Nueva York: Politics, Art, and the Transnational Big Apple

In Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, disaffected American star Bill Murray sleepwalks through his stay in Tokyo.  Not speaking a lick of Japanese and cynically overwhelmed by the massive high rises and technology of modern day Tokyo, Murray’s character embarks on a series of small journeys punctuated by his inability to fully grasp events as they unfold before him.  Instead, through Murray’s eyes, one experiences the city as brightly lit, whiskey induced, metropolis full of quirky Japanese and self absorbed Americans.

While many critics applauded Coppola’s efforts, others saw the movie as simply another well intentioned but nonetheless painful exercise in Western Orientalism.   Writing for Colorlines in 2003, filmmaker E. Koohan Paik  addressed this issue noting that while Coppola did engage in age old Orientalism, she did less so out of any malice or racist intent, but rather  the movie relied “wholly on the “otherness” of the Japanese to give meaning to its protagonists, shape to its plot, and color to its scenery.”  Paik continues, acknowledging that making the Japanese  inaccessible enabled  Japan as a setting to  function “as an extension of the alienation and loneliness Bob and Charlotte feel in their personal lives, thus laying the perfect conditions for romance to germinate: they’re the only ones who understand each other.”  In this way, much like Joseph Conrad’s controversial novel Heart of Darkness (HOD), Lost in Translation critiques western society by employing the East as a mysterious backdrop filled with incomprehensible “natives” and struggling Westerners.  Sure, Lost in Translation plays this alienation for laughs rather than the dehumanizing descent into the abyss of man’s darker impulses that HOD engages, but it nonetheless employs otherness.

Lost ….

So what if the tables were turned? How does a polyglot American city like New York appear to non-native residents? Are Americans and the city they occupy as foreign as Coppola’s vision of Tokyo or Conrad’s Congo?  In some ways, Washington D.C.’s Art Museum of the Americas’ current exhibition responds to these questions.   Commenting on globalization, transnational networks of finance and labor, and the radiant cultural exchanges that develop as peoples move in and out of urban centers, Ñew York seeks to highlight the complexity of transient settlement that seems increasingly common in American cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, and elsewhere.

Curated by Paco Cano, Eva Mendoza Chandas and Jodie Dinapol, the Spanish trio collected the work of 19 Latin American or Spanish artists hailing from ten different countries.  Media range from photography to painting to language to video installations, providing viewers with a multi-faceted means upon which to grasp the transnational connections of 21st century New York City. In an era when Republican candidates demonize Mexican migrant labor, Democratic hopefuls remain mute for fear of offending unions or working class Americans, and comedians/performers like Adam Corolla feel it necessary to bludgeon Mexican American and Mexican culture in the media, one could argue such exhibitions provide a necessary counterpoint to such pitched rhetoric.

Make a mental map of this mess

On a more metaphysical level, New York enables observers to contemplate how language, culture, and movement affect how we interpret and inhabit cities.   In his 1992 work, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture since 1940, John Findlay lamented that for all the dynamism of postwar western metropolises they seemed incredibly internalized and idiosyncratic.  “In eastern urban centers, city boundaries frequently demarcated a significant difference in land use; districts outside the border could fairly predictably be characterized as having a lower density and a more pronounced residential character,” Findlay commented. “In cities of the mid-twentieth century West the distinction seldom held so firmly.” (280) Of course, this lack of a centralized downtown meant residents had to form their own personal social world cognitive maps “in terms of individual’s particular orbits rather than in terms of fixed places or a single political entity,” writes the author. (283) While this enabled people to make their cities personally meaningful, it also encouraged segregation between people whose social worlds failed to intersect, “in this sense, Westerners’ urban images did isolate the – often intentionally – from others in society.” (283) Likewise, these “mental maps” help to explain why planners and others exhibited greater distress over such issues than most residents.

While Findlay rightly pointed out some of the effects of Western American sprawl, even a densely populated city like New York will be filtered through the life experiences of its residents. If Central Park reminds Chicagoans of Jackson, Grant, and Millennium Parks slapped together as one, perhaps it reminds others of San Diego’s Balboa  or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Parks.  How one experiences Central Park will be in constant comparison with those examples, at times paralleling them and in others providing vastly different emotions and memories. One can only imagine how New York’s singularity must look to those hailing from Lima, Mexico City and elsewhere.  Ñew York provides a window into these complexities while commenting on the transnational flows of labor, capital, and culture that define global cities like the Big Apple.

Tropics of Meta attended the show’s February opening at the AMA.  Crowds of people dressed in various shades of black and grey inhabited nearly every corner of the event. Though the exhibition provides a range of artistic mediums, this viewer has always been drawn to photography, architecture, and language.  In particular the work of five featured artists proved especially intriguing:

(In no particular order)

1.  Jessica Lagunas (Guatemala)- Ai Spk Inglish

If you’ve ever read the novel Everything is Illuminated, you remember that the narrator’s Ukrainian guide, Alexander Perchov, frequently bungles American English, often picking the wrong word that by definition works but in practice sounds odd and confusing:

I have a girl who dubs me Currency, because I disseminate so much currency around her. She licks my chops for it. I have a miniature brother who dubs me Alli.

Though Alexander attests to performing “recklessly well” studying English at the local Ukrainian University, clearly there are some problems. As a former ESL teacher, few subjects bring up more interest than the power of language and the difficulty that comes with translation. Lagunas’ work pictured below, recasts common American idioms into phonetic ESL puzzles.  Languages can embed power relations, ideas, and structures.  How we speak influences how we think, the possibilities open to us and those doors that we perceive as closed.  Lagunas reshapes familiar language to its core meaning: sound.  What does New York look like when it is just sound?  What if those sounds are completely foreign? Do you pair them with familiar sounds? What does this agglomeration feel like? Lagunas’ work creates a new verbal dot matrix of America’s greatest city.

Idioms of the Americas

2.  Dulce Pinzon (Mexico)– The Real Story of the Superheroes

In Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City (2000), Mike Davis explores how transportation and technological innovations alter the traditional pattern of immigration. The ability to send remittances over long distances serves to support the economies of various nations such as Mexico. Yet Davis avoids obvious examples like New York, instead focusing on more subtle but equally important places like Redwood City. Mexican residents remit wages back to their hometown in which to construct infrastructure, illustrating the winding path of globalized labor. Technology also means a reorientation of ethnic and class identities. If the Latino residents of Redwood City occupy working class status in America, their contributions to economic development in Mexico marks them as “dons” or significant players in their respective hometowns.  Pinzon’s photography brings this reality to the surface in the bright colors of comic book saviors.  The genius of Pinzon’s work rests in the flipped reality he implies in his photos.  In a series of documentary photographs, Pinzon dresses up Latino laborers as superheroes.  The range of workers includes window washers, short order cooks, construction workers and gigolos.  Though unknown – even invisible – in the US  (a Clark Kent like cover if there ever was one) they remain famous in their hometowns and villages for the importance of their remittances, Pinzon highlights their heroism in the very place that refuses to see them or only sees them as criminal or “illegal.”   Moreover, the labor  they bring creates infrastructure in far off places and sustains an American economy increasingly dependent on but irrationally indignant of such employment. All superheroes have a weakness.

Scaling walls, building infrastructure

3.  Alberto Borea  (Peru)  America/Deconstruction 2008.

The housing boom that preceded the brutal collapse of the past couple years appeared fueled by invisible forces that could call upon endless financing for the construction of new dream homes from Southern California to suburban Boston. The invisible and largely incomprehensible housing market conjured up dreams, realities, and nightmares. Banks endlessly loaned money to homeowners; materials, supplies, and labor followed providing the rope with which America’s house poor homeowners hung themselves. Borea tackles the illusionary character of housing in the Americas. Utilizing collage, Borea creates images that are both otherworldly and yet ordinary, colorful but grey.  The spiral case stairways and pitched roofs may look nice but they sit upon a foundation of air, suspended but hardly stable. For Borea, the creation of imaginary shantytowns and cities constructed from real estate market information points to a “quasi new city … [one] characterized by economic fragility.”  For all their evils, shantytowns’ debt is usually pretty low.

4.  Sol Aramendi (Argentina)

The Argentine photographer’s work plays with identity, obsession and process. In many ways, her photography appears to be a mash up of these three forces. In Welcome to My Hood, a blinged out model and assistants finish up preparation for a photo shoot in what could be Low Rider magazine. The backdrop, the loading dock of a “legendary industrial graffiti building” known as 5pointz demonstrates all these processes.  In a recent interview (in Spanish and English), Aramendi pointed out one of the dizzying aspects of transnational existence, “the low riders are Mexican-born men from the Bronx that have adopted the West Coast identity in the East.”  Likewise, the planned destruction of 5pointz to make way for Long Island City condominiums, represents the process of gentrification slowly erasing the very interracial identity inherent to graffiti culture that made the space famous. Dancing with Myself features a woman ironing a trail of records in her roomy loft apartment.  For Aramendi, DJ as well, vinyl, much like the graffiti that served as the back drop to Welcome to My Hood photograph, represents a certain resistance.  Finally, Mexica Meyolotzi places an aboriginal woman of the Americas atop a Queens building over looking Manhattan.  As this blog has discussed (click here and here) Queens remains the borough of motion and immigration. Queens and Queensborough Plazas function as key transportation nodes moving an already mobile population throughout the city: shifting identities and meanings.  The lights of Manhattan as backdrop only highlight the station of women like the one featured in the photograph: integral to the city, on the outside but not all that interested in looking in, perfectly comfortable in her skin.

5.  Esperanza Mayobre (Venezuela) – Symphony of Nothing

In the Winter edition of Bomb magazine, artist Jose Ruiz described one strain of Esperanza Mayobre’s work as exploring the  “congruencies between verticality, disintegration, and perception, riffing on modernist architecture and urban development.”  Ruiz continued discussing Symphony of Nothing’s meaning, arguing that through it, Mayobre attempted to balance the “symptoms of progress and failure. A landscape set within the precarious setting of towering skyscrapers reflects the amorphous and ingenious engineering of Latin American shantytowns, where dwellings are built, brick by brick, at the same rate as their owners’ influx of income.”  Ruiz’s interpretation deserves attention; after all, the rise and fall of Symphony of Nothing suggests a tension between the poles of capital intensive debt financed high rises and office buildings and piecemeal abodes constructed pace by pace, dollar by dollar. Of course, who builds the towering edifices of Donald Trump? Many of the people inhabiting these shantytowns, whether in the favelas of Brazil or the peri-urban districts of India’s dense metropolises or the lower income/middle class communities of Jackson Heights, Queens.   However, this observer came away with a more parochial understanding of Mayobre’s exhibit. The odd structural integrity of the drawings and the physical piece itself reminded me of a couple of things — most of all, what “ground zero” looked like in the days after 9/11, a combination of dense steel and concrete collapsed in on itself but yet strangely still retaining a tragic kind of structural integrity.  The same rising global commerce that made them an icon to the world (despite the fact the twin towers really weren’t all that aesthetically appealing), but a target to those who believed such commerce remained little more than neo-imperialism.

An earlier incarnation of Symphony of Nothing

It would be hard to ignore the political edges present in the exhibition.  The Washingtonian pointed to the exhibit’s “post-colonial sensibility” and its emphasis on social justice.  Washingtonian writer Beth Shook viewed this framework with a noted ambivalence. “Unfortunately, the recent history of creative exchange between the two regions is ultimately neglected in favor of more accessible social critique,” commented Shook who began the post with a reference to the now famous Nexus New York exhibition at New York’s Museo del Barrio.   Nexus focused on the artistic dialogue between European and American artists, painters in this case, during the first half of the twentieth century. For Shook, Nexus New York highlighted a  “hybrid brand of modernism, a relatively new and global way of thinking about art history. “ in terms of accurately describing the exhibition, Shook’s “post-colonial sensibility” comment probably nails it.  It would be hard to deny the influence of thinkers like Foucault, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Antoni Gramsci,  Arjun Appadurai, and obviously, Edward Said (click here for previous T of M posting on Said ).  Undoubtedly, the ideas of others circulate throughout the various works as well, but as historians T of M is drawn to the Gilroys and Hebdiges of the world.

How one views this probably depends on how he or she thinks about art.  The tension between aesthetics, art, process and politics has long existed.  Some have argued that art has become too much about the process and the back story.  The political message outweighs the aesthetic merit of the work.  It would seem however, that art without meaning, without a real world application functions much like a beautiful man or woman who may be striking in appearance but beyond dull in interaction. The Nexus New York exhibit held many treasures, but they were from a different time, a different era.  In the first half of the twentieth century, even New York struggled with segregation, racism, and conflict. Postwar urban renewal efforts may have made the city ready for the modern world, but they also destroyed many of its old communities. As whites moved out, Puerto Ricans and African Americans moved in.  By the end of the century, whites began to return to places like New York as did a burgeoning global working/lower middle class immigrant community as diverse as the city has always claimed. The introduction of several increasingly mobile diasporas laboring and living between New York and Latin American locales demands its own documentation. Perhaps politics do overwhelm some of Ñew York pieces, but even these offer us a glimpse into a dialogue that avoids “othering.”  After all, unlike Sophia Coppola’s movie, we don’t need stock characters from which to set ourselves apart, but rather a deep engagement with the new permanent transience of transnational 21st century cities.

Ryan Reft