Elevator Pitch

Tomorrow I will be giving a talk about the future of art. This afternoon I am wondering whether my beautifully crafted words might not be rendered ersatz.

I have just spent my lunch hour in Oxford’s Gloucester Green, standing in an unmoving queue of people waiting to spend an indeterminate amount of time in a lift with Shia LaBeouf in the old Laserquest building. And I wonder how much I have seen of the future in that brief time. He is here for 24 hours. You can watch al of it, live, in that video above. Most of the time you will see closed lift doors. And hear strangely echoing chatter.

In the space of that hour I was approached three times by passers by asking “what’s going on?”, one of them expressing with almost palpable rut, “Whenever I see a line I have to ask.” “Shia LaBoeuf is in an elevator,” I responded. One guy laughed. The man with the rut smiled and said, “Well good luck to you.” I think he had the whole thing nailed. And probably the contemporary art world on a wider, deeper level. The third guy, an American, said, “cool,” and joined the end of the queue.

The composition of the queue was what you might expect. All about 20. Almost all white. A lot of excited men in skinny jeans with extensive amounts of product enhancing the hair on various parts of their heads. One woman wore a top hat and a dress that proclaimed “Smoke meth and hail Satan.” Many of the crowd were drinking beer and hailing their mates on their iPhones. The queue was highly intersectional. It intersected the taxi rank, and a series of irate but resigned taxi drivers crawled through the space like they’d seen it all before. They, too, had the whole thing nailed. Groups took it in turns to guard their places while some of their number went for more beer. One had been to his flat and brought back his laptop. He and his group were going to watch The Martian while they waited. But they couldn’t get their connection to work so he went to Sainsbury’s for a bag of ham and mustard sandwiches instead.

At one point a woman bounded down from the front of the queue. “I’m at the front and I’ve been waiting three hours!” She proclaimed. “And I started up there” – pointing to a couple of metres ahead of where we were. “You’ll be at least seven hours! I’ll sell you my place for £20!” I wondered if she had remembered to leave a friend guarding their valuable spot because the one place she wasn’t, at that moment, was at the front of the queue. No one bit, though a guy in front of me nodded in approval after she’d gone, full of admiration for the entrepreneurial spirit, although I couldn’t shake the voice of Theo Paphitis in my head as he admonished, “For that much of my kids’ inheritance, I want considerably more equity.”

The enterprise continued. The group in front of me spotted a stack of chairs outside the Italian restaurant opposite and one of them decamped 5 of them to the queue. Ten minutes later a rather unimpressed member of the waiting staff came over and demanded them back. At least the space the loss of comfort created made everyone feel the queue had moved. By this stage my mind had succumbed to the overwhelming clamour of capitalism and my only thought was, “she’d have been better taking a notebook and getting orders for coffee.” I wouldn’t pay £20 to get seven hours closer to Shia LaBeouf but I’d have paid double the odds for an espresso.

My thoughts were disturbed by a ripple of applause. Members of the two groups in front peeled off like wildebeest stripped off the pack by hunters. A minute  later they were back, wide-eyed and panting, proclaiming the lift doors had opened and they’d seen Shia LaBeouf. Which, as the whole thing was being streamed live to their smartphones made me realise there is something about the psychology of physical encounter, and the mathematics of a crowd that digital will never take from us, and I broke off the queue myself to head back, thinking maybe there’s something to say about the future of art after all.

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