08/22/2018

If an Android Stares at You, Then Stare Back

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Down in the West Village, it’s tough to stand out near the West 4th Street subway station. Since it’s surrounded by sex shops, smoke shops, tattoo parlors, and an especially rowdy basketball court, an elephant ordering gelato might barely register.

But last week, while I was by that very stop, a robot got my attention. In an empty storefront just steps from the IFC Film Center, I happened to pass an animatronic man lounging on a couch. At the exact moment I approached him, he opened his eyes, turned his head, and stared at me.

The sudden intimacy stopped me short. I instantly knew this tuxedo-clad gentleman was a battered android – there was chipped paint below both his eyebrows — but still, it felt like he was assessing me.

This was essentially a piece of theater. It was proof that alluring narratives can cut through even the loudest noise.

It was also an ad. An upstart furniture company called Burrow installed the window display, and the droid was there to make me notice the couch he was lounging on.

Mission accomplished. And if I now connect Burrow with a slightly haunting encounter, well… at least I remember the company’s name. Plus, I respect it (and its marketing agency) for transforming the eyesore of a vacant building into a narrative experience.

And if the furniture makers can do it, then so can we. Those of us in the performing arts are especially equipped to change a space. We can always reimagine an unused area – a corner or balcony or sidewalk – as a site for storytelling.

With that robot in mind, I’d challenge us all to look for a place we can fill with a story. I’m certain we can do something that will not only make passers-by pause, but also make them remember us long after they’ve walked on.

Mark Blankenship is AKA’s Director of Content and Community