Thursday, February 16, 2006

165. the best Valentine's Day ever (part 1)

Yeah, last night I posted part one (see blog 164). See, the event that I'm going to be blogging about below (which I'm calling part one) happened before the event I blogged about last night (which is why I called it part two).

"Randall, only you would go out of your way to do something backwards like that."

Don't like it? Hey, there are lots of other blogs in the blogosphere. And it shows personality, no?

Anyway, the reason I held off on talking about what I'm about to talk about is because I was hoping that there would be press coverage for the event that I could link to so that you could get an outsiders perspective of what took place. There was television coverage, and I actually got my mug in the Honolulu Star Bulletin (Page D2 of the evening edition) but I guess the newspaper websites are slow to update non-breaking news. To turn the cliche around, if it doesn't bleed, it doesn't lead. But (as usual) I'm getting ahead of myself.

Valentine's morning around 11AM, I took part in what I think is one of the most brilliant works of public performance art ever put on in Hawaii. Now I know that's a grandiose statement to the extreme, but that's how highly I regard the event.

It was a simple thing, really. Nate Chung designed a bunch of signs, taped them to wooden poles and got a bunch of his friends to volunteer to hold them up along one of the busiest intersections of downtown Honolulu. The signs had his face on them (in gregarious, humorous, utterly joyful poses) and when three or four signs were put together they spelled out phrases like, "You're great!" or "Mahalo" (thank you in Hawaiian) or "You're appreciated." The event was called, "Downtown Love."

In simplest terms, the goal of the event was just to cheer people up as they were walking or driving by. Held in the heart of Downtown, the event put us among the movers and shakers (as well as the grunts and the cogs) who keep Hawaii going. These are people who spend hours on the phone, in meetings, staring at computer screens, massaging the carpal tunnel out of their wrists. From the lowliest file clerk to the Type A CEOs, a lot of the work they do on a daily basis goes unnoticed and unappreciated. These signs were a way for Nate and his volunteers to thank these people for all that they do.

That's face value goal of the event. Now here's why I think this was such a radically amazing, brilliant work of art: it really messed with people's heads, but in a good way. As one of the sign wavers, I got to see first hand, what the reactions were. The two most common were ignoring the signs and looking at them with a kind of uncomprehension (I just invented that word, you like?). No comment on those who ignored the signs, but I loved watching the people who were trying to figure out why the hell we were holding up these silly signs with near-obsequeous messages on them.

And that's the genius of the signs. It's a stinging, subversive critique of the cynicism that is so pervasive that people don't know how to react when confronted with a message that says, "you're great!" - a sign that doesn't have any advertising agenda, that isn't trying to direct you to a website, that isn't trying to further a political figure or ideology - a sign that's just trying to cheer people up. And judging by their initial reactions, people didn't know how to take that.

Now I can understand that because it seems like everything today has strings attached to it. A free car wash isn't really a free car wash, it's either trying to collect "suggested donations" or it's trying to promote some kind of cause, like a church trying to show its community that it cares. And what a sad world it's become where when someone comes up to you and gives you a compliment, defenses go up and you start asking yourself, "why did they do that? What do they want from me? Did they really mean it?" When did we become so jaded and defensive? Why is it so hard and awkward and weird to be nice to one another? I mean do you see how utterly screwed up that is? It's easier and more socially acceptable these days to be selfish and self-centered than it is to be generous and empathetic.

Downtown Love is an open challenge to what we've become. Even now, I picture some of those grouchy faces that walked by the group of signs I was a part of (our five signs read, "you're ap-pre-cia-ted) going back to their office trying to figure out what we were trying to sell or what we were trying to get them to sign up for. And I wonder if this person will consider, just for a moment, that it truly was a simple expression of kindness and thanks. And I wonder if that moment will get him to see how distrustful and dysfunctional our society has become. And ultimately, I wonder if this newfound understanding will cause him/her to be a bit nicer to those around them - not to kiss ass, but just for the sake of doing something kind.

Most amazing of all, this subversive critique came in the form of life-affirming, cheerful little signs. It came out of a heart so overfull with love that it couldn't help but spill out into the streets.

I wish you could have been there. I wish you could have seen the reactions. We heard from some people walking by that they came down to check us out after hearing their co-workers say something like, "there are a bunch of people waving these signs and they're saying stuff like, 'have a great day.' You should go check it out." And I wonder what kind of conversations got started in offices all over downtown.

When Nate Chung held a similar event at the University of Hawaii (where he was a student at the time), one girl walking by literally broke down and started to cry, saying that she couldn't believe that anyone would do something so unselfish and kind. I wonder if there were people similarly bewildered. I wonder if some will go on to question a society that's almost hostile to selfless acts of kindness. I wonder if a few will come up with their own way of blessing others with no strings attached.

I don't know. Even if it never goes that deep for anyone, we made people smile, not through sarcasm or a tricky cynical phrase or some cruel joke but out of sheer joy. And in today's world, that's quite an accomplishment.

Nate Chung is a genius, just the kind of genius Christianity needs right now...but that's a topic for another day.

1 comment:

m said...

I was lying down in bed with the TV news on in the other room, out of my line of sight (you try advising a high school yearbook someday and you'll totally understand why listening to the news from a distant room is the only way to do it some nights) when this story came on, and I thought, "That's gotta be Nathaniel Chung." The story didn't mention him by name and I didn't see the images, but I was certain.

Here's the thing, though. Was it just a pure expression, or does an artist have other motivations? See, art must have an intended audience, and whether or not it is successful at whatever it's trying to do depends on how it is received by its audience. I suggest that the audience in this case is the people who weren't there but who saw it or heard about it later; it seems to me that the passersby were unwilling, unsuspecting, uncomprehending (yes, I do like) participants in the art and not its intended audience. Or, since I don't know what Nathaniel was really trying to do, it's possible that while you had your eyes on the passersby, he had his on you, and HE was his own dang audience and YOU were the knowing subjects, only you thought you were the subjects one way but you were really subjects another way, if that makes any sense.

That changes things a bit, but I hope my comment doesn't diminish in any way your enthusiasm for having been a part of this. If it does, please delete it and forget you ever saw it!