49 hours at Wal-Mart vs. 39 hours in an abandoned building

posted by Mark Dixon on December 21st, 2005

Editor’s note: This is our 100th post.

In the heart of the dead (as advertised) but employees can’t find it, the inventory number is missing, the bar code won’t scan, ‘Price check on aisle one nineteen!’ they have promised again and again so we are here to collect: health, happiness, fulfillment, quality and especially savings in the isles of the only home we know.

The statement also applies to the 49 hours I had previously spent at Wal-Mart. Despite the ironic tone, those Wal-Mart pieces were an experiment in compliance. In Wal-Mart, I endeavored to accept the offers of consumer culture—health, happiness etc.—as if they were made in earnest. I decided that the intense, extreme, adventurous and sublimely happy life displayed in product advertisements was the thing for me.

Wal-Mart was a perfect site for the quest because it is the ultimate experience of abundant promise and dismal reality: the products versus the customers. There, amidst a crippling one billion choices, the perfect item is said to lurk; as customers our mission is to find it. My visit to Wal-Mart was an act of total compliance with that mission. The stipulations I brought were a sincere expectation of achieving that goal and a preference for process over product. In the end I felt successful for having made good on their false promises.

On the one year anniversary of the 49 hours I spent at Wal-Mart, I endeavored to colonize another modern fixture, the abandoned city building. Beginning on the evening of Thanksgiving 2002, I operated under the following procedure:

  • I will illegally enter an abandoned building.
  • I will have the door locked behind me.
  • I will have no prior information as to what is inside.
  • I will bring the clothes I wear, flashlight, paper, pen, camera, water, food, chalk, pliers, screw driver, and a two-way radio.
  • I will remain inside the building for 72 hours.

The building I occupied and Wal-Mart exist at opposite ends of the economic retreat from city to the suburb. Both sites are wastelands in their own right, but the sheer emptiness of the building was a nightmare. The night I entered, in order to get from the basement to the upper floors I had to climb up the greasy interior of the elevator shaft. To my great dismay the building was almost entirely empty. The only items on hand were a few piles of fresh construction debris and pigeon leavings. Also, what I assumed was a completely abandoned building was clearly being worked on. Because of this I spent the majority of my 39 hours anticipating capture, sleepless and very cold. The following passage is excerpted from performance notes made at 3:15 AM, one hour into my first night in the building:

Every sound I make, including the draging of pen point on paper, is amplified in fear. I am on floor six kneeling in the corner with my back to the wall. I choose this spot for its long sight lines and its wash of intersection noise and mucury vapor street light. These nusances are at least familliar.

My eyes have adjusted to the low light; I can see clear across the building. When I was little I knew that light and my eyes, could hold fearsome things at bey. Now I remember that capacity as I scan the empty room. I remember it even more when I hear footsteps approaching. My eyes swell and search for the figure. The creaking steps come towards me through sound, into the perimiter of smell until touch seems eminent but there is still nothing to see. I am finally able to breathe again when I realize that the sound is of the floor recoiling from my own footsteps. They are finding my corner all over again as from my weight. The explination is hardly rational but I am charmed by it’s eagerness to serve so I move for my pen and write it down.

With each passage I invent I get a little colder. The fear was at least keeping me warm. I am shivering and laughing at myself because I’m the most frightening thing around.

While the interventions I made at Wal-Mart were fun and humorous, my activities in the building were ascetic and aesthetic. I bothered pigions into flying around in the building then ran after them with my camera. I spent four hours pacing the length of the building 350 times. A piece of graffitti from a prior visitor read my mind–“Fuck This”–so I decorated it with pigeon shit covered feathers. I gathered scrap cardbord and plastic to sleep on and in. I made up dances. I learned to blow smoke rings with my freezing breath. What I did most of all though was sit miserably and wait.

In planning I had made the mistake of assuming that the skills that allowed me to make a fine feast of Wal-Mart would be applicable to the building. But the two spaces could not have been more different. I was completely unprepared for the building because it was the one thing not available in Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was, however, quite available in the empty building. I brought it in with me in the form of my unexpected need for it. In its absence I encountered myself, fear, loneliness and a huge creative block.

From this side of the building performance I see that Wal-Mart had been a theater for my faithful opposition to an old enemy. My 49 hours at Wal-Mart were a sideshow act of bravado in which I guzzled the poisons I am most resilient to and flourished my well-adapted contraptions of sarcasm, irony, and reconfiguration. While Wal-Mart was a model of revolution in spite of and within the system, the empty building was a model of “total revolution” in which my every skill was suddenly maladapted.

After my failing watch caused me to miss two consecutive radio check points, I decided it was time to break out. In searching for a way to escape, my simulated crisis became real. As I took the door off its hinges in broad daylight, all of my concern for respecting the building and not getting caught were abandoned.

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3 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On December 21, 2005 at 11:52 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    The ‘I-will’ procedural rules remind me of Tehching Hsieh’s works such as the One Year Performance.

  2. On January 22, 2006 at 11:59 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    This issue (January) of Le Monde diplomatique includes a dossier on Wal-Mart, featuring ‘The cult of Sam’ by Barbara Ehrenreich and ‘Wal-Mart, the new southern plantation’ by Serge Halimi, amongst others.

  3. On February 6, 2006 at 16:15 mark dixon said:

    With regards to Dr. Kaihsu Tai’s comment: I am indeed aware of Tehching Hsieh’s works and certainly influenced by them. I highly recommend his work to anyone interested in performance. It is some of the most fascinating cultural work of the 20th century. The DVD ROM that Dr. Kaihsu Tai links to is an excelent document of his practice.

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