Confuse the Powers That Be!

A troupe of Minneapolis agit-prop artists go to Giuliani's Gotham and face their toughest adversary yet--indifference

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?

Praxis acts of kind randomness and beautiful senselessness: The lab-coat mafia in a Minneapolis action
Praxis acts of kind randomness and beautiful senselessness: The lab-coat mafia in a Minneapolis action

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.

Troyer and the 20 to 25 Twin Cities-based Praxis members--generally twentysomethings with academic and/or performance backgrounds--coordinated the events in Manhattan and Minneapolis. The Minneapolis event is one of the first to be coordinated without much direct steering by Troyer himself; in the past, Troyer has assumed most of the conceptual and organizational responsibilities of the group. Pairs of Praxis members will be traveling to five different McDonald's locations around the Twin Cities, approaching the individual counters, and simultaneously making the same incongruous request, such as "Can I get pancakes in a hash-brown container?" or "Can I get hash-browns in a pancake container?" Whatever packaging they ultimately receive will be collected at a spot outside the Uptown McDonald's, where it will be added to a sidewalk shrine to Ronald over the course of the afternoon.

This event is actually officially sanctioned, though not exactly expected: Praxis has signed up for a public art event sponsored by the Uptown Business Association and steered by Minneapolis artist Rob Blackson, though the Association was more likely expecting chalk drawings or something similarly traditional. (The next day, however, preliminary reports from Minneapolis indicate that the Association liked it so much that it invited Praxis to come to the Uptown Art Fair--an invitation Troyer tells me they'll most likely decline.)

Even though Troyer isn't ruling out the value of getting arrested, so far the group has focused on acting out the unexpected, not the illicit. At the group's first performance in the Mall of America, pairs of performers walked through the halls, one holding up a sign with a quote from the Mall's promotional literature--such as "The 78-acre complex attracts fashion-conscious power shoppers"--while the other took notes. At the Crystal Court, they stood in a line on the skyway-level balcony, looking down to the ground floor with binoculars.

"To break the law is really simple," says Troyer. "Existing in that line between illegal and different, that can be really tricky. Because if you're not doing anything necessarily wrong, but you're doing something different, you're on that boundary where the person who's in charge of wherever you're at has to determine if what you're doing is illegal." It's an especially Minnesotan concern, considering our propensity to have our public spaces handed over to private concerns--witness our dubious record in having created the country's first indoor shopping mall (Southdale) and its largest (just guess). And leave it to our state to serve as home to what may be the least confrontational agit-prop troupe in the free world.

The choice of costume, which Troyer first used two years ago when he wrote a play produced at the University of Minnesota, helps push the boundary between innocuous and disconcerting. "There's something about that damn white lab coat that really creeps people out," he says. The lab coats can make the observational nature of a Praxis performance unnervingly apparent, coercing other people into the role of subject. However, the coats also serve as an apt reminder that Praxis is as much an organ of research into public psychology as it is a quiet agitator. Many of the notes that the group takes are later passed around and read.

In the same spirit of discovery, Troyer will often laugh boisterously when he explains how some public interaction played out unexpectedly. Although Troyer, who received a bachelor's degree from the U of M in theater and political science, displays a mild disdain for capitalism in its more noxious incarnations, when he speaks about Praxis, he seems much more interested in ideas than in conveying a sense of outrage. In some sense, he's a big kid in an ideological sandbox, playing with postmodern theory instead of a Tonka truck, and assembling an elite squad of lit-crit smartasses to move the sand around from pile to pile.

On Saturday, the first International Acts of Difference Day, the Praxis Manhattan contingent is ready to move again. Starting from the edge of Central Park across the street from the Guggenheim museum, seven Praxis members (all of whom either flew out from Minneapolis or recently moved to New York) walk into the museum one by one, holding their lab coats folded and tucked under their arms.

At noon, Troyer puts on his lab coat and makes his entrance. Starting from the fourth floor--the first three floors are closed for installation--Troyer makes his way up the Guggenheim's broad spiral pathway, posture erect, face expressionless. He attracts only a few glimpses and double takes. When he reaches the top, two other Praxis agents join him, slipping on their coats and descending with him. Others join them on the way down, and they walk slowly, deliberately, rarely exchanging conversation or even glances. They openly observe the art and the patrons, scribbling down notes and gazing through binoculars at the ground-floor mezzanine, at the art, or at each other from two feet away.

But again, there's no confrontation: The guards range from curious to amused. One guard laughs, and mouths, "I have no idea" to a guard on a level below him: He eventually approaches the group and says, "This is performance art, right?" And although this gives rise to a delicious mess of intertwined gazes--guards and patrons watching Praxis members, who reflect that gaze back through their binoculars--it also leaves the group, again, with the curious problem of being forced to choose the ending to its performance.

After the full group reaches the bottom, it climbs to the top once more, and then heads down along the railing in a quick single file. On the ground-floor mezzanine, standing in their lab coats and assessing the performance, Praxis is approached by a staffer who asks them if they're waiting for a museum tour.

"I'm a little disappointed that we didn't get kicked out, and I'll admit that," says Troyer afterward over a slice of pizza. But he reiterates that breaking the law isn't the point so much as getting in trouble is--even if Giuliani's New York seems to be trying to make the two indistinguishable.

Praxis still has a few more chances to court a crackdown, though: On Sunday, one Praxis agent will be leading the others, costumed as aliens from outer space, on a tour of Ellis Island. On Monday morning, Praxis will try to plant lab-coated members in the crowd of the Today Show while Al Roker does live banter. The goal here is to flash a sign reading "This is a performance" on national TV.

And beyond that, it's hard to say. For one thing, Troyer is in the process of applying to grad school in the fall, which may take him out of Minneapolis. More intriguing, the worldwide contacts he's making through the first International Acts of Difference Day are forming the beginning of what Troyer hopes may be an international network of public performance artists. More immediately, Praxis has recently been invited to stage happenings in Denver and Salt Lake City.

"We may actually have tactical units doing things in other places," Troyer says enthusiastically, "so that no matter where anyone in the Praxis group were to go, there would be an opportunity to create performances anywhere in the world." One day, he enthuses, Praxis might be a global cultural presence, capable of appearing obtrusively and unbidden all across the world. But whether the world will bother to resist, who can say?

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