The people of New York have spoken

Duo collected two years of suggestions for book

August 25, 2005|By Amisha Padnani | Amisha Padnani,NEWSDAY

Otis Kriegel and Michael McDevitt are open to suggestion.

In fact, they've been carrying around an enormous cardboard box labeled "SUGGESTION" (along with a clipboard, markers and paper), asking people on the streets of New York City to make a proposal about anything - "love, life, happiness, sadness, family, the universe," McDevitt says.

They've gotten such a good response from their two-year project that one person wrote, "This is cool! You guys should do a book."

And they did - although Kriegel and McDevitt, who make up a collective called Illegal Art, say that was the intention all along.

They just published Suggestion (Chronicle Books, $12.95), which includes more than 350 of the suggestions the artists collected, from the lighthearted - "Free pumpkin pie every Thursday" - to the serious - "More time in the day."

"It's like looking into the top of New York's head and taking a little peek," says Kriegel, 32, an elementary school teacher who lives on the Lower East Side.

In fact, the book was dedicated to "the people of New York City." After all, "that's what the art is comprised of," Kriegel says. "What's a suggestion box without suggestions?"

Kriegel and McDevitt say they formed Illegal Art in 2001 to create art that inspires thought through participation. "Our mission statement is really about encouraging interaction," Kriegel says.

They say they came up with the idea for the suggestion box while brainstorming ways to get people to connect with one another, he says. They carried the box through all five boroughs, speaking with children, the elderly, the rich and the homeless.

Hundreds of responses quickly turned into thousands, despite the occasional cold shoulder.

"Some people down in Wall Street were masters-of-the-universe type who wouldn't look at you and just walk on by," says McDevitt, 41, who owns an advertising firm in Union Square and lives in Brooklyn. "That was probably the harshest reaction we got."

The most welcoming folks, McDevitt says, were in Fort Greene and Harlem. "They could talk about anything from child care to what a beautiful day it was," he says.

On a No. 4 subway train to Yankee Stadium, most made suggestions about their favorite team, except one: "Let's make a better world."

At John F. Kennedy International Airport, travelers griped about the lack of seating. In the West Village, people asked for open-mindedness.

The artists say they collected about 2,500 suggestions. Some address controversial issues that were included in the book.

"We put in some pretty offensive things," says Sarah Malarkey, an editor at Chronicle Books who helped sort through the suggestions. "But you've got to be true to the spirit of the project."

People had things to say about politics, religion, crime and public policy. Some of the most popular themes were the legalization of marijuana, a desire for three-day weekends and frustration with the war. "Sure, there are certain suggestions that I'll personally find offensive or I'll agree with or disagree with, but it's not really about my reaction," Kriegel says. "It's about having that place for people to express themselves. We leave our opinion out of it. It's about the public's interaction. It's not about what we find offensive or interesting."

Kriegel and McDevitt are still asking for entries, with the hope of publishing a follow-up to Suggestion. In the back of the book, there's a self-addressed postcard to mail in to the collective. And suggestions also are being taken online at www.suggestion book.com.

The guys also have taken suggestions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and say they hope to expand their reach throughout the United States. "We would love to take suggestions everywhere" from Long Island to rural areas of the Midwest, Kriegel says.

Another project in the works is "Poem Across the City," in which passers-by are being asked to add words or phrases to a poem written on the pavement with chalk.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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