In the city, or in any city, streets aren’t just streets, and building aren’t just buildings. There are histories stacked on top of each other, whether they be literal populations and businesses that come and go or more personal, emotional histories. A park or a street corner is going to mean something different to everyone.
For the past few years, Elastic City has striven to crystalize this feeling into something more tangible with its series of free artist-led participatory walks in New York City and beyond. These walks take small groups (usually 12 or less) on fictional, historical, emotional journeys, such as a reenactment of coming-of-age moments that occurred at the height of the West Village’s dyke bar culture, a singalong Annie tour, or renaming and imagining a neighborhood where immigrants are celebrated. Artists like scenic designer Mimi Lien (a winner of the MacArthur “Genius Grant”), performance artist Karen Finley, activist and urbanist Nisan Haymian, among many others, have created and led walks for the series.
Today, Elastic City will wrap up their walk series for good. I chatted with Elastic City founder Todd Shalom and his longtime collaborator (and Elastic City’s Associate Artistic Director) Niegel Smith in the time they had in between conducting walks. Today, for the last several times, they’ll lead the walk they’ve created together that will serve as a finale for the series. It’s called, fittingly, The Last Walk, and takes place in Prospect Park, beginning at Grand Army Plaza.
“This is the last walk,” Shalom says. “Literally. It’s instructions from artists from their past walks that we think fit together. I’m very careful not to say this is a greatest hits because I don’t want to put down any of the other artists. This walk deals issues of memorializing, with queering space, sensory exploration, shadow play.”
“On this last walk, we have a bunch of different artists: a choreographer, a video artist, a comic/performance artist, an urban planner, a sound artist,” adds Smith. “We have all these different perspectives. We’ve taken the prompts from these artists and put them together, so we’re re-performing the prompts for the public. And there are surprises.” Elastic City’s website notes that “your clothes might get a little dirty on The Last Walk.”
Both agree that creating and participating in walks throughout the five boroughs has tangibly affected how they see and experience public space, as well as the ways they approach creating participatory performance and artwork.
“It’s rare that I walk the city now without the memories of walking with other people,” says Smith. ”The city is so layered for me,” Shalom adds. “I grew up outside of the city, coming into the city a lot, moved here after college to Manhattan, then to Brooklyn. Going into Manhattan is so layered: that diner over there is where I came out to my father, that building over there is where I was working during 9/11. The walks are just another layer. Like, oh, over there I know that manhole sounds like that when you go over it. It’s a really strange and particular and individual knowledge I have from these walks.”
They specifically recall one of their past walk collaborations in 2013, co-presented by the organization Visual AIDS. It was called Spread, and explored just that, whether it be spreading jam, spreading rumors, or spreading a physical group of people throughout a space. Participants moved “like a virus,” attempted to spread feelings and gestures to strangers, and stripped down to their underwear in a privately-owned public plaza. A security officer tried to tell them they were not allowed to remove any clothing, but they stood their ground, and the officer ended up apologizing to them for being wrong. “I think we created a very aggressive moment of de-clothing, but not becoming naked, in a publicly-owned private space. It’s questioning what can we share with others,” says Smith.
Shalom feels that ending the festival is in part because they’ve completed their mission of bringing these experiential participatory walks to people’s consciousness as something they can partake in and even create. “We really wanted a celebratory ending that was personal and was looking back but really focused on the moving forward, the moving forward together, creating new experiences,” he says. “The question of Elastic City isn’t one that ends with the project, the project has been an introduction about how to be more intentional about the creativity we have in our space.”
Though Elastic City is formally ending as a festival, they’re working on a book that will serve as a manual for those who would like to create their own walks, which Shalom hopes will be completed next year.
“Every situation in your control has the potential to be a creative one,” says Smith. “I’m sorry to get emotional, but I have to contain it, because I have like, five more walks.”
Elastic City’s The Last Walk, created by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith in collaboration with luciana achugar, Chiara Bernasconi, Michelle Boulé, Neil Freeman, Neil Goldberg, Wayne Koestenbaum, Erin Markey, and Pamela Z, continues at 4pm and 7pm today. More info on Elastic City and past walks here.