Mar 7, 2011

The Unbearable Density of Images in the Age of Free Economies

It’s important to move at a steady pace through Art, stopping only when something attracts your attention. I don’t believe in spending too much time contemplating abstractions or searching for meaning that isn’t handed to you explicitly. I don’t have time to do the artist’s work and explain their half-articulated ideas. It doesn’t have to compel you—it just has to stand out enough to make you wander toward it for a second and take a quick picture, maybe attracting the attention of gallerists if you’re wearing a press badge, who will quickly give you a few snippets of information as you try to keep your pace—have to keep moving.

I always find it amazing to walk around art fairs with other people, especially after I have already made a tour. Inevitably they walk too slowly and constantly stop and point out things that I don’t see. I went with a buddy a few years ago who noticed every cute animal and brightly colored object in the hall. It’s not that the color hadn’t attracted my attention. Whatever idea or image it contained did not register with things that were framing my experience, the categories that make things intelligible to me, available to my understanding, render things meaningful.

Every year the same complaint from sort-of-would-be insiders: not enough good work at the Armory Show, say, and wow, you must see the Independent, or some other novelty that the art elite has decreed will displace the official center that opens New York’s spring art market. Often this other thing is meant to be independent of the marketness of the art market, which is still, always, supposedly a bad thing, no matter how poor the artists and critics are becoming, and no matter how many times sociologists and historians and political scientists or self-conscious critics force the point that art is and always has been encompassed by and drenched in marketness, even when it’s not.

I’m struck by the backwardness of this ongoing preoccupation as a citizen of the contemporary free economy, in which much of the work you do, even when valuable and recognized by colleagues and peers, does not have a monetary value. On Thursday, the market went up nearly 200 points. I turned on Bloomberg to find out why. On Bloomberg they were betting on the price of commodities. Wheat, corn, soybeans, and oat had nearly doubled in a year, oil was above $100 a barrel, but rice had only gained five or six percent. Did that mean you should be betting on rice? Droughts were going to put pressure on future supply in the coming year, a hopeful sign for traders. It was only last year’s bumper rice crop that had kept the revolts against dictatorships in North Africa and the Arabia Peninsula from spreading throughout Africa and Asia, and prevented good money from being made by rice traders. Sugar and coffee are untouched by this inflation. Agricultural subsidies, I presume. Hogs and cattle anyone?

Meanwhile, here in New York, it seems that everyone is busy from predawn to the Jon Stewart show doing free, unpaid work. So busy they can barely find time to eat. They cook all their food themselves now. (The quality of restaurant cuisine too is astonishingly good and innovative. Who goes there apart from the critics? Someone must have money.) They put enormous care in the buying and making of food. There’s a concern for the relationship between the individual practice of making and eating and the broader impact of consumption on the global market. It’s probably just a preoccupation of the urban elite. But you can see it trying to colonize the heartland; Jamie Oliver proselytizes good food on network television, movies like Food Inc. expose the commodification of eating, the federal government begins to do its rightful job of creating market incentives that originate in the moral decision to preserve life rather than inducing better profit margins for agribusiness. It’s still lagging pretty far behind.

As a member of the press, I enter the Armory Show for free, rather than paying the $30 entrance fee. That’s worth noting to start. I presume the enterprise is paid for mostly by fees from vendors, so I’m not worried about it. For images I relied on the free Philips camera I got five years ago test-driving Lexus hybrid SUVs at a press event during the NY Auto Show.

More than the work, I stop to greet friends and acquaintances, talking business mostly; I have my own for-the-moment-free projects that I’m investing hundreds of hours producing for free, and working hard to induce others to contribute their own free work. I ask myself, how is it that value is created? How is it that it is sold? I am convinced that this work has an enormous value, that it’s an investment, but I don’t see clearly exactly how it will produce revenue on the back end for me. I have seen it do so forever—everywhere this activity takes place, it attracts consumption, it brings bodies, it creates agglomerations of development, real estate profits, tax revenue, business for corner stores and restaurants and boutiques. But is there any direct revenue for cultural producers? When and how? I think we all believe that this investment is going to be paid back in the future in the form of recognition that will translate into paid work and an increased value of that work. In any case, I don’t have a choice. I had an idea, I am compelled by it. I must do it.

The work that grabbed my attention were heavy images. None of it was particularly useful for my own free project; work that would activate a city, create public space, bring people into the streets, spur economic developments, define the identity of a place. There’s some fine line in social and political art between the cloyingly explicit and the suggestive and seductive, and I don’t want the work to be so explicit that it tells me what to think. I want it to please my sensibilities first, but also perform some conscious act of producing meaning alongside the pleasure of sensible experience. Despite that I couldn’t avoid dealing with one image. It was the most unbearable of the heavy images at the Armory show. It was a photo by Jodi Bieber of a woman disfigured by her husband in Afganistan. Her nose and ears had been cut off. It was a portrait of this disfigured woman, printed about 2 ½ feet in height, placed in a corridor and impossible not to notice. My first impulse was to run away, to walk fast past it. Then I had to turn back and confront it. What was this image representing? What had happened to this woman? There was a story next to it, and fortunately there was some redemption in it, at least for her; she was in the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. She would be made more whole again. Brutally heavy image. This is, in short, why we fight.

Nothing else in the show compares, but a few others registered in some way, they were complex but straightforward, I understood them immediately but they lasted a little longer. There were probably a dozen pieces that were pleasing or meaningful or registered in some technical way as innovative. At first I walked right past the paintings by Ronald Ophuis of Africans holding weapons. They’re rendered in thick textured paintings with muted colors that recall the expressionism of Egon Schiele combined with the dense surfaces of a late-20th century abstract painter like Anselm Kiefer. The tension between the two made me stop and turn back and look. It’s uncanny to see an African woman wielding a machine gun rendered in a media so identified with high European modernism, and it makes you question those relationships and categories. Strange intentional aestheticizations of violence.

A lot of the work that registered to me was of this nature, confusing categories in a simple pleasing gesture. Images of different types embedded in the same frame—an urban scene photographed from a hilltop by Gianfranco Faschino: from time to time a little movement appears within the otherwise still photograph. A woman appears in a corner of the frame and shakes out a tablecloth on a balcony. A plume of smoke from a chimney, a cow hops down a narrow street, a boy runs in the distance and then is hidden by flimsy hillside dwellings.

I walked past an image of men carrying bags up a hill. Agitprop I thought. Then the shimmering light stuck with me, displayed as a lightbox with chromogenic transparency. I turned back and looked at the gleaming gold on every part of the image: the burlap sacks, the shoes, the dirt, the bodies. Gold mining by Chilean photographer Alfredo Jaar. The content makes you think too about the material in the photograph itself, the silver emulsion in the color photograph. They might as well be carrying the photograph on their backs.

There’s a compelling photograph by Isaac Julien, at first just a sparkling image of modernity, the top of a glass tower and glimpses of a new city in the background, in the foreground there’s the calm rationalism of a modern hotel room with glass windows, and a woman standing in front of them, gazing out. She’s wearing a neat, modern printed dress, she’s pretty, Chinese, maybe. By a British photographer of African descent who established himself as an artist addressing questions of postcolonial black identity, it’s a strikingly cosmopolitan image that reflects the emergence of a new historical age. What does it mean? Where is all the money coming from, and where is it going?

There were also a series of technically interesting images: James Casabere’s photographs of models constructed to create imagined landscapes. They so closely resemble the real that my friend claims to have heard a couple trying to figure out if it was Ireland.

Leandro Erlich’s subway car installation presents a flat video image of a modern R160 car in New York framed by a door, as if you’re peering through the end of the car at passengers. Again, the stillness is interrupted by small movements.

Scott McFarland’s digital composite of a lake scene captures the capacity of the eye and the mind to take in a big scene and process it so that multiple depths of field and peripheral information are all thrown together in one immense sense of worldness that photography always has to crop and frame. Here it’s seamlessly merged in one uncanny image that could seemingly go on forever.

Gregory Scott plays with stillness and movement by embedding video screens within the frame of still photographs of a man looking at paintings in a museum. But the paintings gets picked up and carried away, in a funny technologically enhanced version of a trompe l’oeil painting.

Vitali Massimo’s image of a square filled with tens of thousands of people partying, presumably on New Year’s Eve, gets some of its density by contrast with recent images of similar masses in Cairo and Tunis participating in political revolutions. You have to take a moment to take in these masses of people congregating, awe-inspiring even if they’re merely participating in infamous acts of Western consumption. In consumer-democratic societies, we get our revolutionary moments by small acts of quasiresistance, by buying organic vegetables and doing work that we’re convinced has a value, rather than spending the enormous time it takes to press it into the narrow form that makes it pay.

A dollar used to be the going rate for words in some print magazines; now it’s less in most places. Tant pis--it was always worth more and the work often suffered for it. Why bother to sell it when you can easily give it away for free. I'm grateful to one colleague I ran into, the photographer Magda Biernat, who reminded me that part of the value of this kind of work, undervalued, free, or grossly overpaid, is being able to go to a place and gain access to experience, which is refreshing in a place where you can sometimes get an impression that, much more than the market or money, art is a competition for accumulation of status.

Mar 2, 2011

Greenpoint Community Meeting

The Greenpoint Community Meeting is a conversation between community advocates who have spent most of their lives fighting for North Brooklyn, area artists whose work is deeply connected to sense of place and transformation of space but who rarely attend advocacy and political meetings, and professionals in design, architecture and landscape architecture whose work integrally engages and serves communities. The meeting was organized by Stephen Zacks as an initiative of the Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism with support from Susannah Drake of Dland Studio, at Greenpoint View, a gallery at 82 Oak Street owned by sculptor Stephen Balamut and run by Sascha Asher, an interior designer specializing in textiles.

Greenpoint View gallery

The discussion started with a salute to the heroes of Greenpoint who have been advocating for issues of public concern since long before I ever heard of the place, and a few words about the desire to introduce innovative thinking that I've reported on at Metropolis and other magazines and to collaborate on a vision for the neighborhood that would help projects achieve multiple purposes and maximize their cumulative effect. 

Newtown Creek Nature Walk

I asked Christine Holowacz, one of the longest-serving and most well-respected community leaders, to begin by talking about her activities and priorities. It was a huge honor to have her there, a resident who emigrated from Poland as a teenager and has worked as a community advocate for more than 30 years. I first met Christine at a meeting of the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee in 2001, where she works as a community representative and helped lead a fantastic renovation of the sewage treatment plant by Polshek Parnership, featuring a waterside nature walk by George Trakas and a sculptural installation by Vito Acconci. She expressed a preference for projects that would improve waterfront access, in particular rebuilding the bulkhead at the mouth of Newtown Creek to create a boathouse next to the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center at the end of Manhattan Avenue.

Bulkhead now and drawing after rebuilding

A central concern for the past several months in Greenpoint has been how to create a process to make the best use of a $7 million environmental-benefits agreement from the Department of Environmental Conservation and a $19.5 million community-benefits settlement won from ExxonMobil as part of its compensation for the massive 17-30 million gallon underground oil spill discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978. We were lucky to have Phillip Musegaas of Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization for New York's waterways that was the driving force behind the lawsuit against ExxonMobil, in attendance to speak about the process.

Musegaas emphasized that the lawsuit puts no cap on the amount of money the company is required to spend to clean up the oil spill; the environmental-benefits-projects compensation is a separate fund that will be used however the community decides, through a process that is just beginning. The first step is the selection of a consultant to develop a grant-proposal framework to administer the money according to priorities that will be determined in community meetings. The rest of the conversation was recorded and can be listened to here in sections or downloaded.

Musegaas responds to my question about Riverkeeper's priorities, his own personal wishes regarding the use of the ExxonMobil funds, encourages people to get involved with the Newtown Creek Alliance community organization (you can sign up to receive email updates), and talks about the declaration of Newtown Creek as a Superfund site, a separate process that will bring revenue from the federal government for environmental cleanup. Christine Holowacz clarifies the relationship between different aspects of the Newtown Creek. Musegaas expresses a preference for projects that will remediate stormwater overflows into the water and points out that there's an application process open for grants, with a deadline extended to the end of April.

We were also thrilled to have another neighborhood hero, Stephanie Thayer, director of the Open Space Alliance of North Brooklyn and administrator for the Parks Department, in attendance to say a few words about her work and how waterfront parks under development and arts programs she helps facilitate figure into the vision for the future of Greenpoint's ecological infrastructure. She points out that the new city guidelines for high performance park design in the 21st century already is pushing for projects to incorporate features such as stormwater remediation in waterfront projects.

Christine Holowacz (middle) and Laura Hofmann (right)

Laura Hofmann, a stalwart activist in the community who has lived in Greenpoint her whole life and is a member of nearly every neighborhood advocacy group, another true hero, also graced us with her presence and gave her perspective on what kinds of projects she would like to see funded. She points out that the 197a plan led by the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, passed by the Community Board in the late 90s and approved by the City Planning Commission in 2002, which she was heavily involved in producing, already describes a broader vision for the neighborhood and it's just a matter of actively implementing the guidelines. The only way to really do that and find interconnections between the projects is by going to all of the various meetings. She expressed a preference for parks projects and waterfront access that would have specific environmental benefits and provide additional programming space for the arts.

The Hylozoica (Newtown Creek) Study 5 (detail) 11.15.10 Ethan Pettit

Brooklyn artist and hipster pioneer Ethan Pettit, whose history of cultural activity in the neighborhood goes back to the first groups that began reclaiming postindustrial spaces and producing ad hoc public art in the post-fiscal crisis period, spoke up in defense of a broader role for art in shaping the landscape and questioned how these activities--a key to the revival of the area--would be incorporated into funding for community and environmental projects. This became a great entree into a discussion about the relationship between the arts community and community activists in Greenpoint, and whether there could be a better collaboration outside the normal channels of advocacy meetings already tied into political allegiances and ongoing turf battles. Katie Denny, director of special projects for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and head of the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition, talked about how these funding priorities would be incorporated into the guidelines during community meetings. A real take-away of this question is the need for artists to be actively involved in these meetings to make sure that programming and support for the arts community gets incorporated into the framing ideas and guidelines.

Artist Phyllis Yampolsky, another neighborhood hero, led the effort to preserve McCarren Park Pool (now on track to reopen in the summer of 2012) when it was going to be demolished in the 1980s. Known as the Joan of Arc of McCarren Park, Yampolsky made a wonderful pitch for reviving the historic scenic beauty of the neighborhood, turning it into a leader in sustainability, and issued a poetic call to "make Greenpoint green."

Susannah Drake, a leader of landscape architecture and ecological urbanism in New York City and key advocate for the role of design in transforming the city's quality of life and sustainability, picked up on the question of coordinating a larger vision for the neighborhood and tying together projects, based on her experience putting together the Sponge Park project in Gowanus.

By appealing to various agencies, constituencies and interest groups, and understanding the ways that projects can tap into multiple existing needs and programs, she put together a project  for which there was no single adequate source of funding. This steadfast work of building consensus and creating alliances between agencies is over-theorized in the field of architecture but sometimes under-put-into-practice.

Alleyway of From the Source gallery during Bring to Light festival

I was also heartened by the presence of Chris Lenard, who works at the furniture company From the Source on Franklin and Oak Streets. From the Source has been holding down the fort manufacturing in the Greenpoint Terminal Market building for more than a decade, and was a big supporter and key component of the Bring to Light art festival I co-produced last fall on the edge of the waterfront. Lenard brought in the perspective of a newcomer to community meetings, frustrated with how long it's taking for Greenpoint to get a piece of the promised stretch of waterfront greenway that appears in all of the planning and zoning maps of the district. That brought lots of knowing laughter.

Drawing of future Bushwick Inlet Park

Stephen Whitehouse from Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects, former chief of planning for the Parks Department in the 80s and 90s and a designer, with Kiss + Cathcart, of the Bushwick Inlet Park--another park underway in North Brooklyn that's underfunded and hasn't quite reached the Greenpoint side of the area--told a great anecdote about the bizarre reasons why otherwise impossible things sometimes get funded in the city. He recalled how back in the day he took the then Parks Department chief of operations to the site of Transmitter Park--due to be completed next winter--to push for the site to be converted into a waterfront park. The site contained a radio tower for WNYC and the chief liked the idea of having a transmission tower for Parks Department radios, so he allocated the funds. Twenty years later, the technology completely outmoded, it's nearing completion.

Another professional in the field of design who does community-based projects to engage neighborhoods in discussions and activities to think about the ecology of the city and works in the Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia University, Janette Kim put together a sketch of the intersection of various interest groups and how they relate to different kinds of projects as a way of illustrating both how complicated it can be to create consensus around an issue and as a map of different ways it can be achieved.

Installation by Rosa Valado 

Beth Goldowitz, a found-object sculptor and partner in the Greenpoint View gallery, called for a more participatory process that would enable artists to be more involved in the conversation. Whatever consultant is chosen to administer the environmental settlements needs to be particularly adept at creating an inclusive conversation that allows everyone to feel that their voice is being heard. And Rosa Valado, a long-time Greenpoint-based installation artist and organizer of the nonprofit Woven Spaces, which does public art programs in North Brooklyn, took a break from installing her work for an exhibition in Dumbo to attend the meeting. She waited until nearly the end of the discussion to make a beautifully articulated plea for the struggling artists in the neighborhood, the importance of supporting them, and called for us to really start collaborating on a vision for the neighborhood together that would include the arts community.

Finally, we talked about ways of spurring production of open spaces on the waterfront in the absence of market forces and setting the stage for better quality design of the highrises than were built Williamsburg and Long Island City once the market returns. Another neighborhood activist asked how we can create buildings that are more responsive and connected to the community and how to design them so that they attract new residents willing to participate in the existing culture of Greenpoint. We talked about mapping all of the projects planned or underway to get a better picture of how they all fit together into a vision for the future of Greenpoint. These are all projects for the days, weeks, months and years ahead. -STEPHEN ZACKS