Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Guerilla Art in DC

Katherine Knight

I first encountered Guerilla Art in DC about three years ago. It was winter, and we’d had a storm similar to the one we just had: cold weather, snow, melting snow re-freezing into solid ice. I was living on Capitol Hill at the time and I used to walk past the Capitol and all the other Government offices on my way to and from the museums on the mall. I was on my way home from such an excursion when I noticed that the snow and ice covering the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol Building was all messed up. As I got closer I realized that someone had obviously had a great time sliding across the reflecting pool’s ice. I continued on, and paused half way up the hill for one last view. From there I could see that what I’d thought were just random scuffles was actually a message. Someone had taken the trouble to tread, plain as day, and in enormous letters facing the Capitol, the words ‘FUCK BUSH’. It was impossible to miss; anyone looking out of their office window had to see it (and remember- at the time most of these people were Republicans). Plus, the repeated melting and re-freezing of the snow meant that it was there for days and days. It was brilliant.

My second encounter was about a year later. It was just before Christmas and for some reason I was up and on the Metro smack in the middle of morning rush-hour. The cars were packed with just the people you’d expect: mostly business men and women in their drab suits and overcoats clutching briefcases. People crushed together to get on and off at each stop, but of course no one spoke. After one stop, as soon as the doors closed, and Asian man (I believe he was Chinese, but I could be wrong) started singing Christmas Carols in broken English and a thick accent. The effect was unexpected and instantaneous. One business man looked up from his Palm Pilot and said, in a voice already laden with hostility ‘Shut Up!’ and when the Chinese man didn’t stop he said, in a louder voice ‘Don’t you shove your religious views down my throat!’ A second business man addressed the first: ‘Hey! It’s a free country, pal. He’s got a right to say whatever he wants!’ After this a chorus of heated arguments broke out among the passengers; one nearly coming to blows (no joke). The Chinese man ignored it all and continued to sing, although he did move a little closer to the door. This whole scene erupted before we’d even reached the next stop, and when we did, the Chinese man was one of the first people to get off. As soon as he set foot on the platform the lady next to me, who’d been quiet up till now, gave an odd yelp and lurched forward in her seat. I looked at her and she said ‘I thought he’d stepped out through the wall’.

The third piece I experienced was probably my favorite. Early this fall I was riding the escalator up to the street from Metro Center. It was a pretty long escalator, and about half way up I became aware of a weird jangley rhythm coming from near the top. I didn’t think much of it and probably assumed that it was coming from a street musician. When I got to the top, though, I realized that there was no musician around. The sound was coming from a handful of Smarties (those sour candies shaped like little fruits) that had been scattered at the top of escalator. They would ride the stairs up, bounce off the grate at the top, and fall back a few stairs to begin the whole process again. The result was a wonderful continuous, plinking rhythm; made both regular and irregular by the evenness of the stairs.

My most recent Guerilla Art encounter was about a week ago. Again on the Metro, I noticed that someone had taken the time to remove or black out all the personal information from their junk-mail, and then tape one piece on the back of each seat. I tried to think of all the different points this person might be making. As an environmental nerd my first take was on the total waste of such pointless and mass mailings. My second thought was about the protection of our private information such as addresses and interests. The mail was from such a wide range of groups that I found it impossible to believe that a single person could actually have signed up for it all. Finally, judging from the way many of the other passengers were inspecting the mail- some even taking pieces with them- I thought the artist might be making some commentary on our willing acceptance of information or propaganda; even to search for a point when none was readily available (after all, what else was I doing?)

It’s possible, and perhaps probable, that none of these ‘pieces’ were orchestrated by people who consider themselves artists, and that many of them (the Smarties, and the reactions provoked by the Chinese man) were complete accidents, but that matters little to me. What I love about each of them is their simplicity, their directness, and especially the way they function as reminders of how little it takes to remove us from the every-day. I loved the way the Smarties turned the escalator into a musical instrument. In the case of the Chinese man, who knew that such anger was bubbling so close to the surface of Washington’s business people? Or that it could take something so small to make the woman sitting next to me believe, if only for a moment, in the impossible? Do any of these experiences qualify as Art? Who knows? Perhaps they do only because I’m approaching them from that direction. But in each experience I have learned or appreciated something new about my world, and I am eagerly awaiting the next one.


Anonymous said...

Were they Smarties or Runts? Runts are shaped like fruit and have a harder shell. Smarties are small disks and are softer compressed sugar. Runts would make the noise you describe.

Anonymous said...

yea, runts I guess. I don't eat a lot of candy.