Jamaica Flux and Art in the Public Realm
/ Juliana Driever
The neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens is a place defined by dualities. It is a locus of bustling commerce after a long period of economic decline; it is a neighborhood dangling on the New York City limits, though a major commercial and community center; it is a place of historical significance and contemporary fervor. The experience of Jamaica is characterized by this “flux” – of a place in-between, where the economic, social and political fabric is publicly staged and managed on a daily basis. Jamaica Flux: Windows and Workspaces 2007, a public art project made in an engagement with the community of Jamaica, examines local experience through the intersection of art and commerce, and its relationship to urban renewal and community. Over the course of a year, twenty-five artists/artist collectives responded critically to the changing social and economic landscape of the neighborhood and involved its residents and businesses in a variety of participatory art projects conceived specifically for this exhibition.
Jamaica is not a center for avant-garde or experimental art practice. It is, however, a place of current economic growth. In recent decades, Jamaica has gone from being an area of economic neglect, devastated by the crack epidemic in the 1980’s, to a neighborhood hosting an influx of big business, signaling corporate faith in the neighborhood. Additionally, Jamaica is home to the AirTrain to JFK Airport, and future expansion on what the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation’s website calls “transit- oriented development,” – businesses catering to the crowds of travelers, coming through JFK each day – including a planned major hotel and retail mall. It is a community seeking reinvention through consumerism – and succeeding at it. Jamaica Flux has set out to transcend the rampant consumerism of Jamaica Avenue, jolt passersby from their flanerie, and be able to offer thoughtful reflections on the changing state of the community.
Stemming from the recent trend in growth and revitalization in the area, one of the major objectives for Jamaica Flux, as put forth by project director, Heng-Gil Han, was the development of cultural tourism in the neighborhood. The use of the art exhibition as a vehicle for economic stimulation is not by any means a new invention. One notable example is Documenta, Germany’s first international art exhibition. Documenta was initiated in 1955 to revive the city of Kassel after World War II. In 1943, at the close of the War, Kassel had been heavily bombed – ninety percent of the city center was devastated, death tolls were well into the thousands, and many were left homeless. In the 1950’s, the city embarked on a period of re-building and recovery, and it was during this time that the idea of Documenta was introduced, ostensibly as a further means to support re-growth and arouse the overall morale of the city. Since 1955, every five years this community has been afforded the chance to re-examine its changing social and economic difficulties through a continual artful investigation and reflection. Additionally, the arrival of “art tourists” to Kassel during the exhibition also gives the city’s still-wavering economy a much-needed, though short-lived boost.
In the final assessment of the project, however, Jamaica Flux did not generate the level of tourism needed to sustain any kind of significant economic boost to the community. It has been suggested that Jamaica Flux become incorporated as a separate entity, much in the way Documenta or any of the other international art exhibitions operates, so that a more focused effort can be made towards this goal. Indeed, it is extremely difficult for an institution to take on the myriad administrative and creative responsibilities of organizing such a project as just one of many program offerings. While the public/community art exhibition may seem like a good opportunity to support both the arts and the community, the format is not without its problems. First, the idea that the art object/experience can be used as a tool for social/economic amelioration automatically limits artistic freedom by attaching it to an agenda of a given organization or public entity. Moreover, these projects are then placed within the confines of the local bureaucracy and its miles of red tape for an exhaustive process of meetings, proposals and approvals. As we have seen in this project, the challenge of dealing with these public entities more often than not can dramatically change the scope of a given project. Artists who are trained in the modern, individualist tradition are often not experienced in dealing with these issues, and may find negotiating the “public” in public art to be a restrictive and frustrating experience.
For Jamaica Flux, all of these same issues were present, and were ideas that the curatorial team considered during the initial phases of the project. A major question posed by the organizers was the idea of our responsibility to the public. First of all, who exactly was our public? Were they locals? Artworlders? Patrons of JCAL? Anyone passing by? And then, how should the experience unfold for the public? Ultimately, many of these questions were answered by the art works themselves, but there were several criteria that came heavily into play during the selection and execution process:
• The art work in the exhibition had to be made in relationship to the neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. In our view, public art is art that engages, challenges and relates to the specific community and environment for which it was made.
• It was crucial to the curatorial team that we struck an equal balance between dialogical, interventionist, object-oriented and non-object oriented art work. Projects that offered opportunities for communal gathering, play, education, and public service all ranked highly during the selection process.
• We also encouraged collaboration and cooperation between the artists and the people in the neighborhood, as Jamaica Flux was designed foremost as a project for, about, with, and within the community. In this way it was also paramount that the work in the exhibition distinguish itself from so-called “plop art” – autonomous art forms made without any connection to the places in which they are installed, often used as a means to “beautify” public spaces.
Jamaica Flux is a project that is in many ways still in its infancy. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges that the exhibition faces is in finetuning the curatorial scope of the project and, eventually and more importantly, integrating more seamlessly into the community. It will be necessary for the project to work in closer concert with community merchants, and business and development organizations to forge relationships that will aid in securing sites, funding and other means of support. It is vital to the growth of the exhibition that Jamaica Flux take these steps in establishing a long-term commitment to the economic and social health of the neighborhood to expect the same long-term investment from the public.
Curator, Jamaica Flux 2007