Zen & the art of the haircut for early teens


By C.W. Thompson

The venue was a narrow hair salon on Baxter St. in Chinatown called Hair 2 Stay, just a short walk north of Canal St. Outside, Saturday street life occurred as per usual. But inside the salon, something unusual was underway.

Customers sat in barber chairs, but what was unique was who was cutting the hair: 13- and 14-year-old English as a Second Language students from M.S. 131 on Hester St.

One such hairdresser was Ying Yi Huang, who had just finished her first-ever haircut.

“I’m still nervous about it,” she said. “What happens if I cut their hair and they don’t like it?”

The eighth graders huddled together behind the customers, at times conferring on haircuts or snapping cell phone photos. One man had his hair colored green, and a woman had streaks put in her hair. In all, the scene was very much like a professional hair salon, with the significant difference being the hairdresser’s age.

The event, simply titled “Haircuts By Children,” was created by Toronto artist Darren O’Donnell. The project was curated by Downtown arts non-profit Art In General, and ran for the first two Saturdays of November as part of the PERFORMA07 biennial, a city-wide event showcasing performances, exhibitions, symposia and film screenings.

While the project offered the whimsical sight of children cutting adults’ hair, there was a deeper social meaning to the piece. O’Donnell’s intent is part of a wider inquisition into children’s rights — questioning why children cannot be part of the political process in an era where they help drive the economy with their consumer choices. The staging of these concerns in a hair salon was no accident.

“I could have done a theater show — a staging — about something like children’s rights,” said O’Donnell, “but why do a show about it when I can use the resources in real life? We can do stuff that is more chaotic and dynamic this way.”

The show upset the usual boundaries between adults and children. Adults had to put a certain degree of faith into the hands of scissor-wielding children, and this empowered the kids, most of whom cut away with earnest determination. The children were paid $10 per haircut, but the haircuts were free for customers.

“It’s more the idea of inviting adults to take a risk,” said O’Donnell. “That’s the most exciting thing.”

Lynda Hodges, the eighth grade drama teacher at the school who helped coordinate the event, was visibly pleased with her students’ progress.

“I usually do Shakespeare in drama,” she said. “But for years I wanted to do something different. The kids have been concentrated and focused. They are always a pretty enthusiastic bunch.”

Noting that the school principal had been in for a haircut on both weekends, Hodges likened the event to a school play.

“I saw one of my kids do a haircut, and then at the end he combed it out straight. I applauded,” she said. “It’s like a performance.”

The students had trained on head models for a short time at the school.

“We learned how to put the cape on the customers,” said Huang. “We learned how to divide the hair and use a clipper. We also cut a little bit of hair from the models.”

“Maybe I’ll be a hairdresser,” she added. “It’s interesting and fun.”

“We only trained them for six hours,” said O’Donnell. “If we trained them longer, they might be as good as professionals.”

Rachel Nederveld had walked into the salon with a long ponytail. As she left, more than a few inches had been lopped off the back of her head.

“I wanted a trim,” she said, “but I told her she had liberties. I think she really went for it. She seemed to have fun.”

Nederveld saw two important aspects to the performance piece.

“I really appreciate the fact that they’re letting youth do this and give them some responsibility. It’s also great that something as simple as this can be an art piece.”

Chen Tamir, an art curator, was a customer who took the less risky approach.

“I take my hair quite seriously,” she said. “That’s why they only cut the back of my head. I didn’t want to give a child complete free reign over my hair.”

But Tamir spoke enthusiastically about the artistic merits of “Haircuts By Children.”

“Doing spontaneous, weird things keeps me young,” she said. “To put yourself in an uncomfortable position is something I like to do. I also think people should do more to test their boundaries.”

Megan Metcalf, an artist working in New York, visited the site as part of her PERFORMA07 travels.

“This is the only event that makes you vulnerable and in which you can participate,” said Metcalf. “The other events in Performa are more passive.

“With performances, the performer is so intense and committed. The audience members can be passive. But with this, it’s opening up the function of an artist and what makes an artist.”

O’Donnell’s project had its inaugural performance in 2006 in Toronto. Since then, it has expanded outwards to Los Angeles, Portland, Birmingham in the U.K. and Dublin. Next year will see children cutting hair in Vancouver and Sydney, and possibly Prague, Italy, Montreal and San Francisco.

“It’s about the encounter between the adult and the children,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve been doing a lot of atypical social dynamic situations — I’ve done a ballroom dancing party deejayed by kids, the children’s’ choice awards, and the home tours project. Those are the things I’m interested in.”

O’Donnell’s Mammalian Diving Reflex company has been involved in events he calls social acupuncture. His 2006 book “Social Acupuncture: A Guide to Suicide, Performance and Utopia” contained a long essay on this topic.

Juliana Khalaf, doing her master’s at Sotheby’s, was here because of a school project.

“I’m interested in the outcome,” she said before the haircut. “It will be a challenge.”

After her hair had been cut, Khalaf was pleased.

“The haircut was very good. I’m happy with it. I told her to do whatever she wanted, and she cut the back and the bangs.”

Khalaf’s friend, Anthony Sabga, was more philosophical about the issues the project raised.

“The mere fact that you have to be 21 to drink, but at 18 you can go and kill someone, is absurd,” he said.

At one point during the afternoon, an elderly gentleman walked into the salon looking for a haircut. Brian Cai, 14, offered to cut his hair, and the gentleman took him up on his offer.

“It was quite fun and exciting,” said Cai. “I think I did a good job. I gave him the haircut he wanted.”