THERE IS NO “THEM,” THERE IS ONLY “US”: NOW IS THE TIME TO ACT LIKE IT

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Subway Therapy; post-it notes, 2016; 14th Street Union Square L, N, Q, R, W, 4, 5, 6 subway station, New York, NY. Image courtesy of author.

There have been a countless number of articles, Facebook posts, tweets, and discussions about the events of the past few days, weeks, months, and year. Trump has won the white house, it is true. Now, we wade through the aftermath. There have been protests, hate crimes, name calling, and tears. People are scared and confused; they are looking for answers, they are looking to lay blame.

Blame has been thrown around and hurled at everyone. It has been directed at Republicans, calling them racists and idiots, it has been directed at third-party voters, saying they wasted their vote, it has been directed at liberals, calling them elitist and blind. If you listen long enough you will find everyone blamed and you will hear hundreds of opinions on how to change the results, how to move forward, and how to feel.

The most recent blame has been directed at liberals, the protesters who so believed a Trump presidency was impossible. Blind to the woes of the working class, speaking over them to the point where they were cowed and embarrassed, making them feel dumb: these are our sins. These allegations are not untrue, but they only look at one point, one side, and one perspective. They forget that the other side is guilty of the same faults.

I am not interested in politics, I haven’t been since I was conscious enough to understand our government and listen to the people who aim to run our country. This is not because I am apathetic about my country, or because I have a short attention span, or am uninterested in the problems of the world. It is because as soon as I opened my ears to the political forum, I was overwhelmed by a cacophony of disrespect. I listened to the news and I heard politicians shouting over each other, striving to counter-point their opponent before they had even had the chance to fully make their argument. I heard labeling of anyone who disagreed, regardless of whether they were liberal or conservative, as ignorant and embarrassing. If you were conservative, you were backwards, racist, and sexist. If you were liberal, you were elitist, naïve, and privileged. The amount of contempt that everyone participating in the arena seemed to feel for the opposition had only one name in my young mind: mean. It was mean, and ugly, and hard. It was everything I was against and so I tuned it out.

Now, a man who campaigned off of actual racism, misogyny, and fear mongering has claimed our country’s highest office, and what do I hear: hate, name-calling, and disrespect.

I must draw, for myself, a few lines so that I can move forward as an adult and take part in the future of our country because it is no longer acceptable to stand on the outside. It is time to be involved. So, in that endeavor, a few clear understandings:

  • A minority of Americans are genuinely racist and they have taken this election result as a vindication of their feelings. Because of that, they are attacking people both emotionally through verbal insults and physically through abuse. This is not acceptable and must be stopped by liberals and conservatives alike, by both parties and particularly by our President elect. All people, regardless of color, religion, gender, or creed, deserve basic human rights and the opportunity to live their life free of fear.
  • There are genuine issues in America right now that span racism, sexism, and classism. These are topics that must be aired and discussed in a respectful environment. There are no second-class citizens here. One person’s problems are no more important than another’s and we must open our hearts, minds, and ears to the pleas coming from rural as well as urban areas, women as well as men, and minorities as well as majorities. For too long people living in the rural parts of our country have been called ignorant, for too long has racism simmered below the surface and been ignored, for too long has everyday sexism been put up with for fear of ridicule. This is also unacceptable.
  • Everyone has felt belittled and out of place and instead of reacting with defensiveness we need to stop and think with empathy and discuss. Bring out your therapy hats because everyone has been guilty of acting thoughtlessly. Many people grew up in small rural towns where there is an accepted way of doing things. Those who were different, maybe because they were gay or questioned too much or were “overdramatic,” were bullied by peers, parents, or even teachers. They left because their situation was unbearable. Many people in urban environments, who hold higher degrees or have delved into the cultural sphere, look down upon these same small towns and call them ignorant, slow, and backwards. This is a vicious cycle of cruelty that has been going on for far too long and is also not acceptable. No one should be put down for who they are, it is high time everyone educated themselves in empathy.

Enough name calling, enough finger pointing, ENOUGH. Think about how you would explain things to a child. For a moment, step away from the excuse that this is more complicated than a child can grasp and simplify it. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Are you being nice? If you wouldn’t want to see a child treating someone the way you are, then something is wrong.

Yes, the opposing political party has an agenda that at times directly opposes yours. Yes, many of the things each side fights for cannot exist together. So yes, protest and protect your rights because so many of us have been fighting for them for so long and must continue to fight. And yes, question your government, pay attention to what your politicians are doing and take them to task if they are unconstitutional and defy the human rights of the people who call the US home. Do not stoop to petty and cruel behavior, it is unnecessary and in the end it is damaging.

We all have a dream for the world that we want to live in. We all want to leave a better world to our children. Sometimes these worlds are directly opposing. Rarely will they agree. Remember that the US was founded on freedom of religion, free speech, and the right to the pursuit of happiness. It has not been perfect and we have continued to fight up to now and must continue to fight. All I know is that this fight must be civil. There is no easy answer, no one person to blame, so stop that. Anger is an implacable fire that will burn you alive. Resentment only breeds more resentment. Grudges will fix nothing. Educate yourself on why you believe what you believe. Study history, study policy, read, and develop a clear and strong argument. Do not just parrot what you hear from family, friends, the news, or the internet. Listen to the arguments of others. There is only one way out and that is forward. Pushing others down, and here I am speaking to everyone, will only drag you back. When you are drowning, if you try to keep your head above water by pushing someone down as if they are a buoy, then you will both drown. If you calm down, collect yourself, and remember that you can float, you will.

Trump was elected because too many people felt marginalized. People are now angry because they are afraid of being marginalized. We are all afraid of losing the good things in our lives that we have fought so hard for. I am scared for my rights as a woman: my reproductive rights, my safety, and my place in society. I am scared for the rights and safety of my friends who span all races and religions. These are scary times, but people on the other side of the election are scared too. Most people do not choose to do evil, they do what they think is good and someone else views it as evil. Try to understand and if you still disagree then fight, but fight intelligently and fight kindly. At the end of the day, we are all people. Set the good example, be empathetic and respectful in your arguments. Taking the high road does not mean giving up, it means fighting with dignity.

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Influencing Spaces: Taryn Simon’s “An Occupation of Loss”

Having written this post yesterday and considering last night’s events, I hesitated to post and to share it. But, it is in times like these, on days like today, that I turn to art to find humanity and the shared dream of a world where peace, love, and understanding can conquer. With that in mind, I want to share a globally-minded and thoughtful work that explores the human occupation of and with loss and mourning. With this, I will remember to continue to strive and push forward. To turn to like-minded programs, groups, and friends with support and renewed vigor. To continue fighting for equality and the world we wish to live in. This is not the end of the fight, this too shall pass. Moving forward, regardless of where you stand or who you voted for, I urge everyone to remember to be kind and to reach into the depths of their moral consciousness to treat everyone with empathy and remember that we are all human beings with feelings, dignity, and loved ones.

 

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.

This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.

Lately, I have been seeing a shift which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and through their actions activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, Ann Hamilton’s Habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism. My next three posts will be about these shows, starting with Taryn Simon’s.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory, September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss. The Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY;   September 13-25, 2016

You begin by being turned away from the Park Avenue entrance after purchasing your ticket. You are instead instructed to follow the building along 67th Street to the fire escape. Once there, you are presented with a long, descriptive wall text and, once you finish reading, ascend the fire escape about two stories up to a door. At first, you are blinded by the sudden darkness, all that stands out are staggered strips of blue light and then, eventually, the vista of the old drill hall occupied by eleven concrete towers, or wells, that are gently illuminated. Gathered together in the cavernous space, the monumental sculptures form a half circle, almost appearing to huddle together in the middle of the space. Next, you descend the illuminated metal staircase to the ground floor and approach the work.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

I did not have the opportunity to attend one of the nightly performances of professional mourners, which I hear were quite moving, but I still encountered a spectacular space. As I approached the wells with my two friends, everything was quiet and still. Other visitors seemed disinclined to speak above a whisper and the breathless air and gentle light created a calm, almost ritualistic space. We quickly commandeered one of the wells and proceeded to enliven the space. Since I was aware of the nightly performances, I was excited to test the acoustics and one of my friends, a singer and actress, was happy to help. We sang and made noise and laughed and talked. The sounds rang within our well and encouraged us, although we were slightly concerned about disturbing the other visitors. While the sound was amplified within the well, it was concentrated in our immediate space so that when one of us stood outside it, it was muffled creating a unique space where you were both a part of your immediate surroundings and separated from the greater whole. Quite like mourning, when you were in the silo you could be observed by those outside, but they could not fully comprehend what you were experiencing.

Inhabiting the well, which included a single strip of blue light that ran the entire height and a concrete bench placed about four feet above the ground and attached directly to the wall, I felt happy and safe. At one point, I crawled under the bench and crouched awkwardly like a child playing make-believe. Glad to be together and quickly feeling territorial about “our” well, we were a little disgruntled when another pair asked to join, though we couldn’t say no. As it turns out, they added to our space and a sixth member joined our group soon after. We all spoke about the show, the performances in the evening, and the physical space. The wells provided an opportunity for connecting isolations: each well created an environment that could be looked in on from the outside, vaguely heard, and joined. Eleven separate little worlds living side by side. All apparently the same but infinitely and minutely different, just like individual people. Strangers were encouraged to cohabitate a small space and share an intimate moment. As our group grew comfortable, we began to experiment within the space. We learned that the sounds rang clearly throughout the well, but outside were muffled. In the very center the frequency of the vocal noises changed. It was like being right in the middle of the sound you were making, as if suddenly the space was smaller and you were shouting in a handheld tube. I couldn’t help feeling like it was more truthful, somehow, in the center. At the very least the difference was fascinating and we shared the change with the carefree abandon of discovery. One of my friends remarked: “It is amazing that something so utilitarian seeming can inspire so much human movement and noise making.”

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Simon’s practice has been an exploration of intricacies, research, cataloguing, and exploration. Typically, she focuses on spaces and objects that would appear to exist on their own as independent things but are in fact created and activated by human presence. The spaces or objects act as middle men, mediating the relations between people and how they interact with and influence each other. An Occupation of Loss explores mourning. This is most clear during the evening performances where professional mourners from across the world inhabit a well and perform traditional, ritualistic mourning practices. During the day, the presence of the mourners is dropped to a murmur as their recorded sounds are faintly played in the drill hall and the silence of the uninstructed viewer prevails. Growing up with the mindset that grief and mourning are kept quiet, only feeling comfortable crying into a pillow or alone in the bathroom, and raised on scenes of private mourning, it is both alien and familiar to be confronted with a space that explores public mourning and the history of lamentations. I know the feelings, but do not know the sharing. Simon’s installation re-introduced me to the inherent humanness of mourning and loss and how it occupies us. While we occupied the space, shared with the ghosts of each night’s ritual and fellow viewers, we were made aware of the underlying similarities that connect people. No matter how foreign a ritual or space may seem, we all occupy it with the same feelings: love, sorrow, and the need to connect.

An Occupation of Loss created a space that made you uncomfortable, maybe because it was so cavernous, maybe because everyone else was being so quiet, maybe because no one was quite sure what they were supposed to be doing/seeing/feeling. Regardless, this creation made you aware of the space you were inhabiting and how you inhabit it. It made you aware of yourself and the people around you and how you interact within that space. The space, created by an artist and occupied by visitors, acts on those visitors because of the actions taken upon it by all the people who inhabited and activated it.

Right before we entered the exhibition, standing on 67th street and reading the wall text with one of the attendants, two older women forewarned us not to waste our time, that it was nothing more than concrete columns. Art of this nature, art that demands participation, some research, and curiosity will not be experienced in the same way by any two viewers. Some will not experience it at all. This is an important lesson, however: you get what you put into something and, while you cannot control the space that you inhabit, you can control how you occupy it. We chose to occupy this space of symbolic loss with human interaction and joy.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.