Art in Odd Places makes itself at home

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By Sabina Mollot

You know Art in Odd Places, the annual public art festival, has returned when the characters who act up on the M14 manage to be entertaining without getting into fights with the bus driver and the graffiti that pops up along local construction sites gets more creative than usual.

The event, which spans 10 days in October and is running for the ninth time in the city (the sixth time on 14th Street), kicked off last Friday.

The event opened with a low-key ceremony at the 14th Street entrance of Campos Plaza and several of the participating visual and performance artists keeping residents and passersby entertained.

This included a chance to get in touch with one’s past by having “Operator Loretta” (a character created by performer Lulu Lolo) dial the first number people could recall memorizing and seeing if they could actually get an answer.

One man, who was the first caller of the evening, dialed his mother’s number in Great Neck to let her know he wouldn’t be coming home for dinner.

“I don’t know if I really made contact,” he said afterwards, but the cat glasses-wearing “Loretta” assured him that “She’ll hear the message.”

Later, Lolo explained how the character came about, which is that when she ordered a vintage operator’s telephone from eBay, the previous user’s name, Loretta, was marked on it with a piece of tape. But even before that, she’d had an interest in vintage numbers, which went along with this year’s AiOP theme of “number” and had found that phone numbers from the 1940s along with the names of the corresponding New Yorkers were all available through a bit of research at the library. “ You knew where people lived by their phone numbers,” said Lolo, “if it was in Gramercy or Stuyvesant Town. I was looking up all the numbers on 14th Street.”

Another event participant, Shannon Novick, was behind a design of a virtual tour of 14th Street that participants can take via an app downloaded on any mobile device. Not having been to the area before (he’d just flown in from New Zealand), Novick created his tour with the help of an AiOP staffer who took photos of neighborhood points of interest and Google Maps. Those who take Novick’s tour, when holding up their smartphones, can read a bit of history about the various destination points while also listening to some accompanying music. For example, those who stop at the Liberty Inn will hear a song by the Rolling Stones since the band had stayed there.

For Novick, finally getting to see the places he’d researched from across the world “just blew me away,” he said. “It adds a whole new dimension to the work that I couldn’t see.”

Yet another artist, Pedro Gomez Egana, was making his way around Campos, wheeling around a wooden warrior he built. At the same time, curious onlookers could listen via headphones to a story that accompanied the walk. In it, the warrior, whose arm always points south regardless of the direction he was pulled in, clearly had an appetite for destruction. The story involved demolishing the FDR Drive, the Williamsburg Bridge and creating a tornado in Brighton Beach. Egana said he was inspired by an ancient Chinese mechanism called a south pointing chariot.

Meanwhile, as the event has grown in popularity (recently AiOP was debuted in Australia), Woodham said he’s also gotten some flack for not paying the artists who participate. But, he noted, no one involved gets paid, including him, because none of the art is for sale. “What we can offer is a support system and advice,” said Woodham, a teaching artist, “and these are really important things, and we offer freedom because we’re not behooved to anyone.”

The only rule artists really have to follow is to be “mindful” of the fact that everything is done in public, “so we’re not bombarding (people) with art, we’re suggesting art,” said Woodham.

For Friday’s festivities, the crowd was a mix of neighborhood residents and others who worked in the area, such as Lydia Matthews, who’d been to AiOP events in previous years.

“I always enjoy seeing all the different things,” said Matthews, “and when you hit a lot of the (installations) in one stretch, it’s very exciting.”

With this year’s festival having fewer participating artists than in previous years at around 30, the opening events didn’t draw a huge crowd, but to maintain a “festival atmosphere,” organizers have planned this year’s schedule so that there’s always something going on at any given time. AiOP, which began on October 11, will run through October 20 along the length of 14th Street from the Hudson River to Avenue C. There will be also be a “Critical Mass” Saturday with numerous artists participating at once from 1-5 p.m. on October 19 between Second Avenue and Avenue A.

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