Reflections on my work and life experience.

Death on the Bus - Performance Art

This project dates from Fall of 2000. That's a long time ago, but the lasting impact it has had on me merits a place in my portfolio. The assignment was not only to enact a performance or installation, but also to submit my reflections on it, which I did in the form of a webpage, recreated below.

The enduring significance of this project lies in what it taught me about stretching my boundaries. I am not, by nature, a flamboyant person, and the idea of wandering around in public in a costume definitely felt embarrassing. No one forced me to go with this idea. I could have chosen to create some other art installation that didn't involve putting the artist on public display, but this concept was the best, so I chose to swallow my pride and take the personal risk for the potential reward. It paid off. The project was highly successful, garnering the admiration of everyone I shared it with (and continue to share it with; the instructor asked to include it in his collection of examples for future students).

I've never regretted the 'sacrifice' I made to achieve that success, and in time I came to understand that the only sacrifice was a transitory one--the price of some momentary comfort in return for new personal growth. Our personal boundaries are mainly self-imposed, borders we lock ourselves into that serve little purpose other than to keep us from growing. This project taught me to appreciate the push to move beyond my comfort zones, and to welcome challenge and risk. It's a lesson I've never forgotten, and one that I have applied over and over again in my life and work ever since.

People don't like to confront what makes them uncomfortable. If faced with such a thing, they'll ignore it, they'll joke, they'll try to change the subject or get away.

This was my performance art project for Art 100 in my senior year of college. The concept was simple enough. My roommate kindly helped me make a spiffy little Death cloak out of a flat black full-size bed sheet and a strategically placed frog knot, positioned so I could pull up a big fold for the hood. Jen Wood (my gratitude forever!) acted as my photographer, which consisted of following me around and taking pictures of people as they saw Death. We went back and forth between two bus stops on the same street for about an hour and a half.

There were some details, of course, such as the fact that I spoke only in third person the whole time ("Death wonders what time it is"). I said hello to everyone who passed by me ("Death greets you!"). I instructed Jen to direct all questions to me, and to everyone who asked what in the world I was doing, I explained, "Death is riding the bus, because it's fun." I often inquired after peoples' health. They all seemed to be doing fine, which was gratifying. After all, it would've been a pain to have to work that day... ;)

As it happens, however, every one of those details leads into a story. In fact, the first person I spoke with asked me why I was speaking in third person. He told me it was 'creepy.' "Why are you doing this?" he continued. "It's really freaky. You're freaking me out." I explained to him that Death felt like riding the CATA bus that day, and how was he feeling, by the way? One woman, who'd been trying not to stare, burst out laughing when I asked her what time it was.

Many people tried hard not to stare, but it was pretty obvious. Others didn't try to hide it at all.

Hardly a surprise. Who wouldn't stare? I expected curiosity as well as outright confusion. Wandering around on a college campus dressed as Death, of course I expected people to ask why. Yep, and some did...but not always in ways I could've predicted. First, there was the creeped out man. That startled me. I guess I hadn't expected such a strong reaction. Oh, I'd known some people would look at me oddly, and that some would try to avoid me. I was surprised, however, that someone would walk right up to me and tell me how disturbed he was. To be honest, it was gratifying. It set the tone admirably.

Someone avoiding me--->

Some people got up and moved away when I sat next to them, and some circled around me on the sidewalk. There were the ones who stared blatantly, and the ones who stared surreptitiously. Those who moved away caught me off-guard. I hadn't thought that people would be disturbed enough to bother with that.

<---someone wishing they could avoid me. She looks tense.

I know why these reactions surprised me. In retrospect, I realize that I was expecting people to react to a person in a costume. Naturally, the weirdness factor would inspire a certain amount of bewilderment and possibly distaste. After all, I chose to be Death because most people have very strong feelings about the subject, and I wanted to evoke a response. Even so, I anticipated that their first reaction would be to someone dressed as Death, and then to the archetype.

Not so.

It turns out that Death is a more powerful image than I realized. Even though I made for a very short Death, and the voice coming from under the robes was an unassuming female one, people reacted to the first thing they perceived when they saw a black robe with no face--Death. That, granted, is the point of an archetype, and is why I chose it. But I thought, "Well, we've all seen the old cloak and scythe bit enough. It shouldn't be that shocking." Have we, though? I think I made the same mistake that naive 10-year-olds do. Yeah, we've seen it, in the movies. On TV. It's different when it's actually walking around with us. Things work differently in real life. Ifvyou see the robe on TV, that's fine. You know what it is. It's a placeholder in a story, mixed in with a bunch of other symbols and archetypes that all live in our little pretend-box. When it's standing right next to you asking how your day is going, it doesn't work the same. Even though you may rationally know there's a dumpy little girl under that robe, it can take a second for that to sink in. Intellectually, I knew this. That's why I asked Jen to take pictures of people when they first saw me. I knew the reaction I was aiming for, too. I considered very carefully what kind of Death I wanted to use. I wanted the one that was most closely associated with the concept in most minds. That's why I wasn't dressed as a jackal-headed god, or a little Goth girl with an ankh and a top hat. But I suppose on some level it didn't quite connect for me.

This leads me into the second part of my story. While many people were put off by my Death impersonation, others got a real kick out of it. This didn't surprise me. I knew I cut a fairly amusing figure. Two people tried to peek under the hood.

I hadn't thought of that, but it made sense (hmm, trying to comfort themselves by proving I was just a girl in a costume?). And then there were some really amusing reactions. Check this out.

This guy was getting fresh with Death. Honestly, he was pretty cool. Here, he's posing for a picture with me; the only person who took the photo opportunity all day. He sat and talked for a while. He spoke with Jen first, because he wondered why she was taking pictures. He didn't notice me till she pointed me out, at which point he came over to ask why I was doing this. I explained that Death liked the way the bus bounced around, like a roller coaster (which the driver thought was funny). He asked me if I was working that day, and so on.

Two other amusing incidents: the first happened on my third trip along the street, when 'Don't Fear the Reaper' played on the radio. The second was this:

This is one of two girls who got on the bus, each carrying one of those 7-foot-long pillars. Neither spared a glance for me. After they sat down, the bus driver looked up and said, "Lot of weird things happening on the bus today."

So, there you have it. Death on the Bus. Positively Jungian, really, but we'll ignore that, right? Honestly, though... Before I close with you, my dear audience, I want to address one other point. Amused by my own idea, I told several people about this project while I planned it. Every one of them expressed the profundity of the project.

Why do you think that is? On the surface, it seems clear. You have Death. You have people facing Death. You have pictures of people caught in a powerful moment. You could even recall old folk tales about capturing the soul, etc. It's nearly a pun: "facing Death." And yes, it's true, I did deliberately invoke some of these associations. I did consider how intimate and profound it could be to take pictures of people in that situation. In fact, that's one thing that really did surprise me. I truly expected some objections with the photography, but not one person complained .

The thing is, the picture-taking really does seem profound, doesn't it? And yet, when you analyze it, there's no real reason it should, is there? It all hinges on the fact that we consider an individual's reaction to death to be very personal. Grieving is very personal. A breakdown after facing danger is personal. Most of the people I talked to were also surprised I didn't get any angry reactions to the photos. We're a civilized culture. We don't buy the myth about cameras sucking souls. We do, however, apparently have an instinctive reaction to something like this. Why were most of my friends surprised by the lack of objections? Why did I build certain expectations regarding peoples' reactions, even as I rationalized that I was just a person in a costume? Why did people react to me as if I really were something 'creepy'? Maybe it was just concern for the mental state of someone wandering around dressed as Death. But maybe, beneath our rational minds we recognize that there really is something to all this archetype stuff. Somewhere, deep down, we all seem to agree that they are looking at Death, and I was taking pictures of them in this deeply personal moment.

So maybe that's why we were all surprised. I don't know why I didn't have more bad reactions to the photos, and I suspect the only way I'd ever figure that out is by tracking those people down and asking. It could be that they just didn't want to make a scene, or maybe they were telling themselves they didn't care. Or maybe they really didn't. Perhaps a lot of people were just feeling photogenic that day.

And maybe that's why this project seemed so meaningful to people. To which I say, "I got you!" Yes! You see, if you thought that sounded right, then I caught you up in the art.

See, if I'd taken just one picture, you would've shrugged it off. If I hadn't taken pictures at all, it would've looked like a sight gag. If I had been dressed as a badger...well, I might've had more people crossing the street to get away from me. The significance lies in the fact that many people are proven by photographs to acknowledge the presence of Death. It's about symbols, and portraying an archetype. Until those people agreed that I was Death through their reactions, I was only a short girl in a cloak. And if you said anything like, "In a way, they are looking at Death," then you're agreeing too. Thanks to all those who helped out by staring at me, I am now a symbol. Pretty cool, huh?

In closing, I just want to say, "Don't try this at home." I've found that art has a way of turning around and biting you. There I was, wandering around, expecting to have an impact on all the people who saw me, and in the end, I'm the one who came out different. They just walked away with a weird story to tell over the dinner table. I, however, will forever be imprinted on certain peoples' minds as 'the Death girl.' In ten years, Jen might not remember my name, but I bet she'll remember that. When I said I am now a symbol, in a way I wasn't joking. Even my own perceptions of me changed a little. At the least, you don't look at yourself the same way after you've deliberately done something weird in public.

Julia :)