At 10 o'clock on a recent Friday night, 50 people squeezed into a second-story loft overlooking the intersection of Essex and Rivington streets on the Lower East Side, to watch 40 dancers, sculptors, cellists, etc., inject themselves into the pedestrian goings-on below.
*SX Street: a neo event* is the work of the interdisciplinary arts collective Magnetic Laboratorium, many of the members of which dance for Merce Cunningham. In 1952, the then-33-year-old choreographer joined John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg in the first Happening (though it wasn't yet called that). In the 50 years since, Cunningham has given serendipity a prominent role in his dances, with the dancers? clusterings and dispersals often resembling the random patterns of street movement, though the steps are never pedestrian. Here, the performers not only travel in the patterns of foot traffic, but?this is the "neo" aspect of the event?they also model themselves (slyly or outlandishly) on typical weird passersby. They are actually on the street, of course, not just borrowing its anti-method for the stage.
The strip of Essex Street we survey might as well be a set, though. It's perfectly framed, with a storefront's steel awning covered in rough tags as the backdrop; a cartoonishly poofy tree marking stage left; and a hand-painted advertisement for "Shapiro's Kosher Wines," which could have been snagged from a Walker Evans shot, at the top of the scrim. Twentysomethings shuffle by while cars slide sleekly along. Around the corner on Rivington Street, smokers clump outside The Magician and Welcome to the Johnsons. At 10:17, a self-appointed trash collector hauls a large dolly packed with treasures down the street. Chief among the lucky finds is a woman in a filmy blue dress, pulled along on a cart by a hobo.
A pause, and then something else?a drag queen with the ditzy limbs and erratic rhythms of Lucille Ball partners with a parking meter. The dance tune on her Walkman has been surreptitiously piped up to us. In fact, we're privy to the soundtracks of all the characters. That is to say, we know which movies they'd like to think they're starring in. Later, a man falls headfirst out of the poofy tree just as a car pulls into a nearby spot. The driver allots the man, dangling from his ankles, one second of "yeah, whatever" attention before he gets out of the car and walks off.
Whenever the acts hyperbolize, broadly parody or skewer typical street happenings or received notions about them, as these do, *SX Street* works. But when the m.o. is camouflage (is the man running by with a flashlight your average citizen or a plant?) and the point is only that anything can happen here, they fall flat. Once we've figured out whether a moment is staged, there is nothing else to think. And we figure it out instantly. It's a nice paradox: Performers, who have no purpose but to perform, look purposeful. The rest of us look aimless. Pedestrians tend not to step brightly (especially not in New York, where they have a lot on their minds and are used to crowds). They move mindlessly, their thoughts elsewhere.
The street offers infinite variations on such big, lovely facts as: Truth is stranger than fiction; the most unlikely combinations of people and things can coexist; history is only a hand-painted sign away from the fluorescent present. You cannot stage these facts?others, but not these?without undermining them. They depend on accident for their impact. Since it isn't easy to add to a street scene without detracting from it, many eloquent artists of the everyday have opted for documentary. Plainspoken shooters like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander understand how well the street speaks for itself. These artists express their insights in how they frame it.
To the abounding credit of its director, Marisela La Grave, when *SX Street* doesn't add much to the scene, it at least doesn't interfere with what is already there. In one lull in the deliberate performances, three perky little dogs turn up at the same instant on the same corner, their separate owners in tow. A man and a woman in a long, intimate embrace are suddenly engulfed by a crowd of college boys waiting for the light; they don't notice the couple at all.
Even though we've shown up expressly to watch?a more self-conscious setup for street-viewing than usual?*my* thoughts, at least, move about easily. They come without bidding and leave before they have overstayed their welcome.