Palas por pistolas, by Pedro Reyes, on the Lower East Side. (Photos by C-M.)
Like many people who live in New York City right now, Occupy Wall Street has occupied my mind. Like many people, I’ve been of a mixed mind about it. As has been repeated ad nauseum, there is no unifying message, no unifying issues, no unifying ethos. The protests’ goals are unclear. And the scene in Zucotti Park is a borderline circus, complete with naked-lady body painting, relentless bongo drumming and enough patchouli to gag an ox.
But as chaotic as the protests are, they have energized me — or something in me that has felt powerless before a power structure (Congress, corporations, the Koch brothers) that stacks the deck against people like myself. I’m a freelancer. I am almost 40 years old. I have almost no benefits to speak of and neither does my husband. I make less money now than I did five years ago — even though I work twice as hard. The prospect of an eventual retirement seems almost morbidly hilarious. I am, to be cliché, the 99%. Which is why I’ve supported the protests (I’ve made food donations), even if I don’t entirely know what they’re about and even if I’m not really the type to grab a sleeping bag and camp out. I also support the right of the protestors to remain firmly in place — as a noisy, irritating thorn in the side of an establishment that seems to care less and less about people like me.
All of these thoughts were consuming my brain as I paid a visit to the Living as Form exhibit in the abandoned Essex Street Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Thursday. Organized by Creative Time’s chief curator Nato Thompson, the show is less a collection of aesthetic objects than a gathering of projects and project documentation that in some way speak to social action. In other words, this isn’t a show that is easy to look at. You’re not going to jet in and out and be blown away by some kaleidoscope of color or some highly photogenic installation.
Living as Form explores the ways in which many artists are engaging social issues in their work — whether its Pedro Reyes (see the image above), who collected guns and quite literally, transformed them into shovels, or Rick Lowe, who for a decade and a half, has dedicated himself to the community inhabiting a row of historic shotgun houses in Houston, a project that in every way imaginable functions like a traditional non-profit. There is a gripping video by Jeremy Deller, which recreates a historic encounter between union miners and the Thatcher government and a simple bookshelf, installed by the L.A. collective Finishing School, which displays books that have been branded “dangerous” under the Patriot Act. Some of these are obvious (The Anarchist Cookbook), others are downright befuddling (a tome about how to live off the land).
How is this art? Thompson says neither he nor the exhibit necessarily have the answer. The show is merely a way of exploring the way in which art plays a role in the lives of the many communities it inhabits. “It’s good to be aware that art isn’t universally regarded as a ‘good,’” says Thompson. “Talk to people on the Lower East Side and they might be, “I don’t want your art. I want affordable housing.” The show includes their voices, too (in the form of walking tours around the neighborhood). This may all feel a little unmoored, but that’s the point. It’s all part of the moment that we’re living in.
Living as Form will be on view through this weekend at the Historic Essex Market on the Lower East Side. Definitely go and check it out (and give yourself plenty of time when you do). Want to do a little more reading? Mira Schor has an essay on this very topic…