My friend Matteo Graziano, an Italian choreographer and film director, asked me to photograph the third installment of his street performance piece, Freewall, a couple weeks ago during the Tanz im August festival. Freewall was performed originally in Milan in 2008, and again in Seoul in 2010. For two hours, Matteo becomes a free wall space for the audience to interact with and respond to in any way they see fit. He is blindfolded and near naked, standing on a podium with markers at his feet. The audience is invited to participate in the performance by writing anything they please on his body for the length of time he is performing. Matteo stands still as a statue, then moves inch-by-inch based on his interpretation of what is being written on his body. Blind and mute, this slow movement is his only interaction with the audience.
On a large stand nearby, there is an artist's statement written in a stream of consciousness, beginning with, “I thought of a wall. A white, free, bare wall. I thought of its pureness, its virginity, its naivety, its request for identity. I thought that it was useless. I thought of all the times I read looked watched scanned judged something written on a wall. I thought of all the times that I had something to say but nobody that would listen to it. I thought of how many words I have never said, how many I would have to say, how many words..."
As the photographer, it is my job to stand back and document the performance unfolding without interacting with the audience. I'm absorbing all that is around me, and trying not to intrude. I'm estatic to be working with Matteo again, and I'm intrigued to see what will happen with this piece. The first person writes on Matteo's chest, "COME CLOSER," inviting other audience members to participate. I like where this is heading. The next, a father and his curious little boy, begin to write on Matteo's legs and feet, the father helping his son hold the markers. A few minutes later, a couple giggling girls use the free wall to draw public hair around Matteo's underwear line and big arrows up his thighs which point to his rear end, which was then labeled "Yummy" – the beginning of the end, I suppose. I am shocked at how embarrassed I felt watching this.
I documented the next hour and a half of my friend and fellow artist's body become a graffitied wall. He is a free wall, after all. Any respect and reverence for art and beauty (to me) was thrown out the window, and the crowds took over. My excitement at the beginning of the performance turned into protectiveness and eventually powerlessness, even as I continue to document the piece. I am fascinated, horrified. I watched more and more people attack my friend with offensive words, dirty drawings, laughter and ridicule. Matteo ceased being human and just became another wall for people to defile. I am as amazed by this performance as I am appalled by my reaction to it.
A group of Turkish boys from the neighborhood walked through the performance space. At first they stood far away and just laughed at Matteo, not understanding what was happening. They got closer, some a little braver, and then one boy grabbed a marker. Then another. And another. I watch as the five neighborhood boys start drawing on ever inch of Matteo's body, laughing at him, trying to stick markers into his mouth and down his shorts. An audience member at that point approached me and asked if I should try to stop the boys from abusing Matteo the way they were. I'm frustrated and emotional at this point, but it's Matteo's art – not mine. Who am I to stop this piece from progressing the way it should?
15 minutes later, one boy touches Matteo inappropriately, prompting him to grab the boy's clothing and not let go. He still does not speak. He still cannot see. I hesitantly use that as an excuse to kick the boys away, but they come back 20 minutes later with even more friends. I don't stop them this time, and I watch for the remained of the performance as the seven or eight neighborhood kids eat my friend alive. Adults stand around watching. A couple of the kids taunt me as I alternate between photographing and watching protectively from the sidelines. A pecking party, this is, an attempt to destroy the weak. It's incredible! I'm heartbroken, powerless to save my friend, fascinated by this study of human nature – just as Matteo finally reaches his breaking point and steps off the podium ten minutes before the time is up. There was no more available "wall" for the kids to defile anyway. All of Matteo was gone, the graffiti all that is left of him. He walks away, grabs a blanket, and we sit together in silence after the performance.