Setting a Framework for the Intersection of Art and Life – An Interim Report of Jamaica Flux / Heng-Gil Han

“Is what I am proposing to do driven more by the prospect of increased attendance and sponsorship or more by a free artistic compass? Or can these be balanced without selling out?” – Maxwell L. Anderson, in: “The New Gatekeepers: Emerging Challenges to Free Expression in the Arts”, National Arts Journalism Program, Columbia University, New York, 2003.

Here we are in New York at the dawn of the 21st century; the world has become smaller, faster and more familiar. But at the same time, it has also become more divided, expanded and alienating to such an extent that new branches of institutions are sprouting across all sectors of life. Experimental hybridization of heterogeneous genres is not surprising so terms like “fusion,” “multitude,” and “intervention” are trendy in artistic, scientific, and socio-political realms. Characterizing this cultural moment is the sense that we are actually drifting from one site to another. These phenomena demonstrate that the lessons we’ve learned from past mistakes are fading, and the theories and rules that have been established are no longer universally applicable. And here we are, at the dawn of the century, trying hard to learn again, to find new rules if there are any present, and to collect fragments of user guides that we could at least apply for the time being to handle emergencies. In a world where the rule of theory coincides with its absence, profit and capital are the driving forces, and one has to think quickly and be savvy in the process of exchange.

A few days ago, I e-mailed an artist and found out he was traveling in Sweden. A couple of days ago, I e-mailed him again and he was in New York. Today, I called him at his studio and heard his message: “Sorry, I am out of town for the next few days. Please drop an e-mail to me at …” Another artist called me the other day on my cellular phone. She was talking about things that are recorded as electronic files on the computer in my office in New York, and she realized that I was in San Francisco and couldn’t access this Information. She unnecessarily apologized. The nomadic lifestyle has become common. Things have to be done “now” rather than later. Advanced technology obscures our sense of Cartesian space, i.e., distance and depth. Modernists rejected the pictorial frame of painting as a surrogate window through which we see the world. Their visionary resolution was the media specificity regarding the canvas as a physical plane on which the self-reflective reconciliation between representation and presentation of the autonomous self is possible. Today, a simulated immediacy is not a mere idea or image, but constitutes the actual process of communication and the concrete elements of our very lived experience.

The progress of late capitalism and advanced technology paves roads for particular forms of art that we have to value as potential, upcoming arts for future generations. One emerging form is an artistic practice driven by the desire to remove the boundaries between art and daily life, that is, to see art in daily activities and events, and vice versa. Historians called it Pop Art, Fluxus, Concept Art, or something else. However, it is not a name or a category that matters, but the spirit that vividly exists in artists’ minds to be here and now. With a keen awareness of the status of contemporary artists (both their potential functions and existential desires) within the socio-political and cultural realms of the capitalist system, six curators came together to organize the present exhibition entitled Jamaica Flux: Workspaces & Windows.

This exhibition is designed to provide opportunities for artists and curators to engage in a dialogue with community residents, businesses owners, and workers on Jamaica Avenue, and vice versa. On the one hand, the project is intended to infuse contemporary art into the daily life and everyday business activities on Jamaica avenue, a large commercial area. On the other hand, the project is motivated by collective, institutional demands to raise the community’s cultural profile, while bolstering the economic revitalization of the community in ways that attract visitors and tourists to Jamaica Avenue. Given these premises, the project is by virtue a collaborative endeavor among many different parties, requiring participants’ commitment, endurance, and mutual support of the participants’ various interests.

As anticipated in the very early stages of planning, the collaborative nature of the exhibition naturally has set a specific context that generates a set of criteria for production, presentation, and reception of art works featured in the exhibition. These criteria shape the core structure of the exhibition, revealing an art philosophical foundation on which the exhibition and the site-specific projects are based. The criteria also consequently provide a certain perspective of art that clearly outlines the tasks for artists and curators in terms of what should be achieved, in other words, idealistic. For viewers and critics, this perspective poses itself as a thought-provoking objective to review and examine.

Aligned with the collaborative nature of the exhibition, the curators do not propose a specific thesis on art and commerce to be verified via art works on view. Instead, they heuristically raise critical questions and deliberately leave the questions open for the audience and participants to discuss. By avoiding a didactic proposal, the curators hope the exhibition is a vulnerable open-source realm where questions are raised and thoughts are provoked. This approach to organizing the exhibition presumes that an exhibition is not just a presentation of art works, but promotes a social dialogue whereby it becomes a political action in the vein of public speeches and debates. A new exhibition is no longer about collecting art works or interpreting an idea. It is more about triggering a mechanism in which social interaction and discourse can occur, yielding an open market place of ideas. The present catalog documents this process; it represents a momentum where different ideas and contradictory perspectives equally exist, providing readers with a contemplative space.

The collaborative nature of the exhibition is meant for the artists of site-specific projects to be more flexible and less rigid in claiming their artistic freedom and autonomy. The exhibition’s premises explore the competing conditions of life – creative freedom, fiscal demand, and commercial interest. In an attempt to resolve these contradictory conditions, the artists are posed to take a certain perspective, in which making art signified less a realization of an artist’s singular aesthetic vision, but more a revelation of the collective consciousness surrounding the project. Thus, the artwork on view critically questions practical parameters that often retreat behind the façade of daily activities, and yet, play a decisive role in shaping the appearance of public life – the streets and the spaces of commerce. These conditions and requirements, which the artists had to creatively work through, ranged from the phenomenological settings to economic interests, ethical behaviors, and socio-political ideologies. Technical requirements and maintenance of an artwork easily presented an additional work-load for already stressed-out store managers, which in turn meant for artists limitations in the process of selecting and securing sites. The video surveillance and display settings of the stores often interfered with the installation of art works, requiring that the artists creatively negotiate with the given settings. With economic interests, the store owners were uneasy about giving up a square foot of the window cases for which they pay a fortune every month. This, in turn, confirms that in our capitalist society, not only time but also space is money. The land is still the best resource for the accumulation of capital in the 21st century, and that explains why the virtual space is rapidly expanding. The specific function of a commercial space challenged some artists and caused them to debate if they were creating promotional materials or making art. The public nature of commercial spaces and streets concerned some community leaders who subsequently raised questions: how critical and political can the artwork be? The socio-political questions raised in an art work quickly transformed into a question of artists’ ethical respects towards other members of our society. Considering all these conflicts, it is not surprising that art is hard to find in our daily lives and inner-city streets that have become a market place of products.

The collaborative nature of the exhibition – which sometimes produced restrictive policies, tight schedules, and technical limitations of sites into the work – analogically, yet clearly illuminated the transcendental status of an artwork in terms of its modality. An art work might physically belong to its creator, admirer, or buyer. Nevertheless, it is as a cultural item that becomes the property of the collective consciousness insofar as it embodies specific conditions of a particular time and space such as ideology, religion, and socio-economic or political interests. Artwork is a fragile, complex sphere where the private and the public intersect. This abstract idea of art was made concretely tangible during the process of putting Jamaica Flux together. The site-specific works in the exhibition came into existence through the convergence of the artists’ vision and the possibilities afforded by each site. The art works are structured the way they are to fulfill the artists’ aspirations and to satisfy the requirements of the sites in which they are situated.

Last spring, artists in the off-site, site-specific component of the exhibition were led by the curators to various locations along Jamaica Avenue. In response to what they saw, the artists were invited to conceive ideas and choose sites for their project. They went back to their studios and created drawings, renderings and mark-ups for their projects. Are these small art works in the studio merely preparatory items showing a potential idea that is to be realized, or do they actually constitute a potential body of art works that possibly can be received as such? When the artists presented their drawings, renderings, and mark-ups to the curators and the storeowners and managers, the collaborative dynamic of the exhibition was acknowledged. This process raises questions about which part is a form of approval and which is an assertive step of transcendence? And at what point does the process under discussion function in potential terms, and when is its status transformed into an actual work of art? In response to each artist’s proposal, the curators had come to an agreement with each storeowner about the site-specific work to be presented, at which point the artist started producing the work. Is this process of the production a phase in which the artist is realizing his/her idea, or is this process the momentum where an art work necessarily comes into existence and necessarily exists as an art work reflecting the conditions of its possibility? In an analogy to this process of creating site-specific artwork, can we say that an art work in a studio has only the status of possibility to become an art work? Or is its status as an art work asserted when it is shown in a gallery? And further along, is an art work necessarily to consider as such when it becomes the object of critical discussions and a consensus-building cultural education?

Today, most artists, independent curators and not-for-profit art institutions are facing severe fiscal difficulties to exert their freedom of creativity and expression. As Andrea Fraser’s recent performance Untitled, 2004, presented at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York City, demonstrates, the feeling of selling out and being sold out is unavoidable when fiscal problems become the determining central force of the production and circulation of art. The problem implies the extent to which artists and art professionals are marginalized broadly in society. The situation challenges this group of people to step up and to take a position as mature leaders of society, which they actually are the members of, consciously and responsibly in order to mend the existing gap between art and life. As a pilot program, Jamaica Flux challenges artists with the opportunity to incorporate conditions of everyday life into their creative operation of making art, rather than providing them with the protective comfort of the white incubator that has been established for artistic engagements.

Heng-Gil Han

Project Director & Curator, Jamaica Flux