John Troyer isn't sure what is going to happen. It's the day before his plane leaves for New York City, and the 26-year-old head of the Praxis Group, a two-year-old agit-prop performance troupe, is considering the weekend ahead of him. "I'm both fascinated and intimidated," Troyer says from a table at the Uptown biker coffee shop Bob's Java Hut. "I have no idea what to expect. I'm like the kid who doesn't know you're not supposed to go in that cave, who does it anyway."
For the last two years, the Praxis Group has appeared, uninvited, in public spaces across the Twin Cities, including the Walker Art Center, the IDS Crystal Court, and, of course, the Mall of America. Its modus operandi has generally been to descend upon the site in white lab coats, carrying signs, surveying the space, and taking notes. To date, every action has ended in a quick ejection at the hands of security staff. So how will the group fare in New York, under authoritarian mayor Rudy Giuliani's attempts to transform the city into the Singapore of the West?
On Friday morning the same questions linger as the Praxis Group prepares for the first of four daily actions to take place over the weekend. It's May 14, and the four members who flew out to New York are sitting in a SoHo art studio rolling up flyers and taping them shut with elementary-school stickers bearing slogans like "You're out of this world" and "Fantastic!" Troyer, a tall goateed man with a pair of black, thick-framed glasses, jokes about giving a "Bang up job!" sticker to a police officer--a macabre reference to the four New York cops who shot at an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo 41 times, killing him. Then, Troyer sincerely advises the rest of Praxis to put their metal pointers down very slowly if they're approached by police.
Today's performance is the result of a collaboration with East German-born New York resident Trebor Scholz, who first heard about Praxis through its Web site (www.waste.org/praxis), and whose work focuses on global consumerism. Hence the concept: To stage an event on the sidewalk between a McDonald's and the Jacob Javits Federal Building, which houses both the Immigration & Naturalization Service and the FBI. From this spot, they will quiz New Yorkers to see if they can recognize the faces of historical figures, and contrast the results with how well participants recognize Ronald McDonald. As the Praxites and Scholz walk up Broadway Avenue together, Troyer informs the crew that Scholz's name shouldn't be mentioned if the police get involved--his naturalization status hasn't been decided yet, and an arrest record might not be helpful.
Soon, three of the members are standing in lab coats on the street (the fourth is one of the group's photographers). It quickly becomes apparent that too much scrutiny may be the least of their concerns. Although their coats positively gleam in the clear noon sun, the performers are barely visible from a block away. Next to them, a man sells bundles of incense on a table, and a woman trundles by with a shopping cart overflowing with plastic bags. In the Twin Cities, Praxis was a massive white blight on the city's corridors of commerce and culture; here the group is a pale pebble dropped into a torrent of foot traffic.
Still, passersby do occasionally take notice of the three, who are holding a pointer, a stack of poster boards with pictures of Bobby Seale and James Baldwin, and a clipboard. A businessman with a salt-and-pepper mustache asks, "What is this, a contest?" and becomes intrigued when prizes are mentioned. Another man with tinted bifocals decides to test his knowledge, and points at the picture of John Lennon, identifying him as "the guy that got shot Uptown."
As predicted, people invariably recognize the illustration of Ronald McDonald. (A surprising number of people also recognize more obscure figures like Ho Chi Minh.) The anti-McDonald's flyer and free balloon--which, when inflated, displays a choice quote from the president of McDonald's Japan about how Japanese people can become taller, blonder, and whiter by eating McDonald's hamburgers--make this Praxis event the most ostensibly political yet. (This fact may stem in part from the collaboration with Scholz, whose concerns are far more political.) Unfortunately, the point about the ubiquity of American consumerist icons is a bit tired, even if Praxis's friendly, showmanlike delivery--they liven up the quiz with liberal hints, and occasionally shout out, "Name that historical person, win a prize!"--makes the whole presentation quite personable.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that the authorities apparently couldn't care less. More than once, a couple of New York's finest walk by, affording only a glance at the lab-coat insurgents. Praxis keeps this action going for an hour and a half, occasionally observed by some bemused McDonald's employee out on a smoke break. And then, for the first time in an unsanctioned performance, they stop the piece themselves and walk back to the studio.
New York isn't the only city to see the Praxis group this weekend. A few months back, Troyer declared on the Praxis Web site that Saturday, May 15 would be the first International Acts of Difference Day, calling all would-be performers to "Break cultural expectations, everyday patterns of behavior. Stand on the line between illegal and different." He apparently struck a nerve among some far-flung agitators and sundry other goof-offs. Troyer has received word of schemes for social disruption that will be taking place under the Praxis name in Seattle, Milwaukee, Chicago, Edinburgh, London, somewhere in Peru, and in trains moving across Europe. In the Web-agitating tradition of culture-jammers like (r)Tmark and Adbusters' parent organization, the Media Foundation, Troyer is serving more as a catalyst than a guerrilla organizer: After supplying the initial strategic framework, he has scarcely been involved in implementing International Acts of Difference Day. Part of the test of the day's effectiveness, of course, will be how much exposure these mediagenic performances receive.