Get Out, or Your Life As A Fugitive

•February 27, 2017 • 1 Comment
“I lay still, panting, trying to find the strength to get up and run. The man had a horse around somewhere. If I could find it…” Octavia Butler, Kindred

This morning I attended an incredible symposium on “Genres of Speculation” hosted by the New School in collaboration with the UC Berkeley debate program. Those of us in attendance were fortunate to hear Anna Agathangelou speak about occupied breathing. To hear Donna V. Jones speak about the historiography of afro-pessimism, and the racial underpinnings of a paranoid crisis. To hear Zakiiyaah Iman Jackson reflect on the black feminist poetics of the sublime. Christina Sharpe reminded us that the freedom act was a deed too radical to be articulated in advance of the event. Jarod Sexton asked us to develop a rapport with the uncanny. Together, they carefully, compassionately constructed a framework that might support the nebulousness and manage the impossibility of articulating an experience of blackness. I mention this conference not only because that same afternoon I went to see Jordan Peele’s new speculative film Get Out, but because it is so important to acknowledge that this work is being done, that it depends upon on the work of all our artists and theorists that came before, and that Jordan Peele’s work is fully engaged in this conversation.

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A Reflection on Jordan Peele’s feature film “Get Out” Or, Your Life As A Fugitive

The theater was packed resulting in a frantic shuffle for seats. Two female friends and I shuffled in and out of long rows, trying to beat other groups of three to the center, but moving too carefully and getting pushed to the front. We settled into the seats we could steal just in time for the horror.

The first preview was for a new movie starring Amy Schumer, where she and her blonde mother (Goldie Hawn) go on vacation to an undetermined location called “South America” where they are promptly kidnapped and forced to escape and save their own lives by killing off an “assault” of brown men. “I should have never come here, I should have listened to you” Schumer says as they cling to each other on the dirt floor of a foreign cell. Coming out on Mother’s Day. It’s a comedy? Then is a movie called Unforgettable (more accurately Unforgivable) in which an ever blonder Katherine Heigl haunts, threatens, and terrorizes Rosario Dawson for “stealing her life”, by way of marrying her ex-husband. Some astronauts go to space. Spoiler alert: the black scientist dies first. Then Dwayne Johnson, dressed as a lifeguard, throws a “dead” black man, bound hand and foot over the edge of his boat and into the ocean.

Drink Coca-Cola.

And then finally, the film begins.

We don’t trust this white girl. From her first scene where she boasts that she has not told her parents that her new boyfriend is black, we’ve decided. She’s one of them. Don’t go Chris! Slipping lower in our seats with each passing moment my friends and I mumble warnings under our breath and cast each other reassuring glances. We are very concerned for his safety.

Even if the movie had not been marketed as a horror film we would have been terrified. The suspense was palpable from the quiet screaming keys at the beginning of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone”. Can it be that this is really love? Can she see him, dark as he is? Why is she always sitting directly in the light?

This is a story about happy slaves. About the continuity of the division of labor, the persistent weight of the white gaze, the necessary intimacy, the involuntary conditions of consent. The White American family has never reproduced itself. We can see, as Saidiya Hartman reminded those of us gathered to hear her speak this evening that the production of the family form amongst those who were able to be white has always required an extraction of intimacy from those required to be black. The reproduction of the white family has always and will always require our sex. Our organs. Our laboring bodies.

Daniel Kaluuya gives a spectacular performance offering up his own sweat and tears from his open pores. When his character Chris sits down with the gentle white mother- sits in her chair to talk a while – I hear echoes of the stern advice Professor Christina Sharpe offered to the young debate students in the audience of the symposium earlier that morning. “Don’t talk to everyone,” she urged them. “Don’t tell everyone your story. Everyone does not need to know your story. Everyone does not have your best interests in mind.”

            Chris grips the arms of the chair.

            “What about your mother,” she asks him.

            “I don’t want to talk about that,” he says.

But she takes it anyway. She steals his story from him with the power that comes from naming yourself God. With the gentle turn of her china cup she steals his story and commands him down into the void.

We need scholars like Zakiyyah Iman Jackson to guide us though the inifinite. Just hours before she had asked us, “how does it feel inside a black hole?” She demanded that we recognized how black femininity is required to operate as the indexical image of the sublime. We can only wait in anticipation for her upcoming book “The Blackness of Space Between Matter and Meaning” so that we might benefit from her labor of “theorizing the void.” For Chris, suspended in the darkness, he can only watch the story of his life as it is told to him from the other side of the screen. He is at its mercy for as long as the white mother stirs her silver spoon.

We ought to take a moment to reflect on the technology this mother (played by a turquoise and suede clad Catherine Keener) deploys against him, as it will lead us to the alchemy of whiteness. Susan Gal has a forthcoming article “You are what you eat on: Qualia and consequences of European porcelain” (forthcoming, Signs & Society) in which she writes: “Alchemy was the control of a passage from chaotic materiality to perfect form, surely an ontological claim. For porcelain, the change in qualia is striking: Dark, wet, soft clay turned by intense heat into a hard, white, translucent body” (Gal, 2017). As the white father in Peele’s film boasts, “It’s a service we offer.”

When porcelain first arrived in Europe it was incredibly rare, and considered to have magical, mystical qualities. It was brought from China via Arab trade routes, and the material was immediately taken up as an index for the purity of white personage. Whiteness, as delicate as it is, has always had to protect itself. Since, “[p]orcelain’s impermeable surface did not retain impurities that would have adulterated those delicate flavors,” which it was expected to contain but never absorb, it’s such a perfect weapon for Peele to animate as the desire for consumption without contamination.

Film Title: Get Out

The place that Chris finds himself once his mind has been tampered with is the impossible space of freedom. Weightless and unbound, he is trapped beneath the weight of his dead mother; the dead promise of a family given to women whose children are never their own and sons whose mothers are forever unknown. He loved her and to love was his weakness not once but at least twice. She pushes him down.

To imagine myself in this deep dense darkness is not difficult, but the weight shifts. I am drawn back to into another imagerie. This time in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred to Dana’s experience in the woods where she is forced to kill by a chance white encounter/rape. He pushes her down. “I dragged myself from beneath his heavy body and tried to stand up,” Butler writes. “Halfway up, I felt myself losing consciousness, falling back, I caught hold of a tree and willed myself to stay conscious. If he came to and found me nearby, he would kill me. He would surely kill me! But I couldn’t keep my hold on the tree. I fell, slowly it seemed, into a deep starless darkness” (Butler, 43).

You’re sleeping in the big house now Chris. You’re in bed with your own death. And if you could recognize the danger you were in, how could you escape? Take the road? A man in your position was just taken from the road, snatched up and thrown in the trunk of a car. They say he’s happy now.

Extending the father’s “field of play” lies an all-too-familiar forest. Should you take to the woods like a fugitive? These are the same woods that Dana finds herself forced to enter again and again. Sure enough, the forest is not the only character from Butler’s novel that makes an appearance in the film. My friend Rachel sitting beside me identifies Rufus playing the part of the younger brother: reckless, irresponsible, demanding, violent. Full of the virility and confidence of a man who is promised everything, who is destined to inherit the world. His father is God. He has nothing to do but live, and he lives a brutal, druken life. And the father? Well the father is an honest man. I love how it feels says the father, “but I hate how it looks.”

And then there’s Alice, alone this time (or is it all the time?) as the film’s only black woman – a character named Georgina played by Betty Gabriel. She serves tea, speaks softly. Loves her own reflection. She is trapped in a lie she can see right through, and she can only steal a few seconds to cry. She does her duty. “She adjusted, became a quieter, more subdued person. She didn’t kill, but she seemed to die a little” (Butler, 168).

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At one point Chris tries to rescue Alice/Georgina. She is unconscious after he runs her down in a stolen car while trying to make his own escape. Reminded of her presence as she lies wounded like a deer, Chris stops for a moment to retrieve her limp body and put it in the car. However, she betrays him. She wakes up, because she’s got a white woman planted inside her. But of course, the black woman has always been working for them. She has always, after all, “been the white man’s slave” (Black Macho, Michelle Wallace). He probably should have left her in the road. Who will say he didn’t try? But he destroyed her house. They will say she was too angry to survive.

How does he get out? Brute animal strength. How does he get out? Closing his eyes and ears. Guarding his mind. How does he get out? Picking cotton.

There’s blood to shed, and the theatre is going crazy. People are standing up and cheering. Some people.

Chris tries to choke the white woman who betrayed his love, but she likes it too much.

                     The wheels on the road.

                     The sickness in your stomach in those spinning lights.

LilRel Howery is a welcome presence anytime he’s on the screen, but in a film as deliberate as this one I can’t help but wish that Jordan Peele had cast another black woman in this role. Especially if he was going to leave Georgina dead in the road. I don’t know what he meant us to learn about black brotherhood that doesn’t feel like an oversight. Not an overseer, but a deliberate looking over. Maybe you decide to look beyond someone because they are standing too close to your face. But hey, I stood up and celebrated for these successful black men. At least they had each other.

I stood to my feet. I stomped and shouted. Hootin and hollerin.

I don’t know how to describe how I felt walking out of that theatre, except to say I felt joyful.

When I got home from Hartman’s lecture this evening I read the review of Get Out in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. And I’m choking as I read: “Short of making us listen to “Ebony and Ivory” over the closing credits, “Get Out” could hardly be more provocative.” What the fuck are you talking about Anthony Lane? Only Elton John could have escalated the level of interrogation? “There is good and bad in everyone” is not the theme of this remarkably original work. This is not an ode to sitting “side by side”. This is not a horror film about the impossibility of getting along. You missed it. This film is not anti-white people, but it is definitively anti-White. If it isn’t yet obvious, the Lane’s amongst us, you should be too.

jordan-peele-get-out-trailerGet Out. Divest. Whiteness is toxic. It’s massive. It’s parasitic. It’s desperate. And you, and we, are deep. We are deeeeep. We are deep in the woods. “Can a film be too inflammatory for its own good, or are there times, and places, when only fire will suffice?” Lane asks. Maybe some people are sitting in the theatre wondering “How’d it get so scandalous?” But We been knowing when and how. We may not know how to clean it up. We may not know which way to run. But we know one thing. Don’t let ‘em catch you sleepin.

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Retrospective: Best Albums of Twenty Thirteen

•January 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Happy New Year Kids! Face to the future, blah blah, but 2013 was big year for hip-hop. The rap game slipped off its tracks for a while- this decade brought some dark years. Remember 2005 when nobody liked the new hip-hop? Not anyone. Not even the white boys at the mall could get down with the Young Buck. But this year Jay-Z kicked it off, stomping on graves with Magna Carta Holy Grail, which nearly everyone seemed to enjoy, the old man working to claim hip-hop album of the year. (Sorry Drake, that ish was garbagio). Another New York City classic, Pusha T made a notable comeback, with My Name is My Name. I liked that album a lot more than I thought I would, and a whole lot more than that nonsense Kanye put out there this year, so it’s making my list. From Detroit, we got a serious, 2-sided full-tilt heady/party marathon from new(ish) rapper Danny Brown. OLD is his first release on a record label, and it’s definitely worth your time from beginning to end. This first side of the album is tragedy, the second side is party. It’s all good. The production is mostly done by British DJ Paul White and Danny Brown’s personal producer SKYWLKR. Even if you think your too cool to “dip I dip you dip”, you’re going to do it anyway. Heads bobbin. Also, I want to mention that I fully enjoyed The Marshall Mathers LP II. Which means another score for Detroit and hip-hop steals the show this year with 4 of my 8 favorite albums.

For an all-you-need-is you dance party, I give the highest accolades to Haim’s excellent first album Days are Gone and Vampire Weekends third consecutive success, Modern Vampires of the City. Both albums celebrate youth and sidewalks with 1980’s industrial backbeats, steady baselines, and feel good melodies. Since I’m a long time fan of Vampire Weekend, and an always fan of rocking girl bands, it’s no surprise the albums both made my list. Despite my bias, this music is good clean fun.

In another direction Julia Holter’s Loud City Song may have put you to sleep, but you slept great. You woke up new. You dreamed your dreams came true. It’s pretty music, and pretty music is not to be under appreciated. After two consecutive nights on this dreamboat, I’m prepared to put this album on my list. I want to sing like a light-faced lark, but I don’t.  I suspect that Julia may be a little too trapped in her own head, but it’s nice there. I can’t blame her.

The National’s newest, Trouble Will Find Me is luxurious like a butter bath from beginning to end, and has real staying power. Though it’s not radically different from the others, I think it’s probably my favorite of their albums. I’m not prepared to go head to head with any die hard fans on that statement. Prove me wrong, but for now this stays on my most played list. I’ve been walking/sleeping/eating/riding/loving/cooking/dancing/chilling to this album, so I’m saying it snatched the top spot for last year.

We can’t know 2014 will bring, but the new Broken Bells project will be released soon, and Beck is going to give us TWO new albums this year. Any thoughts on what else to look forward to/back on?

in love.

vy.

#RuleYourQueendum

•December 10, 2013 • 1 Comment

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Pop stars are the natural born enemies of lazy bones feminism. They are easy targets, popularly anti-intellectualized, highly visible pawns/players in the capitalist mind-fuck machine that sells women back to themselves, and mostly…the easy critique of pop stardom is enough. We probably don’t need to spend too many hours trying to decipher Miley’s secret messages or investigate how often Kim Kardashian breastfeeds her child BUT…today they got my attention.

Has anyone else in NYC seen the new subway ads for the new perfume from Nicki Minaj? I haven’t smelled it yet, but since the reviews says the “top notes” are lemon, orchids, tonka beans and musk, it’s likely reminiscent of a funeral parlor. But this is irrelevant. The train that took me home last night was covered in hot pink images of Nicki Minaj with a cotton candy wig surrounded by a host of fascinating curlicue slogans…

“Enjoy your ride to the Queendom”

“You can be the king, but watch the queen conquer”

and finally

“If she believes, she will reign forever”

#ruleyourqueendom

If I pull these together I get one story, and I like it.

It’s well known that Nicki Minaj is a staple icon in the transvestite community. She’s part of a lineage of aggressively provocative, uber-femininty that summons the masculine through strata of lip liner, eye liner, cheekbones, and glitter. So the Queendom makes sense to me as a marketing strategy. But then I remembered an article that was floating around a few months ago about Why Drag Queens Are Better Role Models Than Disney Princesses and I decided the choice to be a Queen instead of a princess (yes, I know our options are limited, but hear me out) was a respectable one.

Then today a friend sent me a link to this: Katy Perry’s new perfume “Killer Queen” and I can’t stop thinking about it. So Katy Perry is also a Queen. We kind of knew that, but I never cared much until today.

Now we recognize Katy Perry as the Queen of Hearts, and Nicki Minaj’s commercial is easily pulled from the Snow White trope of a lost girl running though the forest, but both of these new ad campaigns have certain distinctions from things like Brittany Spears’ inane Fantasy.

Neither of the new heroines are hunted or murdered by men, which is at least refreshing. And since what these women are selling is liquid (sexy) independence, power, liberty (for only $32!) complete with this ugly bottle, I find the device of The Queen to be an intelligent and interesting choice.

If you’re a (post) modern thinker, you’re working with the understanding that “gender reality is performative, which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed” (Butler, 1988). Our embodied selves are composed within the limits of a small range of viable roles. Drag performance produces an ambivalent, contradictory space where the viability of the impossible can be explored. Imagine, for example, that you could wear a lot of make-up and a little bit of clothes and not be a slut. Imagine, for example, that you didn’t give a shit about purity or politeness or Prince Charming. But you love push-up bras. The reason we love the Queen, and the reason drag performance is seen by so many people with all imaginable gender identities as meaningful and liberating is because of the mockery it makes of the princess. The Queen kills the princess, because the princess kills our souls.

There is an important critique of both feminist and queer theory that suggests that the explicit analysis of gendered performances can submerse and solidify racial performativity. It can be argued that drag performance encourages racial norms as it breaks up the “illusory coherence” (Loxley, 2007) of gender identity, especially in the use and valorization of certain stereotypes over others. Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj are an interesting case study for this question. Katy Perry is as lily white as 1920’s Vogue, and Nicki Minaj had her butt surgically enlarged in order to fulfill the hip-hop/black male fantasy. I would argue that both of these women are racialized even before they are sexualized, but that their QUEENDOM is actually working to loosen those racial obligations. It is in the sphere of near-drag-queerness that Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj meet. Neither of these women make any gesture towards or claim to the “real”. They play cartoon characters, larger-than-life Barbie dolls who manage (like Barbie, with her plastic skin and sealed vagina) to be raceless and sexless. So what should we think when, in both of these new ad campaigns, the women rip off their wigs, drop the jewels, and tear up their dresses? After some poorly enacted soul searching, they reach the castle or the throne alone and unburdened. They aren’t naked or fresh faced. They aren’t bearing their souls. Katy Perry keeps her corset on. They “own it”, “work (werk) it”, and most importantly, they “believe” in their own performance. Pretending to be women pretending to be men pretending to be women, The Queen is complicated enough that she stretches our collective imagination and makes room…and that’s really all we can ask for from a stinking eau de parfum that you’ll probably get trapped underground with any day now.

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katyperrydoll

90s evening

•November 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Winding-down with the roommates last night, we drifted-off into 90s nostalgia land. These are some of the best finds/remembrances of the evening, hand-picked by those of us who lived through it all. Full disclosure: this is in no way meant to be a comprehensive list. That said, these gems will hopefully induce more smiling than cringing.

 

White Town “Your Lady”

Primitive Radio Gods “Standing Outside a Telephone Booth with Money in My Hand”

Harvey Danger “Flagpole Sitta”

Chumbawamba “Tubthumping”

The Cardigans “Lovefool”

EnVogue “Don’t Let Go”

TLC “No Scrubs”

Lego Bombing and the Art of Infrastructure

•May 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Because infrastructure is an art – and there is not much distance (if any at all) between the cities of our imaginations and those of brick, glass, and steel – is seems only too perfect that the building blocks of the urban imagination find themselves wedged in the concrete crevices opened-up in the built environment by the transformative work of time.
Here is a selection of Dispatchwork’s reconfiguration of built structures with colorful “Lego”-like Plastic Construction Bricks I came across via Shareable:Lego Bombing and the Art of Infrastructure.

As Dispatchwork manifests:

Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales, by inserting a very basic construction-material:Plastic Construction Bricks (PCBs). In fact, PCBs are one of the first material with which we conceive architecture. PCBs are solid and stiff and shape up perfectly rectangular yet, concerning the essential structure, they contradict the purpose, given that the repair is just so very temporary, with the patches crumbling out of the walls in a matter of no time, being taken or washed away. Dispatchwork does not defy deterioration. Rather, it aims to emphasize transitoriness as a chance for the construction and reconstruction of our environments. Adapting to various cities, the project infiltrates walls of cultural heritage, historic facades, fortifications and yet many more less spectacular corners as a colorful repair of shabby walls within our shared spaces.

Not only is this Dispatchwork’s own work, but they have inspired others whose work is also shared through Dispatchwork’s site. You can find them here. A few highlights for your visual pleasure….

Valpariso, Chile

Berlin, Germany

Tel Aviv, Israel

All images are from Dispatchwork’s
website 🙂

Art(s) in transit: Technology, aeshtetics, and the art of urban transformation in NYC

•May 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Van Silcen Avenue, Barbara Ellmann (MTA 2009)

In his posthumously published Arcades Project,1

Walter Benjamin describes the emergent rivalry in the 19th century between the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts: between art and technology. Technological innovation and reproduction transformed the architectural and sensual experience of time and the social, economic and material forms of the modern city. Blurring distinctions between engineer and artist, technology took-up residence in the faculty of the imagination, radically transforming the social worlds of Europeans in the 19th century: Relationships to landscapes and nature where transformed through railway travel and the photography; Cast-iron balconies elevated users to the ‘rings of Saturn,’ a world beyond the confines of the previous epoch’s infrastructural imagination. Within this framework, technology emerges as more than banal reproduction and mechanization: It is poetic, affective, and capable of reconfiguring how we imagine intimate and public worlds. Technological systems constitute the look, feel, and experience of urban modernity. Infrastructure is thus not only a question of technology but of aesthetics.

Fred’s soup cans, South Bronx, Martha Cooper, 1980

In January 2013, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York added the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) “Help Point” to their permanent collection. By this time, however, the MTA was no stranger to the world-renowned arts institution. The MTA’s metro-card vending machines previously graced the galleries of MoMA in the 2011 exhibition “Talk to Me.” Coinciding with MoMA’s relocation of subway design into the locale of Andy Warhol, Jackson Polluck, and Mark Rothko was the launch of the MTA’s Arts for Transit App, a program that prompted the New York Times to declare that the subway is New York’s most “underrated art museum.”2 By 2013 the subway has become a museum as much as it has become an object for the museum. This statement, however, might be misleading, for the art gallery and the street in New York have never been that far from one another.

Ephemerality

Blade - Martha Cooper

Blade, Martha Cooper, 1980

Almost four decades before becoming New York’s most underrated art museum, the subway was a veritable moving gallery for the emerging art form of graffiti. Subway cars functioned as an extension of the street for its writers, a gallery that came to all New Yorkers without a reservation or admission fee. In the 1970s and 1980s, pieces were the product of hours spent sketching designs in black books, the mechanization of aerosol can technology, and timing. The most elaborate pieces were created under the cover of night at the MTA’s rail yards where young artists would take advantage of the trains’ stationary status to make pieces that covered part of or spanned multiple subways cars. One of the greatest pieces storied to have existed – but taken out of commission before the train could leave the yards – was the “Bicentennial Train,” painted by CAINE, MAD 103, and FLAME ONE, made specifically for the country’s 200th birthday on July 4, 1976. The piece was longer than two football fields (11 cars) and ten feet high.3

Stop real crime

Lee,” Henry Chalfant, 1979

Graffiti was a technique in its own right and simultaneously an art praxis of youth from specific racial and economic backgrounds whose fiscal and material infrastructures were deteriorating as rapidly as the city’s subways. To the extent that the MTA was a public space, it was almost exclusively a particular shade and class of public space in the 1970/80s. Drawing attention to an urban system and city suffering from years of neglect, young artists capitalized on the opportunity to transform their public transit system, arguably launching one of the greatest art movements of the 20th century. Graffiti was a practice of self-expression and social critique, but it was also a mode of intervention – if not one of the primary actors, intentionally or not – calling attention to the decaying infrastructures of the city. Many subway cars with elaborate pieces were disbanded by the MTA and subject to high-pressure “buff washes” that blasted the trains with abrasive chemicals to remove the paint (as was seemingly the fate of the bicentennial train). This was the era of ‘Arts versus Transit.’

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Art [vs.] Transit, Martha Cooper, 1980

Note: The “vs.” was cleaned off the window between the two windows.

The redevelopment of the subway and the institutionalization (as well as policing) of graffiti worked hand-in-hand over these decades, for as much as the art movement’s singular ephemerality was accomplished in part by techniques of the MTA, these young artists were drawing attention to a system – as well as an entire city – in shambles. Even in light of the MTA’s extreme publicity and security (at one point using attack dogs at train yards) attempts to eradicate both the practice and pieces of graffiti, by the early 1980s graffiti artists were beginning to gain recognition in the art world, showing not only on trains but in traditional art galleries. It is notable that around this moment that the MTA began to change their approach to art in the subway. While not curbing the policing of graffiti as vandalism and defacement, in 1985 the MTA initiated its own foray into the institutionalization of aesthetics through the creation of the Arts for Transit Program (AFT).

Subway

Cops in the train, the Bronx, Martha Cooper, 1981

Deferred Maintenance

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Contextualizing decades of fiscal and operational neglect, the current Arts for Transit Program director Sandra Bloodworth characterizes the deterioration of the subways as a specific outcome of World War II era allocation of funds towards highway and automobile development at the expense of public transit.4 “Subways,” Bloodworth states, “became unfashionable [and] deterioration set in, culminating in the 1970s with New York City on the brink of collapse. Subways were also deteriorated, they were crime ridden they were grimy…trains broke down constantly and they were defaced with graffiti.”5 The crime and paint-ridden subways were seen as a sign of societal deterioration, if not an all-out direct cause of the system’s breakdown.

Urban fiscal collapse culminated in technical and aesthetic breakdown. “Deferred maintenance” characterized decades of the MTA’s practice of passing the burden of maintaing the system to the future. The culmination of years of deferral result in a $200 million dollar deficit for the authority in 1979. In 1981, almost one quarter of trains were out of service and average commute time would sometimes be four times that of 1901.6 Coupled with the widespread perception (and experience) of the subway as dilapidated and crime-ridden – captured in such stories as that of the “subway vigilante,” Richard Goetz who, upon being confronted by four Black boys with screwdrivers as weapons demanding his give them $5, pulled-out a gun and shot each one of the boys in December 1984.7 As MTA historian Mark Feinman writes, “between the Goetz case and the uncontrollable graffiti, the subway became a symbol of New York City’s inability to control crime.” Popular representations of the subway as hotbeds of urban vice were epitomized in pop culture and film, such as the now cult-classic film The Warriors (1979).

Steps to improve the technical and social conditions of the subway began with securing funding that could be used to carry-out station and track repair and replace many of the MTA’s defunct subway cars. The MTA also experimented with “graffiti control trains” between 1982 and 1985. These trains painted all white were put into service around the city to determine which routes were more likely to be tagged.

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It is certainly the case that the coupling of mechanical and aesthetic repair went hand-in-hand during the transitional “Jekyll and Hyde”8 period of the 1980s. By 1988 graffiti had been almost completely removed from the subways – the result of copious coatings of graffiti resistant paint that would break-up the petroleum-based compounds that aerosol paint was made of. More frequent subway car washes, as well, contributed to this process, along with the $8.3 million funding for the “Clean Car Program.”9

Art as public good

105th Street Station

East 105th Street, Michael Ingui (MTA 2009)

The resurgence of the city began with this renewal.

-Sandra Bloodworth, Arts for Transit

Graffiti ramped-up the MTA’s commitment to aesthetics as central to renovating their system in the 1980s, however the roots of publicly-funded (especially federal) uses of visual art – compared to maintenance or graffiti removal programs – as a mode of infrastructural development goes back to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s. The WPA famously employed artists, musicians, writers, and other creative workers in conjunction with construction of numerous public buildings and roads. The Public Works of Art Project oversaw large-scale mural projects depicting local histories throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The MTA, however, has a particular historical commitment to the co-constitutive relationship between aesthetics and infrastructures, which Sandra Bloodworth, the current director of the Arts for Transit program, reminded her audience of in a recent TedX Talk she delivered entitled “Re-Creation of Public Spaces.” Quoting a 1899 memo written by William Barclay Parsons, chief engineer who oversaw the construction of the first inter-borough subways lines in the early 20th century, Bloodworth emphasizes Parsons’ vision of a subway where ” […] all parts of the structures where exposed to the public sight shall be designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.”10 There was a mutual desire for beauty of efficiency and appearance: In order for the subway to function at its full capacity, aesthetics and technology have to work together.

Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, Robert Wilson (MTA 2009)

The notion of art as a public good, within this historical context, was augmented through federal WPA programs that insisted that infrastructural spaces not only be beautiful, but meaningful and relevant to the communities they served. It was not, however, until the 1980s that commissioning artists and artworks for transit authorities was explicitly mobilized by both federal and local transit agencies across the U.S. In New York City, in particular, the resurgence in interest in public art projects was undergirded by the Percent for Art legislation that former mayor Ed Koch passed for the city in 1982, requiring city building projects to spend anywhere from 0.5%-5% of their total construction budget on art.11 It is within this context that curation and public art (not only aesthetics) becomes integrated into the arsenal of urban renewal techniques. In contrast to artwork like graffiti, both tags and larger pieces, that were experienced as markers of an urban epidemic in the public imagination, public art was controlled and managed – securing safety and freedom for patrons of the MTA.

Reflecting on capacities for art to transform the experiences of riding public transit, the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) in 2006 describes art projects as doing “much more than adding an essential human dimension to transit — they assuage community concerns about disruption of transit construction, improve passenger comfort and safety, and reinforce the spirit and identity of cities and towns.”13 Citing case studies from around the U.S., the FTA describes how arts projects helped assuage communities “fearful about the gentrification and crime that [new transit] projects might bring to their neighborhoods” and, furthermore, that public art can be used as a tool to help residents “cope with change.” That is to say, public art can do more than enhance public space: It can advance a more far-reaching role in the social and economic revitalization of urban neighborhoods. Public art projects demonstrate how communities can use public art to deal with conflict “creatively and constructively.”14 It is in this sense that we see, once again, how the well-being of the public and of its infrastructures are entangled within one another, producing the capacity for the experience of safety, and the freedom that accompanies it, for a system’s ridership. This is art in its political capacity, facilitating change and fostering social good, at least in the eyes of the ‘authorities.’ To be sure, graffiti encompassed its own politics as well, albeit the continuum of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ seems rather limited considering its legacy and staying-power as a fine art and urban art form.

Diagram of aerosol paint can (left); Subway “buff wash” (right)

Durability

Art for transit, publicly funded and commissioned art, is distinct from art made in the studio or on the street. Art as a public good and community resource is the result of collaborations between artists, engineers, and materials. All of these aspects distinguish public art for transit as distinct from other contexts for art-making, but it is the latter part, materials, that is pivotal. As the AFT states, “we encouraged artists to use durable materials – ceramics, mosaics, bronze – materials that would last hundreds of years (like the original artwork in the subway),”15 and this is certainly the animating ethos of the AFT’s projects. In contrast to the ephemerality characteristic of graffiti, the MTA’s aesthetic is one of durability. “Vandal resistant material,” specifically, was an organizing principle of early collaborative projects between artists and engineers. One early example of this is of the MTA’s collaboration with Laura Bradley in 1989 on redesigning entrance grilles for subway stations to address the $60 million the MTA was losing annually to fare evasion.16 In a similar vein, projects such as Milton Glaser’s Untitled, 1986 work at the Astor Place station employs the use of terra cotta and mosaics to create a series of enamel panels that both complements the historic motifs of the station – beavers that represent the Astor fur traders – and embodies the material durability of the history of the Astors.17

Railings with medallion design (FTA 2006)

Artist designed grille (FTA 2006)

“Bringing that which is above below” reflects AFT’s commitment to creating art installations that reflect local histories or the environment above. Examples of this are abound in the AFT’s projects: The Coney Island amusement park ride “Cyclone” is monumentalized in the undulating steel, ceramic tile, granite, and fiberglass station structure called Wavewall at the New York Aquarium subway station;18 at the Church Avenue station in Flatbush mosaics representing the Caribbean culture of the neighborhood above adorn the platform19; in Manhattan, glass, stone, and marble mosaics that depict rock outcroppings, tree roots, and pipes that adorn the walls of a subway connection corridor underneath Bryant Park (42nd Street).20 These are but few of the many AFT projects that incorporate past, present, and future into the rehabilitation of the subway stations they are located in.

Bryant Park

Under Bryant Park, Samm Kunce (MTA 2002)

Designing the Urban

While the exteriors of subway cars are no longer the moving gallery of an (ironically, in this context) ephemeral art form, the MTA maintains a robust connection to the arts, visual and performing, through AFT which curates the experience of art on the trains. AFT enables art to exist and circulate through the subway and bus systems in a different way than the graffiti of the 1980s did: In this epoch, art is circulated through a particular mechanism of curation constructed upon the doling-out of permits for performance, didactic materials labeling and explaining art installations, juried competitions for visual art, and glass frames that contain and protect artworks within various subway cars and buses. AFT in this regard uses curation – processes of jurying, selecting, and contextualizing the production of art works – as technique of not only urban renewal but urban design.

Submissions for artwork are subject to numerous reviews by a selection panel of five members: Two representatives from neighboring museums and cultural institutions, one artist, an Arts for Transit representative, and the project architect along with community representatives who are invited to participate in an advisory capacity.21

In this regard, public art does not work the same as it does in a museum or a gallery, especially in terms of the creation process. AFT creates a distinct form of aesthetic experience: One where curation coupled with technological engineering creates pieces of artwork for display within the subway system and facilitates the ongoing viability of a public transit system that carries almost 7.5million riders every workday. The materials and the system in relation to one another coalesce as media and mediators of works of art. It seems to be no accident that ‘Urban Design,’ encompassing all the above mentioned factors, is the newest phrase tacked on to AFT’s moniker.

Talk to MeThe extent to which technology and aesthetics are enfolded upon one another is most aptly articulated in MoMA’s recent ‘uses’ of MTA works. MoMA’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me about the communicative dimension of design reflects what was the emergent relationship in the late 20th century between urban infrastructures and aesthetics/design. As their curator’s note:

Whether openly and actively or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us. Tangible and intangible, and at all scales—from the spoon to the city, the government, and the Web, and from buildings to communities, social networks, systems, and artificial worlds—things communicate […] New branches of design practice have emerged in the past decades that combine design’s old-fashioned preoccupations—with form, function, and meaning—with a focus on the exchange of information and even emotion […] Designers are using the whole world to communicate, transforming it into a live stage for an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.22

Following on the heels of Talk to Me the MTA’s “Help Point” was acquired as part of MoMA’s permanent collection and included in a follow-up design exhibition in 2013 Born out of Necessity. The exhibition showcases not only how design responds to human needs, but how designers work towards crafting design solutions to problems of technological/infrastructural failure – material and social – that do not yet exist. It is, as the New York Times wrote in their review of the exhibition, an exhibition that compels visitors to “project [themselves] into situations where these things might come in handy.”23

Help Point

Help Point, MoMA

Most New Yorkers and millions of tourists rely on the subway system to navigate the city. Help Point Intercoms, currently installed at the 23rd Street and Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall subway stations along the Lexington Avenue line, aid in relaying travel and emergency information. The integrated microphone and speaker provide direct contact with security personnel twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and the compact design is resistant to vandalism and breakage. A blue light identifies the device, providing a sense of safety and security in a manner that is not obtrusive during everyday activities but is recognizable in an emergency.24

The future orientation of this exhibition is marked, yet it is worth noting how fluid relationships between past, present, and future have pervaded the infrastructural imaginary of the MTA from as early as 1899 (despite the fact of a marked shift in the 1980s). If design talks, then the MTA’s “Help Point” might state that it imagines a future where access to a 24-hour security and navigation system can provide a sense of safety and security resistant to vandalism and breakage while being unobtrusive to the everyday activities of riders. As this exhibition and the first installations of the “Help Point” on subway platforms in 2012-2013 makes clear, the fantasy of the social and technical infrastructures of tomorrow shape the work of designers and users today. Thus, we see the future of urban design telling us a history of the present: Whether that story is one of “human growth, social change, and expanding capacity,”24 or the failure of society to provide adequate care for its people and infrastructures, it seems clear that questions of governance, perhaps now more than ever, are contingent upon and tangled-up within the work of art, aesthetics, and design.

Rendering of a proposed art installation at the 96th and Broadway Street Station (NY Times 2009)

 by Monica Patrice Barra

References

1 Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

2 http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/mta-to-introduce-public-art-app/

3 Austin, Joe. 2001. Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press.

4 Bloodworth, Sandra and William Ayres. 2006. Along the Way: MTA Arts for Transit. New York: The Monacelli Press.

5 TedX Talk “Re-Creation of Public Spaces: Sandra Bloodworth” (2012)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLEgCMpxmAg

6 Feinman, Mark S. “The New York Transit Authority in the 1980s.”  http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/The_New_York_Transit_Authority_in_the_1980s; “Subway Odyssey” New York Times Magazine January 31, 1982. Ari Goldman.

7 Feinman, Mark S. “The New York Transit Authority in the 1980s.”  http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/The_New_York_Transit_Authority_in_the_1980s;

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 TedX Talk “Re-Creation of Public Spaces: Sandra Bloodworth” (2012)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLEgCMpxmAg

11 Cocuzza, Julia. 2010. “MTA’s Arts for Transit: The Most Public Museum’s Problem of Publicity.” Unpublished http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CDMQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.juliacocuzza.com%2Fblog%2Farthistory%2Fjcocuzza_artsfortransit.pdf&ei=N5qGUdDlD-TH0QGrq4HoBQ&usg=AFQjCNHB99VUFyZ9Ejd6KGH2zrH5V7262A&sig2=Xx-jOfCrbiavK3ewGtXT5g&bvm=bv.45960087,d.dmQ; See also Heartney, Elanor and Adam Gopnik. 2005. City Art: New York’s Percent for Art Program. London: Merrell Publishers.

12 Kelling, George and James Wilson, 1982.”Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” The Atlantic. 1 March 1982.

13 Federal Transit Authority. 1996. Arts in Transit…Making it Happen. Federal Transit Authority.

14 Ibid.

15 TedX Talk “Re-Creation of Public Spaces: Sandra Bloodworth” (2012)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLEgCMpxmAg

16 Federal Transit Authority. 1996. Arts in Transit…Making it Happen. Federal Transit Authority.

17 http://www.mta.info/mta/aft/permanentart/permart.html?agency=n&line=6&station=21&artist=1&img=2&xdev=2280

18 http://www.mta.info/mta/aft/permanentart/permart.html?agency=nyct&line=Q&artist=1&station=22

19 http://www.mta.info/mta/aft/permanentart/permart.html?agency=nyct&line=5&artist=1&station=31

20 http://www.mta.info/mta/aft/permanentart/permart.html?agency=nyct&line=D&station=4&xdev=0

21 http://www.mta.info/mta/aft/about/opportunities.html

22 Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. “Talk to Me” (2011) http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1080

23 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/20/arts/design/born-out-of-necessity-moma-design-show.html?_r=024 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/20/arts/design/born-out-of-necessity-moma-design-show.html?_r=0

Berlin: Protesters halt East Side Gallery demolition

•March 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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“This is a unique opportunity to preserve a large section of what was once a death strip. If you remove the sections, you’re destroying the authenticity of this place,” Guardian quotes Noir whose painted section of the wall is to be removed. “It’s unbearable to see that the wall here is being so brutally torn down.”

When I saw this article fly through the web I had to share. As an admitted “tourist” of the East Side Gallery with a curiosity for how the politics of the Wall have changed over the past 50 years, I found it incredibly fascinating to think of the former death strip – once vehemently protested against – now finding itself transformed into a cultural artifact that is currently causing protests for preserving the culture and authenticity of the former borderland.

Same wall, two different histories. Yet as this picture states, the similarities are ironic if not outright uncanny: To the left, 1989. To the right, 2013.

A distinct convergence of art, memory, politics, and development. The sections of wall being removed are to facilitate the constructions of a new high-rise development – whose developer declares that the sections removed will continue to be preserved, only a few meters away from their current resting place. The developer has been receiving threatening emails. Guards in front of the wall yet again. Eternal return with difference?

Too bad we couldn’t be there to see the live action. Here are some old Fallopia shots of the East Side Gallery from a few years back.

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