On a sunny Saturday last month, I joined a small group of people for a walk around Bushwick with Neil Freeman, an artist and urban planner Omnibus readers will remember from the prodigious digital taxonomies of his Brooklyn Typology Project. Freeman’s latest piece of work is an art walk called “Centroids and Asphalt,” curated by Elastic City. Elastic City is a company founded by Todd Shalom to commission artists to reshape our perception of New York through original walks, to turn new audiences into active participants in “an ongoing poetic exchange” with the environments we inhabit. Current Elastic City offerings include a theater artist’s “Monumental Walk” in which “participants will walk, dance and commune with the architecture of our public buildings and monuments,” an alternative World Trade Center walk led by a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist, and Shalom’s own “Dirty Gay Soundwalk” (one of several of Shalom’s soundwalks) through the West Village that seeks out places where “gay history echo[es] in the present soundscape.” See the full list here.
“Centroids and Asphalt” deals with the materials and rules from which cities are made: from asphalt and brick to trees and shadows, from property and telecommunication lines to pigeons and cockroaches. Freeman talked a bit, engaged the group in conversation, and got us all making lists of what we could and couldn’t see around us with chalk on the sidewalk. Like Freeman’s previous work, it infuses the dry language of urban planning with a lyrical quality. That’s why it makes for a great day out for the urban enthusiast. But in the context of Elastic City, this walk also functions as part of a larger collection of bespoke and interactive experiences, all of which, through the frame provided by each individual artist, make the familiar landscape of the city unfamiliar, fascinating and profound. Therefore, both this particular walk and the idea of walks in general as a form of artistic practice merit a closer look. So we posed a few questions to Freeman and Shalom. Read what they have to say below, but first check out a glimpse of Centroids and Asphalt in the following brief video. –C.S.
Urban Omnibus: What is Elastic City and how did it come about?
Todd Shalom: Elastic City commissions artists to create walks in an effort to promote new dialogue between participants and the city. I’ve been giving soundwalks since 2004, both around the United States and in other places where I lived (particularly Israel and Argentina). Toward the end of my time in South America, while traveling in Cusco, Peru, tired and short of breath from altitude sickness, I thought about my pending return to New York with these questions: how can I hold onto the heightened awareness I feel while traveling? How can I further my explorations of poetry in different genres and create a fluid place for artists to expand upon their interests? I figured I should stick with a form I know well, that’s accessible, and has very few pre-requisites for the participant… walks!
I’m used to working between genres, so I look for artists who can adapt their talent into walks. I’m interested in encouraging artists to expand upon their own personal poetics and bring it outside. For instance, in Neil Freeman’s work, the challenge was how can we take his incredible knowledge and vocabulary of city systems and mapping and bring it to participants in a way that is interactive, that expresses what he needs to say and that forms a trusting, however temporary, community. Generally, the artists have an idea of what they want to explore, what’s meaningful or urgent to them, and then I chat with them, playing a role similar to that of a curator, about how to best develop this through group participation.
Urban Omnibus: Neil, what appealed to you about the idea?
Neil Freeman: How we move through space plays a huge and under-appreciated role in shaping how we process, perceive and value different spaces and places. I’ve always been a little disappointed that work I’ve done requires the viewer to sit in front of a computer or stand in front of a print. I was excited to work on something where participants go out and experience something new in a new space.
Urban Omnibus: How are Elastic City walks distinct from the tradition of walking tours as an instrument of communicating historical information, organizing around historic preservation, or activating specific forms of civic pride?
Neil Freeman: Todd was emphatic that Elastic City walks would be non-didactic. The emphasis isn’t on absorbing information, it’s on the experience. Although my walk is about cities in general, and the fabric of the neighborhood, there’s little about it that’s specific to Bushwick. That’s purposeful.
Todd Shalom: Walking tours bore me– that’s what podcasts are for. In contrast to traditional walking tours, which seem to re-tell somebody’s or some group’s past experience through data and facts, Elastic City walks strive for a more embodied experience in the present moment. These walks offer to widen the perspectives for participants. For instance, on Niegel Smith’s “Monumental Walk,” we walk through downtown New York and make monuments with our bodies (both individually and in groups) in response to the existing outdoor monuments and sculptures that do not reflect our own personal histories.
Urban Omnibus: Do you see the walk as a specific artistic genre? A sub-genre of performance? A format? A medium?
Todd Shalom: The walks are performative, and I often refer to them as performances when trying to explain them to someone unfamiliar with the concept. But I think they exist both within and outside of that genre. A walk can include making visual poetry with found objects or intentionally following a stranger. In most walks, there are exercises, techniques and processes that are proposed to the group: it can be workshop-y. Simply, the walk is a pliable canvas — I’m still feeling it out. Right now, I’m not so concerned with how to categorize the walks, rather I’m more interested in how walks can open myself and others up to new ways of experiencing each other and the city together.
Neil Freeman: I’d say that walks are a format flexible enough to incorporate many media and genres. The world of art that involves social interactions is big and woolly, and I don’t understand how it all fits together.
Urban Omnibus: Tell us about “Centroids and Asphalt” and how you came up with the concept.
Neil Freeman: We walk around a typical neighborhood and look at it. We try to figure out just what we’re walking around in. Our hands get a little dusty. Spatial distributions and cockroaches are inevitably discussed.
A few days before I first met with Todd to talk about Elastic City, I ran across a few conflicting accounts of where the center of population of New York City is. I calculated it myself, and it happened to be nearby to where I live. So I visited, and really enjoyed the place. That provided the hook for building a walk around arbitrary points and a close-up look at the materials and infrastructure of the neighborhood.
Urban Omnibus: Since Urban Omnibus first came upon the Brooklyn Typology Project, we’ve been very interested in the ways your artistic practice and urban planning practice inform each other. Here’s a quote from an essay you wrote about that project for Urban Omnibus:
“Planning has a great deal to learn from artistic understanding and reinterpretations of daily life. Both art and planning are (or should be) flexible and adaptable to a variety of temporal and physical scales. The only constant in cities is change, both in planning and art. Seeing both art and planning as processes of rule-setting and adaptation, Brooklyn Typology means to sit between the two worlds, presenting concrete information, while also fostering a nuanced and layered understanding of the city.”
Do you see “Centroids and Asphalt” as part of the same tradition of making art? Analyzing lists, rules, statistics and standards and the ways cities and neighborhoods adapt them over time?
Neil Freeman: Yes. I think of “Centroids and Asphalt” as an art project. Perhaps it ends up being a bit of a primer on the urban landscape — but it’s just as much an education for me as anyone else. I end up learning something new each time. It’s really about creating a conversation around the urban landscape. The specific kinds of analyses that the walk presents are less important than the conversation, but it’s clear that it’s in the same vein as the Brooklyn Typology Project. Both are about the patterns of everyday buildings, materials, and ho-hum details, and how little details interact with big picture systems.
Urban Omnibus: What inspires you two about New York? What would you say is unique about its social or sensory experience?
Todd Shalom: I was raised in the New York suburbs, so the city has always been an outlet, a place where I feel free. Returning to New York after living in other places is like seeing an ex-boyfriend, it’s tangled in memories, trauma and inspiration. Through these walks, I’m able to re-engage with the place that I love, make new memories, and create work that’s (ideally) in harmony with where I live. As for its sensory offerings, since I grew up near here, New York doesn’t seem particularly unique to me. I’m more intrigued by the hissing of the buses in Buenos Aires (the busses whisper to passers-by) or how the shadows on the Western Wall in Jerusalem create metaphorical narratives for those at its base. That said, it’s a challenge for me — how to continue to create a new experience in a place I know well.
Neil Freeman: I love New York, but I don’t think it’s all that unique. It has certain qualities in excess that others lack. What I like about New York is that it’s big enough and diverse enough to do many things well. It almost doesn’t matter what those things are – I love that it’s messy and doesn’t make a ton of sense much of the time.
Urban Omnibus: Duchamp once said, “the artist of the future will simply point his finger.” Do you agree with that prediction?
Neil Freeman: He was right, wasn’t he? Plenty of artists over the last couple decades have been doing just that. The trick is knowing where and when to point.
Todd Shalom: Yes, hats off to Duchamp for a self-pat on the back. It’s now lazy to point, though in his time it was revolutionary. On the walks, there’s an element of “hey, take a closer look at what you haven’t paid attention to,” but the walks aren’t one-trick ponies — they’re presented with the intention that a participant will bring his or her own experience and contribute to the work.
Urban Omnibus: Sticking with the art historical for a moment, to what extent is your interest in walks influenced by precedents such as the writings of De Certeau, Debord’s dérive, Baudelaire’s flâneur? These tropes have become clichés in urbanism. How do you think they are considered by artists who do not necessarily identify as urbanists?
Todd Shalom: I can’t speak for other artists– we each have our own influences that we find at different times for different reasons and seem to judge them unfairly once we’ve absorbed them. Kill your idols. The writings you mention above are influential but not defining. Lots of people like to point to psychogeography when talking about Elastic City, and well, Guy Debord is inspiring, but I’ve been more influenced by artwork in other genres that I can bring to the walks. I’d rather not laundry list but, as inspiration: look to the light in the films of Stan Brakhage; the generosity in the work of artist Harrell Fletcher; the dream states of Eva Jordan; the listening exercises from the Acoustic Ecology movement; the liberating writings of John Cage; the self-self-consciousness of poet Kate Colby; the interactivity in the work of Golan Levin; the honesty of director Niegel Smith; the fantasy world of James Bidgood; the vibrant and subversive domesticity in the sculptural work of Vadis Turner; the playful and empowering fashion of Martín Churba, the personal rituals of Juan Betancurth; the compassionate framework of Einat Manoff; the post-clever design of Lucha (Russell Austin, Luis Bravo & Agi Morawska); and 60s/70s performance art (Fluxus, Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneeman).
Urban Omnibus: Does it matter to you whether people consider the walks as art or not?
Todd Shalom: I believe that all people are artists, as they create their own experiences. Whether or not the art is interesting/compelling to someone else is another question.
Urban Omnibus: Indeed. So, what’s next for Elastic City?
Todd Shalom: Upcoming walks include one investigating urban signage with font designer Ksenya Samarskaya, a walk on homesickness by urban designer Einat Manoff, and a walk that I’m creating in collaboration with Juan Betancurth where we go to lucky spaces and also make spaces lucky. Next season, we might be ready to use technology, but first things first.
Neil Freeman is an urban planner and artist whose work focuses on cities, lists and maps. His work has appeared in the Believer, Black Book and the Next American City, and in exhibitions in Chicago, London, New York and Cambridge. He studied art and math at Oberlin College, and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He lives in Brooklyn.
Todd Shalom is the founder of Elastic City. He works with text, sound and image. He performs and makes installations to re-contextualize the body in space using vocabulary of the everyday. In this pursuit, Shalom often collaborates with performance artist/director Niegel Smith. Together, as Permiso, they conceive and stage interactive rituals in public and private environments. Todd’s solo work includes improvisational music performances, soundwalks, poetry readings, installations, photography and sleepovers. He is an active member of the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.