My Own Private Idaho

Saturday evening I made my way to Public Functionary to see no do-overs, a co-created piece by Emma Barber and Paul Stucker. Their piece, smartly crafted for one person to experience at a time, was in quiet contrast to the busy roomful of performances simultaneously vying for my attention as part of Third Space LLC Put Name on Mail Box.

[from Public Functionary’s website] PF’s energy is not simply based on what hangs on the walls, but the people who activate and transform the space…We act as a launch pad for them to explore possibilities through events, performances, installations and dialogue — often using our exhibits as a backdrop for these explorations.”

The current exhibit at PF by visual artist Aaron De La Cruz combines paintings, murals and wallpaper in varying shades of grey, black and white. The room felt surprisingly cozy, given the poured-concrete floor and the chilly temperatures outside. Something about the right-angled lines of grey tones in that space helped warm that up considerably, which sounds antithetical as I write it, but it worked.

Emma and Paul were seated on chairs, intimately back to back, evenly framed in a small lit corner nook, one dressed head to toe in white, the other in black. They seemed to be concentrating on their hands and whatever was in their laps. They were subdued, not interacting with us or with each other, but the picture they created in their warm little corner made me want to come closer and learn more.

As I approached, I realized they were knitting and crocheting with white and black spools of soft yarn. A piece of paper (white with black ink) on the floor instructed: “To Begin, Put headphones on and press play. If no headphones, come again later.” When it was my turn, a somewhat familiar-but-couldn’t-quite-place male voice greeted me from the headphones + ipod and suggested we head outside to get away from the crowd. I obliged. The chill of the the air and the quiet was welcome, but the smell of cigarette smoke outside was distracting and I had to concentrate on my mysterious new friend’s voice. He suggested I look around and if I made eye contact with anyone, to give them a little nod and a smile, perhaps a wink. I did and got a little nod back. Was this the voice of my new wingman? It had only been a couple of minutes and I was surprised at the quick intimacy his voice provided. Wearing headphones in a crowd is sort of like a costume; it insulates you in ways that give you permission to be bolder. Awaiting instructions gave me permission to tune into different social cues, and instead of feeling typically lonely in a crowd, this was more liberating. The voice in the headphones sounded trustworthy and conveyed reassurance; I felt like they had my back and that this would be a friendly adventure. It reminded me of my friend texting me from a strange bar across the country, where he’d ventured alone to hear some music that was ultimately lackluster. He was out of his element, bored and feeling raw but also self-conscious about leaving mid-set. We ended up texting a subtle movement score back and forth (look up, slowly turn in your chair, take a sip, quickly walk across the bar and stare at a picture, scratch your head, etc.) and it was satisfying to picture the scene. A voice is more intimate than a text, of course, but both experiences provided human connection from a distance. This work also brought to mind the Skewed Visions’ piece Invisible City, where voices on headphones + smartphones deliver complex instructions on where to walk and which fence and railroad track to climb over as you navigate (and get lost, as I did) and find clues in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis.  

Following instruction, I returned to Emma and Paul’s little corner refuge, and tapped Emma on the shoulder. She led me by the hand behind a white curtain into a small space (a.k.a PF’s closet next to the bathroom) and sat me at a tiny white table and lit a small candle. Insta-hygge! We faced each other and looked into each other’s eyes and she wrote a few statements on cards and placed them in my palms-up hands, alternating left and right sides with intention, always reestablishing eye contact. Emma never spoke and somehow timed her actions perfectly with the recording I was following. Her sentiment and physical approach with me was gracious, warm and curious. I was asked to draw the back of my hand and to do this I had to drop eye contact which felt almost rude at this point. Anytime anyone walked in or out of the bathroom the curtain rippled and I was aware at how close to other people I physically was, yet how private this exchange with Emma was, akin to hiding under a blanket fort with a flashlight. It is a nostalgic, sometimes uncomfortably reflective time of year, with Winter approaching and closed windows sealing us in for the season. I thought of my Grandmother and her knitting, and of sneaking into my cousin’s much older sister’s attic room, which was totally off-limits to us and therefore all the more fascinating.

At times when we were behind the curtain it was a little hard to hear the instructions through my headphones due to all the other things happening (dancers skittering across the floor, people playing music and singing, a kick drum sound check, etc.) around us. I wondered if I should have tried harder to turn up the volume or asked for help with it but it felt like it would ruin the moment. The whole behind-the-curtain experience was brief, perhaps only five minutes, but I couldn’t say for sure. The piece ended after Emma looked at my hand drawing, smiled, and exited after looking into my eyes in a conclusive way. I was left alone for a moment but then Emma pulled open my side of the curtain and welcomed me back into the reality of the evening.

I wondered how/if this private performance would differ if I’d tapped Paul’s shoulder. As I spoke with Emma and Paul afterwards, they remarked they are in the early stages of developing this idea. Both of these artists have a sincerity and warmth about them that invites trust and willingness in the viewer. I’m curious to know more about the connection with the knitting/crocheting, in what other settings could they see making this piece work, and what role the season plays in presenting this work. I thought this first stab at creating an intimate space amidst a crowded room was a successful one and look forward to the next evolution.


Emma Barber & Paul Stucker

no do-overs

Third Space LLC Put Name on Mail Box

Public Functionary

November 21, 2015

Megan Mayer


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