Small acts, forlorn practices

Radhika Subramaniam

Small acts have big mythologies. Despite their scale, they are accompanied by enduring beliefs in their capacity to have sustained and meaningful impact. The accumulation of small acts, across time and space, repeated and determined, can multiply and grow enough to topple the largest bastion. Individual pulsating energies can overcome their solitary directions to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, to fill the largest Tahrir or Taksim Square with a vast, almost invulnerable, force. Within this is what Elias Canetti (1978), in his wide-ranging analysis of the power of crowds, called the “discharge,” the moment at which a cheek-by-jowl collective, still aware of its individual articulation, overcomes any caution over contact and becomes something else altogether: the crowd. Differences and hierarchies are shed in these proximities to form an inherently fragile yet potent phenomenon. Canetti’s focus on this moment of transformation set him apart from his nineteenth-century precursors, such as Gustave Le Bon, with their theories of the violence of mobs, but it also set his work apart from that of those like George Rudé, whose repudiation of the likes of Le Bon was through a focus on the “faces” in the crowd. Canetti put his finger on the cusp of the movement from the inchoate teeming of an urban everyday to the charged power of a self-aware collective: a deeply psychological and kinesthetic experience of intimacy and loss of separation.

Democracy has its own mythic belief in the power of small act. The “one person one vote” formula of direct democracy carries with it the conviction that the outcome of this action, multiplied by its performers, has binding consequences. Through this process, the people speak as if with one voice. For the individual voter, the results can feel like a curious mixture of both individual and collective achievement – we did it! – or loss. Of course, there are those who refuse to vote because they are disabled by the belief that the process is rigged and others because they have been driven to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that political decision-making happens in some rarefied zone above them. Get-out-the-vote campaigns are directed against the lassitude ofthe latter to impress upon them the assurance that their voice can and will be heard.
Yes, we believe that a great deal could hinge on … well, a hinge – or a nail. As the old nursery rhyme warns us, an entire kingdom was lost all for want of a horseshoe nail. In the rhyme, the impact of the nail’s absence is methodically escalated by pointing out its significance for the horseshoe, the horse, the rider, the battle, all the way up to the kingdom, reminding us that a very small thing indeed has the potential to unseat history. Small acts matter. How fervently we need to believe that! Google the term and you will get a
glimpse of what many people perceive to be the way they work, and their value and power. Small acts of generosity go around in a kind of kula ring with small acts of kindness, both rippling outward with the potential of creating a larger world of reciprocity and goodwill. This could be the background we need to understand artistic and political efforts and actions that are seemingly modest in scope. We need to believe that their modesty belies their ambition – that the ambition that rides on the promise that small acts of resistance will ultimately erode the foundations of the greatest edifice. Yet, no matter how well fortified one might be by the strength of this assurance, it seems to me that sometimes a small gesture is just that: small.

By saying so, I don’t mean to disparage these gestures; rather, I think that something else is going on in the finitude and quietness, as well as the ephemerality and intimacy, of such actions that bears consideration – something that is not easily recuperated as aggregative, targeted or, indeed, useful. These are acts that I call “forlorn:” acts that are a little diffuse, a little alone, that seem to go a little astray. What is the place of this kind of practice, and what is the labor if there is no function – political, aesthetic, affective – that it can be said to perform? Or, like Melville’s notoriously recalcitrant scrivener, does it prefer not to?


Since 2009, I have been involved in a public art/performance festival in New York City called “Art in Odd Places” (AiOP) (see Initiated and directed by artist Ed Woodham, the project takes place over several days in October along Manhattan’s major thoroughfare, 14th Street, to celebrate, as we phrased it in 2009, “the odd, ordinary and ingenious in the spectacle of daily life.” Through an open call process around a specific annual theme, guest curators for the year select artist proposals for performance or installation along the street, all adhering to AiOP’s principles; that projects should not block pedestrians or traffic, and also that projects should move continually through crowds, not allowing them to gather. This seeming deference to public life actually stems from a more radical premise, which is the decision not to acquire any type of municipal or police permission for festival activity. Instead, artists are
encouraged to find the apertures in public space regulations in an insistence that there are still parts of urban public life that remain unfettered and not subject to forms of control and surveillance. AiOP’s political impulse was born in the pall cast on public life in the city and beyond in the years after 2001, as a result of tightening public space regulations. I co-curated the festival with Erin Donnelly in 2009, and was the sole curator in 2013. In each edition, there were between thirty and sixty artists who participated, engaging the street in a range of pointed, poignant, light-hearted, and astute ways. In each edition, which had a different theme (Sign in 2009 and Number in 2013) there were also a few artists whose projects were decidedly forlorn. Two of them adopted the form of extended solitary walkers bearing signs of strange ambiguity and melancholy. Two others employed forms of exchange that are rapidly turning obsolete, if they are not already so: letter writing and the placing of a telephone call through an exchange operator.

The first sign project was that of Bokyung Jun, who walked from Brooklyn to Manhattan and then along 14th Street in 2009 carrying a sign that said, “Life is Not Easy for Any of Us.” Karen Elaine Spencer took up the same format in 2013, walking back and forth from one end of the street to the other, bearing a homemade sandwich board that said, “How many is too many?” What did the signs mean? In 2009, the United States was at the crest of a recession following the subprime mortgage and foreclosure crises, a desperate time when lines at the Department of Labor and Salvation Army offices along 14th Street, as well as its many closed storefronts, robbed the street of any veneer of urban insouciance. Jun’s work surely evoked these immediate experiences, but it was also inevitably universal – at any moment in time, one assumes, a city street might furnish a person inclined to respond in agreement to such a statement. It was a singular and direct address, one that expressed a kind of existential feeling in an empathetic, even solidary, way but not one that invited commiseration. The bearer of the sign walked by, the sign light and the burden heavy, and as some photographs taken on behalf of AiOP show, as just another figure in the middle of a zebra crossing amid a surge of fellow crossers.

Spencer’s sign was more ambiguous. To what did it refer? It was left to the viewers to project their own preoccupations and answer the question. As she stood, carrying the somewhat shabby white cardboard sign with its big black letters, people would call out, “A trillion! One! Two! It depends.” Occasionally, someone stopped to ask what it actually meant and Spencer would repeat the question, “How many is too many?” If they continued to wonder, she might gently suggest a context: homelessness. When she recounted her experience to me (also available on her website,, she spoke of how one man, standing with his lunchtime sandwich, engaged her in conversation, his confusion persisting beyond her effort at clarification. Finally, she specified, “It’s like saying one homeless person is one too many.” “Ah,” he took it in. As he left, he said to her, “I hope you find a home.” Spencer thanked him. “Me too.” She described herself as thrown by the way in which his kind wish actually seemed to render her homeless, revealing the little fear that lies curled within so many of us: will we ever find home?
Will we ever belong somewhere?

Jun’s sign was stenciled in black on a white background, but she carried it under her arm so that, at any given time, a few of its words were obscured. What people saw was a young Asian woman in jeans and sneakers, the casualness of the sign and her carriage implying, even assuring, that it could only be seen by a chance glance. This gave it a kind of intimacy as if it were only meant for the viewer – a sort of mute outreach from a fellow city dweller. Spencer’s sign, on the other hand, was on cardboard, large and hand-drawn with words in different sizes, more explicitly reflecting the signage of the involuntary residents of the street. Undoubtedly, her appearance as a White woman with dark clothes, short, cropped hair, and sunglasses gave it a slightly per-formative air, but the makeshift quality of the sign undercut the presentation, rendering it just “a little off.” According to their reports, these were lonely and tiring performances. The artists’ feet and legs hurt. Despite the large signs and the occasional interactions in Spencer’s case, these projects did not invite conversational engagement. They snagged their audience in fleeting encounters, intentionally presenting themselves in that way.

In 2009, if you were waiting for a bus or woolgathering on a street corner on 14th Street, or about to push open the barred gate leading to the Our Lady of Guadalupe church, you might chance on an ornate envelope that indicated that it was meant for you, the finder: Take it. It’s yours. It was written for you. Inside, on thick, beautiful paper, was a love letter. The letters were real or fictive epistles written by historical or famous queer people. Oscar wrote to Bosie, Alice to Gertrude, Sappho and Socrates to their lovers. This was Cyriaco Lopes’ project, ironically titled “Big Bronze Statues,” which was a counter-monument to the LGBTQ histories of Greenwich Village and Chelsea. Lopes sometimes included drawings and photographs, and worked with poet Terri Witek who wrote some of the fictional letters. There was no guarantee of who might find such a letter (I never did, and not for want of searching, although others were luckier), and there was no guarantee of its effect or impact; quite frankly, nor could one be sure about whether it was read through, treasured, or simply tossed. Lopes’ letters mimicked the intimate public secrecy of gay life in New York, and in so much of the world, but enacted it in a wayward way. One
could suppose a variety of lucky finders and readers – from someone ignorant of this history to someone delighting in the discovery, from the simply bemused to the offended – but most of this would have to occur in our imagination. However, for the person who chanced on it, it would reach out as a gift of love from the vast anonymous thrum of city life.

With a nod to Proust’s magnum opus, LuLu LoLo’s project in 2013 was called “Remembrance of Numbers Past.” Dressed as a telephone operator circa 1950, LuLu was Operator Loretta standing at the street corner by an old-fashioned instrument complete with a cord and plug ready to insert into the switchboard, offering to connect any passer-by to a phone number in their past. The effect was startling. People otherwise tethered to their mobile phones took the invitation to step out into another dimension. They called their old girlfriends, Eric spoke to his late friend, Davidson called Kitty Carlisle, someone else called W. Somerset Maugham, and Angela rang her old landline on Ludlow, and spoke to them – or to their own pasts – in complete sincerity. Of course, it was patently obvious that the instrument was not connected to anything,
nor was there a voice at the other end. In fact, the callers were asked to sign a consent form if they were willing to have their calls recorded for the artist’s website so that the initial exchange was absolutely cut and dried. Yet, on a frantic New York street corner, a series of haunting and haunted conversations were conducted. The effort of summoning up an old number, still holding fast to a disused groove of memory, together with the operator’s performance of connecting the call via switchboard, encouraged an involuntary suspension of disbelief. A caller who spoke to his father who had passed away said to Operator Loretta, “This was really cathartic.”

In one of the marvelously idiosyncratic and insightful series of short prose texts collected as One-Way Street, Walter Benjamin (2004) states that, for effectiveness, one cannot rely on standard universal gestures. He is speaking of literary political effectiveness for which, he suggests, the pretentious gesture of the book is a limited solution. In fact, one must nurture inconspicuous forms such as leaflets, articles, and placards whose “promptness” makes them more equal to the moment. He continues, “Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know” (2004: 444). Herein lies the clue to understanding how these forlorn acts work. Solitary yet solidary, ambiguous yet expansive, melancholic yet precise, light yet profound, they labor at a level either below or between small acts. But they are not some sort of quotidian lubricant. Benjamin is more specific: the oil is applied to hidden parts that one has to know.

It is in this strangely psychic space that forlorn practices operate, creating intimate moments that are not readily apprehended but come to one as a sudden surprise. Yes, one is suddenly aware that life really isn’t easy for any of us. At these moments lies the “discharge,” that juncture at which there is a startling reduction of distance between people, of contact – a sensation of feeling directly addressed by the world – that often only remains as a trace in one’s memory. Inconspicuous though it may be, it is indelible. Thus do forlorn acts get to the heart of the matter without which all is lost.