Risk Exposure: Public Space Loses Its Shirt on Wall Street

Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Participants disrobe for Ocularpation: Wall Street. (Asa Gauen and Mike Kingsbaker)

Participants disrobe for Ocularpation: Wall Street. (Asa Gauen and Mike Kingsbaker)

At 7am on August 1, Genevieve White headed to work. Dressed like any personal trainer—zip-up track jacket, shorts, cross-trainers—she made her way down Wall Street. But White didn’t have an appointment to stand over a high-powered exec doing crunches. Bypassing the monumental entry of the neighborhood Equinox gym, she stationed herself on the sidewalk near William Street, stripped off her clothes, leaving on only her shoes and mirrored aviator sunglasses, and began doing jumping jacks.

White was one of 50 people participating in Ocularpation: Wall Street, a performance art piece conceived by Zefrey Throwell. Throwell has received attention for other urban interventions, such as the 2009 Manhattan pieces Midtown Games I, an Olympic-themed freestyle swimming race in the long rectangular fountain in front of a Rockefeller Center office tower, and Guggenfight, a 50-person strong food fight that suddenly broke out one afternoon inside the Guggenheim Museum. In 2008, Throwell performed solo in Ocularpation: San Francisco, a piece in which he sat at a makeshift office cubicle on the plaza in front of a Wells Fargo Bank, taking calls and filing papers after having stripped naked.

For the New York rendition of Ocularpation, Throwell recruited 50 people of all shapes and sizes, many of them performance artists, to take on the roles of Wall Street workers—from executives to personal assistants to janitors and trainers. Throwell said his decision to set his most recent work on Wall Street was spurred by his own connection to the recent financial downturn. “My mother lost most of her retirement savings in the economic crisis,” said the artist, describing how his piece referenced the exposure and vulnerability of people from all walks of life to the economy.

Participants, including a bevy of photographers on hand to document the proceedings, were each assigned to one of twelve zones, roughly the length of a city block, along Wall Street from Broadway to the FDR underpass. The whole crew met up at 6:30am on the steps of Zuccotti Park at Broadway and Liberty Street. A little before 7am, they made their way south along the fairly empty morning streets, assumed their posts, and nonchalantly began undressing. Once nude, they continued to go about their business—-sweeping the sidewalk, talking into headsets, working out. But police swooped into the area in front of the New York Stock Exchange within two minutes, arresting three performers and detaining Throwell for questioning.

“I think it’s great to be uninhibited,” said a guard manning one of the Wall Street security booths, who did not wanted to give his name. “But whoever organized it didn’t do their homework—they should have done it at 12 or 1pm when all the tourists are around.” After all, what is performance art without an audience? Like the current Wall Street climate, Throwell’s event somehow felt risk averse.

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