Specificities: my adidas / Edwin Ramoran

Jamaica Flux is like hip-hop—that is, before it went really big. The Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning (JCAL) assembled a posse of independent curators—its agency—which in turn selected its message-providing emcees and writers, ebb-and-flow deejays, and fast and flexible breakers—the first contemporary artists in a long time to propose new art projects on Jamaica Avenue. Besides the most immediate relationship and associations of hip-hop culture with southeast Queens as represented by old school LL Cool J or supergroup Run-DMC or even new jacks 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, and Ja Rule, Jamaica is also where the late Jam Master Jay kept his active studio. “Jamaica Flux” even sounds like an effortless new school dance move or more like the ease of a rhyming flow of poetry.

During Jamaica Flux’s curatorial process, I have kept this homology in mind, weaving it in with the exhibition’s broader theme of the intersection between art and commerce. I found the melding of these two motifs—hip-hop culture and commercialization—exemplified in a take-away brochure distributed on Jamaica Avenue for visitors. Published by community-based organization Cultural Collaborative Jamaica, the cover of this colorful guide reads: “It’s a HIP trip to shop HOP in JAMAICA, NEW YORK.” A subtle backdrop of light blue text lists popular urban name brands like Avirex and Dolce & Gabbana, Phat Farm and Fubu. The inside flap proclaims, “. . . the street life is a show in itself” and concludes that the “sounds of Latin, reggae, and hip hop music are everywhere, as you might expect in the community where hip hop fashion was born.” Does this confluence of motifs also manifest itself in the artworks in Jamaica Flux? Can projects critically examine (versus superficially decorate or beautify) Jamaica as a cultural destination that attracts human traffic and passersby as well as new tourists, helping to reveal everyday conditions within the social fabric of the area?

Jamaica Flux is part of a continuum of conceptual projects and public interventions that began in the 1990s made for specific neighborhoods that continue to undergo social, political, economic, and cultural changes. These projects include Sites of Chinatown in Manhattan, The Brewster Project in Brewster, New York, and the upcoming Chinatown In/Flux in Philadelphia. The site specificity of Jamaica Flux is likewise defined by its location and, more specifically, in, among and around the commercial shopping district of Jamaica Avenue. It follows that certain economic and cultural specificites of the area—hip-hop being one of these—function as guideposts for artworks. Below I intend only to begin sketching how some artworks register and respond to these specificities.

Mom and Pop-and-Lock

Some artists literally offer themselves and their services to individuals, businesses, and organizations. Nicolás Dumit Estévez becomes a temporary unpaid employee for small independently owned shops, boutiques, medical offices, and food establishments. Douglas Weathersby provides a cleaning and home repair company that also transforms dust into sculptures. Pablo Helguera has invented a new fast food item, the Mexican-Chinese fortune tamal, that will be sold to individuals as well as potential vendors. Claudia Joskowicz’s apparel line includes the circulation of shirts with iron-ons made from recreated scenes of Latin American fotonovelas. Instead of buying them, participants are encouraged trade shirts with each other over periods of time. While bringing attention to the plight of underpaid and undocumented workers in these performance-based works, they also reveal the reality for selfless artists who many times are not compensated fairly or at all for the different creative work they do. Art is life – making art is labor. Let us not forget that most artists, like most workers without papers, do not even have or cannot afford proper health coverage and pension plans.

Price Taggers

A few artists address local identity as commodified or constructed. Akiko Ichikawa provides free temporary, painted kanji tattoos to the public as a popular urban medium of self-expression. Laura Carton’s white t-shirts with large letters spelling out “CITIZEN” are intended to be freely distributed with the help of a vendor to visitors who are encouraged to wear them throughout the day. In the window of a children’s apparel store, Larry Krone marks three different co-gender items of a school uniform with the self-identifying phrase “This Is Me.” Troy Richards hands out free balloons with eyes on them to comment on increasing surveillance in daily life. Stephen Pascher paints large letters that read “Trick or Treat” on the construction wall surrounding the Dutch Reformed Church.

Remixers

Many artists recontextualize already existing items and situations in order to address history and local culture. Based on dialogues and workshops with community members, Manuel Acevedo produces collaborative drawings on photographs. These become postcards depicting new designs and sanctuaries to replace urban blight and abandoned lots. Michael Rakowitz reopens his grandfather’s old export/import business to collect items from locals that will be shipped to Baghdad. Yoko Inoue works with a musical composer to update coin-operated kiddie rides with political songs. Juana Valdes makes use of slogans like “Come for the Shopping / Stay for the Art” in her postcards that conflate tourist campaigns for Jamaica, Queens, and the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

There are projects that directly relate to the interlocking of hip-hop and Jamaica as a commercial site. Like a mobile deejay, Karlos Carcamo selects videos by other artists and projects them on the streets from his Ford Bronco. Hank Willis Thomas subverts famous clothing advertisements and brands to critically examine the commercialization of African American identity. In one proposal submitted by the Center for Urban Pedagogy, skyscrapers are stacks of open boxes of sneakers surrounding existing towers. Roberto Visani’s mixed-media sculpture of a skeletal hand grabbing for dough in the North Fork Bank visualizes 50 Cent’s album Get Rich or Die Tryin. Olu Oguibe’s “Feed Your Mind” literacy campaign is aimed at young men of African descent who are depicted on large-scale photo-based advertisements.

Hip-hop provides what Franklin Sirmans calls a “new way to visualize the history of contemporary art.”[1] I would like to add that it also allows us to imagine and address history and community together. The confluence of site and cultural specificities makes for more complex understandings of contemporary art practices that strive not only be juxtaposed to but interact with different public spaces and locations.

[1] Franklin Sirmans, “Gold to Me,” One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art (Bronx: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2001), 33.

Edwin Ramoran