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The Sound of Silence: TRYST derive, 9-07-03

By Holly Tavel, Neuroscape Editor
Photographs by Peter Lasell


“ ...a conversation with a group of strangers in a stalled elevator...an appointment with nobody...a long walk for no reason...no umbrella in a rainstorm...finding the benign in a world of threats...listening to a tall tale with an open mind...the fluid experience that surrounds the things you can describe.”

So waxes the TRYST manifesto, outlining a four-day series of performances/public-space interventions that took place, courtesy of cmlperformance (www.cmlperformance.org), at various locations around the city. I’d love to be able to tell you about all of them, but I was unfortunately only able to make it to the last one, a two-hour derive through Chinatown on a day so beautiful it mocked my sorry-ass, coffee-addled self. I’m not kidding. You know the kind of day that absolutely demands that you get out from behind your desk or computer and out of your dark and dreary apartment and go out and do something? Well, maybe not. At any rate, this something seemed like a particularly good and healthy something to be doing on a lazy blue-gray Sunday morning.


That said, Paul Benney and Clarinda MacLow of cmlperformance did clue us in to the TRYST events of the preceding days. In one, participants carried red umbrellas through the city streets, each bearing a single word of the phrase Daydreaming Subverts Reality - a sentiment worth its weight in silver-lined clouds.
We were a small group - seven - and though Glowlab’s Peter Lasell and I were the only ones who had’t previously met the other participants - a real case of psychogeography, family-style - we didn’t feel like outsiders, thanks to the welcoming, warm and fuzzy vibe exuded by the participants. Two props and two caveat laters, we were on our way. The props: a large, white, finger-pointing, wire mesh glove that lent a touch of Yellow Submarine surrealism to the proceedings, and a map of San Francisco (why do I keep meeting people from San Francisco?). Caveat one: the walk would be led by whoever chose to do so at any time - a tap on the shoulder, a handing-off of the aforementioned props, and the self-appointed leader could guide the group in whatever direction he or she wished, using the glove to draw the group’s attention to sights of particular interest. Caveat Two: the walk would be conducted in absolute silence.

Starting out at the trisection of Rutgers, Essex and East Broadway, we wandered through Chinatown, fruit stands and purple awnings drenched in the liquid glare of mid-morning sunshine. Iris (Clarinda’s mother) leading the way, we walked along the river (I swear it smelled like the ocean), the bridge as high as an elephant’s eye. Skip-hearted, I was ready to start belting out Harper's Bizarre’s seminal bridge song, “Feelin’ Groovy”. Fortunately for all present, I restrained myself.


Further south and back and down and up and back again, past housing projects, cutting through alleys, it really felt like we were doing something playful and, at times, zenlike in its mindful quietude. Peter, in a stroke of telepathic genius, led us into a dollar store, one of the hundreds, if not thousands, that line a single block. So, we each picked something out, why not? Pixie sticks, a floppy hat , vegetable-shaped fridge magnets (later to find their way onto the hoods of unsuspecting cars).

Among the many, many virtues of silence in a city that never shuts up, not least is the almost immediate sense of relaxation afforded when, with a group of relative strangers, one finds that it is not incumbent upon one to offer up one’s thoughts, to deftly weave in and out of ongoing commentary, or to pick up the slack of a conversation. Think about it. When was the last time you were with a group of people for almost two hours and spoke not a word? (Yoga classes don’t count).


In the city, walking alone, we may be preoccupied by our own thoughts or barely notice them. Sitting alone on the subway, silence is a defense, a choice not to interact beyond what is required. But walking silently with a small group - far from provoking the discomfort of a thudding lapse in conversation between two people - is a kind of freedom, the freedom to be there while not being there, the freedom to be in the moment without worrying about what’s coming next. In psychogeographic terms, a silent derive allows a greater personal interaction with the immediate environs, a comfortable and familiar space to get lost in, without the deflecting shield of conversation and its embedded hierarchical structures. Distractions still abounded, but wthout the vehicle of speech, we were forced to, with all attendant goofiness, write notes or wave arms to get someone’s attention.

Of course, there was the giant pointing finger, as well.

And a very cute dog.

Things observed:

a t-shirt declaring “Love is in the Air”...
more graffiti than you can shake a pixie stick at...
signs telling the fascinating history of Rutgers Slip...
an orblike monument...
the way a shadow forms a space, dips into the ground, and comes up with something new...
a purple flower.


I’d like to tell you we made it all the way to the end without uttering a word, and we did, almost...
Peter was pointing to a guy rolling down a center median a cart loaded to absurdity with slabs of meat. “Yeah? “ I mouthed. “What?” Was he talking about the meat guy? or was there something else? What was i missing? Peter gestured more frantically, pointing emphatically, but I just wasn’t getting it. I shrugged, an exaggerated gesture, palms to the sky.

Finally Peter just shrugged and said aloud, “I said: That’s a hell of a lot of meat.”

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