- Performance Art at the (Virginia) Margins:Anthony Restivo's Far Off and All Aflame
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, across a coal train bridge that divides an artist enclave from downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, sits a squat building made of red bricks that have been painted a deeper brown and embellished with a mural of silver swirls. The building was once a convenience store, a history recalled by the beer bottle caps embedded in the pavement of its small parking lot. It is now the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative (The Bridge PAI), and those who pass by on their daily commute often peer into its large plate glass windows, curious to see an alternative arts exhibition in this relatively sleepy college town.
In February 2011, passersby saw an empty gallery space occupied only by Anthony Restivo, a local writer. He was living in the gallery with just a few necessities, which included a World War I-era wood-and-canvas cot and a bag of 22 apples—one for each day of his stay. When Restivo wasn't sleeping or perched on the deep window ledge, observing the play of light, he sat on a spindle-backed chair at a wobbly table constructed from unfinished wood in front of a Royal Junior typewriter salvaged from the Great Depression. Inside the table's drawers he kept stacks of weathered paper and envelopes that looked like they must have been long stored away in a box with the typewriter. On top of the table he arranged an assortment of glimmering silver thumbtacks, single-edge razor blades, and a spool of cotton twine.
The austere setting of the gallery evoked a retreat from the pace of contemporary life and its digital media and communication overload. Restivo created a visually cohesive array of objects that made material connections to the past. He recontextualized the grassroots gallery's rickety table—normally used to display an email subscription list and promotional stickers—as a piece of vintage, artisanal furniture. He had painstakingly stained each envelope and sheet of paper with tea. In this space, Restivo sought to create an environment "just odd enough to disarm [visitors]" and allow for "a more honest interaction than what would otherwise be possible" (Cedarmark 2011). [End Page 178]
Throughout the month, Restivo encountered friends and familiar strangers—those recognizable but unknown faces that populate the small college town and its arts scene. These encounters were not only reframed by the gallery setting, but also by Restivo's decision to refrain from speaking, using only the typewriter to communicate. A typed note on the door asked readers to enter, sit in a chair across from Restivo, and receive a "one question interview."
The visitor's chair was placed on the opposite side of the typewriter table, about two feet from Restivo, who gazed into the eyes of each visitor with a look that was neither aggressive nor voyeuristic but insistently probing. His mouth formed a faint but not untroubled smile, assuring visitors that he was "available" to them, as one participant later described.1 The power of Restivo's gaze visibly rattled people. Many, somewhat unexpectedly, began to cry. Some evaded his eyes by toying with a loose thread on their clothing. Others checked their cell phones in search of a more mediated and comfortable form of interaction. Those who were perhaps the most disconcerted interrupted the silent exchange with idle talk about the rain, mud, and gray February skies.
After observing each individual visitor's response, Restivo began to type. The keys fell with a rapid thud-snap that resonated against the gallery's exposed beams and unadorned white walls. For each...