Open Engagement: Andrew Norman Wilson at Appendix Project Space
Other than the presence of Zack by the big desk in the back, Norm was totally alone in the white-walled gallery, his lanky frame poised, ready to spin a clear Apple mouse around by its cord and dance like he’d never danced before. An overhead fluorescent flickered and the crowd beyond Appendix’s signature garage door murmured in anticipation.
There were a few friendly faces out there, but he didn’t know most of those people, which was OK, perhaps better than OK. He liked being solo. His girlfriend Jane had been making him feel literally crazy for the past few months. It was, at that moment, totally okay that she was two thousand miles away in Chicago. Just beyond that door, he knew, were cute, art student girls from the moistness of Portland. Norm pictured a diamond-shaped tattoo on a soft thigh—something he had seen in Chicago which seemed to him to be very Portland. These girls, they would laugh at/with his dancing. And then, he knew—when he showed them his funny but smart videos about immaterial labor, globalization, and the Internet and whatnot—they would think that he was great. A smart, funny, tall artist guy without a girlfriend in sight, ladies.
Norm felt free.
And then when he felt free, he felt guilty. He pictured his girlfriend.
He nodded and cued Zack who in turn began, inch by inch, to raise the garage door. Light crept in from the rear alley and, soon enough, the garages of other little houses would be visible. Norm pushed a button on a remote control, this one to get the music going. “Doctor My Eyes” by Jackson Browne. It played louder than he was expecting, but it sounded good. Norm struck a new pose—his right fist, the one holding the mouse by the cord, shot up and he bent his left knee. As the door opened higher, the song’s driving rhythm kicked in and he could see people’s feet standing there in the gravel, tapping along to the intro. He started spinning the mouse around his body in complex, looping patterns. In order to be in the zone and really explore the dancing, he had to focus on something. The cherry of a recently-dropped cigarette glowed orange amidst the little gravel stones. He looked at that and imagined himself through the eyes of the person who’d dropped that cigarette. At that thought, he almost lost it, bursting out in laughter at how stupid/funny this all must have appeared to that person, or any person. Norm steadied himself and focused on the music—oh God, that almost cracked him up, too. “Doctor, my eyes have seen the years…” It was such a ridiculous song. It was Jane that had originally…Jane. Fucking shit, he thought. It was like someone had slammed on the brakes in his mind: his urge to giggle stopped and now he had to fight off a massive guilt trip. He really, really loved Jane.
Spin the mouse, Norm, spin the mouse and be funny. “Doctor, my eyes, tell me what is wrong…” He couldn’t quite see people’s heads yet. A lot of chests. Tons of dudes, he thought. But cute girls, too. Yes, he thought, stop thinking about Jane. You are in Oregon, away from Jane, who’s been pissing you off. Don’t forget that. Norm swung the mouse so that it came within inches of brushing his body. Not bad, you’re actually decent at this, he thought. With that feeling of encouragement, Norm struck a new pose, stomped his right foot and began to do a little hoppy-skippy dance in time to the music. By now the garage door was totally open and he could see that people were feeling his shtick, bobbing their heads. It was working: Whipping a computer mouse around his body and dancing to this particular song was funny and cool in the way that something self-effacing can be funny and cool. People got that and that felt good.
He scanned the faces, making evaluations of whether or not he’d sleep with the various girls. And there, he realized, was Val. Norm’s pulse quickened, as did the pace of his dancing. Val—the curvy, wide-eyed, “Armenian-looking” girl from the socially-engaged art conference at Portland State University. The conference was the reason Norm was in Portland in the first place. One of the themes that year had to do with network technologies and emerging Internet economies. Norm presented a jokey/deadpan PowerPoint about hiring an Indian intern and it had gone well. Val, for one, liked it and he liked her and so he invited her to come and see his event at Appendix. It was a risk on his part to do that. Up until a few days before the event, he had no idea what he was going to do. He had told Travis, his friend that also co-ran Appendix, that he was coming to Portland and Travis said, “Oh, you should do something at our space.” Sounded like a good idea and why not? It was all pretty laid back; plus they would feed him food and alcohol and he could crash on their couch if need be. This chill ambience backfired a little, though, as Norm kept pushing back and pushing back the task of coming up with an idea. It was on the plane from Chicago that he at last forced himself to jot down some notes. This was agonizing as the main thing he was feeling at that moment was release—from Chicago, from Jane—and he wanted zero responsibility. But, as often occurs for him in the creative process, the agony of beginning to work dissipated and the game of coming up with a project became fun. Whether burden or blessing, he didn’t know, but he was a creative person. An artist. So, to start, he thought, simple was good: a video screening made sense because he already had the videos on his computer. There had to be a twist, though. One thing Norm pushed himself to do in his video screenings was mess with the presentational format. Of late, that meant mining the aesthetic of corporate start-up culture, so he thought of setting up a desk and other props that read as “cool, funky, 21st century web start up.” And he’d be the “cool, funky boss-slash-MC of the event” who danced with an Apple mouse, loved Jackson Browne songs, and pounded Smirnoff Ices in between videos to pump up the crowd.
Norm looked out. “Doctor, my eyes, tell me what you see…”
Bright-eyed, young Americans. White teeth and stylish clothes. Most of them were without jobs, swimming in student loan debt, but it didn’t seem to matter. Maybe I’ll give them fake jobs at my non-existent start-up, thought Norm.
The climax of the dance was fast approaching and Norm was deep in the zone. He noticed Val and she smiled at him. He thought she looked hot and, in turn, started dancing as if it was all for her and her alone. On some level, the whole thing was sexual. It’s what made it funny—a tall, skinny man dancing like this, all mock-sexy—but in order to make the joke work, Norm had to feel like he was, in fact, sexy and then push that a little too far. He looked in the eyes of several girls—Val included—and could tell that the message was being subtly transmitted. The other thing it suggested was gay and, yep, several young guys were also giving him the eyes. Norm liked this. He liked attention and he liked the rush of flirtation with whomever was around to receive his libido. He looked at Travis to see how he was responding. Travis, too, was feeling it: happy for Norm, happy for the crowd to be entertained, happy that he, Travis, was responsible for a thing. Norm and Travis made eye contact. For a moment, Travis’s face seemed to Norm in focus while everything around it was cinematically soft. That seems like a cheesy metaphor, but it was true: an odd conspiracy of the brain and the eye to zero-in on Travis. As Norm’s body was in the groove, he let his mind wander even further back in time. He and Travis had met several years earlier in Vermont, where they were both counselors at an arts camp connected to Putney, a fancy New England boarding school. Norm felt free at Putney, too. He remembered how that felt being with Travis and the other counselors, just being young and cracking jokes. Like being in Portland, the lack of obligations and the entanglement of established social dynamics made everything light and possible. And, and—hmm, wait…How had he forgotten this? Of course. Putney was where he’d met Jane. He’d momentarily filtered that out of his thoughts. So weird—it wasn’t even Travis; it was Jane who was, for him, of course, the main event at Putney. Of course. How had he…I mean, they were all good friends, but…God, he thought, that was so much fun to be with Jane at Putney. God, he loved Jane. It was Jane, he remembered, who had originally shot the video of Norm dancing to “Doctor My Eyes” and put it on her Facebook wall. That was so fun. They were laughing. What happened? Why was she pissing him off so much? Where was Jane?
The song ended. Norm was in Portland. Norm stopped dancing. He gave an awkward little bow as the crowd clapped. Val looked at him and, unless he was going crazy, he thought all signs pointed to the possibility of sex. He pounded a Smirnoff Ice and got another round of laughs. Now he’d play his videos and that would happen and then he’d pound more Smirnoff Ices and get drunk so he wouldn’t have to be responsible for whatever happened next.