A Good Day to Have the Feet Out: A Review of Jon Cotner’s Spontaneous Society
Is it possible, in this age of earbuds and smart phones, to spread “good vibes” among strangers on the street through something as simple as conversation? The poet Jon Cotner thinks so. That’s why Cotner—who, along with Andy Fitch, co-authored Ten Walks/Two Talks—created Spontaneous Society, a walking tour designed to create “gentle interventions” aimed at “replacing urban anonymity with something bordering on affection—even if it’s fleeting.”
The premise is simple: to each participant, Cotner gives two very simple, very basic lines to recite to passersby. The lines (which Cotner lovingly describes as “oceanic”) are, generally and in essence, positive observations about something that passerby is currently doing as a means of initiating a brief, but positive, social exchange. For example, “That looks like a good spot for a picnic,” said when passing someone eating on a bench, a blanket, or doorstep; or “It’s a good day to have the feet out,” said when someone approaches with a carriage in which at least one inhabitant is shoeless.
To value social encounters as worthy of the reverence normally reserved for art is a movement that has recently gained traction among certain contemporary artists. I thought of Tino Sehgal’s exhibition “This Progress” last year at the Guggenheim (an exhibition in which Cotner was a participant) where the entire show was temporal and completely objectless: no paintings, no photographs or sculptures. Aside from a dance performance in the middle of the atrium, the show, in its entirety, consisted of a walking tour and directed conversation with your tour guide, who asked questions such as “What’s progress to you?” More than a few tourists could be heard, at the end of the walk, demanding their money back from the box office.
“Some might find calling this poetry deeply offensive,” Cotner said to me last Thursday, during the first of four planned Spontaneous Society walks. “[But] those who would resist calling Spontaneous Society ‘poetry’ are those for whom ‘poetry’ is connected with jumbled syntax, brain knots, and occasional dull readings. What I’m trying to do with Spontaneous Society is bring poetry back to its ancient function of social address. Here, for example, is an early Sappho fragment:
Now, today, I shall
sing beautifully for
my friends’ pleasure
“This fragment offers a vivid picture of Sappho’s poetry, how she understood the poet’s life,” said Cotner. “For Sappho, poetry is a public act that creates pleasure.” It’s in this spirit that Cotner led me and the four other Spontaneous Society participants. Before walking, Cotner addressed us with the primary purpose of our walk: “We’re going to focus on generating good feelings—what might be called ‘good vibes.’ In this fleeting existence, why would we want to use speech to spread humiliation or harm?” Cotner handed us our lines, which we practiced out loud and for each other a few times—he stressed that the lines themselves were somewhat meaningless, that so much of their power came from the delivery and intent—and then we began.
“That’s a good-looking umbrella,” said one of us, to a passerby carrying an umbrella.
“It is,” said the umbrella carrier, nodding and continuing on.
“That looks like a handy cart,” said Cotner as we passed a young woman pulling a handcart.
The woman laughed. “I know,” she said, “I look like a grandma, right?”
“That’s a good-looking dog,” another one of us said to a dog-walker (the most common and probably successful line of the night—dog-walkers on the streets of New York are plentiful and, surprisingly, almost universally pleasant, if not friendly), and the dog-walker smiled and told us the dog was sixteen.
“He must come from a good home,” said Cotner to the dog-walker. As we were walking, Cotner mentioned how it was “important” to affirm things like that to the people we talked to. Cotner did not explicitly say why he believed that, but I imagine it was so that the people we talked to did not feel used as part of some kind of social/artistic experiment, that they were, instead, to paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant, regarded as ends in themselves.
“[These lines] might appear to have been lifted from an ESL textbook,” said Cotner, later, over email. “But I don’t consider that disadvantageous. In fact, their comprehensibility makes them powerfully communicative. Adults, kids, even non-human animals have responded to these lines. The other day, for example, I told a man with a white parakeet on his finger: ‘That’s a good-looking bird.’ The bird smiled and smoothed its feathers. He then said ‘Good evening.’”
One of our most successful encounters of our night was improvised, though certainly in keeping with the spirit of the walk. We were by this time in Whole Foods in Time Warner Center, where we had gone to take shelter from the rain, when one of the members of our group, Lou, a poet, observed a shortish older woman staring wistfully at a wall of orange juice cartons. Lou intervened, gently, politely asking if she would like any help. He pulled a small carton of orange juice from the top shelf and handed to the woman. “Is this a good date?” he inquired, and the woman said yes, smiling and thanking him.
Although, at times, a few of our given lines felt a bit unnatural—the most poorly received line was, easily, “That’s a nice place for a smoke,” which, in the two instances of Cotner’s utterance, received medium-to-highly negative responses; one of the responses to the line was so negative, it actually led to a man sprinting up behind the group, demanding, almost violently: “What the fuck is that supposed to mean? What you mean by that?” (After the encounter Jon posited, generously, “He must have been having a bad day. Something besides us must have been bothering him.”) But even these kinds of encounters seemed part of the larger (and, I would argue, delightful) unpredictability of human nature.
Of course, many of us tend to think we already know this—we’ve all seen the movies and various television programming to get a sense of it, those awfully produced shows hosted by dopey/loving/laughing hosts showing homeshot videos of sons and daughters acting precociously (or hitting their fathers in the groins). People can be so interesting, funny, surprising, and so on, if we’d only talk to them. Sure, I get it. And yet, the thing is, when is the last time you actually said to someone, totally outside your peer group, totally without any intention besides positive communal feelings, that where they were sitting was “a good spot for a picnic?” Or that the three or more dogs they were walking formed “a good-looking wolfpack?”
The idea is not to mechanically mimic Cotner’s lines for canned interaction, but to inhabit their intent so that the lines and, moreover, the sentiments of the lines, the spreading of good vibes, become one’s own. It’s here where the real spontaneity starts to happen, after the initial recited line.
“Each line spoken during Spontaneous Society is addressed to someone,” explained Cotner. “These lines exist for the sake of intensifying pleasure within the flow of mundane existence. They’re not spoken in a void. Nor are they spoken to baffle or impress, or to sound impressive via bafflement—an increasingly common literary affliction. The lines have the humble social aim of producing laughter and smiles among people who might otherwise walk dogs, push carriages, pull suitcases, or go about general daily business with unconscious gravity. Both the speaker and recipient come away with renewed awareness of their fleeting circumstances. And because death is inescapable, it seems important to lose as few moments as possible in this life.”
After a night of Spontaneous Society concluding with what Cotner described as a “symposium,” in which the six of us shared a communal meal while discussing the encounters, insights, and challenges of our night, we stepped out of Time Warner Center and into the warm, damp world. Here, the job of the reporter becomes difficult. How does one say this—that, as I stood there, outside, taking it all in, something big and inarticulate was welling up in me, that our walk that night had contained and framed so much of that which is people? Beauty, surprise, possibility and communion. The rain, which had been going all night, had now stopped. In front of us were the enormous fountain and traffic circle, the bustling centerpiece of Columbus Circle. Colored lights lit up the interior of the fountain so that the water appeared in glowing, orange arcs. There were even lights—newly installed, Cotner pointed out—to illuminate every single blade of grass next to the fountain. Everything seemed so close and possible, bursting out for us. “It’s like the Bellagio,” someone said. We stood there in front of all this, hugged again, thanked each other, wished each other well. We parted, released.
Now, the real walk begins.
Tickets for Friday’s walk are sold out, but tickets for Thursday’s walk are, at the time of this article’s publication, still available.
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