Dispatch: Mugger Music

New York

Nick Crowe, Graham Parker, Ian Rawlinson, Mugger Music (detail), 1997.

Traditionally, public sculpture has been concerned with the search for an appropriateness between an object and a specified civic environment. In Britain at least, a broadening of debates about the nature of public space and some enlightened moments in the allocation of public funding has increased awareness of and sensitivity towards the complexity of a site. Research budgets and artists’ commissions are now much more structured towards the responsive exploration of a or the “place,” its history, how it is used day to day, and the people who use it. As an event sited in New York and sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, it is not perhaps surprising then that “Mugger Music”, a piece devised by Manchester-based artists Nick Crowe, Graham Parker, and Ian Rawlinson, should take New York as its object of reference, and involve as its participants, the inhabitants of the city. The “place” in this instance turns out to be a route-something with permanence and history, yet almost utterly intangible-a ritual, a way through the streets and interiors of Manhattan’s financial district. This was not a route that stopped at foyers and street furniture though. It traveled on the Web and through CCTV security cameras. It involved purchases and thefts and the giving of gifts. Its ambition was “a complex and considered response to what it means to live in a city.” Yet how can a group of artists arrive in a place like New York and create a work that, with an English-accented authority, discusses the urbanity of a place and how one lives in it? Well, that’s rather the point. In one sense everyone in the world knows New York and its cultural and urban icons, and, in a sense, no one knows it, not all of it.

Strongly influenced by Situationist understandings of psycho-geography and a concept of dérive or drift, as a “technique of locomotion without a goal” (as opposed to, for instance, Richard Long’s abstract metaphysical tramping), “Mugger Music” was a series of 100 walks undertaken during two 24-hour periods. Each walk was 75 minutes long. Each was acoustically accompanied by different soundtracks played on personal stereos, and each walk was led by a guide (Crowe was joined by performance artists Laurence Lane and Julian Hammond). These walks were far from careless, mindless drifts, however, and there were all the occasional disjunctions that you might expect from a piece with some familiarity with the Situationists’ tradition of urban anthropology. There were pointed punctuations of aspects of the city as well as the construction of a self-referential text through the creation of a series of casual-looking, incidental, and momentary installations.

When met at a pre-arranged time and place by the guide, the participant was handed a personal stereo and asked to listen to a series of recorded questions: “In which city do you live? How long have you lived there? Were you born in that city?” and so on. The questions were answered by a series of different anonymous voices. This initial aural encounter fostered an important sense of intimacy with an unknown person. The walk continued through the district. The participant listened to further tapes: constellations of urban sounds and conversations. Interactions occurred. The participant acquired mementos: half a cigarette, a gilded wax with an incised signature, a performed reading of the Chase Manhattan Bank’s “vision,” something from a deli, a glass of milk, and so forth. Sometimes these are bought by the participant or they were given as gifts by the guide. At times they are taken away, without explanation, and placed elsewhere as some small, temporary sculptural vignette of “found” urban detritus.

One of the sentimental delights of “Mugger Music” was coming across these carelessly accumulated heaps of reclaimed items. One of the disturbances was the diffident perfunctoriness with which these exchanges were carried out, the unconcernedly distracted relationship maintained at all times between the guide and the participant-despite the best attempts at engagement. Sometimes this broke down and the guide chattered away animatedly. At other times voyeuristic personal insight was specifically requested. In the final exchange, the participant was abruptly deserted and left to watch a monitor that sat anonymously at hand, showing the guides’ performance of “Guide.” Apparently oblivious to anyone’s intrusion, the guide was seen taking a break. He might sit, wash his feet, take a drink or eat, smoke a cigarette and then change his clothes-for a time naked. By this time he was probably tired and irritable and has sought some urban refuge. But we were watching, idly, possibly embarrassed, watching nevertheless. Intimately, this was a strangely and artistically fraught vision of the fallibility of the guide-a moment when any friction between artist and participant was absolved except through the act of looking. And more acutely, this vignette made obvious the consistent ruptures for the guide between the fiction of performing and the banal, everyday realities of the city, the place and the space that they were invading and in various ways distributing over and again.

As a work, “Mugger Music” achieved many things. Its relationship to the idea of a city site was perhaps more poignantly realized than some other, more sculpturally conventional, permanent and semi-permanent works. It attempts no spurious definition of a genius loci, no imperious attempted to nail down the character of the place requesting response. It pointed to the elusive, almost spiritual excuses people cling to when identifying themselves and their constancy with their locality. Yet it assumed no permanence within the city. The route was fixed. The encounters, the recordings, the times and turns were standardized in an almost Purist sense. It was impossible, however, that any two participants would experience this constancy in any similar ways. In this it raised the question of the material and subjective where of the artwork and its permanence. Repeated 100 times and sold as a limited edition, “Mugger Music” ridiculed the notion of the artist’s multiple.

Left with a distinct and detailed recollection of the strange and contingent in the familiar and the mundane, given a clutter of authenticity-marking trophies-cigarette butts and signatures-and relieved of more, tourists who encounter Mugger Music’s New York can’t help but feel themselves robbed of both any certainty about the city and any preconceptions about what sculptural permanence and public site-specificity can mean