Cultural HiJack: The Barbara Walters Center Hijack

The idea for my conference project this semester first evolved from the Barbara Walters Campus Center, which opened this fall. This was, the school claimed, a new hub for its students so that there is an indoor space where the community could be built. Many of the other spaces on campus were suspended, such as the Heimbold Café and the Black Squirrel, and the student body quickly filled the space of high ceilings and adjustable walls. Although I agree that something like the Barbara Walters center was much needed on this campus, it seems like the administration is more concerned with making it a multi-use facility rather than something that can be rooted in the students. When art pieces from our class were put up, they were taken down in a few hours. The spaces are constantly transformed into the next Gala the school hosts and then quickly reverted back into its minimalist design by the next morning. Despite gaining a space that can fit all members of the student body easily, it felt like Sarah Lawrence was losing its history.

Thus, the “Barbara Walters Center Hijack” was born. In a space that was designed to fit the needs of the school, why couldn’t it fit mine? I created a three consecutive day performance that allowed me to have three things I felt the space could not provide for me: Home, Art, and Game. In this, I found different variations of how the rest of the students would interact with me, and how much I would allow myself to do the same. 

Day One was Home. For a half hour, I sat in the middle of the main level folding laundry: first my own and then later the laundry I would have my friends drop in front of me. I surrounded myself with the clothes, creating a wall between me and the center. People would ask my why I was doing it and I would simply say, “I needed to fold some laundry”. Students would then relate to me, say things such as “mood” or “shit, I need to do my laundry”. Two people offered to help me, but I declined their offers. I stayed casual but gave no verbal invitation to interact with me. People, however, felt my presence there was an invitation in itself. 

Day Two was Art. Because I knew any art I would put up would be taken down almost immediately, I decided to put the art on other people through blind face painting. For this hijack to work, I needed willing participation from my audience. However, I blindfolded myself. I could not see who was around me, I could not even see if I was alone. The person operating the camera said that people would stop and stare at me. I used the sign, “Hi! I’m blind face painting! Come sit down!” For this performance, much fewer people were willing to participate and instead I had to patiently sit in silence until someone was willing to join. However, one participant after being painted decided to keep it on all day. She asked to be a Tiger Clown. That made me happy. My dad even decided to join at one point. I knew it was him when I shook his hand. He was the first face I painted (multiple people asked for just their arms or hands). I thought I was doing a bad job and suddenly was filled with doubt because he kept ducking under my hand I thought “what the fuck am I doing this is going to go so badly” but I just continued to sit and wait. In a half-hour I got 6 participants. 

Day Three was Game. This day was mostly inspired by the death of the beloved Black Squirrel student space on campus. In it was a pool table and for the first time ever I became very good at pool. I really miss that pool table. So, I made my own: a human pool table that was made up of my friends. They acted as the walls and their hands, stretched to the corners of their square, were the pockets. Because I thought it would be cruel to have strangers hit my friends with real pool balls, I elected to use ping pong balls instead and, because ping pong balls are not the easiest thing to control, I decided to have it be a chaotic game of speed where volunteers would be playing against the table. Was this still pool? Yes, because that was how I advertised it when running around asking people to play a quick game with me. I finally gave myself permission to give a verbal invitation to interact with the hijack. I created an activity that only took a minute of the participants’ lives and nothing else. They did not have to have their faces touched by a stranger or worry about having to wash the paint off their faces in the public restroom. One participant continuously said sorry to the pool table for playing the game so badly. The pool table insisted they were being paid to do this (they weren’t)(but they all had a lot of fun). Most people thanked me afterward for giving them a small break from the rest of their day. Again, this only lasted a half-hour and then every returned to their regular routines.

For these performances, I gave myself a uniform: a white tank top and white boxers. I wanted to evoke comfort but also something uniform and unusual (especially in the winter) so even though I said multiple times that this wasn’t a performance art piece it clearly was. I could simply worry about experiencing the situations I was in rather than think about this being a performance. My audience was experiencing something through participating and I wanted to feel a connection to the student body that I couldn’t feel in the space we were supposedly given.