Regenerative Jamaica Flux
/ Heng-Gil Han
The 2007 Edition Jamaica Flux: Workspaces and Windows is an innovative, multi-dimensional, and perennial project. It involves an alternative, experimental exhibition of site-specific art, performance art events, educational seminars, and public discussions. The project is conceived to help artists produce new temporary, site-specific public art works. It also intends to help create an urban texture to enhance pedestrians’ cultural and aesthetic experience.
The project was inaugurated in 2004 and presented a second time in the fall of 2007. Both editions of the project dealt with a complex set of tangible conditions of urban daily life, as the art works were produced or displayed in public. For the same reason, the project tested alternative ways to deal with the fundamental questions involved in art production and exhibition.
Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL) was able to raise money of about 80% of the total project budget for the second Jamaica Flux. This made the organization able to fund 100% of the proposed production costs of the majority of the works and to support all participating artists in their creation of new work at a significant level. JCAL was able to. Many foundations’ insight, generosity, and belief in the project exerted an enormous positive impact on the physical manifestation of artists’ visions.
The organization was also able to procure almost all the sites chosen by the artists for their creative vision. That was possible with the strong supports from other organizations, institutions, and corporations in the community. In addition, a few small business owners played a crucial role in realizing the project. Their genuine understanding of the project’s purposes and their generous donation of their time or space were indispensable for the project.
Jamaica Flux 2007 included 18 installations of two- or three-dimensional artworks. The works were installed in public places, including sidewalks, building facades and windows, store shelves, lobbies and corridors, phone booth windows, bus shelter windows, billboard panels, parking lots, and a public park. The installations remained there for seven weeks from September 29 through November 17.
In addition to these spatial works, 6 timebased performance-art events were organized on sidewalks and streets on a few Saturdays during the seven-week period. In addition, one artist chose to project a video onto the façade of a building, which was an exciting challenge due to its requirement of special equipment and setting for a long distance projection. The video projection took place on the last day of the exhibition from dusk to late evening. Jamaica Flux 2007 also included replications of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Open House (1972) and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ large-scale off-set prints Untitled (1992). Matta-Clark’s installation was mounted in a dumpster sited in the parking lot of a Citibank branch. Gonzalez-Torres’ prints were installed in JCAL’s gallery and dispersed from there. The third historical work was the video documentation of Robert Smithson’s making of Spiral Jetty, presented on a TV monitor in the gallery. These historical works were included in order to provide a diachronic contextualization of site-specific art and to provide a historical reference for the work of living artists whose practice deals specifically with elements of urban life and site-specificity.
Through art installations, performative activities, and virtual presentations in street-level public spaces, the project sought to bring contemporary art to the public on daily basis, inviting them to visit the gallery. The project was committed to helping the public engage in a dialogue with contemporary art practices and placing art at the center of urban life.
The effort was largely successful: pedestrians encountering the installations and events raised many questions and were interested in finding out what the artists were doing and why. In addition, the project increased the organization’s visibility, as well as community leaders’ awareness of Jamaica’s growing need for more arts programs and art organizations.
Most importantly, the project prompted the spirit of participation and collaboration among organizations and institutions as well as between the artists and the organizations. The project was positioned beyond the traditional boundary of exhibition practice from its early stage of conception. Therefore, the modes of art production and reception included in Jamaica Flux followed a radically different path of operation from that of the conventional art exhibition. It was necessary for the participants in this multifaceted project to investigate alternative ways of thinking about contemporary art practices and cultural production. It was also necessary for them to raise challenging questions about the traditional framework and interpretation of exhibition practice. Looking back on the project’s premises, process, and outcomes, I think the project is an ultimately political endeavor to improve the conditions of the system for art presentation and appreciation in urban life.
The project raises questions about the meaning of an exhibition, art making as making choices, the notion of site, alternative organization and the term “alternative,” and the state of the art institution. All these issues are worth exploring. However, in this essay, I would like to focus on the meaning of the exhibition in terms of its current paradigm, roles, and effects.
The Crisis of Exhibition and the Departure of Jamaica Flux
Through some of the research and exhibitions of the past three decades, we know that art exhibitions are not about presenting and receiving art as it is, but they are about constructing an ideological space that identifies art as such. The modernists believed in the possibility of preserving a sacred space for the pure experience of art in its original state. Recent research reveals that this belief about an exhibition is an illusion concealing substantive interests in the economic and symbolic values of an exhibition: An institutionally organized exhibition proves not a space existing outside of the concerns of the institution itself, but one that is formed by negotiation, consensus, and collaboration. An exhibition is a collection of opposing forces and contexts that generate multiple layers of meaning. The exhibition represents an on-going process of building and maintaining a collective identity of the particular society—the group of people standing behind the exhibition.
The modernist aesthetics developed during the twentieth century defined the ideal exhibition as a neutral display of art works for pure contemplation. An exhibition is a self-contained space in which a spectator, in a disinterested state of mind, experiences art as it is. In this ideal, artwork is the object of contemplation and art making is understood as the creation of an object for spectators’ pure aesthetic experience.
This modernist ideal of exhibition has become a gallery setting known as the “white cube,” the ubiquitous standard for galleries today. In this space, all walls are whitewashed, windows are removed, and other architectural elements are concealed from the spectator’s field of vision. Walls are lit brightly and uniformly, and shadows are reduced to a minimum. Noises are suppressed and the illusion of frozen time is created. All particularities of daily life are abstracted in pursuance of universality and eternality.
Despite the scrupulous care taken with the details, the modernist ideal of the white cube setting did not prove viable. The staged experience led to the alienation of the viewer, rather than aesthetic pleasure. Though it might have been originally conceived as a space for the transparent communication of pure art, the white cube is far from an innocent tabula rasa. Instead, it’s more akin to a deliberate concealment of an institutional and ideological system predetermining what art is, and who the audience and artists are.
In order to show art as it is, modernism needed to define art with respect to itself. Defining art in relation to other entities is not defining art as it is. Claiming to be a space for showing and looking at art as it is, the exhibition grants art its status as art, carrying forward the ultimate (seemingly tautological) repetition: art is art.
Repeat reading the repetition twice with a different emphasis on its two segments; you will get its intention to connect physical instances of art to the general idea of art. Art is shown here because art is shown here. It means something that is shown here is art because art is shown here.
With the repetition, modernist idealism achieves the necessary logical equivalence between art and exhibition: The boundary of art is limited to the exhibition while the exhibition is defined by the disembodied gaze of art. An exhibition shows art; it’s a space in which art appears, takes place, and exists. The idea of art is aufgehoben in the exhibition, i.e., preserved and delimited by the exhibition. The whitecube structure physically reinforces this logical equivalence between art and exhibition by radically abstracting the idea of art and isolating an artwork from the world. The white cube is a silent gesture declaring that the artwork in it is not related to, or cannot be regarded as, an object of everyday life. Form and content unify in an ideal circle.
The modernist proposal that art is necessarily bound to an exhibition presupposes the necessity of the social context of art—a relationship that is formed between artist and viewer. The exhibition acts as a vehicle which delivers art and controls the relationship between artist and viewer. As an intermediary channel of communication, the exhibition constructs its participants, and the white cube exactly does that. The outcome is that the white cube‘s audience is confined to a group with certain cultural attitudes and certain levels of income and education, deepening the fragmentation within our diverse society. At the other end of the channel, the white cube informs artists in terms of art production. The artists who the exhibition would represent would be those who make self-reflexive artworks dealing with formal issues; and who believe that art is the creation of self-contained objects.
Though the white cube paradigm has made significant contributions to the development of contemporary art in the twentieth century, it also has isolated art from daily life, betraying its utopian origins. It established a selective system of defining art in terms of class, race, and gender, limiting ideas, mediums, and physical outcomes of art production to itself. Hence it provoked the question of “whose” art the white cube truly served, turning the aesthetic issue into a practical one involving ethical, socio-political, and socio-economical agenda, despite the original intention to liberate art from any practical interests.
Contemporary art exhibitions are in crisis. The paradigm of the white cube, now nearly a century old, is irrevocably collapsing. This is the point of departure of Jamaica Flux. What are the options we are left with after exhibitions have out-grown their representational function? Can we find an alternative to the doomed, pretentious presentational stage of the white cube, which theatrically separates artworks from other discourses and contexts of reality?
Multiplicity and Diversity as Forms of Regeneration
The point of departure of Jamaica Flux is not only art-historical, but also geographical and organizational. A series of cultural, socioeconomic and -political conditions of area of Jamaica, Queens came together naturally over the course of the past few decades to create fertile ground for an experimental exhibition like Jamaica Flux.
Downtown Jamaica is an urban community, about 350 years old, located on the outskirts of New York City. The district is traditionally known for a trading center and a transportation hub. John F. Kennedy international airport is in close proximity and the neighborhood offers a direct access to the communications system. There are MTA subways, Long Island Rail Road, and highways that connect to Wall Street, Uptown and Midtown of Manhattan, and other boroughs, as well as to LaGuardia airport. Jamaica was the county seat of Queens from the formation of the county in the late 17th century until the late 18th century. In the late 19th century, Jamaica regained its role as county seat; and in the early 20th century, a large commercial corridor was created along Jamaica Avenue, providing homes to the headquarters of major trading companies of the day. Hence, several high-rise stone buildings were built for banks, offices, and government agencies, corresponding to upscale wealth of the community at that time.
The downtown shopping center then experienced a prolonged economic decline that started with the Depression of the 1930s and went into the 1960s when rapid suburbanization was underway in the post-World War II era. In 1967, local artists, business leaders, and community members came together to reverse the decline. They acquired the abandoned Queens Register of Titles and Deeds Building, a New York landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and transformed it into an urban multi-arts center. Founded in 1972, Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning today symbolizes the community’s spirit for renewal and acts as a catalyst to rebuild a culturally and economically fertile urban community via productive arts programs.
Queens is the largest borough of New York City by area and the most diverse county in the nation. The 2000 census reports that Queens’ population reaches to 2.23 million people, and 46 percent of those people are foreignborn. According to the 2000 report by H. Carl McCall, NY State Comptroller, approximately 138 languages are spoken in Queens. Located in Southeast Queens, Jamaica has a substantial concentration of West Indian immigrants, Indians, Arabs, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, as well as many long-established African American families. Recently, Southeast Asian immigrants are moving into the neighborhood, and the number of Northeast Asian immigrant shop owners is also increasing.
In addition to this geographical background and the local history, Jamaica Flux is situated in a privileged position that is exempt from the common concerns and conditions shared by many museums when organizing an exhibition. Such burdens on museums are often related to issues of the economic and cultural values of the collection and the aesthetic standard. These issues are communicated through rhetoric suggesting the production of knowledge, representation of time, and prophecies of the future. None of these liabilities concerns the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning. The focus of the organization’s mission is much less on collecting art and constructing history, but more on providing concrete conditions for a balanced civic life in which artists can do their job—exploring new ideas and producing new works—and individuals have access to art and cultural experiences. Free of the common burdens loaded on museums’ shoulders, Jamaica Flux examines the fundamental questions about exhibition from a point of view radically different from the modernist analytic perspective.
In the perspective Jamaica Flux adopts, art is placed at the center of contemporary life. The exhibition is considered to be not a passive mechanism of collecting and showing artworks, but active operation of generating new ideas and forms of life. Instead of placing emphasis on the representation of life, it emphasizes actions which form a cultural life. Like a splitting cell, the exhibition multiplies into a few and spreads out over several sites, deep into the nerves of daily life—the street-level public realm in which we encounter “the other.” The main gallery, the sanctuary of art, is filled up with preparatory ephemera—drawings, notes, photographs, and maquettes—that the participating artists produced in the planning phase prior to the realization of their outdoor sitespecific projects.
In the traditional point of view, these kinds of items are not considered to be genuine artwork or they are thought of as possessing less aesthetic value. They are not considered autonomous works of art, and they are ranked as secondary to the final artwork they are made for. Ironically though, in the case of Jamaica Flux, these items will continue to exist for a long time, unlike the site-specific art project initially set to be destroyed when the planned seven-week period of exhibition concludes. What spectators see in the gallery is not a physical artwork, but a world of imagination drawn, explained, and sampled by the ephemera—fragments of visions that the participating artists aspired to realize, as well as experimental ideas that were not realized for various reasons. Spectators are approached to reconstruct the final installation in their mind by looking at the ephemera, imagining how the installation would look and what the implications of the installation would be. Spectators are invited to take parting a game of creative imagination.
Since the exhibition is conceived as generative and productive, diversity and flexibility are crucial elements of the exhibition concept. Diversity reflects the community; and uniformity wouldn’t work at all in this context. Artists are strongly encouraged to take the routines of daily life in the neighborhood and specific conditions of the sites into consideration while developing their projects. They are also encouraged to consider the possibility of multiple authorship of their work, in opposition to the modernist ideal of singular authorship. The driving concept of the exhibition is the exploration of new ideas. Each artist’s signature theme and working method become diversified in relation to the sites and people. The exhibition follows neither an integrationist model, nor in an interventionist model.
The exhibition format of Jamaica Flux is confirmed by the zeitgeist of contemporary art. The crisis of the contemporary art exhibition proves alarming; contemporary art museums have difficulties to fulfill their mission to show and store works of today’s aesthetic standard. A group of artworks produced in the 1990s and the 2000s challenge the traditional museum practice. These works, often described as “relational” or “dialogical,” are by nature ephemeral and site-specific, for they frequently encourage spectators to join the social engagement they offer. The works consist in a random occurrence (happening), at a spontaneous moment (event), or in a social space (a relationship between people in constant flux). It is difficult to identify the location of the works, the authorship, and their aesthetic value.
As if in response to the criticism of the whitecube’s ideology, major museums and contemporary art centers are increasingly introducing exhibition designs in which walls are fully painted in colors or partially decorated with marks, lines, and geometric shapes. These exhibition designs, often associated with European salon exhibitions in the 19th century, are reminiscent of a historical museum or a science hall. However, these exhibition designs are not a solution to the problem, but a provisionary ad-hoc measure that clearly confirms the crisis of the white-cube paradigm. To believe that painting of the gallery walls in color would cancel the criticism of the white cube only reveals the institutional incomprehension of the ideological issues surrounding the white cube—or the unwillingness to face a critical self-examination.
The crisis of exhibition has constituted a complex platform of debates by many art professionals—curators, art administrators, scholars, and even artists. Serious critiques have been written in a variety, such as Elena Filipovic’s critique on the clandestine ideology of the white-cube and the self-contradictory reliance of perennial mega-exhibitions on the white-cube model; Boris Groys’ critique of multiple authorship of an artwork in consideration of its involvement of a multilayered network of professionals and institutions; or Nicolas Bourriaud’s critique of relational art practice and exhibition as a political endeavor to rehabilitate human relations and social criticism.
In search for a possible solution to the exhibition crisis, inventive curatorial proposals have been also realized for international expositions, testing different ideas of exhibition. For example, Okwui Enwezor’s attempt to transform the 2002 Documenta into a vulnerary platform for multiple (and perhaps conflicting) discourses; Hou Hanru’s idea of a biennial as an experimental lab for art and cultural production; or Roger M. Buergel’s vision of the 2007 Documenta as an institutional system producing aesthetic experience.
Though they may appear as a series of disparate individual discourses, these critiques and exhibitions are closely interrelated, as all explore possible ideas and multiple functions of an exhibition. The meaning of exhibition is destabilized: An exhibition is not exclusively bound to expose art. During the process of organizing and viewing an exhibition, migrations of other discourses occur, decentering the source of the exhibition. As art is shown, it gains other values—cultural, economic, or political—in addition to the aesthetic value. These other values, which represent different forces, destabilize the analytic meaning of an exhibition, as it happened in Jamaica Flux. They are not authoritative, nor do they promise consistency. Instead of competing with each other, they tentatively coexist and enhance the multiple facets of the exhibition, adding use values to the existing logical value of exhibition. Jamaica Flux reflects the cultural landscape of current contemporary art practices and scenes, destabilizing the traditional framework of exhibition and searching for new possibilities.
Project Director & Curator, Jamaica Flux