I went to a class where artists promised to teach me how to pickpocket

When I arrived at the Brooklyn space I was told I had to “wait to be picked.”

The Crown Heights event promised to teach me how to pickpocket. From the outside, the space appeared to be mostly open, enclosed by two buildings. There were maybe three other people standing outside also waiting to be picked.

So I stood on the footpath twiddling my thumbs until a woman kneeling underneath a tent beckoned me to sign in. She then asked me to produce a dollar and write down “a desire you want taken or a desire you want back.” I did so and was instructed to keep it in a somewhat easily accessible place.

It begins.

Artists have been throwing “parties” like this forever.

This party billed itself a “Pickpocket Rent Party,” in that the people throwing it (a group of artists) were raising funds to pay their rent and it purported to teach attendees how to pickpocket.

It’s a pretty straightforward name.

The collective is named “1067 Pacific People,” which also happens to be the address. So straightforwardness is kind of this group’s thing.

In the grand scheme of things, an art party claiming to teach how to pickpocket isn’t the most outlandish of themes. Salvador Dali once hosted a benefit where he and his wife dressed in strange paper maché animal-like costumes and fed a baby lion. European artist Marina Abramovic also held a gala (that reportedly went for $US10,000 a head) where naked performers and seemingly severed heads were strewn about during the dinner. And I can only imagine some of the ideas Warhol executed at his storied Factory space.

So in the name of art (and perhaps a tiny hope I would learn a new skill) I decided to shell out the $US15 to help these artists keep their space.

The scene.

The first description I found about this party described the event thus; As it unfolds, “all the party guest become outlaws.” In a recent DNAinfo article, the description went further: “We’re also going to teach people to steal from themselves,” the event’s organiser Andrea Haenggi explained to the blog.

Of course this was all said with an extremely obtuse artistic veneer. When I bought my ticket online I was instructed to bring a dollar or two and to write a message on it “WHAT DESIRE WOULD YOU LIKE TO STEAL BACK?” the event wrote.

I began milling around the open area. There were signs strewn about like Tibetan peace flags saying things like “TKS for PICKPOCKETING,” “F**K Square,” “THIS IS SERIOUS,” and “This Space is OUTLAWED.”

There were also individual installations of random objects throughout the open space: A mattress with a sign; A few plants atop a carpet; A lamp. Everything had a sign with a message near it.

The dance of the pickpocket.

As the party went on, I waited for the formal pickpocketing instructions to begin. Instead, a woman accosted me and asked to perform a dance. I accepted. She began by inverting one of her pockets, indicating that it was empty.

And then the dance began: Her body began to gyrate to and fro; Her legs moving, arms flailing. She would take off half her jacket then put it back on. Her hands began going in and out of every pocket-like surface on her clothes.

I soon understood that this dance was a sort of trick; she would slip a dollar into the before-empty pocket.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. Her vigorously moving body caused the dollar in question to fly out from whatever place it was hiding, into the air, landing behind her, without the dancer so much as noticing. She finished the dance, put her hand in the pocket to present the new dollar, and she couldn’t find it.

I pointed behind her to where it had landed. She sheepishly picked up the fallen money and read it aloud; “Thank you for allowing my body to be outlawed.”

The woman behind it all.

I continued walking around after this and was met by another woman. She had long hair with purple tips, baggy pants, and a vaguely European accent. She was clearly the center of this event — the Andrea quoted in the article I read. We chatted for some time and she asked if one of the pickpockets had seen me and if I was impressed by their talents. I felt obligated to inform her of the flying dollar mishap.

The party was obviously Andrea’s child. Some Googling indicated that she has been an active New York-based performance artist for years. Her first collective artist space was in the neighbourhood of Williamsburg, but she got priced out in 2012. She moved her work to Crown Heights in the hopes of cheaper rent, but Crown Heights is steadily seeing the same rent-hike fate as Williamsburg.

This party/workshop is meant both a statement about systemic thievery as well as a potential new revenue stream for the 1067 Pacific People. In fact, Andrea told me she may throw more parties of this sort.

Andrea’s artist bio describes her as an “interdisciplinary artist, choreographer, dancer, improviser and teacher.” Her work has been featured at the well-known modern art museum Mass MoCA, and she has performed around the world.

This event is another notch in her proverbial performance art belt, albeit much less attended than any storied museum.

Party7Cale Guthrie WeissmanHaenggi and others showing off their dollar bills

The event continued; people awkwardly stood, talking, while different woman approached them, danced, and produced dollars from thin air. There were about 15 of us, which seemed like a pretty small crowd for a how-to on how to pickpocket.

Here’s where I learned to steal…kind of.

Finally we were all called to an area where Andrea and two other woman stood. The demonstration was finally about to begin.

“I want to let you become outlaws,” the artist proclaimed. “I want to teach you how to pickpocket. I want you to come closer.” She then had us stretch out hand. “Stretch and expand your possibility,” she ordered. And so we did. Or at least tried.

Party9Cale Guthrie WeissmanThe pickpocketing demonstration

She then had use make a “ball of energy” with our hands. The instructions started getting confusing. “Make a ball. Don’t expand the energy,” she said. But while doing this her hand was expanding. I didn’t know how to not expand energy or if there even was energy in the nonexistent ball I was making with my hands.

Then she told us to pinch our fingers. And so we did. Then she told us to “roll the coin,” motioning as if a coin were in her hand. It continued like this for some time until she decided we were ready.

Andrea said that we had to pick with a “firm, easy hand.” She then pantomimed the action. She instructed us to “rotate,” while moving her hand. I am still not sure what this means. And finally she said that we had to give the victim a “firm bony touch.”

To recap, how to pickpocket: form some energy in your hand, roll your fingers, grab people with a bony grip while picking their pockets with a firm easy hand. And then rotate. She then told us to practice with the audience.

About a dozen complete strangers rambled around an open space trying to grab each other’s arms and surreptitiously pick the others’ pockets. I spent a good 15 minutes scanning the space while others scanned me. We looked at each other, grabbed a hold of each other, awkwardly lunged toward each other, but none of us knew what we were doing. As I talked to people throughout the night most weren’t coming to learn the art of thievery.

In fact, most (if not all other than me) were friends of the artists.

Party6Cale Guthrie WeissmanFailed pickpocketing attempts

Following the demonstration, I spent the rest of the night chitchatting with others attendees and occasionally trying to pickpocket people. I also lived in fear of others getting me. Andrea at one point tried to make a game where we ganged up on one person to get their dollar.

I hastily stole $US1 from a random woman right after the demonstration finished, and after about 2 hours I decided to call it quits. People were beginning to leave and it was getting cold. I approached the exit and saw Andrea standing there. I asked if there was more planned for the evening. She said, a bit sad, that if more people came she may do the presentation again.

After a moment’s pause she asked for my dollar. I suppose she does have to make rent.

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