GOD OR MAGIC OR THE CORPORATION OR THE GOVERNMENT / Sara Reisman

To explore the complex chain of relations that comprise Jamaica individually and institutionally, officially, and off the record is in part to explore who the intended—and conversely unintended—audience is for Jamaica Flux, or in broader terms, what, or who, is the public. Vito Acconci describes the psyche of being part of a public:

The electronic age redefines public as a composite of privates. When you’re in a plane, and you look out the window and you’re in the clouds and you have no clue as to what your route is, you might be anywhere you want to be, anywhere in the world. . . . The electronic age—by turning concrete space into abstract space, by turning space into time—takes control out of your hands and puts it into the will of another, whether that other is called God or Magic or The Corporation or The Government.”[1]

Writing in 1992, Acconci presciently recognized how technology would change the public and how the individual might move through it. His description of the disorientation of flying is particularly apt, in that most people landing in JFK International Airport will probably never have a direct relationship with the community so close to the airport as Jamaica. The effect of the electronic age on commerce is equally destabilizing: “One product on a shelf, in a rack, bulges against another and pushes that one into another, etc.,” continues Acconci. “One billboard image peels away only to reveal behind it another image.”[2] On Jamaica Avenue, commerce indeed bustles with layer upon layer of advertisements, hucksters, and vendors selling wares in stores, stalls, pushcarts, and alleyways, recalling Guy Debord’s description of “the world of the commodity ruling over all lived experience,” in which “the world is at once here and elsewhere.”[3]

The total rule of the commodity might apply to Jamaica on the surface, but hidden behind the big name chains along the avenue are numerous malls operated by community agencies, hosting small, independent, and locally owned businesses, indicating a more complex, less commercially driven system. Artists participating in Jamaica Flux were asked to select sites for proposed projects, and then curators on staff at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning approached storeowners, managers, and vendors to negotiate on behalf of the artists interested in siting their artwork within these spaces. Through their selection of sites and types of non-art spaces, the artists targeted a viewing, and in some cases, participatory public for their work that includes store managers, vendors, business owners, community groups, shoppers, and passersby.

Laura Carton’s Model Citizen, for instance, involves the distribution of limited edition T-shirts with the word “CITIZEN” emblazoned across the front by various open-air vendors whose bins are filled with clothes, slippers, and other textiles. Carton’s proposal asked that people receiving the free T-shirts as well as the vendors who give them out wear them upon receipt for the day. While in the process of seeking out vendors to participate in Carton’s project, I came across an article in the Village Voice, in which Alisa Solomon wrote about the impact of the Bush Administration’s policies on immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. “From Jackson Heights to Washington Heights, the ‘war on terror’ is being experienced as a war on immigrants.”[4] This dynamic was apparent in Jamaica when one vendor flagged me down on the street, wanting to confirm that he was not in any of the photos taken by Carton while putting together her proposal. I assured him that if he had been captured in any of these photos, I would persuade Carton not to circulate them or to remove him from them.[5]

Reflecting on Jamaica before it became the hip-hop shopping district that it is, Mark Gagnon selected Leonard’s Bootery as his site. The Bootery is one of the oldest businesses in the area. Established in 1939 by Diane Greene with her husband Leonard, it specializes in footwear that combines high fashion with comfort. Gagnon proposed to paint a series of portraits of the owners and their staff—Diane now runs the store with son Rob—to be displayed in the store. His intention was to commemorate a quickly disappearing slice of Jamaica’s commercial history.

Next door to Gagnon’s project is Return, proposed by Michael Rakowitz, whose grandparents, Nissim Isaac David and wife Renee, ran a successful import/export business in Baghdad until they were exiled in 1946. Return involves re-opening Davidsons and Co. – the import/export business started by Rakowitz’s grandparents – at JLY Fashion, Inc. from which the first trade will be initiated by sending a shipment of goods contributed by community members to Baghdad. The artwork includes memorabilia from the original family business, a drop box where members of the public may drop off objects to be sent to Baghdad in what Rakowitz hopes will be “the inaugural parcel of the reopened company.”

Literally working with currency, Kambui Olujimi proposed Fishing for Wishes, a sculptural project for North Fork Bank using as his primary material a denomination with quickly diminishing value: the penny. Olujimi asked friends and acquaintances to send him unused pennies for a series of sculptures to be installed in the bank’s lobby. Olujimi’s use of this cast- off economy recalls the possibilities that pennies once afforded and the clichés about the denomination: penny candy at the corner store, saving pennies for a rainy day, and a penny saved is a penny earned.

Art Historian Nuit Banai suggests that site-specific artwork is in part a response to loss,[6] a proposal that is affirmed by the artworks described above: loss of stability (Carton’s Model Citizen), loss of memory of recent local history (Gagnon’s Portrait Series for Leonard’s Bootery), loss of national identity (Rakowitz’s Return), and loss of appreciation for the smallest currency (Olujimi’s Penny Sculptures). As Acconci writes, a new sense of space and time has emerged, one in which stability can no longer be relied upon.

An important factor in understanding this instability is the dynamic Debord describes of here and elsewhere, a quality of simultaneity that seems to have emerged from commonalities between disparate locations. How do increasingly similar local aesthetics, between geographically and culturally distant sites impact the authenticity and uniqueness of lived experience in those places? The slippage of differences in location is further collapsed by the ubiquity of locational signifiers, or names of places. What place does “Jamaica” signify? The name of this neighborhood often invokes questions about which Jamaica is implied.

According to Roy Fox, the curator of the Rufus King Manor on Jamaica Avenue between 151st and 153rd Streets, there are two theories regarding how Jamaica, Queens got its name. The first theory claims that the neighborhood is named for the Jameco – or Yemacah – tribe that was indigenous to the area and derives its name from the Indian word for beaver, because beaver furs were traded by local native peoples in the middle of the 17th century. The second theory is that the British named Jamaica after the island in honor of what was, at the time, a recent military victory. Either way, it has long been a site of commercial interests.[7]

After a visit to mapquest.com I learned that Jamaica is also the name of cities in Iowa, Illinois, Virginia, Vermont, Nebraska, Georgia, and the Plain in Massachusetts. On the surface this might indicate a few things about the United States: a large country with a native cultural network – traces of which are still apparent today. Or, Jamaican [islanders] have settled in a number of North American cities. Or maybe the beaver trade was active in any or all of these locations. Whatever the case, the number of places named Jamaica in the United States and the Caribbean contributes to a weakened sense of identification in relation to site. As differences merge into recognition (of everything from name brands to names of locations) identification on smaller, more individualized scales becomes more difficult, a burden shared by cultural producers working independent of institutional support. And so site-specific art and contemporary artistic practice in general have become part of the cultural phenomenon of traveling site-specific artworks.[8] Art critic and historian Miwon Kwon points out that “refabrications of site-specific works…are becoming more common in the art world. The increasing trend of relocating and reproducing once unique site-bound works has raised questions concerning the authenticity and originality of such works as well as their commodity status.”[9] If the frequency of the name of place, person, or even a serial artwork is a function of changing conditions (for instance the technological environment that makes it possible for us to be aware of these commonalities like never before), then the aura around authenticity and originality might warrant reconsideration.

Contrary to the assumption made by many of the participants in this exhibition that the presence of multi-national chain stores like the Citibank, McDonalds, and the Gap represent gentrification and therefore are a source of tension in the neighborhood’s ecology, there is a palpable desire within the community for this type of commercial presence along Jamaica Avenue. For a neighborhood in which commercial possibility is an active, driving force, the arrival of big name chain stores creates a sense of parity with other parts of the city, like 125th Street, 34th Street, or even Soho, where multi-national corporations have staked out territory.

In response to this shift in the local economy – and more specific shifts within institutional and individual working conditions – Jamaica Flux was developed by Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning, and the participating artists and curators in Jamaica Flux, through their site- and context-specific projects, have created possibilities for reconsidering modes of consumption of material goods and art itself. Working against the commodification of human experience, the artists have created spaces where autonomous thinking and engagement is possible. Wherever and however this kind of reflective activity takes place – in Jamaica, Queens or any other location, for three weeks or three decades –Jamaica Flux is a critical response to new and constantly changing social and economic conditions in which every day life is increasingly commodified.

Sara Reisman

[1] Vito Acconci, “Public Space, Private Time,” Art and the Public Realm, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 172.

[2] Acconci, 172-3.

[3] Guy Debord, “The Commodity as Spectacle,” The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone, 1995), 22.

[4] Alisa Solomon, “We Are All New Yorkers,” The Village Voice, August 24, 2004.

[5] The act of removing the human figure from Laura Carton’s sketches for Jamaica Flux is not new. One of her recent projects involved producing photographic prints using images downloaded from pornography web sites, from which she erases human presence, leaving behind banal sites of desires and fantasies: a men’s room, a casino, an abandoned building, an adolescent girl’s bedroom, a hammock by the beach, and so on.

[6] See Nuit Banai, “Shifting Sites: The Brewster Project and the Plight of Place,” Performance Art Journal 72 (September 2002)

[7] “Jamaica Avenue was an ancient trail for tribes from as far away as the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, coming to trade skins and furs for wampum. It was in 1655 that the first settlers paid the Native Americans with two guns, a coat, and some powder and lead, for the land lying between the old trail and “Beaver Pond,” later, Baisley Pond. Dutch Gov. Peter Stuyvesant dubbed the area Rustdorp in granting the 1656 patent. The English, who took it over in 1664, renamed it “jamecos,” the Carnarsie word for beaver. And so, Jamaica was born.” Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, A Brief History of Jamaica, http://www.gjdc.org/aboutjamaica.html, September 19, 2004

[8] Kwon, Miwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, MIT Press, 2002, 31

[9]ibid