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Friday, September 19, 2003

An Informal and Novice Study of Two TBA Audiences 

A lot has been written about the artists participating in the festival, and that is right and good. We know who said what or whose choreography broke our hearts, and sometimes we know that a certain backstage someone got drunk at the Heathman and would not, my god, would not stop talking.

It’s the breathing darkness beyond the stage lights we wonder about, those onlookers and stargazers and uninitiated who come to see the dancers, singers, musicians—geniuses, one and all. Some numbers we can ascribe, like how many attended and, if they paid with a credit card, where their bills are sent. Some facts we can dream (Gertrude, who loves Harry, lent him fifteen dollars on Saturday afternoon so he could see Larry Goldhuber), but artifacts escape us. No one trains the camera on the clapping crowd at the end of the performance, no one lingers to document who warmed Seat 17, Row O, two nights before. General admission will challenge the historian’s ability to reconstruct the identity of that ephemeral somebody the one day of that year, as will Seat 17, Row O’s failure to write about his or her attendance in a diary for historians to find in the future. Oh, Seat 17, Row O, we miss you already.

So, in the name of posterity, a record to listen to later: an inventory of shoes worn by audience members at the "In What Language?" (Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd) and "How I Learned to Draw" (Miranda July) performances on September 16, 2003. Though a strict scientific method did not inform the compilation of the lists, a pleasing combination of reassurance, scolding, apology, and prediction may assuage the fears of those who doubt its accuracy.

Let’s begin with the reassurance. Since both performances were held on the same evening, relatively similar climatic conditions affected the shoe choices of those in attendance. While it is true that Iyer & Ladd began their act at 7pm and Miranda July began hers at 9pm, the likely drop in temperature between the two performances was barely noticeable. Indeed, one can argue that the people who came to the 9 o’clock show probably went out to dinner beforehand, so it wouldn’t be terribly wrong to assume that the shoes they wore at nine were the same shoes they wore to dinner at seven. No, that assumption wouldn’t be wrong, not at all.

Next, we move to the scolding: Unfortunately, the social-scientist-in-training and author of this study brought a distasteful mix of ill-preparedness and breezy confidence to the task at hand. Shoe categories failed to remain consistent during the observation periods, and the study was often abandoned for empty chatter with her so-called "friends." She will be graciously allowed a first-person response, so that the exciting conclusions of this study can hurtle closer: I’m sorry. I thought it would be a lot easier. I didn’t think I’d someday have to decide if Campers are sneakers or that I’d forget "black lace-ups" are also sometimes called "oxfords." But in my defense, and I know you don’t want to hear this, but people walk really fast. Too fast. If they, you know, stopped to talk to each other more, then maybe I could figure out the name of those slip-on shoes that guys wear—remember that article in "People" about how Tom Cruise made them popular? But you’re right. You know, you’re right. My behavior was totally unprofessional. All that talking I did, they weren’t even my friends! Just acquaintances, like you picked up on. You are so smart, and I am really sorry.

Though her apology be a fusion of treacle and thorns, it will be accepted for the sake of moving this study along. It is true that the author-cum-sociologist offers a refreshing approach towards data collection in her innocent transgression of the rigid models of rubric-making.
We arrive, finally, at the predictions, which seem so obvious that to print them exhibits a commanding disregard of molecular energy, yet prurient curiosities demand quenching.

Prediction #1: No audience member will be barefoot. Autumn is nearly upon us, and the collective unconscious shimmers with a trembling desire to be shod.

Prediction #2: Birkenstocks will make a showing at record lows. Although an audience that can spend $15 per art event likely has the income to purchase Birkenstocks, they will leave the reputedly comfortable shoes at home. This is a PICA event, not some impromptu drum circle blocking the public right-of-way.

Prediction #3: Hometown gal, Miranda July, will attract more sneaker-wearers than out-of-town guests Iyer & Ladd. The audience will want to dress up, because company has arrived.

Without further adieu, the data for Iyer & Ladd:

Sneakers – 20 (1 pair of black Sauconys)
Hiking – 6
Men’s dress – 7
Mary Jane’s – 3
Boots – 13 (4 pairs with stiletto heels)
Clogs – 6
Flats – 6 (1 red, 5 black)
Heels – 3
Sandals – 7 (2 pair Tevas)
Oxfords – 8
"Shoes" – 8 (An inexplicable category that suggests that the author should stay away from market research employment.)

And the numbers for Miranda July:

Sneakers – 22 (5 pair of Campers)
Hiking – 3
Men’s dress – 4
Boots – 10
Clogs – 4
Flats – 4 (Please observe that the data collector listed these as "slip ons.")
Heels – 1
Sandals – 1 (Tevas)
"Lace-up red shoes – 1 (Another category that resists interpretation.)

Before conclusions are drawn, readers should note that the figures above do not reflect the total number of attendees at each performance. It would dismay the author if misinformation about audience size reached the artists, though it is hard to believe that the data from this blog could travel beyond the boundaries of the digital world, as the existence of its readership seems highly dubious and almost decidedly maternal in nature.

As expected, shoe forecasts for both performances proved exceedingly accurate. All feet were covered, with little in the way of live flesh displayed. In addition, only one pair of Birkenstocks were spied, and the isolation of their owner, a sandy-haired young man spurned by the group with whom he arrived, deserves astute, if somewhat lengthy, commentary.

The Birkenstock-wearer may best be understood through the theory of the "taboo" suggested by anthropologist Mary Douglas. According to an unidentified professor at the University of Waterloo, Douglas argues that "societies are likely to see things as ‘taboo’ when they are anomalous, when they don’t fit neatly into a society’s classification of the world. She believes that things which exist at the borders of society [author’s note: hippie communes], or on the boundaries between categories [author’s note: Gwyneth Paltrow wearing Birkenstocks versus Trey Anastasio sliding a pair on] are perceived as possessing both power and danger—for some purposes the power may be stressed [author’s note: it’s only an excess of confidence and money that allows fashionista, Paltrow, to appear in public sporting the famous ‘flower child’ shoes], for others the danger [author’s note: the other end of the spectrum—art snobs will think you’re a hippie if you were them to the opening]. In both cases we may find a rule against contact with the marginal person or thing. [author’s note: see previous note.]."

The final prediction was also realized. Miranda July did attract a greater number of audience members in sneakers than did Iyer & Ladd. Notably, the slender performance artist chose to appear in sneakers during her performance, while Iyer & Ladd were found in dress shoes. Thus, it may be tentatively concluded that audiences discover a more intimate relationship with artists when they don similar footwear.

In conclusion, although this report did not follow conventional, scientific methodology, it perhaps moves us closer to recognizing the occupant of Seat 17, Row O. With the data that’s been collected, maybe years from now, when muscle memory escapes the dancer’s limbs and the art we consumed can be neither replayed nor recovered, we may approximate the shape of the one who showed up.

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