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Notes from an island between rivers – part III

March 12th, 2009 by Ivet Reyes Maturano

Exchanging gifts

This island has a secret beauty, I think. It is not in its heights nor at the facades but less visible and yet very present; it is at the heart of conflicts and visions of many people that live, work and move along or against the power of the city itself: individuals and collectives, creators, educators, students… people. New York is big and intense. I can but only give you a certain approach from my own position here; starting from the museum. It is also here where the work of ‘Be(com)ing Dutch’ is read anew and re-opened in a different plurality of readings. Such reading may give part of that unexpected local hearty secret beauty back.

The work by Michael Blum ‘Exodus 2048’ as part of Be(com)ing Dutch takes the whole education floor here. When I arrived to the museum about one month ago (already!) I sensed a big tension about the reactions towards that work among the museum staff -partly due to the way the public reacted after the first weeks, partly from their own readings. During the past four weeks I have had the chance to sense it closer while getting also closer to my new colleagues here. In the mid-time the tensions have diminished but the readings have pluralized in form of conversations and talks next to the work.

It is difficult that collective conversations happen spontaneously. So the effort of the education department staff is to generate such space not only by producing materials but also by stimulating people (the staff and the visitors) to do so by giving time and space, by giving and receiving input. So, for example: the hub attendants. Each of them brings their own knowledge, practice and view when they stand next to the work and when they come in talk with the public about the work. Shiva Krishna, Yvonne Olivas, and Jenna Dublin have an art-history formation. Rebecca Brown is an artist herself. They generate dialogues with the public sometimes right there, creating the spontaneous approach and, other times by organizing such occasions. Shiva Krishna, for example, invited a group of friends –also art historians- to develop a reading of the piece in open talk. It was fascinating to see how through that reading the art historians related the piece back to the Dutch Golden Age: to paintings of that period that depicted everyday life scenes and still-life paintings. Their reading was a sort of searching for Dutchness traces, and they did made such links. It was really surprising to see how in such an effort to encounter links with a specific nationality they brought up such a reading. More interesting to me was to enter into a dialogue with them about the present situation in which Michael Blum’s work was produced and challenge each other’s visions. Their reading made me reflect on how the 17th century paintings and the work by Michael Blum converge probably not in a certain national fixed ethnicity but in the power of bringing a space for reflection about ‘our life’, which does not stand still.

One of the challenges when working in the education department is to contribute to those readings and dialogues. My colleagues here (Cathleen Lewis, Joseph Kehn, Cris Corza, Stephanie Pereira) share an inspiring working force. They have also been kind enough to share with me and be open to hear and support my own ideas. Through them I met and talked with a youth group that explore the city as their classroom. This youth-group goes to museums and other sites where they discuss and learn. They are currently working on their own installations that deal with the concept of the utopia. We referred to the idea of places in relation to memory and to the future. I talked about the places that back in Eindhoven constituted spaces of memory but also of utopias: Evoluon, the stickers around the city, the museum. I heard about their own utopias here and as in relation to their school-work: some of them were building boats. Difference and similarities with the youth group in Eindhoven that I used to work with: ‘Gothzooi’ who just started their work again and, what a coincidence! They will also work around their own ideas of utopia. The youth-group from Eindhoven have also questions about NYC, two in special: how different were youth here and whether there were alternative cultural places here.

About their first question, I think that it is the maturity and urban wisdom of the youth in NYC the major difference. These differences, Anna Campos knows better. I met Anna briefly through my new colleagues. She is the deputy director of the Computer Resource Center of the City of New York Parks and Recreation in New York. Anna works with youth in the neighborhood. She told us about the talent, wisdom and abilities she recognizes in the youth here: for technology, for music, for creativity. They are great technology users and audiovisual consumers. At the same time, she says the main question is how to challenge that talent and creative openness to reflection. She works with youth groups that have a difficult economic and social situation: most of them are children of immigrant families. She is passionate about her work beyond naïve romanticism. She deals with institutional rhythms that are difficult while she does not always get the support of the youngsters’ parents for her educative work. The economical needs urge stronger than the educational aims. These young persons have to work here, earlier and harder. They are under pressure.

Anna has also testified the demographic changes in a neighborhood that has gone under the processes of gentrification, moving families out. She has a tough job and yet she keeps the passion for her work trying to keep spaces for educative and creative activities under such institutional economic and urban pressures. Within such friction of forces the new museum was built and is now located.

As it is the case now of Eindhoven and other cities, here in NYC even earlier the need of space for art institutions, artists and other creators has been either incorporated or continues carrying on processes of gentrification. And again, there are similarities and differences between both localities and from the position of both museums. The Bowery, where the new museum stands used to be the border of the gentrified zone in front: Nolita and Soho. That the museum stands now on the Bowery transforms the landscape and the sense of public space: bringing more tourists, new visitors to the area. I guess that Anna and other people that work within the neighborhood, with families and youth groups, resent the changing gentrification dynamics while still Anna keeps exploring the possibilities of working with such institutions as it is the case of her work with the educators in the new museum. They both explore on possibilities for its educative role through collaboration educative projects.

The second question the kids from Eindhoven had, was if there were any places for alternative cultures in New York and how they were. I definitely would like to answer to them, such an important question. I am still searching and again, I start realizing that those places exist but that are less obvious and I wonder how they may be either related or underneath the gentrification processes.

Williamsburg, for example, is one of the recent gentrified zones that have attracted a big amount of artists and creative people: there are organic cafes and restaurants built in such earlier industrial zone and also there are more bikes that move along such neighborhood that hostess also more galleries. There I met Yvonne Olivas and a friend of her to talk about other former utopias: squatting collectives that transformed and shaped the city and its cultural dynamics in the 80’s and 90’s. Squats are mostly eradicated from New York nowadays. And there we were, reflecting in the urban dynamics of displacement and incorporation that we share even when from different contexts and locations. As the kids, I guess we are trying to envision further utopias and ideas from here and now.
With the distance and many differences, both museums testify the gentrification processes of their own localities: a common global/local. I wonder whether the work of art and educative institutions from such within processes may be at stake of becoming either mute still life scenarios or opened up places that keep possibilities of reflection about our life situation. Such double bind might be the strength and danger of creative institutions in such gentrification processes. The still life scene opens up by re-reading, by giving time, space and input by sharing and bringing it back to life, to the social pressure and its secret in-depth beauty.

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