A poet in his late 20s begins to feel too restrained by his medium. Looking at a sheet of paper on his writing desk, he sees it as a plan-view of a house and realizes that he wants to escape the page, escape the house, go out into the street and leave the paper and poetry behind. For his last poetry reading he sets out to walk from his apartment to where the reading is being held. Every block he stops at a payphone (in that epoch still plentiful on the streets of Manhattan) and calls the reading venue where his voice is patched through to speakers so that the audience assembled for the reading can hear him. “Now I am on 42nd Street” he announces. “Now I am on 41st Street.” “Now I am on 40th Street.” Because he has to stop every few minutes to make a phone call, he doesn’t make it to his own reading in time.
From that moment on, the street becomes his zone of creative activity. Every day for a month in 1969 he picks a random pedestrian and follows them until they go into “a private place (home, office, etc.)” where he can’t enter. In the beginning his attempts to pursue strangers are brief. The first person he shadows, a man in a grey suit, gets into a car and drives away after only five minutes. A few days later, a man he starts following at 12:04pm at the intersection of 14th Street and Second Avenue is lost in the crowd at 12:10. Soon, however, he becomes more adept at keeping his targets in sight, or maybe he is just lucky in his choices, like the man who stops at an Italian restaurant for an hour, and then goes to a movie theater for two hours, before walking to an apartment on East 9th between Avenues A and B. Or the woman in a blue dress whom he follows back to work (at a jewelry counter) from her lunch break and then, at the end of the day, when she takes the subway home to the Bronx.
He meticulously notes every detail of the movements of the people he follows: names of the stores they enter, subway lines they take (the majority of his itineraries involve subway rides), titles of the movies showing at a theater one patronizes, the exact minute he begins and ends each trip, the addresses they ultimately enter to never be seen by him again. If some future sociologist wanted to know about the daily habits of average New Yorkers in October 1969, the documentation of Following Piece, as the work is called, could presumably be of some use, but this is far from the lapsed poet’s intentions. The origin of the work was an invitation from the Architectural League of New York for an exhibition titled “Street Works IV” which stipulated only that the artist do something in the month of October and that it involve a New York City street. As conceived, his contribution was one of near-epic proportions. “Potentially,” he later wrote, he “could use all the time allotted and all the space available: I might be following people, all day long, everyday, through all the streets in New York City.”