Imagine the first day of freshman year. More specifically, imagine your first time driving in to Ann Arbor. Remember that big sign that says, “Welcome to the University of Michigan?” Probably not, because there isn’t one. What the University does have as the distinguishing landmark between greater Ann Arbor and campus is a big empty parking lot that reads: “Red lot. Permit only.”
Now re-imagine that first day of freshman year. Imagine that the Michigan Marching Band practiced in that empty parking lot instead of Elbel Field. Imagine arriving on campus for the first time, nervous about a new roommate and college classes, your car packed with dorm accessories, when all of a sudden you hear a distant “Hail to the Victors” as a welcome to the visitors.
This is one of the visions of Nick Tobier, assistant professor in the School of Art & Design, who gave a lecture called “Interruptions for Everyday Life” last Thursday at the Penny Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series. Tobier played a short video of what this vision might look like. Marching down State Street waving a baton in white uniforms and feathered hats, Tobier gave the audience a glimpse into the whimsical and awakening power of the disruption of everyday life. As car horns blared at the line of marching musicians, laughter filled the crowded Michigan Theater auditorium.
Tobier’s venture into performance art began when he saw an elephant in the streets of New York while walking home from his job at a fish market (a job he said explained his social life at the time). It’s not a typical answer about artistic inspiration, but it has a lot to do with how Tobier makes art now.
“It was something unexpected. Something to make direct contact with and something to take a person out of their isolation,” Tobier said.
He later asked others to contribute personal experiences with this type of interruption. Perhaps it’s the researcher who plays harmonica on the Diag and makes the tired student stop and smile, or the Ghost and Pac Man chase in the fishbowl a few years ago that made everyone stop studying for a minute to laugh. Tobier takes the spark from these exchanges and recreates them as the pivotal part of his performances.
Tobier was not always a performance artist; he began his career as a wood sculptor. Making contraptions like a two-foot-by-six-foot wooden box that could operate as the world’s smallest apartment, complete with bed, workspace and storage space, Tobier soon gave up his wood sculpting studio, and made people, the city and even the world his new workspace.
“I’d walk through New York where I grew up, where I was living, and I’d see all these amazing things in the street and I’d open this big door with a padlock and I’d go inside my studio and I’d make wood things. Wood sculptures that had absolutely nothing to do with what I was walking through,” Tobier said in a Play Gallery video.
“What I realized at a certain point was that I had a studio life that was completely separate from the life around me.”
The first project that Tobier created to close the gap between his art and his life in the city was a portable bridge that he set up over the small ponds that formed around the sewers after a snow melt. Tobier took an active role, helping people cross the wooden structure and engaging them in conversation when they said such things as, “I’m so glad the city is finally doing something about this problem.”
Another project involved building a portable hot chocolate stand made out of a red patchwork canopy that produced a warm glow when people stepped inside. When Tobier showed a picture of a policeman leaning out of his window to get a hot chocolate, it is clear that his work is connecting all types of people by shaking them out of their routines.
When Tobier was studying landscape architecture in graduate school (which he described as an uptight place where students covered their drawings at night so no one stole their ideas), he came up with a project that would alter his environment through performance. He constructed a tea cart that he would bring around to the drawing boards while students were pulling all-nighters. The catch was, if the person wanted the mint tea, they had to agree to unplug one of their appliances and have a conversation with Tobier about something other than their project.
“It’s easy to get a laugh,” Tobier said of his work. “It loses its relevance if it’s just funny. When my work stops at being merely funny, then we don’t have a conversation.”
Looking around the room during Tobier’s lecture, it seemed as if people couldn’t help but smile at the whimsical magic that Tobier’s work brought to them. It was as if simply hearing about these “Interruptions for Everyday Life” was an interruption on its own.
As last Thursday’s lecture concluded, it seemed people were more likely to engage in conversation with each other or to smile at a stranger walking out of the theater. It was as if merely viewing Tobier’s work had chipped away the shell of isolation that many people go through life wearing — Plugging into iPods and cell phones instead of engaging other people.
Granted, there were probably mixed responses. But that’s also what Tobier values: the variation of people and diversity within cities. When Tobier built a tricycle with a chandelier that hung from a beam above his head and was powered by the energy he created when pedaling, he received a mixed bag of comments that were shouted at him as he rode through the city. Some people yelled “freak” from their apartments, but they also would shout things like, “Take back the streets!” and “Streets are for people and bikes, not cars!”
“The work that I am most proud of has been (the work that make things seem) as if the energy of the city has turned inwards,” said Tobier.
Certainly, on a smaller scale, Tobier captured the attention of his audience. He commanded the energy of an entire room and for an hour and a half, turned that energy in on itself and providing an escape from the nagging thoughts of everyday tasks and duties.