Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sandy and the 9/11 Construction Site: Is Rebuilding] differently enough

Disaster imaged by a city icon under threat. In several Hollywood blockbusters key icons from New York City’s landscape are turned into detritus, attacked, or mobilized, in various circumstances. A meme floating around facebook  enthymematically gestures to a cannon of New York disaster films, including Ghost Busters II, Godzilla, and, not included, Planet of the Apes. In the recent images from Hurricane Sandy’s landing on New York shores one of the many chilling images that caught my attention was the above image of Ground Zero construction site flooding.

It is a beautiful image, water cascading like a waterfall from the flat construction site bove, filtering through various tunnels and scaffolding to create a variegated crystalline flow that breaks above the lower level below, almost like the terraces in Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house.  

In a way, spatially, disasters of two kinds: one the result of geopolitical distributions of resentment, terror, U.S. Empire, and an assortment of motives known and beyond knowing, but decidedly linked to human calculation, and another, the seeming blunt and faceless vengeance of Mother Nature at her worst. However, Hurricane Sandy is not some deus ex machina turned foul, it is the result of decades of overconsumption, lax environmental policy, careful attempts at sidestepping difficult collective decisions, and the residues of disasters felt in third and fourth world coastal cities to an even greater degree.  The image evidences the profound vulnerability that we all face vis a vis “nature” in an era of global warming. Further, it illuminates the threat of profound loss, a wound so great that it floods the capacity to remember and even honor its own memory, in the wake of natural disasters beyond reckoning.

The relationship was made clear to me while on a phone call with my mother. My family is all located on the East Coast. “I couldn’t sleep last night.” I said “The images, the destruction, it is frightening to know your home town is getting the crap beat out of it.” She answered: “I couldn’t either. That hum from the train, buses, cars, the normal noises. It was quiet. It was like 9/11. That eerie quiet.” The hunched shoulders, tight breathe, and sense of foreboding that I’d felt the last 48 hours, to the point of calling my family every four hours to check in on them, made a certain sense. The sense of betrayal that I was not physically there.

Among humorous references to New Yorkers “preparing” for the Hurricane by stocking up bottles of wine and complaining  what reveals is an affective economy of fear, and anxiety  that reveals not so much through public statements, though some, such as Governor Cuomo have at least admitted the need for rebuilding differently because of "greater frequency of flood patterns", but more importantly, through images.

Images of a transformer exploding , of a building fa├žade crumbling,

 of a crane hanging of the side of a several story tall building: everyday objects, architectural tools or components of structures taking on a life of their own and becoming threatening. Uncanny.

But the image of the 9/11 memorial also, for me, unlocks a central component of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall that provides an instructive link between the trauma and tragedy of a city under terrorist attack, and a city under assault by nature: both require a more careful, and collective response, and in a bizarre way, both highlight the potential for care and compassion latent in New York City, a city largely defined as callous and “rude.”

The images reveal an anxiety about agency: how do we respond to, prepare for forces that are seemingly beyond our control, and more forebodingly, threaten to erase every human effort at remembering, and responding to disaster?

Ariella Azoulay argues that analyzing images helps us make sense of complex situations. Although she discusses images of quotidian violence in the militarized daily life of Israel-Palestine, her insight is helpful in a broader context. The images taken by journalists, and everyday citizens illuminates a desire to make sense of a situation seemingly beyond any individual’s control, a desire to hold on to some agency, and to care for a history the physical traces of which are vulnerable to being washed away in a very powerful storm. 

I am extremely lucky that those close to me are warm, and dry. I know that millions across the globe are not so fortunate and my prayers and good wishes go out to them. A discussion has been going on via images, and dialogue, for several years about the need to live in a more sustainable way with nature, and with each other. To make difficult decisions about changing consumption and energy use patterns. What the 9/11 memorial/Sandy image reveals is that crisis is not a one time occurrence. It has complex histories, pasts and futures. The nearest approximate to coherent action we can take is to think about how to work more holistically, and collectively to thinking about the distribution of disaster, risk, and vulnerability globally, and attempting to work towards understanding responsibility, rather than merely piling up sandbags. The flood can always burst through.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"American History 2000-2012": Empire, War, and the Media Through the Eyes of Gaye Lub

Gaye Lub contacted me in early October to let me know that she had been working on a public art project entitled "American History 2000-2012: A Visual History of Our 21st Century." Looking at her  website I was surprised and interested to see a series of dense panels, almost like the covers of the gossip magazines that might be found near the checkout line in a supermarket. However, the images were not of airbrushed (or "revealed") stars, but rather images from newspapers, what appear to be screen grabs from news shows, and looming hulking icons of Americana. Each panel depicts a different year, with thirteen total each at 296 square feet, spanning 70 feet when place side by side (email with artist). Lub describes the project as a "mirror," but it is a reflection of historical events that perforns the desperate non-sense that animated Bush administration War on Terror policies, the almost nauseating slew of images spat out at an American public, and the process of forgetting necessarily imbued in the media attempts to create consumeable sound-bytes. Lub posts the work on her website, as well as having shown it in her studio, at the 2012 Burning Man festival, and more recently at the junior college near her home, as well as at a Peace Awards Dinner in Walnut Creek, California, this Saturday, which will be attended Congresswoman Barbara Lee, among other denizens. Importantly, Lub makes her images open source explaining that they "belong to US [U.S.?]. They are our history." An interesting attempt to navigate the morass of media, memory, and politics, what follows is an interview I conducted with Lub via email about her recent work. Photographs of the Burning Man display were kindly provided to me by the artist to supplement the interview text. 

Interview Transcript Begins:

1.     Beginnings: On your website you explain that you began doing work in stained class. How did you become involved in art, when, and why?
I’ve always liked working with my hands. When I was a teenager I took a class at the local college in drawing and realized I really enjoyed it. A few years later I was experimenting with Stained Glass. Within months I quit my job and was supporting myself as a street artist, getting a lot of commissions for custom work. I continued taking classes and became trained in working with mixed mediums, glass, clay, paint, wood, metal, etc. In my mid 20’s I was working with a studio that taught me how to sand blast glass. This developed into a business where I sand carved and hand painted wine bottles for the local industry. NOTE: I live in Napa Valley, CA. I ended up designing and producing art wine bottles for 120 wineries and almost 200 corporations. Many of these bottles were used for promotional events and special auctions. Some of my bottles sold at auctions for over $200,000. U.S.D. During this time I also designed my own line of designer bottles that I sold wholesale and retail, nationally and internationally.
Working 60 up to 80 hours a week took it's toll. I sold my business to concentrate on being a mother and a wife. As my children were growing I started teaching art classes at the local school as a docent. I did this for 10 years working with kids in preschool up to the 8th grade. I got up to producing 17 classes a year. This was one of my favorite times of my life.
Working with computer graphics was a natural progression on how to manage the photos we were taking and marketing concepts I prepare for my husbands company.
Two years ago we renovated an 8-stall horse barn on our property. I got a new studio. This was exciting because I have many projects that wanted to get finished. As I looked around at what were my options, where to start first, I realized that the images I’d been collecting on current events were time sensitive, if I was ever going to do something with them the time was now. In October 2011 I started working on “American History 2000 – 2012” and finished it in August. Actually it’s not finished. 2012 is the final panel in this series and should be complete in March 2013.
The question you ask “Why did I become involved in art” can only be answered that it felt good. I enjoyed creating beautiful things and watching people enjoy them.
Making art all my life has felt good, until this project.

2.     Can you speak about your aesthetic style: what influences you? What or whom do you find helpful in finding forms of expression?

I’ve been collecting images all my life based on art, form, design, color etc. If I wanted to paint a picture but didn’t feel confident that I knew exactly how to put the components together I would go to my files and choose images based on how they related to what I wanted to see. I would use these images for inspiration. I also love to go to galleries and museums. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and study history while visiting great museums in the Mid-East, Far East, Central and South America, Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Note: The artwork I’ve produced prior to “American History 2000 – 2012” was based on feeling good. My art, my happiness was showing the recipient viewer whimsical beauty.  My job was to create joy, until this project.
Because I am affected by visual imagery when 9/11 happened I was traumatized. We all were. Because I could not get away from the images, they were everywhere, I started collecting them and putting them in boxes. It felt like if I put them in the boxes I didn’t have to hold them inside of me.
Working on this project has been very intense. I’ve had to concentrate deeply getting lost in time. When people see it in invokes a lot of response, primarily memory and fear. I had a lot of questions and have received many answers. I have more questions and feel a responsibility to show this collection to the U.S. It’s not just me. We all witnessed what this collection represents. I’m not the only one feeling the repercussions.

3.     On your website you post a video where you discuss the impact that 9/11 had on you, that it caused fear, but also fear surrounding the images from the mass media that we were bombarded with. You mention that one goal for the work is to help people remember. Can you discuss how the process of memory potentially inspired by your work relates to your concerns about democracy, and it’s being under threat?

WOW! Good Question!
I’ve witnessed most people see first and hear second. Visual imagery is a mirror reflecting what is going on around us and inside of us.
In Wikipedia the first words that describe Democracy are: Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.
Do you agree with this?
NOTE: Democracy is a form of government in which ALL ELIGIBLE CITIZENShave an EQUAL SAY in the DECISIONS that AFFECT THEIR LIVES.
This isn’t happening. I feel the name America has been high jacked and the word Democracy is being used to invade other countries.
Through visual images we are told what is going on around us.  “American History 2000 – 2012” reminds us that we watched 9/11, went to war, learned about the Middle East and learned new words like Al-Qaida, Taliban, Weapons of Mass Destruction and War on Terror.
We got easy credit. Consumerism skyrocketed and than the credit ran out.  We lost our jobs, our new or refinanced homes, our pensions and dreams for the future.
Unemployment skyrocketed; budget cuts hit all sectors of our lives. We realized that the stores we shop in are filled with imported items and question what happened to American factories. We hear that Global Warming is real, our food is being genetically altered and our health is challenged,
At a time when we are involved in two CREDIT CARD wars our nations financial structure collapses as military spending increases. We found out that there were NO Weapons of Mass Destruction;  “No Draft” means were going to Outsource; and the population is not 100% convinced that there was a plane that actually hit the Pentagon nor aware that THREE buildings were leveled to the ground at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The only time that Public Voice really made an impact and received serious news coverage was when Occupy inspired millions.  That was last year. What happened?
Who benefited: The Weapons Industry, Pharmaceutical Industry, Oil Industry, Banking Industry, Shipping Industry and Overseas Manufacturing.  I don’t feel our government benefitted except for a few individuals who I call War Profiteers. 
We’ve been projected imagery that the idea of what is happening is OK or that we can only witness because others are taking care of it!  There have been times we’ve been encouraged to look the other way because it felt better. It’s been an emotional pull of strings that has had serious consequences. That’s what “American History 2000 – 2012” captures.  This collection reminds us to Pay Attention!

4.     Who is the audience for your work? You mention "we," "us," the "American people," but there are many ideological, political and social divisions within American society.

I feel this collection is important. I would like it to be seen in Museums, Galleries, on the TV, in locations where people can take time to ponder what it represents, at social events where people want to work to make a difference, in universities. 
This collection is nonpartisan. People need to come to their own conclusions. There is a story here but it’s also a research piece to remember our own history and how current events affected us individually.

5.     Where has your work been displayed (physically and virtually)? How do these different exhibition spaces change the potential meaning that viewers might get from the work? You mention you had a show at your studio August 12, what city was this in? What did viewers say?

August 12, 2012 was the first viewing of “American History 2000 – 2012” at my studio in Napa Valley, CA. This was the first time I actually saw the collection together, in chronological order, full size. There were over 100 guests.
Two weeks later the panels went to Burning Man 2012 Black Rock City, Nevada, where they were installed with a theme camp called “Fractal Nation”.
The day before we left for Burning Man we launched the website: gayelub.com and later americanhistory2000-2012.com.
The pieces have been on display in my studio in Napa Valley since Burning Man. Currently they are on their way to an event Saturday night where two congressmen, actually one congresswoman and one congressman will be attending. This is the first time that a government political official will see them.
Next Monday and Tuesday I am presenting a PowerPoint presentation to classes at the local Jr. College. The classes are titled “Political Science Philosophy” and “Ethics”. I’m curious to see the reactions of the viewers at these opportunities.  Beyond next week I have no commitments to show the pieces. Two local galleries have expressed interests in featuring them. Time will tell where they go next.
To Date: The main comment I’ve heard about this body of work is “Thank You”. It has been and continues to be a lot of space to hold, physically and mentally.

6.     Can you please talk about the process of making the posters? You mention in the interview videos that it was a way of "making sense" a sort of "therapeutic" or cathartic process. How so? And in the final product, in what ways does the work help viewers make sense of the post 9/11 world, or is it in fact just a reflection of the chaotic media scope that we are confronted with on a daily basis?

This work was done VIA computers. Taking images and scanning them into the computer invoked me to study more about what the images represented. I ended up making data bases with large contents of information. Most of the time it did not make sense. I was able to take information, print it out and string data together in a way that I could see it more clearly. I started to recognize patterns. I had moments I left my studio screaming and crying. I actually had two moments when my hands started shaking.
I’m still trying to make sense of it all but feel I have a better understanding. The main thing I want people to realize is not to feel guilty. We did not have control of many events that happened the past 12 years. During the Bush Era, so much happened very quickly.  Government, corporations, think tanks and industry pushed us to the edge and over. The panels also are a reflection to pay attention to what’s going on around you. America still has the impression that our voices can be heard.
The chaotic media scope we are subjected to makes me question how much of what we see is real and how much is theatre, is this real life drama or acting.

7.     You call your work a "mirror." Can you explain a little about what you mean in calling it a "mirror"? Why was it surprising to hear it called "political"?

When you look into a mirror you see an imprint of the image in front of you. Imagine that the collages are mirrors imprinting images into your mind. I call the work a “mirror” because I am reflecting back images that were imprinted in my mind. These images were seen national[ly]  and global[ly] .  I am not the only one who saw them.   
It surprised me to hear the collages being tagged “Political”.
Political makes me feel like we have to take a side and that it’s referenced to government. The collages are nonpartisan. Yes! They represent actions by government but also the Weapons Industry, Pharmaceutical Industry, Oil Industry, Banking Industry, Financial Institutions, Shipping Industry, Overseas Manufacturing and Think Tanks through media. It shows statistical data on how we were affected.
Remember ,“American History 2000 – 2012” is new. I’m still learning what it represents. It’s developing. There are moments it has a life of it’s own, moments I feel like a tool being used to guide it.
Currently the energy behind being tagged Political is shifting. It’s being called Cultural and Social.

8.     You have shown your work at Burning Man recently. For someone who does not know much about Burning Man, can you provide some context for how it was displayed (physical design and arrangement), and reactions it engendered? If there is a specific story or anecdote you have about a viewer's reaction to the piece that would be interesting to hear.

Burning Man is a like being at a circus and we are all part of the act. It’s amazing. Also imagine that you are on another planet in harsh desert conditions and this is large community that you live with. Again Amazing! I sent you 10 photos to view of the panels at Burning Man.
Something important to note is the support I received at Burning Man and from my families and friends.
1.     My husband is my ROCK that gave me the foundation to have the time and place to do this project.
2.     My children and friends fed me for months including sliding food to me when I could not be disturbed. Also my family and friends did get to see, remember and advise me on the panels as I was designing them.
3.     Family and Friends helped with the printing, framing and production of the panels we took to Burning Man. 13 panels, spanning 70 feet across, 296 square feet in total size.
4.     Representatives from Fractal Nation – Camp / Burning Man 2012 stayed at my home, helped with the completion of the building of the project and witnessed the first showing on August 12th
     When we arrived at Burning Man they had already set poles and made it easy to hang the panels. They also designed a lighting system so it could be viewed at night. Please Note: Burning Man can and did have harsh weather. Dust storms are persistent with winds 20 up to 70 M.P.H.
I am very grateful to all of the people that helped and encouraged me that this project is important.
At Burning Man I witnessed a lot of activity around the project. Sometimes I would just watch and sometimes I would interact telling people specific data and where to get more information. There were over 60,000 people at Burning Man this year. I imagine that at least 15,000 saw the pieces and 1,000 really spent a lot of time studying it.

9.     Have you received criticism for this work? What did critics say?

Truthfully NO! I think it surprise people. Actually people give me ideas on what they think I should do next. When you first see the panels they are beautiful, colorful and than you look into it and it sort of hits you in the gut. It’s not a piece that makes you happy but it is a piece that makes you think.

10.  If you can update me a little about the reaction students at the Junior College have to the work, and at the Peace Award dinner later this month that would be wonderful.

Will Do!