Art About Poverty and Homelessness

Posted on Thursday, May 1st, 2014

In anticipation of our collaboration with Andres Serrano called Residents of New York, opening May 19th, we are featuring artists who have made socially engaging work about poverty and homelessness

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Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. © Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano has a keen awareness for the people who live on the streets of New York City.  The artist first photographed the homeless in 1990 for a series called Nomads. In this series, Serrano went around the city with a portable studio and photographed homeless individuals whom he found on the streets and subway tunnels. Serrano gave no definitive directions to his sitters, however many of them chose to take a very heroic pose as seen in the case of Sir Leonard. The result shows the dignity and honor that these men and women had in being involved in the art making experience.

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Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Timothy Hicks), 2014.

Over a decade later, Serrano chose a different approach for photographing homeless men and women in Residents of New York. In Residents of New York, he removed his signature studio elements, focusing instead on personal connectivity and interaction directly on the streets of New York City, where the homeless live. During the photography shoot, participants of Residents of New York mentioned how it is a blessing when someone takes time to interact with them and to acknowledge them as not being invisible.

Texas based artist, Willie Baronet has incorporated his work with the homeless into his art practice for twenty years. Baronet’s “We Are All Homeless” series of work has led the artist to devote his practice to understanding homelessness and spread his passion for helping and advocating for the homeless.

Artists Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope started Signs for the Homeless. The artists would meet homeless individuals on street, interview them, and offer to make them new hand-painted re-creations of the old signs.

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Mike a.k.a. “The Pope of Harvard Square” with his before and after signs, part of Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope’s “Signs for the Homeless” project (via homelesssigns.tumblr.com)

Two past More Art collaborators Krzysztof Wodiczko (2011) and Michael Rakowitz (2007), created conceptual works of art that addressed homelessness. Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project was made in collaboration with the local homeless population in New York city between 1987 and 1989. The idea was to work with this population on producing both a psychical object and a concept that would make their “participation in the urban economy visible and self-directed.” [Kathleen MacQueen, Tactical Response: Art in an Age of Terror (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Publishers, 2010 pg. 88)]

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle, 1988-89.  © Krzysztof Wodiczko

While the public was cautious, the operators of the vehicles took the project seriously. According to Wodiczko, “You see this in certain gestures, certain ways of behaving, speaking, dialoguing, of building up stories, narratives: the homeless become actors, orators, workers, all things which they usually are not. The idea is to let them speak and tell their own stories, to let them be legitimate actors on the urban stage.” [Krzysztof Wodiczko – Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews (The MIT Press, 1999 pg. 177)]

Michael Rakowitz’s project called paraSITE, also a collaboration with the homeless, developed inflatable shelters that run off expelled HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) air from buildings. The artist consulted with individuals and couples on what they’re needs were and then created the shelters based on the model they discussed.

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While artist interventions are not seen as a big picture solution for homelessness, they provide a moment of powerful and holistic interaction. The issue of homelessness is removed from being a statistic or public service announcement that often feels like an indifferent approach to contextualizing the issue.

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Rakowitz said, “My project does not make reference to handbooks of statistics. Nor should this intervention be associated with the various municipal attempts at solving the homeless issue. This is a project that was shaped by my interaction as a citizen and artist with those who live on the streets.”

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Heather Stoltz, Temporary Shelter, 2011.

Heather Stoltz’s Temporary Shelter Project is reminiscent of a sukkah which is used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The sukkah tells the stories of homeless New Yorkers ages 4 to 75. The inside panels each represent one individual staying in NYC’s faith-based shelters and the outside walls are made from fiber art created by children in New York’s family shelters.

Jody Wood’s ongoing project is called Beauty in Transition, sets up a mobile beauty salon that serves the homeless at shelters around the city. The mobile salon originated in 2006 in Kansas, and has since traveled to Denver Colorado, and through the support from A Blade of Grass will be traveling city-wide to multiple locations in NYC in late Summer/Fall 2014. According to the artist “Through providing human-to-human dialogue beyond institutional constraints, this project aims to facilitate empathetic understanding and to unravel the reductive label of home-less.” These are just some examples of the way artists are visualizing homelessness. Are there any projects that we didn’t cover? Are you an artist who has worked with the homeless community on a collaborative artwork? We’d love to hear about it!

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Marc Clamage, Colleen, 2011. (via: http://www.ipaintwhatisee.com/panhandlers.htm)

Another project is by Boston artist Marc Clamage who painted portraits of the homeless in Harvard Square.

According to the artist “My approach remains the same. I’m torn on the issue of giving money to beggars, but I have no problem paying for services rendered, so by paying $10 to let me set up my french easel and paint them I feel these folks are earning a fee, not just accepting a handout. All paintings are done from life, on site, plein air and alla prima, and take between one and four hours to execute.Additionally, as I’ve worked more and more on this series it’s turned not only into an art project but a socioliterary one as well. Over the course of the past few years I have become aware of some continuing sagas, like the tragic love story of Gary and Whitney or the mysterious Rabbi, and these continuing chapters are included as notes where appropriate. For the most part I have not updated the stories as originally recorded, but appended updates as addenda at the end of each description.”

The Real Dick Richman

Posted on Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Wall Street’s secret society (Kappa Beta Phi) is a little less of a secret after a writer namedKevin Roose sneaked into the fraternity’s recent induction ceremony and wrote about it inNew York Magazine During the ceremony new members dressed in drag and made “bad jokes about Hillary Clinton, drunkenly mocked Main Street (the “99%”), and laughed at the financial crisis.” The fact that these authoritarian figures of Wall Street had the audacity to laugh at a crisis (caused by corruption on Wall Street) that resulted in housing foreclosures, ruined retirement plans, and a devastating unemployment crisis for millions illustrates their complete divorce from reality. These individuals have become devoid of ethical responsibility and social awareness.

Roose crashed the party as research for his book called Young Money. In the book Roose investigated the lives of young Wall Street bankers “the 22-year-olds toiling at the bottom of the financial sector’s food chain.” He wanted to know how and why these run of the mill bottom feeders become so ravenous when they reach the top. Roose posed the question “what if Wall Street doesn’t just attract pre-existing douchebags, but actively draws normal people into an inescapable vortex of douchebaggery?”

For our Envision New York 2017 campaign Federico Solmi submitted a video called Douche Bag City. In Solmi’s work he describes his protagonist Dick Richman as “a greedy, dishonest, and selfish Wall Street employee who has been banished to live in Douche Bag City. The City is a hopeless place, where the greedy villains of society are imprisoned for their atrocities committed against the community. There is neither hope nor escape from Douche Bag City; there are no exits and there is no chance for salvation, only punishment and torture. Here prisoners are defenseless against the increasingly barbaric creatures and demons. Money, stocks, and wealth are meaningless.” Solmi’s work is a “satire of the capitalist world that is being drowned in the economic crisis.” Solmi asks the question “How many Dick Richman’s are still out there?” That question might have gained a little more insight in light of Kevin Roose’s expose of Kappa Beta Phi.

Art Education in Our Public Schools

Posted on Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio has long been a proponent of providing free Pre-K and after school activities to all children in New York City. When the recently elected mayor gave his State of the City Address his focus on strengthening our cities educational structure was one of his main focuses. As one of the major cities in the world, New York is failing in education. The city’s Public School system’s unsatisfactory condition due to lack of resources and funding is appalling. Twenty Five percent of NYC public elementary schools are operating without an art teacher while funding for art materials has declined by eighty percent. De Blasio stated his commitment to not lose sight of the industries that have made us the center of commerce and culture. The mayor also declared that by supporting public school education for kids and strengthening the advanced education provided by CUNY, New York City would strengthen the creative industries and skilled labor in the city. Pair this statement with a recent study showing that arts education leads students to think more critically, and you can see how vital it is that arts education is a key component of public education.

There are many educators who are aware of the benefits of an arts education. We applaud the successes of Principal Ramon Gonzalez of Middle School 223 The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, in the Bronx. The school participated in The Center for Arts Education’s federally funded School Arts Support Initiative, which “seeks to help nine New York City middle schools to develop sustainable education in and through the arts in place of limited, fragmentary and sporadic arts education programming.” The results are encouraging!

It has been our approach from the start to develop an inspirational environment for NYC school children to work with artists both inside and out of the classroom. More Art has organized after-school programs with local schools intended to introduce students to contemporary art and provide an opportunity to collaborate with contemporary artists on artworks.

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Tony Oursler worked with students from Liberty High School and Clinton Middle School to produce a collaborative video with real time scrolling text messaging display to be projected in the Fulton Houses playground.

For our Envision New York 2017 project Coco Fusco focused on creating a message that expresses the opportunity to think about art’s role in the intellectual development of children.

CocoFuscoForEnvisionNY2017 from More Art on Vimeo.

This message should resonate with New Yorkers as we enter a new chapter in city government. It is true that children are our future and if they are taught well they’ll lead the way a bright future. However, we must get over this inequality gap that greatly divides our city and ensure that every child has access to a world-class public education.

The Artist Community on Gentrification: Q & A with Justin Blinder

Posted on Monday, February 10th, 2014

Justin Blinder

Justin Blinder is another Envision New York 2017 artist whose submission addresses gentrification. Vacated uses Google Streetview to highlight the vacant lots where new buildings now stand in gentrifying neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn. The work is ephemeral in the psychical world, but online it exists long after these vacant site become shiny new luxury buildings. The result is a virtual walking tour of gentrification. It is interesting to see the history of the buildings surrounding the vacant lots as well. In some areas we can see how remnants of the past –historical turn of the century buildings, graffiti tags, and urban decay – are juxtaposed with box shaped new condos.

We asked Justin some questions about how Vacated manifested and about how gentrification has affected his experience as a Brooklyn based artist:

What is your background as a New Yorker?

I originally moved to New York from Boston to attend Parsons the New School For Design. I’ve lived throughout various parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn for the past 6 years.

What specific issues or ideas have shaped your practice, and what issues continue to inspire your work?

Much of my work focuses on the transition of physical artifacts and infrastructure into the digital sphere, and the new criteria for value and ownership that are formed. In the context of physical urban landscapes, my practice often focuses on how urban artifacts can serve as social and cultural signifiers and form narratives about our cities. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to conflate these artifacts with digital tools. Currently, we often see data and statistics represented through data visualizations. New York’s “ghost bikes,” white bicycles indicating where cyclists have been killed or severely injured, could also be viewed as a data visualization, and to me are much more substantive and emotionally evocative than most charts showing a statistic. I often think about what sorts of urban markers can be used in place of graphs and numbers to tell stories about cities.

What role do you feel you have as an artist to create a public discourse?

For the past few years, most of my projects have primarily been dialogic. I’ve been experimenting with building tools and online communities to incite discussions about specific topics. An example of a past project, entitled Dumpster Drive, took the form of a file-sharing network I built in 2011 that allows users to dumpster dive through each other’s digital trash. The software serves a utilitarian purpose, but the real intent of the project was to engage participants in talking about how our notions of sharing have changed drastically when comparing physical and digital media. We don’t think twice about putting an old book on the stoop for someone else to reclaim, but giving someone the chance to do the same digitally raises a lot questions that we often overlook due to the ease of online sharing.

Can you elaborate on your connection between art and activism, what inspired you to make civic-minded art?

Most of my projects focus on hacking or repurposing existing systems to engage others in discourse about certain issues. I don’t think of this process as inherently artistic, but instead as a civic duty. The activist component of my work is not about any specific ideological thesis, but about framing and distilling a slice of everyday life and spaces in a way that, hopefully, incites questions about (and maybe even change) the larger political and economic forces that shape our cities and social worlds.

Your project for Envision New York 2017 is titled Vacated. When did this idea first strike you?

Over the past couple years, “NYC Open Data” has released a wealth of civic data spanning numerous city departments. I wanted to use this data to look at gentrification from a critical perspective. The project originally focused on how graffiti complaints in different Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs could be used as a lens into how certain neighborhoods are becoming increasing gentrified, and also serving as a visual archive for graffiti that had since been erased by the city. My intention was to use 311 data via NYC.gov and show the graffiti that had been removed using Google Street View. Most of these locations still exist online in Google’s cache, but they have since been erased from the physical world.

When I took a closer look at the locations, I began to realize that a large amount of complaints were located in areas that were saturated with new housing developments. These modern buildings often neighbored graffiti ridden vacant lots that had actually been developed since Google’s Street View car had taken these photos. So I decided to use a NYC building footprint dataset to search for buildings that had been constructed in the past 2 years on Google Street View – many of them appeared as vacant lots, gaps where coffee shops or luxury condos now stand in gentrifying areas.

We often think about gentrification as what newly appears in neighborhoods. Vacated uses cache as a narrative tool, showing instead the absence of new establishments that currently exist, and accentuating and acting as a sort of reminder of what is not there, either because it is gone or has not yet been built.

How have you felt the ramifications of gentrification?

In just these past few years, I’ve visually witnessed accelerating gentrification – the sort that only accompanies widening wealth inequalities in the midst of a great recession or economic crisis. Since moving to New York, I’ve lived in 12 different apartments throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn in just the past half decade. Most of my relocations were initiated by rent increases. Besides seeing physical manifestations of gentrification through new housing developments and boutique shops, I’m fascinated with how the names of neighborhoods change over time as well.

As others have discussed and lambasted, real estate agents seem to often use the term “East Williamsburg” to describe developments that are technically deep in Bushwick. Hearing “North” and “South” Williamsburg has also become more common. These toponyms hint at the social cachet that certain neighborhoods carry over time. I find these terms interesting both because they create meta-cartographies that can easily change our perception of certain locations, but also how they can be used as a tool that carries political capital. The modifiers within neighborhoods themselves are either being used to further gentrify neighborhoods, or to strategically fend off developers. The fact that the original plan to repel developers by using the less enticing acronym DUMBO backfired also emphasizes the complexity of the gentrification process to me, and just how many political and economic actors and forces are at play.

How do you see the rapid rate of gentrification affect the arts community?

I think that rapid gentrification has raised a lot of interesting questions regarding the need for physical space within art communities and the political economy of the art world. The Internet has been liberating as a means of creating meta-communities that can be more inclusive and reach much broader audience than physical institutions, but I am not sure that it is enough on its own. Physical space and materiality are very important to me. I hope that members of the arts community (myself included) continue to explore the various ways our online and offline worlds shape each other, and how form influences the types of communities and interactions we experience in each.

Reaction to Gentrification from the Artist Community

Posted on Friday, February 7th, 2014

Gentrification is a dirty word that is central to the discourse of New York City’s rapidly changing environment. It’s a major concern for longstanding neighborhoods of working class people. There are different perspectives as to whether gentrification hurts or helps the neighborhood’s vitality, but what should be evident to all are the drastic changes in many a neighborhood’s zoning. Old historic buildings are coming down at a swift pace, and new luxurious glass condominiums are popping up in their wake.

Areas such as SoHo, Chelsea, The Meatpacking District, The Lower East Side in Manhattan, and Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, have mainly been stripped of their multi-ethnic, working-class legacy and replaced by consumer driven extravagance. Most of the residents who have lived for generations in these neighborhoods can no longer afford the inflated cost of living. While proponents of this change report better quality of life overall –less violent crime, less drugs, better nutrition options, more jobs– they are blatantly ignoring those who had already struggled to create a better life in their longtime neighborhood. Just as they begin to make ends meet developers start buying up as much property as possible and raising rents at a staggering rate. Despite the unfilled promise of “new jobs” and “affordable housing” often included in these developer’s rhetoric, longtime renters have little to no choice but to relocate.

These industrious areas were once a vibrant neighborhood for arts communities as well. Artists move into a neighborhood –plagued by unemployment, gang-violence, and buildings left to decay– establish studios and collective spaces in old lofts, and generally make positive changes to desolate public space. Artists tend to be a developer’s point of entry, and soon after they assemble together and create thriving creative communities, the private sector rushes in and drastically develops the neighborhood. Due to the rapid commercial growth, the prices of studio spaces become extravagantly high and unaffordable to many of the artists who were initially drawn to the large, affordable live-work space. It is easy to point a finger at these artists for spurring this gentrification, but this issue has also led the artistic community to become vocal and participate in collective community organization. Collaborating with the longtime residents, artists have the power to bring about transformative social change.

In the 1990s the artist Rick Lowe solicited the help of local African American artists and transformed an abandoned set of row houses in Houston’s Northern Third Ward neighborhood –one of the oldest African American communities in the city– into houses for low-income families. The project called Project Row Houses incorporates workspaces, offices, and residency spaces for artists, while providing arts education, a community gallery, a park, and low-income housing and commercial space for the community. The Project Row Houses also has residencies designated for young mothers to live and receive support to finish school.

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Before he founded Project Row Houses, Rick Lowe was making socio-politically driven art in the form of large paintings but the revelation to move out of the studio and into the community came when a group of local high school students visited his studio. Rick Lowe, quoted in an article by Michael Kimmelman for The New York Times, (“In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is,” New York Times, December 17, 2006) “I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.” A wide-range of artists including Edgar Arceneaux (co-founder of the Watts House Project, a non-profit neighborhood redevelopment organization in Watts.), Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, Julie Mehretu, and Coco Fusco, have worked on and contributed to the Project Row Houses.

Rick Lowe’s transition from an artist making a socio-political statement from within the art world, to an artist whose making a statement within the community, demonstrates the transformative value contemporary art has in our daily lives. By engaging the community through collaborative artistic projects and arts education, an artist can help form a diverse and all-embracing network of people, hopefully inspiring the growth of a movement where creative practices result in socially engaged action taken by communities.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has unofficially designated a conceptual artist as commissioner of renewal on the South Side. The artist, Theaster Gates, has dual degrees in Urban Planning, and incorporates abandoned buildings and houses as raw material. Gates’Dorchester Projects is one of his most celebrated works, and it is another example of what artists can do to work collaboratively with the community. Gates bought and reshaped abandoned buildings in the South Side’s Grand Crossing neighborhood. In these reframed buildings Gates created cultural institutions for the neighborhood to have access to a library of books and music that he collected from a defunct music store and a failed bookstore. As the project grew, he bought more property, both residential and commercial, and has kept the tenants rent well below market rate. He hopes that his investments in the local community will spur a thriving new South Side. However, with all these positive changes and interest from a wide range of people including philanthropists, politicians, art collectors, there is the possibility of gentrification down the road. It is also possible that his work will inspire others to continue to develop, build, and preserve a creative and affordable neighborhood that is beneficial to longtime residents and artists.

Jules de Balincourt and William Powhida articulated a call for an undertaking by Brooklyn artists slightly similar to the philosophy of Theaster Gates. Powhida is an artist and art critic, and de Balincourt is a painter. Both artists live in Brooklyn and want to create an alternative course to the current neighborhood development. They want to prohibit developers from turning potential studio and loft spaces into overpriced studio apartments, big banks, and shopping malls. They propose that artists collectively purchase large buildings and make them into a permanent artistic space devoid from real estate and private sector influence. The goal is for these neighborhoods to remain a place of uninhibited creative influence while sustaining the history and character of the community.

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We commissioned William Powhida to create a project for Envision New York 2017, our web-based public art project. Powhida’s contribution, The Yellow Building presents a plan for artists and other creative workers to buy a commercial property as a trust, foundation, or corporation that would hold the building in perpetuity as studio space. Powhida explains, “This poses a stewardship model based on collective need within the capitalist market system. Private property and ownership are not abolished, but the terms are modified to provide a way around the decision making of an individual owner or developer.”

Is artistic intervention in the community a viable solution to the issues of poverty, public education, housing, food justice, and other pressing social issues? Probably not on its own, that is a problem that needs to be solved by community officials creating public policy beneficial to solving these issues. What artist and community collaboration can and should do is present a visual narrative that is indicative of the social change we all want to see for our current and future generations.
Resources and articles:

The Accidental Playground by Daniel Campo (Fordham University Press. 2013)

“In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is” Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, (December 17, 2006)

The Real Estate Artist, by John Colapinto, The New Yorker, (January 20, 2014)

“In East Williamsburg Artist Studio Leases Create Woes and Some Winners” by Corinna Kirsch, Art F City (January 22, 2014

“A Call to Arms Against Bushwick Gentrification” by Paddy Johnson and Whitney Kimball, Art F City (June 9, 2013)

“Ask a Native New Yorker: Gentrification” Gothamist Part 1 and Part 2

“The Arts Organization’s Role in Addressing Gentrification” by Francesca McKenzie, Arts Fwd (December 6, 2013)

More Art supporters event November 19, 2013

Posted on Friday, December 6th, 2013

Here are some of the pictures taken at More Art’s supporters event on November 19, 2013. Thank you to everyone who came that day. Our work would not be possible without your continued support.

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