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Performance Artist Matthew Silver Keeps New Yorkers Staring

(from Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York)

Matthew Silver is easy to spot. In fact, it's hard not to gawk.

New Yorkers aren't strangers to sidewalk madness but even the most jaded city-dwellers stop and stare. And on this Tuesday evening, the 33-year-old New Jersey native has attracted a large crowd of onlookers at the front steps of Union Square.  Clad in just a bright blue women's Speedo swimsuit and sneakers, he wears a toy stethoscope around his neck and a black fanny pack around his slim waist. Nearby rests his black wire granny cart that he has dragged from Bushwick, surrounded by his collection of performance props: a plastic Christmas reindeer, a child's silver armor toy vest, and a white bicycle helmet littered with bright red stickers.

Though the crowd around him is mostly motionless, Silver is anything but. He alternates between falling on the ground, dancing and motioning towards onlookers, and shouting phrases like, "Clap because you're a human being and that counts; we're all in this together."

For some passersby, Silver's a regular part of the cityscape: the artist who routinely performs at places like Union Square, Washington Square Park, Astor Place and the L subway line. I have the chance to chat with him after he finishes performing and, as we do, his eyes crinkle and his enthusiasm is contagious.  Over the course of our conversation, he describes how he went from your typical New Jersey suburban teen to performing in Speedos on the streets and subway stations of New York.  Read on.

Let's start with some background basics.

I was born in New Jersey from, like, middle class suburban New Jersey. We always visited New York every once in a while; they would take us to see a play or something. I didn't really know what New York was, you know? Just that it was a crazy city. Then I went to Emerson College and I met this guy named Matt Levy (he does The Levys' Unique New York Tours) and he invited me to the Bushwick art scene -- he introduced me to Brooklyn.  I started doing the street stuff seven years ago but I never knew what performance art was.

So how'd you get into it then?

The initial reason was always to make people laugh. I've always liked that energy that you get when you make a whole lot of people laugh and then people like you because you're the funny guy.

I've always had a drive to do this -- to act wacky in front of people but it took me a while.  I guess high school was the first time [I performed]. I was always known as the goof ball in school.  [One time during] the intersession in gym class, a kid said, "I'll give you a dollar if you flex in front of those girls."   I started flexing in front of the girls and all of a sudden it became a show. I only got to do that once but it was the biggest moment of my life. It repeated over and over in my head.  The next time I [performed], I was 25 -- that was when I started to smoke pot.  I got high and I kind of laughed and thought it would be funny to put on a white dress. And I did that and just went up to people I didn't even know, went in their face, and they laughed. 

What's the public reaction been like?

A fair amount of people know me. This is what New York City's perfect for: it's still a small town. There's people that you'll see over and over again in the same spot but then there's like 10, 20 people that you've never seen before.  I think what they like [about my performance is] they think I'm crazy and then all of a sudden it gets very interactive and it feeds into their curiosity.

Has your artwork changed or evolved over the years?

Well the first time I did it, I was really nervous when I was interacting with people.  I felt stupid.   It's like the block that everybody deals with: how they're inhibited and can't be themselves because they feel everybody's judging, which is not true. That's all mental.

(photo by Caitlin Clark)

Is that block still there when you perform now?

Yeah, it's still there but I'm more open to it. I say, "Oh it's just this chemical reaction. Just perform. Nobody can read your mind."  

How does your work differ when you're in a gallery space? Do you change it at all?

It's more organized in thought. I actually come up with an outline to follow.

So you don't rehearse or plan it out in your head what you're going to do when you perform on the street.

I want to and I haven't found a way. When I first started I didn't even have a repertoire. I was just doing the physical stuff like hitting myself, saying hello to random people. It took me 33 years to get the courage to come close enough to people to form a crowd.

What kind of physical toll does this take? The hitting, the falling...

Well, I don't do The Worm anymore. That hurt my back. I don't do front flips anymore. I stay safer. I learned that less is more.

Photos and video courtesy of Matthew Silver

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