On 8 April 2010, I was invited to photograph a 13-hour durational performance art piece called “Awaiting,” in downtown Salt Lake City. The piece was organized by Ernesto Pujol, a Visiting Artist at the University of Utah’s Department of Art & Art History, and its first Endowed Art Residency recipient. Ernesto invited me personally—after a meal we shared with my photography instructor (his friend), Rosi Hayes. For some reason still unclear to me, especially as an undergraduate studying English Literature, Rosi had showed him my fledgling portfolio and he had liked it enough to insist. I felt at once both immensely flattered and terrified.
2010 was the year I considered a lot of things seriously. After applying to 10 creative writing MFA Programs, some acceptances had come back in, and I had to decide where I’d go for the next 3 years. This meant relocation, almost certainly. And a lot of goodbyes to the town and friends I’d made my own for the whole of my college experience. 2010 also marked the first time I took photography seriously as an art form, as more than a hobby—largely thanks to Rosi’s teaching. She exposed me to photography’s history: Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman; but she also invited me to bring my poems, my Greek language studies, and literary theoretical obsessions into my photographic practice with interdisciplinary assuredness. I was working on a final that used (thinly-)nuanced Greek understandings of Desire, half-borrowed from Anne Carson’s Eros: The Bittersweet, to objectify nude and clothed portraits I’d taken of my professors and friends in preparation of their absence; I think Rosi recognized something in my striving, and, perhaps sharing this with Ernesto, landed me the invitation.
Ernesto Pujol was born in 1957 in Havana and moved to the United States in 1979. He became known in the art world in the 1990’s for a series of site-specific installation projects that dealt with whiteness, masculinity, collective and individual memory, loss and mourning. In a 2014 statement from Pujol’s website, he speaks about the role of performance art in society:
“Performance as social practice is not about invading, colonizing, and mining. It is not commercial social sculpture, playfully using people as free labor or raw material. Performance as social practice is about respectfully inhabiting place and carefully revealing place. And yet, it does not hesitate to place audiences in a state of healthy discomfort, to make them think. American audiences need to slow down, stop, and reflect.”
Pujol’s piece in Salt Lake City, called “Awaiting,” was fashioned to respectfully inhabit and carefully reveal. Over 40 performers, dressed in secular white clothing, converged on the steps of the Utah Capitol Building at 6pm on the evening of the 8th; over the next 13 hours, they would walk up and down those same steps—maybe breaking to stand for a while, maybe threading the spaces between the Capitol’s austere colonial columns, alone, in pairs, in groups of varying number—but always silently until dispersing again into the city streets after 7am the following day.
According to an interview between Pujol and Salt Lake’s Deseret News, “Awaiting” existed to provide “a very gentle invitation to something deeper that is getting lost now that we have cell phones and hand-held devices." Not unlike the way Backwords Press approaches blog pieces with a thoughtful and deliberate engagement in both presence and history, Pujol insists that:
"We used to have these moments of silence where we could reflect about life and issues while we were waiting for the bus or for a movie or a loved one. But now, everything is filled up with a kind of exchange. We are in the habit of checking e-mail or going online in our hands. There's not even a waiting anymore. We are always so efficient, always working … and we forget that the real meaning and direction and depth of life lies not in this kind of frenzied activity, but in knowing who we are."
Admittedly, not everyone agrees. The first of the Deseret News commentators stated rather flatly, “There's a department that can be closed down, and save the Taxpayers, some money” (no emphasis or editing added). Others were more thoughtful—such as Art Pulse’s Cara Despain. She noted that competing associations no doubt played a significant role in the piece’s overall reception and effectiveness: the choice of white clothing, meditative practice, even sunset and rise—which had their own intentionality under Pujol—were likely interpreted or re-purposed by the piece’s occasional audience. Despain puts it this way: “The meditation-based idea of Awaiting sort of raises the question: can the public experience the piece effectively in the same way as the performers? … While they are both relevant experiences inverse of each other, they are intrinsically divided.”
Yet having attended and photographed the piece’s first four hours, I cannot accept Despain’s interpretation of the experience.
In the midst of the piece, it was precisely the audience—showing a reverence normally reserved for church meetings and temples—that evidenced the answer to any claim of intrinsic divide. People gave up on going home, to stay and watch. Cyclists stopped. Cars parked, their occupants meandering out to observe. The growing crowd made room for the performers, physically, keeping an almost awed distance; but they also slowed and quieted, any talk nothing more than a whisper. Ernesto had hoped the crowd would make the piece’s fourth wall and paradoxically they did.
Maybe a half-hour before sunset, a random middle-aged woman, draped in New Age shawl, from the little crowd of people who made up the piece’s immediate audience, entered the almost-reverent wide berth that this same audience had granted to the performers doing their walking and waiting. She bowed her head. She swung her arms, a little loosely, a little purposefully at her sides. She began to hum loudly—the 40 odd performers so far had not made a sound. Then the woman let out a long blood-curdling shriek which turned the heads of nearly every soul in attendance; I was maybe 100 yards away, and still several people near me started in surprise.
For years now, I’ve thought about what motivated this woman to—not only join the performers in their walk—but to shatter the air. I’ve asked myself why then? Why the scream? I’ve puzzled over the swinging arms. Not unlike Despain, I’d insist that something divided me and my understanding from this woman and her’s. Despain, who is more than happy to make Pujol’s refusal to entreat the “certain considerations” another artist might give a predominantly Mormon audience a sign of unfamiliarity or ignorance at their best. (At their worst, she seems to suggest that Pujol’s willful acceptance of the term, “outsider,” is an indictment tantamount to Mormon cultural bulldozing…) Yet without this woman’s scream, perhaps I wouldn’t have observed what I did next.
After starting in surprise, the people around me talked. A lot. About what she’d done. About what they’d observed. They asked each other why then, why the scream. They puzzled aloud over the swinging arms. Yet as I listened to them talking, I couldn’t help but notice how invested they were in making meaning of it all. How they agreed, at least, on one thing: to the casual observers, all the ones I overheard, “Awaiting” was precisely not the place for a scream.
Me, Ernesto, and Rosi got together once more for coffee a couple weeks after “Awaiting” was over. And the screaming woman came up in our conversation. We chuckled a bit—but I don’t think at the woman’s expense. Ernesto referred back to his reasons for the piece in the first place; he said, “the audience forms its permeable urban cloister wall, the outer circle of the performance, completing it with their own patient, silent thoughts as they witness.” Perhaps the woman understood this, too, or perhaps she didn’t at all. Perhaps her particular form of waiting had a lot more engaged trauma inside it. Who knows? What I did know, clear as the sunrise those 40 performers dispersed into, was that their audience shared a greater portion of their understanding than any of them might realize.