The windows of Espresso Royale on State St. – a glass wall, really – are familiar to most students here. They reveal the café’s interior to pedestrians and provide constant distraction for those meeting for a serious chat or a morning scan of the paper. They allow those inside to entertain a feeling of electing into (or out of) solitude in a public space.

From the inside, one gets an unnervingly acute look at pedestrians. Those on the street seem remarkably vulnerable – to the physical chaos and to scrutiny.
This opportunity to settle into the spectator position that’s out of reach when we are, ourselves, on display is undoubtedly part of cafés’ enduring appeal. This fishbowl situation makes apparent how much of a performance people’s public presence is. With the degree of mental distance allowed by a glass wall and a paid-for seat, the outside public can seem like a set of performers.

It’s easy to lose awareness of the spectacle we all make of ourselves. Our awareness of it can be teased out pretty easily: we feel self-conscious about something we’re wearing or someone on the streets comments on how we look, as though we’re not sure we’re up to playing that character today.

Although they can feel trendy or oddly academic, artworks that reflect on life with the scrutiny of a social scientist are, if nothing else, neat mind games. They remind us of how charged with meaning seemingly incidental aspects of social life can be – and our bias in picking and choosing what we do and don’t pay attention to.

New York is rightfully famous for its street life. In a city that’s bordering on theatrics most of the time, art that comments on the theatricality of public spaces seems natural. The New York Times reported on three particularly attractive pieces which were presented over the past year. Both called their audiences out on the voyeurism we so easily participate in as café-goers or bus-riders or, simply, pedestrians. Through exaggeration, they make evident the unnerving extent to which our brains labor to take in information and make sense of it – fabricating, as I wrote in my last column (Oh, the humanity!, 1/23/08), a cast of characters with articulated reasons for their actions.

An empty storefront seated the audience of Yehuda Duenyas’s “One Million Forgotten Moments,” in which several acts were performed on the sidewalk itself. The performers navigated the still-active street while the audience members sat in relative safety – except for, you might say, their newfound exposure to the unreserved scrutiny of window-shoppers. The reporter called the performance a literalization of the “theater of the streets.” I don’t doubt it took passersby several moments to realize that something out of the ordinary was going on, and that many of them felt uncomfortable stopping to watch what was unambiguously a performance, since the format brought it close to home. What were the pedestrians? Scenery?

Photographer Thomas Struth photographs people looking at paintings in museums, often taking his shots from as close to the painting as possible, creating an uneasy sense of edging oddly close to an individual’s attention, at once rapt and totally unaware of us. Photographer Kevin Connelly, creator of “The Rolling Exhibition,” photographs pedestrians all over the world from ground level. Connelly was born without legs and takes these photographs from, apparently, a skateboard that he uses to get around. In his artist’s statement on his website, he says that he tries to photograph the moment “before any of us can ponder or speculate – we react. We stare.” His subjects are caught in the candid moment of noticing him. “Everyone tries to create a story in their heads to explain the things that baffle them,” he says.

When a couple dozen people started simultaneously hula-hooping on roofs in a Manhattan neighborhood, even those not in on the joke must have suspected foul play. It was, indeed, organized, as part of a performance art biennial. At the same time, you can’t make this stuff up – that is, there’s no need to. The inspiration for this artful version of what we expect to be spontaneous and playful came from an actual event – the organizer saw a woman hula-hooping on her roof. And a statement was born.

That piece doesn’t say anything obviously political, but it does tango with our wandering attention as we glance away from the face of the person we’re talking to, towards the individual looking like such a hipster or such a businessman walking past, towards the woman hula-hooping on her roof for all to see. What will we think, then, when we look back at our friend, reaching to us through their voice, gestures, maybe even their clothes, for effective communication?

Colodner is watching you through the windows at Espresso Royale. Tell her to stop at abigabor@umich.edu

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