At 7AM on August 1, an otherwise normal Monday in front of the NYSE, Throwell and his 49 co-performers/demonstrators stripped bare to bring some attention to the need for transparency on Wall Street. Throwell played the part of a hot dog vendor, while other performers took on roles from personal assistant, to janitor, to prostitute.
Throwell carefully researched the people of Wall Street — their jobs, the way they dress, the socioeconomic break-down of who is on Wall Street on a day-to-day basis — over the course of six months going door to door prior to the performance. During the same period, he was recruiting people to participate (who were willing to take their clothes off in public) to initially mimic this population, seamlessly blend in, and then strip down to jar passers-by and the general public into hearing his message.
He has something to prove. His mother lost her savings in the economic crash of 2008-09, returning to the workforce after saving her whole life to retire. The government bailed out the banks, but the people who lost their savings and retirements didn’t get the same consideration. The system is broken and people have a right to know what’s going on. That, at least in part, was the message of Ocularpation: Wall Street.
The term “ocularpation” was coined by Throwell in 2007 during Ocularpation: One. Throwell set up a cubicle in a busy San Francisco street in view of passers by, stripped bare and appeared to conduct business in the nude. He defines ocularpation on his website:
Ocularpation is a new contraction. It’s root comes from occupation, with the dual connotation of both a job done for money, as well as a military or strategic encampment. Ocular, or pertaining to the eye, cements the meaning of the word in a visual context. This is an act of optical guerilla office bivouac.
Throwell was nice enough to indulge my curiosity about this piece and his perspective as an artist via Skype. We talked about the most recent piece and another called Why Not Take All of Me NYC?, still in progress, in which he moves every month to a place off the hipster/museum circuit he’d been entrenched in for the previous two years. Inspired by John Cage’s philosophy on comfort and the Billie Holiday version of the song “All of Me,” Throwell is getting more intimately acquainted with NYC by the month. The project started in November of 2010.
For more information about Zefrey Throwell, check out his website.
Below is a transcript of our conversation:
MN: So with Ocularpation: Wall Street where did you find your collaborators?
ZT: I put out a bunch of different calls. I have many artist friends. I tend to do large, kind of trouble making projects, so I have many people who help me already, but for this one it was a fairly dicey one. Taking your clothes off in public is not something that most people consider a good idea.
MN: Yeah. And fifty people is a massive crew to collaborate with that.
ZT: Right. So this one, it took a little longer. So we had to put out some calls and the first call I put out was, I found this organization called the Young Naturists and Nudists Association in New York City. And they were amazing. They came through in spades. It was really beautiful.
ZT: And then the second big call was, I have a friend who works at Playgirl and he was like, “Well, ya know there are a lot of people who subscribe to Playgirl, you want me to send it out?” And I said, “Well, you know, alright.” So he sent it out to this massive, massive mailing list of all of Playgirl and it was all gay men who wrote us back and were like, “I’m dying to be in the project.”
MN: That’s great. [laughs]
ZT: Yeah. I saw the biggest dick I’ve ever seen in my life, easily 11 inches flaccid. It was amazing. The guy emailed us too and he was like, “I heard about your project and I’d love to be in it. I just want to warn you, I have a huge cock.” Me and my assistant were both like, “Yeah, whatever, okay buddy. We’ll be the judges of that.” You know?Then, he pulled down his pants and we were like, “Holy shit!” He’s like, “I don’t want to steal the show or anything but this is gonna draw some attention.”
MN: Yeah, I guess you’d want to get the chance to show it off every once in awhile.
ZT: Yeah, it was amazing.
MN: That’s crazy. So, do you hold the word “flash-mob” in disdain now? I mean, a true flash-mob should be nude, right?
ZT: Yeah. You know, flash-mob is…. I enjoy them, I think they’re fun but this was definitely not a flash-mob, you know? Because it took a long time to plan, it was rehearsed and it had a specific political content to it and everybody was doing something different. You know?
MN: Sure. Sure.
ZT: So I consider it more just a performance.
MN: But in a way, it’s the truest flash-mob that there is because everyone was flashing everyone.
ZT: That’s true. That’s true.
MN: Sorry about my lame joke. Did you get arrested?
ZT: I did not, unfortunately. I was right in the thick of things too, but they arrested three people directly around me and then for some reason… I was selling hot dogs so I think maybe the cops just got distracted by the fact that maybe I had a legitimate profession there.
MN: But were you selling hot dogs naked?
ZT: I was. Yes. I was selling hot dogs, Yankees caps, and water.
MN: Were civilians buying them from you?
ZT: No, but a cop almost took a hot dog from me. It was fucking great.
MN: So, this is pretty hilarious but you had a message, right? With the project?
ZT: Yes. Absolutely. Would you like me to share that message?
MN: That would be wonderful.
ZT: Ah. Okay. So, my mother, she lost the majority of her life savings due to Wall Street misinvestments, shenanigans and greed.
ZT: And she’s broke and sad and she’s an old lady and trying to find another job and it took her years to find another job that she hated. And she’s still working at that job. So I came up with this project. That was where this project came from. And then the idea was to lend a sense of transparency to Wall Street because three years after the crash – three years after millions and millions of people lost tons of money and were forced to… I mean we’re just fucked, essentially. You know? Three years later, the system is the exact same with almost, almost no changes whatsoever. Almost no oversight and now Wall Street is literally banging again. Like bonuses. Like massive. New York Times just published an article called, “Wall Street’s Got its Swagger Back”.
ZT: You have to read it. It’s as if it was written in 1999.
ZT: And it just makes me furious. Ya know?
MN: Yeah, it’s completely ridiculous.
ZT: My mom’s still working at that shitty job and she’s in her mid-60s. She wants to go back on retirement. You know? So the message of this project is, I’m not a legislator, I can’t change any laws or actually enact any change with how Wall Street operates but what I can do, is focus the nation’s attention — in a funny way but also in a poignant way — on an issue that needs to be changed. So that was my entire hope, was that this would be an educational project for who actually works on Wall Street, what needs to be changed there.
MN: Interesting. So I saw that you… Let’s see, maybe I’m more articulate with what I’ve written here. But basically, that you kind of did a sample to see what kind of people would be there and then tried to mimic that with the people that you brought there so that they would blend in? Is that right?
ZT: Yes. I took a survey, actually, of all the people who actually worked on Wall Street. I went door to door for six months and asked which professions were there.
ZT: Yeah. And so I found out personal assistant’s the number one job on Wall Street, followed closely by retail and restaurants and stock traders, of course. But then, you know, there are the professions that people don’t talk about so much, like your hot dog vendors, like your prostitutes, your Fed-Ex workers, your museum workers, MTA. You know?
ZT: The whole thing. Yeah. So using that data, right?
ZT: Then I assigned people roles based on that data. So we had like five stock traders, six personal assistants, one prostitute. You know?
ZT: I was the only hot dog vendor.
MN: So, how did the performance come together? It looks at a certain point, in some of the photographs I saw, that you’re, or somebody’s giving a speech, is that right?
ZT: I think that was before and afterwards I talked to people.
MN: I think it was just the pictures that I saw on your website in the Picture a Day portion of the site. Yeah.
ZT: That was just me talking to everybody beforehand because everybody was really nervous.
MN: Yeah. I believe it.
ZT: Because there are a lot of cops on Wall Street. And so people didn’t want to be arrested. I had to give the big pep rally talk. You know?
MN: And getting arrested in New York isn’t that bad.
ZT: Yeah. I’ve been arrested so I don’t mind it, but to people who’ve never been arrested, there’s this weird taboo. You know?
MN: Yeah, yeah.
ZT: That somehow getting arrested will end your dreams in America.
MN: [laughs] Yeah.
ZT: That everybody at the cocktail party will shun you from now on. You know?
MN: You’ll never work in this town again.
MN: So the project got a lot of reactions. Did you get any direct responses from the spectators or viewers?
ZT: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, one man almost bought a hot dog. You know? I almost made some money. I mean, the majority of people were really excited, were like clapping their hands, and like hooting and laughing and taking pictures with their phone, and like, calling their friends.
The only people who weren’t pleased, I think, were the NYPD. And I think a couple of them actually were pleased but then the main captain for all of lower Manhattan happened to be there and he made sure nobody was happy.
MN: What did he do?
ZT: Well they had released the three performers already. They had said, “Hey! Put your clothes on,” and then all three of the performers put their clothes on. Because they’re not resisting the cops. That’s not what the performance is about. You know?
ZT: So they put their clothes back on. And then they were walking away. You know, because the cop had let them go. And then the captain walked up and he was like, “Whaddaya doin’? Put cuffs on those assholes.”
ZT: So then everybody was like, “Oh. Alright. He’s gonna be that guy.”
MN: Yeah. And they had to go to jail?
ZT: Yeah. First precinct.
MN: Did they stay overnight?
ZT: Nah. They were just there a couple hours.
MN: That’s not too bad, then.
ZT: No, I don’t know. Of course, I can say that because I didn’t go. I was there but I was on the other side.
MN: Yeah, but a couple hours in jail — that’s not that bad.
ZT: I agree. One of them took a nap for the whole time.
MN: When I got arrested in New York I found the jail to be quite warm. It was comforting.
ZT: Oh. Like the womb. The womb of the tomb.
MN: So do you feel like the project had the impact you were looking for? Is it something that you want to continue?
ZT: Yes. Definitely continue. I’ve had a lot of offers all of the sudden to come do the project in Berlin, come do the project in Ankara or wherever, and I don’t know if it would necessarily have the right connotation then, because I’m not looking to make a franchise.
MN: Sure. And it seems strange in another culture to be making a statement like that.
ZT: Yeah. Like these people called me from Bogota, Colombia and interviewed me on the radio the other day.
ZT: Yeah. It was really weird because they didn’t know that I spoke some Spanish and they were making fun of me and I didn’t tell them until the end. And then they asked if I would come down and do this project in Bogota and I was like, man, you get shot if you do this project in Bogota. You know?
MN: Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know too much about like, free expression in Bogota.
ZT: Yeah. From the little I’ve heard, not much.
MN: Hmm. Well, that’s not too surprising. So, do you spend a lot of time in Berlin?
ZT: I do.
MN: Like a specific amount of time per year?
ZT: You know, I wish it was more like that, but I probably fly there three or four times a year just ‘cause I fuckin’ love it there.
ZT: I’m thinking about moving there. Like each time I come back to New York, I feel more and more foolish for living in the city.
MN: Once I came to Buenos Aires, I couldn’t, I couldn’t go back to the United States.
MN: But I’m from Kentucky so that might have a lot to do with it.
ZT: Ah. I used to live in San Palao, Brazil.
ZT: Yeah. We would travel down, I didn’t make it to Buenos Aires but we would go into Argentina and get wasted and skateboard through the towns. And I remember being so happy ‘cause I was like, “They speak Spanish here.”
MN: Did you pick up any Portuguese either?
ZT: I did. Yeah, I became fluent but it took me awhile.
MN: Wow. Cool.
ZT: ‘Cause you know, I’d try to speak Spanish to everybody and they’d look at you like you’re retarded.
MN: Right. How long were you there?
ZT: A year.
MN: You became fluent in a year? Good for you.
ZT: Well, I was young, you know, mind’s more spongey.
MN: I guess. I’m also really interested in this project where you’re living in different places throughout New York City.
ZT: Oh yeah.
MN: Would you be interested in talking about that too? I think that’s pretty fascinating.
ZT: I would love to talk about both projects.
ZT: I just moved into East New York. Do you know East New York?
ZT: Okay. East New York is…. When I started this project I was living… I was riding the train one day listening to Billie Holliday’s song “All of Me”.
ZT: She didn’t write it but she was most famous for singing it. And the last line of that song is, “You took the best, now take the rest, take all of me,” and I had found myself in what I call the great white rut of New York City, which is Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Lower East Side, Chelsea, and the museums and back.
ZT: This huge U of, just kind of, homogeny.
ZT: And that was all I was doing for years. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
MN: How many years?
ZT: Two years.
ZT: You know, and every time I visited before that — for years before.
ZT: ‘Cause I used to fly here every other week when I was doing projects with PS1.
MN: Where were you living then?
ZT: San Fransisco.
MN: Ah ha.
ZT: Which, I still love that town so much but it was just too hard, going back and forth, like twice a month.
ZT: And so I had this idea, that I was like, this is the most diverse city in the world and I’m not seeing any of it. You know? So I split New York into six boroughs, and I move to a different borough each month. And I had three rules. I was looking for neighborhoods people had never heard of, neighborhoods if they had heard of them, they were like, “Fuckin’-A do not go there, man.” And then the third, being like, tended to be further than a ten-minute walk to the train. And this latest neighborhood is all three, which is a zinger.
MN: So where is it exactly?
ZT: You go out towards JFK, it’s before you get to JFK, that wasteland out there.
MN: Yeah. Wow.
ZT: In that kinda weird sandwich between Brooklyn and Queens down in the south there. Yeah. I’m living in this old woman’s house. She died and the family didn’t know what to do; whether to sell the house or wait and sell the house. You know, big argument. So they decided fuck it, we’ll just leave it alone. We can’t agree on anything let’s leave it alone for awhile and make the decision later. And that was 20 years ago.
MN: Ooh. Wow.
ZT: Yeah. And the woman was a hoarder.
MN: Oh no.
ZT: Just piled to the ceiling with the most amazing crap you’ve ever seen. Just like, stacks and stacks and stacks of records and old crazy dishes. Pyrex. She collected wild Pyrex and they’re just like haphazardly thrown everywhere. Pictures of Jesus Christ taped to every single surface of the house. Just like, wild. So I’m living there down in the basement. The family hired a caretaker so nobody… ‘Cause it’s a super dangerous neighborhood, so they hired a caretaker so nobody would bust into the house. And the caretaker is subletting to me, one of the rooms.
MN: Interesting. How did you find that? Was it a listing somewhere?
ZT: That one was a friend of a friend of a friend. ‘Cause I asking around. I was like, “Does anybody know anybody who lives in East New York.” And everyone I asked was like, “No way, man. Nobody lives there.”
MN: Right. Right.
ZT: Or they’re like, “Where is it?”
MN: Right. I guess what struck me about this project is just imagining the kind of experiential negotiation that it takes — that process of figuring out the terrain can be almost be traumatic in a way when you move. Finding the grocery, getting lost, doing simple tasks, feeling out of place… And we view this learning process involved in moving as an inconvenience generally, but how do these adaptations change or become easier when they are part of your everyday life?
ZT: Yeah. I tell you, one of my biggest heroes is John Cage and he often said, “Comfort is not your friend.” You know?
MN: Mm hmm.
ZT: And that’s very, very hard to try to live by. Ya know?
ZT: It’s very uncomfortable.
MN: Well once you’ve reached a certain age. You know?
ZT: Yeah. You wanna fuckin’ go to the coffee shop. You know?
ZT: You know, in the store, where the fuckin’ toilet paper is when you need it so you’re gonna go right there and get it and then go home. You know?
MN: Right. Right.
ZT: So, yeah. It does become easier. It definitely has opened my mind up for — like I’m a sucker for the alley. You know? You’re walking down a street and you see a little alley and you’re like, “What’s down there?” You know?
ZT: But usually you don’t go because the alley’s not on your way.
ZT: But I’ve really been trying to go down the alley recently.
MN: Are you finding anything cool?
ZT: A lot of cool shit. People hide all kinds of shit in alleys ‘cause no one goes down there.
MN: Yeah. There aren’t really alleys here in Buenos Aires. It’s totally weird and disconcerting in that way.
MN: The blocks are blocks.
MN: There’s no penetrating the block. It’s really strange.
ZT: Do they have the indoor courtyard?
MN: A lot of houses do. There’s a really wide range of architectural styles here and I live in a crappy tower in one of those neighborhoods where people are like, “Where is it?”
MN: So, it’s an inconvenient place to live but I think that’s part of what struck me about this project is that idea of embracing that. You know? Because in this case, for me, it’s just, I’m here for two years in this particular apartment and well whatever, it’s okay, but that whole adaptation process here, I feel like I’m still going through it and I’ve been here for over a year — in this particular apartment here. I’ve been in Buenos Aires for three years. What I did when I got here was moved so many times and every time it was kind of a revelation. You know? And yeah, I don’t know, that project speaks to me. And the last question I have about that, that I thought about before talking to you was, do you feel what’s truly you is becoming more accessible as you move more frequently?
ZT: That’s a good question. Yeah. I used to be really scared of getting older. I used to hate my birthday.
ZT: But I don’t hate my birthday anymore. I was really, really crazy in my twenties and ended up in some very bad places.
ZT: And now that I’m older, ‘cause you know, I’m 35, I’m really enjoying the person that I’m becoming.
ZT: And this project has taught me a couple things. One is that I no longer fear an hour and a half commute.
ZT: ‘Cause it gives me time to, you know, kind of putter around. Instead of puttering around at home, I putter around on the train.
ZT: And so I feel that those moments of accepting myself. You know what I mean? Like, as you get older, as you accept, like, ahh, this is what Zefrey does. Ya know? That those moments become more frequent as you are moving around. I certainly need a lot less shit. You know what I mean?
ZT: Like books. I was dragging around with me so many books and my good friend Luís, we went out to dinner, and he grew up super poor in Tijuana and so we often talk about, you know, our childhood and stuff like that. ‘Cause I grew up really poor in Alaska. You know? It’s amazing how similar our lives were. But he was like, “What are you doing with all those books? You only get one book. You bring one book. You treat your studio like a library. You need another book you gotta go there and check it out.” You know? And I was like, “Oh man, you’re totally right.” And when I did that, I totally lost a huge box and suitcase and I was like, “Alright, alright.”
ZT: And then I finally finished the one book I was working on.
MN: Yeah. That stuff really chains you down but personally, I find that I’ve accumulated more stuff. You know? I got rid of all of it and I’ve done it all over again and my apartment’s full of crap. It’s insane. It just builds up. If you keep moving, you have to keep shedding that stuff. You know?
ZT: Absolutely. A while ago I did something that you might be interested in. When I moved from San Fransisco to New York, I gave away all the books I’d read. And only kept the books I hadn’t read. And I found that really helpful.
MN: Yeah. I’m thinking about ripping up the David Foster Wallace book I want to read so that I can actually carry it with me on the subway because I’m not lugging that damn thing everywhere I go.
ZT: That’s beautiful. You’re fuckin’ gonna rip out 20 pages at a time?
MN: Oh, well you know, maybe just divide it into section of 200 or 300 pages. That would be more manageable to carry around. It seems like something bad to do but I don’t know how else I’m ever going to get around to reading it. You know?
ZT: Yeah. Plus it looks so punk rock. You’re carrying… you’re totally the crazy lady on the train carrying half a book.
MN: Half a book in English. [laughs] Maybe that’s not a good idea.
ZT: Go with it.
MN: So you grew up in Alaska?
ZT: I did.
MN: Wow. We’re the same age.
ZT: Are we? Congratulations. How old are you?
MN: Almost 36.
MN: I do feel it. Like, physically. But emotionally I don’t feel very old, unfortunately. I think that might be unfortunate. I’m not sure.
ZT: Are we gonna play “Forever Young” now?
MN: We can each decide to get that on YouTube and listen to it at the same time after we complete this call.