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At The Table: Dispatches From a Year of Dialogue + Art

March 5, 2021
More Art

At the Table: Dialogue + Art

10 people, 2 hours, and a whole lot of questions about art’s role right now

For the past year, More Art has been hosting At the Table: Dialogue + Art, a series of intimate salon-style conversations within our community, each time featuring a guest artist, focussed on the intersection of public art and social justice. Intended to be a platform for thought-provoking dialogue, these salons provide an opportunity to generate interesting discussion and strengthen More Art’s circle of friends and supporters; they celebrate the importance of coming together in small groups and sharing ideas about the role that art can play in our ever-shifting realities. Our hope for each gathering is that our guests leave feeling emboldened by the conversation and valued as an integral part of the More Art family. For each event, we invite 10 people with a range of backgrounds and perspectives, including our guest artist.

Want to be part of the conversation? Join us for a future At the Table!

Pre-pandemic, this meant dinner and spirited conversation around a shared table; since last spring it’s meant Zoom, but no lack of discourse and debate. Past guest artists have included Andrea Mastrovito, Sari Carel, and Shimon Attie; virtual salons, recapped here, have featured Xaviera Simmons, Ernesto Pujol, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Coco Fusco, Michael Joo, and Brendan Fernandes. This spring we will host Ofri Cnaani, Pablo Helguera, Jennifer Dalton, and Micheal Rakowitz (so definitely stay tuned!).

These salons are meant to tackle/address as well as hopefully model two of our most pressing concerns: what does it mean to create community? and where has public space gone? Particularly as our virtual gatherings have shown us, in light of COVID, both notions — community and shared public space — have become more precarious, more precious, and both must be conceived with an emphasis on equity and accessibility going forward. These conversations are designed to be intimate in format but are ultimately meant to extend outward/further, into our greater community and network so that they might become more connected, and more robust. Each month we’ll recap our most recent At the Table salon, sharing some of the questions raised and ideas proposed, the points of contention and contextual cues kicking everything off. Here are some of the things we’ve been talking about these past eight months.

As part of MONUMENTS NOW at Socrates Sculpture Park last year, Simmons’ trio of sculptures combined massive steel abstract forms with landscapes of text culled from historical documents that are foundational to centuries of racial caste construction, white supremacy, and disenfranchisement in the United States. ‘The structure the labor the foundation the escape the pause’ (2020), steel, wood, concrete, and acrylic; installation image by Sara Morgan, via Socrates Sculpture Park. Portrait via Wikipedia.

In the summer of 2020, in the aftermath of the racial justice uprisings around George Floyd’s death, and as the pandemic remained the new normal, we spoke with Xaviera Simmons.

Xaviera offered a new take on our constant question — What is the role you think art can and should play in moments like these? when she said that she focuses as much on beauty, color and form as she does political engagement.

Sustainability was a major point of discussion, not just environmental sustainability, but financial and structural as well. We spoke of the need for shifts of cultural capital, reparations, changes to positions of power and rule of law, and redistribution of resources. Structurally, innovation and reinvention of our public spaces will move us forward and it might help to consider COVID and the Movement for Black Lives as not separate in order to understand how to do this.

Finally, we heard that community is more important than ever. It is vital we look out for one another, act collectively. However, the idea of the collective also needs attention. How does Black collectivism survive under white supremacy? How do we support the collective needs while not fixating on blackness? How do we support the youth in their powerful efforts to demand and make change while sharing resources, experience and knowledge? And lastly, how can we share and encourage joy and pleasure with one another in order to not lose hope?

9–5 (2015) traversed themes of corporate labor, silence, and empathy. Sitting formally between the glass partitions of Brookfield Place’s massive windows, which mirror the quintessential office workspace, eleven performers wrote silently all day about the people they saw, creating a literature of pedestrian life in the city. Pujol intended to evoke the repetitiousness of all labor through this silent meditative gesture. Produced by More Art; photo by Nisa Ojalvo. Portrait by Angela von Brill, via the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

August and September brought a confluence of hard-fought reckonings over the American way of life, identity, and empire (extending very much into the art world) to the fore; we met with Ernesto Pujol and Krzysztof Wodiczko.

We explored the notion of trust with Ernesto during times of crisis. We can learn how to trust from those who have been most violated and undervalued in our communities. Their skills can teach us how to move through these unfamiliar spaces and uncertain situations we are experiencing. “Trust is fierce,” Ernesto emphasized. “Trust is not about being naive. Trust is quite a force.”

In order to create change, we need to embrace loss at the same time. Are we willing to lose visibility, social status and most of all ego? There is a need to become comfortable with not knowing what’s coming — Ernesto called it “the zen of not knowing.”

Art can play a role in this change if, as artist Isamu Noguchi once said, it is pushed to communal usefulness. The large-scale model of big donors, enormous institutions, and age-old hierarchies is not sustainable in supporting all aspects of art’s power to do the work we need it to do. The creative thinking tools of artists are needed more than ever.

In regards to a Post-American historical chapter, what is it that we are looking for? Are we looking to become just another country? There was some optimism: Let’s have ambition for a more perfect union and aspire to actively make it better. Let’s cultivate a relationship with things that are ugly in the world, cultivate a relationship of love. Who are we in 2020? Who will we become in 2021?

Ustedes (Them) (2020) co-opted drone technology, often employed by governments for border surveillance operations, as a medium to broadcast the voices and perspectives of immigrants and refugees in their own words. Wodiczko, in cooperation with Make the Road New York, collaborated with immigrants from South and Central America, both documented and undocumented, to share their stories, with a focus on experiences of labor exploitation. Produced by More Art; photo by Manuel Molina Martagon. Portrait by Ewa Harbasz, via the artist’s website.

We started off our conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko with the question of how to change the perception of immigrants in the US. The language we use must change. Referring to immigrants as “other” should be rejected and we need to say “we” in place of saying “they” or “us.” We can better understand how identity is shaped without relying so heavily on language and documents. Let us make extraordinary efforts to let immigrants speak!

In an environment where the president is calling immigrants bad people, we need to craft our communications using effective storytelling. Educate. Humanize. Focus on bringing family, values, and love to the forefront. Share stories of success —while being careful which idea of success we subscribe to as “America” is a slippery ideal.

Krzysztof pointed out that art can contribute a different set of aesthetics to the fight. The art that is presented by both artists and institutions in the public sphere (both physical and digital) can help people understand the immigrant experience and create more empathy. For example, monuments have recently been challenged and the collective BLM protests have been extremely effective in sending strong, unforgettable visual messages. Positive imagery in the digital sphere seems to have the momentum and impact we need. Now the question is what to do next?

A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America (2006–8) was a performance presented as a lecture about the expanding role of American women in the War on Terror. “Once upon a time, the great novelist Virginia Woolf wrote that women needed a modest income and privacy to express their creative genius,” Fusco writes. “Woolf told us that every woman had to have a room of her own if she was going to show her strength. Now, at the onset of the new millennium, American women finally have what they need to demonstrate their valor. The War on Terror has provided a great opportunity to the women of this country.” Image via the artist’s website. Portrait by Geandy Pavón, via the artist’s website.

In the uproarious, unruly lead-up to the US elections in November 2020, we turned to Coco Fusco.

What is encouraging? Early voting, increased participation of younger generations, mobilized global populations, passion, and energy. People are longing for democracy, an optimistic sign that will perhaps show in the elections, but what is next? Are the right people realizing that political engagement is more important than consumption?

Language and education are key to (re)building what comes next. People seem to be more comfortable talking about fascism and racism. Education helps the cultural amnesia we see in recent and past history. There is rhetoric that is powerful, can we materialize it?

Perhaps art can help. This is a great opportunity for artists to get political. People are paying more attention. As we know, art is a good way to reach people. Arts institutions are receiving a wake-up call, boards are changing and — perhaps for the wrong, more self-serving reasons, but none-the-less — they are concerned and worried.

The current times are a catalyst for change. The potential for change is huge. Funding for stabilization has begun and coalitions are being started. In Coco’s very important words: Be patient!

For Of Saltation, Traction, Precipitate (2018), Joo worked with a number of school kids who live in communities around the Korean Demilitarized Zone to collect rocks, one of a few geologic objects that can move perceptibly in our own lifetime, flowing up and down rivers, crossing borders, creating ripples, and claiming space in interaction with the deep past. Still depicting “Friendship Bridge”, multi-channel video installation; commissioned by the Real DMZ Project, Seoul; photo by Garret Linn. Portrait by Sean Curtin, via Artsy.

As 2020 (finally!) came to an end and as the new year offered (tentative!) hope on the horizon, we spoke about looking back and moving forward with Michael Joo and Brendan Fernandes.

The 2020 “liminal space” is not the same for all of us, Michael noted, yet many of us are in different places experiencing similar thoughts. We are embracing nature and grassroots traditions to heal and recover, which perhaps means that contemporary technology (i.e., phones and computers) is not our go-to remedy. Basic social networks can help ground us.

Coping has also shown us how to share resources and practice generosity. However, how do we resist perpetuating aid without accountability? People’s relationship to money is changing. Suppressing feelings of anguish, the Covid blues, cannot be solved by capitalism. How we cope emotionally is important; we must reflect and meditate.

Can public art become part of the healing process we need to move forward? Art has helped and can continue to help shift how science and technology are applied. We should document and use metrics. Art can help us reclaim public space. Move as a group. Make collective decisions and start a change in perception. Encourage artists to become platforms themselves.

A particularly relevant quote from James Baldwin came up in the conversation: “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

Clean Labor (2017) was a contemporary dance performance that made visible what is too often overlooked — the work of hospitality workers and cleaning professionals whose contributions ensure that our homes, offices, schools, hotels, and public spaces are safe, clean, and livable. Fernandes collaborated with six dancers and members of the housekeeping staff at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to design an original, contemporary dance inspired by the movements and routines involved in their work. Produced by More Art; photo by Mor Art. Portrait by Kevin Penczak, via the artist’s website.

The theme of the night with Brendan Fernandes was intervention. We started by speaking about our own bodies and the types of interventions we have done with ourselves during the past year. After a year of change and not spending as much time with others, many of us mentioned new or deepened practices of movement, walking, breathing, and checking in with ourselves as techniques to get through difficult times and take care of our bodies.

Sometimes, however, our bodies have their own way of intervening directly with our minds reminding us to slow down or reposition. Overall, we feel ready to get back in action. But, as society allows technology to take over our time and bodies, setting up voluntary group interventions with structures of accountability might help keep us on track.

By definition, intervention means to insert something to create a change for the better. Thinking about the longer term, how can we find ways of intervention now that will have long-lasting effects for the future? How can art best use the tools of intervention in order to insert itself and create change, for the better?


Header image: Candance Thompson and C.U.R.B. Banquet #1, February 2019 — The Collaborative Urban Resilience Banquet (C.U.R.B.) is an interdisciplinary social practice project that reconnects urbanites with our fragile (and oft displaced) food web as we face oncoming climate change. Made possible as part of More Art’s Engaging Artists Fellowship.