You've seen them around town. Rolling on the asphalt at Astor Place and Union Square in their underwear. Sometimes in the rain. Bearded men in women's one-piece bathing suits and motorcycle helmets, women in glitter and furry brassieres, getting dirty, joyfully grappling one another, repeating the same words over and over. (Sometimes, the Van Gogh lookalike walks by.) They operate like a hive-minded flock, moving like starlings, in fleshy murmurations. Coming together, splitting apart, reforming in a new shape each time.
Some weeks ago, I came upon them in dishwater-dull Times Square, during a hunt for something New York, something startling and weird. Some sign, to quote Frank O'Hara, "that people do not totally regret life." In the soul-deadening crush of selfie sticks and Bubba Gump, I felt greatly relieved to see them in their strange and sweaty scrum of pre-Bloombergian delirium. But who are they and what are they all about?
I reached out to group co-organizer Fritz Donnelly to ask him about this thing they call "looping."
Fritz looping in Times Square, at TKTS
Q: What is looping?
A: Looping is what we call getting together and performing spontaneously with an orientation toward playful subversion. You're invited! We all lead and follow. We repeat for emphasis and to move the form, to get into a groove and then roll and see where it goes.
Q: Who is your group of loopers?
A: Many of us know one another from Circus of Dreams, a monthly variety performance art show at Bizarre Bar in Bushwick that Matthew Silver started and hosts, and which is now run by House of Screwball.
Looping specifically arose out of collaborative films and a workshops that I led earlier this year. Some characteristics of looping so far: Listening and offering. The body unsexualized, gender morphs, the audience is the performance, contact improv, undressing and redressing, language plays, absurdity, undrugged exuberance, unexpected but nurtured political gestures, normalizing weirdness and weirding normalcy.
Q: When you bring a performance (is that the right word?) to a place like the TKTS ticket lounge area, filled with Times Square tourists, what is your aim? What do you hope will happen?
A: Throwing our hands up and calling, "I'm a tree. Are you a tree?" And being joined by a family--including a little girl in a rainbow vest was one highlight. In a way, that's the point of looping: magical participatory moments. People smiling, laughing at themselves, at us. That's the good stuff.
I love it when people join. They step out of their day and into the wave. Whoosh. In another moment, a woman observing us threw off her dress and climbed a lamp post with our help, while another guy stripped to his underwear and rolled on the ground. "Life has its highs and lows!"
Looping is about feeling alive and challenging zombie culture, and recognizing community is a hand hold away. Love and acceptance for our strangeness is right here. We're all there inside just waiting for an excuse to peek out. "One of these kids is doing his own thing," why not join him!?
We all have different particular aims and interests but the overall point of performing like this in the place where people go to see spectacle, where they go to buy tickets for these multimillion dollar packaged productions, is to say that we can create theater in the everyday, in the moment. We can sing on Broadway. We did. The audience is here and the stage is set. Life can be a dramatic and ridiculous experience in just the way our 'entertainment' is.
I wore a costume from a former Broadway show, for example, and a lot of our loops resulted in singing or plays with the idea of theater, a chorus line, props, dance. It's not to reject that entertainment, just to point out the capacity we all have for that and to show the power of collective imagination and of performing for each other even in the smallest way. We're a beacon and a license.
A police officer said "you can't perform here," and I said, "this is a public space. That's a sidewalk. We'll perform here. We're respectful." And he said, "I look forward to seeing the show." Of course, you are told to stop and move so we stop, we freeze, and then we move, we boogie. The biggest laws are all on our side (speech, assembly), even if the smallest regulations and marching orders are not.
Some people pass by saying, "only in New York." My hope is they say, "anywhere in America, heck, the world."
Q: How do you see looping connected to a history of performance art or "happenings"? Specifically, to a New York history.
A: It's funny, the '70s in New York City, for example, are looked back on as a time of destitution, grime, crime, but oh-so-interesting and culturally rich. Danger and artistic edginess get interrelated, like we can't have one without the other. But there's a rich tradition in New York of happenings, be-ins, other shaped group experiences where the edgy art or community experience is safe for everyone. It may challenge the hegemony, but it exists because it creates a haven, a space for speaking or sharing that wasn't otherwise there. I find this kind of thing incredibly inspiring.
Think of all the creative effort, all the loft build-outs and building squats and people who've stood up and gone to jail for trying to save a tiny square of green space in their neighborhoods. Or the few women who are responsible for planting most of the sidewalk trees in New York. Looping is a kind of echo of these struggles, of those beautiful and daring personalities, the superheroes of our city. It's a kind of celebration of the freedoms that we have here, that we've fought for, but that we may be generally too busy to exercise. Now there are other people to be silly with.
Imagine if Bloomberg had convened a special committee not to deal with getting rid of Occupy Wall Street, but to see if there are ways to address the systemic issues being raised. We are eating the hand that feeds us because our hunger knows no end. Zombie time!
photo: Matthew Silver
For more looping: The next event will be today, June 18 ("5:30PM - meet at W. 23rd st. and 10th Ave. wear outlandish costume or underwear. Extra points if you bring weird prop.").
Find more info on Facebook, check out videos at TotheHills and on Fritz's youtube channel. You can also find Matthew Silver at Man in the White Dress -- I've written about him a bit here.