The Art Assignment 02: The Stakeout

CONTEXT:

EXECUTION:

On the day before my 20th birthday, I set out from my home with a backpack full of notebooks, sandwiches and secrets. This was to be my last day of ‘teen’-hood, my last teenage adventure.

I’d prepared ahead of time. My object to be planted was Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’. Inside was an envelope, with one edge peeking out the top of the pages. On this exposed section of envelope was written, in bold black lettering, the words ‘Hey! You!’

I was hoping that would get someone’s attention. Inside the envelope was a coded message, which when unscrambled contained a link to the video shown above. I hoped some curious person would figure it out, and then by the end of the video realise what they’d been a part of. That they’d been being watched.

ROUND ONE: ENTHUSIASTIC IRISHMAN

My first target was the outside of my local library. I hadn’t been in the area for a while, so there was an element of exploration there. Re-learning this space for a new purpose. Across from the library was a bus-stop. So long as there’s more than one bus route using a bus stop, you can sit there forever and no one will ever notice. All the witnesses are getting on and off buses. They’ll  all assume you’re waiting for the other one.

So I set down my book, leaning against a pillar, next to the bike racks, and walked away. I was terrified that a) someone would notice me leaving it, and try to intervene, or that b) someone would pick it up before I crossed to the bus stop and allowed myself to look back.

This fear turned out to be completely unfounded. I sat at that bus stop for a long time. After a little while, I started to notice people looking. Always in groups, always dragged along too quickly to stop and take a closer look. It was a frustrating time. I thought briefly about how I’d been so excited to perform this latest Art Assignment, but had never thought about the possibility of someone performing the same assignment near me. Had I , in the past few weeks, walked past an object? Some spy novel, some wrapped present, some weapon from a blatantly fictional murder?

In my notebook, I wrote ‘From now on, I’m picking up every street-book that isn’t nailed down!’

I feel I should also mention the… ‘remarkable’ man I met while waiting at the bus stop. He wore what looked like a cross between a sombrero and one of those conical hats Asian people wear in racist cartoons. He was clearly drunk, middle aged, and when it was just him and me at the bus stop he decided to teach me Gaellic. He said it was a dying language, and a good language, and instructed me to say a word that sounded kind of like ‘Shh-way-luh” to an Irishman. He said he didn’t know what it meant, but that it didn’t mean anything bad. It was good, he said. The next three people to pass us on the street, he greeted. “Shh-way-luh!” he mumbled. “Shh-way-luh!”

I smile and nod, and on my phone, I write a draft text to no-one: ‘I am going to die here.’

After I moved slightly further away from the bus stop to get away from Captain Ireland – who spoke with a broad Australian accent, by the way – an elderly man exited the library. He was thin and tall, and had a blue backpack on. He approached his bicycle in the racks beside the library steps, and stopped to look down at a little spy book leaning against a pedestal. My heart leapt. I abandoned all pretence of writing in my notebook and just stared at his back as he bent down, picked up the book, and opened it. Success! Finally! This man. This beautiful man! He’d done it, he’d broken outside of the shell we all wrap around our perceptions, to keep the world from ever touching us. I was suddenly worried that my secret code – based on a simple transposition of the QWERTY keyboard – would be incomprehensible to this older human being. Did he have a younger relative who could help him sort it out? My mind raced. He spent a good few minutes just standing there, motionless, the book and the envelope in his hands. I just kept smiling wider and wider and then of course the old prick put it back down.

What a ride! Anyway, the Irishman was gone, so I sat down at the bus stop again and ate lunch, scowling up a tempest. After a while, I crossed the road, picked up the book, and wrote on the section of the envelope that didn’t poke out of the top of the book ‘Good job! Now, take the book and the envelope to a safe place, then open them. There’s an adventure in it for you. How great are adventures? Anyway, you can do it. I believe in you!’ In retrospect, I think some of my despair at the near-miss with the old man slipped into my friendly greeting. There was a bitter sarcasm there, almost threatening. But it was too late, I only had one envelope. I put the book back down, crossed the street again, and after about twenty minutes the library closed. No one, on exiting, noticed the book.

Ten minutes later, I said ‘to hell with it’, picked the book up and walked off down the street. This time, there would be no holding back.

ROUND TWO: HARDER. BETTER. FASTER. STRONGER.

DAFT

The sun was starting to set (I started late, see. I never create art before noon. Or much else, really.) I made a beeline for the nearest train station, which was conveniently a multi-line transport hub. There’d be no end of potential art victims. I’d written off train stations initially because I figured there would be cameras, security officers, who might take offence at a suspicious book. Can you fit a bomb inside a book? I’m not sure I’d bet my life against it… But now I had a better plan. Bus stops! I’d sat at one all afternoon, watching somewhere else, when the answer had been under my butt the whole time. Loads of people, some of whom will inevitably sit there for a long time just waiting. Stick a book with a ‘Hey! You!’ in front of a bus stop and you were set. It almost felt too easy.

An old hand at this by now, I slid my spy novel underneath an anthology of student fiction, and sat down at my target bus stop. I was just an extra in the background of a scene. The woman sitting beside me was staring off to her right, the man standing out to the left was on his phone. I was invisible, and when I was sure no one was looking I propped the book up on the bench, made sure the envelope was securely in place, and walked away.

Sitting down at a tram stop down the road and across about a minute later, I held my anthology at eye level. Chin resting on my other hand, I looked as bored as I could, and within a minute someone new sat down at the bus stop. She had a friend with her, and though the book itself was out of sight I could see them, noticing it. Just like that, she’d picked it up. I felt a sudden wave of pride at my own mastery of the form. I was the Bobby Fischer  of leaving books lying around.

My quarry – and it did feel kind of scary like that, the voyeurism finally catching up with me – held the book up, and she and her friends all seemed to be discussing it. It was marvellous. The one holding the book – blue jeans, dark hair, glasses – just stared at it in her hands. I assume she had it open to the envelope, and she read it for what felt like a long time. I was trying to spend my time equally between watching her and staring at my prop book. Eye contact at that stage might have been… suggestive?

After a while, a red van rolled up next to the bus stop, obscuring my view. I wasn’t worried. There’d been buses parked in front of me half the time at my other spot. I was mostly thinking excitedly about whether or not she’d put it in her bag. She seemed interested – surely she wouldn’t just put it down. I’d left a note! Surely  – and the van pulled away. Just in time, too. If it had stayed a moment longer I’d have missed her dropping my envelope in the bin.

Bin

My mind reeled. But… But you can’t! All that time, all that trust, and she’d just thrown it out. This stranger, this case study of humanity circa 2014, found a mysterious envelope promising adventure and intrigue, and threw it away. For a long time I just sat there, gawping. My chin hung cartoonishly low.

But here’s the kicker: She kept reading the book! The whole time I was sitting there, winded, she was staring intently down at the tome in her hands. Every minute or so she’d quickly flip the page. I was shocked. To be honest, the book had always been packaging to me. I’d never read it, just picked it out from a small bookshop in exchange for donating two canvas bags of childhood favourites, and hence forgotten about. I picked it as something solid-looking to leave lying on the ground, and the fact that it seemed vaguely to do with spies and espionage made it all the more perfect. But it was just that, window-dressing.

Not for Bluejeans Darkhair though. She seemed positively engrossed. Maybe she was into that kind of book. I felt – after all the trauma of seeing my elaborate spy message fall into oblivion – a little bit good about it. If I could go back, maybe in stead of my passive-aggressive offer of adventure, I’d just write: “Hey! Thanks for picking it up. So many people don’t. You’re a special person. Enjoy the free book!”

What’s more, it was kind of fantastic, that I’d been made the Watcher; such a powerful, dangerous mantle to wear – and this woman had just walked right in off the street and ruined me. It was such a perfect shift in the balance of power between characters – a ‘beat’ as I was taught in film school. Too elegant for real life, this. I also comforted myself thinking about why she had thrown out the letter. I decided she must be the kind of person who’s already had enough bullshit adventures. This lady’s got nothing to prove, no missed opportunities floating around in her psyche. She’s happy with her life just the way it is, so hand over the vaguely noir hardback and good day to you.

The kids in every Evil-Dead-like could learn a lesson from this one.

In the end, I crossed back to their side of the street, and threw a piece of rubbish into the bin where my letter lay forgotten. I passed within a metre of my target. I imagined how crazy you’d have to be, to suspect that this random person walking past the bus stop had been staking out the book you just found. That all this was part of a plan. A spy novel.

So yeah, that was my last day of being a teenager.

God willing, I’ll remember it for a while.

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