Before she became the Queen of the internet, raised over $1,000,000 on kickstarter, and became a case study for artists looking to form relationships with “true fans” as well as how to avoid twitter mobs decrying her inclusion of unpaid volunteer in her gigs, Amanda Palmer stood on a box in Harvard Square as The Bride.
She was working at a joint ice cream parlor/coffee shop at the time, but she needed a new gig to help support her art. She had seen street performers standing as living statues in Europe, but not in the states. Drawing from these references, she bought a bride’s gown from a thrift store, found a sturdy box, painted her face white (complete with not yet iconic drawn on eyebrows), put on her combat boots (hidden under the dress but very much still there), and found a place to setup.
If you’ve ever done any busking, you know that the street corner is both a powerful platform and a fickle and often contested arena. What for most is only a liminal space - one passed through on the way from one place to another - becomes home, venue, and storefront to others. Staking your claim can be as easy as laying down, whether that is your body, table, or box. But holding the attention and respect of not only the passerby but also the other performers and inhabitants of your new platform is another matter.
To say that Amanda fit into an established genre of street performers and living statues is both true and reductionist - it comes from the other direction, that of the critic looking backwards. For Amanda, she was influenced by what she had seen, and she paid attention. She’d seen the statues in Europe, with their painted faces and slow intentional movements. She’d watched them as they presented tokens to their audience as a thank you for a tip. She saw other buskers and the way they also exchanged a nod, a wink, and a smile for the drop of coins. She watched where they set up. She asked people already out there if a particular space would be ok. She made friends.
And then one day, she got up on her box and she stopped moving.
She had brought flowers from a local flower store, and whenever someone put money in her vase, she slowly, slowly, came alive and gave them a flower. Yet she gave them more than a flower - she looked them in the eye and she said to them with her entire being but without her voice “I see you, I see you, I love you.” Some people cried. Many returned the next day.
The fundamental nature of the relationship between the artist and the audience is contained within this moment. We find our street corner, we get up on our box, and when the right person comes along, we come alive and reach out with our work and to say “I see you.”
But too often this discussion trends towards how to find the right audience. How to figure out how to fit into the right genre that makes you understandable enough to the people that you wish to connect with but idiosyncratic enough that you set yourself apart. That’s important, but it’s not the point, and it’s not something you can do from the outside in.
When looking for the street corner in digital worlds, we often think about an abstract space that we’ll be able to access when we have the audience. That once we undertake some process of audience building, we’ll then be able to perform to the people we seek to serve. But it’s telling that Amanda didn’t travel out of town to perform. Why would you do that? The street corner is where you are, where all the people already pass. Where people already might recognize you. Yet why do we hesitate to use the street corner close to our house? Because it takes courage to be seen. It’s an incredibly vulnerable act to get up on the box, and that’s what makes it powerful.
If the box is too high, we become unapproachable. Too low and we’re just another person in the crowd. If the dress is too silly, people will look at the dress and not our face. If the flowers are too perfect, it becomes about the flowers and not about the exchange. There’s no perfect equation, but in the end it’s not about the flower, it’s not about the box, and it’s not about the street corners.
It’s about the moment when you look someone in the eye and say with every ounce of your being but without the words, “I see you.” That is the moment of art. And that is the moment when we fall in love, with each other. We don't have to be present for this moment for it to happen, sometimes our work speaks for us across great distances, but in the end the moment is always the same. By allowing ourselves to be seen, we offer others the opportunity for us to see them.
Amanda tells these stories in her book, The Art of Asking and one of the things that struck me the most is that she talks about this directly - about falling in love with people everyday. About letting herself connect as deeply as possible, and being profoundly changed by this moment.
Yes, our work must be relatable and approachable to others, we must stand high enough on our box to be seen and low enough that someone will approach to reach out for the flower - but the way we earn the love of another human being that might lead them to become the kind of fan that later flew halfway around the world to see The Dresden Dolls live is by giving that love and acceptance first. By reaching out the flower - “I see you.”
In asking who we week to serve with our art - I ask the following questions, courtesy of Amanda Palmer and The Bride.
What is your street corner? - Not the perfect one that might exist somewhere, but the one around the corner from the coffee shop where you already work, where you can change in the basement and from where you can make it back quickly when it starts to rain.
What is your box? - Not your gimmick, not your differentiator from the other street performers, but just the way you lift yourselves up above the heads of the others on the street so that you have a chance of looking someone in the eye.
What is your flower? - What do you offer those that come closer to engage with your work? How do you relish the moment of offering it to them? How do you make it sacred?
And finally, how do you remember that the whole point is the moment at the end when you see each other? How do you look someone in the eye and offer yourself to be seen? Do you allow yourself to fall in love?