AiOP 2016 uses the activist history of Union Square and 14th Street as the underpinning for artist-initiated conversations and critiques of “Race.” An early goal was to generate and juxtapose alternatives to the dominant narrative of struggle that is often at the center of anything “race-d.” In order to encourage critical thinking and extract ideas and underlying presumptions, we asked the creative community the following: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How? With over a hundred responses, “Race” became an umbrella under which artists thought through notions of security, intimacy, bureaucracy, resistance, class, heritage, mobility, value, mythology, and commodity.
AiOP requires openness to chance and vulnerability amid chaos. To that end, I need to be honest. When I was told that the above paragraph sounded like it was condoned by the “we are about to talk about race committee” I realized I had slipped inside the sanctioned mediocrity of white privilege. This was a moment of accountability. A moment to say, “I need to do better.”
Doing better is requiring vulnerability, awkwardness, and humility in the dialogues we share. AiOP 2016 instigates a lot of discussions, and the projects ask many questions. I wonder how we can move past conversations. Are we all talk? Conversations have end points. Movements stay the course.
— Rylee Eterginoso
When is race not in question? No, really? It’s this peculiar reality that unfairly swallows all social spheres, implicitly and explicitly. For me, as a newly arrived immigrant to Australia, not a month or so had passed and race was already put on the table: at the supermarket of all places. I was five—naïve, wet behind the ears; and I encountered a girl in the aisle, maybe a year or two younger than myself. She was assured in her voice, fast becoming skilled in the rhetoric of race as she motioned to her mom, “Look, there’s a black boy.” I froze. I let out a nervous smile, did nothing and said nothing.
Looking back, I was Frantz Fanon on that train in “The Fact of Blackness.” Fanon detailed a tête-a-tête on the train with an insolent child who called out to him: “Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” Fanon turned to humor to assuage his angst. Yet laughter failed him. In a way, words did too. He spoke not to the child, opting, instead, to take out his ire in prose, a cri de coeur of sorts. I found both comfort and conflict—compared to my own experience—in the fact that this “blackened” run-in left Fanon caught in a silent stasis, dithering between three warring selves: his body, his race, and his ancestors. Even now, I still wonder whether we—armed with all these selves—have the wherewithal to talk about such egregious encounters.
Looking at literature on racism, prior to Fanon, we can find the religious hermeneutics of the Middle Ages, and the scientific racism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Both periods marked those who were different from the white, European, Christian majority as less than, servile beings. It follows that the discussion of “race” far predates modern times; in fact, it is hard to pinpoint when we weren’t “race-d” or embroiled in its politics.
If we take a cursory look at Google Books Ngram Viewer for a moment, the steady usage of words like “race” and “racism” over the years could be read as encouraging—we are talking race. But are we? Conversations around the color line have not bettered race relations in America. Today, when race is talked about—almost ad nauseam, 24/7—discussions generally default to major catastrophes such as extrajudicial killings. And for good reason—black (social) death is real. Yet not much note and nuance is given to the everyday brushes with race and racism. Take the events on the Napa Valley Wine Train or the more recent row on the MAX Light Rail in Portland, Oregon. Both incidents loom large, dampening whatever progress we’ve made since those green-as-poison curtains came down in Toni Morrison’s Jazz. With the curtains drawn on that MAX train, Nitasha Sweaney still sought out nuance, as did the three Latinx brothers that came to her aid. All four of them calmly parleyed with the towering white man to cease with the racist epithets. Their pleas fell on deaf ears; his vitriol continued until he sulked off the train. For Sweaney, that August day marked her, her newborn, and her godmother as different, race-d.
To race: It is this eager rush to identify the other, to categorize what is ambiguous; and, in doing so, we often skim over details, the humanity of a person. When we are race-d—be it black, white, brown or what have you—we enter into these charged yet vacuous realms where we generalize, electing to ask little of one another.
I feel AiOP 2016 is looking beyond the when of race. History shows that the when to this race-d spectacle is enduring, defying any clear periodization. If we can take anything away from this year’s artists and projects on 14th Street, let us consider the alternatives to when, shifting our care towards the who, the where, the why, and the how to race-d. In a way, these questions are far more generative than the when because chances are we’ve been there before.
— Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi
Created by early colonists to mark the convergence or “union” of two critical streets (Broadway and then Bowery Road) Union Square has long been a significant place to center creativity, protest, activism, and art. Throughout the years it has marked the union of class, culture, race, commerce, and lifestyles.
Union Square Park is where one of the first New York City public art statues was erected of George Washington, which still stands: a founding father and slaveholder. The same locations has also always housed a vibrant farmers market providing a bounty born from the rich soil of New York farms, ironically over a Lenape Indian trading road erased by colonialism.
In the shadows of the 2016 presidential race in a country grappling with racial bias, AiOP is presenting RACE on this historic site. Maybe it is an apt locale for a project so irreverent and nonpermissive, which decrees, “Art belongs everywhere.” Bent on providing space for liberty and social/political/artistic expression, does it confirm its ethos that public spaces function as the epicenter for diverse social interactions and the unfettered exchange of ideas?
But why this place? What are we doing here?
Union Square is a portal to the intersection of time, money, place, and race throughout the city’s history. Everything from seminal hip-hop clubs like Latin Quarter, to public spaces like Union Square Park, to marches for Trayvon Martin, have activated the surrounding streets for years. It sits at the crossroads of untold stories about this country’s race for “greatness”. There are increasingly fewer spaces for people of color, the working class and poor people in NYC to live, work, and play. Are we (artists, curators, activist) complicit in centering the “where” and like this, displacing ourselves? What is the role of public art in dictating the new “where”? Is there a “where” for everyone? AiOP artists are interrogating these questions and their very personal role in affecting this particular site and others around the world. Do artists such as Holly Bass and David Hess illuminate the inherent problems of fear and gentrification? Will Ori Alon, in giving us permission to experience joy on our streets, highlight the lack of equity and civility of a rapidly gentrifying city?
Will we meet our intention of creating moments of awe, joy, unrest, pause in a space as visually and aurally saturated as 14th Street? Will we support the aesthetics of belonging and place-keeping of which Roberto Bedoya speaks?
Will this be the where we’ve needed? Can we, for a few days, create discourse through public performance and visual art that asks who is race-d, how, why and where?
— Elissa Moorhead
In the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, Florida and many other cities where black men are victims of police violence, the issue of institutional racism in America has become undeniable. The fact that black men are three times more likely to be searched by police, six times more likely to be jailed than whites, and that the majority of incarcerated population is black in this country, reflects a strong bias and injustice towards Black communities and highlights the racial disparities entrenched within our society. What all this points to, is that institutional racism (which goes back to Jim Crow laws where segregation was institutionalized) never truly dissolved even after the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, racist attitudes retreated and remained out of sight, waiting for another opportunity to claim what had been lost.
Barack Obama as the first black president was compelled to address this subject in his State of the Union address indicating the necessity to address racial bias openly. His presidency has among many things, further discharged a deep anxiety among American conservatives and white supremacists who fear the country’s changing demographics, exposing a volatile racial fault line that has become the principal issue guiding our politics today. For many, racism continues to lurk everywhere and can even be undetectable, while for other, especially conservatives, it is used to legitimize their core beliefs. In both cases, paranoia dominates—resulting in more polarization. The rise of Donald Trump is no coincidence but rather a reaction against all attempts made to unite a country fraught with racial tension, and at times in denial of the unconscious bias around race and class. As the upcoming elections hang in the balance, a feeling of unease and concern has become noticeable as the issue of “race” becomes central to the question of how American identity is being defined in the 21st century.
— Tumelo Mosaka