Artists conclude giant hamster wheel project in Williamsburg

Sunday marked the last day artists Ward Shelley and Alex Schweder had to wake up on a giant hamster wheel at the Boiler in Williamsburg.

Shelley and Schweder installed the wheel for their art project “In Orbit” and ate, worked and slept on it for 10 days. The larger-than-life wheel comes equipped with a mini kitchen, a bathroom, desks and beds. This was the fourth time Schweder and Shelley teamed up to perform “social relationship architecture.” Their collaborations have taken them to Queens, Seattle and Basel, Switzerland, where they lived in self-contained units open for public viewing.

We caught up with Schweder on Sunday, who was living on the inside of the wheel, to get his perspective on the performance on its last day. Shelley was 25 feet above, on top of the wheel.

Schweder said the most challenging aspect of the project was living in what he calls a “magazine photo” and the constant need to clean up after himself.

“In magazine images, you don’t see a half-filled cup of coffee. I have a little holder for my coffee cup,” he explained, pointing toward a hole in the wheel near his foot. “But I can’t leave my cup in there or else I’ll knock it over. If the wheel goes upside down, then everything will fall down.”

Surprisingly, Schweder did not seem to regard the bathroom situation as a challenge. He and Shelley had running water, which they used for “bird baths,” as Schweder calls them, and used a camping toilet to get the job done.

“We have a privacy curtain during the day,” Schweder said.

The “bathroom,” which has running water, stays upright when the wheel rotates like a car on a Ferris wheel. The same goes for the “kitchen,” which includes a counter, small pantry and a hot plate. Shelley and Schweder shared these “rooms” but had separate beds and work stations, which are nailed down to the wheel.

Schweder said sleeping was not a problem on the seemingly precarious structure. At night, he and Shelley tied up the wheel so it wouldn’t not move when they went to bed. “We’ve been sleeping great,” said Schweder. “Ward and I have been sleeping eight to nine hours a day.”

Even with the unusual circumstances, Shelley and Schweder’s project exuded mundanity. Schweder’s friend walked into the space as we talked to him.

“Welcome to my weird wheel!” he called to her. “Give me a minute, but I want to chat.”

Schweder shrugged off the stress of living under such scrutiny.

“Eighteen hours a day, we’re alone,” he said. “And I’m thrilled people are here.”

Schweder even cooked corned beef hash on his hot plate in the kitchen, and then passed it off by leaving it on the counter and wheeling it over to Shelley.

Though it seemed that Schweder had grown accustomed to his living conditions on the wheel, he admitted to looking forward to one thing when the project ended on Sunday evening. “I can’t wait to take a hot shower,” he said.

A few minutes later, he shouted to Shelley, “Hey Ward — should we give it a whirl?” The two men walked in unison, one wheel apart, and Shelley ate leftover pizza as he calmly stepped forward on the turning wheel.

Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark


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