Confusion Say

If, in the past few weeks, you’ve encountered a super-strange message in your fortune cookie at a local Chinese restaurant (like A skyscraper can fall just by looking at it. Yet ‘War is over if you want It.’ or Think of something you understand until you no longer understand it. Or, simply, Wait.), then you have experienced the art of Marcus Young. Except that Young himself doesn’t have much use for the word “art” in describing what he does. He is, he said recently, very open to other terminology.

Unless the terms are “intrusions” or “interventions,” which have been used to describe his projects, and which he doesn’t care for, his intentions aren’t so violent, he says. When the lanky thirty-five-year-old walked at a snail’s pace down Nicollet Mall, every day for a week, smiling continuously and wearing a pale gray robe and carrying an umbrella, a press release called his actions a “performative disruption,” a notion that caused Young to raise his eyebrows quizzically. Would he go for “extreme promenade” instead? He laughed, and countered with his own suggestion: “a gentle confusion.”

Regardless of what they’re called, Young hopes his projects will encourage people to “look at the simple things that are around us all the time. What can I change to reveal something new, something hopefully better?” Take fortune cookies, the breaking open of which he firmly believes is “a wasted moment. You have these expectations, and the message almost always turns out to be a disappointment.” Young decided to reveal something new in that moment, simply by writing better-quality fortunes. The idea came to him after he met an actual writer of cookie fortunes; naturally, Young wondered how he might land such a gig.

Some of Young’s fortunes were directly pilfered from his Big Idea Store, a project last year in which he sold “Big Ideas” for five cents each; others he wrote from scratch, resulting in two dozen in all. Then he turned his final selections over to Keefer Court Food, a South Minneapolis manufacturer of Chinese baked goods and fortune cookies, which sent back a custom batch of ten thousand cookies. “There’s nothing special about the cookie—the object is not important,” Young said. “I wanted the text inside to gently confuse people, to give them a moment that they might carry with them inside their heads for a while.”

Young arranged for six Chinese restaurants, five in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs and one up in Walker, to distribute his cookies to unsuspecting customers. Although he had financial support from forecast Public Artworks, he wielded personal credibility with the restaurants as well—not just as a Hong Kong-born Chinese-American, but also as a former busboy at his parents’ Chinese restaurant in Des Moines. The restaurant owners got to preview the fortunes and nix any they didn’t like; only one did so, declining Have a prayer for waking up, for using the toilet, and for the animals by the road.

During the run of the project, Young reprised his busboy role at some of the restaurants so he could witness the “gentle confusions” provoked by his cookies. He watched proudly one evening as a table of ten burst into laughter—some of it rather nervous or even hysterical, he thought—and read their various fortunes aloud. The diners then spent several bewildered minutes discussing propositions like If we know the weight of air, how heavy are our thoughts? How light is enlightenment?” and People always say it happens for a reason. This is true but not for the reason they think. Young smiled at the memory. “They were beguiled; they didn’t know what to think. And no one was going to step in and say, ‘You’re part of an art project.’” When he cleared the table, he found that the diners had all kept their fortunes.

On another occasion, employees at the Rainbow restaurant on Nicollet Avenue reported to Young that one woman was so upset by her fortune—We could be better off if we had only two faces.—that she demanded a refund for her meal. That upset Young himself, until he decided that an angry reaction was just as valid as a delighted one. “There’s a spectrum of engagement,” he said. “Some people glance at their fortunes and nothing registers on their faces. But with that woman, the effect remained with her—it mattered.”

With all of his projects, Young wants to see if people can “have a more meaningful experience with art when they don’t know that it’s art.” Which raises a tree-falling-in-the-forest conundrum: If art is on display and no one knows it’s art, then is it art? Plenty of people were not fooled when Young was inching along Nicollet Mall in his robe for the Pacific Avenue project (which he reprised on Wall Street in Manhattan last month); some asked him point-blank if he was a performance artist (or a monk). No matter what the question, he remained smiling but silent, sometimes offering a shake of his head in response. But he had to smile extra broadly when one man, after firing off a few questions that went unanswered, announced triumphantly, “I know—this is about patience!”

—Julie Caniglia