Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Through a tube starkly: Connecting on the Bowery

August 11 - 17 , 2004
By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
“I wanted to draw some attention to the hotel and the people who live there,” Swartz said, “and make a device to encourage communication between two parties that wouldn’t necessarily communicate otherwise — the residents and the people going to see the art show.” -artist Julianne Swartz

Letter sent to the curator of the exhibition on the Bowery:
Dear Melanie Franklin Cohn,

Thank you for your quick response. I also appreciate you and the artist taking the time during the tour Saturday to attempt to answer my questions. My concern at the moment is not with further public programming but with this current one. I want to lay out to the best of my ability what I find disturbing about the piece the Museum commissioned at the Sunshine Hotel, my questions about it and a few proposals. My hope is that the Museum will rethink this entry into the neighborhood and act to alter certain aspects of it.
I think that no matter how well intentioned the artist is she can't remove herself or her work from the context that we exist in. In this case, class privilege and the lack of it. I think the fact that you (as curator) and she (as artist) had in depth conversations with many of the men for a few months before the artwork went up was terrific. For you, for them. It is amazing what you learn, how you become more human when you take the care and the time to listen to someone with real interest. It is an honest and human exchange. I could see that you were moved by that contact.
What this piece encourages however, is not that. It has more the feel and look of a zoo for the (mostly) well -heeled to peer into the lives of poor people (as the opening demonstrated by who showed up to hear the artist talk). I think this is true even though the men can talk back, even though some of them have the key to close off the piece if they don't want to interact (as I understand it), even though it is in the lobby -a "public" space -(though in an SRO that is a little ambiguous), and even though the artist got the verbal okay from (most?) of the men (the phrase "informed consent" rings in my ears). This piece, despite being set in their home, transforms the place into the museums space. It is on the museums terms. It attracts people who would not have bothered (or felt bold enough) to come before, it is made acceptable to middle class folks. It may offer a superficial exchange between the haves and the have nots. It may offer enlightenment for middle class people, but it borders closely on entertainment for middle class people at (what I believe to be) the expense of poor people.
These guys have survived a street culture that has offered them comradeship as well as putting them at risk of attack, but I don't think
they are as prepared to navigate what work like this brings with it. I
think it is manipulative to offer what looks like a promise of connection, of less loneliness when that isn't what will be delivered. It plays on people's vulnerability. If your museum goers want a connection with these guys, why not walk up the stairs and meet with them? Why not do something that is a real risk, an actual encounter where you expose yourself as well? Not some sterile version of a "walk on the wild side".

I have questions because I think before you sign on to participating in someone else's world, you have to know something about it: The artist has an advocate: the New Museum. Who was the men's advocate? Who helped
them (uninvolved third party) to understand their rights, their exposure? Did you feel you had the adequate tools to play that role for the men as well? Who okayed the project for the Hotel? The landlords? Do you know them? Their reputation in the neighborhood? Did you assume they would look out for the welfare of their tenants? How able did the tenants feel to refuse the project given the real estate climate here? Did they sign a consent form (as I understand it they have not to date)?
There are other questions: Why no comparable site in the lobby of one of the new wealthy buildings? I suspect the answer is because they would not permit it. In part this piece relies on the men's generosity and their willingness and ability to be themselves with anyone. I think there is a longing in many middle class people, to have contact with someone who is "authentic", but that comes at a cost when it isn't honestly asked for, when it comes in the guise that we are contributing equally here.

As a neighborhood, many of us from diverse class backgrounds are working very hard to create a culture of looking after each other. We watch each other, our children, our seniors. We want a place that is safe for our most vulnerable citizens. We want a culture of protecting our most vulnerable neighbors. In my thought this work does a disservice to that goal.

I have a few proposals that I ask you to think about. One is the option of paying the men for their services as performers and educators (or offer to pay their rent for a few months). Acknowledge them in the credits listed on the work (those who would wish it). Ask someone from an advocacy group to talk with them and get their independent perspective. Or help them find housing when this Hotel goes the way of other gentrified space in the neighborhood.
I appreciate your taking the time to read this. I've cc'ed this to people who had expressed concern to me about the exhibit and staff of the New Museum. I hope that the Museum will give their perspective on all this.

Thank you.
K Webster

No comments: