Elastic City stretches perspectives on our cityscape

On Niegel Smith’s May 2010 “Monumental Walk,” participants turn themselves into part of the surrounding architecture. Photo by Kate Glicksberg


 Conceptual walks explore new realms of the urban jungle

Several years ago, while pursuing a career as a poet, New York native Todd Shalom was wrestling with a discouraging problem. “The words on the page were not expressing everything that I had to say,” he explains.

Searching for a way to reconcile this dilemma, Shalom started experimenting with sound, then with performance art. “What do I love to do?” he asked himself, “and how can I travel in the city that I live in?” For Shalom, the answer came through the discovery of a new format for artistic expression: the conceptual walk.

In 2010, he founded Elastic City (elastic-city.com) — an organization that conducts art walks in locations all around the five boroughs. Rather than drilling tourists with historical facts, or “leading walkers through undiscovered geographical terrain,” the walks guide attendees in a search for new ways to explore New York City. Poetry, sound, paranormal and ritualistic performance and other art forms are incorporated into showing participants a city they may think they already know well.

In May’s “4ever 21” walk, Shalom and artist Juan Betancurth led participants on a walk for eternal youth in Midtown. “It was a walk about the beauty industry, essentially,” Shalom explains, recounting the experience. “We did a catwalk across Fifth Avenue, and then asked people in Saks Fifth Avenue if they had any products for eternal youth. Then, we made a necklace with our secrets for eternal youth, and [placed it] inside of a Forever 21 store, to symbolize the false commercial promise of eternal youth.” In another recent walk, “We and Our Shaaadows,” artist Chiara Bernasconi took participants on an excursion around Coney Island. Along the way, the group measured their shadows, watched them disappear, formed new collective shadows and gave shade to the sidewalk that had been baking in the heat all day.

Thinking about the future holds for Elastic City, Shalom recalls the very first walk he organized — “a very personal walk,” he says. “Orangeburg” was a visit back to the neighborhood where Shalom grew up. Shalom says the experience was “nostalgic” for him, but that he believes walks of such a personal nature can be rewarding for outsiders, too. He’s expects to do a series of autobiographical walks next season, to further explore “how one can take their own personal experience and adapt it to something that they can give to others whom they may not know.” Elastic City began this endeavor with an early August walk called “Total Detroit,” (which Shalom calls “a 64-hour healing walk”). This one started at LaGuardia Airport. It was a three-day trip to Detroit — a journey for the artist, Niegel Smith (who came of age in Detroit), to return to his former home and to take another look into his past and its traumas. “So he invited the public to come on this walk with him, and to bring their own baggage. We’re there to heal each other, perhaps,” Shalom says.

He explains that the walk is pretty unusual, even for Elastic City. “This is the first walk that’s actually left New York — the first one that’s left the state by airplane and then returned back,” he clarifies, noting that they have held walks in London, as well as in Buenos Aires (and soon, one in Sao Paolo). He adds that “Total Detroit” is “one of the only durational performances I know that actually begins in one place, takes an airplane to another…I don’t think it has been done before in the walk context.”

But then again, all of Elastic City’s walks are “pretty damn unconventional,” Shalom remarks. “A lot of [them entail] things that are…what one might call eccentric. I think that it’s kind of up to the artist to liberate the participants on the walk and make them feel more uninhibited to either try new things or to do things that maybe otherwise, in another setting, they wouldn’t do.”

Nonetheless, Shalom says he’s still “looking to…push the boundaries” of what the walk format can involve. “I intentionally didn’t put ‘walks’ into the title of Elastic City, because what if this thing evolves into being not walks, but something else?”

“But before that happens, I need to really exhaust what a walk can be,” he adds, explaining that this process will include facing some of his own biases about the format. Shalom is remarkable in the way he actively pursues the very things he regards with disinterest or distaste. “Generally, we stay away from fact-based walks, because…I don’t like walking tours,” he explains, concluding, “Maybe we need to give a walking tour!”

Just as we speak, he’s headed off on a trip to Washington state — where he’ll take part in a walk by Seattle-based artist Susan Robb: a 50-participant, four-day, 45-mile walk called, appropriately enough, “The Long Walk.”

“In general, I haven’t been for the idea of walking so much, of durational walks,” Shalom says, remarking that even Elastic City’s most extended tours could be deemed terse “pop songs” in comparison. Shalom describes his hesitation over participating in “The Long Walk,” considering the physical strain that it would involve. “Originally I was like, ‘Well, I love to do this and I love her work, but I don’t know if I can do this.’ ” he recounts. Then, Shalom explains, he realized, “Well that’s exactly why I have to.”

Shalom will return to New York with new perspectives, looking forward to organizing many more walks for New Yorkers in the coming seasons, and hoping to use his art form to unite people through shared experiences. “A big part,” he says of the walk format, “is bringing people together and forming community, however ephemeral.” But ultimately, he concludes, “if we can give people one new angle or new perspective, through which they may look as they walk down the street, then I feel satisfied.”

Elastic City’s upcoming walks include: “Solar Alignment Walk” (on August 27 and 28) with urban planner and artist Neil Freeman, which will focus participants on observing “the interstellar choreography” between sunlight and the urban landscape; “Creek and Valley Shrines” (on September 10 and 17) with artist Anne Percoco, at which participants will sculpt shrines in the landscape of Flushing Meadows Corona Park using their bodies and found objects; and “Monumental Walk” (on September 16 and 19), led by performance and theater artist Niegel Smith, where participants will “walk, dance and commune” with city buildings and monuments.

All walks are $20 per person, unless otherwise noted. Most are designed for 8-15 people, and typically last about 90 minutes. Sign up online in advance, or in person at the walk’s starting point using credit card or cash. Visit elastic-city.com for more info on upcoming walks, including artist biographies.