Kenneth Pietrobono: 31 Shirts, 31 Days
Terms and Conditions (On Wanting) by New York artist Kenneth Pietrobono was originally shown as part of BRIC’s spring 2016 exhibition, Whisper Or Shout: Artists in the Social Sphere. The installation consisted of 31 t-shirts to be worn by the artist in public for 31 days, all bearing political, economic and social terms that influence our surroundings. In this second iteration of the project, the artist turned to the single question used in the first version, Terms and Conditions (2012), that reads, Why Don’t We Leave? Considering this question, Terms and Conditions (On Wanting) (2016) focuses on the ways desires and wants move fluidly between individual and collective positions and how they are used in our political and economic landscape.
The following are the reflections and observations Pietrobono shared from the recently completed public cycle of the work (which took place Sept 6 - Oct 7, 2016). You can view the complete documentation on his Instagram page (@kenneth218) and on the artist's website, kennethpietrobono.com.
Stranger at a dance club: “Where did you get your shirt?”
Stranger: “Where did you get your shirt?”
Me: “I had it made. Its part of a project I’m doing.”
Stranger: “ ‘Merit and Constraint’ – I’ve been looking at it all night. I have no idea what you mean but I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Me: “What do you think it means?”
Stranger: “I don’t know! But it feels so familiar – I think that’s why I keep looking at it.”For 31 days I have had exchanges like this - small conversations, sometimes opening up to more, mostly not. I think to document them in the moment but it always feels like something is at stake announcing the exchange as art or as an event to pay attention to. So the moments rise and fall, thoughts expressed; language hopefully going from my mind to someone else’s and the cycle moves on, sometimes with me, mostly without me.
When I describe Terms and Conditions one of the first questions people ask me is the response I get in public, specifically asking what people say to me. I think the assumption is that verbal conversation is the goal or the most obvious way to measure impact. The truth is that it is rare. Especially in New York, where most of the project happens, people are normalized to essentially hundreds of things around you vying for your attention. You learn how to identify the bare minimum and conserve your energy: advertisement –move on, service announcement – move on, benign stranger – move on, hostile stranger – asses and move on, subway performers – move on.What really happens is in the eye contact with people I pass in public. After 31 days of this project, I have hundreds of mental snapshots of uncertain moments where eyes lock with mine – questioning eyes where people really do see you and for a beat, there is no script. They don’t know exactly what they are being called to do and you see the raw mental cycle of what we do nearly every minute – process how much of the outside world to let in and how much to keep out. Seeing eyes that are scrupulous, wary, uncertain, inquisitive, processing, vulnerable, defensive, inspired, judgmental, shocked, hurt, humored, annoyed and sometimes shifting between these all at once in a single moment - it is the most interesting part of the project for me personally and the most emotionally taxing.
After doing this for so long it is hard for me to imagine anymore what it is like to pass someone wearing a blunt shirt stating Austerity in all caps. It's possible it’s as unremarkable as that sounds but the eyes I see tell something deeper. The terms in Terms and Conditions are all chosen for a particular abstractness – an academic and analytical language that is about our environment but a level removed. In our private lives we are unlikely to come across terms like Socialized Risk, Relative Value or Incentive of Future Gains. Yet, they provide the lens on how our spaces and choices are understood, conditioned and measured and those lenses affect us. The terms we hear on the news or read about, we live inside these frameworks and they inform how we see ourselves, how we see each other and what we expect of the world (or are allowed to expect). It is one thing to hear the word Austerity in a report or a sound-byte, let alone live it, but it is somehow stranger still to see its silent simplicity in your own space reflected back at you; a specter in plain sight. How can a concept have so much power in our daily lives and still remain so unknowable?On Day 13 of this project a meeting I was part of was moved to a café near Wall Street. I happened to be wearing Austerity in bold black letters on a white shirt. I have no pictures of this but the twenty-minute walk through the Financial District at the 12:30pm lunch hour proved to be one of the most complex, embarrassing and affirming moments of the project. Ever since the 2011 Occupy protests, the streets of the Financial District have always been charged space for me. The attempts to deliver message to the most powerful street in the country were consistently thwarted by excessive police, crowd control architecture and swift removal of any group activity beginning to form. These experiences inspired the voice of Terms and Conditions, which I began in 2012 – a voice of neutrality. Simply stating a truth or reality without directed opinion became a way to produce material that could be allowed entry in cultural space. The amazing thing about being neutral is the range of responses to how these realities are received. During my time in the Financial District as walking signifier for Austerity, I encountered:
• Eye-rolls from (presumed) bankers and traders
• Group scoffs from (presumed) bankers and traders
• Knowing glances
• Chuckles from service workers on the street
• Looks of annoyance
• Looks of confirmation
• Looks of intrigue
• Looks of surprise
• Looks of pain
• Two guards briefly following me in front of the New York Stock Exchange
• Total disregard
• Expressed disregard
• Expressed avoidance
• Momentary uncertainty/fear
• InvisibilityMany of the responses likely came from the obviousness of wearing Austerity in the Financial District. At times it felt so transparent as to be simply embarrassing. But how does something so obvious invoke so many defensive responses? And who decided that Austerity should simply be...normal?
The statements of Terms and Conditions are chosen for their duality; abstract forms with concrete structural impact but liminal cultural precedence on how to process or communicate them. The influence of Self-Interest, for example, is a conceptual cornerstone on theories of economy, natural selection, anthropology, politics and philosophy. It is literally invoked as a key motivator for a majority of our individual and collective choices; in short to say, we are led to believe it is normal and natural. Yet, I invite anyone to experience the pain and shame I felt of baldly announcing your unspecified association with Self-Interest for an entire day. It is the closest I have ever felt to wearing a scarlet letter and by far the most painful of these 31 shirts. I know for myself Self-Interest is not how I want to live my life but to realize that my choices are ultimately being read in that lens (with or without a blunt shirt) is a saddening and limiting condition. When it comes to these “terms and conditions,” is it possible to unsubscribe? As individuals? Collectively? What does that moment look like?My entire time in the Financial District wearing Austerity, the only verbal exchange I had was at a pizza place quickly getting lunch on the go. As I paid, the cashier noticed my shirt and asked, “Are you a student or something?” I told him I wasn’t and he just nodded and remained amused to be someone who didn’t get it. I found the question and amusement to be so revealing. Are only students allowed to question the world around them? Do we need permission to think and live critically? Who gives this permission? Who feels open to receive it? These are certainly large questions and in no way am I the only, first or remotely most effective person to be considering them. But by withholding opinion, by presenting distilled realities in familiar forms, I hope this project is opening these questions to anyone who takes them on, even for a moment. When I think back on the hundreds of stares and meetings of eyes this past month, the real takeaway is that we already have permission, just not enough reminders. And even being reminded can be overwhelming.
- Kenneth Pietrobono
All photos by Aram Jibilian