Photo: Gilberto Mesquita/Shutterstock

Building Spontaneous Society With Words

Narrative Art + Architecture
by David Miller Jun 14, 2011
One line can shift your daily reality.

10 WALKS / 2 TALKS co-author Jon Cotner is continuing his innovative work on the intersection of people and place with a new kind of “walk.”

Called Spontaneous Society, and part of an organization called Elastic City (whose mission is to “to make its audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit”), the walks are based on participants repeating short lines to strangers and passersby.

Jon writes, “Possible lines include: ‘That looks pretty cozy’ (uttered when someone approaches with a baby carriage); ‘That’s a good-looking wolfpack’ (uttered when someone passes with three or more dogs); “I hear that’s a nice way to cool off’ (said when someone passes with an ice-cream cone, iced coffee, or slushy); ‘I hear that’s good exercise’ (said when someone passes holding heavy bags); ‘It must be nice to have a little helper’ (said when a kid seems to be helping a parent or nanny); etc.

“The lines are deliberately basic, and deliberately focused on ordinary street scenes. By now I’ve walked thousands of blocks and have recited these lines thousands of times. Barring language barriers, they inevitably produce laughter and warm, oceanic feelings. They replace urban anonymity with something bordering on affection — even if it’s fleeting. The accumulation of these moments can be blissful. ”

Writer Rozalia Jovanovic participated in one of the walks last week (check her write up about it in Book Forum), and had this to say:

With a simple goal, and by these simple verbal acts, we didn’t have to worry about rejection or to concern ourselves with anything but developing a heightened awareness of our surroundings, perceiving whether people would be receptive to our acts or were simply trying to get from point A to B at any given moment, adjusting our delivery, and gaining as a result the awareness that we could generate positive sentiments by something as small as a compliment, a shared thought about the weather, or simply the confident willingness to hold eye contact rather than let it go.

The walk was also featured in today’s New Yorker “Book Bench” section. Writer Stacey Mickelbart, who also participated in a recent walk, wrote “We set off toward Washington Square Park, and soon I was approaching people right and left. I found I had it easy with the dog flattery. Everyone I met responded with at least a fleeting smile. My favorite response was from a man walking a pug. ‘That’s a good-looking dog,’ I said, and his eyes lit up. ‘Thanks!’ he said. ‘It has nothing to do with me, of course. His name is Squish.’”

The next walk is Thursday, June 16th in the East Village. Sign up here.

Shattering daily reality

Jon sent me the following audio file and writeup of an experimental walk he took this past winter, and has entitled “Slop.” It’s another kind of spontaneous society built via dialogue.

New York City is an infinite zone for walking and talking. On any given day, you can have either sustained or quick conversations – depending on your preference. Many dialogues unfold with people you’ll never see again (in spite of the common farewell “See you later”).

In February 2011, the day following a blizzard, I took a 90-minute walk around Brooklyn during which every sentence I spoke contained the word “slop.” Here’s a 2-minute mp4 of that walk called “Slop.”

The “slop” walk was designed as an experiment. I’d searched my brain for a word uniting us all, one arousing laughter and frustration, and “slop” is what I came up with. So I hit the slushy sidewalks.

“Slop” ends with a violet-haired hairdresser on cigarette break in front of a slop pile. I said: “It must be nice to smoke a cigarette and contemplate the slop.” Her response: “Exac…you know what? That’s, I thought you were gonna say how beautiful – no, you’re absolutely right. Absolutely.”

I couldn’t have anticipated this response, or any of the others. At bottom “Slop” is a meditation on the city sidewalk’s humorous randomness.

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