“Preservationist” has become something of a slur, used to denigrate the old-timers and neo-hippies who’d rather save ratty old tenant buildings and dusty mom-and-pop stores than make way for clean big-box stores with cheap stuff for everyone, and skyscraping mixed-use luxury complexes with their affordable housing pittance. It’s sorta like: C’mon, New York City is, by its nature, dynamic and changing. But the ever-faster pace of development and the lightyear rate of change have made for an urban landscape where transformation takes place exponentially and squeezes out the very people who have made this city vibrant and interesting in the first place.
Over the weekend, a slew of more than 40 local and visiting artists, as well as organizations like the Chinatown Art Brigade (a grassroots effort tackling the divisive issue of gallery-led gentrification in their neighborhood) demonstrated that preservation doesn’t have to be backward-looking.
It was all part of the Smithsonian pop-up, Ctrl+Alt: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures, which took over the old Pearl River Mart space, and transformed the first two levels of the former shop into a labyrinthian exhibition devoted to “reclaiming the future” from the perspective of an incredibly diverse group of artists. As the curators explained, “They show that even those who have long been pushed to the margins are the center of someone’s universe.”
Guests were welcome to show up whenever and explore the various booths to their hearts’ content, with little in the way of rules or order (which in this case worked very well).
Immediately to the left of the doors was an installation by a Brooklyn-based artist named Wiena Lin, Disassembly Line Alternative Retail Kiosk, which was just as futuristic and strange as it sounds. A gaggle of assistants wearing white scrubs and hairnets were stationed between a strange glass case filled with crystalline shapes and a circular arrangement of tables absolutely drowning in electronic pieces– wires, circuitboards, mangled pieces of plastic and metal, the innards of discarded keyboards and old cellphones.
Like Oompa Loompas, the workers picked at the techy remnants. Meanwhile, toward the back of their setup, stood a glowing kiosk that functioned as an altar for what looked like a KFC bucket full of crystal wings. As the piece rotated hypnotically, the glitter, garbage, and fast-food symbols all slammed together at once, an embarrassing reminder of how ridiculous and dystopian our culture of waste really is.
Until recently, 477 Broadway housed the downtown landmark filled with untold trinkets and imported goods from China, plus a cosmology of cheap runoff from that country’s super-mass production of everything plastic, flimsy, and just plain confusing. By the time they closed their doors in April, after 45 years in business, Pearl River seemed way out of place in Soho, a neighborhood now so sanitized and chain-addled that it’s bordering on chintzy. A dramatic rent-hike was to blame, but there’s a reason why the store’s reincarnation at its new location in Tribeca (set to open sometime this month) is aiming to transform its image by “modernizing,” with stock that includes “major national and global brands.”
The exhibition, however, demonstrated the opposite impulse: rather than simply sweeping away the old to make way for globalization’s finest in cultural flattening, the “culture lab” drew on the past, present, and future. Throughout the weekend, the space was jam-packed with hands-on installations, the bump of an interactive DJ booth, and a level of engagement with artists and their work that’s rarely seen outside of super-branded or family-oriented exhibitions.
Work ranged from the imaginative and fantastical (Puerto Rican superhero manga) to the downright practical (community-focused workshop organized by Chinatown Art Brigade), with everything in between.
Los Anticuchos, aka the Latino hip-hop project of Daniel del Pielago and Andrew Rebatta, had set up what the former said was a recreation of their “hip-hop lab” by taking over a small corner of the first floor which they devoted to a row of beat makers, synths, and mixers. The adjacent walls were were lined with LPs that had a futuristic bent, from classics like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet to deeper cuts like Tropical by Los Tremendos. The members of the latter group are pictured on the front cover of their album looking funky as hell in ruffly shirts, smiling big with the Statue of Liberty at their back.
“The cover’s so ill, I don’t know if they did it deliberately, but to me, to us, it looks like they’re really claiming New York, and they were breaking with the Latin old guard in New York,” Daniel said. “It’s futuristic in the sense that their music lasted way longer than their band through samples.”
Each record had a social-justice message, either implicit or explicit. In the case of an LP recorded at Chinatown’s Chung King House of Metal– a recording studio known as “the Abbey Road of Hip-Hop” that functioned as a major locus for hip-hop and punk acts of the ’80s– Daniel, who described himself as a “community organizer” in addition to an artist, pointed out that gentrification had led to the closure of the legendary spot in 2010.
“We balance [the music] with some of the challenges, especially for people of color, under the current political climate,” he explained. “The lab is where we get centered to fight those kind of issues.”
There were quieter pieces too, such as the No Kings Collective’s looming pyramid, Things To Come, Again, an altar of sorts hidden behind a curtain (something that gave extra gravity to a piece that already struck doomed laughter in this reporter). An explanation greeted visitors at the entrance, and introduced the piece as an idealized hierarchy inspired by a sort of “retrofuturism” based on the now outdated ’50s and ’60s visions of “the modern city.” But the artists reserved a special kind of acerbic parody for our current social-media obsessed order. The top of the pyramid was, not surprisingly, reserved for the all-important “Booty, booty, butts,” followed by “payday loans” and “Medicare” located just over the most essential distinction between “Insta” and “grams,” while the base, of course, was dedicated to life itself: “Troll – #killyourself” as well as “wifi” and “selfies.”
Overall, the exhibition’s theme was heavily indebted to Afro-Futurism, which has functioned as an outlet for generations of black artists, musicians, and writers to imagine their present in the context of an idealized, liberated future, one informed by the visionary outlook of science fiction, and based on the understanding that the origins of black people in America can be traced to an essentially extraterrestrial experience. Many of the artists seemed to be paying their respects directly.
Solomon Enos, an artist from Honolulu, showed an installation based on his ongoing project, “Polynesian Science-Fiction.” It included 1,000 images of “organic spaceships” drawn directly onto seed packets that he gave away piecemeal over the course of the weekend. Speaking to him felt like convening directly with a disciple of Sun Ra. The connection between plants and the cosmos, not an immediately obvious one, turned out to be quite potent. “They put all their energy into their children, which is a symbol for what we’re going to have to do right now,” he said. “We have to double down on what’s important, and see how far we can project our love into space-time.”
Hate, Enos pressed, is a philosophy of limitation, and the only hope for the human race is love. It might sound like hokey hippie-talk, but he made some solid points. “If we can build super-duper fantastic spaceships, then we can build super-duper fantastic communities,” he said.
At this point, it was almost impossible to ignore the background of the election. The show seemed so impossibly timely, and I found myself wondering how the organizers had managed to gather their forces so quickly. There was even a “Post-Election Refuge” downstairs, complete with beanbags, tarot readers, adult coloring book stations with colored pencils at the ready and– yes, truly– a diffuser puffing out soothing peppermint smells. But Enos explained that all of this had come together even before the election was decided, which, actually, made a lot more sense: it’s not as if any of these problems (gentrification, housing inequality, racism, sexism, xenophobia, indigenous injustice) came about with Trump’s crowning.
“I felt like my diaphragm was unzipped and all of my intestines came out,” Enos said, recalling what it felt like when he found out the voting results immediately after his flight from Hawaii landed in New York City on election night. “But the real beauty is, now more than ever we need to be patient, kind, compassionate. We need to be invested like we’ve never been before.”
Ctrl + Alt’s creative approach to discussing gentrification and inequality isn’t exactly pioneering in itself. Recently, we’ve seen other like-minded productions like Gentrifiers Anonymous and a show called Month2Month. But there was something more pressing about this exhibition and the ideas running through it, that had the potential to be universally understood and applied well beyond the transforming neighborhoods of New York City. There might not have been an answer for every problem, but some of the work precipitated important discussions that sure do offer a solid starter to solving our super-anxious present, which provided at least a first step to the ominous, terrifyingly complex question of “What now?” The message wasn’t so much that the old forms must be saved for the future like so many kitschy museum pieces, nor was it about throwing away the past to make way for a brave new world, but the exhibition touched on something a little more urgent than that: the future will only be there if we can make it work for everyone.