The photographer Ricky Powell once snapped a picture of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat standing on Mercer Street in SoHo in 1985. Basquiat, 24 and lithe, stands separate from the veteran tastemaker and the much older and aloof Warhol looks slightly electrocuted and sleepy. The photo’s quirkiness is probably a product of time, we tend to see (and want to see, which might be the same thing) celebrity auteurs as inhabiting the exact same sphere and expect that sphere to be based on intimate relationships that are easily decipherable: friendship, hatred, envy, etc. Powell’s photo doesn’t really jive with that notion because Warhol and Basquiat aren’t scowling or smiling at or even standing close to one another, they’re just sort of there on the street “with” each other, in the loosest sense of the word. Both men were close to death, three years and heroin for Basquiat, two years and arrhythmia for Warhol, but their art was still thriving in the thick ferment of 1980’s New York. The pairs’ relationship to New York individually and in tandem ties a knot between urbanism (chaos, tranquility, etc.) and the art that emerges from the fray.
For those of us who don’t know the secret handshake, art can seem like a directionless endeavor with values and dollar figures attached arbitrarily to pieces pulled out the twisted nether that is the “art scene.” Two current shows, Prospect New Orleans (10/22/11 through 01/29/12) and Performa in New York City (11/01/11 through 11/21/11) are attempting to put art into perspective and provide a sounding board for people like us, who tend to understand the city better than the abstract narratives told through acrylic and PVC and archival inkjet prints.
Studies in urbanism aren’t bereft of aesthetics especially when you look at events like the Tactical Urbanism Salon that took place in Long Island City in early October. Presentations by groups like Vertical Theory and BroLab are artistic forays into urban planning but aren’t really awash in artistic pursuits, which is why we have terms like “urban design” which probably confuses a lot more people than it enlightens. Where the 1:1 ratio of urban design to art breaks down rather quickly is when the question of use comes up. You can use (hopefully) whatever urban designers come up with because that’s the whole purpose of their endeavors; they want to make civic things (garages, libraries, neighborhoods, etc.) beautiful while retaining the utilitarian innards, not a new mission by any amount of the imagination but the meshing of architecture and planning is starting to turn itself over more fully to the ideas espoused by urban theorists like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida. So when we flip the balance and the weights of art and pragmatic design wobble into new proportions civic missions become something completely separate and novel and demanding.
New Orleans and New York are cities that are on completely separate paths right now. NOLA is still reeling from the hammering it received in 2006 from Hurricane Katrina and attempts to shake off its disaster zone stigma have been slow. Populations that saw the most damage from the hurricane began a hegira that still skews the city’s demographic projection in the census conducted four years later. New York continues to thrive even in the face of recession and disaster and the influx of those seeking opportunity is stronger than ever. They are on either side of life—revitalization and excess.
Prospect New Orleans is the more interesting of the two if not only because it is expressly dedicated to “the principle that the art of our time can play a significant role in the revitalization of an important U.S. city.” A magnanimous art exhibition in a place like New Orleans cannot be separated from its watery past and that is exactly what makes a project like Prospect feel so unpretentious and unassuming. The art doesn’t feel as though it’s solipsistic, there are intimate interactions with city spaces and city history that make the projects more an outcropping of civil struggle and rebirth than a practice in experimentation and progress. It is art with purpose. Prospect not only feels like a non-profit exhibition, it files its taxes as one as well.
Where the 1:1 ratio of urban design to art breaks down rather quickly is when the question of use comes up. You can use (hopefully) whatever urban designers come up with because that’s the whole purpose of their endeavors; they want to make civic things (garages, libraries, neighborhoods, etc.) beautiful while retaining the utilitarian innards…”
Prospect also just seems fun. The opening festivities included a composition by the new media artist R. Luke DuBois in which high school marching bands separated into five groups converge on NOLAs’ Washington Square, the timing organized so that the bands’ climaxes mesh perfectly, like musical floodwaters merging in downtown New Orleans. William Pope.L asked for photographs of New Orleanians in reaction to the questions “When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of? When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?” which he collected into a video project and installed onto a moving truck, providing a “collective memory bank” of the city of New Orleans and its people.
Peforma is the more serious of the two biennials, and that isn’t to say that Prospect is particularly unserious or that Performa is overly self-aware, but the New York exhibition does represent a collection of works that forces a separation from civil reconstruction into current movements within a vast urban zone. Performa allows itself to be expansive and the exhibitions address New York narrowly (Nicoline Van Harskamp’s Any Other Business – A Scripted Conference is expressly political but the obvious parallels to a financial board meeting are obvious) and the wider cultural fray that is drawn to the show (L’Encyclopédie de la Parole’s Chorale adopts political speeches and poetry and answering machine messages and turns them into a chorus of musical minutiae, sort of a humdrum opera).
A magnanimous art exhibition in a place like New Orleans cannot be separated from its watery past and that is exactly what makes a project like Prospect feel so unpretentious and unassuming.”
Comparisons automatically become qualitative seesaws and readers should be aware that the schism between Prospect and Performa is not so much a difference of substance than it is a difference of scope. They both serve disparate purposes as well: Prospect is dedicated towards healing New Orleans through exhibitions based on the experience and recently disastrous history of a specific city with bayou-born artists while Performa is a broad-based artistic symposium based on a more general interpretation of artistic expression within New York’s city limits. They’re relatives but more cousins than sisters. It is supremely important, then, that Prospect and Performa are inextricably bound to the geography of their respective cities.
Prospect is a New Orleans Biennale, Performa is a Biennale in New York.”
Prospect uses New Orleans differently than Performa uses New York or as a friend in the art world summarizes, “Prospect is a New Orleans Biennale, Performa is a Biennale in New York.” Truth is, Performa takes its cues from the City but at the end of the day New York becomes a stage for Performa to be played out on while Prospect is part and parcel to its urban setting with exhibitions woven into the map of New Orleans and exhibitions are matched to specific locales. Prospect does not differentiate between the city and the art, there aren’t any lines to blur or membranes to cross or cognitive dissonances to overcome, Prospect is just New Orleans with more art floating around. Alternatively, Performa is art for those in tune with the arts. . You have to find Performa within dozens of different venues and, while the exhibitions are immensely rewarding, there is not that gut-feeling of augmented reality, it’s just another great art show in New York.
(I feel badly not mentioning another interesting urban/art show in New York City: Bring to Light. This exhibition is the diminutive, nocturnal counterpart to Performa, and has elements common to both shows discussed in detail above. The show is also a synchronized world event with other cities creating their own site-specific “nuit blanche” events and the message eventually pushes visitors’ towards urbanism’s current overwhelming meme of the Global City. This squishy concept is better explained within a vacuum, like so much else in urban design, but let’s just say that many city thinkers consider the future of American metropolises to be integrally linked to that of internationally ones. Bring to Light is worth taking a look at, if only to see what a one-day, nighttime art exhibition can achieve.)
Peforma New York and Prospect New Orleans are not, by definition, experiments in urbanism, but they do provide a sort of artistic reaction to the formative events in two cities’ histories, a sort of urbanism retrospective. Melting down artistic pursuits to their most malleable and pouring them into the map molds of New York and New Orleans has yielded some of the most impressive site-specific exhibitions in recent years. It looks like urbanism might have found a willing partner at last.