So here we are, on our hands and knees in a public square as if we’re religious penitents, but most of the people crawling up the steps of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn are poets and performance artists, or at least secular theatergoers, in this latest 0f Elastic City‘s “Walks,” which is also the last of Elastic City’s Walks.
Since 2010, poet Todd Shalom has brought adventurous participants on more than 100 of these wild walks, often in collaboration with Niegel Smith, who took on the title of Elastic City’s associate artistic director. I described some of the walks in which the two collaborated in a profile of Niegel Smith for American Theatre Magazine when he became the artistic director of the prestigious Off-Off Broadway theater The Flea last year.
In one, entitled Selfies, the participants walked naked through the basement of the City University of New York Graduate Center. In Monumental Walk, which took place in both London and New York, the participants were asked to talk to public statues and sculptures, acting out the way they imagined these monuments would move, and then led them to “create new monuments with our bodies.” Visual AIDS commissioned Smith to organize a Walk entitled Spread, in which participants, contemplating the virus, “spread” their clothes, condoms, and well-wishes to passersby, and then entered an adult video parlor and “spread” messages, food and money to the customers.
I went on one in 2014 in Greenwich Village that was a tad more of a traditional walking tour, although not entirely: We were asked, for example, to write anti-gentrification quotations on blank bookmarks and then slip them surreptitiously into the books for sale at BookMarc, the bookstore by fashion designer Marc Jacobs.
In Elastic City’s most ambitious Walk, entitled Total Detroit, Smith and Shalom brought a dozen people from New York to Detroit, where Smith had spent some unhappy childhood years, for three days and two nights. Among the stops on the walk was a white-framed house where he had lived with his mother and brothers and where, he told them, his mother’s boyfriend had sexually abused him. Then he asked them to share their own traumatic events, if they wished. Afterwards, Smith remembers, “We lit candles and stayed on the sidewalk until the candles burned away.”
But the walk in Prospect Park this week is the last walk of Elastic City’s last season. Proof of the impact of Elastic City on at least a segment of New York City may be demonstrated by the news articles generated by their announcement that Elastic City will be no more.
The reason why they’re ending it, in a nutshell: Shalom wanted to move on. He explained his reasoning in a group e-mail last November with his usual thoughtfulness — containing perhaps a lesson for other arts groups:
“In thinking about the future, the options we saw were: that Elastic City continue with a new Executive and Artistic Director or that EC institutionalize within a museum or larger organization. Well, we’re a small but strong org (grrr) but we don’t have the financial infrastructure to pay an ED and Artistic Director a livable wage. If we joined a larger organization, it’d provide more financial security but would compromise the urgency, form and presentation of the work. One reason we started making walks outside was so we didn’t have to answer to anyone other than you, the public.
“But above all, we feel like Elastic City has met its mission and has explored this form well. We’ve developed a method. This is a project in poetry, really, and we’re gonna go out with a celebration.”
And so the dozen or so of us who gathered at the Bailey Fountain near the entrance of Prospect Park engaged in some dozen activities over 90 minutes, some of which paid homage to past walks. We broke into pairs and “sculpted” each other (provided a pose to be a monument.) We crawled (knee pads and work gloves provided.) We played with our shadows. We were asked to do a 360-degree look at our surroundings, voicing sounds for the different objects — landmarks, trees — that we spotted. (Not a single passerby, not even a passing police car, took notice of the odd cacophony. This is New York, after all.) We were asked to pair off again, and listen silently while our partner engaged in a four-minute monologue, as we took notes with magic markers. The notes were then clipped to tree branches in the park. (but not left there.) We were each asked to walk to a roadway in a way that revealed our character. And then, for the finale, we stood under an ancient tree, and belted out for all to hear every verse of the song that begins:
The sun’ll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
There’ll be sun
We were handed a printed program with the lyrics on the back — and on the cover, it said “In Loving Memory. Elastic City. April 25, 2010 – July 28, 2016.”