Jan Stewart and her husband Jim are walking their dog Nicky through Portland State University’s campus when they stop to get coffee. But in front of the coffee shop door, they notice a large screen with scrolling text. It reads: “There’s a dog walking some people. PEOPLE.”
“I knew it was us,” Jan says. “Then when I saw it scrolling, I was like, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’”
The text goes on about their dog Nicky, a black cocker spaniel, detailing a colorful backstory: “The dog is descended from a royal line,” the text reads. “That’s why it has such a sense of entitlement. But look at that face! How could you not give it everything it wants?”
The writer behind this impromptu portrait is Emily Chenoweth, sitting only a few yards away.
“When people see the screen, they seem startled,” Chenoweth says. “I’m just waiting for someone who will be in a position to stay here long enough so I can write about them and build a scenario, and they will hopefully see it.”
Chenoweth is one of several writers recruited for this installation, part of PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival. Titled Sometimes I Think I Can See You, it was created by Mariano Pensotti, an Argentine who has brought the project to cities around Europe, from a subway station in Berlin to a square in Helsinki. His idea is to turn writers into sorts of surveillance cameras.
“It really resembles what we do in public places already,” he says. “We see people we don’t know, and we start to imagine stories about them.” Often, Pensotti says, fiction can transform a real place. But in this instance, reality can transform fiction.
On Wednesday afternoon in PSU’s Urban Center Plaza, the writing material is pretty scarce. Faced with passersby who come and go too quickly, or the lack of any people at all, Chenoweth resorts to writing things like, “It’s just me and the pigeons now.”
Pensotti, who is watching everything unfold, doesn’t seem concerned. While the flow of creative stimuli is often only a drip, occasionally, inspiring things happen. In Berlin, for instance, a writer described some teenagers by imagining what kinds of songs they probably liked. Then the teenagers noticed and started singing those songs, filling the subway station with sound.
Jim Stewart, however, seems to think Chenoweth could have done better.
“[She] didn’t realize that I had committed a huge financial fraud,” he jokes, as he makes up his own story. “I needed to get the stress out, but the police were following, so I ducked into a coffee shop.
“You have to dig deeper,” he says.
“Sometimes I Think I Can See You” runs through Sunday, September 22, from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in PSU’s Urban Center Plaza on Southwest Montgomery Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.