Surabhi Saraf's FOLD (Live) (2011) is a series of live choreographed performances in varied public spaces. In this series a group of volunteer performers ritualistically fold clothing in sync with one another. Though planned, the performance appears spontaneously before an accidental audience intermixed with informed viewers.
The weekly performances, which began on September 11, 2011 have taken place in architecturally diverse locations around San Francisco, including the Federal Building and sites at Golden Gate Park. The performances reflect on and activate uneventful everyday tasks through slow, timed movements. Folding clothes -- one of the most mundane daily tasks -- is elevated to a balletic experience. The act of folding is ubiquitous in its necessity and, in many ways, egalitarian in its sweep: everyone folds clothes. It also reflects on the few remaining tasks unmediated by technology. Presumably you could wear your Bluetooth while folding laundry, while texting and surfing the Internet. If so, you might be missing something as simple, and necessary, as downtime.
The final of four performances was staged in a downtown pedestrian plaza at Market and Montgomery Streets on October 2. The performers sat evenly spaced on low steps usually occupied by weekday bike messengers. Over the course of twenty-minutes or so, each removed layers of clothing against the brisk wind of early fall. First scarves, then sweatshirts, then pullovers were carefully removed and systematically folded in time until the performers were all stripped down to base layers of white t-shirts and neutral pants. The process then began in reverse. A captive audience seemed fascinated by the unexpected spectacle of the performance, with its hints of private domesticity, in the midst of a public square.
Most onlookers wore bemused looks of curiosity. Others wore the amused looks of the informed. Many held up cameras and phones to take pictures and videos -- this seemed incongruent with the work, though not unexpected. In a very short span of time, we have become conditioned to watching live footage rather than just watching. The result is that we have forfeited our authentic experience of the present. With this work, the artist uses what might conceivably be considered the most visually unremarkable task imaginable to recapture our attention.
The conclusion of the performance signaled the end of the synchronized movements as the performers layered up again. Though outfitted to "match," each was dressed uniquely and completed their tasks at different paces. One by one, the performers wordlessly pulled on their last layer and stood up to disappear into the crowded street. The last two pulled out scarves and twirled them around their necks in time before getting up and walking in different directions. Some of the audience stood aimlessly and wondered what just happened, while others recognized the conclusion of something and clapped. Soon even the audience members resumed walking down the street. Once again, the plaza was a transitional space. No one lingered.
Like a surprise gift, the performance provided an obscure moment of wonder to relive in the space of our next mundane task. For all the documentation taken during the performance, it is a safe bet that most will recall it vividly without revisiting their camera phones. For many onlookers, the experience of such an unusual encounter on the street might encourage a renewed awareness as they navigate their daily existence, watchful for the next spontaneous slow motion ballet of the mundane.
Documentation from FOLD (Live) is included in the upcoming group exhibition Time at The Lab in San Francisco -- the opening on Friday, October 7, 2011 will feature a live performance sampling moments from the series of performances. For more information visit thelab.org.
Photos: Nilanjan Nag, courtesy of the artist and The Lab.