(New York, New York) Union Square Park
September 15, 2006—life
On Friday, September 15th effective precisely at noon, Lee Walton left Union Square Park never to return again. Following a self-imposed life restriction, Walton's world got a little bit smaller. In the morning, Walton spent his final hours in the park before his departure. Exactly at noon, Walton descended the steps of the park and began walking south in search of a cold valedictory beer. Walton welcomed and appreciated the company and support on that difficult day
Interview with Joseph del Pesco, April 2007
JDP: When Lee Lozano decided to make "Dropout Piece" in 1971, which involved leaving the artworld for good, she was dissolving the boundaries between art and life. Your work seems to also enact this merger. How has this artwork affected your life?
LW: I was unfamiliar with Lee Lozanos “Dropout Piece” until now. It does remind me of one of my favorite performances- Sam Hsieh's "Earth."
I think both of these projects definitely “free” the artists from all various constraints and limits of art. This dissolving of the boundaries between art and life is understandably necessary. However, to be honest, art was separate from my life until I was in my twenties. I wasn’t even thinking about things in the context of art – I was just living. I have found it more useful or meaningful to integrate art into my life rather than separate it. For example, by giving myself a life-imposed ban on Union Square Park, I have set myself up for new and alternative experiences. Not better or more memorable experiences, just new ones. This artwork has affecting my life already in various ways. Here are just a few:
1. I learned about Lee Lozanos “Dropout Piece."
2. I have spent time under Union Square Park researching the subway station at the park. I now know all the possible exits where I will surface outside the parks boundaries. This took a little time, and still I am careful and cautious each time I exit.
3. I have been spending more time at Madison Square Park. I actually have grown fond of it and am beginning to feel attached.
4. Recently, a group of my students at Parsons the New School performed their final project at Union Square Park. Unable to attend, I watched the performance from a window across the street at Barnes and Nobles. I then held a critique via cell phone.
5. I met a man that gives private tours of Harlem and the Bronx.
6. I found myself looking at my own personal map of Manhattan and wondering if I should cut Union Square Park out with an exacto knife. I decided against it. (Mostly because I would then have the dilemma of figuring out what to do with the little cut-out park.)
7. I have become very comfortable with DSW Shoe Store across the street from the park. From these windows you can watch all the activities in the park.
8. When I make plans to meet a friend in the city, we always spend extra time struggling to agree on a meeting place besides Union Square.
9. I was once strolling my daughter and was forced by unpredictable construction circumstances to walk right to the edge of Union Square Park. Unable to get on the sidewalk, I walked along the street and put the stroller on the sidewalk next to me.
10. I have a better idea of what the last few minutes of my life might feel like. Anyway, this could go on. Of course, the affects are constant- at this point, most of them being very subtle and personal. I have definitely regained respect for the park. Often times, when I catch myself admiring it from afar. If I let my imagination go- I will get a little pain in my stomach, similar to seeing a beautiful woman and knowing that my time has past and she forever untouchable. The park is now part of my history. My memory.
JDP: I am guessing that the affects of this project will become stronger over time.How did you use the park before you began the project? In other words.what are you missing?Also, your project could be read a kind of protest, that resonates in a lateral way with the union history of the park (and the surrounding square). How do you think about your project in relation to this history?
LW: I am unfamiliar with the real history of the park, but I can tell you about my history with park…
When I moved to New York, for some reason I considered Union Square Park to be the center of Manhattan. I then related all other parts of the city to Union Square Park. Times Square was X distance north of Union Square. Canal St. was Y distance south. It was like Fed Ex or something. The most efficient way for me to get around was to start the day at Union Square Park. Still, to this day, my mental map of the city is all in relation to Union Square.
By eliminating this park, I have disrupted my entire strategy for navigating the city. Also, from the very beginning I realized this park attracted a variety of people from around city, most likely due to its location. I frequented the park in my leisure time and practiced recreational people watching. I loved the way you could walk around the park’s looped path and see people sitting at the benches. Sometimes, I would walk around the loop 3 or 4 times consecutively and see if I could recognize what people got up and were no longer sitting there. I played various games like this…alone at the park. Also, like most people, I started used the park as shortcut. Which sort of relates to the next statement.
As far as my project being some sort of protest? I haven’t really thought of it that way. I see it more as a wake up call- almost a sort of punishment or reprimand that leaves a scar as a reminder. In short, I found myself not respecting the park and taking it for granted. It was my favorite park, and I found myself not paying attention to it. Not appreciating it like I did when I first moved to NY. I figured it would be there forever (or I would be here forever). At that point, I decided to impose a life-long restriction. I took the park away- to teach myself a lesson.
JDP: What do you mean when you say "I have definitely regained respect for the park?" How does this sentiment work in relation to the idea or practice of taking the role of tourist in one's own city?
LW: Yes. I have regained respect for the park. For example, I found myself passing through the park and using it as a short cut- paying little or not attention to it at all. Ironically, I would do anything to walk through the park one more time. Instead, now when I see the park across the street I am very aware it. I never pass by without slowing down and peeking in to see what I am missing.
Similarly, I have had this experience with playing competitive baseball. Looking back, I would do anything to replay the experience of staring down a 3-2 fastball with runners on 2nd and 3rd. Of course, those days are gone – but I still enjoy watching the game from the bleachers.
Funny, I have heard New Yorkers say “you are no longer a tourist when one of your favorite places is gone”. (something like that) this seems to relate in some ways. First off, it takes some time to develop a “favorite place”. Then, of course it’s gone unexpectedly and you are only left with the memories.
As far as being a tourist in ones own city, I couldn’t imagine a better way to live. Ultimately, that seems to be the challenge- the more complex the city, the more randomness and possibilities of having new experiences. Of course, being a tourist everyday takes work. When I think of tourists I think of “visitors”. In this sense, there is a definite time-period. Bookends. An arrival and a departure. Because of this, the whole experience is lived on a higher level of awareness. For me, it was after about the second year of living in NY, that I began to relax and not consider myself a “visitor”. When I realized this, I immediately imposed the life-restriction of Union Square Park. A big wake-up call. I have found that patterns and repetition based on comfort and taste can lull a person into a less “tourist-based” city experience. In this regard, I like the way you phrased this question using the term “practice”. Practice, to me is the key. A daily conscious effort. Its totally unnatural and takes work.
JDP: The disruption of existing (and personal) systems (such as a strategy for navigating a city) in favor of new and perhaps temporary alternative systems, is recurring in your work. Are these systems the result of a personal compulsion or developed as tools of production for your art practice?
LW: I tend to think of my systems more along the lines of rules for games- or play. I compulsively play. As a kid, it always seemed natural and constant and I never out grew it.
JDP: The disruption of existing routines (or personal systems) in favor of rule-based devices, such as the City System project, is recurring in your work. What is your interest in systemic thinking, and rule-based art, and how does this Union Square park Ban differ from your past work with systems?
LW: In some ways, I am always envious of people who happily develop consistent routines. There is a comfort in routines. There is a certain amount of predictability- making them safe. However, I think these tendencies for developing routines are not natural. Maybe they are cultural? Over time, people begin to follow the social ad cultural rules and allow themselves to be governed by them. So in a sense, we all follow or react to a constant set of rules everyday – it governs every aspect of our experience. From where we go, to what we see, to how we spend our money, to how we think, etc…
By creating my own rules, I am consciously disrupting these routines. For example, when following the rules of the The City System, my entire experience is altered. In short, for an entire day, I use the city in a way that it was not intended for me to use. It becomes a personal playing field and all of the components take on new meaning. The “man on the corner” becomes a directional device- leading me towards my next cup of coffee. A “horn honk” will direct my attention towards the nearest pigeon. The “shortest person on the bus” will determine what stop to get off. I have ultimate freedom when creating these rules, yet I subject myself to them with extreme discipline.Speaking more formally, I have found the aesthetics of art-making to also be governed by the “rules from above”. Ironically, art is thought to be the most free form of creativity, yet is a constant battle of liberation. I like to think of the most influential and important artist as “freedom fighters”- or liberators. Take Duchamp’s urinal for example.
With my own work, specifically drawing, I tend to play with the formal rules of aesthetics- or the language of art – and create under these regulations. Simply put, it’s like a game. Take soccer for example, without all the rules (such as not being able to use your hands) and sidelines declaring boundaries the game would be pointless. It is only under these rules that creativity and meaning can exist. My drawings exist under an accepted set of rules. This is where I find the challenge.
JDP: How does this Union Square park Ban differ from your past work with systems?
LW: The Union Square park project does not differ from my past work with systems. It is however, a very simple system with a much longer lasting effect.
The only difference I can see would be the actual development and making of the system. Most of the systems I create are based on some sort of research and observation. The making of the system becomes a study – recognizing patterns, probability, possibilities, etc… The making of the rules is usually the only creative and problem solving portion of the process. With Union Square, the simplicity of the system shifted the creativity and decision-making aspect onto the performing side.
Union Square: Giving it Up for Life was originally performed in conjunction with Conflux 2006.
Often regarded as an Experientialist, Lee Walton's work takes many forms- from drawings on paper, game/system based structures, video, web-based performances, public projects, theatrical orchestrations and more. An Assistant Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Walton exhibits widely. His photography and Life/Theater performance work will be part of "Not Quite How I Remember It" curated by Helena Rockitt at The Power Plant Contemporary Art in Toronto (on view June 7 - September 1, 2008).
Curator and wriiter Joseph Del Pesco is co-founder of The Collective Foundation. He recently curated On Being An Exhibitionat Artists Space, and collaborated with Helena Keeffe on "Sculpture Garden Carillon" an interpretive project for the Oakland Museum of California.
A version of this interview appeared in NUKE magazine.