Portland artist Asher Woodworth, 30, was arrested on Monday for blocking traffic in downtown Portland while dressed as a tree.
A trained dancer, Woodworth told BDN Portland that his intention was to give Portlanders pause as they went about the normally mundane act of driving through an intersection. Video of his performance and subsequent arrest quickly captured attention internationally.
Here’s what he had to say about the performance and his run-in with the law.
Q: What motivated you to dress in tree branches and stand in the street yesterday?
A: Recently I’ve been really interested in this book of photographic portraits by this guy named Charles Fréger. It’s called “Wilder Mann” and it’s all these wonderful photographs of these rural, ceremonial costumes that he found through Europe and the people who are wearing them.
There are these images of people from Switzerland and Germany who are dressed very similarly to how I dressed myself yesterday, covered in evergreens and really coming out of this ritual performance.
Those were in my head and all I can really say is I was meditating one day and this very clear vision for this performance kinda came to me out of an empty mind.
I just decided that this was something I needed to do. And my studio is very close to the corner of Congress and High streets. That’s an intersection I’m very familiar with.
Can you walk me through the performance as you envisioned it?
I left the building where I was assembling this costume and went out to the corner of High Street and Congress Street and then just proceeded to walk very, very slowly across Congress Street.
The intention was to cross all five street crossings [at the intersection] and make kind of a square or some sort of geometric object. But I got through only two and a half before the police arrived. I’d been moving for about an hour when the police arrived.
I didn’t really have a lot of expectations about how people would respond. That was a big part of my interest to see how people would relate to this.
Was that the driving idea, that you were curious what people would do?
I’m interested in anytime that I can bring attention to the everyday dances and social choreography that we execute without thinking about it. Whether that be walking down the street or driving through an interaction, it’s a very specific choreography that we all do without thinking about whether there is any other way.
I just wanted to offer some perspective that would make people think twice about a point of their day that they weren’t otherwise extra aware of.
I’m also just optimistic that the world isn’t maybe as solid and predictable as we tend to assume that it is. So it’s exciting to be able to create circumstances that surprise people, give them a breath of fresh air and wake them up.
It seems like you’ve probably reached a lot of people online. Do you feel like you were successful?
I hadn’t anticipated there being a real social media aspect to this. The whole viral thing, I couldn’t really care less about that.
Most of the audience I wanted to reach was just people walking or driving in that intersection, people who live here in Portland who I interact with in other ways. Just on that level, there were a lot of citizens who got something out of it.
That feels good. I’m really glad I was able to execute an hour’s worth of the performance before getting taken away. My intention wasn’t to create a spectacle or get arrested. It was really something more magical than that.
Was the police intervening something you were thinking about going into your performance? Was that a concern?
Oh yeah, sure. That’s another form of choreography. Maintaining the status quo is a really interesting really serious bit of social choreography and I was interested in interacting with that.
I don’t disagree with the fact that I was arrested, necessarily. I guess I’m of two minds about it.
If I put on the mindset of utility and economy I can see yeah, we need to not obstruct public ways. We need to let people move and go about their daily business. This is part of what allows us to function as a “society.” But then another part of me is not interested in choreographies of economy or utility and I’m interested in magic and nature.
I don’t think I shouldn’t have been arrested. I mean I fully understand why, but I also think it’s interesting that, what was I doing other than moving very slowly across a crosswalk. And yeah, I was dressed as a tree, but that had nothing to do with why I was arrested.
I was arrested just because I was slowing down the pace of business as usual. Is it illegal to be slow?
I’m a tireless advocate [of] slowness and stillness and quiet in my life and I feel like we could use a lot more of that right now.
What was the connection between disrupting the speed and economy of everyday life and dressing as a tree?
It’s a good question. I don’t know that I can say I completely understand the connection between the two things. I’m not sure where this image came from. I think there is something about everyday life as a ceremony that I’m interested in and the ritual nature of art.
I guess I just figured it would be really interesting for someone to look over and see a tree where they weren’t expecting to see a tree. I thought maybe it would be amusing or delightful, or maybe it would upset them. And all of those responses are interesting and valid.
You were arrested and now face a misdemeanor charge for obstructing a public way. How do you intend to deal with that?
I’ll just go to court and do all the normal choreographies and scripts of court.
Do you know how you intend to plead to the charge?
I’m not going to comment on that.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.