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From the Ground Up: Assocreation takes to the streets

By Melanie Kruvelis, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published November 29, 2012

“Then they ask, ‘Well, who’s paying for all of it?’ ”

“And then the final question — ‘It’s not from our tax dollars, is it?’ ”

Graf promised that the taxpayer can relax — each project is paid out of Assocreation’s pocket.

“I used to get sort of annoyed with these questions,” he said. “We’d be up, tying together several hundred broom heads in the freezing dark, trying to make sure we stayed anonymous. And people would keep poking around, asking us where the money came from.”

With a laugh, Graf said he developed a thicker skin. “Whenever we’re setting up a project, we just turn the questions onto the viewer, and ask them — well, what do you think this is? What do you think it means?”

“At the end of the day, it’s not our understanding or reaction that really matters,” Graf added. “It’s what the people do with it.”

Videos of Assocreation’s projects in action highlight this sort of disbelief — even shock — felt by viewers. In footage from 2007’s “Red Carpet,” passersby react to a 12-foot pseudo-carpet made out of hundreds of upright broom heads. Outside the Royal Palace of Brussels, pedestrians jump, laugh and scurry across the bristled rug.

And sometimes passersby have no idea what they’re supposed to do. Maybe it’s because these projects are out of the museum’s womb, or maybe it’s just the sort of unapologetic, unexplained presence of these pieces. Something about them bewilders viewers, turns them into little kids — poking the rug, asking whether they can walk over it. Some do a double-take, and awkwardly tip-toe over the carpet before someone “catches” them.

How people react to the installation doesn’t really matter to Graf and the rest of Assocreation. Just as long as they do.

“We don’t go into projects expecting X reaction, or Y response,” Graf said. “All we’re trying to get people to do is notice.”

He cleared his throat. “Every day, we watch people walk down the street, barely touching anything, like they don’t even know where they are. We just want to show people that location does matter. Public interaction does matter.”

“And it all starts on the ground,” he added.

Ground control

The heart and soul of Assocreation’s work? Concrete.

Or boardwalks. Floors covered in human hair. Any ground, really. Where most art asks you to stand back, turn off the flash and please, no touching, Assocreation demands you to walk all over them. Jump if you have to. Even “Public Hanging,” a piece that puts participants in business suits and hoists them off the ground via meat hooks — forces people back down to earth.

“At first, their reaction is really funny,” Graf said. “People swim through the air, enjoying this sort of freedom they have. But then the suit becomes a straitjacket.”

Participants often lose feeling in their arms and legs.

"And once again, they become slaves to gravity.”

This fascination with the floor, Graf explained, comes from observing street life from across the world. The members of Assocreation may have different backgrounds and personalities — vastly different, if you ask Graf — but what unites them is this passion for the ground as a working material.

“We can be inspired by anything on the street,” Graf said. “A wobbly pavement or sunlight reflected on the street.”

He paused: “Even now, as I’m thousands of miles away from the rest of Assocreation, we’re still connected by this obsession with street life, and how people behave with the ground.”

It only takes a quick glance through Assocreation’s portfolio to see this attachment to terra firma. There’s “Pink Prints,” where the crowd covers their shoes with in-your-face pink paint, and walks over shirts scattered across the ground. Then there’s “Airlines,” where an Assocreation member drags a bag of chalk through the streets, weaving lines around pedestrians and buildings.