Awareness of the outside world. Happy 4th in the US. Happy Saturday to the rest of you. Celebrate! At home!
Stay safe. Stay sane.
I’ve been set up to fail.
I spent today riding the subway back and forth through the Essex Street station. Ride downtown. Switch trains. Ride uptown. Switch trains. And on. And on. No matter how many times I looked at the space, I kept coming to the same conclusion.
I don’t like using that term. Too much rape culture embedded in the underlying assumptions. But the common usage is the best way to express how I feel right now. Someone has upended my plate of peas and mashed them into the ground. I have a month to plan an art installation in the abandoned trolley terminal off to the side of the station. It’s an enormous dark space on the far side of the tracks.
I’m a tapestry miniaturist. My last work was a 2″ by 2″ abstract with 25 colors of silk thread. The largest work I’ve done in a decade was 12 inches wide.
Yeah, I’m fucked.
They set me up good. P called from City Arts. Would I be interested in displaying my work in the subway? They thought tapestry as a traditional art form would make an relevant aesthetic counterpoint for the hyper-movement embodied by the transportation nexus.
What can I say. That’s what happens when art meets bureaucracy. We all do it. You wrap your mind in fog and type the biggest words you can find on your keyboard. If this project ever succeeds, I’ll produce some fog-bound artist statement full of the same nonsense, complete with photographs of the work-in-progress exploring the process of my realization of the concept. “Hypermovement” will probably figure in at least one caption.
That’s why I’ve started this journal. I want to record what really happened. I may never show it to anyone. Who would want to listen to me complain about getting a $50,000 arts grant. And then blowing it.
Which takes me back to me original point.
They played it well. They set me up like a Candid Camera stunt. Except no one come out to explain this was all a joke. All they would tell me was that my work would be displayed in a particular station. They wanted to reveal the details during a live broadcast of a City Council meeting. They want to get my “authentic reaction.”
This whole thing has air quotes around it.
What they wanted was to get me in a place where I couldn’t back out. They wanted it live in front of the mayor so that I had to smile and say yes and look thrilled. I don’t know. Maybe they hoped I would have a hissy fit on the spot and stomp out. An embarrassing public scene by the artist might have served their purposes just as well. Either way, the project is designed to crater at some point.
A miniaturist. Filling a space the size of a small stadium. That people can only glimpse for two minutes from 100 yards away. It’s not even personal. Someone in City Hall wants this project to tank, either they object to spending money on public art or they want to spend the money on different public art.
When your career is going down in flames, is it better or worse that it’s not personal?
The NYC art world is small. We may be world-class and global, but we gossip like third graders at recess. When I fall flat, there will be tsking and expressions of sympathy to my face and then gleeful dissections of my character when I’m not around. I’ll be that person who blew the major subway grant. No way I’m getting into shows with that on my resume.
To hell with that. I will make this work. I will.
I’m rambling. Back to the announcement at the City Council meeting. I had ideas. A subway station is a difficult space. It’s the ultimate expression of insta-art. No one was going to linger and contemplate the inner meaning of anything. A glance, maybe, was all I was going to get.
I’d have to work larger. (HA!) Maybe I could do something with fiber optic cables. Make it tactile. So often we don’t get to touch art. I could take advantage of the fact that people would be up close to the work rather than worry about protecting it. Durability wasn’t an issue. It only has to last for a month. If I used plastic and metal, then dirt and fingerprints would enhance the look rather than distract.
I was getting excited about this. I even brought samples. Samples for heaven’s sake. Needless to say those stayed in my bag.
I met P at City Hall. Went through the scanners etc. Was taken to the meeting room. Was told to sit over there until called for. After an interminable length of time, I was up. I sat at the guest table in from of the Council. I tried not to stare at the Channel 11 camera off to the side. I am a suave professional artist. Of course I can handle this kind of attention.
They introduced me. They reviewed my work. In retrospect, they neglected to mention the fact that I work small. Mostly it was where I went to school, where I had displayed, awards won. Standard arts resume. Some intern did their homework. Then the obligatory statement on the importance of public art to the life of the city.
Our attention was directed toward a screen on the wall.
This was the reveal.
More words. I didn’t listen. I was excited to see which station I would get. Silly me.
Ta-da! Essex Street.
My first thought was, Great! Big station. Lots of traffic.
Gradually it sunk in.
The old trolley terminal.
You know the one that was supposed to be the Lowline before that tanked?
I think shock was the only thing that saved me. Someone stuck a microphone in my face and asked what I thought of the assignment and did I have any plans.
My voice went into auto-play. ” … exciting assignment … plans still in development … grateful to the Council for this opportunity …” My arts professors would be so proud.
Then onto the next order of business. Hot dog vendor licenses in Central Park, if I recall. I was hustled off the floor and taken out of the room. I didn’t have time to talk to any one or ask if they were out of their minds. Which was just as well. Clearly, they were not out of their minds. This was planned.
I don’t know enough about city politics to know who to trust. I don’t know who is on my side and who is using my future failure to score points. Well, no one is on my side. No one can think this was a good idea. Plots to the left of me. Plots to the right of me. I here I am stuck in the middle with a lot of dead space to fill.
So, I’ve been moving forward as if this was completely normal. Signing papers. Getting the specifics of the project. Meetings where I deliberately used artist’s prerogative to be vague about my intentions.
To pile on the good news, the space has limited access. Since live rails are involved, I can only go down when accompanied by an certified transit worker. I have to make appointments. You can imagine how excited they are to stop working in order to baby-sit an artist.
I say limited access, I mean limited legal access. The space is wide open. Illegal access is a matter of walking across the tracks. All manner of folks pass through, homeless, graffiti artists, urban spelunkers. It’s filthy. It’s full of cast-off bits of stuff. Any installation risks getting torn down, damaged, or painted over. Anything smaller than a subway car can’t be seen from the rest of the station.
Getting this all out has made me feel better.
I’m toast. I might as well lean into the skid. I have some ideas of people to talk to. Fred works with big steel. He will help me think large. Maybe my original idea of something with cables will work. Really, really big cables.
They want to use me for their dirty deeds? I’ll give them “relevant aesthetic.”