewish, I would see they are Jewish, I would absolutely be Jewish. Anyway Muslims, Jews, they are so similar. Same food, but they kill each other. It’s not the people. It’s politics.”

Suddenly there’s mischief in his eyes. “Do you know who I think is right?” I wait. I think know what’s coming but I don’t want to spoil the beauty of it.

“What I think is we’re all right,” That’s the part I was expecting, from this thoughtful, philosophical man. But then he frowns. “I’m a good Muslim. Mostly there are good Muslims. Some are crazy though. They want to kill everybody else. This, this is wrong. What they believe is wrong. If I saw them doing something, I’d kill them to stop them.”

“ No killing! Only the sheep.” It’s the end of the ride, I’m reluctantly climbing out of his cab.

“Yes,” he laughs, “only sheep. Have a good day.” And then, an afterthought. “Eat meat.”


We are running late, my daughter and I, on our way to school. She dawdled too long on the block where all the townhouses have artful gardens beside their stoops. We’ve just reached the wide downtown street, the courthouses and government aid offices. There’s a fruit stand on the corner and she asks for a banana.

We stop, I fumble for change and start testing the bananas with gentle squeezes. The vendor chuckles, he thinks I am looking for a fresh one. He tells me I should go to Ecuador. That’s where they grow, he says.

“Oh, are you from Ecuador?” I keep pinching bananas. I still haven’t looked at him, though I don’t realize that yet.

“No,” he says. “From India.”

Now I look up. His skin is brown, I knew that much from walking toward the cart. And that’s really all I saw before. The look on his face is a few degrees shy of friendly.

“Which part of India,” I ask quickly, without thinking about it. But I hear what I’m doing, I’m trying to slide past what just happened.

“Not really India, Bangladesh.”

I take a deep breath. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t look at your face.” Right then I think this is the right thing to do. Own up to it, name it. But maybe I’m just whipping myself over the shoulder with a bundle of lashes. The real question, the one I have the decency not to ask, is whether my apology made it better or worse for him that he had been so profoundly not-seen.

“That’s ok,” he swats it away like a fly.

“Mo-mmm, can I please have my banana now? I’m so hungry,” she draws out that last syllable for miles. I peel it, she grabs it from my hand, and the man and I stand there, not knowing what to say. The kid is tugging on me.

After a while, he says “I’m from Dhaka. It’s a city. It’s the capital. That’s where I’m from.” It’s a concession, let’s pretend you’re really interested and not just covering up that you saw a dark face out of the corner of your eye and for a moment you were everything you were raised not to be, a person to whom all dark skin looks alike.

“Let’s get a banana again there tomorrow,” my kid says. “Let’s get one there every day. It can be our thing we do.”

In a cab

The driver really wants to talk, I can tell, but I’m just not up for it. I watch him in the rearview though. The way he looks at the world through the windows, seems like he sees more good than bad in it. We’re listening to the radio, he and I, and eventually it rolls around to Trump. So I ask.

“What do you think of him?”

“What do I think of Trump. Well, I can talk on that for hours, well past getting you home.”

“I’m listening!” There's a cold moment. Politics is risky. And I could easily have made a poor bet.

“All right. Trump. It’s not even him that shocks me now. It’s that these are real people, millions of people who are voting for this divisiveness, this hatred. You can’t come here, and you can’t go there. It’s like the past years we all fought so hard, all that progress we made. Like it never happened. No civil rights, no women’s rights, no gay rights. It just makes me sad.”

He shakes his head, first at this sadness and then at a few jaywalkers who cross him as he takes a hard turn. “Some ways it doesn’t matter who gets the chair, because this is how people feel and they’re saying it. They yelling it. This is the world my children, my grandchildren going to have to live in. This is what we made for them. You know what I’m saying.”

What I didn’t expect when I asked the question was that he would move me to tears. The traffic gets momentarily complex and I pinch the tip of my thumb hard, the pain rolls back the tears. I want him to keep talking, and I hope he doesn’t hear my throat catch when I ask what he thinks about the democrats.

“Now Bernie, he got good ideas. Sure, I want to live in that world. But I live in the real world. None of that going to get done. You would have to undo years and years of legislation and policy and power structure. This is just classism. It’s all about class and that’s not going away. We got ‘all men are created equal’ and the the pursuit of happiness. That’s what this country is supposed to be. That’s what the promise is. But you know, that only goes so far.” He slices a level hand chest-high through the air. “You can get this much happiness and that’s all you get.”

“You said it.” I’ve got my voice back now. “There’s the rhetoric and there’s the reality.”

He turns around with his arm bent over the seat and his fist curled. “That’s right.” He’s laughing. “We can bump on that. Yes we can.”

It feels like solidarity he’s offering. Or maybe that’s me wishing. He’s working and I’m tipping. That can’t be gotten around.

Outside the bar

Between the bookstore and the funeral home is a stub of a street, practically a driveway, and that’s where the door to the bar is. It’s mid-summer, the air is a warm bath. I’m waiting on a friend.

I sit down on the curb near the edge of the streetlight’s circle, but not in it. From the shadows, I hear muttering, and a wiry man walks into the light. His short dreads are bouncing as he shakes his head side to side.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You all go away.” He’s pacing around the edge of the light, still shaking his head at the ground. “I’ve had enough of you! Go.”

“Are you ok?” He doesn’t respond, I’m not sure if he hears me. I try again. “Do you need help?”

He lifts his head and he nods. “I just need some peace,” is all he says.

I pat the curb next to me. “Would you like to sit down?”

He stands there looking at me, and then at the curb. He checks over his shoulder into the shadows and then sits. He’s shaking a little and rocking a little. He wipes his eyes of tears I didn’t notice before. I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s ok,” I tell him.

“I got stuff up here, in my head.” He knuckles it twice. “Won’t leave me alone. I know it’s not there but it’s there anyway.” He stops and listens a while, a finger behind his earlobe. “Anyhow I think they don’t like you. They quiet now.”

“That’s good.” I don’t know what else to say.

“Can’t keep track of they coming and going. Tires me out.”

“Can I help you get home?” He doesn’t need my help, we both know that. This helping thing, I see how it is. I want to make myself feel better.

“I live nowhere. Sometimes I go to my sister’s house, but not like this. Her kids, they don’t need to be around this. I gotta protect them.”

He puts his head in his hands, elbows balanced on splayed knees. “Can’t get an apartment without a job. Can’t get a job without an address. Go to the shelter, hope the demons fly.”

My friend arrives, her red hair swinging. She yells at me. “What are you doing? Come inside!” Maybe she thinks he doesn’t catch her meaning, or maybe she doesn’t care. I want there to be a right thing to say. I don’t know what to say to either of them. I stand up, shake his hand like a preacher, wrapping my left hand around to make a knot. He sits back down. “It was nice talking with you, lady. And don’t mind her.” He smiles and points a finger at my friend. “I think she one of them.”

On the express

She looks a little like my grandmother, perfect posture, haughty without cause, clutching her hands together a little too tightly. Her glance flits around and lands on me. “Does this train go to Edgewood Road?”

I get up and look at the map. It’s doesn’t. She needs the local. “Thank you,” she says, then crosses her arms over her purse in her lap. Her face quickly scrambles to a skeptic’s frown. It’s not the answer she wanted, and she’s not buying it.

The doors open, close. She asks me again three times, once after each stop. She still doesn’t believe me but now she starts talking.

“I tell you, I have lived here 50 years and never been on the subway, not once. I drive everywhere. I called my daughter, she lives in Long Island and she didn’t know. She’s never done this either. I said to her, fine, okay, someone will help me. I’ll be brave. Fifty years.” She laughs a tiny bird’s laugh.

There’s a man in a peacoat next to me. He scratches his beard and looks up. “You can change to the local anywhere,” he says.

“Here?” she asks each time the doors open. “Anywhere,” he replies every time.

I tell him, “I’m getting off in a few stops, I can take her.” I don’t know why I say it to him first and only after that to her. She’s tapping her shoes together and when the train slows I reach out my hand. “Come,” I say, and she takes my bent arm as if we’re going out for a stroll. On the platform, I remind her which train, and start to walk away.

“Wait.” I turn back and her eyes beg. “I’m so scared,” she says quietly, holding up her hand to show me the tremors.

I never want to be that fragile, the translucent skin and innocent fear. “I’ll stay with you.” I ask her name, where she’s from, she hangs onto my hand as we pass a few minutes and then the local rolls in. I step onto the train with her, settle her in a seat, and jump off just as the doors close.

Back on the platform what I want is somehow to find the man from the express. I want to tell him. Her name is Esther. She’s from France. She held my hand. It’s beautiful, and futile, I want a witness and have none.

After a moment I think something else. You never know in this city, everyone has their hustle. It can’t be, I think, but I do it anyway, I check for my wallet.

It was still there.

In a cab

I get into the cab and fall in love with his voice. I ask where his accent is from, even though I know. I just want him to talk.

“That is Hatian,” he says. “I like the way you ask that, not where I’m from. Everybody asks where I’m from and I say I don’t know, I have been here 17 years, I think I am from here.”

Seventeen years is a long time. I ask if his accent had changed.

“How did you know? Here nobody can understand me because I sound Creole, in Haiti now nobody can understand me because I sound American.” He wants to know if I speak other languages.

“I speak French. I used to, it’s mostly gone.”

“Haitians can understand French,” he says, “but Frenchmen cannot understand Creole. I don’t think they try very hard.” He teaches me a few phrases, how they sound in French and in Creole. “You see,” he says, “you can figure it out if you try.” It's true.

Now he is trying to learn Spanish. He knows some from his Dominican grandmother. “I had a funny thing the other day. These two women were my passengers, older, very rich, speaking Spanish. One is telling the other she is disappointed in her boyfriend. He’s terrible, the other says, you should get rid of him. Then she points at me, she says you should ask the driver out, he’s very handsome. They laugh. They think I can’t understand them.”

“Did you say anything?” I want the story to be that he turned around and confronted them. I want to see what happens in that story. We’ve already gotten to where I’m going and he’s turned the meter off, but we keep talking.

“No” he says, “We still had a long ride. Anyway, I know that women get this all the time and it’s not so comfortable, men on the street saying how they look. They don’t want that. But me, you know, men don’t get this. It doesn’t happen for us. I’m thinking I’ll take the compliment. I’ll take what I can get.”

In the station

The panhandler at the bottom of the steps is greeted with shrugs and averted eyes when he asks, not begs, for help. "After a while you get immune to it," he says, louder now. "All you walkin and not seeing. You shaking your heads, goin on your ways."

By the time I come to face him, he's cut his losses. He points a ragged finger at each of us crossing his path. "Come judgement you won't be immune. No immunity in the eyes of god. I see you," he says. "You blind."

Interrupt the Program (Aug 5, 2013)

Spoiler alert: I am about to tell you what to do.

1. Talk to a stranger

It’s simple, and harmless, and generous, a beautiful interruption. You can do it without even slowing down your pace. Catch someone’s eye, smile in passing, say “have a good day,” or “how’re you doing.” These are mundane utterances that are also deeply profound. They say to someone: I see you there, we are both people walking down this street or through this lobby, we are both real and it’s worth a nod to that. If you are still smiling for two seconds after you pass by, you are doing this right. You have created a moment of street intimacy.

2. Fall down a rabbit hole

Ignore the kerfuffle about what the internet is doing to your attention span. There are kinds of distraction that are deeply focused. There are many clicks involved in this. Someone, somewhere on your internet has posted something that intrigues you, that you want to know more about. Read it, watch it, wonder about it. What questions does it leave you with? Dig deeper into it. Or, what does it remind you of? Follow unexpected tangents. You are not scattered, you are on a quest. You are looking for answers. If what you find are more questions, you are doing this right. You have been distracted from what you were doing when you started all this. You have been curious.

3. Do nothing

Sit by yourself somewhere in public for 7 minutes without looking at your phone. It has to be somewhere without a TV. Neither of these are bad, I like them too. Do it anyway. This may make you uncomfortable. Do it anyway. Unless you choose to sleep, you will find that you are forced to look at something. What is it? Are you reading signs or looking at things in store windows? Are you looking at other people? Are you looking at trees? Water? Sand? Cement? If you start talking to yourself in your head, you are doing this right. I should have said at the beginning, take a pen in case you want to write something down. You can write on your hand, it’ll wash off. You have been awake.

Asking and Giving: the way we live now (May 7, 2013)

This will start with a gift and end with a call-to-arms.

Among the happy things the internet brings me, from time to time, is a bit of writing so striking it stays with me. Nothing to do with facts or the immediate moment. Rather something about what it is to live right now. In this manner, I held onto an essay on cities and loneliness, by a writer named Olivia Laing. The essay is part of a book, which turned out to be a book I very much wanted to read. I found her site and learned that this book, which touches one of the themes I am obsessed with, strangers and cities and how it is to live among them--this book did not exist yet. The last line of Laing's page about the book is this:

If you're interested in supporting The Lonely City, I have a wishlist of research material here. All donators of books will be thanked in the acknowledgements.

So I did it. I sent her a book from her Amazon wishlist of research materials she needed and couldn't afford. And I tweeted that I had done so. Someone who follows her asked for the link to the list, and this morning I found out that I am not the only one to have sent her a book. Which is the most wonderful outcome I can possibly imagine.

What I'm interested in here is how in our culture right now, the ivy of generosity is growing over every structure we have built. The research and first printing for Don't Go Back to School was funded by Kickstarter backers. We create, publish, and sell our work now outside traditional channels, and we make communities in the process. None of this is new, but its pervasiveness is new.

One of the most significant findings of my research for Don't Go Back to School is that people learn together. They form communities and learn with and from each other. They have as much access to experts as any enrolled student would. The people I interviewed told me stories about asking experts questions--polite, respectful questions (in the book they give advice about how to formulate these). They told me stories about those experts taking them seriously and helping them. 

We are deep in the culture of generosity now in how we learn and think and create and contribute and live. It did not seem strange to me to ask strangers to support a book I wanted to write, and it does not seem strange to me every time I support another person's creative production. It did not seem strange at all to me to send a book to a stranger, a writer whose work I wanted to read more of. It does not seem strange to me when people ask me for advice about independent learning. It does not seem strange to me when people write to me after reading my syllabi on the internet and ask me to suggest further reading on specific topics they've discovered there. None of those seem strange at all. They are a part of how we live now. If you are not living that way, you are doing it wrong.

All the Names (April 30, 2013)

Last week, I did a repetitive, mundane thing. I printed postage labels for each of my Kickstarter backers to send them their copies of Don't Go Back to School.

Except it wasn't mundane at all. I printed postage labels for around 900 people who were about to become my readers. I saw their names, wonderfully colorful and wonderfully common. I saw the names of their towns and cities, wonderfully colorful and wonderfully familiar. Nine hundred real people, every single one of whom knows how to reach me and tell me what they think about the book.

Writers don't get this, under ordinary circumstances. Readers remain abstract and mysterious unless they come to your readings. Writing is terribly, terribly lonely, any writer will tell you this. All those names made it less so.

Writers don't print their own postage labels either, under ordinary circumstances. I'm not trying to tell you it's fun, it's not. But it's also a task I hope every writer will have a chance to do sometime in their careers. It represents a newly-possible relationship between writers and readers. We're all real people here.



Conversation with Mark Allen of Machine Space (Jan 25, 2011)

The life of the street, at its best, is lyrical, unexpected, and momentarily intimate. Cities by definition comprise strangers, and when strangers find cause to break their urban detachment, the episodes of street intimacy they make can be precious and thrilling. These moments fascinate me, both in my own experience and in the abstract, as what I believe to be a craved pleasure of city dwellers. I'm talking here about the pleasure of interruption, of fleeting connections. These moments are metonyms for why we choose to live in cities. They shimmer with the beauty of the ordinary and everyday. And they're rich with meaning, as instances of what linguists call “phatic communication,” which is to say, an exchange that has little semantic value but high social and emotional value. When your neighbor says, “How're you doing?” what they also say is: I know you, I recognize you, we're in this thing of being humans together.

I am both a writer and a teacher, and my passion is opening windows for people to see and experience the things I see when I move through the world--a world driven and animated by the marvelous interruptions of street life in the city. The story of my first novel, Follow Me Down, emerges from a concatenation of these sorts of moments, drawing an existential mystery out of them. And at the Interactive Telecommunications Program of New York University I teach technologists, artists and inventors to explore these interactions in public and private experience, to understand the minutiae of how and why and where they happen. What I've learned from my students' experiments and projects is that it's far from easy to instigate city interactions that carry the same rich social and emotional experience as the ones produced by accidental convergences.

I was thinking about these contexts when I set out to revisit Mark Allen's Machine Project, a Los Angeles non-profit performance and installation space that hosts events, workshops, and site-specific works on art, technology, natural history, science, music, literature, and food, focusing on hands-on engagement. Machine Project also operates as a loose confederacy of artists producing site-specific work. They're currently serving as artists in residence at the Hammer Museum of Art, producing a year of programming addressing the visitor experience and public engagement. I find their work deeply charming, and exciting for the ways that their installations shift the dynamics of museum spaces. The Machine Project's work changes the aura and authority in the room. It can call into question the social rules of how museum spaces are used, what is allowed, what is expected. They are skilled orchestrators of unexpected experiences in unexpected places.

Out on the street, in everyday conversations, at work, at school, or in the museum, we are governed by unwritten rules and unexpressed expectations that are visible, knowable, only when they are broken. It's jarring and illuminating when it happens. It pulls you firmly into the present, into the moment and place where you are. This is not merely a metaphor: a moment like that wakes you up.

Mark and I met up in New York recently to talk about our shared passion for playful awakenings.

--Kio Stark

Mark Allen: Machine Project started out as a real interest in this notion of the city as the site of engagement with different kinds of ideas. Every week we engage with a different form of culture, so there's cycling of different kinds of ideas and people. Because it's a storefront, you can see what's going on in there and cues of authority are not particularly strong. It's a very casual space and people wander in.

When you move into the museum it's a very authoritative space and so I got very interested in what that space is and how people occupy it. One way to think of it is as a civic space like a park. So, there are other people there. They're there to use the space in the same way that you are. You do not know them, but there is a kind of commonness of purpose.

Kio Stark: And there's a set of expectations about that--a working consensus is what it's called in sociology--about behavior. There's also a set of experiential expectations. In theory you go to the museum to have your mind opened and to have a contemplative experience, but you know what that experience is going to be in advance and you're prepared to take pictures of it and you're prepared to talk about it afterwards in certain ways. So the space includes those codes as well, and you may have a predetermined narrative of what happens in the museum space.

MA: Yes, so part of my project overall is how can you carve out a space in the museum that's less authoritative and how you can make work that is smaller, more intimate in that same space. One thing I do is look at interstitial spaces. The museum really constructs viewership in galleries and not in elevators so you do something in an elevator, it feels like a different form of space and it also changes the viewer's perception of where the site of the aesthetic experience is. It's a way of producing a different form of attention.

KS: Which is really central to the way I think about interruption and pleasure--in this case, unexpected experience in public space and unexpected experience of a space where you've got an idea of what's supposed to be happening and that gets disrupted. So let's talk about a concrete example of how you do that.

MA: Sure, one example is at the Hammer Museum, they have a coat room which is underneath the stairs of the museum and we've been staging two-minute concerts for two people at a time in there. It's a very raw space. There is a coat rack with a security guard, a couple of chairs in the corner. It feels like backstage. So I conceptualize it as a spot that's more connected to the security of the museum, but it also feels like a space outside the panopticon of security. The lobby that the coatroom is in feels like a bank lobby so the architecture and the security are constructed in such a way that it's very intimidating.

In conceiving the piece, I thought about metaphors like: “You're squatting in an abandoned house,” or “you're at a party at somebody's parents house when they're out of town when you're a teenager,” situations where you don't own the space. In the coatroom concert, you're occupying in a way that makes you both more aware of how the rest of the museum space constructs authority, but also feels like some kind of escape from that.

KS: In interpersonal relations, there's the concept of the opening position, which is the position of openness or receptivity that an unengaged person presents, and then the opening move someone makes to engage that person. I was thinking about the space of the museum having or lacking opening positions, and that your work creates opening positions in spaces where they are not expected. This is a big thing with my students at ITP. They get very focused on the technology and we have to push them to consider the idea that you have to get people to pick up the object, or walk up to something that's going to interact with them, or initiate an interaction with someone--whether it's via technology or not. People have to feel invited into involvement. So, with the coatroom piece, I'm thinking: how did the piece invite people in?

MA: We have a giant sign that says, “Two-minute concerts, inquire.” We tried a bunch of different strategies. We tried asking people when they came in if they wanted to see a concert. We tried seating somebody right by the sign and in the end it seemed like those approaches were a little bit oppressive. People had just entered the museum and they didn't really want to have to think about this crazy thing of whether they wanted to hear a two-minute concert in a closet. So we scaled back a little bit, and instead tried to give lots of indicators of what was happening and to have people you could ask. We would sometimes leave the door open so you would see the people performing, and the people watching people perform. They can imagine in their head what it will be like if they've seen someone else do it. In general that's always a really good model for participatory things. If you can create it so that the non-participants can see other people participating, then it sort of becomes like the way you put a dollar in your tip jar at the beginning of your shift. It may be unfamiliar, but you can see how to use it.

KS: Did people stand around outside talking about it?

MA: In this case, not really. It does happen in some of our work. You can create a piece where it's a container for people to do something in.

KS: The piece becomes a social object.

MA: It depends on how much you construct for that, and of course, it depends if it's one of the values that the work is trying to advance.

KS: You can only choreograph with so much certainty, though, right? In terms of how people respond to the piece socially. There's the Marina Abramovic piece at MoMA. It's a performance for one person in a situation that's being watched by everyone else. You're very aware of being watched and photographed when you're sitting there with her.

So it's an intimate experience in public, and you would think it would become a social object in that way. But it doesn't really. It's a fascinating situation in the space she's made. People are sitting and talking, and even though the piece is about this profound presentness and attention, everyone else is kind of chattering. You're at enough distance from the intimate performance that you don't feel like you're interrupting it. I sat on the sidelines and had a conversation with my friend about her love life and then we'd watch for a while and then we would go back to talking. That's what most people were doing, alternating between attention and inattention. What surprised me was I didn't actually see a lot of people talking to strangers in that arena. Usually any point of triangulation is an excuse for people to talk to each other. It's the equivalent of when something weird happens on the subway.

There's also a way of constructing an experience that's not just social but also collective. You guys have done really interesting things in that vein.

MA: We did a “dream-in” at the Hammer Museum, a program organized by Art Spa, where 180 people slept overnight in the museum. We did lucid dreaming workshops and then people volunteered to be woken up at 5:00 the next morning, and we videotaped what their dreams were and then we had actors doing a subtle reenactment of the dreams the next day, playing with the idea that there's a trace of the dreams.

And actually what was interesting about it was much less that they were sleeping in a museum but just that as an adult (if you're not trapped at the airport or in a refugee camp) very seldom do you sleep with 180 people. So that experience itself is really interesting.

MA: There's such a dynamic there of public and private experience. Your dreams are private insights into yourself. But in this case you're making those insights and raw images public to strangers, and having a collective experience of private matters.

I like how much room there is in your work for the audience to maneuver. The container is generous. In the Tino Sehgal piece at the Guggenheim, that we talked about the other day, it's a bit different. [This Progress, an installation by the British-German artist whose father fled Pakistan, was on view in February and March 2010.] The piece was also designed to make a small, intimate experience for each participant, in the context of a collective experience. All in this space that was supposed to be about something completely different, which is spectatorship of objects, basically.

The piece involved a series of guided conversations with a series of performers that had a very individual quality for each person. The visitor entered the [emptied-out] rotunda of the museum and was met by a child. The child asked the visitor a question and listened to the answer. As they continued walking up, the child told the answer to a teenager. The child introduced the teenager to the visitor, who continued the conversation as the child walked away. Farther up the ramp, an adult popped out and interjected a statement into the conversation. The teenager introduced the visitor to the adult, who continued walking up as the teenager walked away. At a certain point on the ramp, the adult disappeared. The visitor was greeted by an old person who introduced him or herself, gave the visitor the name of the piece, and told a story as they continued walking up the ramp to the top. The problem was that people immediately asked: “What is this? What is this about?” That wasn't a question the performers were supposed to answer. So there's the issue of what do you do when the audience is breaking character as audience, or, by asking those kinds of questions, they are refusing to stay in the container of the piece.

MA: Sehgal's work is very theatrical, and theater works because of conventions--I sit here, and I behave this way, things happen in the performance space and I clap. Sehgal is creating these sorts of interactive theatrical experiences, which are also playing with the form of theater, so that you have people trying to have the experience, and at the same time being shown how to deconstruct it. and I think that becomes a difficult thing to choreograph.

But I have very different intentions, of course. I usually like to let people know as much as possible what the thing is. When something really is concerned about creating different kinds of experiences around our ideas but within the space of the social in a way that's very gentle and comfortable. I like it to be clear that we're now going to do X, Y, Z, P and Q, and hopefully that gets people into a place where they can then kind of just roll with the experience.

KS: As you said, it's interstitial. It's not instead of the art, rather, you're sneaking unexpected experiences into the spaces and overall environment of the museum. I think that's the most exciting thing that's going on, whether it's in museums or traditional public spaces, and whether you're using technology or basic human interaction, whether it's about the quotidian or the spectacular. You're changing the experience of particular spaces and their authority, and at the same time you're engaging the same feelings of pleasure and aliveness and awareness as you might get from talking to a stranger in the street. I love that.

As a savvy museumgoer, I know that the museum is where the art (or history, or science) is, and that being in the museum makes it art or history or science in a way that has all kinds of economic, social, and cultural ramifications. Now, the museum is always going to be about the art or the history or the science, fundamentally. But the building in which that material is situated is such fertile social space, and rarely used as such.

So, let me say this another way. As an investigator of the public realm, I also know that museums don't often act like public space, and I'd call that a missed opportunity. To act like public space (like a park or an urban plaza, for example) is not simply to open one's doors. To act like a public space is to allow and encourage a wider variety of activities than those that are programmed. To let the constituents of the space have some freedom and spontaneity in how they are using it--and since this may be a radical shift within a museum, I think you also have to entice them into thinking of it that way. Even the café, the most potentially sociable, least ruled-by-convention part of a museum manages not to be very sociable. And here's the challenge: People don't seem to think of their encounter with the art or history or science as something that's happening to other people around them at the same time.

I like to see performances, installations, interventions in museum spaces that make that fact impossible to ignore. In Machine Project's work, you find that there is something weird here in the spaces between the art, and we're all seeing it, and maybe voluntarily participating in it. In Tino Sehgal's piece, the experience was the whole of the art, visitors and performers intermingled, and the collective nature of the experience was integral to the piece. Other artists approach the problem in different ways. For me, the point is simply that in treating the museum as a social space you can provoke a very different form of awareness. One of the awakenings you can have in that space is to the space itself, and another is to the other humans in it, to the idea that you are actually sharing an experience with strangers. 

This is the pre-peer-reviewed version of the following article: "A  Conversation about Machine Project" in Curator: The Museum Journal, 54:1  January 2011, which has been published in final form here.

What Are You Afraid Of? (March 3, 2010)

My ITP students went out on the street and asked (on video) about 40 people the question, "What are you afraid of?" It was remarkable how many of the respondents gave thoughtful, vulnerable answers.

Most common:

1. Failure. Most of the people who said they were afraid of failure were young. Also, one older man said if you'd asked him 10 years ago he would have said failure.

2. The future

3. Being alone/loneliness

4. Death/getting old

5. Things that are out of my control

6. Nothing. This was mostly older people, one of whom said, "I'm not even afraid of the Devil."

Most esoteric:

1. Clowns (in a serious way)

2. Aliens (in a serious way)

3. Embarrassment

4. The dark ("you can't see what's around you")

5. Torture/pain

6. Buried alive, blinded, falsely imprisoned (same respondent)

Flippant answers: snakes, spiders, rats, people.

Masked Men, Bare Cocks, and Sometimes a Conversation (Feb 10, 2010)

There are a thousand ways to make a binary split of the world’s population, and the one on my mind right now is this: there are the kind of people who pick up a ringing payphone, and the kind of people who don’t. I pick it up.

I love those strange, slightly jarring, unexpected interactions with strangers. I write about them on a blog called Municipal Archive and I teach a graduate class about them at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. So, I can tell you a lot about the locations and moments in which strangers interact. About the means and methods. These things have been observed and studied and documented. What we don’t really know with any precision—nor even with much poetry—is why.

Chat Roulette is the newest form of what you might call “stranger chat.” It’s a technology-mediated instance of an old cultural tradition: talking to strangers in public spaces. We do it in an ephemeral, casual way in public places, particularly in the anonymous transitional spaces where proximity is especially temporary: elevators, park benches, waiting spaces, the subway. It’s a fleeting connection, a shared moment, an acknowledgment of your common humanity in the bustling, anonymous metropolis.

Chat Roulette is both the same and different from those encounters. You’re talking with a stranger—which you’ve been able to do since time immemorial in chatrooms—but, now there's a live video and audio feed to accompany the chat window, and the next random stranger is a click away. Video makes the interaction much more risky and intimate, but also more like a chat in an elevator, except you can make your chat partner vanish at any time. When you talk to strangers in public, you’re making an informed choice, whether you’re aware of it or not. You’ve got social cues like your shared location, the person’s appearance, their clothing, how they carry themselves. When you talk to someone on Chat Roulette, you’re confronted with—if you’re lucky—with the head and shoulders of a stranger, and almost no readable cues. You and they both are making a split-second decision about whether to engage with each other.

Did I mention the part about how it’s an incredibly weird experience? Because it is. What you find when you click start and stop and start over and over is a spectacle of humanity, it’s 10,000 stories in the naked city. It’s also a lot of money shots, people who are looking too intensely at the camera for comfort, people in masks, people in masks dancing around, teenage boys and girls in clusters of three hovering over their computers. Some teenage boys told me they were drunk and bored, the teenage girls wouldn’t talk to me. There are about 4 men for every woman on the site, but it varies by time of day. If you click enough, you also find some people who are genuinely curious about actually talking to—connecting with—strangers. I stuck around long enough to find a few of those, and I asked them why they were there.

They were all young, all male, the ones who talked with me. There’s a tiny smile of recognition that passes between people who actually want to talk. I tried speaking out loud, with the audio on, and found it discomfiting and difficult to sustain a conversation. Text chat is much richer. It’s much easier to be vulnerable in writing, to have thoughtful responses, to ask disarming questions. You have a moment to think, to compose yourself.

All the men I talked to wanted to talk about how many masturbators you end up seeing, and they wanted to know what I thought about it. “You have to look at about 400 dicks for every friend you make,” a man in Chicago told me. Another echoed the sentiment. He thought it was worth the trouble. “I get to talk to people I wouldn’t get to talk to in real life.” I asked why that was good. “It’s an adventure and I don’t have to go anywhere.”

Men in Holland and France were practicing their English (and I practiced a little French) and were talking to strangers because it was “unusual” and “funny.” One told me it was just like talking to someone on a train ride. Another said he lives in a small town and rarely sees a person he doesn’t know.

Three themes laced through every conversation I had. The men I talked to said it was a little addictive. They were intrigued and often joyful about the novelty of the system overall, and the fact that their brief connections felt like real connections.

There’s a grey area on the spectrum between the earnest conversationalists and the exhibitionists where you get flirtatious, suggestive talk of varying levels of intensity. A man I talked to in London told me he thought it was exciting, the strangers, the anonymity, the guarantee of never seeing each other again. I asked what kind of exciting. “It’s exciting like your awareness is heightened. And it’s sexually exciting.” He wanted to know if I felt the same way. I hadn’t felt that way with the earnest ones, but this man was bringing the idea of sex into the interaction. I didn’t want to pursue it any further—it was easy to see that he wanted to steer things into something beyond talk—but he was right. It was visual and anonymous and he was being seductive, and that was a little exciting.

After that I stuck to the innocent looking ones. “You’re beautiful,” one said to me, “what are you doing here?” I told him I was writing about it, and asked him what he was doing there. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “I get to see the whole world.”