Fall 2015 Residency

Okwui Okpokwasili

New York Foundation for the Arts

The Residency at the Crossroads program’s focus is to bring artists back to Times Square at the earliest point in creating new work for urban centers and use this iconic place as a laboratory for uncovering how users of public places behave and identify with an area. The artists’ subsequent discoveries, in turn, provide the Alliance with qualitative research to use in developing future programming for Times Square, New York’s town square.

During the Fall of 2015, Okwui Okpokwasili worked with Peter Born to engage with visitors in Times Square, capture their voices and create a song at the Crossroads of the World, questioning whether the neighborhood can serve as a global commons for creative dialogue and exchange. By asking people to tell her what they’ve always wanted to share with the world, Okpokwasili has explored whether a common cry, idea or desire emerges from their comments. Her residency ran from mid-September 2015 to January 2016.

November 17, 2015

The lights are ever present, even in mid-afternoon. If feels like a big, unwieldy, holiday party. There are people that clearly know the hosts, that know their way around the house-Elmo, the naked painted ladies, Woody from Toy Story-and then some are a bit confused, trying to pick their own coats out from the collective muddle of down on the bed in the master bedroom, and make a quick exit. I try not to stop those people.

But if they have a look of worry on their face, it makes me especially curious about them-like the family of four, who seem harried, but at the same time, are looking for someone to take their picture and mark them present. I offer up my services. The red TKTS stairs and Duffy are in the background. I apologize. To point and click with an iPhone requires so little of me, but it is still too much for me to manage while I try to find a way to initiate a little bit of a conversation. I'm so nervous and so aware that they want to, need to run, but I can't let them go. I set them up with the picture, they will feel probably feel obligated to answer at least, one question. I ask them to look at the photo and make sure they're satisfied. It's the first way that I can think of to lengthen this encounter. They say they are satisfied. I believe them. They are saying a quick thank you and goodbye. I ask if they would answer one question for me. I ask them what was the most memorable thing that happened to them today. The young girl, their daughter, I assume, eight or nine years old, ginger haired, points to her M&Ms. They're customized and spell her name. I agree that's pretty memorable. Then the parents say they were ripped off by a pedi-cab, charged $500 for a very slow 50 minute ride to places they did not want to go. I can't do the math-I suck at simple fast math when I'm trying to be socially calculating- they're in a hurry,  $10 a minute they tell me. I asked them what they initially agreed on, (will we talk about fairness, the golden rule?) They have to catch their plane back to Dallas tonight. Bye.

And then two girls from Buxton, England, famous for its mountain spring water. But they just drink water from the tap, so it's probably lost its "springness", by the time it reaches them. So the taste of the water has not left much of an impression on them. They've been lost all day, but have come here to meet up with a pre scheduled tour. They're going to see Chicago tonight. I ask if there's anything that they've been thinking about, anything that's been bugging them that they'd like to change. One of them says, "I'd like to make everywhere as bright as this, but with less people so there's no one to laugh at me when I can't find my way."

And then Carol, dancer, therapist, performer, cancer survivor. She grew up in NYC and would have stayed here if she hadn't discovered San Francisco some thirty years ago. She said it's like New York, but on a smaller and more beautiful scale. After surviving and healing, physically and psychologically from cancer, she became a grief counsellor, because she understood that grieving families needed someone to be a witness to their grief. She would be that witness. I could have sat with her all day.

January 14, 2016 | Quid Pro Quo: Embracing the Transactional 

There's a limit to the aesthetic virtue of a selfie. How do you make yours a standout in a sea of blurry, fishbowl images that only a mother can love and if it's a mother with more discriminating taste, then even she won't love it. If you're trying to capture your postion in a buzzing landscape of skyscrapers and light, perfectly centered, perfectly poised and you don't have a selfie stick, well you're going to need help. Anyone's help, my help.

So I do this. I spot the lone sightseer, moving through awkward angles with their arms and I zero in and make the ask. "Do you need some help taking a picture?" I'd love to. But would it be ok if I ask you a question about your favorite song, or a song that stirs up faded memories?" And cha-ching, I've got buy-in.

This is generally a solid way to guarantee some engagement with an individual.

A not so solid way is when someone asks you if you'd be interested in taking a personality test. And you say, "yes, if you'd take a moment to answer a few questions for me?" And then she says, "sure."  I asked her a few questions, about what she'd like to communicate to people, what makes her wake up in the morning, what she wishes people would understand about themselves and the world. She answers in a way that seems to say she is perfectly happy with herself and wants to share that happiness with the world. That she believes her mission is to help people help themselves be better and wiser and stronger. And when I ask how she would do that, she says by doing what she's doing now. By talking to people, asking people to take these personality tests. Well, seeing how she seems so satisfied, I don't really have any more questions for her. I admit, that I'm also, inwardly, a bit stumped on how to proceed and I think it's best for me to move on.

Remembering my end of the arrangement, I ask her about this personality test and she says, "Come with me." And I say, "Wait, we can't do it right here?"

To which she replies, "No, sorry. It's just around the corner, it won't take too long." 

(I didn't think I just rolled into town on a hayseed wagon, but, here I am, picking straw out of my ears?)

She brings me to the headquarters of the Church of Scientology. Which, I have to admit, is kind of exciting because for all my New York living life, I've never set foot into the place. It's all glass and stone and carpet and lonely. It feels lonely. I ask how long it will take to do this personality test. There are 200 yes/no/maybe questions, so I am told it depends on how long it takes me. WOW. I could walk out right now. But I believe I am bound by our earlier agreement. I stay.

The questions range from, "Do you find yourself reading dictionaries for pleasure?" to "Do people run the other way when you come towards them? (Ok that last one is paraphrased, but it is something like, "Do people find you pleasant and seek your advice? Do you like animals? Do people talk about the foul odor you emit when you come into a room?' (Ok, again that last one was paraphrased, but I find that I can't decide how to answer any of these questions with a yes or no, so I put in a lot of maybes.)

When I have completed the test, I then wait for the assessment, because at this point, I feel too invested not to see this thing through.

The test assesses that I have a discursive mind and that basically, I'm alright but I can be better, I can do better. I guess that seems about right. Maybe the test is right. But when the test also says that I am a rather cold person. Well, I look at the assessor and I say, given the time that we've spent together, do you think that's true? And she does admit that the test may have made some error there. So I quibble with the assessor, I make the point that given a choice between yes, no or maybe how can this test give a thorough assessment of my personality? 

I think they want me to get the hell out of there. I do.

The moral of this story? When engaging in "quid pro quo" arrangements on the square, stick to being a selfie helper.

Images courtesy of the artist and Peter Born.