The Newcomers: Ambulatory Plywood Art

Photo by Nick Beckman

Photo by Nick Beckman

A giant green caterpillar-like structure of plywood and 2x4’s has been crawling its way along 28 Liberty Plaza for six days. A bridge by day and a spare shelter by nights, this live performance art piece is occupied by four swaddled architectural artists and will move along the length of the plaza until their feet touch the ground again on November 19th.

Headed by the iconic architectural duo Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, the piece is part of the Performa 17 Biennial program. The piece is ambulatory architectural art, and over the ten-day performance, the artists will not touch the ground. They will eat, sleep, and work together in their impractical abode as they discuss with onlookers and each other the meaning of their journey.

Each morning the habitation form of the structure is disassembled and over the course of the day, reassembled in order to become a bridge to the next day’s supplies before turning back into a shelter against the cold November nights. Their route is marked along the plaza by a series of poles atop small caches of supplies for the next day, and their progress is shown by a string of lights along the top of the poles. Each day the structure takes on a unique form as a different member of the team is put in charge of the design for the day.

“We shape the architecture, but then we have to let the architecture shape us and deal with what it decides to impose upon us. It’s more about the people inside than the structure itself. It’s a small, democratic society and we have our own set of rules,” said Ward Shelly, a professor at the Parsons School of Fine Arts near Union Square.  

Photo by Nick Beckman

Photo by Nick Beckman

One of the goals of the piece is to dialogue with onlookers. Shelley and Schweder, along with two of their recent master’s program graduates Sarah Burns and Lena Kouvela, make a point to sit, enamel coffee mugs in hand, and converse with passersby each morning. They speak about the philosophy of the work, the process of the movement, and the struggles of living in a drafty, plywood hovel.

“When building, its democratic sure, but we also have to have a leader,” said Burns.

“The days leader is in charge no matter who it is. Alex and I have far more experience so the girls will come to us sometimes but on those days, we’re just helping hands,” said Shelley.

Schweder and Shelley have been working together on live performance art pieces for the better part of a decade. Their pieces often focus on the experimental and social aspects of architecture. One of their most well known pieces is the “ReActor House,” a forty-five foot, perfectly balanced structure that rotates on a concrete pillar 7ft. off the ground. It is only recently that the artists began to work with the two young graduates.

“We’re trying to think about how people move and how they work together.”

“It brings a new perspective, and a different set of challenges to the performance, having these women along,” said Shelley. “When it’s all men, we don’t have to worry so much about the waste situation, but now, with them, we had to come up with a new system.”

“We’re trying to think about how people move and how they work together,” said Schweder to a small group of onlookers.

“Some people come by talking about tiny houses and sustainability, and I don’t want to shoot anyone down but that’s not all it’s about. People need to understand that this is impractical, and the rules we place on ourselves make it that way. We’re not proposing practical solutions to architecture; it’s about human interaction.”

Photo by Nick Beckman

Photo by Nick Beckman

“Eggs in five!” called Shelley from the interior as Schweder sat on a pseudo-balcony, conversing with a small group of students from a local college.

For the artists, engagement with the public is important, not only to share in the art, but to lend them company in their new, tarp-covered world.

Seven days into their journey, Burns says morale is high and, “we’ve been very giggly in the past twenty-four hours. I guess when you’re wearing the same orange jumpsuit for seven days, it’s hard to take yourself very seriously.”

“We really have everything we need but I can’t wait for a warm bath,” said Kouvela as she lit a cigarette and shared a grin with Burns.

“The Newcomers” will amble its way across 28 Liberty Plaza to completion of the journey by Sunday, November 29th.