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Trust Fund Thursdays

Design an experiment to take you out of your comfort zone in terms of how you relate to your body and space.

That was a no-brainer for me. I hate taking pictures of people I don’t know. I’m not sure why it makes me uncomfortable, but it does. I’ve lived in some of the most bizarre and photogenic (and crowded) places in the world but have frightfully little photographic evidence of anything other than their architecture. I set out on a beautiful spring day to photograph random New Yorkers. My initial idea was to stop in front of people, plant my feet and raise my camera and, without saying anything, take their picture and walk away. This quickly stopped being uncomfortable, especially since no one seemed all that surprised or upset. My body is unexceptional in the space of New York—I’m one of the crowd. In Asia, my face instantly identified me as a foreigner and it was the motivations that I imagined my subjects could attribute to my picture-taking combined with the total unpredictability of their reactions that made me so hesitant to uncap my lens.

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I considered forcing an interaction. It might make me uncomfortable to act strangely in front of these anonymous New Yorkers. I could express some emotion or attitude when taking the picture (disgust came to mind, grimacing once the picture was taken and shaking my head sadly as I walked away). That seemed unnecessarily confrontational and with the current state of my back, I didn’t want to risk a scuffle. The threat of bodily harm, whether real or perceived, is a whole different universe of discomfort and I’m no Marina Abramovic. I could also go the other way and be extremely friendly and use the element of surprise to my advantage. This seemed like a better idea, so I stopped random people and asked to take their picture.

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That didn’t make me uncomfortable at all and really didn’t involve my body and space so much as it did my mind. I had a prop (the camera), it was a beautiful day, and the force of my delivery made people almost universally acquiesce to my request. Having a purpose emboldened me to overcome the discomfort of getting close to a stranger, looking him/her in the eyes, and making a request. It was like asking for directions. The only no I got was from a couple of European tourists who seemed to think I was running a scam.

I couldn’t exactly replicate the conditions of the initial discomfort I set out to overcome in New York, so I abandoned the idea and enjoyed the sun.

Several days later, I was lying on a grassy hill in Central Park, reading a magazine after a doctor’s appointment in Columbus Circle. There weren’t a lot of people around. A couple was lying on a blanket to my right, calling frantically to their two dachshunds Dottie and Dixie whom the combination of sun and open space to explore had apparently rendered deaf and impervious to a proffered frisbee as they disappeared down the hill, their collars clinking madly. To my right, two Puerto Rican girls in tight jeans and big sneakers discussed the probable futures of their classmates. Somewhere behind me, a woman with a voice hoarse from a late loud night exclaimed, “That’s soooo fucking funny! Today is sooo fucking trust fund Thursday,” which was met with clapping and hooting laughter. I didn’t turn around.

I read until the people to my right finally corralled their dogs and packed up their blankets and the Puerto Rican girls had run out of classmates with prognosticateable futures and turned separately to attending their cell phones. Another explosion of laughter from caused me to look for its source, which I discovered was three hipsterish white women and a slim and even from a distance obviously gay black man. I found myself disapproving of them, if for no other reason than that they seemed a New York cliché—the girls in leggings, ratty tee-shirts, and oversized sunglasses, the guy snarking comments that would set them all off laughing—and they were having much more fun than the afternoon and their surroundings warranted. I realized I’d found my discomfort.

I stood up, brushed the wet grass off my pants, and walked over to them. “Can I join you?” To my surprise, they burst out laughing, “Of course! We’ve had designs on you all afternoon. Sit, sit. Here, have some champagne.” In addition to a couple bottles of champagne, they were drinking something green out of plastic cups. “Are those mojitos?” Apparently, the Mexican man who had come by an hour earlier selling ice cold water and gatorade had an unadvertised happy hour special hidden in the rolling suitcase he trundled behind him. I sat with them for over an hour, earning the epithet “Ambitious Alex” in the process, receiving several hugs, handshakes, and a lot of playful innuendo that made me terrifyingly uncomfortable while thrilling me at the same time.

I don’t like to be noticed in unfamiliar social situations until I’m confident I understand their dynamics. It took me almost six months to make my first post to the ITP student list. In this situation, however, I made myself the center of attention. I had to talk about myself without a good idea of what sort of tone to adopt or what reaction to expect. I had to shape my first impression, as I could not rely on having months of repeated interactions over which to hone it. I wanted Sam, Michelle, Deb, and Stefan, whom I liked as soon as I sat down, to like me back.

I only performed this experiment once, but I plan to try it again the next time an opportunity presents itself. I learned that what makes me uncomfortable is not how I relate to my own body and space but how my body relates to other bodies. Which is what led me to the idea of measuring those parts that vary most from body to body for my embodiment object.

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