America The Great, The Violent And The Racist

Although I realize that the 4th of July is supposed to be celebratory and leisurely, I think this year in particular calls for some reflection on what America is and how it became this way. I am not naive enough that America’s legacies of inequality and injustice are news to me, but it does seem that this state has become gravely exaggerated over the last year or so.

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On Friday, I visited the MoMa and walked through the incredible “Migration Series” paintings that Harlem-based artist Jacob Lawrence made in 1941. With his astonishing technique that is at once childish and basic yet unique and awe-inspiring, Lawrence tells the story of the migration of Southern blacks to America’s northern cities, starting around 1910. Normally, the series is split between the MoMa and the Phillips Collection in DC, and it’s incredible to see them altogether.

I also ready an article by Rachel Aviv, certainly one of the most important journalists working today, about a case where a black man was sentenced to death for killing his baby, in a black township of Louisiana. It’s currently not behind a paywall (“Revenge Killing,” in the current issue of the New Yorker) and I urge you to read this nuanced account of a story that seems to me representative of many broader, structural problems in America today. A legacy cannot be wiped away quickly, and so much work has been done to change our society already, but at the very least we can use this holiday to reflect just a little bit on who we are, and what there is to lament as well as celebrate.

Activism or Art, a Street Performance Prompts Discussion

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Saturday afternoon found me at Suzanne Lacy’s performance art piece, “Between the Door and the Street,” organized in conjunction with Creative Time and with support from the Brooklyn Museum. I’ve been following the development of this project for a few months and it was not without controversy as it went along–but of course, anything related to activist art, particularly feminist art, will have internal disagreements. The goal of this performance was to have live, unscripted conversations about gender and politics, breaking the divide between the public and the private. The event took place on Park Place between Underhill and Vanderbilt, and the entire block was devoted to the performance. Visitors saw groups of mostly women–and one or two of men or mixed genders–sitting in circles on chairs or stoops, wearing black with yellow scarves, talking about various topics related to gender. Sometimes it was difficult to hear, and the performers maintained a “fourth wall” so that interaction was impossible.

The performers had been culled by liaisoning with activist groups and gender-focused organizations in NYC. One group called Dreamers consisted of teenaged girls. Their conversation covered territory such as consensual sex versus rape; dealing with parents as role models, support systems, and disciplinarians; feeling shame for exploring sexuality; and the classic problem of peer pressure–“if we say ‘no’ we’re automatically a bitch.” Beside them, an older group was talking about issues of self-care. One woman knitting listened to another, saying: “. . . taking care of myself was, in its own way, political, too.” They discussed eating disorders, stress, and beauty. Nearby another group of women in their twenties talked about gentrification and cultural heritage. All of the conversations were honest and flowed freely.

But some of the performers were disgruntled about being asked to participate without any monetary compensation or childcare subsidy. Apparently Lacy didn’t want children to come and asked performers not to bring theirs, but did not offer Read more

#SuzanneLacy Turns the Classic Brooklyn Stoop into a Live Debate Spot

CM Capture 3I’m excited for the upcoming Creative Time event next weekend, led by the feminist artist Suzanne Lacy in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum: a “stoop chat” on Oct 19 from 4:30pm onward, in which an invited group, consisting of mostly women and a few men will gather on stoops on a residential street in Brooklyn to discuss contemporary women’s issues like household labor, sexual assault, and gender and politics more broadly. The conversations will be unscripted and open to the general public. (It will be on Park Place between Vanderbilt and Underhill Avenues.)

Brooklyn_stoop2_thumbStoops have long been a place for neighborly socializing in Brooklyn culture. Now, Lacy and various community organizations are leveraging the power of the stoop to have a targeted, public discussion. It will be interesting to see how it shapes up!

All the Single, Scrappy, Ambitious Ladies…

437285_024Last night, I finally saw the movie of the summer, a black-and-white pic about an anti-heroic, sterotypically-unfeminine woman in her late twenties, living basically hand-to-mouth in New York City (but not abstaining from $14-packs of American Spirit) while pursuing her artistic dream, to be a professional modern dancer.

No, it’s not “GIRLS: The Movie,” although at first glance one is struck by the parallels between the world of Frances, the aforementioned protagonist, and Hannah Horvath of Lena Dunham’s “GIRLS”: both are frumpy but somehow quite homely, both are talented yet not sure how to achieve success, both are obsessively reliant on one or more female best friends for camraderie and security, and both seem relatively indifferent to normative ideas of middle-class American romance such as steady relationships or marriage and parenthood. Rather, these women more or less stumble through life, operating on a short-term basis instead of a five-year plan, and magically making a good impression on people despite their essential lack of social graces or nepotistic connections.

And yet, in “Frances Ha,” as opposed to in “GIRLS,” we have a character whose stoicism is remarkable: she is unemotional almost to the point where she seems stereotypically masculine rather than feminine; not once in the film does Frances weep, break down, or consult a therapist when the going gets really, really tough. Nor does she, as does Hannah Horvath, beg her parents for money–in fact, her pride prohibits her from admitting to them, or her best friend, when her career has hit the gutter and nothing seems to be going right in life, at all. And very unlike Hannah, Frances does not once grab the nearest decent-looking man and drag him into bed (perhaps because, at points in the film, she doesn’t actually have a place to live). In other words, Frances is slightly more grown-up, stronger, more adept than Hannah.

But these differences are rather slight; what is important is the similar territory they cover–young women from undistinguished backgrounds and of imperfect character, trying to make it as artists in the big city–and the novelty of this subject matter appearing in mainstream cultural production. And I would piggy-back on recent writing by Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker‘s television critic, which points out the huge impact made by the HBO series “Sex and the City,” by saying that that show opened up space for this new, incredibly important genre of young women who unapologetically pursue their individual visions of a successful life, whatever that may be and by whatever means. Throughout “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw wrestles with changing career goals and romantic needs in a way that no previous female character had. In fact, the only work coming to mind that, prior to “SATC” addressed these issues is “Annie Hall,” in which Diane Keaton is a woman motivated by writing and effectively unconvinced of the need to devote herself to a male partner, to Woody Allen’s character’s dismay. (As a side note, my film-viewing partner and I last night both noticed Allen’s influence in Noah Baumbach’s directing style, with approval.) But “Annie Hall” depicts this kind of femininity ultimately from a male perspective, whereas now we have women writing (the actress who played Frances co-wrote the film), directing, and producing these shows and movies.

It’s infinitely invaluable to young women to have these cultural products, whether or not we find them to be “accurate” representations of our lives (notably, the criticisms abound that the women portrayed in these instances are white and middle-class or upper-middle-class, or living in “privileged poverty”). They are fodder for self-analysis and critical discussion, as I have written before about “GIRLS.” And they also prod us, as writer Kate Mooney has done excellently for Brokelyn, to examine the numerous success stories that come out of this post-third-wave-feminist ethos of pursuing art and career goals at any cost. In Frances, Hannah, and Carrie, we see the challenges and mistakes that appear in our own personal and professional lives, and we can’t help but use these reflections to become stronger, better versions of ourselves–and we become writers of our own series, crafting our imperfect yet admirable selves into the protagonists we really want to be.

Philosophy as Living Art: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument

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In the five years I’ve been a New Yorker, I can count the times I’ve been to the Bronx: they’ve generally been work-related, as in the charter schools I worked in as a substitute teacher or the event I volunteered for at the Botanical Gardens. Though I’ve only been in the city for five years, I know from local folklore and literature like Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin about the days when “the Bronx was burning”–when the borough was rife with drug addiction, crime, gang violence, and prostitution, and fires spread through rioting neighborhoods. People without means lived in tall public housing projects, stacked atop each other and with no opportunities beckoning, no place to escape to or to deal with family and social problems.

All of which is to say that your average, middle-class New Yorkers probably don’t go often to the Bronx, although most know that it’s no longer burning and not quite as infamous, though having worked at schools there I can say that it is still mostly working-class.

This summer, however, German artist Thomas Hirschhorn gave New Yorkers reason to flock to their northern borough in droves, to have public seminars on various topics pertaining to contemporary philosophy, sip cocktails in the late afternoon sun, and behold a community-built and community-run monument to the 20th-century Italian Marxist thinker, and imprisoned Communist, Antonio Gramsci. Hirschhorn spent seven years preparing for this project, which is literally in the projects: the monument stands in the main courtyard of Forest Houses and in a strange way seems to fold into the environs so aptly you wouldn’t guess at first glance that an outsider designed it.

A visit to the monument this weekend, on a warm Saturday afternoon, found the monument alive with locals running operations and visitors taking in the scene: a mostly wooden, raised structure with several sections, including a library-museum, Internet cafe, bar, children’s workshop, newspaper press, seminar stage and more. It was decorated with graffitied or typed quotes by Gramsci and poems by Forest residents, as well as a beautiful spray-painted mural, basketball hoops with spray-painted slogans “love” and “politics.” It was living poetry, living philosophy.

Every Saturday afternoon there is a lecture by a prominent thinker, usually an academic of high-standing like Gayatri Spivak (who remembers reading “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in grad school, and hardly being able to speak about it?), but we arrived too late for that; instead we caught the daily 5pm talk by a German philosopher of the Italian Marxist strain associated most famously with Antonio Negri, named Marcus Steinweg. This was part of Steinweg’s ongoing lecture series at the monument; every single day he gives an hour-long talk. Looking around, most of the attendees would easily be seen on the street smoking a cigarette outside the new billion-dollar New School building in Lower Manhattan: they wore thick-framed glasses and torn jeans, held Moleskines and iPhones, and stroked their goatees thoughtfully as Steinweg offered eloquent observations on the concept of “the normal.” But there were also Forest residences in the audience–some who attend daily, and ask questions to get the most out of the sessions. Aside from the lectures, there are art workshops, radio broadcasts, children’s classes, and other activities that engage the local residents.

After the talk, we strolled around on the monument platforms. Teenage boys were engrossed in online game-world in the Internet cafe. A woman was selling jewelry on the sidewalk and another woman, standing nearby, was smoking a cigarette; from the platform one of the residents started telling her that she couldn’t smoke that close to the monument. Strong words Read more