People in cities walk, frequently very fast. When the urge to simply stroll does strike–usually due to too much cake or the sudden need to get away from someone in your house–it’s an unplanned and haphazard occurrence. If the afternoon’s free and the weather’s nice, it’s possible to amble along cityscapes known and unknown, guided by the fuzzy, neighborly certainty that it is most definitely good to be out. This feeling fades, of course: feet begin to hurt and questions about where you are and how to get home must be reckoned with. Even a pleasant spontaneous stroll turns into an all-too-familiar concrete slog home in the final leg.
Which is where Jon Cotner comes in. To give the leisurely walk some creative purpose. Based in Brooklyn, he’s the ideal blend of writer, artist, performer, and local character-of-note to design and lead “interactive walks” that he calls Spontaneous Society. The walks, which Cotner calls an antidote to our “anxious sit-down civilization” operate under the auspices of Elastic City, which seeks to “make its audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit” and subsidizes artists to design their own walks.
“[The] walks contain five participants plus myself,” says Cotner. “They last 90 minutes. I start by assigning each participant two lines from the series.” The lines in question, each of which Cotner claims he has spoken “thousands of times along thousands of blocks across multiple cities” are simple, one-sentence remarks. A person walking a dog would be told, “That’s a good-looking dog,” while another participant may be tasked with telling someone pushing a baby carriage, “That looks pretty cozy.”
There’s a reason for these pleasantries, Cotner explains.
“Each Spontaneous Society line is addressed to someone,” he says. “These lines exist for the sake of intensifying pleasure within the flow of mundane existence. They’re not spoken in a void. Nor are they spoken to baffle or impress, or to sound impressive via bafflement.” He continues: “The lines have the humble social aim of producing laughter and smiles among people who might otherwise walk dogs, push carriages, pull handcarts, or go about general daily business with unconscious gravity. Both the speaker and recipient come away with renewed awareness of their fleeting circumstances.”
In this way, he’s providing a designer version of the urban stroll, like the $4 bottled water full of healthy vitamins that really do make you feel healthy after. All the choice parts of urban living are on display: casual neighborliness, the ability to make new connections just by walking outside.
Cotner’s latest walk, “We’re Floating,” takes place July 14. He’s also preparing for “Island Night,” a 12-hour interactive experience for groups of eight participants scheduled to debut on Fire Island on August 25. The walk isn’t for slackers–it lasts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Cotner describes it as “part philosophic dialogue, part poetic reverie, part nature walk; it’s an extended meditation on ‘the present.'”
The time that goes in to organizing the routes is a reminder of just how much prep work is needed for something to come across as spontaneous. “In general when arranging routes, I spend 2-3 days on-site–surveying the scene, envisioning possibilities, taking notes,” he says. “Then I work 2-3 days in my apartment. Then I’ll return to the site. And so on. These pieces are grounded in worldly encounter, so I have to design routes with artistic deliberation. I’m sculpting exuberant and tender exchanges – encouraging them to happen.”
Cotner’s work, creative process, and worldview are guided by the redemptive power of just milling around, seeing what there is to see. It’s the “antithesis of rushing linearly from A to B, hoping to abolish distance as fast as possible, more or less wishing you arrived at your destination before setting out in the first place,” he observes. “Ramblers draw close to the physical world. They’re inclined to slow down time rather than speed it up.”
Even in New York City.