Social Artist and Poet Spreads Joy in the Square

Claire Hamilton

Jon Cotner

Poetry is often thought of as a textual artform, but it can also be a social experience. On Saturday, the artist and poet Jon Cotner, who is also a lecturer at the Pratt Institute, visited Harvard Square to lead a walk entitled “Spontaneous Society.” The walk was sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard.

Cotner, who is the author of “Ten Walks/Two Talks,” a collection of dialogues and poems about walks in Manhattan, introduced the walk as an artistic piece and a personal journey for the individual walkers. According to Cotner, speech has an intense power to spread joy and to forge connections. A major theme of Cotner’s published work is the issue of humans becoming isolated units obsessed with controlling their environments, whether it be through their constant iPod soundtrack or other incessant digital engagement instead of physically social interaction.

According to Cotner, the goal of the walk was to intervene and create a smile or a laugh and to amplify good vibes between the walkers and everyone with whom they came into contact. When people ignore the stimuli in their environment, they ignore the possibility of spontaneity, Cotner said.

Cotner used a variety of tactics to encourage participants to change their perceptions of their environment. He began by suggesting that the walkers stretch their bodies to activate themselves in the space and the moment. The group stretched in front of Harvard Hall amidst the comers and goers in Harvard Yard. This exercise was intended to make the strangers feel more relaxed in each other’s company, Cotner said.

To demonstrate the power of spontaneous interaction, he asked the participants to share a story about chance interactions with strangers, and each member of the group shared one such experience.  As the walk began, Cotner assigned each person lines to try out in various scenarios. Oliver D. Strand ’11, one of the participants on the walk, was to say to anyone carrying food, despite the pervasive chill in the air, “It’s a great day for a picnic!” If someone approached with a baby in a stroller, another participant was instructed to say to them, “That looks cozy!” If someone approached with two dogs, the response was to be “That’s a good-looking duo!” More dogs prompted “That’s a good-looking wolfpack!” This line was deployed to a homeless man who sat with his three furry companions.  While this was happening, a woman brought him a bag of food and wished him well. Cotner said that these lines were all intended to connect the person speaking them to his or her surroundings , to make them pause and acknowledge a fleeting moment in our fast-paced world.


During the 90-minute walk, the participants became progressively more successful at engaging with the people they encounter. Many things from their trials and errors at penetrating the fortresses of anonymity on the street. When trying to connect with other people, eye contact is critical, one of the participants observed. When breaking through a social wall by offering a line, one really must mean it—people can sense sincerity. In scanning the sidewalks and horizons for targets to deliver the lines to, the walkers were encouraged to truly pay attention to their presence in a social space. “You created smiles that didn’t exist before,” Cotner told the participants.

Some of the participants mentioned that it was strange that while the goal was spontaneity, parts of the piece were ironically unspontaneous—the planned lines, scenarios, and its very status as a piece of art at all. Cotner explained that his method paved the way for true spontaneity as the walkers learned to slow down and appreciate the ease with which they could generate happiness. Though Cotner’s walks aim to blur the line between art and life, the lines he gave out were not particularly beautiful. However, they were very poetic in sentiment. According to Cotner, their sole purpose was to use an ephemeral moment to bring about a smile.

“That’s a good spot for a text!” he said brightly to a woman fiddling with her phone on a street corner. “You nailed it!” She looked up, confused, and then she smiled and agreed. “Over the years I’ve developed a catalog of one-line utterances that are 99% effective in terms of replacing urban anonymity with affection,” Cotner said.

“[This is like] sharing a D.I.Y. joy kit,”  Cotner said. After pausing to reflect on the experience of the walk, the participants, who were formerly strangers, parted with hugs.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: March 18, 2013

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the “Spontaneous Society” walk in Harvard Square was co-sponsored by Elastic City, an organization that commissions artists to create walks. In fact, Elastic City was not involved in the “Spontaneous Society” walk.


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