Zefrey Throwell, “Large-Scale Troublemaker”

by Danny Kopel

August 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011. 3pm. The art world enfant terrible spoke to us following buzz-generating and widely-covered Wall Street happening, where fifty performers disrobed in an effort expose one of America’s most nebulous thoroughfares. Throwell sat down with us at an unsuspecting sushi restaurant in Midtown and staged a delightful private performance where he discussed the evolution of his artistic practice, finally baring all surrounding Ocularpation: Wall Street. Audio + transcript below.

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Zefrey Throwell: Well, hello there. My name is Zefrey Throwell and I’m talking to you in Midtown right now. Midtown, which is considered by many to be the anus of New York City, the darkest, most foul place of town. I call people and I say, “Oh, I’m in Midtown, do you want to meet me?” And you just hear silence on the other end of the phone. And then they’re like, “Well, when are you leaving?”

Waiter: Sorry, may I take this?

ZT: We’re currently in a sushi restaurant and the waiter just took my fish.

I grew up in Alaska, and Alaska is dark six months out of the year, and it’s light six months out of the year, and that really, really tends to throw off your internal compass. And my guess would be that that’s where many of my ideas came from. Now, I’m not a psychologist, nor have I studied medicine, but I’m a handy amateur, so I’m gonna give that analysis. I’ll let you be the judge.

I didn’t give a fuck about art growing up; I cared about punk rock. I was in punk bands and noise bands up until my twenties. I was dating somebody who was a painter and I remember looking at one of the paintings, and thinking, “I could do that.” So I started painting, and then I realized it was a lot harder than I thought, especially painting something that was actually alright, it’s not very easy. So then after a while, it really sunk its teeth into me. I started painting all the time. And then, painting got boring. I was like, “Oh no, heavens, what now?” I started taking a lot of photographs, and then I started doing outrageously lewd things in public, and that was really where I found my calling. And that was maybe eight, nine years ago now, maybe eight years ago. Now I would classify myself as a large-scale troublemaker, organizing bodies of people to do various things to bend and break the rules.

Let’s just take a little Coca-Cola break here. [laughs] So the most recent project that I’ve done… I’ve just finished a project called Ocularpation: Wall Street and it was a large performance down on Wall Street here in New York City. The idea, the genesis came from my mother; she was a public school counselor and public school teacher for years, thirty years. And she, like a good American, saved up her money, she put it away, stocked it away in a little chest of drawers from here to Tallahassee. And, unfortunately, in the crash of 2008 she lost almost all of it. Not quite all of it, but almost all of it. And it was a sad day, a sad couple of months for my mother actually. She’s a lady in her mid-sixties and she didn’t really know what she was going to do. She definitely had to go back to work, which is not fun after putting money away for that long and you really hope to enjoy your final moments in twilight there, the golden years. But, she had to go back and get a job and nobody wanted to hire her because she’s in her mid-sixties, and the only qualification she’s had is working in public schools, and they don’t really hire old public school teachers to do anything.

So after years she found a job. It’s a job she hates. She’s still working at that job. And I’m sure, because this on the Internet, they’ll listen to it and they’ll fire her. And I hope you give her unemployment. [laughs] She was depressed at first and then she was furious, because three years later, there’s been almost no changes to the actual financial system that brought about this crash and this catastrophe in her own life, and in the lives of millions of other people. In fact, right now the stock markets of the world are tumbling through the floor, and it’s the exact same reasons that they crashed before. There’s no oversight, it’s just some kind of speculative mystery game behind closed doors, and it’s absolutely infuriating why this is happening.

So, I came up with a project, it’s called Ocularpation: Wall Street. I took a six-month survey, I got a residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. I took a six-month survey of all the businesses that were actually on Wall Street, from Trinity down to the water. Interviewed almost every worker on that damn street, from CEOs in boardrooms to day-traders to financial analysts to personal assistants, personal gym trainers, prostitutes, dog-walkers, Fed Ex workers, everybody. Retail—there’s a lot of retail on Wall Street. All the people, all the professions on that street. And I came up with some data, some hard data. Science loves hard data. While I’m not a scientist, I certainly love hard data as well. And I made a pie graph, although I haven’t released that to the media. [laughs] That’s for personal use. Taking those professions, I then proportionately split it up amongst fifty performers. So fifty performers were my cross-sample of Wall Street. It was six personal assistants. Personal assisting happens to be the largest occupation on Wall Street right now, which is quite a telling commentary for America. So I split up all these professions amongst fifty people.

Monday morning, August 1, 7:00 AM, the crack of dawn, the beginning of rush hour on Wall Street, everybody comes up of out the trains, walks down to their positions on Wall Street, spread throughout the entire street, from corner to corner, not all clumped up in one, but on the whole street. At seven o’clock they begin doing their professions: be it walking the dogs, be it talking to strangers, be it selling tickets, be it waiter over here, lifting weights over there, all the different professions. And then during this five-minute performance, they begin taking their clothes off as well. And I saw this as kind of a Freudian nightmare or dream world where people could live their job outdoors. I know one of my greatest fears, wake up in a cold sweat, is show up to work and you find out you’re naked and everybody else has clothes on. Hilarious afterwards, but when you’re in the middle of it, it all really is absolutely horrifying.

So I wanted to live that out on a large scale to expose the absurdity of what’s happening in Wall Street right now. The fact that there is this minimum transparency I consider as absurd as an army of Wall Street people showing up and being totally naked. I think those are equally absurd scenarios. One happens to get you arrested while one happens to run the world. Three of the performers were arrested simply for being partially naked, which is absolutely ludicrous in comparison to the idea that there are people inside these buildings who are robbing millions of all the money they’ve ever made in their life and not going to jail, not even getting a slap on the wrist. Absolutely insane. So this project was really designed to highlight that wild disparity. So far, people have asked whether it has, many people, particularly the New York Post, which I’m a huge fan of. But when they interview you, you know they’re not going to be nice. They’re nice on the phone and then not so nice in print. They were like, “Oh, you’re trying to make some point but all people see is naked people on the street.” Through the attention caused by this mass of people, people would look closely at what the actual object of the performance was, and that is to put a microscope on Wall Street. So there is Ocularpation: Wall Street.

Artist’s website: www.zefrey.com