Public Eye: In Orbit with Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley

A pair of performance artists spent ten days living in a giant hamster wheel, exploring how we coexist with our surroundings

Artists Ward Shelley and Alex Schweder

Artists Ward Shelley and Alex Schweder Photograph: Rayon Richards

How long have guys been up there?
Shelley: Three nights so far, out of ten. We didn’t get the wheel done until right before we had to move in, so this is the shakedown cruise.

How’s it going so far?
Schweder: Ward is on top and I’m on the bottom, and that makes a big difference. But I would never use the power of concavity—that’s a new term, I think [Laughs]—to my advantage.
Shelley: We've begun to see that trust is a big issue in this piece. I’m very dependent on Alex for every little thing, and I’m a proud person. It’s hard to ask, “Hey, can you get up and stop everything you’re doing, because I’m thirsty?”
Schweder: Ward can't leave stuff on the floor, because it will fall off—whereas I have the luxury of putting my bag down.

Not such a good lifestyle for a messy person.
Everything has to be put away. You can't leave your coffee cup on the table, you can't leave your socks hanging out of the dresser. It's almost like you have to erase yourself.

What was the inspiration for In Orbit?
Shelley: We have this guiding idea, perfectly expressed by Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” It’s about the way people change the world, and how the world pushes back.

How do you handle logistics?
[The wheel is] put together like a boat. The idea is to have everything that we need on board. So there’s a bathroom, there’s a kitchen. It's tough, though, because there’s no shower; you have to sponge bathe.

Almost sounds like being in space.
We get the same questions astronauts get. “How do you go to the bathroom?” It’s not luxurious by any means. But we do have a curtain.

Do you have any rules about not getting things from outside the wheel?
Not really. We've had people actually bring us coffee. We're not gonna cry foul if we drop our socks and someone picks them up for us.
Schweder: Right, it's not a survivalist kind of thing.

Do you interact much with gallerygoers?
Yeah, we like them to feel like they can talk to us, because one of the reasons for this kind of performance art is that it’s a proposition that we validate by actually doing it.
There’s that moment of empathy when you see someone else doing this thing, and you're kind of captivated, because you imagine yourself doing it. Having live bodies in a work makes people linger a little bit more.

In Orbit is on view at the Boiler through Apr 5 (

Photographs: Rayon Richards

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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