Put Down Your Phone


When I was 14, a couple of friends and I entered a subway station in lower Manhattan and were greeted by a half-naked man holding a rubber chicken. A crowd had already surrounded him on the platform, taking pictures of his tattered cardboard sign, which read, “Matthew Silver: The Great Performer.” The man extended his arm to me, squawked, and invited the three of us to “chicken dance” with him. I felt the eyes and phone cameras of a few dozen New Yorkers turn to me, anticipating a response. I don’t think any of us had time to feel stage fright or to consider whether or not he was insane, because a few seconds later we were hopping around the station, flapping our arms. The train arrived a minute later. As we left, the man clapped his hands wildly, yelling after us, “YES! We did it TOGETHER!”

When people from out of state ask me why I love where I’m from, Matthew Silver is my automatic answer. Which is funny, because while he represents the unabashed strangeness of New York City at its best, he also stands against the cynicism we New Yorkers consistently exhibit. Unselfconscious and shamelessly idealistic, he stands in his underwear in the dead of winter, baring himself to strangers in dark coats who walk hunched over, sometimes not even glancing in his direction.

As soon as I started using the subway on my own at 12 years old, I learned to carry myself like a New Yorker—blank expression, aloof posture, closed body language, eyes to the floor. Maybe it’s a way of coping with being in close quarters with eight million strangers, living stacked on top of them in apartments, crammed against them in tin-can subway cars. With city life comes the constant feeling that you’re being monitored by everyone around you, their sideways glances replacing direct eye contact. Once I looked back at an apparently mentally ill man who was staring at me on the subway, and my friend told me to stop “encouraging him.” When a stranger breaks my protective bubble and tries to interact with me, I automatically wonder whether they are crazy, trying to steal from me, or, if they’re male, hitting on me.

Silver makes a career out of trying to cure the “sickness” he sees in New York’s culture, which he blames on “fear energy” and “anger energy.” On his website, he refers to himself as a “clown, trickster, and village idiot” who “plays with taboos, rules and social norms.” He performs “for smiles and laughter, loosening people’s armor, and opening up a portal for imagination, creativity, and love.” These days he is typically seen in a rainbow-patterned women’s swimsuit. His shows involve an ever-changing assortment of props, most of which are old toys and household appliances he finds in dumpsters. He is often accompanied by a musician, who plays drums or accordion while he dances. He begs to be seen by people who do not have time to look.

He blames New York’s “sickness” on the disconnection bred by a media-hungry capitalist society that distracts people from living by providing them with endless commodities to attain and infinite “spectacles” to watch. We’re granted the ability to lose ourselves at any moment in advertisements and viral videos, and to market ourselves on social media. So being (and being with each other) is replaced by having, and specifically having appearances. Not only do we consume a world flattened into commodified images, we make ourselves into images as well, so that everything and everyone is absorbed by what situationist philosopher Guy Debord calls “the Spectacle.” Interaction in the world of the Spectacle is indirect and passive, with endless opportunities to look at each other through screens rather than into each other’s eyes. 

Silver plays the role of the social deviant, the boundary-breaker in defiance of the Spectacle. He occasionally goes into department stores to dance with shoppers and remind them that “Love is the answer!” and to “Stop buying stuff!” In one video he stands in the middle of an Apple Store with a sign that says “LOVE” in red capital letters. “Ladies and gentlemen, my message is simple,” he cries. “Don’t let technology take over your life! Love is what’s important. Live in the NOW! Be with your HEART! Group hugs! Eye contact! Feel the moment! Not the technology! Don’t let technology take you away from love!” The shoppers look up from their tablets for a moment to applaud him, and a security guard gives him a hug before gently escorting him outside.

Silver isn’t the first of his kind. Since the 1960s, performance artists have attempted to challenge the social alienation and passivity that have accompanied the rise of mass media culture. Fifty years ago, the Paris-based situationist movement criticized a society in which social relations were increasingly “mediated” by commodified images. The cover of Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” features a photograph of the audience at the premiere of the first ever 3D film. A mass of people sits in rows, gazing passively at a screen through dark glasses. Though they sit inches away from each other, no one looks at anyone else. The image illustrates, more than anything, the strange sense of isolation that I’ve seen infect New York, a city teeming with people who will look at anything to avoid looking at each other.

Situationist artists and activists responded to this isolation with a tactic called détournement, which translates to “rerouting” or “hijacking.” Détournement aims to turn the capitalist system and its media culture against itself. In that spirit, situationists parodied advertisements and snuck subversive messages onto billboards. 

Silver’s goal is to facilitate, through audience engagement, the direct connection that the Spectacle has taken away. He insists that his performance isn’t about him. “It’s not about the jokes you’re making,” he says, “It’s about the people in the room.” He frightens, challenges, and inspires passersby all at once, not only because he himself is socially deviant, but also because in asking for their participation he invites them to join his deviant performance. When Silver offered me his hand in the subway station, I was forced to respond, automatically and involuntarily leaving the passive audience and becoming an active participant in his show. And by choosing to join Silver, I subjected myself to the same scrutiny he faced.

The vast majority of passersby go to great lengths to avoid this vulnerability. Some walk by quickly, refusing to look into his eyes. Others stop but huddle together, laughing at him from the security that a group provides. Many rush to dismiss him with false labels and accusations, like “insane” or “on drugs.” When we encounter something or someone that doesn’t fit into what we know, we automatically perceive it as threatening to our sense of order and familiarity. Labelling them as “other” is comforting because it allows us to pretend we understand them, to absorb them into our world under that label.

The Spectacle takes advantage of this need for familiarity. It provides comfort by subsuming everything and everyone into a system of familiar images. Within the Spectacle, everything is familiar, and everything is good. So when we see something strange or jarring, we no longer have to look at it directly. Instead, we can take out our phones, condense it into two dimensions, and put it online, making it part of our collective world. The strange becomes familiar, the active becomes passive, and living people become fragments of audiovisual information lost in a sea of information.

IPhones, the internet, and social media have made subverting mass media culture more difficult than ever. Activists and performers like Silver are faced with a paradox: the effort to hijack a system of spectacles is itself turned into a spectacle. In other words, the attempt to create something entirely profane, taboo, and opposed to the dominant culture becomes just another part of the culture. Activist movements, performance art, demonstrations, and even spontaneous encounters between strangers are often interrupted by cameras, recorded, uploaded to YouTube, and shared and re-shared on Facebook. 

The paradox is especially acute in Silver’s case because his whole goal is direct connection, participation, and eye contact. Phones, then, are a major practical obstacle for him as a performer. “They need a shield to protect them,” Silver says of his audience. In a popular YouTube video, a man holds a camera inches from Silver but refuses to actually look at him. Silver runs in circles around the man, dodging the camera: “Look at me! I love you! Give me a HUG!” The man quickly realizes he is losing the battle for control and walks away. Silver chases him for a few feet before giving up. This video is one of an inexhaustible trove of Matthew Silver performance clips and interviews. But the fact that they were recorded and uploaded means that at least some of Silver’s audience is disengaging from his performance. 


At the same time, becoming an internet phenomenon has also broadened Silver’s audience. When I showed a friend from the other side of the country a picture of him, he excitedly recognized Silver as “the ‘Accept Yourself, Love Yourself’ guy,” from a 23-second YouTube video that popped up on his Facebook feed. And unlike many New Yorkers, Silver’s internet audience takes his message seriously, giving videos of him “Upworthy”-style titles like “Words of Wisdom from an Unexpected Citizen” or “Matthew Silver Cures Social Anxiety.”

In spite of his anti-technology ideology, Silver is embracing the media attention, even contributing to it himself (albeit reluctantly) with his own YouTube channel and Facebook account. In an interview on the podcast POP CULTIVATION he admits that he planned and recorded the video in which he preached against technology in the Apple Store. Members of his “team” were positioned with iPhones in the store before his entrance. He even had a microphone attached to his speedo for sound quality. What appeared to be a refreshingly spontaneous moment was media-ified, spectacularized, by the performer himself. Hearing this, I wondered whether Silver’s use of the tool he was fighting against gave him power as a subversive artist, or if it meant he was beginning to give up and “play the game.” Or maybe both are possible at the same time.

         Silver has clearly been grappling with the same question. “The funny thing is...I need [the internet] to help me to a certain extent,” he says in the same interview. “You have to work the system that you don’t want to get trapped in to create.” In a more hopeful tone, he announces a new goal: to “make the entire world laugh.” He explains, “It’s easy with all the technology. These days anybody can go across the world without ever having to go across the world.” 

But what power does Silver really have when he’s engaging with his audience from within the confines of a phone screen? Media alters the very structure of his performance; without it, anyone who watched Silver would be forced into the anxiety—and potential joy—of becoming an active performer in his show. With phones and computers, viewers can watch him safely, indirectly. Participants now hold the power of the passive spectator. We can watch him without ever having to look into his eyes, without having to be watched ourselves. Silver becomes a person we admire but feel no pressure to join. 

This is not just true of imagined unthinking spectators; my own interaction with Silver has been spectacularized, too. After my initial encounter with Silver in the subway station, most of my “interaction” with him has taken place online, as one-sided research. I was able to conduct a month’s worth of “investigative journalism” from my laptop, consuming information and tuning in and out of YouTube videos instead of going back to the station to re-experience his performance. And now I’m writing about Silver, folding him into a story for your entertainment. 

Silver’s struggle to communicate authentically in a high-tech world reflects a wider problem that every artist or deviant figure, regardless of their time period, faces: How do you make art that people will listen to without succumbing to conformity? 

“If you believe in what you do, it doesn’t matter what people think…but it does matter, because life is like this paradox,” Silver says in an at-home interview. “I create art—or whatever I’m creating—to get a reaction out of people. If I’m not connecting to the community then it’s almost like you’re in a room smashing objects, and—” he pauses. He seems frustrated, almost pained. “It’s like ‘If a tree falls in a forest, has anybody heard it?’ That expression. It’s important to me that art communicates.” 

The audience that Silver feels pressure to cater to processes everything through the Spectacle. If he were to fully resist mass media culture, he would risk going unheard and being dismissed as insane. Because he’s chosen to embrace media, Silver clearly has the world’s attention and respect. We’re left with a new question: Does this widespread attention and respect serve or undermine him? What is Silver once we’ve stripped him of his deviancy? 

The problem is, you can’t exactly toe the line between Spectacle and non-Spectacle. It’s hard to imagine a happy medium between pure détournement and being a sell-out, when détournement, as anti-media media, by definition cannot be pure. As long as spectatorship remains possible, the audience will continue to stare the way they stare at the screen in the situationist photograph: mouths agape, never looking at each other. Silver can’t break their attention when he himself is on the screen.


Part of the Four Letter Word issue