When my editors contacted me with the vague proposition that I interview an underground, anonymous art collective, I leapt at the chance.
I was given the phone number of a guy who identified himself as my “spirit guide” and was told to meet him on campus (he requested that all specifics be withheld). He was an AAP guy with a scarf and horn-rimmed glasses (cue 50 percent of readers exclaiming, “Hey, I know that guy!”). I assumed that my “spirit guide” was, in fact, a member of the collective in question; it turns out that he was merely helping preserve his friends’ anonymity. He removed his scarf and, promising that I would not be harmed or otherwise molested, requested that I blindfold myself. I hesitated — this sounded like the beginning of a particularly crappy horror movie — but blindfolded myself anyway. My guide made a topical, “People will just assume you’re a pledge” joke. I laughed nervously.
After what felt like 10 minutes of stumbling across the heart of campus, I was led downstairs and my blindfold was removed. I was taken down a dark hallway and brought into a room with a heavy metal door. As I entered the sparsely lit space, the door was closed behind me. I found myself at the bottom of a sewer grate. This, admittedly, was perplexing.
“What the hell is this?” I asked to nobody in particular. A quick scan of my surroundings revealed a rather provocative environment: Mirrors lined the walls, confronting me with neverending reflections of my distressed self. The metallic walls were embellished with overgrown vines, and the floor was littered with garbage. Most terrifying, though, was the appearance of a video camera. It was all starting to uncannily resemble a scene from the tortuous Saw series.
My captors, amid some amused giggling from their assembled audience, introduced themselves: K_____ and R. Blue, two AAP students working in “Site driven responses to spaces that have a transient quality.” I discovered that I was the centerpiece of their latest installation. Like anyone who has ever been observed by a small crowd of strangers whilst trapped in the bottom of a drainage ditch, I was exceedingly uncomfortable. Moreover, I was being filmed for posterity! I grew even more self-conscious and, as such, threw on a hoodie, as if it would defend me from the scrutiny. It did not help.
As I moved from a confused stammer to a less confused one, we began to discuss what this piece — for lack of a better term — was supposed to confront. When offered the chance to be interviewed, K_____ and R. Blue chose to take the opportunity to “subvert hierarchical norms.” Instead of a nice sit-down interview where we sip coffee and talk about their influences, they put me at their mercy, leading me to an unknown space and literally placing themselves above me. The interviewer lost his editorial control and became the subject, something that made me feel rather foolish. I shuffled my feet. There was something to be said about the frivolity of art criticism here, but I was not of the right mind or temperament at the moment to properly discern it.
“And the audience?” I asked, trying to conceal my own embarrassment. My genial captors laughed and admitted that it would all be a little too masturbatory if no audience were present. This was an art show, after all.
When my squirming began to subside, I finally got down to some questioning. This was an interview, after all. K_____ and R. Blue informed me that they are most interested in “large scale interactive and inhabitable installations constructed and dismantled over a short period of time, leaving no trace or recollection of the intervention itself.” Each of their installations is public, an exhibition granting a few hours of access to spaces that have either been forgotten or closed off by the University. The audiences are small so as not to draw unwanted attention from the authorities. Like street or performance art, its ephemerality adds to its power. Witnessing something this strange happening in an otherwise unremarkable place has an undeniable novelty to it. It takes a lot of speedy work for a rather brief pay-off. Luckily, there are some photos.
After being freed from the confines of the claustrophobic sewer grate, my bespectacled spirit guide offered his sympathies. “We didn’t realize how creepy it would be,” he confessed, as if trapping an unwitting journalist in an underground cage was ever considered not a creepy thing. Still, I have to admit: I had lost faith in anything weird ever going on here on this campus. Between this, the appearance of the self-proclaimed Antichrist and that ear-biting fiasco outside Louie’s Lunch, maybe Cornell can still surprise us after all these years.