There’s a strange paradox about modern social life in big cities like New York. As much as urban dwellers might seem to want to meet new people through apps like OkCupid or Meetup or Tinder, they still mostly ignore strangers in real life.
That fact was the inspiration for a new art installation at a cafe on 7th Avenue in Manhattan, where French artist Shani Ha built a table designed to bring strangers together. Half of the table is inside the cafe, and the other half is on the sidewalk. Through the window, diners can awkwardly interact with each other–or stare at their own reflections in the glass–and think about social isolation in cities.
“Moving to New York, I quickly realized it was not that okay to look at people in public spaces, and that interactions were way more controlled and careful here,” says Ha, who is from Paris. “It was very frustrating at first. I tried to understand what makes people so afraid of each other when everyone seems to be super connected through social media. I imagined scenarios where strangers could feel safe and encouraged to experiment interacting with strangers in a tangible and positive way.”
Sitting at the Table for Two can be uncomfortable at first, especially if no one is sitting on the other side. “You feel very lonely, and you are almost on a stage, under the light, showing people you’re siting alone,” Ha says. “It’s both sad and exciting because anything can happen and anyone can come sit in front. You see your own reflection and start thinking a lot.”
Still, for most people who tried it, the experience quickly changed as people on the street started to stop and smile, laugh, or take photos. “It’s almost comforting to be approached by people who just come hang out on the other side of the window for a few seconds or minutes for no real reason,” she says. “Especially in a city like New York, where we are all supposed to pretend not to see people around us, and therefore almost feel like we disappear.”
Though the installation was temporary, and made as conceptual art, Ha also thinks that the design of everyday city objects could shift to help us start to meet the people around us.
“I think everything that surrounds us has an impact on our behavior,” Ha says. “Cities, furniture, materials, urban design, and art influence the way we live together and the way perceive each other. I believe that the growing egocentricity is directly linked to prescriptive environments that disengage our responsibility toward others. Empathy is optional. Table for Two talks about the way we should be able to interact respectfully and freely, and not just fearing unexpected encounters.”