Yorgos Sapountzis performing as part of "Head Zest, New Walls," at Simone Subal, December 18, 2011. Photos: 16 Miles [more]
It sounded like a large metal object was crashing down the stairs of the building that houses the Simone Subal Gallery, at 131 Bowery. A group of perhaps two dozen people in the second-floor space looked at each other—was it starting?—and a few headed toward the stairs. The rest followed behind them.
A few minutes earlier, Greek artist Yorgos Sapountzis (whose exhibition is on view at the gallery through January 22) had gone in the in the same direction, after handing out simple fabric capes (teal, yellow, forest green, red) and tall, thin metal poles to some in the crowd. I received a brown cape and another piece of fabric—"Hold his," the artist said in a soft, deep voice, as he moved to the next person—but no pole.
Sapountzis was now at the bottom of the stairs, holding strings that were looped through two large square sheets of metal. He opened the door and the crowd streamed outside behind him, some wrapping their capes around themselves to block the cold. It was freezing, perhaps the coldest it has been so far this winter.
The artist set off south on the Bowery, walking quickly and dragging the metal sheets behind him, which cracked and clanked and crashed occasionally into a garbage can or a parking sign. Shoppers, store owners and people waiting for buses watched him as he darted around those strolling the sidewalks, gingerly maneuvering his sharp sheets with him.
At the corner of Bowery and Grand, he suddenly stopped and faced the caped masses, staring them down. He was wearing a black hooded jacket, grey pants and scuffed white sneakers, and he held a hammer in one hand, duct tape and string in the other. He was breathing heavily, and looked a little menacing. He crouched down and began beating the metal with his hammer, punching sharp indentations into the panel with each blast. Then he was off again, marching down the Bowery.
He stopped outside a branch of the Chinatown Federal Savings Bank. Someone was waiting for him there: a man wearing a long jacket, knit cap and gloves—all black. He had a hammer in his pocket, and a dark beard like the artist's. The two men faced each other and, in unison, enacted a series of movements—waving one arm, then the other, as they stepped about and then squatted, grabbing their ankles.
The metal panels were handed off to two members of the audience audience, who looked surprised. Where were we heading? What were we being made to do? (There was one hint: the announcement for the event had included a ghostly image of the Manhattan Bridge, which was still a few blocks south.) The new member of the entourage set us marching further south, as Sapountzis collapsed onto the ground. He appeared moments later, sprinting down the street.
More men were waiting along the path—outside another store and on a triangle near the exit ramp of the Manhattan Bridge—and at each rendezvous the same ritualistic movements were repeated before the marching resumed. After the last meeting, Sapountzis and his three associates headed up toward the Manhattan Bridge, past a dark police van, to an enormous expanse of cement—I had no idea it was so big—that leads up to the bridge, just east of the Bowery.
The crowd members formed an arc around the performers, keeping their distance as the four men performed their movements once more. A young child—probably just a few years old—broke from the group and approached the men as they moved, trying to make sense of it. As this occurred, the police van (one seems always to be present at the base of the bridge) drove off: nothing to see here, apparently.
All four men huddled together, and then the three who had joined along the way violently attacked a metal sheet with their hammers. It was deafening, so loud that many stepped back or held their ears. Meanwhile, Sapountzis was going wild, darting about with a tape measure, running it behind and around the crowd. What was he trying to build?
The artist disappeared behind the tall stone columns at the bridge's mouth, followed only by the brave child, and took a makeshift flag—made by taking two metal poles and capes from the crowd—to the edge of the roadway, waving it in madly, broadly, even leaping from the ground as he waved it. Cars streamed off the road behind him. Then he dropped the flag, walked over to the crowd, and it ended with applause. Fabric and metal and hammers were scattered across the cement field.
The evening was, in some sense, a reminder of the possibilities that are present in public in any city, even one in which public space is becoming increasingly regulated, regimented, and corporatized. Writing a week later, it all still feels like a wonderful and unlikely success: a small team of people in ridiculous costumes moving through the city with hammers, steel panels and poles—everything that one would need to build a modest, temporary encampment—entirely uncontested by the police, just yards from one of the city's landmarks, and about half a mile from both the headquarters of the NYPD and City Hall.
What would have happened if the police had arrived, if they had asked Sapountzis—or, even more intriguing, someone blindly following along—what was going on?
But perhaps that line of questions lends an air of danger to the performance that was not quite there. There was nothing nakedly illegal about the gathering, though the number of people involved brushed up against the 20-person limit for a permit-less public assembly in a New York City park. (It's not exactly how one would define the space where the performance peaked and concluded.) I suspect that Sapountzis must have at least considered the possibility that the police would have dropped by. He would have been crazy not to do so. But they never arrived.
Writing in January's Artforum, sociologist Saskia Sassen argued that this year's Occupy movements can be understood as a masterful remaking of Zuccotti Park, a site rich with corporate interests, as a new territory, in full view of the camera. "People becoming present and, crucially, becoming visible to one another can alter the character of their powerlessness," Sassen writes.
Sapountzis's work was bound up with issues of the public and private, and the control of space in urban areas, that are not dissimilar from those raised by Occupy Wall Street. However, in contrast to the media spectacle of the OWS protests, it addressed its audience, and the city itself, on more intimate, specialized and even obscure terms. We were all visible only fleetingly, unable to offer an explanation.
With many Occupy encampments across the United States now without a permanent home, the energies they channeled have been rendered more diffuse. Fittingly, Sapountzis's work seemed to follow this organizational logic, asking what small groups can accomplish in the streets today, and what plans, however provisional, can be hatched by a handful of people with shared interests, or just four men and some willing participants.