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THURSDAYS WITH CHRIS
WANT SOMETHING DONE? JUST ASK THIS UB STUDENT, AND HE'LL MAKE IT HAPPEN, BUT ONLY ON ONE DAY A WEEK

It was Thursday, so UB graduate student Chris Barr visited a nursing home and arranged to spend an hour with a resident.

He stopped at the SPCA in Tonawanda and petted some animals.

He phoned some grad students at the University of Missouri who were preparing for a review the next day and said, "This is Chris Barr from Buffalo, N.Y. Good luck at review tomorrow, you'll be great!"

Chris Barr isn't really a saint, although the affable, bright 24-year-old West Virginia native seems nice enough. All those tasks -- and dozens more, ranging from polishing a woman's toenails to bumming cigarettes from people -- were assigned to him as part of a project he titled "Chris Barr is Available on Thursday."

Want Barr to do something interesting (within reason, of course)? A Web site (www.availableonthursday.com) accepts assignments. The site lists his schedule for every Thursday in March and April and provides some photos of him completing the assigned jobs. So far he's received more than 500 from across the globe.

There's Barr with a heart he asked a stranger to draw on his forehead in lipstick. (The assignment, for Thursday, March 17, specified a shamrock, but, hey, close enough.) There's Barr by the side of Sheridan Drive at rush hour, holding a sign that says, in German, "Guys, use your bike more often!"

Stephen Eastwood is a British filmmaker who is teaching the UB Media Studies class called "Practicing the Actual," for which Barr is carrying out his project. Eastwood says the class worked "to develop ideas based on how they might creatively work with their everyday life, including documenting it."

"Chris, early on in the class, identified that by some strange twist of fate, he had Thursdays free," said Eastwood. "Ordinarily, he's got commitments all through the week. And off the class discussions and the videotapes about people who've upturned their own lives, he asked, 'What am I going to do with that day? Why don't I ask other people to decide for me?' and then it mushroomed."

The Web site has had almost 15,000 visitors since Barr launched it on March 2.

On a recent Thursday, Barr finds himself revisiting restroom mirrors on UB's North Campus to check on papers he posted there the week before.

"There are external forces in society that tell us what to do, as much as we don't want to admit that," Barr said softly as he trekked from restroom to restroom. "So part of the project is about going outside those social codes, that comfort zone that people develop."

The previous week, acting upon a request to his Web site, he taped about 100 small sheets of paper bearing affirmations on bathroom mirrors. The affirmations included: "I am a unique person, and I can be loved. I have inherent worth. I accept and love myself."

Barr's job one week later is to document whether the papers have been removed, and, if not, whether they now bear any graffiti or damage.

Barr is not surprised to find that every last paper is gone from every last mirror, although in two places, he finds fragments of the tape he used to put them up. "I was pretty sure they'd be gone," Barr said, a bit dejectedly, as he checked mirror after mirror. "It would have been nice to find something, but it doesn't always work out that way."

On each assignment, "I try to do the best that I can," Barr said. His assignment to try to collect a pack of cigarettes from strangers fell short -- the weather was bad, the passers-by were grumpy, and he ended up with only four.

The only restrictions Barr establishes on his Web site are that the tasks can't be too expensive -- "If you would like Chris to dress in a clown suit, you must provide a clown suit," he writes -- and that he will not attempt "highly illegal activities" or be put in "any extreme physical danger."

Maybe he needn't have worried. "People have been very kind and considerate of my time -- more considerate than I expected them to be," Barr said. "Some people have scheduled me to take a nap, or eat lunch or dinner. It's kind of restored my faith in people."

"Some people have said, 'Just sit quietly for an hour.' " said Eastwood. "People have come at it theoretically, playfully, privately, publicly . . . Part of it is about giving authorship over to the people who ordinarily look at art -- rather than the artist being the decision-maker, make the audience the decision-maker. And what happens is, it becomes a strange kind of investigation into responsibility. Because people suddenly think, 'Oh, hang on, I'm responsible for what he does. I don't want him to have a bad time.' "

In one case, Barr scheduled but did not carry out a request that he telephone a doctor and tell him that his daughter had lied to him and had a relationship with a non-Muslim man.

"I decided at the last minute to forgo that one," Barr said. "My rules state that I wouldn't do anything that would put me in harm's way, and not knowing how this person would react, I feared it could put somebody else in harm's way. But it's good to come up against these kinds of dilemmas, because a lot of this project is, for me, an exploration of how something like this would work and where it can go from here."

On the Thursday he surveyed the mirrors for affirmations, Barr had already, from midnight to 1 a.m., researched the origins of the name of the city of Buffalo, and, from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m., painted a large self-portrait and hung it over his bed. Then he was off-duty until 7 a.m., when he was asked by two Poughkeepsie DJ's to call their radio show and request Barry Manilow's "Copacabana," then call back and apologize for having bad taste in music after they hung up on him.

How does his fiancee, Andrea Gilreath, feel about the project? "It depends on the week," he said, smiling. "This morning she wasn't too happy."

"I think I didn't realize how big it was going to be -- everybody seems to like it," said Gilreath. "I'm used to his projects throughout the years that I've known him, but this one seems to have caught people's attention."

Robin Brasington of Buffalo, a classmate of Barr's, assigned him to encourage her to clean her house on a recent Thursday. "Tell me to do things like, 'Gee, maybe you should take out the trash. Try washing the dishes. Hey, you should put your clothes in the washer. Why don't you throw out the stuff rotting in your fridge?' " she wrote.

A few days later, she reported, "I have this severe problem of extreme messiness, and I really, really, really did need a little encouragement. I thought it would be mean to actually ask him to come clean himself, but some encouragement would be nice."

Although she arrived late for what was supposed to be a two-hour session, with Barr's encouragement, she said, "We got one room fairly clean. Chris did a pretty good job and was very nice about it."

Barr's days of service (and collecting cigarettes) end on April 28, shortly before the end of the semester. But the Web site will live on. "I do plan on posting all the requests I received that I wasn't able to do," he said.

Eastwood, his professor, is pleased with the evolution of Barr's project. "He's actually giving a lot," said Eastwood. "He's saying, 'Thursdays, I'll give to other people.' So that in itself is quite a political gesture."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com