Archived entries for When Strangers Meet

Spontaneous Rezoning

Our project seeks to spontaneously rezone everyday urban space with the appropriation of industrial-grade construction objects. We anticipate that the messages coded into traffic cones, caution tape, and orange flags are sufficiently authoritative to subvert normal pedestrian flow—even in unorthodox places. By positioning these items in various configurations, strangers may feel compelled to address one another as they navigate an unexpected detour or blockade. It’s our intent to stage these interventions primarily in places of leisure and low-urgency transit such as parks, sidewalks, and interstitial spaces. We’re interested in how people respond to these decontextualized encounters.

On a bright Saturday afternoon in late April, Alexandra Kuechenberg and I set out with a roll of yellow caution tape and a hand truck stacked with four large, orange cones. We came to a pedestrian-friendly path along LaGuardia Place, canopied with trees and occupied by a statue of the old mayor himself. We began by setting up the cones in a curve from the main sidewalk into a pathway curving off to the left, curious to see if pedestrians might follow. They seemed not to heed this setup and simply passed between the cones. Next we strung caution tape between the cones so that people couldn’t go between them. As a result, most just went around—an improvement, at least in the sense that our actions were visibly reverberating in some way.

It was beginning to set in between Alex and I that antagonistic gestures are not the most effective in getting strangers to interact. Novelty, creativity, and silliness drew more constructive attention. So the next configuration really didn’t have anything to do with rerouting. We just created a kind of strange monument with cones balanced on top of each other. With each iteration it was interesting to note how disconnected we became from the intervention once we walked away from it. Moreover, the nature of the materials almost guaranteed that no one would interfere with them. One woman I came in contact with while casually walking by remarked, “I love it!” when I asked her what she thought. Carrying on, we decided to extrapolate from our initial plan by creating playful/absurd detours. People now had to choose whether to go around or step over the low-hanging tape. Some expressed amusement, some annoyance, others confusion. We were happy to see them engaging with the scene.

Part of what interested us about this concept in the first place is the communication aesthetics of urban construction. Documenting these objects in the environment, we developed an even better sense of how they stand out against their concrete backdrop. As our search for another suitable location dragged on, we decided to try something else. So we turned the cameras on boundaries of light and shade demarcated by our cones and tape. In some instances we laid the cones on their side along the shadow a building cast. We also tried outlining patches of light with the tape and setting up signifiers for pedestrians about to walk into or out of the sunlight. These images were striking both in their color and their temporality.

Interacting with strangers on your own can be challenging. Getting them to interact with each other is another thing altogether. We set out to disrupt normal pedestrian flow through the use of construction signals. Our plan was ambiguous, though, as to whether we were after a kind of spectacle or antagonism. The settings wherein we had envisioned staging these interventions were such that traffic cones looked out of context. As a result, they were less likely to exert their subtle influence than to draw attention. What excited us about this project was how far something as simple as a roll of tape can go in affecting behavior and suggesting phenomena. While we weren’t particularly successful at provoking stranger interactions, we learned more about its complexity, viewed the city differently, and were redirected into the domain of sculpture.

Stranger Interaction: Flushing

On my way home today I’m walking, as usual, along Kissena Boulevard through the tangle that is Main Street, Flushing. To my right I notice a man sitting alone on the steps of a synagogue, watching me go by. Against the momentum of forward motion and urban anonymity, I catch his stare and offer a half-wave, which is reciprocated with a wave and a smile.

Stranger Interaction: Mona at Staples

On Fridays, I have a few hours between classes and on this particular afternoon I’m going to the post office to mail passport renewal materials. But first I need to stop by a stationer to pick up an appropriate envelope. Across the street I notice a Staples and hesitate. A small campus shop would be preferable, I think to myself. Convenience trumps scale on this occasion, though. I push through the doors and approach an employee named Mona.

“How’s it going?” I ask.

“Great!” she replies energetically. Mona then begins to explain to me that she’s waiting to hear back from a music professor whose workshop she attended some years back. Mona has taught music classes to children in the past and now she’s hoping to teach at the college level. She’s anticipating that the professor will be able to put her in contact with people and/or programs that will enable this career path. Mona goes on to describe how the first round of their correspondence went: how he didn’t quite understand what she was asking of him and how she worded her reply which, she included, required her to go to the library early that morning in order to access her email.

Mona’s heart is not in New York, either—though it seems like she’s from around here (including five years at Staples, according to her name tag). Her plan is to move out to Austin where the big music scene will afford plenty of opportunity for teaching. Our conversation is mixed with declarations of the city’s virtue.

Mona’s enthusiasm is infectious and makes me smile along with her. Maybe ten minutes pass before someone starts paging her over an intercom to take a phone call. Mona disregards the call and our conversation continues. After several attempts to summon her she finally acts on the request. At this point we’ve had such an exchange that I’m not even inclined to ask where the envelopes are.

Final Project Proposal: Spontaneous Rezoning

Our project seeks to spontaneously rezone everyday urban space with the appropriation of industrial-grade construction objects. We anticipate that the messages coded into traffic cones, caution tape, and orange flags are sufficiently authoritative to subvert normal pedestrian flow. By positioning these items in various configurations, strangers may feel compelled to address one another as they navigate an unexpected detour or blockade. It’s our intent to stage these interventions primarily in places of leisure and low-urgency transit such as parks, campus sidewalks, and paths between buildings. We’re interested in how people respond to these decontextualized encounters which will be easy to iterate and straightforward to document with photography and video.

Stranger Interaction: Christopher Street

Whenever I see someone in military attire—uniform or fatigues—I have a common desire to acknowledge that person, to express my appreciation for their service. Sometimes I do, but often it feels awkward or fails to connect in the way I’d hope. I think this owes a lot to the fact that their life experience is, in ways, distant from my own. Both my sister and brother-in-law were in the Army but it’s still a kind of foreign culture to me.

On a recent Sunday morning, a serviceman stood on the platform with me at 14th Street. I decided that, rather than attempt to approach him on the basis of our different roles in society, I would simply remain open to any kind of catalyst for conversation or exchange. So I boarded the same train car with him and it happened that we both got off at the next stop, Christopher Street–Sheridan Square.

The heavy, wide backpack he was wearing was not conducive to passage through the turnstile and he started towards the emergency gate. His first press on the bar yielded no results and he tried a few more times in vain to open the door. Giving up, he began to remove his backpack and bear it sideways through the turnstile. This was my opportunity to interact. Having already gone through, I reached back, offering to bring the pack through for him. He declined good-naturedly.

“It’s the same with mothers and their strollers,” I tell him.

“I don’t know what they do!” he responds. The mood is light.

“Enjoy the day,” I say.

“You too, buddy.”



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