Like somnambulists, they walked from morning 'til night, barely acknowledging their audience. They performed Time After Us, a 24-hour walking meditation, on October 11, in lower Manhattan's St. Paul's Chapel. The site specificity of this performance, part of the annual Crossing the Line Festival organized by the French institute Alliance Française, was carefully considered. This Georgian Revival historic space, with upper and lower galleries, painted in light domestic colors with a spiritual but not religious ambiance, has endured and survived centuries of catastrophe -- the Great Fire of 1776, the nightmare and aftermath of September 11 and, most recently, the battering of Hurricane Sandy.
Dressed all in white, although not in identical garments, the performers walked counterclockwise and backwards, in deliberate and careful movements, for 24 consecutive hours inside the chapel's rectangular nave. Everyone attempted the same movement -- a turn of the head to the left with eyes focused down on the feet, then a small sweeping movement of the leg, accompanied by a careful positioning of the hands, as if preparing to touch a keyboard or palms together as in meditation, then the same movements to the right, taking a step backward with each twist. Because the interpretations of the gestures varied for each performer, the circle created by their backward shuffles was irregular. There was no audio accompaniment, only ambient sound.
Artist Ernesto Pujol, the originator and organizer of the event, served as a fulcrum point. His gestures were the most precise. He was also one of the 24 "core walkers" -- a group that comprised artists, performers, dancers and visual artists. They entered at half-hour intervals beginning at 10:00 a.m. the first day and ending at the same time the next day, with Pujol himself stepping into the space first to define the center. All walked the interior of the chapel floor for some time, and each walker exited one by one at the end. There were alternates ready to take the places of those who needed to rest. By the second morning, some were teetering from exhaustion and dehydration, but Ernesto Pujol, who lived as a silent monk for a decade and has had plenty of experience with disciplined practice, appeared fresh and energetic until the conclusion.
New York is not used to slow -- indeed, its citizens are not even patient with slow -- and yet the idiosyncratic, deliberate variations of the performers' movements made them mesmerizing, allowing the walkers (as well as their audience) to take a deep, considered breath while they appeared to sleepwalk in public.
Ernesto Pujol, in his self-defined identity as "social choreographer," often has put his practice of site-specific, restrained, contemplative action into the public arena, orchestrating such deliberate walks in Kansas, Hawaii, Utah, Israel and Istanbul. Each piece has created an impromptu community of volunteer performers. And, in every instance, those who participated and those who observed seemed transformed by these ostensibly simple gestures. After a great deal of walking, the slowness and durational aspects of these pieces catalyze a meditative response. Eventually, the audience -- however distracted at first -- is moved by the seriousness and commitment of those involved.
The walks simulate the intensity of a cloistered experience. In The Highest Poverty, a text about monastic "rules and form-of-life," philosopher Giorgio Agamben discusses basic conditions for daily practice in a monastic context. These conditions include endurance, ritual, repetition, silence, public practice and, most precisely, a life lived by means of time -- "horologium vitae." If sustained, such practice promises to lead to true presentness and clarity of thought.
Artist monks are not a usual occurrence these days. Perhaps this is part of the allure. But, historically, artist monks were numerous, and they were in the service of the church. One need only think of the magnificent fifteenth-century murals of Fra Angelico, painted for the Convent of San Marco in Florence, to know what is possible when an artist combines his or her artistic practice with a religious calling. In the contemporary world, however, such life choices often appear at odds with mainstream art practices. But Ernesto Pujol, who now lives a secular life, still refers to himself as a monk in the city -- a practice hard to maintain in New York.
It is said of liturgy that it is completed by its audience. Such was the nature of this performance. The presence of the audience had a key role in creating a contemplative environment to slow down the world. We, as audience, also became distinctly aware of bodies -- those that walked the nave and those that took a seat on its periphery. In observing each other in this way, we could recognize how each spirit moves uniquely in each body.
The doors were deliberately left wide open throughout, and the noises from the street -- horns, loud voices and screeching brakes -- permeated the environment. The open doors had the effect of welcoming all to venture inside (and many Ground Zero tourists did). But the discordant sounds also reminded us that New York City and, more precisely, Wall Street -- the global center of greed and self-interest -- was just outside. The performers' contemplative movements were in constant contrast to the exterior chaotic din. Their condition appeared to mark one aspect of contemporary society -- vulnerable bodies juxtaposed to speed and acceleration. The performers were walking backwards for us all, slowing time down -- like Penelope unraveling the work of the day -- and allowing us to start afresh.
Falling asleep that night, I imagined the walkers still there, all in white, moving slowly to their internal rhythms of time passing and finally signaled by the external clock (as ultimately we all will be), telling them that it was time to go.