PEDESTRIAN: Linda Yablonsky essay

This appreciation by art critic Linda Yablonsky was commissioned by the Art Production Fund for the Pedestrian signage.

Over the din of traffic I hear a crash. Someone is leaning on a horn and swearing – at me. Lost in thought, I have crossed against a light, forcing a taxi to swerve into the side of a car at the curb. The driver is yelling, Why can’t you look where you’re going? But I’m not going anywhere! I’m only walking. Not to get from one place to the next but to air out my mind; it likes to wander too. Where better to stretch its legs than the street, out there for all to see, where no one is really looking? Except that someone always is.

There, on the corner, a friend I haven’t seen in years could easily appear out of nowhere. I may also run into the one I had at my table last night. I might even find myself on a collision course with the very person who entered my thoughts only a moment before, when I realized I never wanted to see him again.

Such chance encounters and sudden shocks, so available to the life of a city ambler, give coincidence a reason for being. They make even an oft-traveled street a place that will catch us by surprise and right now anyone meandering through West Chelsea, Rockefeller Center or the nerve center of Harlem is in for a nice one: Pedestrian .

This is a great big public art work by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, two collaborating New York artists bewitched by the human figure in motion. Taking advanced computer animation software in hand, the pair previously recorded performances by Merce Cunningham’s company and, later, choreographer Bill T. Jones, turning the movements of dozens of sensors attached to the dancers’ bodies into seemingly chalk-drawn, larger-than-life ghosts dancing up a virtual storm in space.

But unrelated crowds, the artists have found, unconsciously design their own odd trajectories, falling into distinct patterns of movement and display. These are what inspired the head-bobbing, puddle-jumping, curb-hopping, gathering crowds of Pedestrian ‘s digital universe, which is now taking shape in beams of light projected onto sidewalks right under our actual feet.

During the continually repeating loop playing a five-week run before 45 Rockefeller Plaza, outside the Studio Museum on 125th Street and in the Eyebeam galleries of West 21st, unsuspecting real-life pedestrians will have a chance to watch their own street behavior mirrored by Lilliputian figures so remarkably realistic that many viewers will swear they are watching a documentary spy film. What they will see are virtual puppets standing and gawking, talking on cell phones and walking, minding their own business and not. A few behave strangely, like the tourists and lovers, the shoppers and sailors, the hawkers and hustlers emerging from the shadows of familiar landmarks, fending off cloudbursts and posing for snapshots as they meet and greet from the dead of night to dawn.

For Kaiser and Eshkar, the Pedestrian experience is more than just a walk in the park. It is a collective rush of thought and feeling guaranteed to bring traffic to a stop.