Monday morning 60 mysterious packages were opened throughout New York. You might have seen them--they were baby grand pianos, covered with protective veils and just waiting to get fingered. Decorated in varying degrees of fanciness, some were a classic brown with a few tasteful paint strokes, while others might have been molested by Willy Wonka. Luke Jerram is the guy behind the rogue pianos, which will be around through July 5th. The exhibit is called “Play Me, I’m Yours” and, although Luke has done this project in cities all over the world, this is its first time in America. It's a valiant attempt to encourage New Yorkers to break out of their neurotic, unfriendly, fuck-off façades and play “Chopsticks” as it should be played…with their favorite homeless guy in the park.
I caught up with Luke at a little park in Tribeca where we had a chat before he swooned me with some tunes like a girl oughtta be on a baby grand.
Vice: I read that you got the idea for this exhibit in a laundry mat. Does laundry normally inspire you? Or was it the launderers and watching people’s interactions in a certain environment?
Luke: It’s about the fact that in this park there might be people who come here everyday to eat the sandwich that they bought from that shop over there. They see each other and think, "Oh it’s the guy with the beard," but they don't talk to each other. There are thousands of these kinds of spaces that people occupy, sort of like invisible communities, but no one engages with one another. The theory is that by putting a piano in a park you can kind of break down barriers and connect people…and it seems to be working.
Sometimes I'll come to a piano and see two people who would have never met each other under other circumstances, and one will give the other a piano lesson. These two journalists who met each other at a piano in Sydney are now married.
Wow, he must've been really good. Do you hear a lot of stories like that?
Yeah, there was a mother and a daughter I met at a train station in São Paolo. The mother had worked for four years to send her daughter to piano lessons on the other side of the city. A piano over there is like $1000, which is about a year’s wages for some people, so they could never afford a real piano, and she had never heard her daughter play. Then they came across a piano at the train station--it was the first time ever she heard her daughter play--and she began to cry, along with myself and everyone else in the station.
Yeah, it was great. On a rainy day in Sydney I went to a park to see if a piano had been covered. It had been, but there was a homeless man playing it underneath the cover.
Was he any good?
Meh, he was OK.
Sometimes it seems like the performers have more fun than the audience.
This turns everyone into performers. The reason I think it's been so successful is that it provides a blank canvas and a space for everyone else’s creativity. So we’ll have thousands of people around New York playing pianos with other people--it’s a kind of viral project.
This exhibit seems really concerned with the idea of people taking back their public spaces, regaining a sense of public ownership.
It’s funny, if you’re walking down the street no one’s going to bother you. If you stop walking and decide to stand still for ten hours, someone will probably arrest you. If you decide to sit down for two hours someone will say, "You can't sit there, it's an obstruction." What if I crawl? What if I move really slowly? What’s allowed? I’m interested in exploring the limitations of that. I like getting people to think about who owns public space and who defines the rules.
Why do you think there is such a problem, especially in urban cities, of insularity? Why do people feel so alone in this city of millions?
I’m not sure whether we’re alone or whether our sense of community is different now. Everyone used to know their neighbors and now our friends are online. We’ve got a community that reaches across time and space in a different way. But yeah, certainly in the city things like technology…you know, things like headphones especially have made things more personal, instead of a shared experience.
There’s another theory--that it takes a tragedy or a natural disaster to really unite people.
Yeah, maybe that's it. Maybe everything’s just too safe and too nice here, there’s too much abundance and happiness here. Actually, going up to Harlem, delivering pianos there yesterday, there were hundreds of people on the streets all sitting out on their deck chairs, there seemed to be an amazing sense of community there.
You’ve exhibited in Barcelona, Belfast, São Paolo and London to name a few. How do you decide the lucky cities?
I get invited. I got 30 pianos in London last year and then the project when global. I’m putting pianos in 12 cities this year. The nice thing about this is that you’re not asking people to go into a gallery or museum; you’re taking art and delivering it to their doorstep.
For a list of piano locations, go here.
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