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DAVID BLAINE: Life outside the box

Life outside the box

I and a few hundred other people watched, and wondered, and waited. We waited for something to happen, but nothing did happen, not much. The first thing that struck me is that it is a very small box, suspended 30ft above the ground next to the river Thames, hardly enough space for someone to lay down in, let alone live in for 44 days. David Blaine is laying down, sometimes standing, at others sitting. No doubt he must be enduring quite a bit of physical discomfort, increasing hunger and some physical pain, but what exactly am I looking at? To a large extent nothing very much... but maybe this is the point.

I went to see David Blaine out of curiosity, to see the crowds, to see exactly where it was, to see him, perhaps so I could say 'I went to see David Blaine'. Some people wrote messages on paper and held them up for Blaine to read: 'Did you sleep well' was one message. Blaine tried to answer by gesturing, waving and smiling to people, but overall remaining quite nonchalant, unflustered. People were taking photos of him like any other popular site in London. Some were snapping him with their camera phones, and probably zapping the pic to their friends. This is a bit like looking at some caged animal at the zoo: we come along to see it, we wait for it to move, it may do something amusing, have a scratch or a pee (do not feed him though). Is it about imprisonment, starvation, or endurance. Is he saying anything, or is he just doing nothing. Is this art, theatre, a sham, a chance to make money, none or all of these? Are we gullible for coming along, for paying to watch a web cam of a bloke basically doing nothing, is it an important thing not to miss? Who is in the box: are we in the box (boxed in by the mundane routine of our lives)? Another take on this could be that it is the ultimate in reality tv; a man locks himself in a box for days on end; it is broadcast on tv and the internet; it is about survival; it is a solo celebrity Big Brother; and being there, or watching on tv or the web, we become part of it. But don't forget that this guy is a magician, a stunt man, a trickster; is he really there, is he really starving himself, is it really David Blaine himself, or a double, does it matter if he's really there or not?

And what about the people there looking and watching, and their reactions: on the whole, those who had chosen to go and see this were intrigued, supportive, and sympathetic to Blaine's well-being; some were in awe, and some were clearly excited. Others seemed amused, bemused, while a few were a little hostile: maybe faced with this conundrum they felt confused, annoyed or abusive; this is quite similar to some people's reaction to most contemporary or conceptual art; rather than accepting the thing for what it is, they somehow feel challenged by it and do not accept the right of the artist (Blaine) to just do what they do; this is freedom of expression; it does not harm anyone, so it's OK. Some people were calling out "we love you David", others were saying "he's f--king mad"; how can you love or hate a stranger, what is it that these people love or hate about Blaine (or this stunt*)? How can such a 'non-event' generate such a strong reaction?

To me the physical or literal aspects of this event don't seem to matter, and indeed actually seeing this event hardly adds to its overall effect, since you've heard all about it before you go; you know what to expect. As I stood looking up at Blaine in the box, and watching the people around me, I realised it is not about a man in a box (afterall that's absurd...), it is about everything outside of the box: it is about us. A man sitting in a box for 44 days, doing not much at all apart from existing, perhaps it is like a mirror: and what do you see?

--Andrew Smith, October 2003
Written after seeing Blaine on day 33 of 'Above The Below'.

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(*In a poll 75% of cnn.com readers find Blaine's stunts "annoying".)