Bushwick-based Performance Artists Make National News with ‘In Orbit’

Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, ‘In Orbit’ at The Boiler | Pierogi. All photos by Katie Killary for Bushwick Daily.

Bushwick-based performance artists Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley recently made headlines with their explorative performance piece In Orbit, currently at The Boiler | Pierogi. The artists built a 25-foot tall wheel out of wood and steel then secured furniture to the inner and outer edges, all offset at 180 degrees. As the wheel rotated, the two would act in tandem: when one slept, the other slept, when one walked, the other did so as well. The live performance began on February 28th and ran through March 9th, during which visitors could observe the artists as they coexisted from inside and atop the structure.

The New York Post called them “hipsters living in a hamster wheel” and Refinery29 reported ‘Two Hipsters Move Into A Hamster Wheel’, claiming that with this act “Brooklyn may have out-Brooklyned itself.” ABC and CBS news caught interest in the metaphorical hamster wheel as well, alerting the entire nation to this performance as it took place inside of a Williamsburg art space. My Dad, who has never been one to follow the art scene in New York—at all, called me from South Florida to ask if I’d witnessed this spectacle in person.

I visited on March 9th—the last day of the performance, just in time to catch the last spin. Standing amid the enchanted audience as Alex and Ward stepped down from their ten-day orbit, I was charmed to see them talking with audience members and allowing a select few to climb onto the structure.

The following day I caught up with the Alex and Ward to gauge their recuperation and get their thoughts on the media’s vast coverage of their lives over the past ten days—and those hipster headlines.

“Well, neither of us qualifies as hipsters. We’ve both aged out of that,” Ward tells me. The multi-faceted artist and teacher is feeling tired but is up early the next morning, grading papers and reflecting on the overall experience.

Though some viewed the structure as a giant hamster wheel, this was more than a treadmill of futility. “In art you have to do the best you can and stay true to it,” Ward continues. For the most part, viewers were moved by the piece and responded to its core meaning. “We were quite pleased that people had an open mind and saw the ideas behind it.”

As roommates in real-life, Alex and Ward had not anticipated the audience turn out or media attention that they received. Tickled by In Orbit’s nationwide reception, Alex confided that this artistic venture turned out to be larger than expected. And from it came two crucial findings: the expected [insightful discoveries in the collaborative realm] and the unexpected [the asymmetry of living in the convex and the concave spaces of the wheel]. These will serve as inspiration and background for their next collaborative effort.

“This could have been an opportunity for viewers to point and snicker, but when they came in that wasn’t the case,” says Alex. Visitors were fascinated by the metaphorical aspect of the structure, engaging the artists with questions and allowing them to feel comfortable in their temporary habitat.

I had to wonder: at any point, were they bored up on the wheel? (Keep in mind they did not leave the structure for ten straight days!) “We were actually never bored,” confirmed Alex. Having attracted large crowds and coinciding with the buzz around Armory Arts Week, there were always visitors to talk with during The Boiler’s gallery hours.

In the moments after their descent from the wheel, the artists posed for pictures; Ward had a beer and Alex rushed off to Penn Station to pick up his mother from a trip. After being so in-sync for ten straight days, Alex told me he found it challenging to navigate among the busy crowds—a sharp transition from In Orbit back to the daily cycle.

Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, ‘In Orbit’ at The Boiler | Pierogi. All photos by Katie Killary for Bushwick Daily.

In Orbit is up February 28 –April 5, 2014 at The BOILER, 191 N. 14th Street in Williamsburg. Open Thursday through Sunday, 12-6pm and by appointment.

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