The second installment of our Off the Strip guest blogger series comes from Laura Napier, a Brooklyn-based artist who describes her project.
project for a street corner (Fremont Street), 2010
This piece was planned out at least a year in advance - I visited Las Vegas for the first time in Spring 2009, and Wendy Kveck brought me to Fremont Street to show me what happens there during the ‘Experience’ show just before I needed to be at the airport. For ten minutes, I laughed and cried and ran around photographing the amazing stock still ‘tourist zombies’ (as Wendy described them) all exhibiting the same behavior together, facing the same direction, watching the overhead canopy, some with mouths open.
Expectations vs. the reality of the piece.
During our performance I thought that our snake dance would close distances because volunteers would not be able to precisely follow the path of the person ahead of them. Instead, our group was very polite and careful, and so the tourists in the space did not get nudged around by our line as far as I could tell. The focus of the event is meant to be on the shifting of behavior of other people in the space, but I think our conga line became a spectacle in itself. Hard to tell what exactly happened because there are so many people and patterns to watch in the final video, you can see an excerpt and decide for yourself at www.lauranapier.com/project.html (scroll down). Also, unexpectedly, when we started our performance the Fremont crowd was not evenly dispersed over the space because an informal dance circle had formed in front of a temporary stage.
Interactions with local volunteers
Volunteer recruitment started before I landed in Las Vegas thanks to the amazing Justin Favela who was in touch every step of the way. A horde of enthusiastic volunteers came, at least 30, which was wonderful and scary (sometimes it is hard to get enough people together to do a proper intervention) and for a moment I thought maybe we had too many and would overwhelm the crowd already at the site!
Volunteers reported that during the intervention other people present in the space were making little comments to them as they passed by. One volunteer told me she was initially nervous about participating but ultimately felt safe during the performance, I suppose because we were a bunch of people doing the same thing. I find it difficult myself to perform in public alone - there is a pressure to conform to whatever is going on in a space, to do otherwise feels vulnerable. So it was great and necessary to have the crowd along. Dayvid, a volunteer, had a plethora of behavioral ideas the day after the event. A great one was what if we were not connected by hands on shoulders in the conga line or by holding hands, but were just following each other? How would that be different?
My liability and photo release forms, missing crucial information, allowed Superman to sign and participate in the performance, although it is funny I did not see him. Please don’t sue me or the CAC, Superman! I don’t have your contact information.
How you approached this piece differently in relation to your other interventions
Every performance I have produced in this series is unique to each site. Previous interventions include forming a circle in the midst of a stream of rush hour commuters in front of the WTC PATH station in Manhattan, and turning the ordinarily straight queue of tourists waiting to enter the Reichstag in Berlin. The dynamics and source of each group and place are so different. We were traveling more in this piece instead of standing still and holding our ground. Maybe Vegas demands a certain aggression due to the noise.
questions or issues raised in the panel
This project is not supposed to be all about watching the performers. It is more about using regular, usual behavioral cues to change a present public who are not entirely conscious of how we are shifting them in the space. It feels like a misfit to consider our event as a subset of the flash mob meme, and I’m still working out how to make my ideas clearer. I also really enjoyed learning more during the panel about the space of Fremont Street defined as public/private space hybrid and how restrictive rules on behavior were recently successfully contested by hula hooping artists. I subsequently attended a great talk in New York by the artist Mark Tribe who traced the changing ideas about and manifestation of ‘public’ and ‘public space’ through western history into contemporary society. I do not know if we can locate actual public space anymore in this country.
It became clear that in this performance the natives were disturbing the tourists, rather than the usual tourists disturbing the natives. The Fremont Street public caught on during the event, since you cannot hide a conga line. At some point during the performance, a young man who’d been hanging out with a clique of teenagers near the stage came over and began obstructing me at the front of our line, choosing to walk slowly in the way of whichever way I turned with his back turned towards me. It felt strong and like I was losing control, and I faked him out by telling him that I knew what he was up to. You can see him in the video returning to his group and high-fiving his friends afterwards. People in the area definitely joined the conga, either they thought it was part of everything or just perceived as fun by impulsive types. Perhaps one of the few things you can do for free in Las Vegas?