Friday, August 16, 2013

The Work of Art in the Age of Home Depot

Robert Boyd

Today the Art Guys walked around city hall, each encased in a 6-foot high fence. This was a performance called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, one of 12 monthly performances they are doing to celebrate 30 years together. (Last month it was 12 solid hours of stand-up.) The fences were about 2 and a half feet wide on each side, I'd estimate. They told me they got the fencing to make their tiny personal exclusion zones at Home Depot.

They could see a little bit through the slats, and Michael Galbreth (i.e., the tall one) could see a little bit over the top of his when it was resting flat on the ground. Jack Massing's hair was just visible over the top of his fence. They both told me that it was very hot inside. It was pretty hot outside, but at least we got a little bit of a breeze.

The idea was to walk around city hall from 11 am to 1 pm, when perhaps they would have the best opportunity to interact with downtown office workers going to lunch. This might have worked on a more pleasant day, but on a day like today, most of those hanging around city hall were homeless folks.  The lunch hour workforce was probably in the air-conditioned tunnels running underneath. The local homeless mostly seemed to know each other.

Jack Massing said that when they did this kind of performance, the people who were most likely to stop and interact with them were homeless people. He theorized that they just didn't have the usual social constraints that keep the rest of us from engaging with strangers--especially eccentric strangers doing weird, inexplicable things.

The Art Guys seemed to want to engage people--they certainly weren't standoffish when folks came up to ask questions or take photos. Which is ironic, since the very object of the performance was separation. When I heard about the performance, I thought about how people have a zone around them that they would generally like people to stay out of, which varies from person to person and varies depending on the situation you're in. It may be a few inches. It may be a foot or two. I have a big "comfort zone"--I don't like being in super crowded places, like popular bars and restaurants. Obviously it will vary according to circumstance--if you're on the subway at rush hour, you make an accommodation to the fact that you will be touching strangers, whether you like it or not.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, which is a quote from Robert Frost's poem "Mending Walls," turns that personal "comfort zone" into a physical object. No one can brush up against either of the Art Guys when they are in their fences. They are safe from unwanted physical contact.

The problem with this performance is that in downtown Houston in August, their personal zones were not in any danger of being violated. There were no jostling crowds to navigate. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors would be better performed at the Galleria just before Christmas, or in Manhattan.

What's left is a pair of slowly moving rectangular parallelepipeds. And when they stopped (frequently), they looked like two rough-hewn minimalist sculptures plopped down randomly on a sidewalk. Perhaps they were commenting on a certain strain of public art in a way similar to what Jim Nolan did with shifting SCALE. If they had done this performance late at night, they might have ended up tagged. (I was sure tempted.)

And when they stand in front of city hall, they look like maquettes for a generic civic sculpture.

They weren't the only ones doing a performance in front of city hall. A white-haired man was blowing beautifully pure notes from a twisty animal horn at the front door of city hall. He blew for a while, then lay down his horn and started to shout with his strong lungs--"Repent! Repent!" City hall made no indication that it noticed either performance.


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