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Architecture of Action: Reterritorializing Public Space Through Performance

Caitlin Watson
Sage and Coombe Architects, New York
cwatson@sageandcoombe.com

Michael Watson
Artist, New York
artist.michaelwatson@gmail.com

Introduction

“The Gift” is a speculative public performance emerging from a collaborative art-architecture practice. The intentions driving the work are twofold: to insert public art as a means of reterritorializing a privately owned public space, and to connect viewers to one another physically and spiritually through shared participation in the work. Our chosen medium, performance, achieves these intentions by using human interaction to create a new space within an existing architectural framework.

The site of the proposed performance is 601 Lexington, formerly Citicorp Center, in Midtown Manhattan. This development occupies the entire city block bounded by 54th Street, 53rd Street, Lexington Avenue, and 3rd Avenue. It houses St. Peter’s Church, the Nevelson Chapel, a commercial office tower, the Atrium Shops and Cafes, and a sunken public plaza. When the complex opened in 1977, it functioned as a porous network of spaces with free movement in and around the street and plaza levels. However, renovations since 2008 have increasingly broken down physical and visual connections between the tower, atrium, plaza, and church.1 Decades of ill-intended architectural interventions at 601 Lexington send a message about who is included and excluded from certain social privileges. Leveraging performance as a commoning practice, “The Gift” temporarily reclaims these spaces through a ritual that weaves participants across the site to subvert on-going processes of privatization. We hope that through engaging in the performance participants will understand the significance of this lost circulation, which once blended disparate people and activities into one continuous narrative.

The work layers the social theme of commoning space with spiritual themes of personal interconnection and sacrifice. The choreography contains references to the Eucharist and various funerary customs. Rather than the death of a single person, “The Gift” engages participants in mourning the loss of connection to each other. The ritual of the Eucharist signifies collective loss and reconciliation. Through transubstantiation, in which bread and wine literally take on the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eucharist redistributes a sacrificial body among mourners gathered in worship. Within our performance, the Body and Blood are substituted with raw rice—a common source of daily sustenance around the world with specific connections to Michael Watson’s Filipino heritage. Rice represents an infinitely expansive body that can break down and be dispersed to nourish the living.

Performance Narrative

“The Gift” has three performers: the Musician, the Mourner, and the Giver. It begins at the edge of the Atrium Shops and Cafes. While the atrium was originally designed as an extension of the site’s network of privately owned public spaces, it has been reconceived as a commercial hub and will soon be physically separated from the office tower and St. Peter’s. Accompanied by the Musician, the Mourner leads participants in a jazz procession tracing the path of former architectural connections between the atrium, office tower, and church erased by recent renovations. The Musician plays an original piece written in three movements for the duration of the performance. This references St. Peter’s identity as the “first church of jazz” and the popular Jazz on the Plaza concert series.

The second act of the performance begins when the procession arrives in the sunken plaza. As originally constructed, the plaza was split evenly between an upper plaza at the level of the atrium and a lower plaza at the level of St. Peter’s sanctuary. Following recent renovations, very little of the lower plaza level remains. This has cut off views into St. Peter’s sanctuary, diminished the church’s physical presence within the public space, and reduced the functionality of the plaza for amphitheater-style seating. The Giver lies at the former edge of the upper plaza wrapped in a black shroud. The Mourner slowly unwraps the shroud and lifts them into a standing position. The Giver wears a heavy suit made of over 50 black cotton sacks filled with raw white rice. Each sack is large enough to fit one handful of rice and has a slit in the bottom, sewn closed with a gold thread. The Mourner circles the Giver before pulling a thread, releasing the rice inside and allowing it to spill out onto the black shroud at their feet, before extending their hand in invitation for participants to do the same. One by one, they pull threads until all the sacks have been opened. The weight of the rice that had been holding the Giver in place has been lifted, and they are able to exit freely, symbolizing the release of the soul from its fleshy vessel. The audience’s collective participation in this ritual reflects how mourners slowly come to terms with loss through funerary practices and allow themselves to let go of the deceased.

The third act begins when the Mourner carefully gathers the rice up in the shroud and leads the audience into St. Peter’s sanctuary at the north end of the plaza. They present the bundle of rice to the Giver, who has reappeared clad in gold. The metabolic transformation from the black rice suit to the gold robe is one of supernatural importance. It symbolizes both the transformation from flesh to spirit and the metamorphosis from death into an emanating light. The Giver sets the bundle down on a table and unfolds it, portioning the rice and presenting a handful to one of the participants with the request that they pass it on. This continues, with participants passing rice to one another until it has all been dispersed. Participants are asked to accept the discarded rice as a gift to be consumed, a symbolic act of decomposition and reintegration. This underscores our primary intention for the performance—to reclaim what has been lost and reactivate it through shared participation in the world around us. The request to “please pass this along” is a simple gesture, but one that holds great weight. Not only are all participants directly engaged in the symbolic reanimation of the rice as part of a divine connective body, but they are also tangibly building community through a shared memorable act. Our hope is that by experiencing this performance the audience will relinquish the stigma of interpersonal vulnerability while considering how they can foster deeper connections and appreciation for collective energy and common space.

Figure1. Diagram of performance route.

Figure2. St. Peter’s Church (left), plaza, and concourse at the base of Citicorp Center © Norman McGrath, 1978.

Figure3. Participant releasing rice from suit. Photograph by Sara Jimenez, 2014.

Figure4. Presentation of the rice bundle. Photograph by AM DeBrincat, 2015.

Figure5. Exchange of rice. Photograph by AM DeBrincat, 2015.


1 For further detail on the site’s history see Caitlin T. Watson, 2022, “A Place for All People: Louise Nevelson’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd,” Religions 13, no. 2: 99.

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