On the first day of the semester, I sat down in the middle of the cafeteria, put on a blindfold and placed a hundred dollar bill in my outstretched hands.
When I first sat down with my instructor and told her I wanted to give away one hundred dollars for an art project, I wasn’t sure what response I would get. I had taken the idea for a test drive with my partner who saw it in fairly black and white terms—it was complete and utter insanity to give away hard-earned cash to a complete stranger.
I muttered under my breath about poetic gesture and generosity, but it wasn’t until I discussed my concept with my teacher that I became confident in this experiment. My teacher helped me figure out why I felt drawn toward this idea. As graduation approached, it felt like an existential crisis felt like it lurked behind every bend. A constant stream of questions seemed to fill my head.
Why did I choose to go to art school in a big city with big buildings and a big booming oil industry?
How did this society of suave individuals perceive the value of art?
How are artists viewed in times of economic uncertainty?
What would it take for me to move forward in confidence?
But louder than my mind chatter was the conviction that there was still an immense amount to learn, and my teacher encouraged me to see that taking risks was an important part of this process. I wanted to risk an act that might seem foolish and stupid to many people. I was curious if my attentive awareness could pull meaning from this action despite potential criticisms and judgments.
Ultimately, I knew I would surrender to my curiosity. I had to know: how would my gift be received?
An artist often acts as a space where viewers can work out their projections. I figured people would either see my act as a trick, a test, or a gift. The longer the performance went on, the more potential it had to make people think. But I also had to surrender to the fact that the performance would be over as soon as the money was taken, and this could easily happen very quickly.
I came to the performance with as few expectations as possible and this made the result even more profound.
After five minutes, someone took the money.
As planned, I would count down from one hundred in my head, and then take off my blindfold and leave the space. Before I got to zero something unexpected happened.
Someone put something back in my hands.
It was some sort of long smooth tube. I was caught off guard. I chose to remain seated to see how it all played out. One of the most humbling parts of being a performance artist is that you can never be sure how everything will unfold. I strive to make work where the audience has autonomy and they are just as responsible as I am for actualizing the work.
Over the next two hours people continued to approach me and either give or take an object. Blinded, I could only speculate what sorts of transactions were taking place.
The temptation to take off the blindfold and see what was in my hands was almost irresistible. But I waited until the very end. Then, as lunch ended, I finally left the room and reviewed my new acquisitions.
In my hands were a doodle someone drew, a note of encouragement, a bus ticket, a brand new tube of oil paint, a nickel…and my one hundred-dollar bill.
Someone had initially taken the bill. But they also put it back. And others throughout the performance had left small trinkets and gifts. I had felt many things being swapped over the hours, but the bill had remained to the end. I laughed to myself as a small quiet voice in the back of my head chimed I told you so.
There had always been a good reason to go to art school. It offered a truly unique realm that functions outside the typical operations of day-to-day life. And it was this mysterious world that has pushed me to greater generosity and expression even in the face of self-doubt.
The risk each artist must take is trying to bring this world with them. They must bring it to their neighborhoods, their families, to all the people who cringe and laugh and criticize what they don’t understand. Because the artists already get it.
I tried to give away one hundred dollars and was given much more in return. And it wasn’t simply about the material things I walked away with that day. The money was only ever a stand in for the investment each artist makes. We channel hours of passion, soul searching and failure into every object or performance the audience experiences.
And then we hold our breath.
Always the same question—how will our gift be received?
I will never know for certain what meaning or ideas were generated by those who saw me sit in the cafeteria that day. But I can tell you that the performance reaffirmed for me that when we give our gift selflessly to the right people, our energy will be returned tenfold.
It is the community of lovers and supporters that gives the courage to keep creating. But I agree with what my mentor said:
We must risk. We must preach beyond the choir to show that there is a reason beyond logic, and a sense beyond common, and we are all invited to partake in it to create a more meaningful life.
And so I write for hundreds of strange eyes. I give and I let you take whatever you may. Art is a beast that must take on a life of its own. What you feed it is up to you.
As an artist, it is simply my job to stay hungry.
Author: Polly Orr
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Nicole Cameron