This man has no important message for you
(This was also published in the Huffington Post)
Yesterday, I was rushing to a meeting at 6.30pm just off Leicester Square, in London.
At 6.18pm (that exact time is on the sound recording on my iPhone) I saw a man standing in the North East corner of Leicester Square with a placard saying:
I HAVE NO MESSAGE. AND I’M NOT SELLING ANYTHING. I JUST HAVEN’T GOT ANYTHING BETTER TO DO.
So, obviously, I went up to him.
“You’re a performance artist?” I asked.
“So” I asked, “Why?”
“Why?” he asked me in reply. “Why not? It’s something to do. I haven’t got anything better to do. It’s on the placard.”
“So what did you do,” I asked him, “before you didn’t do anything?”
“That’s a bit of a mind-turning thing,” he replied. “It’s been like this for years. I haven’t had anything better to do than this for years.”
“Did you go to college?” I asked.
“I did, but that was years ago.”
“What was the subject?” I asked.
“History and politics,” he replied.
“Ah!” I laughed. “So, you’re a failed politician?”
“Failed.” he said. “Completely failed to be a politician.”
“You could get yourself exhibited at the Tate,” I suggested.
“Do you think so?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Like a Damien Hirst thing.”
“It’s an idea,” he agreed. “In the Tate? Just stand on the steps at the Tate?”
“Yeah,” I told him, realising he was thinking of the old Tate building. “In fact,” I said, “you should stand at the main entrance to Tate Modern – at the slope – and you might get a commission. You might get a commission to stand there for weeks on end.”
“Brilliant,” he said with little enthusiasm.
“Leicester Square is the wrong place for you,” I suggested. “This is the home of showbiz and Hollywood. But, if you go to Tate Modern, that’s the home of people who give lots of money for nothing. That’s your ideal market.”
“So that would be my attempt to advertise myself?” he asked.
“Is that too commercial?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I dunno. I probably need a seat or something. Do you think they’d give me a seat?”
“No,” I said, “you’re better to stand.”
“But it’s going to get knackering after standing for too long,” he said.
“But,” I explained, “if you’ve got a seat, it smacks of lack of cutting-edgeness.”
“You think so?” he asked me.
“I think so,” I told him.
“Basically, you’ve got the wrong market here,” I told him.
“You think so?” he asked.
“I think so,” I told him, “There was a story that Damien Hirst was on his way to see some people who wanted to commission him to create a work of art and he accidentally stood in some dog shit on the pavement outside the building and he went in and put the shoe with dog shit on it on the table and they were very impressed.”
“If there’s some dog shit, I could step in it,” he said trying, I think, to be helpful.
Message from the messenger with no message
“Nah,” I said. “That’s been done. This is original – what you’re doing here is very original and admirably meaningless. The important thing is it’s totally and utterly meaningless.”
“Of course it is,” he agreed. “Because that’s life for you. Life is totally and utterly meaningless.”
“How did you get the idea?” I asked.
“It just came to me one day,” he said, brightening up slightly. “It just came to me. I thought Why not? Why not do something completely pointless and meaningless?”
“How long ago was that?” I asked.
“About four years ago, I think,” he said, his enthusiasm dimming. “I’ve been doing this for four years.”
“Oh!” I said, surprised, “I’ve never seen you before…”
“I stopped doing it for years,” he explained. “I started four years ago, but then I didn’t bother for about two or three years.”
“Why?” I asked. “To create a demand?”
“No,” he explained. “I just stopped because I couldn’t be bothered.”
“Why not have a hat on the ground to collect money?” I asked. “Would that undermine the idea?”
“No,” he said. “I just haven’t got round to doing it.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“And you live in London?”
“I live in London.”
“Can we take a picture?” four passing girls asked Phil.
“Yeah,” he said, without much interest.
“You have a market here,” I told him. “You should be charging for this.”
The girls took their pictures.
“It spreads the word,” said Phil. “It spreads the word.”
“What word?” I asked.
“I dunno,” Phil replied. “There is no word. But it’s spreading whatever is there to be spread in its own kind of way. So this is like… yeah…”
“Where do you live?” I asked. “What area?”
“Hampstead,” Phil told me.
“Oh my God!” I laughed. “You’ve got too much money!”
“Not me,” Phil said. “My parents.”
“There’s Art somewhere here,” I mused. “Performance Art. What do your parents do? Are they something to do with Art?… Or maybe psychiatry?”
“They just earn money,” Phil said. “Doing stuff. Well, my dad earns money doing stuff.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Erm… Thirty… nine,” Phil replied.
“You sure?” I asked.
“You were a bit uncertain,” I said.
“No,” said Phil, “I just felt… It was a bit of a question… thirty nine.”
“You must have done something,” I suggested. “In an office or something?”
“No,” he told me, “I’ve literally done nothing in my life. This is as exciting as it gets for me. This is as exciting a journey, an adventure as…”
A passing girl took a photograph of the large question mark on the back of Phil’s placard.
Seeing the back of the man in Leicester Square
“Thankyou,” she said.
“It works quite well,” he told me. “You see, I have a question mark on the back and a statement on the front.”
“It might be a bit too multi-media,” I suggested.
“You think so?” asked Phil. “Too…”
“Too pro-active, perhaps,” I said.
“You think it’s too active?” asked Phil.
“You need to be more passive,” I said.
“Right,” said Phil.
“Ooh!” I said looking at my watch. “I have to be in a meeting in two minutes!”
“You’ve got to go in two minutes,” Phil told me, with no intonation in his voice.
“Let’s hope the iPhone recorded that,” I said. “If it didn’t, I’ll be back again! Are you here at the same time tomorrow?”
“I could be,” said Phil.
When I came out of my meeting an hour later, Leicester Square was more crowded and Phil and his placard had gone, like a single wave in the sea.