In Conversation with Daniela Groza
Welcome to an in-depth talk with multi-media artist Daniela Groza. She is a photographer, writer, performance artist, cook, and more. You might know her from Be Kind for Real, her centerpiece project that fosters kindness and acceptance through art. She speaks about how this project came to be, how it’s evolved, and how she’s changed with it.
In this crazy, strange time, let’s talk about creativity. How might we access it? How might we use our creative juices to feed back into the communities and causes we care about? What are some of the tensions we’re experiencing?
You will hear all about Daniela’s adventures driving Uber and getting nurses to work, all the while trying to keep herself and her home safe from the Coronavirus. Masks, plastic gloves, and hand sanitizer are a rarity. She’s on the road with her camera, documenting empty streets and taking notes about her passengers. Amongst all this, Daniela embodies a down to earth humor that completely disarms you and pulls you in. She’s an incredible storyteller, and this conversation is no exception.
Music: Ben Tyree
Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Ioana: Good morning. How crazy to meet you like this. How are you doing?
Daniela: I think I’m literally in shock, and trying to push that feeling away because things are happening so fast.
I’ve always had The New York Times delivered to my inbox, but I never actually read it, unless it was some hot headline. And every morning, this past week, I wake up and read what’s going on, and I see the cases go up for Corona. Then for whatever reason, I feel like waking up my girlfriend Lily to tell her what’s going on, and she’s like, “Oh no, I’m just going to go back to sleep.”
It’s so terrible. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t think I understand what’s happening.
Ioana: I can relate.
Daniela: Yeah. How are you doing?
Ioana: We’re in a little bubble out here. Nothing crazy is happening right now in terms of health nearby, but we have family working in hospitals, and they already see insanity.
Ioana: Shortage of supplies. People not being able to have visitors.
It’s like a dystopian nightmare from what they describe, and it’s so weird to be physically separate from that. You know? It’s almost like a silent, something happening elsewhere.
Daniela: Yeah, that’s how it felt for us until last Monday when Lily lost her job. I was still making plans to go to Romania and work on a project. As of last Monday, our reality became — what are we going to do money-wise? That’s the biggest fear at this point.
Ioana: That’s real.
Daniela: So real. I have some savings, and we do have money for rent this upcoming month, but what if this goes on for three, four months? If I do have reserves, do I pay rent? Every day is flip-flopping between paying next month’s rent or not. Just to make sure I have money to survive on.
And I feel terrible. I’m a correct person, and I’ve always paid my rent on time. It’s just gnawing at both of us, and we’re so paralyzed. We don’t even know how to tell the landlord that this is not an option for us.
Ioana: Has your landlord in touch with you?
Daniela: No. It’s strange and Lily said, “You know what? I think he should have texted all of us at this point.”
Because it’s his house on the line in the end. He redid this brownstone a year and a half ago. We all moved in at the same time. He knows Lily and me because we have stayed in touch with him. He knows the industries that we’re in.
You know, he should have gotten in touch just to be like, “Hey, what’s going on? Hey, you don’t have to pay rent. I don’t have to pay a mortgage for the next three months, so don’t worry about anything.”
Did they freeze the mortgage in New Jersey also?
Ioana: Not that I know of.
Daniela: Okay. Because they did in New York, so at least I know my landlord doesn’t have to pay a mortgage.
Ioana: Ah, that should trickle to you.
Daniela: Yeah. When I read about the mortgages, I was wondering, why didn’t you go even further and say, for tenants who cannot afford rent at this point, no rent? Freeze the rents too. If that message is clear on paper and landlords are aware of it, then we don’t have to have the stress of telling landlords, “Hey, I’m so sorry. This is unprecedented.”
It has to trickle down. I was reading the other day, 26,000 restaurants closed down and 10,000 bars. Imagine how many employees are out of a job. Not even with the savings that I have. What do you do? I don’t know. So we’re paralyzed basically at this point.
Ioana: Oh, my God.
Daniela: I can’t sleep because I keep on thinking about the text I’m going to have to send the landlord. And I also have an apartment in Romania that I send money to. I think the lady over there might be a little better about the situation, but I don’t know.
I have no idea how people are going to react because I think we’re all in shock and freaking out about where our next paycheck is going to come from.
Ioana: Yeah. So many people are in that same boat. There’s no way to have planned for this.
Ioana: Are you still shooting among all of this?
Daniela: Yeah! I was driving in Manhattan yesterday. Business is really slow, and I’ll tell you about this too. There’s a famous photo by Josef Koudelka, and I created my version of it on 42nd street at 6:00 PM on Sunday. First of all, you cannot stop there ever. It’s on Park Avenue on the bridge. There’s no way.
I’ve always wanted to shoot from there, you know? Then yesterday I was just driving around without a ride because it’s so slow and I’m like, “Oh, fuck. It’s anarchy. I can do whatever I want. I’m just going to stop the car and take the pictures.” And I did. Nobody cared because there were no cars around. No cops around.
This is history. This is crazy.
Ioana: Totally. So you’re still driving around with your camera regularly?
Daniela: Yes. Last Monday, when the restaurants shut down, I was expecting a full shutdown of the Uber and Lyft systems. So every day I wake up thinking I’m not going to have a job. Messages from Uber and Lyft have been coming on alternate days, almost every day saying, “Stay on the road, be safe, we’re trying to get supplies to you.”
It hasn’t happened yet. Their hubs closed, so that’s a problem because I cannot pick up supplies. If indeed they will have them, they’re probably going to have to ship them to my house. Uber sent us a message a couple of days ago saying that they’re working with the city of New York where they’re trying to keep drivers on the road to secure rides for people who still have to go to work.
Lyft is doing something similar, and I think they’re also looking for funds to support us while ridership is down.
Ioana: How many rides do you give on a typical day?
Daniela: Average between 15 and 25. Right now, it’s about eight rides a day.
I still put in eight hours. Yesterday I couldn’t because I’ve been working every day for the last two weeks. Today would be two weeks since I last took a day off, and I was like, “I got to go home. I’m so tired.”
It’s exhausting driving around and trying to pick someone up. I would say the last three, four days, my passengers have been primarily nurses, young people who get groceries and can’t carry them because they’re in large quantities, and people who have to go to work. Yesterday, I had this guy, Angel, who is a food distributor, so he has to distribute food to supermarkets.
And let me tell you when I pick up a nurse, I’m grateful for their work, and they’re thankful for me. However, I had two days without sanitizer in the car, and I freaked out a little bit. I was like, “Oh shit.” This nurse came in full gear in my car. She told me she works with Coronavirus patients, and she’s had two patients die in the last couple of days. I don’t know what germs she left behind, and I cannot clean because I have no sanitizer whatsoever.
It makes me sad because I realized my car is also a vehicle that can spread the virus. So what do I do? These people have to get to work. I’m pretty sure they were advised not to take the train. I think the state will subsidize their Uber and Lyft rides if Uber and Lyft secure some kind of agreement with the city. But as long as I’m not provided sanitizer in the car, I cannot guarantee safety. And that’s awful.
Ioana: Wow. How are you protecting yourself?
Daniela: Two days ago I went to see my good friend who lives down the street. We did the social distancing thing, but we’re like, “We have to see each other.” It was four Romanians. I’m just five blocks away from them. So I brought my beer. I brought my bottle opener. And we were just standing there six feet apart and when we were talking Mona, whose yard we inhabited for a few hours, said, “Listen, I’ll give you my gloves.” I’m like, “Dude. You need them too.” She has children. And she said, “No, no, no. Take them because you need them in the car.” So she gave me a full bag of gloves.
However, I don’t know how many pairs there are, maybe 20-30? I go through three or four pairs a day because I go to the bathroom. So I’m touching all this stuff.
I have a sanitizer spray, 70% alcohol, that’ll probably last me another week. And yesterday, a former passenger who’s also Romanian texted me. I had posted a picture with me and the gloves and the spray, saying, “I’m gonna go out there.” She texted me right away, “Listen, I live on the Upper East Side. I have masks. Come get them right now.”
I was about to pick up a ride. Thank God the trip was towards the Upper East Side, so I just dropped off this guy, and went straight to her house. She gave me an N95 mask and a regular mask.
But again, I don’t know how long these are going to last me. When you’re in and out of a car, and you have to go to the bathroom, you come back, you realize how many things you can do wrong and spread those germs.
Like, at what point do I put my phone in my pocket and open doors? Do I wash the gloves when I go to the bathroom? Do I wash my hands? Do I discard completely? And then I touch doors again.
I want to be as safe as possible. I don’t even think we should be on the road to tell you the truth. It’s impossible to have 100% clean. I cannot spray after every single person in the car.
Ioana: This is not sustainable.
Daniela: Yeah. What do you do? I know these people need rides, and the nurses need to get to work.
I’m not making any profit at this point. I’m making enough money to pay rent for the car, and that’s a lot. And a little extra to cover gas and a little extra to cover food. Whereas before, I would make between $600 and $900 profit every week. Imagine.
Which is why I was able to have some savings. But again, if I pay rent, my credit card bills, and food without any income whatsoever, I will run out in about two months.
Ioana: What is the role of art in all of this? What do we do?
Daniela: I have to go back a little bit in my personal history because I never considered myself an artist.
I was talking to a friend of mine, a curator, yesterday morning. Art is luxury at this point.
In my head, coming from Constanta, a small town in Romania compared to New York, art seems like such a lofty thing to do. And especially when you come to New York and encounter art and artists here, that idea is amplified. Art is a luxury. Who buys art? It’s people with a lot of money who support these mega artists, right?
I’m not saying it’s the whole truth because it’s not. There are many facets to what art is.
So I’ve always had this tension between calling myself an artist and creating art. I’m almost cynical, of course, because I’m Romanian. What does being an artist even mean?
So the only way to marry these ideas of being an artist and making art (not for the elite) was to do the Be Kind for Real project. It was the only way that made sense to me when calling myself an artist.
I’m an artist because I do art that helps someone in need. Someone who has no idea and doesn’t care about lofty descriptions of what art is. I love that. I love that I donate money. I’ve been giving money to this family for three years that will never get what the fuck I’m doing, even though Be Kind for Real is pretty straight forward.
I try to keep it as simple as possible. I had many ideas about this project, but I always came back to this. It has to be simple. It has to be understood by 90% of people. Yes, I can wrap it up in this fancy description, but in the end, it’s just a project to help someone out.
Sure. The words stem from semantics, and if I go into every word and why I chose to put it on a T-shirt, I can go on and on. I can write a novel about it. But, in the end, all you need to know if you buy that shirt is I’m donating 50%. This is the only way I can be an artist.
Sure. I wish everyone saw it the same way, but it’s not going to happen. And thank God, I don’t think that way.
So now more than ever, I feel like art should have that role of helping someone out, just like any other industry. I was talking to Lily yesterday, and I’m like, “Imagine all the fashion companies around that are not sewing right now. They should dedicate themselves to making masks.” It’s a no brainer. And she said that Christian Siriano is doing that already. I want to see hundreds of fashion companies do that. It’s starting to freak me out, scrolling on Instagram when I see an ad for some luxury good. This should not exist at this point.
The way I see art now is the way I’ve always seen it. It has to help someone out. You know, I can wallow in my pain and my existential crisis all day long and create. But that doesn’t help anyone else.
As artists, I’m pretty sure we’re all a little bit narcissistic. What am I doing? How can I create? It’s about me and my creation. Very few artists in the world have erased their names and said, “This is just for you.” And I think they’re deemed a little crazy, too.
Now I signed up for this special task force for Lyft to help health workers.
Through pictures, because I have an Instagram following, I’m trying to get some message out there and get images out as they come. And try to have fun with it a little bit too, because otherwise… I see so much potential to create and come out with lots of art from this. But we also have to face the tragedy.
Now I think I need to bring back some humor because I’ve been a little bit humorless this past week, just because it’s been so up and down. I believe in humor, and it’s too bad that in art, it’s not revered. It’s the greatest thing in the world. I can get really silly, and if I have a partner who’s also silly, we can keep ourselves afloat like that.
Ioana: It feeds the heart.
Daniela: I wish I could stay at home just for two weeks, to relax because I have so many creative ideas and I cook a lot. I’m grateful I can still work a little bit and put food on the table, but I need a break. Today I took the day off because I think it’s going to be an interesting week ahead.
Ioana: Do you shoot film or digital?
Daniela: I have two cameras now. Film. 35mm and medium format. The medium format is my primary camera, and I’ve been shooting with it for the last eight years. And the 35mm I just brought back from Romania. So I’m trying things out with it, that’s my second camera.
This is how I frame it. The medium format is the title of the chapter of whatever I’m shooting. And with the 35mm, I fill in the blanks and take more shots. It’s more affordable. I also take lots of pictures with the phone.
I haven’t found my stride yet with what’s happening because it’s sad, and I think I have a sadness that I haven’t tapped into yet. But soon enough, if I have the luxury of having a car, even if I don’t have rides, I want to go to the city at six in the morning and see that. And experience something that I’ve never experienced before. Because it’s not just visual, feelings come up. Even yesterday, when I was on the Park Avenue bridge, it’s breathtaking.
Ioana: What did you feel?
Daniela: First of all, I felt like a rebel, which is a feeling I thoroughly enjoy. And then deep sadness because you realize that the cabs waiting for a fare might wait there for hours and hours and hours. So then you go deeper into everyone’s story, and you think, “Oh man, these people, are they going to be able to pay rent? Do they have children? How old are they? Are they in danger of getting Coronavirus and dying?”
And then you see the people on the street who are still walking around and then you’re thinking, “Oh, these people are probably okay. They live in Manhattan, and they can afford it. There’s a chance they have a job they can do from home, and they have no idea what others are going through. People like myself.”
Ioana: Do you always put yourself in other people’s heads like that?
Daniela: All the time. It’s fun for the most part, but this time it’s like, umm.
I think it’s important. That’s where empathy stems from, to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even when you’re a little abrasive.
I feel terrible if I have to be a little bit mean, but then I think about a friend who is a great person and who would probably do the same thing without feeling guilty. You have to do that sometimes, you know?
I am extremely sensitive or sometimes I don’t know what’s right or wrong, I have to go into someone else’s head to figure things out.
Ioana: I do that too. I have two girlfriends, and we grew up together in D.C. They’re very different from each other, but whenever I come across something hard in life, I do one of two things. I either imagine them beside me supporting me, or I try to put myself in their shoes. Like, “What would Severine do in this situation?”
Ioana: When did you first notice that you were doing that?
Daniela: I have a vivid memory of this. Half of my family’s from Craiova, and we used to spend summers there. One time, we went to see a movie at a cinema very close to where we were staying with my great aunt. I believe it was Gladiator. And I remember walking out of the theater with a few friends, and I felt like I was that guy. Like I was powerful, and I could take anything down. For the rest of the day, I felt like I could do anything.
It felt very real to me that I could be someone else. I must have been nine, ten years old, something like that. So that’s my earliest memory of that.
The next memory I have with this, and putting it in words, was with my professor in Italy. I went there briefly to study photography. My professor was a wonderful guy. He knew my personal story, the situation with my mother, and my father, and my sister, and he felt for me. He’s like, “You’re alone here in Italy, and this school is not helping you stay here. Let’s work on projects together. I’ll help you out.”
And for whatever reason, the discussion came up about how I figure things out against all these entities at school. Because I had been promised something before I went to that school, and the promise fell through the first day I arrived in Italy.
And I said, “Well, the only way I can put it is I try to be different people at different times, so I make the right decision. I don’t know what I’m want to do, I’m going to stay in Italy for as long as I can, but I try to think about what you would do in this instance, or what my partner would do.”
That’s how I learn from people because I wasn’t able to learn from my parents. And he said, “Oh, that’s strange.” He didn’t see it as a good thing. And that affected me a little bit because I was really sensitive back then about what was happening, more so than I usually am. And he thought it very strange that I have this ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes and make decisions based on how others would react to a specific situation. So that’s the second memory I have of that.
I’ve been conscious about empathizing. I’ve also discussed it with my friends since then. It’s a good thing actually to be able to do that. It makes you the opposite of a monster.
Ioana: Say more.
Daniela: Right now, this craze with spirituality has a deep problem. It’s related to our need to tell others how to live life, how it’s better to be this way or that way. I include myself in this category.
And I actually just did that now. I don’t think people are monsters if they’re not able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. It’s just I am this way, and you are this way, and this other person is this way. Spirituality is not taking the right course, let’s put it that way, because we keep alienating people instead of bringing them towards us.
It’s easy for me to say, “Oh, you know, if more people put themselves in other people’s shoes, there would be a better world.” The moment you say that you’re alienating people. To speak about these things is extremely different than putting them into practice.
I don’t even have words to describe this. The only person with words to describe this is this sage Kojève, who I’m no longer interested in. I have a couple of his books. I’m trying to stay away from philosophy. I don’t want to hear it. It does not matter to me anymore.
Ioana: How come?
Daniela: Coming back to this global pandemic. Everyone has some kind of advice for other people. You have to do this. You have to do that. We go through some things in life and find some personal formula to get through them, but it doesn’t apply to other people.
Am I to say that I haven’t learned from some philosophers? No, of course, I’ve learned from philosophers. I’m grateful for books and ideas and concepts on how to live. But in the end, I don’t think we found the right way to get into people’s hearts and to have a profound change.
And that’s okay.
Because I think the moment we start thinking we’re going to change the world, and my formula is the greatest, that’s precisely the moment we fail to have people understand new things.
Life and who we are is so complex. You can read Krishnamurti all you want. If your up-bringing and genetic makeup are not geared towards philosophy or spirituality, all that Krishnamurti put forth is bullshit and nonsense. And now, I agree.
If you had asked me maybe three, four years ago, “Hey, do you think this is an actual sage, and you could learn something from this person?” Oh my God, I know I sounded like a crazy person in the cab. Speaking of Krishnamurti and Kojève and whatnot. I can see myself from the outside, and I’m like, “Oh my God, crazy.” It’s okay. I’m happy I went through that phase, but now I’m like, “No, there’s no way.”
I can’t even tell Lily, “Dude. Oh yeah? You’re depressed, go read Kojève.” I can’t say that. That sounds insane to me. You know what I mean? You cannot push people towards some ultimate truth.
I don’t think there’s an ultimate truth. There’s no right formula for this life. I think there will always be villains and psychopaths and sages in the world. There will always be people who read and learn from books and people who learn from working the land. It’s the same thing in the end.
Ioana: How’d you realize this?
Daniela: I felt saner than ever after I stopped preaching and telling people what to do and how to do it. Because that to me is bananas. If I formulate it like, “Oh, this is what I think,” an opinion, and inject that with a little bit of humor, it’s ok.
I think it’s vital to laugh at yourself a little bit. That opens you up to other people’s opinions and ways of life. That may be a little bit of the secret of feeling good at all times, despite everything going down right now.
I haven’t had a bad day in two years. Yesterday was the anniversary. I don’t know how people experience depression or bad days. I can tell you for myself, up until two years ago, I would have two or three days, maybe every 10-14 days where I felt lost, and I would descend into this existential abyss that I could not yank myself out of. I was so used to it that I thought it was part of normal life.
Then it crossed my mind that I could live without those dips, and I have been. And it’s incredible.
So you face tragedy, this pandemic we’re living through today, differently. I’m sad, but I don’t have a fundamental sadness. Yes. I think about all the people who are laid off and can’t work anymore. There are a million different permutations.
If I let that flood me, I would probably just jump off a building, you know? But I think about how extraordinary this life is and how insane and how unpredictable. And I’ve been used to unpredictable for a while now. So at this point, I’m like, “Ooh, adventure, anarchy. This is kind of cool.”
Maybe it sounds strange, but on top of the tragedy, it’s also fascinating and I cannot wait to see what happens next. That’s the beacon of hope and light, I suppose. Maybe because I think this way I can inject it into my social media presence a little bit because there’s no disconnect there for me. What you see online is who I really am at home.
So, yeah—there’s no absolute truth.
Ioana: Even within ourselves, there’s no absolute truth because our way of seeing things could change from day to day, from moment to moment.
I’m in this phase in my life where I wonder if we can create space for each other and honor our differences without trying to coerce each other into adopting an ultimate way of thinking.
I see the seeds of this in the fantastic outpour of generosity from people. I haven’t noticed it on this scale before the Coronavirus.
People are donating their time and resources. You drive nurses to work, is an ultimate example of humans rising to the challenge in a beautiful way. And look at what it took to get us there. To shovel past the bullshit differences that we have and get to the bottom line. We’re animals on this round sphere bouncing in galactic soup, and nobody knows why.
Daniela: Yeah. I don’t even think that question should exist. I think we should completely obliterate it from our minds. The why.
Ioana: The why we’re here?
Daniela: Hahaha. Yeah. I think it should be exploded and inexistent, and I think it should disappear from all books ever written.
Ioana: Why is that?
Daniela: You know, I do have a bias for philosophy and all that crap, unfortunately. I’m aware of it. It’s okay. Whenever existential things bubble up, and this is why I’ve had great and okay days the last couple of years, I think about my best friend, Corina.
She is a thinker, just not an existential crisis thinker. She’s brilliant and cool. I think about her, and I’m like, “Oh, she would laugh at this.” It’s not a malicious laugh. She’d be like, “Why so dark? Can we talk about something else?”
And I love it because she’s right. You cannot take on the weight of the world. Nobody should have that responsibility. So I shouldn’t have the responsibility to answer “the why” for 7 billion people. That’s insane. And it’s unhealthy, ultimately.
Once in a while, you will find a philosopher who laughs in philosophers’ faces who says philosophy wouldn’t exist if we didn’t think that we have to answer these existential questions. We don’t have to.
So what is a philosopher, in the end, who asks his questions? I always try to envision this white, wealthy little boy in the 1600s who’s bored out of his mind. He stubs his foot on a table, walking around the house because he has nothing to do. And he’s like, “Ah, fuck man, that hurt. Why do I have to suffer?” So from that moment on, you have philosophy because you have too much time on your hands.
For me, the answer has been to be practical. Sitting on a chair or lying on your bed, depressed about the state of the world, and how we got here, even before the pandemic, does no good to anyone.
Do something that you’re good at. It’s not even art for me at this point. I haven’t been able to watch a movie for the last two weeks. And I haven’t been able to draw. I usually do that when I come home from work. But I’ve been cooking like a crazy person. I love it because it’s so far from existentialism. It’s amazing.
Ioana: You’re in the moment, and it’s tangible, right?
Daniela: And I don’t have to think about it.
It’s not like, “Oh, now I’m going to cook, and I will be in the moment, and I’m doing something.” When I get home, it’s an instinct for me. You may be good at something else. It’s the primordial thing that makes you you, and cooking has always been that for me. Last night I was like, “Lily, how crazy am I? I’m on the fourth jar of quick pickles.” I’m making sauerkraut. I love it so much.
Ioana: That’s great! We grow cucumbers and make pickles too. I’ll give you some.
Daniela: Amazing. I’m making three loaves of bread now. I was up on and off till 4:00 AM, folding the dough and putting it in the fridge to rest for 16 hours. I hate setting alarms, but I will always do it for bread. It’s a no brainer to me, you know?
Once I found this stride, especially now that I have my place, it’s not like I’m pretending the pandemic is not happening around me. Even before it hit, I didn’t have to think about anything existential for the better part of last year.
I come home. I have a kitchen. I am grateful without even thinking that I’m grateful. I’m enjoying myself. I think that’s the most grateful you can be. That’s what we can bring into the world, the best of ourselves, and then everything else will flow around us. We cannot save the world. It’s impossible.
Ioana: We can’t control almost anything. How can we possibly think we can save it?
Daniela: Yeah, I think you create space unconsciously by doing the things you love to do the most and what you’re good at, in the end.
Ioana: Thank you for letting me do what I feel good doing. Talking about creativity is what I feel great doing.
Daniela: Yeah. I think talking is therapeutic, no matter what you talk about.
Ioana: And listening to other people’s stories. I think it goes back to what you’re saying before. That little boy who stubbed his toe and started philosophy didn’t have anything else to do but to think about himself. Oh my God, the terror.
This gets us out of it, right? Connecting with other people.
Daniela: Yeah. I have a lot of people in the car who are on the phone all the time, and it used to annoy me until it hit me. This is their lifeline. Have you seen the movie Adaptation?
Daniela: There’s a scene I will never forget, and I usually never remember movie scenes. Meryl Streep is on the phone. I think with her boyfriend, I think she’s high, and they’re just humming on the phone. I loved it because I have people in the car, usually young women, on the phone, “Hiii, what’s going on?” And they’re almost humming.
They’re not really saying anything. But that’s their lifeline. It’s how they survive, and it’s okay. You do you. I could be an annoyed cab driver, and that would create tension. Or I could be like, “It’s so cool that this person is doing what they want to do, and it gives me joy.” That’s all you need. That’s perfect.
That’s creating space.
Ioana: That’s artful. You say you’ve been reluctant to call yourself an artist. I’ve come, in my 42nd year, to have a very loose definition of what art is. And it’s almost all-encompassing. I see it everywhere.
And I think creating space for people is a high form of art. If we’re going to put a value on it, I have a hard time taking the value out of that. It’s an incredible thing because, again, it’s not about you. It’s about driving that car and allowing somebody the space to be comfortable in their skin.
Daniela: Yeah. But to counteract that with humor, you have to hear this.
I did get annoyed about a year ago. I had a shared ride that started with a very quiet lady. This other lady jumps in the cab, and she was on the phone super loud. Her pitch was loud and annoying, you know. And doing what I do best, I put myself in the quiet lady’s shoes, but I might’ve been wrong.
I was thinking, “She must be so annoyed.” But that was probably me being annoyed. I felt like I needed to say something to make the ride pleasant. But if I said something, judging by the pitch of the other lady’s voice, there’s nothing that would make her stop. She’d probably be even louder, and I’d create more chaos, so I shut up while my blood was boiling.
What is my role here as a cab driver? I need to be a mediator. I need to make it better for everybody. But, I could see no way out other than to shut up and boil. I dropped off the quiet lady first. The other lady kept on speaking loud, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
I said something, I rarely do. Of course, in my head, I was really mad. So with a sheepish voice, I said, “I am so sorry, you were really loud, and we should be aware of other passengers in the car. Would you please just take it down a notch?” I tried to be as humane as possible.
Well, I was right. The lady got really annoyed and still on the phone with whoever she was speaking, told me, “Are you attacking me? You’re attacking me.” And I’m like, “No, I’m not attacking you.” I predicted all of this, you know? And it snowballed into something horrible.
She has that kind of temperament that nothing will calm her down. But I need to look out for myself, and I needed to say something. So it ended pretty badly.
Ioana: I imagine she gave you one star.
Daniela: Oh yeah. You really can’t please everybody.
Ioana: You’re going to be a miserable person trying to.
Daniela: Yeah. Well, you know what? I was thinking about the Be Kind for Real performance that I do on creating space.
When I started doing it, it became increasingly important for me to come to the point of no real judgment. I can have opinions and make jokes with Lily in our private life, but fundamentally to be less and less judgmental. I saw the Be Kind for Real performance evolve, and I with it. It’s cool.
And I have realized the importance of being present with someone, listening to their story without any judgment, and coming in with little desire to preach and give advice. Offering energy that makes the other person feel comfortable to open up that they will walk out of your meeting with strength and joy to meet the world. It gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
Ioana: Describe this performance a little bit.
Daniela: This year will be my fourth time doing it. I sit in a semi-private room at a table and chairs brought from my house. It’s a face to face conversation for however long you, as a participant, want to talk. The way I arranged the table is you’re facing me and the glass door to this gallery. So you see if people are waiting to speak with me. It comes down to your humanity basically to either stop the conversation and let the next person go, or to keep going. So I don’t have to decide to throw you out of your therapy session.
The first time I sat for ten hours, the second time 16 hours — no bathroom breaks — and the third time ten hours. So what you do is you see my advertisement on social media and think, “Oh, this is weird. Why would I want to go talk to a stranger?”
But then you see what’s up and you sit down in front of me, and it’s quite emotional. We meet strangers almost every day, even if you just make eye contact with someone. It’s quite moving to sit down with a stranger and start a conversation because you are a person with millions of thoughts swirling in your head, and you want to talk about so many things.
And what do you talk about with a stranger you know a little bit from social media, but they don’t know anything about you? You can choose to tell me your name or not, and then you go off on whatever you want. It’s extraordinary because what happens in the end, in most cases, people open up and they tell me secrets.
What does that mean really, to give someone your secret? It’s something that weighs you down because you think the world will judge you. But since I don’t know who you are, you feel comfortable. It’s really like a cab ride. You’re just facing me at this point. It is inspired by the cab rides, how I came up with this performance.
So you sit there, feeling uncomfortable, and we chit chat for a little bit in the beginning. Then slowly you start opening up. Once you feel comfortable with me—and I think I can make you feel comfortable within 15 minutes—you tell me the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you.
And most of the time, I can come up with a very similar story because I’ve gone through really strange, sad things. And I came out of it alive and without judgement, right? So because I have this attitude towards myself and I can project it for you, within 10-15 minutes, you’re going to tell me that you were sexually abused or raped. You’ll say that you’re traumatized from your last relationship and can’t get over that person, or that you are part of the BDSM community in this town, and don’t know who to speak to. Or you have crazy thoughts. You’re feeling suicidal. Things that you haven’t even told your partner, your family, your best friend.
So I also hear this, “You’re the first person,” or “It took me this long to tell my wife that I was abused. It only took me 10 minutes to tell you. This is crazy.” You know?
Instead of being like, “Oh my God, are you ok?” because that creates tension and makes the person feel insecure, my reaction to what they tell me is, “Oh, you too?” And I smile. Smiling is such a great thing. That’s why I love humor. Last time someone told me they’d been abused, I said, “Oh, welcome to the club.” And I smiled again, not in a malicious way. Certain gestures can make another feel safe with you.
Nothing that goes into this performance is choreographed. It’s just that I became aware of things you can do to make someone feel comfortable. It’s your gestures, your facial expression, and these things came to me naturally. Once you become aware of them, you start cultivating them and making them even better. You are chiseling them with what you’re doing.
I am a naturally gentle person. Even my gestures are very soft. So I know I’ve always had this ability to make people feel more comfortable around me. Even more so now that I am an artist, and I am doing this performance, and I studied the power of words. The way you speak can make another feel safe with you. It’s incredible.
Of course, knowing these things, I also know what can tic people off and push people away, and I also have that in me. And I use it when necessary.
Ioana: Can you give an example?
Daniela: I’ve had a couple of abusive people. I was physically scared of them at one point, so I had to use the weapon.
Ioana: Within the performance?
Daniela: Somewhat related to the performance, not during the actual performance itself. But I’ve met people around the country in Romania who needed to speak to me, and I became a little bit afraid to continue the conversations with them.
Of course, there will be people who latch on, they want to be your best friend, and want the attention that you cannot give because you don’t feel compatibility with them.
I just don’t feel the chemistry with somebody. And some people feel that chemistry that I don’t, and they’re not able to read social cues, and so they go further and further, and that scares me. And so I’ve had to figure out ways to be gentle, but also firm in saying, “Stop. I feel uncomfortable.”
It hurts. I’m sure. I was told, “Oh, it’s because you think something’s wrong with me.” And I say, “No, I just don’t think we’re compatible. I have many friends with tons of stories, far worse than what you told me about yourself. It’s not that, it’s just we’re not compatible, and I will not be your best friend.”
It’s essential to keep those boundaries when I feel unsafe. I think it’s normal. I felt guilty for a long time.
There’s one specific person, oh man, her story was…wow. It was really like an open-air performance because I was put in contact with her by someone I knew and trusted.
From the get-go, it was a tough conversation started on Facebook Messenger, and then it parlayed into a real-life conversation. After that, it was relentless. It was a daily thing that I could not keep up with, and I had to tell this person to stop.
Their story blows your mind, but I felt like it was necessary to tell this person that it was not their story that made me feel uncomfortable. They just have to back off a little bit because I needed air to breathe. They’re not my girlfriend and not my friend. Not in the sense that I don’t care for them.
I care for them, and I care for them having someone to speak to. However, this is just too much for me. I wasn’t going to be good for them from that point on.
It’s really hard for me to say these things to someone who’s actually in need of human connection.
Ioana: It has to be done, and it’s hard. Once you realize you’re emotionally and physically depleted, you need to regenerate. It’s tough to deliver that message, but it’s so important because it also honors them, and it honors the dialogue, which deserves all the love and kindness.
Daniela: You know, in the end, it comes down to language. If I was someone else who is not tuned in, I could have been violent in my speech, “Hey, can you fucking stop the shit?”
But through Be Kind for Real, I wanted to find another way.
We all have an instant reaction when we want to say something, and quite rarely, do we take a step back to regroup and think about how to say this same thing differently.
And I finally figured out how to do it because my personality is very quick. And when you trust yourself, it’s even worse. Like, “Oh, I trust that I’m saying the right thing at the right time.” No.
Ioana: Take a breath.
Daniela: Oh, man. I thank God, I learned to stop sometimes, wait even a week, which is so hard for me. And it’s great because now I can say something in a more composed tone and I can find this Daniela in me that can say it in a way that will empower the other person and make them feel less shitty about the situation. I’m working on it.
What do you envision with this pandemic? What’s your worst-case scenario?
Ioana: Oh, my God. I hadn’t even thought about the worst-case scenario. Last night I was just lying on my bed crying over a picture of beds lined up at the Javitz Center.
Daniela: Oh, God. I know.
Ioana: Again, it’s empathy, putting yourself in people’s shoes and imagining what it would be like to be them. That’s where my head went.
I also think it’s going to be a financial nightmare, even after the virus itself is contained. There’s no system in place to make this smooth for everybody, especially those who are already economically disadvantaged. So, I’m kind of hoping this is the death of capitalism as we know it.
Daniela: That’s what’s up.
Ioana: Everybody needs to drop the dime, forget the money. This pandemic is showing how money is a made-up thing. It’s not really what matters, and it fucks everything up.
Daniela: I wonder what’s going to happen with real estate because now a lot of businesses are starting to realize they don’t need commercial spaces. They’re going to figure out a way not to rent and run their businesses from home.
I believe humans should be in physical contact, and as much as I hate offices, it’s not my thing, a lot of people thrive in those environments.
Ioana: Also, in terms of organization, I think a lot of people are bugging out right now because they feel like their jobs are no longer relevant. It’s all the people in middle management jobs that are structured to keep tabs on other people.
They’re not actually makers. They delegate and schedule meetings and manage. I think they’re going to be worried that their jobs don’t matter if people are not centralized in some office somewhere.
Ioana: So, yeah, I think this is going to change the way people work forever, probably. And it’s a hard lesson for the dinosaur companies because they’re so stuck in the Industrial Age.
It’s good to give people the freedom to work with other colleagues if they want to or to work from home.
Daniela: I would have never thought in a million years that taxi driving will be considered an essential business in New York. Of course, it is. But you know, we usually think of bankers and lawyers and architects. Now it’s taxi drivers and nurses, baby.
Ioana: It’s back to the basics. Transportation, health, food, shelter.
Daniela: Yeah, that’s it.
Ioana: That’s it. But that’s all we need as people if you think about it.
Daniela: I know.
Ioana: Everything else is a construct.
Daniela: Everything. I know. That’s why I’m sure we’re going to see a wave of high-end depression. Because people haven’t met themselves at that level of, “Oh, I just need basic things.”
Lily is a standup comic, and we were joking the other day. “Oh, man, we had all our summer outfits prepared, and who’s going to see us? Where are we going to wear them?”
Imagine people who live for that. Influencers. I’m not making fun of them because I’m the same. I love going to Beacon’s Closet to get my outfit. I don’t even call my clothes, clothes. I call it uniforms, costumes. Today I’m in an Adidas suit, and I’m playing hip-hop in the car. And the next day I’m in a turtleneck, and I’m an English professor. It’s jokes that I make with Lily. But that’s how I live, and I love it, you know?
But we realize you don’t need this. You don’t need to have an outfit for every single day. You can wear the same shit for a long time. And it’s okay. The judgment that you felt like was going to glare from other people based on what you wear and how you look is falling away. It’s great because you realize, “Oh, I can be a person. I don’t have to be judged. I don’t have to change my outfit every day.” It’s wonderful.
Ioana: Yeah. And the best-case scenario, you can take that energy and redirect it into something tangible that helps people.
Ioana: It’s so good to talk to you. Thank you. Stay safe.
Daniela: You too. Thank you. Stay safe and brace for it.