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Empire Project Part II
In 2002 I assumed that the post 9/11 environment would be too tense for any kind of performance, but I was encouraged to proceed by an artist friend Bradley McCallum. He felt that there was something really important about the annual ritual of this kind of story-telling, this diligent yearly maintenance of this little history. He and I agreed that this repetition emphasized the air of determination about the project, that this story wasn’t going away despite the eclipsing tendencies of the annual days of observation of the dominant culture, Independence Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Washington’s Birthday, etc.

I invited friends to join me at eight o’clock on the observation deck for juice and cookies. I rode up to the top with juice, paper cups, cookies, lottery tickets and twenty gun prints (“Who knows?” I thought). I began giving away the lottery tickets. Later I dropped a ticket over the side and then a print. Minutes later I dropped another and then another. I was talking with a film-maker from Ireland when I felt a hand on my elbow. “Come with us,” a voice said and security guards took me to the basement. I was photographed and made to sign paperwork saying that if I ever set foot in the building again I would be subject to arrest. A guard walked me out of the building into the windy night.

Leaving the building, I felt shaken and a bit defeated. Riding back to Brooklyn on the Subway I fingered the lottery tickets in my pocket. I had spent money on them and their entire value for me resided in their ability to initiate interactions. In my pocket they seemed wasted, so after building up courage I walked the length of the car handing out the lottery tickets. The people in the silent subway car didn’t receive them well. A few people outright refused the tickets, more ignored me. When ignored, I just set the tickets down, (on a book-bag or in one case, on a man’s knee) and kept walking.

When I returned to my seat I heard one person asking another about the tickets, then a woman across the aisle asked me why I was giving them away. I explained that I had been asking people if they would give a third of their winnings to the Middle-Eastern Peace process. A man joined in, saying that he thought that religious fanatics had hijacked the process. Another man said that our country had big financial interests in the Middle East and that those drove our policies. One woman said that she didn’t believe in gambling or the lottery and if she won, she’d give it all away. A teen-aged girl laughed and said that would all change if she really did win. There were two other conversations that were too far away for me to hear.

The sense of community on this subway car was much more palpable than anything that I had felt on top of the Empire State Building. I believe that this sense of community existed because unlike the gift-giving at the Empire State Building which had requirements for a form of reciprocation, these gifts on the subway were given freely. Subway passengers are used to gifts as part of a panhandling strategy, insubstantial gifts which are actually a pretext for the request of a more significant return gift. When it became clear that this gift had no direct expectation for reciprocation attached to it, the faith in the network of community was strengthened and a dialogue ensued. Riding under the East River amid the buzz of conversation in what had been minutes before a silent car, I was exhilarated and I began to plan the next year’s event.

In January of 2003 I carved fifteen small wooden sculptures of the Empire State Building and painted them. In February I purchased fifteen lottery tickets and went to the Fifth Avenue entrance of the Empire State Building with a few of my friends. I approached visitors and offered them one of the carvings if they would give one of my lottery tickets to a stranger on the observation deck. The first people I approached avoided me, showing their street-smarts by dodging what must have looked like a hustler of some sort.

Eventually I learned that if I handed a sculpture to a person before they had time to think, they would stop and be more likely to talk to me. Often, when I explained the arrangement, the tourists/participants would make me repeat the deal, trying to find the moment that I made my profit. When it became clear that I did not make a profit, they would ask me about my motivation. At that point I would explain that I had been making art about Kamal and the shooting and had decided to come to New York and memorialize the incident by speaking with strangers and giving away lottery tickets. Occasionally I was asked why I didn’t just give away the tickets myself and I explained my life-long ban.
In this way, my solution to being banned from the building enriched the exchange at the heart of my project by bringing into the process a second generation of giving. What had been an isolated event, an exchange between one member of the public and myself, expanded to include another exchange at a future time, one in which the audience members became the initiators. This allowed for the participant to have an increased ownership and internalization of the project. Also, the delay between the initial gift transfer and the second round (the giving of the lottery ticket) required that I trust the participant and that they move forward conscious of that trust. This extension of the project over time and the trust involved contain the ingredients for the creation of community.