Let's Go Outside:
Three New York Performers Take It to the Street
by Tony Phillips
Ginger Rogers’ calling card — occasionally attributed to the triple threat herself — was that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. The line was a harbinger of things to come and became the gauntlet thrown down by early fifties feminism where it remained until sometime during the eighties and the height of the supermodel when the trinity of Linda, Naomi and Christy reigned over Seventh Avenue. Around that time a photograph of model Linda Evangelista appeared in the hallowed Kenar billboard space that loomed above Times Square. In the photo, the super was elegantly attired and defying decades of lawn party etiquette by pushing an antique mower in a pair of pumps. It quickly surpassed Rogers’ maxim as my working definition of girl power, where it remained until now, but today I find both Rogers and Evangelista terrible passé and replaced by the statuesque performer Candis Cayne — a sort of blonder, leggier take on Christine Baranski — who is dancing to the astonishment of passing pedestrians — on top of a subway grate in a pair of through the roof stilettos.
The constant tinny din of silver hitting plate compliments the insistent baseline of Alisha’s eighties twirler “Too Turned On” that’s ripping through the house. In the back of the room, there’s a postage stamp-sized stage squeezed in between the banquettes that line the mirrored back wall. Candis Cayne is on top of this platform, but there’s not much that separates her lip-synching, high kicks and head rolls from the typical, clichéd fag bar entertainment. Except, of course, Cayne is not inside a fag bar, but rather one of the many storefront restaurants that dot this particular stretch of Eighth Avenue deep in the heart of Chelsea. But then Cayne does something I’ve not seen many performers on this miracle mile pull off: she storms from the stage. And this isn’t your typical j.lo a-list conniption over the wrong scent on her Diptych candle — although, trust me, Cayne can make Jenny look like a walk in the park — this is part of Cayne’s act.
Patrons crane their necks and spin in their seats to get a better view. The music doesn’t break, but suddenly Cayne is in front of the restaurant and dancing as fast as she can in Eighth Avenue traffic. The dance is framed by the restaurant’s plate glass front window. Passerby slow and begin to gawk. A taxi breaks when Cayne executes a slow Fosse-esque extension of her hand bringing it the cab to a complete halt and then rolling across its hood like a kid freshly sprung from the Fame school. A fire engine slows to a crawl while firemen hang off the side and catcall like wolves. Cayne hops back onto the sidewalk and crouches down to synch about how she’s all heated up and can’t cool down to a neighborhood Jack Russell out for a late night walk. She runs back into the street and reaches up for the sky with one hand, pulling a little bit of it back down to earth, ending up in a perfect split atop a manhole cover. Another cab sidles up beside her and the back passenger side window rolls down. Bills are extended and Cayne plucks them out of the fare’s hand striding triumphantly back into the restaurant to finish the song amidst agitated cheers, screams and applause.
Anne Pasternak likes it, but not just because the heels are good. Still, hers is a shoe closet on par with Evangelista’s, but the exec director of Creative Time points out that “this is the best time for artists to be making projects publicly in New York City because we have a city council and a mayor that are unbelievably supportive of public art projects.” Not so the political climate when Creative Time was founded in 1974. America was trying to put the quagmire of Vietnam, our first unqualified failure at war, and the Watergate scandal — another first — into perspective. We had a new president, Gerald Ford, who was not installed by a popular vote, and although he was still a year away from that infamous Daily News headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” the big apple was certainly bust. And though our finances are in much better shape these days, some of the rest of this should be sounding familiar. Back then, there were glimmers of hope. The National Endowment for the Arts was established and Creative Time began one of their earliest projects — Art on the Beach — which set up shop on the Battery Park landfill and paired visual and performing artists with architects and designers to fashion a sort of artistic utopia atop a trash heap.
“Back in 1974, artists were increasingly moving beyond the confines of the gallery, the museum or their studio and experimenting directly in the streets,” Pasternak explains. “When you think about artists like Adrian Piper and Vito Acconci, they did these really personalized actions. Like Vito following someone when they’d leave a private space and tailing them the whole time they were in a public space. There were a whole bunch of interesting artists who were making these early interventions with the street as a point of inspiration and engagement.” When asked if bad times are a necessary catalyst for great art, Pasternak responds, “I think that what was happening in the early days of Creative Time was not that things weren’t going well in city government — I’m sure they weren’t — but that things weren’t good in the city at large. The idea was that artists could come and revitalize neglected, unused spaces and extend their practice beyond their studio so it was great for the artists and it was great for these neglected and unused spaces. I think what’s happening now is that the city is in a really great way and these artists are increasingly interested in how they diversify their audiences and really interested in how we create more of a feeling of an engaged citizenship. So much of our public space is being used to advertise to us and treat us as consumers and the artists who are engaging with the public realm treat people as more than consumers. They treat them as citizens, which is much more enlightened use of public space.”
Ironically, the Battery Park landfill was a by-product of the excavation required in order to erect the World Trade Center and the events of September 11th would return Creative Time to that same ground. The organization marked the six month anniversary of 9/11 by unveiling the “Tribute in Light,” a temporary installation of 88 searchlights group in pairs that beamed up dual projections of white light from ground zero. Artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda had already been working with Creative Time prior to September 11th on a proposed light sculpture atop the north tower and the two quickly downshifted to display their “phantom towers” first on the September 23rd cover of The New York Times Magazine and then as a fully realized project that’s returned every year to mark the anniversary. But there was also a downside as Creative Time lost their 20-year lease on the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, which it had been using as a venue for public art projects. It also saw its insurance costs for those projects triple.
But Pasternak remains optimistic. “The Anchorage is a public space,” she explains, “but I think in some ways that by losing The Anchorage, as much as that was a tragedy for the city and for artists and for Creative Time, it was also an opportunity to be more nomadic and to realize our mission more freely. A huge percentage of the organization’s resources — both human and financial — were going into The Anchorage so it freed us to realize a greater diversity of programming and I think that was very positive.” Other security concerns for the organization post-9/11 have been minimal. “Immediately after September 11th, there were more clearances,” Pasternak clarifies, “like if you wanted to presented a sculpture downtown, you needed to prove that it would be safe from being a place where bombs can hide, but you know what, that stuff was pretty rare.”
Choreographer Joshua Bisset sees a bit more causality in our town’s newfound stranglehold on security and the rise of performance in the public sphere as manifest by everything from the French-based art of Parkour to the uniquely American flash mob. Bisset recently had an experience almost straight out of the film Footloose when he was performing what he calls a “dance action” with his company in an intersection on Sixth Avenue in the Village. A policeman approached his cameraman, who was archiving the event, and demanded, “What are they doing?” The cameraman shot back, “They’re just dancing,” and the cop responded, “No, they’re protesting!” Bisset smiles. We‘re talking in a Starbucks just a block away from the weekly Candis Canye extravaganza, but Josh’s performances are usually much more stealth than Cayne’s brand of street theater. The last piece of his I saw was called Crowded Action and took place out of the Taiwan Cultural Center mixing his company with busy, Grand Central passerby on 42nd Street in such a way that many didn’t even realize they were part of a performance.
“I guess we legally should have gotten a permit,” Bisset muses about his more recent brush with the law, “but what happens when you’re approached with that what are you doing question? Usually our response is that we’re exercising. We’re dancing. It’s not that we are gathering to do a public event because that’s when permissions and liabilities become involved, but really the law is actually quite slippery. If you’re moving a body in an odd way in public it’s arguably never illegal unless you’re obstructing somebody else’s right to the space. But I’m very affected by the climate of fear: the every five minutes watch your bag atmosphere in the subway system. And I feel the watchfulness of people on the body in public. That heats up the space we all inhabit. If there’s a fast movement on a subway car and someone’s secretly filming that for a dance film, that’s a threatening gesture now, whereas it wouldn’t have been in the past. As an artist, you have kind of a heated arena, a hot space, and I think that’s definitely tied to security concerns and 9/11 propaganda.”
“I started to get driven mad by knowing what I was going to do in performance,” Bisset explains when asked what started him down this road, “so all of this work began from an interest in uncertainty. Formally. I wanted to destabilize my personal experience of performance. That began at St. Mark’s Church in 2004 with my piece 1,000 Nows in which I invited people to enter the space at a time of their choosing while we were doing a scored choreography and that really disrupted and added a different layer of tension to the choreography and sense of performance. And it’s gone from there to really wanting to situate my body in an environment that has true variables that are really not completely controllable. Interactivity for me is really bringing the border between art and life dangerously close and I think that danger and that sense of art acting on life is something that really needs to happen. Art needs to act out, to enter and to push into life now and not be situated at a remove from the public eye.”