Space on a Train

Berlin is a city of artists, both aspiring and actual, so it makes sense that I am confronted with street musicians daily. Depending on my mood and irritability, I can have a range of reactions, from a visceral irritation to a kind of reverent gratitude. If the music isn’t great or I’m in a bad mood, my first reaction is, “What gives you the right, to interrupt, my space, to infringe upon my vicinity? No one invited you here. No one is paying for a show. Most of us would be happier to sit in silence rather than hear your shitty Ed Sheeran cover. We don’t even have the option of walking out.”

Subtext: Who do you think you are?

It doesn’t seem like an accident that most street musicians are men. Men have been taught that taking up space, physically or metaphorically is okay. I am not the first person to write about this and studies have shown that men are more likely to overestimate their abilities while women tend to underestimate theirs. This has led to a huge confidence gap, and it shows up everywhere—in the office, on the stage, in the gallery, and on the street. Do a simple Google search of “street musician” images and count the ratio if you don’t believe me.

I went to an amateur stand-up comedy show a few weeks ago—pretty much the same thing, eight guys who thought they were really fucking funny, and two women who really busted their asses to prove that they were. There is a longstanding dearth of women in comedy, probably because it is one of the most risky and punishing art forms. In that way, men seem to have a certain freedom, to be seen and heard, confident, regardless of failure, where women feel they have to be perfect before they make an appearance. My reflection here isn’t a criticism of men’s ability to take up space or perform, but rather, a woman’s ability to stand her artistic ground.

street woman

“Don’t even get me started on men. Men are never afraid to take up space,” my friend Serena said to me over lunch while we talked broadly, about life and art. Serena is an established painter from the U.S.  She described her earliest paintings as tiny, detailed and ornate smaller than her palm. At an exhibit, one would have to stand close, put their face nearly inside the paintings to see every detail. She explained to me, that at first, she believed it was about her talent, showing how painstakingly she could execute her art with such precision, but then realized, it had more to do with space, specifically, minimizing her presence.

There is a reason manspreading is a thing, the way men spread their legs in public spaces, often taking up more than their share of one seat. It has sparked debate and internet memes, and some countries have even made efforts to ban manspreading on public transit (El Manspread in Madrid).


But, manspreading is so much more than space on a train.

“Who do you think you are?” It was that criticism, that voice, the same one that had stopped me for years.

Serena’s early entry into visual arts and evolution with space reminded me of my own artistic path. I always wanted to be a visual artist, but I worried about wasting supplies, creating art that damaged the environment, mostly taking up space in a way that wasn’t worth it. Before that, I wanted to be an actress, but I was afraid of trying to command physical attention—what if they did not want to see me? And the audacity of the stage! I couldn’t handle it. I started playing guitar and writing songs, but again, there was something so unabashed (i.e. brave) about creating something that someone would not want to hear or see. And so, music was something I did, hidden in my bedroom, away from scrutiny or worse, the potential that the sheer act would infringe upon others.

In that sense, my fear of taking up space, visual or otherwise, it is not an accident that I became a writer. Writing is also one of the most silent and hidden and less invasive art forms—it can hardly be forced upon others and for the writer, even if you are widely hated and criticized, you are always lucky someone actually made it through your work. The exposure to writing as art is a choice, whereas the exposure to visual arts, or music, or photography or other more visible forms are easily thrust upon you as an audience member. You will never be accosted in the street by the written word. No one is going to seriously disrupt your commute with a page of scribbled text.

As she evolved as an artist, Serena learned that she had to be willing to take up space as an artist and not be fearful of the demand to be seen. She learned to expand her work, taking up wall-sized canvasses, and her upcoming plans go beyond the frame, she is interested in installations that take up an entire room.

The more I think about it, the more I have come to admire street musicians, even ones I don’t particularly enjoy hearing—like that American dude covering the Black Keys yesterday. He wasn’t great, it was sort of trite, but he smiled boldly and I put some coins in his hat. For street musicians, it’s not only putting yourself out there to be criticized for your art and abilities, but it’s the constant shifting of reactions that you have absolutely no power to control.

And, isn’t this true for all of us in our art, our careers, parenting and relationships? We are constantly faced with an audience, circumstances, and a world that we have no power to control or even understand. Every day, we react, make decisions, choices, and put ourselves out there, without knowing exactly what will happen next, what other people will think, or if we will get the results we hope for.

Now I see, of course street musicians have the right. Of course, I have the right too.

To take up space in art and in life means, taking risks and being seen without knowing the outcome. It means authentic expression, being bold, and loud, regardless of consequences. And, learning to take up space, to interfere and disrupt, that is point of all expression, that is art.


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