My favorite piece of artwork of all time was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. It’s also my favorite museum, and this piece probably cinched it. I was walking through the exhibit halls, when I happened to bump into an older woman. I said “excuse me” without making eye contact, and I kept perusing the art. Then I noticed a bench in the middle of the room. It was too far to be a seat for pondering the wall hangings, but it was clearly meant for observation. So, I sat down. I watched the crowd. It took me a few minutes to notice that the old woman was still standing there, where I had bumped into her. She was slightly hunched, perhaps in her seventies. She carried a shopping bag, and was wrapped in average clothes for a cold New York day. But the most interesting thing about her was that she was not real.
She was a sculpture, or a life-like mannekin. In the middle of the room, with no signs or velvet rope, she was a picture perfect piece of art, a rendition of an average New Yorker. As I sat and watched her, people kept bumping into her, so many that I couldn’t count. She was in the middle of the flow of foot traffic, and she was hard to avoid with the weekend crowd at the popular museum. Everybody who bumped into her excused themselves, and never made eye contact. Some even patted her on the shoulder politely as they hurried past. And she remained motionless. She leaned forward, as if moving from one room to another. But she was still, it was the rest of the world that moved around her.
I thought about this woman during the most unusual Skype call in which I have ever participated. It was the night Obama was elected. I was still in New York City, and I was at a party with the most quintessential Obama supporters on the planet. I was with a law professor, and part time poet, from Columbia University. The crowd was mostly same-sex couples. Their children were present and interested, even cheering as the electoral college count climbed higher and higher on the blue side. There were cupcakes on the table with Obama’s face stenciled on. You can’t get much more New York than that on election night.
One of the party goers missed her parents back in the Chicago suburbs. Of course, since Obama was himself watching the tally from his campaign headquarters in Chicago, you would think that their mood would be affected by their proximity. But they were simply going about their evening, watching the news, and enjoying the victory for their side.
They were also attending the party via Skype. Their daughter skyped them in, then walked around the room with the laptop computer so they could see all the faces and greet everyone present. I said hi. They said hello back. I was probably wearing a sweater vest (for the irony). They were dressed in pajamas.
While we ate cupcakes with blue Obamas on them and picked at the vegan spread on the buffet (did I mention this was a vegan party, or could you just assume?) an elderly couple in Chicago was simultaneously relaxing in bed in their PJs and watching us cram our faces. Every once in a while, someone would turn to them and ask their opinion, or gauge their reaction, but for the most part they were simply part of the room.
Eventually, people got tired of passing the laptop around. There was no seat for the parents, which is fine, because they were already lying down. I hadn’t seen them for a few minutes until I hit the buffet.
I loaded food onto my plate. Olive salad. Tabouleh. Hummus and pita chips. Long, cold spears of marinated asparagus. An old couple in bed, staring at me.
At first, it was shocking. I hadn’t noticed the laptop. I leaned over it to scoop a scant spoonful of mixed nuts onto my plate. They stared blankly at my gut. In fact, they were watching television in their bedroom, hardly noticing what was happening on the laptop they were using. But now they were also part of the buffet.
At first, it reminded me of the dinner party in Beetlejuice, when the food becomes possessed and starts dancing around. That party ended with hands made of shrimp cocktail reaching up and grabbing everyone by the face. At least they had shrimp cocktail.
Then I started to think of it as art. Like a new form of Dadaism, but much less intrusive. I imagined a dinner table with laptops placed at every seat. On the screen of each would be people, but they wouldn’t be attending the dinner party. They would simply be going about their normal lives. They would be lying in bed, or filling out a crossword puzzle. They might be sorting the mail. In a truly meta idea, I imagined they could even be on their laptops, other laptops that is, perhaps even skyping themselves in to another dinner party. There could be layers upon layers.
Then I realized we were the art, not them. They were sitting in bed, and we were a secondary form of entertainment. Have you ever sat watching television with a computer on your lap, barely paying attention to the show on the tube, instead reading the news or playing sudoku? Well these people had everyone beat. They were sitting in bed watching TV, but also attending an election night party.
How often is the distraction truly more interesting than the primary event? I may never go to a party again. I won’t be in New York for the next election, I’ll probably be down in Texas. Instead of hanging with the most liberal set I can imagine, I’ll try to find some gun-toting, evangelical libertarians, just to see how the other half lives. But I’ll also Skype myself into another event. Maybe I’ll send my laptop to a movie theater and have it sit on one of the seats. I could send a laptop to the party, then Skype in and point my laptop at another laptop that is also skyped into the same party. So the party goers would be skyping into their own event. Like I said, layers upon layers.
When Obama finally declared victory, and the major networks all called the election in his favor, and John McCain gave his concession speech, the parents on Skype decided to head downtown to see if they could catch the festivities. They got dressed (not on camera, thankfully), and left the room. But they left Skype on, aimed at their empty bed, with its dented pillows and its wooden headboard.
Now I was at a party, watching an empty space where there had been two people watching the party. And those two people were now on their way to the party that we were watching on television.
This is why I never got my PhD. There are too many abstractions in Cultural Theory. You can make a big deal out of anything, but nothing actually happens. Maybe there were no layers. Maybe I was just at an overcrowded party that longed for a passed appetizer of rare filet on toast with a horseradish cream sauce. Maybe the Skype call seemed like a good idea at the start, but then it became boring, and it was too awkward to cut off those nice people, who seemed to be enjoying themselves in a subdued way, and really they weren’t bothering anyone except the people scooping hummus.
Maybe this is why video chat hasn’t taken off. Because in the end, we don’t really want to see our parents lying around in their pajamas while we’re trying to celebrate a historic event. Because it creates whole new levels of presence, and new levels of awkwardness.
But seriously, this is New York City. No lamb sliders? Not even a duck meatball? I will definitely spend the next election night at a party down here in Texas.