Artists Take to the Streets

Event: Conflux Festival
Location: Center for Architecture and other locations in NYC, 09.11-14.08
Artists, Speakers, Performers: For a full list of participants, go to the Conflux website
Organizers: Conflux Festival; Center for Architecture
Sponsors: Conflux Festival

Christine Foerster performs “Art.hro.poda: Cognigestation” (2008).

Pippa Connolly

Recently, you may have seen people walking down the sidewalk blindfolded, spinning wildly in “foga” (freak yoga) exercises in Washington Square Park, stealthily slicing up ads in SoHo, or imitating an insect in front of the Center for Architecture. All these mysterious shenanigans can be traced to Conflux, a five-year-old art and geography festival exploring NYC inhabitants’ relationship to their urban surroundings. Headquartered at the Center this year, the festival is loosely inspired by “psychogeography,” a Situationist term for the effects of the geographical environment upon people’s emotions and behavior.

Beginning with two days of talks at the Center, Conflux then burst into the city streets where festival-goers could sample urban games, walking tours, and other activities often defying easy definition. A game geek, an affordable-housing developer, and others led a walking tour/scavenger hunt called Kicking Over the Traces (2008), aimed at uncovering the gentrifying East Village and Lower East Side’s more radical past. Participants visited places and institutions that are rich in activist and cultural history, and watched video clips on iPods that helped bring bygone days back to life. In the low-tech but also engrossing walking tour Looking for… (2008), Columbia Urban Studies graduate Steve Duncan led a group to peer down manholes and explore the city’s hidden layer of subterranean waterways such as Minetta Brook, which once ran aboveground near where the Center now sits.

Collaborative mapmaking was the mission of some projects, such as artist o.blaat’s “Broadway Dreams” (2008), an electronic map complete with digital photos and tiny video and audio clips. The Urban Disorientation Game (2007) renounced maps; instead, its teams played the game blindfolded, taking inspiration from early psychogeographers’ technique of willfully disorienting themselves by exploring one city with the map of another.

Aside from such group activities, art performances and installations provided provocations. Blending architecture, fashion, and performance art was “Art.hro.poda: Cognigestation” (2008), in which El Paso, Texas-based artist Christine Foerster shed an outer layer of clothing (called “Shell-ter-ware”) to form a tent-like nesting pod for her insect character to inhabit. In a time when climate change and homelessness are pressing social issues, the adaptability of arthropods provides ample inspiration, according to the artist. London-based art collective CutUp’s sliced and remixed ad billboards created in SoHo provided an eye-catching antidote to the area’s brand-saturated visual landscape. To see images, go to the CutUp Ad Herennium blog.

The tension between marketing and art is playing out in the fate of the festival itself: Conflux has resisted corporate sponsorship, but lack of funding makes it difficult to sustain its huge popularity and corresponding growth, said co-founder Christina Ray in an opening speech. When it began, it was a small, spontaneous street-art party among friends; this year, it drew more than 100 artists from a dozen countries. Its fate next year is uncertain — Ray revealed that she is stepping down as director. But just as our city continually evolves, here’s hoping that if Conflux fades out, other events exploring the lively intersection of geography and art will emerge to take its place.