Representation…, 2009

Representation, a Chronicle of the Essex Street Market

Paul Clay, 2009

A series of 44″x66″ digital prints on archival 100% cotton paper, using historical research, oral history, and the representational form of a comic book, to chart the sociocultural development of the Lower East Side through the story of the Essex Street Market.

A selection of the pieces will be on display, starting with the opening reception Saturday, December 12th, from 5pm-7pm in the North End of the Essex Market, 120 Essex St., New York City, and the exhibit will run through January 2010.

This project is made possible, in part, with public funds from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and with generous support from The New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Small Business Services.

Project Description:

The comics are made from photos of actual people who work in and frequent the market,and include text in multiple languages, with both historical data, and information from oral histories, capturing a snapshot of a vibrant and volatile historical moment.

The Essex Street Market is a long standing center of everyday culture in the Lower East Side. It is unique on many fronts: for the products available, the atmosphere of the place, its inherent support for rapidly disappearing craft practices, and its tradition of multi generational handing-down of family business lore. Also, by its very layout, it supports high job density and the preservation of the aesthetic of the bodega, with its tradition of daily food purchase and simultaneous exchange of neighborhood, community and cultural information. The Essex Street Market is a vital business and cultural institution in the Lower East Side and this artwork highlights its special place within the community and the culture of New York City.

The neighborhood contains a diverse mix of cultures, from long standing Jewish residents to Puerto Ricans having arrived in the 60’s and 70’s, followed by Dominicans, and the expansion of Chinatown, not to mention local artists who settled in the area back when the rents were affordable, and the recent influx of Japanese and Koreans. Rapid gentrification over the recent past has created huge cultural flux and a wide range of levels of income among residents.


Six Strategies, 2008

Presented at the Bronx River Art Center as part of the goup exhibit Metro Poles, Art in Action, a curatorial collaboration between tne Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL), the Bronx River Art Centre (BRAC), the Asian American Arts Center (AAAC), and the Maiden Lane Exhibition Space. The work is intended to explore the Bronx, the neighborhood of West Farms, the area’s relationship to the gallery, and the premise of the exhibit.

Here is the comic, in its entirety:


 

Project Description:

Because this group exhibit is intended to focus on process, blur lines between artworks, and reduce the primacy of the individual artist in favor of a loose integrated net of creativity that blankets the entire gallery – even the act of writing a statement about the individual work could be seen to detract from the exhibit’s mission.

What follows is therefore, not a concise statement but rather a description of participation.

In the spring of this year I was invited by Jose Ruiz, curator of Bronx River Art Centre (BRAC) and Heng-Gil Han, curator for the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL), to submit responses to a set of questions.

They were asking a variety of artists to respond to the idea of an exhibit where artists would make work in a gallery setting and then have it subsequently altered by others. Among the questions asked were: “What contribution can you make to this unconventional exhibition?”, “Can you allow other artists to revise your installation?”, and “Who would be other artists that you would like to invite to the exhibition for the revision and collective art-making?”

The resulting exhibit: “Metro Poles, Art in Action”, is a curatorial collaboration with Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL), the Bronx River Art Centre (BRAC), the Asian American Arts Center (AAAC), and the Maiden Lane Exhibition Space.

 

Among the things I wrote back in my initial response were the following:

“I will photograph in or near the display space – i.e. nearby buildings, back yards, whatever. The available views will function as a filter or organizing principle. This will become the target of research.”

“I will then go out on the street and find anecdotal information from passersby (as well as from people employed by the art institution) regarding who lives there, what business is conducted, what events have been witnessed etc.”

“In a third step I will do further historical research about the visually identified locations on-line. I will then make a collage from the various information materials, printed with ink jet, in a variety of sizes and textures of paper and post the information on the galley walls, like fliers or even gorilla-style like paper street art.”

“All this material, both the physical printing on paper and the conceptual structure surrounding it would then be available as raw materials to use by subsequent artists in any way they see fit. I would simply hope they might function as a launching off point of interest in the creative process going forward.”

I also invited artists Chang-Jin Lee, Marcy Brafman, and Åsa Elzén to be “team members” for our group, one of seven groups to work in the space.

For my part I ultimately adopted six strategies, relating to my initial proposal that were designed to explore the Bronx, West Farms, (the neighborhood where BRAC is located), and the area’s relationship to the gallery and the mission of the exhibit.

 

Strategy One: Gathering images based on a net search for the word “Bronx”

This was a way to begin to understand the visual history in relation to what people have recorded on the internet, about the Bronx.

This doesn’t constitute a comprehensive compendium of visual material for two reasons. First, many things visual known and recorded were done by people prior to the world wide web and those people tend to be less connected, and thus fail to get their visual info recorded to a web readable format, and posted. As a result, much of this human visual archive is missing from a current search.

Secondly, visual searches are still in the dark ages of technology, or in their infancy. Most digital visual images must be “tagged” with text either in their name, metadata (invisible information attached to the digital visual file) or through some similar structure, in order to show up in a search. Smart search engines may also give some weight to images on web pages titled with the search term or in which text containing the term is laid out in close proximity to an image, but this is obviously a tricky mix to accomplish successfully and thus leaves out much of the valuable information that actually has been posted, but hasn’t yet been tagged.

There are algorithms (the most effective of which are currently mostly available only to large corporations), which can search for the actual visual elements of an image, or its genuine “mediatic criteria”, such as color, luminance etc. These can find an image no matter what it has been tagged, but even these currently cutting edge technologies can only look for an image once they already have a base image to compare, so they can find close matches, but only to images they already know about.

All this means that right now, doing a visual search on the Bronx yields a strikingly limited set of results. Nonetheless, it begins to tell some stories about what people, corporations, and organizations valued enough to tag and post.

To display I printed a selection of the results, 16 images to a page, on 8 1/2″ x 11″ ink jet paper, along with the name of each file displayed below it, on 18 pages, and taped them to the gallery wall, much as I might do in my studio.

 

Strategy Two: Download text related to the history of the Bronx and the neighborhood of West Farms.

I chose 9 of the most compelling texts among many dozen I had saved, formatted them in a formal structure designed to be reminiscent of poems, and pinned these to the wall.

In most cases, the written work was stripped to ASCII text, every comma was removed and converted to a carriage return, and every period was removed and converted to two carriage returns, to create text block separations, and finally the entire text was hard wrapped to 35 characters, to produce short phrases. I did a bit of clean up for readability, printed the texts and push pinned them to the wall.

The texts cover a range of subjects from how the Bronx got its name to the demographics and transportation structure of West Farms.

 

Strategy Three: Non-linear story telling, through the use of Comics

I have little connection to the world of comics, and never read them as a kid. I came at the format from video art, looking for a way to accomplish similar results, but in a form that allows the viewer more leeway in the amount of time they devote to the process. Still images allow more immediate intake.

The text for the comics comes not from the net research, (as is the case with many of my past projects) but from things that people actually said to me. This is combined with photos that are digitally reworked to become a sort of cartoon or comic book, printed in non archival inks on 13″x19″ mat ink jet paper and pinned to the gallery wall. Various walks as well as interviews with gallery staff and local patrons provided the materials. Some responses also came from emailed questions to specific participants.

 

Strategy Four: Mapping and modeling the neighborhood

Using a data projector I traced a street map of the entire neighborhood of west Farms onto a big 8′ x 10′ piece of paper and then cut the map roughly out of the center of it and pinned it to the gallery wall. I then recorded impressions about the neighborhood and where I met the people who became part of the comic.

Using a ground plan of the BRAC gallery I made a quick 3D computer model of the space and recorded where the first elements of the project were placed in the space.

I photographed part of an MTA subway map with my phone, showing West Farms, then emailed it to BRAC while on route to the gallery. Once there, I had them print the email with the map and posted it with the other mapping elements. This related to the personal nature of the work and to the idea of the documentarist or participant-observer including information about themselves within the surroundings being documented.

In the same vein, I downloaded an app to my mobile phone allowing me to track my GPS location and record in real time to a version of Google Maps. I posted a printout of one particular tracking event documenting my crossing of the entire length of West Farms, when the MTA train I was taking to the gallery went express and passed my intended stop. I thought, “This must happen all the time, when you live in West Farms.”

 

Strategy Five: Incorporation with other works.

I placed an old laptop within an arrangement of refuse, which another artist had put together. The computer displays the text from the “poems” I had created from the earlier documentary material, and so creates another avenue of historical communication, and also relates to the work it is situated in by referring to the problem of e-waist.

I Added text comments to artist Marcy Brafman’s work, in the areas where the public is invited to participate.

I filled in several blanks in mad libs left on the walls by another artist.

I created a stick figure comic from one of the many works on paper strewn throughout the gallery, referring to both that work and other art in the gallery, using text from a visitor as inspiration, and which questions what constitutes art.

 

Strategy 6: Blog and website. I created a blog to document my own progress so that other artists could see what was happening, and am also posting materials to this site.

http://west-farms-studio.blogspot.com/


Sitting Drawing for 15min, 2004

Fifteen minute long, black and white line drawing on video, first presented as part of the group exhibit entitled “Selfish”, at Gallery 128, New York City. The piece created for this group exhibit about self portraits.

 

Photo Documentation and video stills:

 

Video Sample:
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Project Description:
The work was recorded live with the filters which were “drawing” the video and being manipulated live in real time. it plays with the idea of what drawing constitutes in contemporary digital society and of course makes playful reference to Andy Warhol’s 1968 quote that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”