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A whimsical exercise in re-enchantment, the SoLow Fest’s Aisle asks an audience of one to meditate on the mysteries of time, space, cheese, and scrapple — not necessarily in that order. Created and performed by I-Chia Chiu and Mason Rosenthal in supermarkets across Philadelphia, Aisle is at once guided tour, stealth operation, and metaphysical adventure.
Before the performance, I was instructed via email to turn up at the entrance to the Acme supermarket on East Passyunk Avenue. At an appointed time, I would make my presence known by sending a text message to a provided phone number.
From this moment on, Chiu and Rosenthal were in mostly constant contact. A text message directed me to approach a woman in a blue dress (Chiu) who gave me a shopping cart and asked me to put on headphones to begin my shopping trip.
Rosenthal’s voice guided me through automatic sliding doors and into the produce section, where he coached me on acting unassuming while simultaneously heightening my attention to the sourrounding shapes, colors, textures, and “secrets." Outwardly, I was just another customer checking out the mangoes. Inwardly, I was attuned as never before to the dark room behind the cases of milk, to the frost forming on king crab legs in the seafood display case, and (for better and for worse) to my fellow shoppers.
Meet your meat
Rosenthal and Chiu establish a conspiratorial intimacy with their solo spectator/accomplices. They offer prompts for reflection and directions for navigating the physical space using text messages, face-to-face interaction, and a prerecorded audio file.
The text, such as it is, is modestly charming. The most stimulating dimension of the performance, however, is merely being in on something private, aware of a layer of reality invisible to everyone else.
In its weakest moments, Aisle grasps for emotional responses it never earns. At one point, a text message told me, “Feel free to pick out something from inside the freezer. Hold it. Stare at it. The cold makes its way inside of u. Something inside of you is melting. It’s ok to cry.” I managed to hold back.
I also spent most of the performance feeling acutely self-conscious about inconveniencing Acme customers who were in the store to actually buy things. Watching a harried pregnant woman struggling to get her cart around mine distracted from the fanciful story about laundry detergent Rosenthal was whispering in my ear. A man in the bakery section who was not part of the performance usurped my attention for a time when he looked right at me and started shouting about the coming revolution.
Aisle only fitfully succeeds in achieving what philosopher of art Arthur Danto called “the transfiguration of the commonplace,” but it does make a kind of magic from the mundane. By giving its audience permission to linger and dream over what would otherwise be just another item on the to-do list, it infuses the everyday with awe.
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