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On American Identity, Jesus is King, Agnes Denes, the new MoMA, Chelsea, Lunch at Residency Unlimited's, Vija Celmins, Jenny Holzer, Bernie Sanders

María Inés Plazo Lazo: “Bienvenidos a nuestro continente!” My mother replied to the WhatsApp message I sent her while landing. “Aterrizamos!” What a strange and yet refreshing surprise, that she would welcome me this way, from the distance, in Guayaquil, as I landed in Newark, as if we would be suddenly in the same place. Of course, America is not only the US, even though the name of this land is so often misused to refer to a single nation. 

Mohammad Salemy: My arrival was without fanfare, for the first time in a long time, I was not called into the secondary interview room to wait and answer more questions about my origins and intentions of visiting America as an Iranian Canadian. Looking at my almost full passport with stamps from around the world, the border guard asks me "Hi, I know where you are from but where do you actually live, and why do you travel so much?" as he easily lets me slip into the country.

The answers to questions of what a nation and citizenship are; how politics can be discussed in real and cyber public spheres; and what the constantly changing American identity actually means; certainly keeps challenging the role of local and international cultural institutions in the US. The notion of culture the authors have in mind here certainly includes not only modern and contemporary art but also political culture and pop culture. This text documents the month-long encounters, exhibitions and the arts that we, María Inés Plaza Lazo and Mohammad Salemy, experienced in the different neighborhoods of New York. Through reflecting on our own observations, we both shed light on how to answer the questions above, in praise of our 'inherent' desire to be an important part of something greater than ourselves. 

Some notes on belonging. 


MIP: What was the color of the carpet in a first rental apartment, or what race really meant in an Alabama high school, or how latinos do not fit in the black or white equation. The expectation of a fairy tale stagecoach welcoming a little Seoul girl at JFK that does not fit into the reality of migrants, the taste of Tater Tots, or the time a Yugoslavian refugee sees water rain on the vegetables at a grocery store ("This America! It rains inside the stores!"), or the steamy one-bedroom apartment at a refugee camp by the salvation army in the Philippines: this was the beginning of a conversation during The New Yorker Festival on American Identity. Among them, Ocean Vuong transferred his own memories as a depiction of the struggle against discrimination, but also the kaleidoscopic beauty of minorities and migrant communities. 

"Until I was seven, I didn’t know that America was predominantly white. I was surrounded by this community of color. And it was vibrant, colorful, full of life. I was surrounded by sensory details, I felt so joyful."

Ocean Vuong’s filigrane way of letting language emerge from a quiet space, free from clichés, embraces otherness, and lets you recognize the origin of an oral culture that is certainly strange to the English language. One in which shows a total liberation from de-colonial framework, woven in the academic pattern, that then again, is still influenced by the imperial gesture behind how universities, libraries and private collections accumulate knowledge. The authors recalibrated again and again, the anecdote with the pursuit of a sublime abstraction of the personal experience, mingling the self with the fundamentals of literature. Speak of a displaced self, and its displaced imagination, the feeling that there is a new way of addressing old failures with non-hierarchical vocabularies of empowerment, was compatible with the freedom of enjoying a banana pudding from the traditional bakery Magnolia on one of the hills of Central Park, while smelling the smoke of a joint being shared by some random teenagers next to us, invisible in the loud mass of tourists and locals having a Sunday walk, or just some selfies in the sun.

Boosted with drums from different dilettante concerts around the trees, the live-streamings and quinceañera photo sessions, the vibrant surrounding allowed me to immerse myself in some readings. The New York Times just published about the working homeless in California, their relationship with their employers, and to an unaffordable city like Los Angeles. A certain unease flashed through the lines, thinking of the summit organized by the LA Poverty Department and the Goethe Institute, called “Worlds of Homelessness”. (Some notes on that will be written with Alina Kolar in another entry exclusively for this website.)

The T magazine offered that same weekend a portrait of Rosalía, the Spanish Cantaora and spectacularly confident millennial I hear on my spotify playlist everyday, and a conversation(1) between Simone Leigh, Amy Sherald and Lorna Simpson on their careers as black American artists, what somehow sounds already tacky, but therein lies, the urgency of embodying the discourse of race, class, and belonging with celebrities. That might sound unfair from my side, but the kind of visibility given to them is also surrounded with strange expectations. 

Simpson: "There is the business of art, and then there’s the making of it. I never had an agenda directed at an audience that I needed to address in a particular way. Viewers don’t always see what I see in the work; therefore, I never felt that I could proceed in a way that would anticipate what the viewers would need or not need. I have no idea what people are going to feel or get from my work. For me, it has been really important throughout my career to realize that I just make the work that I make, and that’s it. If the things that I experience in life come into the making of the work, then that is enough."

Leigh: "When I would give talks or have speaking engagements, like at the Creative Time Summit in Venice in 2015, I would announce that I was making my work primarily for black women. And people thought I was out of my gourd. Even my mentor, the civil rights activist and art collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz, was like, “You can’t say that, what’s wrong with you?” She was wanting to protect me. I didn’t feel like I was taking a big risk at that point. Being largely ignored for so many years of my career gave me freedom to grow and be bold, to build confidence around my thoughts. I told Peggy it was too late. I had already been saying it for years. What I didn’t expect was that it would start to function as a call. It brought a lot of people into my life who could see that I was trying to do something different. It helped me build a community around myself. It’s not an original idea. Toni Morrison set a model for this mode of working, prioritizing black audiences, and black women in particular. But in art, which is so dependent on spectatorship, calling for a black audience seemed outrageous."

Sherald: "That’s making me think of when I do talks, and a white person asks me why I don’t paint white people, and I have to say —."

Simpson: "That’s a Toni Morrison question! Charlie Rose asked her in the late ’90s about her narratives and why she didn’t include white characters. Other interviewers asked her that question, too. Watching that broadcast, I can see she positions herself brilliantly in terms of understanding that you do not have to compromise your subject because it pertains to African-Americans. There need not be an apology or an explanation. I can’t do it as brilliantly as Toni Morrison, but she said you would never ask a male white writer that question about his work. It’s a question that was posed in the past and is being posed again, and it’s a question that has nothing to do with you or your work as an artist. The question should be: Why are we still being asked this?"

Read the full interview by Jenna Wortham, here.



MOS: Amidst the grotesque development project named Hudson Yards, itself a militarized and scaled up extension of Meatpacking’s Highline into Midtown West, rests the new exhibition and performance space sponsored by Bloomberg and other developers of the site called The Shed. Equipped with a movable roof, performance theaters and a large exhibition space, the new addition to the nonprofit large gallery spaces offered in New York is not an architectural marvel, nor does it possess the kind of mythology and cultural cache associated with spaces like the Whitney, New Museum or Kitchen, but I must admit their choice of a large retrospective like an exhibition of Agnes Denes, momentarily removes all the above objections. Occupying two large galleries, the exhibit is at the same time a survey of the artists’ seminal works from the 1970s Wheatfield and 1980s Tree Mountain as well as her philosophical drawings (also featured in the Kassel edition of Documenta 15 in 2017) and newly commissioned work by The Shed. Overall, the exhibition not only showcases the works of an artist that should already be celebrated much more than she is but displays her as one of the few artists who have been working in the field of visual arts who is at the same time aware of both mathematics and philosophy as building blocks of human thinking as well as being capable of employing transdisciplinarity into her marvelous works of art. 



MIP: Oceans, lunar spaces, start night skies, spider webs. Raindrops all over the asphalt and the gross taste of an overpriced bagel from Uptown Manhattan in our mouths. If you are soaked, in a rush, and wishing you would rather enjoy a warm cup of tea; never take an elevator in a museum. They are the slowest. At least at Met Breuer, the former Whitney Museum’s building, the elevator is truly from another century. But arriving at Vija Celmins’s drawings, trompe l'oeils and landscapes of calmness, surprisingly inheriting everything that belongs to a life in the sixties, change occurs rapidly to perception. A huge pink eraser. Stop. See. A house on fire. An exploding boat. A highway from the driver’s seat. It’s like cruising back to the golden age of image reproduction, science fiction.

A radio, radiator, a ventilator, an airplane, a bomb. Celmins painted everything that would turn on, basically. And the food she hated. Houses on fire. Again and again. She let the object itself be an indicator about what the canvas was about. Celmins’s early live was quite dramatic, just like for everyone who lived in Europe at the End of World War II. She was nine when she arrived in the US after living in a refugee camp in her hometown, Riga. A life in Indianapolis, then California, currently in New York. The paintings have an emotional quality to the most objective pictures available. Microscopic, astronomic. But Celmins is not interested in telling stories, and this exhibition makes it clear. 

Dots, switches, waves. Just like every art student in the sixties, she wanted to be like De Kooning, or Pollock, she said in a conversation with Robert Store in 2015. It was from De Kooning that she learned that art wasn’t a very popular thing, and that art had nothing to do with society, but it was an idea in itself. Every picture she has produced so far is like going through books, remembrance in general. The fluidity of the paintings, things you want to keep, and become anything. Vija Celmins treats photographs like the skeletons of her works. The painting is not a window. The painting has its own reality. 



MOS: Kanye West’s latest album was released at 12:00am October 26. Waiting to return to NYC from a short homecoming trip to Vancouver, I stayed up until 12:00 am when the music was released with friends, themselves Kanye fans, whom I was staying with— if you can believe it— on the 44th floor of the city’s unpopular Trump Tower. Then, on my way back to New York, I purchased on-flight internet to listen to the album more. At first, I wasn’t convinced. But slowly the charm began to work its magic. About Kanye’s religious awakening; is he the first one? Certainly no, like Bob Dylan, Donna Summers and even Prince all had relationships with religion sometime in their careers. I also am more and more convinced that artists ought to be allowed to go crazy, so long as their art remains significant. Jesus is King is also only a small sample of what Kanye has been doing lately with his new band Sunday Service, one of the most interesting developments in popular culture today where the artist tones down his singular persona as a rapper and take on the role of a prophet followed by his believers, who are all able choir members. Sure the album lacks Kanye's usual lyrical rigor. However, musically, it is a minimalist attempt to bring Hip Hop, R&B and gospel music to a popular focus. It certainly helped me enjoy the music even more when I heard it pouring out of cars driven by African American men around New York with windows rolled down so as to let their loudspeakers penetrate the city. Jesus Is King, is definitely one of the better albums of 2019.



MIP: “We were caught on a gunfire. I was shot with an AK-47.” I hear the frozen water crack beneath a bunch of ice skaters enjoy the first rounds, while a quiet crowd gathers in front of the Rockefeller Center to read the testimonies that artist Jenny Holzer gathers from the victims of gun violence in the US. Testimonies, responses, and poems by people confronting the everyday reality mingle with her body of work: words confronting the viewer, ready to dialogue around the prevalence of existential issues, political upheavals, social conflicts. “I was so outraged. How do you buy a gun at 11 o’clock in the morning and shoot your wife in the afternoon?” 

There is this void Jenny Holzer opens up and lets the city be numb, soundless, while you are ready these words of testimonials, sorrow, endless pathos in black and white, bold typo perforating the walls.

The words floating up like the credits of a horror movie, are lonely. They are not coated, not fleshed, but they are considered for what they are. A medium, a language, nude material, text. Holzer has always concentrated in the visual force of words, giving them a specific assignment. She started as a street artist, considering words to be her primary tool. People get what she is doing, or at least to have it constructively mystified. People, this is real. It’s capitalized, it’s urgent. There is no competition but a clear, feminist, available way to state the intolerable grid in which gun violence is embedded.



MOS: What is left of Chelsea? A once thriving gallery hood is now devastated by the impact of rapid luxury condo development. Chelsea is experiencing a new round of gentrification. Established and respected galleries like Casey Kaplan can no longer even afford the rent. There are a lot of different elements contributing to this grim fate, but one thing stands out as the main culprit: the innovative urban technology, the public park called The Highline. I never fucking liked it, nor did I even like the Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum: the giant photocopy machine which is attached to it. With abominations like this, New York is becoming the best example of what happens when accumulated capital doesn’t know what to do with itself anymore. If New York is transforming into a self-biting Zombie, Chelsea is its sharp teeth. Kinda like what Trump is doing to the United States and its government. This seemingly benign innovation which was supposed to turn an old train track into a neighborhood park is now literally lined with tourist conveyer belt delivering them on their pilgrimage of watching the luxury condos which now surround the old train track. Maybe they’d snap a picture of rich couples who are having sex against the bare window of their Standard Hotel rooms towering over them. Even the rotating public art project situated right near the hotel can’t save this menacing tunnel of boredom and luxury. With my Homo homies all migrating north to Hell’s Kitchen, soon there is not even a good gay reason to go there.



MIP: What is an hour, if you are talking about the things you love, right? So, I asked Masha Demidova to join the conversation on how the increasing rise of homelessness in the metropolises of Germany and the USA is creating new possibilities of involvement for the civilian population with a dynamic exchange on strategies of political creative expression. How to overcome the emotional burn-out of our own social and intellectual struggle. There we sat, in a former church in Brooklyn, in front of twenty artists from all over the world at Residency Unlimited discussing with us the topic of how to care for that democratic engagement and the political education that the arts and international solidarity can provide. 

Masha turned into the key figure for the paper to connect with the crowd, as the directors of Residency Unlimited are busy managing the never-ending current of people passing through this very loose, precarious but very helpful network of working artists from all over the world. Masha put the same impetus as I did, in this, of course, non-funded event. She actually fosters a career in data privacy and information security in New York, she was trained as an Information Security Analyst for the Mayor's Office of Vladivostok (Russia) where she is from originally, and we are both interested in connecting AWC with her personal project TMK (The Mayhem Kollektiv), an unfolding experiment of artistic freedom in relation between image production and the public sphere in our times of panoptic but invisible surveillance. Masha immerses her tech knowledge in an anthology of recipes and anecdotal stories of failures and mindfulness, shared by enthusiasts alike. Her commitment to the paper resembles the kind of unconditional force of everyone working on our team. A postcapitalist form of investing in something you really want to see grow and reach out to as many individuals as possible.

The "Meet Over Lunch" series is an ongoing invitation extended to local and visiting art practitioners to present their practice and projects over lunch to the RU community, and one of the first chances to have a horizontal conversations around the street newspaper as a tool of social help and a challenging paper on arts at the same time. This meeting wasn’t possible without the helping hands of Hekler, a collective led by Jelena Prljević, Nataša Prljević and Josh Nierodzinski. They were in Philadelphia having a People’s Tribunal, hosted by Twelve Gates Arts, bringing together a group of artists, activists, and scholars to account for the impact of global counterinsurgency doctrine. With storytelling, installation, and song as "evidence," the tribunal interrogated the rhetoric that has fueled the lasting trauma of the U.S. War in Iraq, while building a collective archive that fosters alternative spaces of restitution for evaluating the war on terror.  People like Josh and Nataša are exactly the people we are calling to be associate editors of AWC, and I immediately invited them to be associate editors for our fall issue in 2020, called EUROTHANASIA. (More to come, wait for next year.)



MOS: Worldmaking has been a hip word for the last couple of years. Thus, finding out that some of my friends and colleagues from The New Centre for Research & Practice were going to address the topic was a good reason to go to e-flux on October 30. Participants addressed the question from three different perspectives. While J-P Caron gave the audience a classic background on the concept of generative aesthetics, Patricia Reed, joining the panel via Skype from South Korea, approached it from a strange starting point, that of the structuralist Foucault of The Order of Things period. Finally, Reza Negarestani, in his usual impromptu brilliance, concluded the panel with a brief meditation on the relationship between the norm and the exception as well as rules and their transformation and how one leads to another. The event concluded with a series of challenging and interesting questions from the audience causing all the panelists to get a bit defensive about their propositions. As usual with all e-flux events, the conversation continued on at a nearby bar until the early hours of morning giving me the chance to meet a few new young thinkers from the philosophy scene in the city. 

e-flux Conversations c Mohammad Salemy


MIP: The departure time of the ferry was at five o’clock. By that time, I was still sitting on the R train, passing Canal Street. I ran to the station, and thirty minutes late, I managed to jump last into the boat full of guests of the Performa, kicking-off for the eighth time in New York, for weeks full of live performances. After walking carefully up the stairs to the upper floor, I am surrounded by the oversized black down jacket of Korakrit Arunanondchai, and I can’t help but cherish historically about this rendezvous. “The last time we saw each other was on a ferry between Istanbul and Prince island!” He introduced me to his very cool assistant, tells me how busy he is with the commission he will present next week during the biennial, together with a boychild and Alex Gvojic, as we walk rapidly towards Castle Williams, where Samson Young has created a contemporary interpretation of the popular Chinese folklore of The Eight Immortals—a centuries old legend that has numerous iterations in Chinese mythology and culture, ranging from opera to children’s cartoons. It was like attending a birthday party to which nobody is invited, but squeezed in.

It’s freezing cold, no chairs, but an arrangement of cranes carrying jazz musician Michael Schiefel and guitar quartet Dither, and Cantonese opera singer Eliza Li, who is hardly visible behind the first row of people standing and watching the ritual about to start. After the Taoist characters are ‘presented’, as Li shows symbolic equivalents to the very western ergo alienated spectators of a Chinese popular event, the musical explodes in many directions, eerily and unavoidably relating to the depictions of the military history of the building. The musicians, wearing a mix of drag-like intense colored tutus and miners’ uniforms, seem to embody the urgent concerns of our rapidly evolving 21st century society, shaped by the constantly shifting technological revolution. The one that the program of the Performa ‘19 promises to ‘explore’.

But it is hard to follow the composition due to the cold, and so I escape the shivering crowd to find others hiding in the corridors and toilets of the Governor’s Island installations for art exhibitions. I didn’t see the sixteenth century Chinese folk myth become fully into an experimental musical, and it didn’t seem right to think of Stravinsky or Balanchine or comic book characters. The only thing that bothered me in that moment was the way completely different iconographies are brought together in a meaningless fashion, typical of the art world’s most shallow representatives and their schizophrenic way of cheating everyone’s expectations in order to pretend some relevance of their own. It’s either that, or the biennial format is obsolete. But that is a speculation in the air, already for a while.



MOS: Spanning on all floors of the museum, the exhibition includes soliciting a digital survey from visitors about the economic impact of the arts on the 5th floor. On the other floors, a retrospective of the artist’s works, from his earlier works representing his interest in larger environmental systems to his more political research-based work from the 1970s and 80s about the art world and the wealth of those who claim to support it through philanthropy, all the way to his recent object based and commercial gallery-pleasing monumental sculpture. Despite the extent of the research that has gone into putting the exhibition together, it is hard to call it a total success since a lot of the exhibition, by featuring his text-based moralistic political work exposes the roots of so much bad woke and politically correct contemporary art in vogue today. It proves that even back then, this kind of strategy was broken. Interacting with some average visitors proved to confirm my own bias about the depth and the rigor of his earlier work on the second floor compared to the later works which, despite having their foot in serious cybernetic and statistical research of new York landlords and tenants as well as artists and art patrons, renders the history of institutional critique cumbersome and nothing but a series of tired truisms.



MIP: “I do not believe in quotas” answered Glenn D.Lowry to the question of a journalist around the percentage of women, latinxs, black people, Asians and other communities represented in the museum. “But it’s just simple,” he goes on to say, “women are good artists”. And their work belong here. A museum is not a zoo, is not a park, it is not the place where art can be produced. A museum is a source. It is the source of aesthetic recognition by artists displayed for others to go through towards reflection. At MoMA, it looks like if the museum would morph with time the way a flower opens its petals: so slow and continuously, that the change is hardly perceptible to the eye. It looks as if everything was there, all the time. It looks so...easy. But I can imagine how hard it should have been, to come to a common ground, and how to treat diversity with the corresponding gestures after so many decolonizing and anti-colonizing struggles within cultural institutions. This is of course, not over, but only the beginning of the reformulation of what a museum for modern and contemporary art is.

MIP: The Museum of Modern Art in New York has fostered one of the most canonical collections for artworks from the 20th century. Everyone I met in October talks about the “new MoMA”, as if this would be a total event. I would concentrate in the heart of this new shift, the People’s Studio. It is here where you see another kind of involvement of the visitors in the exhibitions. They actively confront themselves with what they see as something that builds the idea of the Museum of Modern Art in the 21st century. That's why I love Mo's review for Ocula, which allows itself to critically celebrate this new achievement of MoMA, to redefine itself without losing its avant-gardeist position. 

This space, above Haegue Yang’s pathetically pedagogical participative installations, next to the rooms arranged by artist Amy Sillman, and below the commissioned installations floor with the most cutting edge by artists among them Arthur Jaffa, Allora & Calzadilla, is an experimental chance for visitors to try the arts and ideas through participatory programs that do not necessarily have a purpose. Open during regular hours, the People’s Studio is open to short or repetitive visits, to experiment with the materials and strategies displayed in current exhibitions, or for weekly conversations and workshops in direct contact with artists, educators, and thinkers. Beginning in October 2019, the People’s Studio occupies the Paula and James Crown Creativity Lab, a permanent space on the second floor of the Museum. Driven by an annual theme, programs connect art on view with visitors’ life experiences. Each year, artists and collaborators from diverse fields are invited to take part in the Catalyst Program as part of the People's Studio, partnering with Museum educators on innovative projects intended to expand the Museum’s public function.


MOS: I arrived enthusiastically to this rally, not having any expectations in terms of the audience. Nevertheless, I experienced one of the most thrilling political gatherings of my life. Thousands of people, roughly in their mid-twenties, jam packed into the park’s grass field, the most diverse crowd of people I have ever seen. Youngsters, boomers, construction workers, nurses, teachers, even hipsters and fashion victims, they all seem to be represented with a single mission: to welcome Sanders back to the campaign after his heart attack and to show the centrists and their media goons that democratic socialism is here to fight for the Democratic party presidential nomination. 

MIP: I was leaving New York and Bernie Sanders was calling thousands for his come back. And there he was, under a summery sun, campaigning on the other side of the buildings eating up Manhattan, at the shore of Queens Bridge. The rally was promoted as a facebook event to which I clicked attending. I got lost on Long Island City so I had to take an Uber. It slowly took me through the mass of people queuing to enter Queensborough Park. Trump supporters screamed insanely to supporters of the most progressive leftist the US has ever had, police officers look at the masses unimpressed. I smile at the situation. Bernie Sanders is just so beautifully critical, it is unbearable. It is insanely idealistic for many, also many leftists. 

“Let me respectfully disagree with those who think that real change is not possible...We will no longer divide people based on the color of our skin, our gender, where we were born, our sexual orientation or our religion. In fact, we will do the opposite. We’re gonna bring people together.”

Somebody flusters in my ear, this sounds like public relations and not a presidential campaign. I disagree, and yet, a melancholic spree rushes through my head. Is it PRing for himself, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other democratic representatives endorsing his campaign also another reason to create political awareness? 

“Memo to the haters: hashtag 'Bernie Is Back,'” said Nina Turner, adding a “Life happens to us all”. I left to JFK before Sanders finished his speech, sweating in the only clothes I had, way too warm for the fall itinerary of meetings and efforts in New York. I was happy and hungry enough to have the greasiest slice of pepperoni pizza I was hoping to get for the last pennies in my pocket. Queueing behind a highly drugged skinny girl, a middle-eastern looking young man patiently took our orders. The girl paid and left without taking her slice. The man smiled at me and handed me two slices instead of one. I left with this random gift and shared it with someone who asked for food as soon as I left the store. Life, it happened to me on Vernon Boulevard.

  • Mohammad Salemy
    is an independent Berlin-based artist, critic and curator from Canada. He holds a BFA from Emily Carr University and an MA in Critical Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia. Together with Patrick Schabus, he forms the artist collective Alphabet Collection. Salemy is the Organizer at The New Centre for Research & Practice.



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