On Saturday, June 15th, I witnessed the heist of $3,000. What follows here is a simple recounting of the facts, both as seen live and reported afterwards on Facebook, plus an interpretation of the event through three lenses: the potential and power of cash, engagement with site, and the implications of disruption as creative practice.
INTRODUCTION: Eyewitness Account
First: the scene. The heist took place at Staten Island’s LUMEN, a 6-hour festival showcasing performance art and video projection. This year’s LUMEN took place in Lyons Pool: a publicly-owned NYC Parks Department pool and surrounding buildings, including locker rooms, observation parapet, and poolside lounging areas. Lyons Pool is located in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island, approximately 15 minutes away from the St. George Ferry Terminal.
The money in question was part of a performance by artist Miao Jiaxin called The Clock. In the artist’s own words, the work was a “living clock [consisting] of workers, money, bread, drink, porn, cigarettes, and family portraits. Short breaks are taken every 10 minutes. Workers get paid minimum wage every 1 hour.” Three men (Brian McCorkle, David LaGaccia, and Huang Shengkai) served as the hour and minute hand of a clock, moving every 60 seconds along the clock’s face on the poolside ground.
The Clock attracted a consistent audience, and I myself was drawn to the work several times. So was Myk Henry, who I ran into on the other side of the pool. After a brief chat, he casually said, “I’m going to steal Miao’s money.” (I would later find out he had mentioned the notion of a heist to several other attendees of the festival.)
At approximately 8:30, just after the 1 minute mark when the clock’s workers moved along the ground, Henry approached the piece with a sweater in his hand. He knelt by the suitcase containing the money, stuffed the bundles of cash into the folded sweater (approximately 30 bundles each of 100 $1 bills), and quickly walked away. The heist was witnessed by many onlookers, and was video recorded on the cellphone of another friend. This video reveals that not only did no one say or do anything, but also it took Jiaxin himself nearly 30 seconds to shout out “Stop him! Hey, Mike [sic.].” Henry then took off at a steady run and exited the festival. $1 was left behind in the suitcase. The Clock’s performers made no adjustments to their behavior.
Henry was later caught by Jiaxin. He returned all $3,000. When I came back to LUMEN after a brief dinner break, The Clock appeared to be continuing as planned. The money was in the suitcase. The men ticked along the ground.
LENS ONE: The potential and power of cash.
A suitcase of cash, no matter the location, is a charged thing. Connotations may vary: I think about the Mafia (how “Staten Island“!), Ocean’s Eleven, or the rumored method of buying an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. Miao Jiaxin, however, is more concerned with the look and feel of labor. The intention of including the cash, for him, was clear: his “guys” (McCorkle, LaGaccia, and Shengkai) needed to get paid. Yet payment for three workers at minimum wage per hour for a 6 hour festival equals far less than the $3,000 contained in the suitcase. The visual power of a suitcase full of crisp bundles of bills seemed to be the real intention, rather than anything specifically mathematic.
I spoke with Esther Neff, who curated the performance art portion of LUMEN, about her thoughts on The Clock, and in particular her thoughts about the cash-as-object: “[The suitcase of money] inspired general titillation and titillation in a more complex way. Even subjectively (I can’t speak to the feelings of anyone else present) seeing that much cash causes a bit of a stomachache; it is a potent ‘object’ as any real ‘object’ is[.] The way people responded to the cash indicated a great deal of ‘meaning’ carried out into the audience, so many discussions about why the money was there and how one might steal it were bouncing around the LUMEN site all night.” Even during my own 5-minute visits of the piece (three in all), most onlookers were standing near the suitcase, discussing it: how much money was in there, why would someone put a suitcase of cash on the ground, the likelihood of theft. Cash is a draw, and a strong one.
Myk Henry, who is himself a performance artist, states, “It’s interesting to work with cash in performances because it immediately reveals a lot about how people function. There is something seductive and at the same time sleazy about cash and it’s at this juncture that I feel it’s an appropriate place to intervene and make an artistic statement.” It is this belief that enabled him to make the move that other festival-goers would only speculate about, aided – if not abetted – by his understanding of lenses two and three.
LENS TWO: Engagement with the site.
Lyons Pool is a public place, and admission to LUMEN was free (with a $5 suggested donation). I imagine that during the summer, the pool is heavily utilized by the local community. As such, it’s a great site for a community-based art event. There is a low barrier to entry both economically and psychologically. A rough assessment of the audience lead me to believe that attendees were approximately 50% local and 50% imported — just enough interlopers that the locals were openly commenting about the “Manhattan people.” Still, this is a better ratio than many art festivals, which engage a local community only in the smallest percentage.
As part of my investigation of site specificity, I spoke with Sara Juli about her piece The Money Conversation: a 60 minute solo performance in which the artist attempts to investigate her relationship with money by giving it all away. Juli’s piece was performed around the world in a variety of theatrical spaces. Although the piece requires breaking the fourth wall (Juli interacts with the audience directly both linguistically and physically, inviting them to remove cash from different parts of her body), it still exists primarily within the confines of a safe space: the private, controlled world of a theater. Juli states the importance of the audience being required to “pay to play” (i.e. the cost of a ticket guaranteed admission and access to the cash she was distributing). Further, Juli was protected by producers. In one incident, one of the audience members did wind up pocketing and leaving with a large amount of her cash – an action that her performance fully permitted him to do. Yet afterwards, the producer of her work tracked the man down and demanded that he return the money in full, so that the work could continue its scheduled run. Juli herself did not encourage this, but the context in which she presented her work to some extent demanded it.
Jiaxin seems to believe that the art festival would offer the same kind of protection. He stated that “There is still trust and respect within the context of an art festival. I believe if I did this in the streets of Brooklyn, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the money is gone within 10 minutes.” What he perhaps failed to take into account is the non-neutrality of an art festival that takes place in a public context. By reducing LUMEN simply to “art festival,” he completely denied dual realities of a) public pool; and b) Staten Island. But as Neff stated, while Jiaxin “may have underestimated the effects of so much cash on an audience including many Staten Island residents with very low income [. . . ] nobody who actually needed the money took any.”
Myk Henry’s read of LUMEN’s site and context was the most subtle, both in word and in deed. Before committing the heist, he spent some time familiarizing himself with the mechanisms of Jiaxin’s Clock, as well as with the architecture and social behavior of the surrounding area. When questioned about his intention in staging the heist, he responded: “In my opinion, if you are going to play with cash in a venue which has so many people milling around then there is going to be some kind of risk involved. Accept the consequences that you might lose your money or else prepare adequate security to ensure the safety of your work. If these elements are not in place, immoral as if may seem, it’s free game for other’s to intervene and challenge in a mindful and creative way.”
The heist makes apparent the challenging line between public art and site specificity. Jiaxin created a public artwork, which, although live, was not intended to be interactive. Henry staged a site specific performance, taking into account not only the location of the artwork, but his knowledge of the surrounding area and culture of the place he was in. Understanding site as a mixture of physical and social capacities is theoretically nothing new (see: Miwon Kwon), but as artists and performers we still struggle with the practical implications of this. I might hold up this heist as a case study in not only the tensions but the conflicts (literal and theoretical) between simply making work in public and engaging with that public (space or people).
I make no case that site specific art need necessarily occur in a disruptive or spontaneous manner. However, the spontaneity that Myk Henry displayed allowed him to engage in moment-to-moment field research that was required to make his performance a success. (Given that he claims he had no intention of keeping the $3,000, I won’t argue that his returning the money constitutes failure.) If there’s a lesson to take away from this, it’s not whether or not public work invites engagement in a disruptive capacity, but rather that site specific work necessarily requires a kind of moment-to-moment freshness and flexibility regarding the site in question. Truly site specific work is in a dialog with as many elements of an area as possible, not only its geography or architecture. Myk Henry’s heist achieved this.
LENS THREE: The implications of disruption as creative practice.
The disappearance (usually through destruction) of cash in performance is not a new thing. The K Foundation burned a million pounds sterling in 1994, perhaps in homage to the Yippies snacking on/hurling/burning $300 in $1 bills at the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. Esther Neff states that she has seen “literally hundreds” of performances involving the use of cash in the last few years. But the examples that I reference above involve artists destroying cash in direct response to institutional money. Sara Juli’s The Money Conversation differs somewhat, in that the piece invited audiences to steal the artist’s cash. Only the heist at LUMEN involved one artist directly disrupting another, both creatively and (temporarily) financially. Further, the power of the money itself was never lost: there was no chance of its destruction – Henry even states that if he had not been caught and asked to return the money, he was simply planning to “hold onto it for 24 hours, which would be in reference to Miao’s clock or one day of time.”
As for Jiaxin, his primary concern when he witnessed the heist was not the missing $3,000, but rather the interruption the heist caused in his documentation: “I was not freaked out about the loss of money, but at the moment I was angry that I only had two hands managing everything (keeping eyes on the piece, taking care of my guys, fixing the lights, documenting with a camera). [. . .] The heist created a mess on my own plan.” In other words: $3,000 is nothing compared to the rupture in the results of the art. I can’t help but feel that Jiaxin would have answered my question differently if the money had not been returned. It’s only when we have the thing we thought we lost that we can display this kind of composed nobility.
Myk Henry has been clear that his intention in staging the heist was to “subvert this over ‘in your face’ display of wealth.” Henry has a tendency to use disruptive tactics in his work (both solo and with the notorious performance group Non Grata) – actually, not so much in as as. I’ve witnessed him standing on a diving board at the edge of a tall building, staging light-saberesque battles with shattering fluorescent lights, and serving as a guard/witness to human branding. His consistent performance goal seems to be to change whatever environment he’s in by staging his work. About the heist, he states, “Considering how this situation [with Jiaxin] immediately became volatile it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if I had managed to abscond with the money for an extended period of time. It’s really the story about what happens that I am most interested in which becomes the artwork.”
While I admire this direct and bold embrace of the potential consequences of liveness, it’s hard to stay what his position might have been if the situation had been reversed. A good disruption requires technique and practice, just as a good performance does. But to constantly disrupt is a bit of a one-trick pony. Analyzing the performance within the context of my knowledge of Myk Henry’s career, the only thing I can really think is “why was anyone surprised?”
The murmurs about the heist have died down. Miao Jiaxin is no longer – to my knowledge – threatening to report the theft to the authorities. Myk Henry is of course no longer in possession of the money. LUMEN itself is long past its six hour lifespan. I can’t offer a particular conclusion with relation to the morality of these acts. Nor can I say who’s right. I can only offer this: in the words of Sara Juli, “[the art is] second fiddle to the star, which is wads of cash.” I wish situations like this were the only time when that was true.