Elastic City in The Economist

Elastic City in The Economist

Tour de chance
Oct 6th 2010, 10:09 by E.B. | NEW YORK
lead photo: Kate Glicksberg
Read the article on The Economist's site

VISITING a city can feel like an adventure. Tourists often enjoy a heightened awareness of sights and smells, sounds and people. But for residents, much of this becomes routine—dulled by time, muted by circumstance. We are often blind to what we see everyday.

This, at least, is the guiding principle of Elastic City, a new company that offers a series of conceptual walks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and occasionally London. Founded by Todd Shalom, a Brooklyn-based poet and “sound artist”, these walks encourage participants to consider the city in a different way—by listening to the noises it makes, exploring the materials it’s made from and discovering its unexpected pockets of beauty. The aim is to feel like a traveller. Or, Mr Shalom explains, to “take poetry off the page”.

What this means in practice has varied from walk to walk over the course of Elastic City’s inaugural season, which began in May and concludes on October 17th. For a walk called “Brighton Zaum”, Mr Shalom led a group on an acoustic tour of a remote, Russian neighbourhood. City residents are often besieged by noise, he explained, yet the sounds we make or perceive are often subject to choice. He asked participants to walk silently and listen intently, to notice the sounds of the city as its own poetry. The quiet was an unexpected reprieve, coaxing into high relief the sigh of buses, the ripple-rattle of plastic bags and the occasional squeal of a train. The smell of smoked fish wafted importantly (listening closely intensified other senses). The walk ended with writing a poem in the sand of Brighton Beach as the sun set. The doggerel itself was silly, but the earned intimacy of the group felt startlingly sincere.

Mr Shalom has recruited experts and artists in other fields to create their own walks. For an excursion called “Homesickness”, for example, an Israel-born urban designer and “environmental psychologist” led a small group through Chinatown and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The idea was to consider notions of displacement in an area associated with generations of immigrants. The tour began in Columbus Park on a Sunday, when amateur Chinese opera singers perform in the open air. One participant from Malaysia shared that this is where he comes to treat his own pangs of homesickness. “These songs are all about suffering. Like my aunts boasting about their suffering over tea,” he observed. Others on the tour never knew the park existed.

Mr Shalom describes these walks as “performative”, yet suggests they are a genre unto themselves. He has a point. These experiences are rare for being educational, interactive and personal. The artists often encourage moments of introspection and even vulnerability among participants, who may be asked to walk with eyes closed, make the sound of an inanimate object or trace the wall of a building with one’s hands. That such behaviour sounds regressive may be part of its appeal. With the right motivation, it can be satisfying to flout conventional codes of behaviour out in the open.

Together with Juan Betancurth, a Colombian-born artist, Mr Shalom is putting the final touches on “Lucky Walk”, the last tour of the season, which will debut on October 9th as part of New York’s Art in Odd Places festival. The walk, which considers the power of rituals and superstitions, includes moments of walking backwards, making wishes and buying lottery tickets. Participants meet at the Manhattan intersection of 13th Street and 7th Avenue, naturally.

The concept of luck—and specifically good luck—seems apt for Mr Shalom, whose Elastic City has enjoyed enough success for him to be making plans for the next season.

Elastic City in the New York Times

Elastic City in the New York Times

Where the Sidewalks End, and the City (Really) Begins
Photo: Willie Davis
Published: September 9, 2010

Read the article below or click here to read it from the New York Times website.

THE city as poem, art piece, happening, living theater: New Yorkers have all experienced their own versions, and the leaders of the conceptual walks that make up Elastic City want to create new ones.

What is a conceptual walking tour? Todd Shalom, Elastic City’s founder and director, said he was “still shaping the vocabulary.” But on a recent outing in Brooklyn, he offered this: “I want to bring poetry off the page and onto the streets.”

The walks go where their creators want to take them. One, in May and June, explored ground zero with a gestalt therapist; another, led by an urban designer, considers homesickness.

The two walks took in Brooklyn — “Centroids and Asphalt” in Bushwick and “Brighton Zaum” in Brighton Beach — sought to retune antennae, to look below the surface and beyond the obvious. And like all good (and bad) living theater, they were participatory, if gently so.

Neil Freeman, 29, an affable urban planner, was the artist in chief of “Centroids and Asphalt.” The walk began on an otherwise unprepossessing corner in Bushwick, which Mr. Freeman explained was the geographic center of New York City. (Centroids, check.)

Bushwick provided a cacophony of signs and wonders: churches galore, boomboxes, traffic, trains rumbling overhead, street life. But Mr. Freeman wasn’t interested in any of that, or in the sociology of the place either.

Instead he wanted to make us aware of what the city is made of. Literally. As in metal, slate, concrete, wood, brick, asphalt. (Check.) And then to think about where those things came from: a quarry, say, or a factory.

He gave the eight of us chalk, and as the walk progressed, we made drawings on the pavement of what we saw: chain-link fences, air-conditioners, animals. It was a bit like being a kid at camp, but unlike the real thing, the other campers were nice, and game too. For me the highlight was visual: a fence pierced with stunted logs that had grown so entwined they were part of it.

Mr. Shalom, 33, who calls himself a sound and text artist, led the “Brighton Zaum” walk in Brighton Beach, which is all about listening. (Talking was discouraged.) To begin, he took our keys. We closed our eyes, and he dropped set after set; the object was to try to identify your own. (I was strangely proud that I guessed mine.) In Babi Yar Triangle park, we made an ugly collage out of trash (gloves and Purell provided) and came up with an unpleasant sound, something between a yodel and a howl, that expressed it.

Zaum is a kind of Russian futurist poetry in which, Mr. Shalom said, “words are holier than what they represent.” In that spirit we scratched a poem in sand at the beach, each person contributing a word or changing someone else’s: “Quick look there’s wonder/If bobbins were under the silver sea.” It may not be ready for the Norton Anthology, but I’ve read worse.

Each tour produced in me moments of impatience and second-guessing. Why this part of the city exactly? But there were also surprises.

In Brighton Beach Mr. Shalom asked us to pair off, one of us leading the other, whose eyes were closed, down the street. My first reaction: No way! But I closed my eyes, and this listening exercise became an experience of time. It stretched, and I felt suspended. When I opened my eyes, I was oddly exhilarated.


Hidden City: The Sounds of Brighton Beach

Hidden City: The Sounds of Brighton Beach
See below or read the article on WNYC's blog:
"Hidden City: The Sounds of Brighton Beach"
Monday, August 09, 2010 - 06:00 AM
By Jennifer Hsu, Carolina A. Miranda
photo: Carolina A. Miranda
video: Jennifer Hsu

Remaining silent turns on all the other senses. Colors come into sharp focus. Smells intensify. We become accutely aware of the squeals of the elevated subways in the distance, which give off an industrial-musical note.

It isn't the average walking tour that asks you to observe silence for 90 minutes straight. Or pick up trash in a small park. Or listen to the rattle and hum of air conditioners while walking down entire city blocks with your eyes closed.

But we're not on an average walking tour at all. We're on an artist-designed soundwalk with Todd Shalom of the performance group Elastic City. Our group's mission is to observe the sounds all around us, make note of them and on a couple of occasions, produce sounds of our own. (The latter exercise results in a great deal of clucking and popping noises — to the chagrin of the old Ukrainian men chilling out in Brighton's Babi Yar Triangle.)

The walk is part of a callout we did at the station last month, in which eight WNYC listeners — Deirdre, Craig, Meral, James, Patrick, Stephanie, Abigail and Christian — joined us to experience an aspect of the city that so many of us work hard to forget, be it the roar of garbage trucks or the echo of a neighbor's too-loud television set.

Shalom guides us through a variety of listening exercises that leave us attuned to our environment. Colors come into sharp focus. Smells intensify — be it garbage or simmering garlic. We become accutely aware of the squeals of the elevated subways in the distance, which give off an industrial-musical note. By the end of the walk, we all realize that almost every aspect of urban life is set to an inescapable thrum of air conditioning.

The most poignant moment, however, comes early on: At one point we find ourselves inadvertently surrounding a blind man who is going on about his business on Brighton Beach Boulevard. Our artistic experiment is, for some, a way of life.

¡We're not for everyone!

We're not for everyone!

Read the article from the Wall Street Journal site or down below.

The Wall Street Journal
JULY 23, 2010
Sounding Their Way Around the City
By: Ralph Gardner Jr.
Photos by: Mustafah Abdulaziz

I've never understood those people who walk the streets plugged into their iPods, walled off from the rest of the world. I've got nothing against music, or podcasts of "This American Life," but listen to them in the privacy of your home, or on 10-hour car trips out to Ohio to visit your relatives. Why live in New York City in the first place if you keep trying to cancel it out?

I'd probably consider myself pathetically old-fashioned were it not for a new series of sensory city tours run by an organization called Elastic City. Their purpose is to heighten New Yorkers' awareness of the urban environment. I took the Dumbo listening tour. Worst comes to worst, I figured, I'd get to better know the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, whose sounds Elastic City's website promised to "de-mask." Whatever that means.

The evening began with Daniel Neumann, our guide (he's an acoustical engineer), taking the handful of us who signed up into an alley and inviting us to close our eyes and listen. Unfortunately, an industrial air-conditioner chose that moment to kick in, drowning out all other sounds.

Mr. Neumann tried to make the best of it. "Try to focus on the different frequencies," he said, adding something about harmonics and high-frequency rustling. But it was so noisy I couldn't make out what he was saying. Besides, my hearing isn't very good. I'm effectively deaf at cocktail parties.

I tried to ask the guide a few questions as we moved on, but he asked me to save them until the end of the tour. We were supposed to be listening, not talking. Sorry!

From the alleyway we proceeded to walk underneath the Manhattan Bridge. I'd never taken a good look at the bridge before, and I was struck by how elegant it is, how much it reminded me of the ironwork on the Eiffel Tower, built in the same era. But I remembered I wasn't supposed to be looking. I was supposed to be listening.

The problem was that there wasn't much to listen to except the deafening clatter of the subway running overhead, back and forth across the bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. We passed a guy practicing the saxophone; I assume the reason he chose that location was because it was already so noisy he knew nobody would complain.

From the East River's edge we retreated to a spot where Mr. Neumann invited us to experience the acoustic horizon. He meant for us to focus on the most distant sound we could hear. I found a faraway jet but the subway (we were still standing under the damn bridge) drowned everything else out. And then another sense, not part of the tour, kicked in: smell. I detected the faint but sickly smell of sewage.

We had finally escaped from the bridge and the garbage when yet another sense introduced itself: mortification. Mr. Neumann announced we would be doing aural exercises where we walked the streets of Dumbo with our eyes shut. To prevent getting run over by a cab we were instructed to partner up with another member of the tour.

I wouldn't even trust my wife to lead me through the street blind, yet here I was supposed to hand over my future to some kid with tattoos and ratty Converse—a description that fit several of my fellow travelers. Were we supposed to hold hands, too?

I chose Todd Shalom, Elastic City's founder, as my companion. I knew he wouldn't let anything happen to me. He wanted publicity.

So I walked the streets like a blind person clutching Todd's shoulder. Unfortunately, it's hard to pay attention to the sweet trill of birdsong when you're afraid of falling or running into a wall. However, I'll say this for the exercise: After it was over I felt like my hearing had improved.

Mr. Shalom, a poet, told me—after the tour was over, not when I was focused on finding the curb—that he'd come up with the idea for Elastic City after realizing that he was more aware of his surroundings when he traveled to places like Israel and Argentina than he was in New York, where he grew up. "How can I continue the heightened awareness when I'm back at a place familiar to me?" he said he asked himself. "How can I travel at home?"

Apparently, our listening exercises were child's play compared to some of the stunts participants perform on other Elastic City tours. For instance, on "Monumental Walk," which takes place in the City Hall area, tour-goers make believe they're fountains and statues. "Literally," Mr. Shalom said, "we'll mimic the monuments with our bodies. We make a group monument on the steps of New York Supreme Court." Count me busy that evening.

Then there's "Dirty Gay Soundwalk" which wends its way through the West Village asking the question, "What's the sound of gay today?" For answers they hit x-rated video rooms, the Pleasure Chest sex shop, and the bar Julius, where they walk inside en masse with their eyes shut.

Mr. Shalom, who leads that tour himself, didn't share the clientele's reaction. But it was Pride weekend, and as Julius is the city's oldest still operating gay bar, I suspect its patrons have seen stranger things.

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