This is Not an Interview: A Stroll with Tyler Coburn
Artist Tyler Coburn has just completed an eighty day-long project titled Medium No. 1 (Manhattan). A commission for "In Practice," the just-ended exhibition at the Sculpture Center for eight emerging artists, the work was a meditation on the city, on technology, and on the networks of social contexts that make up Coburn’s New York-based community. The artist traversed one full Manhattan street a day, starting at 1st Street on January 1st, and ending on 82th Street on March 22nd. For most walks, he was accompanied by a friend or acquaintance with whom he would converse. Coburn recorded each walk, then faxed a daily, one-page transcript to the Sculpture Center. There it would join a long scroll of previous transcripts emerging from a thermal-roll fax machine propped on its side at the top of a plywood ramp. The Situationists believed that by drifting without direction through the city, engaging in what they termed a ‘dérive’, the artist could create a ‘psychogeography’ -- a new plan of the city and the self that would shirk off the rigid structures of planned society. Of course they had in mind the drift potential offered by French civic planner Haussmann's Paris, not New York's rigid grid-system. Coburn’s tracing of that grid is what he terms an ‘anti-dérive’, a planned walk. But, as he well knows, there remains room for unplanned drift within the conversations that occur upon the walk. I joined Coburn late on a cold and dark Thursday night at the very western reach of 71st Street. Here are the excerpted transcripts of our conversation up to our arrival at Central Park.
[Tyler alone with his recorder. Sound of the wind blowing and approaching footsteps.]
BR: What’s up?
TC: How are you doing? Welcome to the end.
BR: Yes, how are you? Ah. Look at this.
TC: I know.
TC: Well, they had to elevate it at some point.
BR: Right. What is this?
TC: This is the railroad track…and this avenue used to be called ‘Death Avenue”, um, a long time ago because basically, like, there were no, there were grade crossings, I think that was what it was called, and um, basically like trains and cars, and previously trolleys and buggies and everything else were all just on the same street…and it was pretty much like live and let die, fend for oneself etc. And there were actually horsemen, I think they were called the ‘Eleventh Avenue Cowboys’, and they would sit on their horses and go down in front of the trains to lead them down so as to prevent casualties, because as the name of the avenue would suggest, people were dying quite readily.
TC: So this was elevated, this was elevated prior to Moses sort of taking over, but basically to sink the tracks. And it is these tracks that if you go up further on the Upper West Side that have the tunnels that all the people live in. You’ve heard about the people no? The tunnel people?
BR: Oh, are they still there?
TC: Oh yeah, very much so. Apparently there is a book, this woman ended up entering very much into their community, and lived with them for several months if not a year.
BR: Wasn’t it a guy, didn’t a guy make a movie about them.
TC: I’m sure there are lots of things, but the book, at least that I know, is by this woman. So, I’ve no idea what is on the other side of that elevated area, there are some lights, I’ve seen some lights. When you take the train up, I mean as I am sure you know, there is all sorts of interesting graffiti.
BR: Right, underneath.
TC: Because the train goes all the way up that way.
BR: Yeah. When was Moses doing all this stuff?
TC: Well I mean, he slowly accrued power through the Twenties, Thirties, and then basically was largely discredited by the time of the 64 World Fair. The problem with him though was because he was a civil servant and was never actually nominated to office because of the position he held, he couldn’t be, he could be fired, but he couldn’t be sort of voted out, you know? If you ever want me to hold that by the way, we can alternate.
BR: Oh well yeah. Maybe I will ask you later. I am doing OK so far.
TC: All right, but just keep it in mind.
BR: Right, I had to bring my laptop, in case, um, in case I was suddenly, you know…
TC: Overcome with the desire to network? [Laughter]
BR: Right. Might want to check Facebook.
TC: Well I do have my iPhone if you need some quick updates.
TC: If you need to twitter anything, ‘taking a walk’…
BR: Well I twittered already.
TC: Oh yes? What was the twitter?
BR: It was, uh, “Meeting …Tyler Coburn…walking across 72nd Street.”
TC: 71st Street!
BR: Ah, Shit.
TC: You’ve gotta redo that! Re-twitter!
BR: I’ve got to redo it.
TC: Do you actually twitter?
BR: No, I don’t.
TC: Oh fuck. Because Erykah Badu just twittered when she was in labor, which I thought was amazing.
BR: That is incredible.
TC: And then someone said, well labor is a very long thing, or can be, and I was like right, I guess there must be some time, in between rounds of pain, where there must be some downtime.
BR: Well she probably just twittered to piss Jill Scott off.
BR: Did you ever see "Dave Chappelle’s Block Party?"
TC: No, I never saw it.
BR: Well there is this point in that where Jill Scott is talking about what a great diva she is, and then she goes out on stage to sing a duet with Erykah Badu … And Jill Scott is very, she is kind of fabulous and amazing, but Erykah Badu destroys her, basically.
BR: I mean they were very friendly, but ...
TC: It was a polite, um, slaughter.
BR: Yeah [laughter], it was fun.
BR: So, where are we now?
TC: We are at the intersection of Broadway and the other street. [Laughter] Broadway and Amsterdam, or Columbus.
BR: So, how many blocks have you done at this stage?
TC: How many blocks? I don’t think in blocks, I think in streets.
BR: Well, how many streets?
TC: Oh, seventy, this is the seventy-first?
BR: So you started ?
TC: At 1st Street, I didn’t walk when numbered streets, like down in the village -- when they became name streets, I didn’t walk on the name street portions. I just adhered to the numbers. So basically -- and this is what the first transcript says -- I am treating New York as if it began in 1811 when the Commissioners’ Plan was signed into being, which basically is what laid out the grid, or, as Koolhaas called it, "the greatest act of prediction in the history of the Western World." So, in a sense, it is the instantiation of New York, because what preceded it -- I mean New Amsterdam had already been renamed New York, but in a very fundamental way -- the grid system ushered in the era of the modern city, so to speak The legalese of the initial plan really focuses on property value, and the justification for the grid, in an interesting way, derives not from some Cartesian Maxim or whatever, but is just about how this is the most efficient way to maximize property value -- to lay out these plots and institute a certain amount of control of how people build and develop. That sort of informs the prediction, and in a way sets the condition for the idea of "vertical value."
[At high wall that leads into Central Park]
TC: Right, we have two options Bart, we can walk it totally transverse, in which case we are going to be doing some climbing, or we could amble slightly to the side, and work our way through.
BR: So transverse means across -- in a straight line?
TC: Yup. Sometimes I do it straight. It depends on what the walker wants. If not, 72nd Street has a nice road that runs more or less straight across.
BR: Well, let’s be rigorous about this will we?
BR: Let’s be very "1969."
TC: Oh Bart, let’s not put another year to it -- we are living in the now.
[We climb over the wall and jump to the grass below.]
All images: Medium No. 1 (Manhattan), 2008-2009, Transcripts of 82 walks across Manhattan (January 1, 2009-March 22, 2009), thermal roll fax machine, laminate wood flooring, plywood, mirror, drywall, fluorescents, dimensions variable; all images courtesy the artist.