Visibility, transparency, diplomacy, security…
Notes on artistic experiments on the streets of Jamaica in 2007 / Aniko Erdosi
While organizing Jamaica Flux 2007, we encountered the terms of visibility, invisibility, and transparency conspicuously often. The words were used in regards to numerous practical aspects of the creation of the 25 art projects in different public or semi-public spaces. Many times the word transparency occurred when the artwork changed its features, its nature, its location, or all of those at the same time. While being visible and remaining transparent seemed to be important and valuable characteristics, invisibility sounded rather to be a lack of success. In the spirit of the process-oriented concept of Jamaica Flux, I decided to collect some notes, observations and questions generated by the experience during the course of the project implementation.
Through the course of the project, I found it quite intriguing how playfully the different meanings of those terms interfere with and inspire each other, and I’ve tried to translate this game into my texts, playing the double meanings of them in different contexts.
Visibility – art for what audience?
The term visibility recently had a great career in the constantly expanding art world. It is one of those notions that are frequent in formal and informal discussions about the contemporary art practice. It is taken for granted that the motivation for an artist to go out and work in public space is a desire to enhance the visibility of his/her own work. However, it happens that the artwork is so humble in relation to its environment that it is physically almost invisible or only visible for the ones who know about its existence and intentionally look for it. This evokes questions, such as who is the target audience of the work in a case like Jamaica Flux, and for whom should it be visible? What is visible for the ones familiar with contemporary art is not necessarily visible for locals, who pass by the site day after day.
The quotation above, by the writer Elmore Leonard, is taken from a recent interview, in which he is speaking about the visibility in authorship. Reading Leonard’s explanation about how is he trying to stay invisible by not having a recognizable ‘sound’ in his novels, I started to ponder that how this idea could relate to the artworks we were about to display at that time in Jamaica, where the intention was to be visible, but the outcome sometimes proved to be trickier than that.
Given by the nature of the project, the question of physical visibility affected all the artworks, but in some cases the ratio of visibility and invisibility was a key issue. Ironically, such was the case when artists used advertisement spaces like phone booths, where the random nature of poster distribution generated a hide and seek game for us, for visitors to Jamaica Flux 2007, and for the artists themselves. Among the three artists (Jon Cuyson, Heather Hart, and Lisa C Soto) whose works were displayed in phone booths along Jamaica Avenue, Cuyson’s situation was the most complicated. After changing his site and thus his project many times due to several rejected site-requests, Cuyson eventually created a photographic piece, shown as a street banner on a sidewall of a building on 164th Street, which belongs to the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica. Cuyson’s first proposal for the space was a blank page with a haiku on it, which addressed the visually congested landscape of the avenue. The poetic message was delivered by a language based on Asian philosophy, but the one-line Zen conversation included an ambiguous expression “plop”, which concerned the Church members . Rather than create another work for the wall, Cuyson decided to deliver his message somewhere else in Jamaica. One single copy of a phone booth poster was created with the haiku and was given to the distribution company, along with the posters by other artists. While Heather Hart’s and Lisa C Soto’s work became highly visible in many phone booths on the avenue close to JCAL’s building, Cuyson’s single haiku piece was never located in spite of many exhibition tours and individual attempts to find it. Thus, we question whether this was due to the same language issue.
Transparency and security – in whose space is the art?
As another popular term of our time, security also appeared in several cases during the process. Being transparent means being predictable, controllable, and safe. Thus, transparency today is tightly linked to the more and more complex—thus more and more elusive—meaning of security. If it is about a public space, it seems more important than ever. And indeed, there were many cases when transparency was a requirement for an artwork to be realized for Jamaica Flux 2007. This was especially true when the discussion was in regards to built structures.
At the beginning of the project, participating artist Jenny Polak proposed to build a living unit shaped like a tree trunk, which would address the social and human conditions of migrant workers in the current urban context. The work would be located on the street in front of a Federal Social Security building. The first reaction of the building security was related not to the message of the piece, but to its structure. They needed it to be transparent for security reasons. But that was an impossible task . We had to move the piece to another site, where, although it was still not transparent, nothing improper happened to or in it. , Children would gather and throw birthday parties inside the trunk, which thus strengthened its resemblance to dwelling places of fairy-tale characters.
In another case, the artist On megumi Akiyoshi wanted to cover all the windows on the façade of JCAL with a colorful self-adhesive vinyl showing a floral pattern design that was inspired by her investigation on recent tendencies in Japanese pop culture. In this case, the first floor windows of the facility were the main security concern. Anything that altered the transparency of the windows would significantly affect the security conditions. I later recalled that during the discussion I should have asked about the direction of the endangered sight. In other words, whose sense of security was at stake: the ones who would be looking out from inside the building or the ones who would be looking in from outside? After an extensive email correspondence and search for a semi-transparent colored vinyl which would be still visible from outside, Akiyoshi altered her design. In the new plan, the colored vinyl sheets just partially covered the window glass, creating a pattern. The result was not only approved and realized, but turned out to be so popular that the organization decided to keep the piece permanently.
In order to include a significant historical reference of public art practice in an urban context, we’ve reconstructed the Open House installation by Gordon Matta-Clark. Although replicas of the piece were shown already in different institutional settings since the original piece was built on Greene Street in 1972, this was the first time when it was reset into its original context: on the street exposed to the public. Or at least, that was the plan. While we were negotiating for the site, the fact that the structure is not transparent raised questions one more time in regards of security and liability issues. Being a temporary construction, with inbuilt ‘hidden’ spaces that is accessible for anyone, the main question was: who is responsible for the site? Whose space is it—Gordon Matta-Clark’s, the organizers’, the city authorities’, or that of the people who happen to be there at a given moment? The process of negotiation and implementation of the replica was true to the dominant social principles of Matta-Clark’s original concept. Eventually, the piece found its location in a semi-public space, a parking lot of a bank building that was open to the public only during the day. So it was safely protected during the night, and thus the risk factor was reduced while the concept remained intact.
The sense of security in a public context is an issue we have to deal with today even if we would not be particularly interested in it. Thinking about the artificially generated public obsession with transparency – mainly in public discussion on political issues – and security, it is interesting to observe how those ideas manifest in the tendency of transparency in urban architecture in the last decade and how they affect the thinking of contemporary artists, who are shaping the urban landscape through art projects like Lishan Chang’s installation for Jamaica Flux 2007. Wrapping plastic foil around trees in King Manor Park, Chang created a translucent screen, through which a distorted cityscape is visible.
We either look at the big picture or just certain parts of it. The process of Jamaica Flux 2007 was an experiment for many participants, including the community members. By conducting the implementation of the twentyfive site- and/or context-specific projects, it became clear that today for a successful art endeavor in public realm one needs to be not only flexible and resourceful, but also have a peculiar inventory of patience, humility, and diplomacy—to name just a few of the necessary skills. Experiencing these was new for many participants, who came from a background based predominantly in studio practice. But it turns out that one of the main strengths of the project is that it bears an experimental character and includes a diverse list of participants—ranging from emerging artists to more experienced and established protagonists of the art scene.
Co-curator, Jamaica Flux 2007