- March 1, 2018
MATTHEW WAGSTAFFE (M.ARCH ’19)
Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography of our own eyes,—surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.—But then we do see this every day & it makes not the slightest impression on us!
It is 2009, and art student Gordon Adamson is presenting his work for critique. Rather than exhibit a sculpture in a white space, he instead gathers his peers on a balcony and directs their attention to a distantly visible section of Chapel Street. He pulls out a small video camera and begins recording. A minute or two passes in which nothing much occurs but the quotidian activities of any city street: a car dropping off a passenger, a bicyclist journeying home, pedestrians walking by. Suddenly, he announces that he’s “got it” and that the discussion of his work can begin.
For the first thirty minutes of every review, the artist in question is not allowed to speak. This silence is doing Adamson no favors. In the absence of an explanation, his gnomic performance has left his classmates in a state of agitation. Some are intrigued, but most are downright resentful. They see the work as a prank at their expense. He’s used the conventions of the critique format to trick them into waiting for an artwork that never arrived. Worse, they accuse him of being a phony urban poet, trying to elevate the nothingness of a Tuesday in New Haven at 6pm to the heights of some zen bullshit. Charlatan. Faux-mystic. The critique is not going well.
Finally, Adamson’s enforced silence ends and he explains himself. Earlier that day, he’d asked to borrow a fellow sculptor’s shoes for an artwork. He’d then conscripted a friend from outside the department to wear the shoes, and walk down that particular section of Chapel Street during at that particular time. The swapping of the shoes, he continues, was to nudge her stroll ever so slightly into the realm of the theatrical: she walked not as herself, but as she imagined the owner of the shoes would have walked. It was a performance of such minor fictionality that no one noticed, not his professors, not his peers, not the other pedestrians on Chapel Street; maybe even Adamson himself wouldn’t have noticed, had he not organized the entire thing.
His critics are not appeased, though some are clearly affected by the story. “Jeez,” the original owner of the footwear says, “I thought you wanted my shoes to make, like, a sculpture or something.”
Later that semester Adamson becomes obsessed with a clerk at Walgreens; or, rather, becomes obsessed with the gap between himself and a clerk at Walgreens. The clerk in question performs her job with an insouciant calm that suggests that the world of low-wage retail is in no way new or remarkable to her. It is this particular quality that has spurred Adamson’s obsession, the difference between his background world and hers, the fact that what to him is completely alien, she doesn’t even notice at all.
He begins going to Walgreens far too often, purchasing things he does not need: out-of-season Easter candy, chewable vitamins, a locker mirror, a third, fourth, fifth stick of deodorant. He doesn’t talk to her outside of the obligatory “thanks” and “no I don’t need a bag.” He tries not to leer, but cannot help admiring how she goes about her work. In particular, he finds that the way she bags customers’ products—quickly but with no urgency, and completely lacking in any curiosity about what is being purchased—rivals, in economy and grace, the movements of all but the greatest of dancers.
His work stumbles into strange territory. He orders plastic retail bags and a a bag holder stand from ULINE, and builds a rudimentary approximation of a Walgreens checkout counter. For hours he practices taking a bag off the stand, putting items in it and handing them to an imagined customer, hoping that, through muscle memory, he will be able to achieve some approximation of her uncaring elegance.
He asks the manager at Walgreens if they would ever consider lending him footage from the store’s security camera, “for an artwork.” The manager, suspicious, declines, but Adamson is able to pry useful information from him: the type of camera they use, how frequently they re-record over the tapes. He purchases the same system, installs it in his studio at a height and distance approximate to that at the actual Walgreens, and begins to record himself baggingl goods for his phantom customers.
He needs greater accuracy. He loiters around the store for hours, trying to take note of the general rhythms of her day: how many customers go through her stall per hour, what time of day are her moments of idleness, the frequency of her bathroom breaks. He tries to understand the psychology of the space, he wants to know what it would be like to spend all your hours under its fluorescent lights and stained acoustic ceiling tiles. He is like a painter trying to capture the light of a brilliant sunset, the glimmer of dew on the morning grass.
For his thesis he presents, on grainy monitors without sound, eight hours of video footage of himself bagging items or sitting around listlessly or going offscreen, presumably on a lunch or bathroom break. His review does not go well. He is accused of: misogyny, class colonialism, pretentiousness. Adamson is unfazed. Upon graduating he moves to Hamden and begins working the evening shift at the local Walgreens. The counter is different than the one he had designed, it is slightly higher and its proportions are off, but soon he gets used to it.
Drive to the Walgreens in Hamden. You will see him there. His hair is grown out, and he wears lipstick, eyeshadow, and layers of blush, thickly caked on. If you don’t know it’s him, he looks just like any other Walgreens employee. He bags items beautifully.
 Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984.