George Ferrandi is an installation and performance artist living in Brooklyn. She splits her time between running a small business that specializes in the restoration of statues of saints, teaching Sculpture and Performance Art at Rhode Island School of Design, and acting in her role as Program Director of Wayfarers, a studio program in Bushwick that provides artists with a way to get their work into the world independently of the commercial art market. Her own body of work includes a touring circus, a nighttime parade, and numerous installations of drawings and sculpture. We recently discussed one of her latest projects, a recurring site-specific performance on the NYC subway, entitled, “it felt like I knew you…”(1)
Beth Maycumber: Will you describe the subway pieces?
George Ferrandi: I ride the NYC subway trains, usually in the evening when the seats are full. I focus on the shape of the space between the person sitting next to me and myself. I attempt to mentally and emotionally re-sculpt that space. In my mind, I reshape it – from the stiff and guarded space between strangers to the soft and yielding space between friends. I direct all my energy to this space between us. When the space palpably changes, and I completely feel like the stranger sitting next to me is my friend, I rest my head on that person’s shoulder… and see what happens.
BM: What have the reactions from people you’ve interacted with been like?
GF: There has been a range of reactions. Some folks jiggle their shoulder immediately, presumably to “wake me up;” some lunge dramatically away and move to the other side of the train car, or leave the car completely; some are more gentle in their nudging; and some just let me rest my head on them. I decided from the outset the Person I lean on would determine the ending. Once, it ended after a very long time with my head on this Person’s shoulder, when he finally said, “Miss…Miss… this is my stop.”
BM: How long have you been doing this series? Was it a conscious decision on your part to begin the project, or was it something that just happened once and then developed from there?
GF: I’ve done it a dozen times. I don’t know that it’s over, but I haven’t done it lately. It was a decision born of loneliness. I would be standing on a packed train with my head an inch from someone’s shoulder, wanting so badly the comfort of that human connection, but recognizing how transgressive that tiny gesture of intimacy would be.
BM: I know that you have somebody secretly documenting each piece- do you reveal it afterwards, or even just the concept of what you’re doing, to the people you interact with, or do you just let them move on?
GF: If there is any opportunity for interaction, I tell the Person I leaned on, “It felt like I knew you…”
BM: What meaning do you find in making this work?
GF: There’s so much that is meaningful to me about this:
In the moments on the subway, when I was about to lean on someone, I often thought about how time and distance are so often connected, and how far we are moving together through space, and what it takes to generate emotional closeness between two people- about how the shift into intimacy occurs. This piece taps into the mystery and fragility of how we relate and communicate to each other as human animals, full of signs secret even to ourselves. In a small way, it challenges a preconception about tenderness between strangers. And it offers a tiny counterpoint to the Culture of Fear being fast-tracked in America.
And I love that people have such a visceral response to even hearing about this project; I told a very tall friend about this project and now he slouches when he’s seated on the subway to bring his shoulders down to an easier head-leaning height, should the person next to him be so inclined…
On a more cerebral level, I’m excited that this piece is The Thing Itself, while being a metaphor for many, many things.
I also love that it is NYC-specific. Not just because it takes place on the subway, but because it responds to the way New Yorkers evolve to maintain their privacy in public spaces. We carry our energy so closely. We’re always pressed up against each other on the train, but with a kind of “I wish I wasn’t pressing you” energy that is invisible but respected. The tiniest shift in that energy is palpable. When I let go of my guard, sometimes the Person knows it, even though nothing is visibly or physically different. When I soften my muscles next to them, even though I’m not making any additional physical contact, they look over at me to see what’s happening.
BM: These pieces are obviously building on the larger body of your own work, as well as responding to that of your peers. What influences (including your own work) have brought you to this point?
GF: As far as other influences, “it felt like I knew you…” makes sense to me in the trajectory of:
-Vito Acconci showing his ass, steeling himself for rejection.
-Adrian Piper riding the bus with a rag in her mouth. (As well as her general thoughts about directing intentional focus on the immediate here and now.)
-Miranda July’s general love-fest sensibility.
Extending from my own work, I think my work is always narrative on some level, despite my fighting against that for years. And I think it very often could be described as tender – like the way a bruise is tender. Both of those observations ring true with this work, too, but with much more efficiency than I usually work.
BM: Here is probably the most vague question of all time (my apologies): When I think of your work as a whole, what comes to mind is a fleeting sense of the temporary, combined with collaboration, and even a certain amount of storytelling and spectacle, and (at least for me) it brings up some strong emotions related to those themes…what are your thoughts on this?
GF: I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting at, but I think I get it. Even the installations are only temporarily complete, and the performances are obviously fleeting. Believe it or not, years ago Stephen King and Barbara Kruger collaborated on a book project called My Pretty Pony. In it, an old man distinguished between “things beautiful and things gorgeous.” He said that, “gorgeous things lack duration.” It’s always been resonant with me – not because I’m attempting to make what I would describe as gorgeous things, but because it highlighted that our experience with objects is so directly affected by our relationship with time.
BM: What is the effect of place on your work- does being an artist in New York affect what sort of work you make?
GF: Being an artist in New York definitely affects my work. I’ve always been touched by the way the city forces private moments into public places. You can ride the subway next to a woman who is shaking and violently suffering from withdrawal and wanting to get off the train to get the drugs she physically, desperately needs, while her friend is hugging her whole body tightly and reminding her to think about her daughter, telling her how close they’re getting to the methadone clinic, talking her down, keeping her calm. That sounds like a dark example, but believe me when I tell you, everyone on that train – the lady in the business suit on her way to Midtown, the guy on the way to the zoo with his kids, the couple headed to their shrink on the Upper West Side – everyone was rooting for that woman. Everyone was holding their breath and crossing their fingers and praying she made it to the Chambers Street Station. There was an infinite amount of humanity compressed into that tiny train car.
(1) George Ferrandi, “it felt like I knew you…”, 2012-ongoing. All images are pulled from video shots by Angela GillandTags: Journal