It seemed simple enough at first. A week-long performance called Life Exchange, Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2007, organized during Performa 07 by a Berlin-based collective called Wooloo Productions. Volunteers would go to an apartment in New York’s Chelsea art district and briefly swap lives with a stranger, all in the name of performance art.
Sounds like an avant-garde version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881) or, more recently, Trading Places, the 1983 comedy in which a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) and a yuppie blueblood (Dan Aykroyd) switch off. Only, being avant-garde, Life Exchange was promoted as an examination of "the widespread notion of human distrust that is a reality in post-9/11 New York."
Appropriately enough, it launched on Halloween. So I sent in my RSVP.
The next thing I knew, I was the subject of a press release. Life Exchange would be inaugurated by "two females in their thirties, one an artist and one a writer" (that’s me), who would exchange house keys with their "partner" for a minimum of 24 hours.
As a New Yorker, this plan seemed optimistic. I wouldn’t trust my keys to most of my friends, much less a complete stranger. Moreover, I couldn’t commit to an entire day, not on such short notice.
Nonetheless, after being coaxed by the Wooloo organizer and told that I was integral to the success of the project, Halloween found me dodging bands of trick-or-treaters in Chelsea, heading for the apartment of author Nancy Weber, who was billed as "the first New Yorker to conduct a Life Exchange (The Life Swap, 1974)" but who otherwise seemed to have absented herself from this go-round.
At the door I was prepared to exchange idle pleasantries, but instead was immediately ushered through Weber’s living room, like a calf to slaughter, by an attendant clad in violet-colored scrubs. He hurried me across a back patio and down a flight of stairs to a small basement apartment, where Martin Rosengaard, the man behind the Wooloo curtain, and his colleague, Sixten Kai Nielson, were waiting, also dressed in scrubs, black and white, respectively. It was Halloween, after all.
They sat side by side, flanking a fake fireplace, which gave off a cozy glow. Rosengaard did most of the talking, gravely outlining my mission. I found it hard to concentrate. The room was hot as hell, and smelled of cat piss.
We then moved back upstairs to Weber’s apartment, where a small crowd of curious visitors had gathered. Rosengaard and Nielsen gave me a lengthy questionnaire to fill out, part bank application (name, birth date, nationality, yearly income, marital status), part dating game (favorite foods, hobbies and interests, sexual preferences) and part FBI psychological profile (traumas, secrets, childhood memories).
I slogged through, helping myself to the snacks provided, while one visitor after another arrived to watch the proceedings, all of them declining to fill out any forms or commit to the "life exchange" ritual in any way. In fact, no one seemed to have the slightest idea about what was going on, save for the free wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Soon the fateful hour arrived. It was time to meet my "partner," the person with whom I would trade places.
Before the bored eyes of the somewhat drunken crowd, I was blindfolded and returned to the same stinky basement room, lit this time by candles (I peeked). There sat my life-exchange partner on a beautiful linen tablecloth, dressed in scrubs and wearing a blindfold like mine, her back to me. I changed into my own scrubs and was positioned behind her, my back pressed against hers, legs out. After instruction from our overseers, we linked hands ritualistically and sat for what seemed like hours. Wooloo was clearly into the hoodoo voodoo.
Next, my anonymous partner was lifted from the floor and redressed in my clothes and given my purse. I panicked. "Don’t give her my phone!" I hissed. The attendants hushed me and told me not to worry, as my opposite number was ushered off to her "new life" -- my old one.
Before I knew it, I was standing out on the street, dressed in her discarded outfit and carrying her bag. Rosengaard and Nielson smiled like the good doctors they were supposed to be, and wished me well before returning to attend to a camera crew, which was documenting the event. Their Life Exchange had been completed.
For a brief moment, my faith in Rosengaard and Nielson’s unflappable sincerity was renewed. I even wished I could follow through on the performance. But alas, I had 50 student papers at home to correct, and was not about to devote a full day to some wacky art project. Wandering down the block, I sat on a stoop to explore my new life. Inside my purse, along with a ball of yarn, a Diane Arbus biography, a pair of pliers and a small notebook, was my partner’s questionnaire and her cell phone.
Opening the phone, I found a message from "Joanna" -- the name of the artist who was now my double. She wanted her belongings back, having expected to take them with her, all the better to endure a night at my house. Ah, a girl after my own heart. Life exchange is easier if you keep your purse.
Over Chinese food an hour later, Joanna and I got to know each other a little bit. She is a sweet, 30-year old MFA graduate, currently unemployed. It also turned out that she is associated with Wooloo Productions. Was I the only sucker in New York?
At least we exchanged fortune cookies. Mine seemed especially auspicious. "They’ll definitely remember all your efforts."
Though the notion of "life exchange" is not unappealing, it escapes me how changing places with this woman, raised by a Catholic Church deacon and with interests that included crocheting and bikram yoga, might have provoked any significant post-9/11 issues for me. More séance than psychoanalysis, the project seemed of no visible use in helping people overcome any fear and distrust of immigrants.
Still, if you happen to be a glass-half-full type person, I encourage you to check out for yourself what I came to think of as the Svengali Brothers Chamber of Life Exchange Horrors at www.wooloo.org. Just be forewarned -- they don’t seem to know what they’re doing.
JANE HARRIS is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to the Village Voice, Time Out NY, Artforum and Art in America, among other publications.