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Notes from an island between rivers – part IV

April 17th, 2009 by Ivet Reyes Maturano

Re-imagining old and new times

The first time I saw an image of the New Museum building I was confused. The New Museum building, shaped as a pile of white bright boxes, outstands in the landscape where it is located. It gives the sensation of a future fantasy. The potential of reality and its fantastic power to disrupt our sense of normality is what I find most inspiring. It is also interesting that such imaginary disruption may be provoked by a museum of contemporary art with its position within specific contexts.

This kind of surprising disruption in the urban landscape as with the New Museum has come up more than once here in New York City. Some places really create a sort of collision of time, reality and imagination. At least to me it is still unbelievable to conceive the construction of New York City bridges and tunnels happened a century ago while they are still future inspiration sources. The Brooklyn-Battery tunnel that was opened in 1950 is a good example. It connects Manhattan and Brooklyn allowing underwater traffic. That tunnel was still on construction when further uptown on the West Side of this island another fantastic construction had already been inaugurated, also extraordinary but rather inspired in Medieval times and more picturesque landscapes: The Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum. A whole area of land was converted into a public park where the ‘cloister’ was built to host an art collection from the Middle Ages. The park, the building, most of its collection but also the land that creates the view across the Hudson River in New Jersey create an extraordinary site.

There is a powerful imaginary strength in NYC–I think stronger than in other cities. Such imaginary power I refer does not have to do (only) with the load of representations and remediation of the city in visual narratives that are part of our global popular culture. I write rather about the power of imaginary disruption that one can encounter within the city. NYC is for real as the extraordinary places I described, as its inhabitants, their needs, their work and their dreams. Other sort of disruption about normality but rather difficult to see because it hurts are, for example, homeless people that sleep at the skirts of the skyscrapers and global corporations. Many of those freezing homeless speak my language, and with some of them I may share more than a Mexican passport and the social inequalities that bring us in different ways here where we lack of ties that hold the imaginary community that is our nationality. Such imaginary community tears apart also at the border revealing the economic and social inequalities stronger. New York is a city of immigrants and yet many of them -expelled of jobs or newcomers- lack of home here and they are symbolically expelled from the places they left as it is the case of Mexico. NYC’s disruptions expose the intensity of a flow, its fruits and remains: of people, capital ideas and things. Such movement is intense. That may be its power.

To have or take a position in such a powerful space –reflective, political, symbolical- within it, I think, may be empowering. How would art, museums or artists allow us to regain power and build up humanly bonds from such human and economic intensity and its remains? I think that by actually lighting upon its extraordinary reality, by coming up with imagination to take an actual position as institutions, creators, individuals that as such are related to a social context, and by provoking to imagine and engage anew with our specific contexts that are immerse in a global flow.

Most inspiring proposals I found also here: by artists, educators, and creators. Such is the case of the work and approach of Teddy Cruz who was invited by Doug Ashford and Walid Raad to participate in the Interdisciplinary Seminar they both organize Cooper Union School of ARt. Teddy Cruz is an architect based in San Diego and whose work that is mainly concentrated in urbanism, lights upon San Diego and that specific context right at the Mexican-American border. His proposal addresses art, artists and institutions to re-think their audiences, to take and reshape empty spaces –as the public space or the holes of political responsibility. He points and occupies the gaps within the social structure that urban dynamic creates and that we tend to ignore. What Cruz expresses through his work is new ways to think and build up networks among people and organizations living together in such a city that grows at one side of the border but that expand beyond. Cruz is also working now on projects in New York City – where after time the very intense rhythm of ideas and work let little room for individuals and institutions to reflect and feel empowered.

Back on the Bowery, at the New Museum,more things and clues about the role of museums and art as building networks started getting together in the Museum as Hub. Be(com)ing Dutch at a Distance in this specific location with the contributions by Michale Blum, Johan van der Keuken and Lidwien van de Ven, with the input of the New Museum staff –specially the hub attendants, the education department, the docents, the information desk people, the security team… and its audiences opened up ways to reflect about past, present and future. We looked at the Dutch context as inspiration, as a case for reflection from a distance in order to re-think what it means here in New York City to live together, to be a citizen, a displaced or a refugee. This was an occasion to expand the discussion as in relation to art, museums, public spaces, identity, society, citizenship, displacement and migration. Here it was evident to me that doing so is nothing new at all neither exclusive of an institution but so necessary to create the occasion to reflect about ties, about the shared present and the possible futures. The closure reception with Annie Fletcher giving the keynote became such a situation and an opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience with the participation of the public that brought different people and curators of the New Museum and other institutions.

Museum as Hub in this occasion of Be(com)ing Dutch at a Distance, to me was also an occasion to continue working and exploring the museum as space of relationships and experimentation that are located in specific contexts, about its audiences, about its neighbors and its own communities. I think that the New Museum with its extraordinary outlook that provokes such an amazing disruption in its own landscape underlines the fact that museums do not end in their walls. The disruption it provokes opens up also a possibility to build new communities. It certainly creates another sense of public space that resonates as gentrification. Yet, and since such process is alive and when if the New Museum continues extending its educative work, its networks and audiences closer to its own neighbors as it has happened and is desired to happen, the process may be a very interesting one and hopefully a chance to create bonds among neighbors, beyond the museum walls, and across borders.

To have worked at the New Museum and to have lived in NYC has taught me possibilities to expand across borders, the need to develop links among people, to create new communities that take a position in such a powerful landscape. To have been part of Be(com)ing Dutch as a whole has been a way to learn from the extraordinary and have the certainty that it is possible to build a home, new communities there and extend them beyond.

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