SHAKE IT, SHAKE IT
Festival of Ideas 1, organized by the New Museum
Curated by Julia Draganovic and No Longer Empty
2011, site-specific installation
Mini excavator and ball, covered in mirror pieces
The conjunction of No Longer Empty, the New Museum and the famously gritty ethnic cornucopia of the Bowery naturally posed the question of what these three might have in common, and, upon further reflection, how these three entities had positioned themselves vis-à-vis the ongoing gentrification of Manhattan’s most legendary area.
In the world’s collective imaginary, New York City is rightfully recognized as the ultimate cosmopolitan city. What is less known about New York City is that its invaluable asset of cosmopolitanism--which is the fruit of multi-secular processes of immigration, as well as the convergence of innumerable traditions--is under the constant threat of the worst that globalization has to offer: namely, the flattening of diversity, and its melting into socio-cultural mush.
If NYC personifies cosmopolitanism, then the Bowery has always been its iconic pulse. While the Bowery has undergone continuous transformations in every sense of the word, it has always been able to maintain its core value of socio-cultural diversity. This has held true for not only the socio-cultural matrix of the neighborhood, but also for its material fabric, which in so many ways documents the profound continuities and changes that have characterized the neighborhood. Beyond the anonymous condos, chain stores, banks, and hip restaurants now dotting the area, the neighborhood remains characterized by more modest spaces belonging to a single architectural typology that are oftentimes unrecognizable as such, because repackaged by the signs of contemporary commerce, or mummified by boards. At the time of the Festival, of particular interest were a few federal houses marked for demolition. Aware of their historical and cultural value, community-based organizations had filed with the NYC Landmarks Commission to protect them. While they awaited the verdict, these empty spaces were in limbo between the wrecking ball and the seal of history. They stood in a precarious state, and as physical metaphors of the threat to which the neighborhood and the city are continuously subjected—namely, that of being transformed into yet another non-place place.
Thus, for the Festival of Ideas of the New Museum this public work thematized both the allure and destructive prospect of urban development. On the Bowery, a small excavator with a ball, recalling a wrecking ball, covered in mirror pieces, so that it rather resembled a disco ball, was parked in a number of different places. If an artistic gesture, this violent but musing sculpture was conceived to have an impact on the consciousness of the neighborhood, whose diversity risked becoming the mere wreckage of history. Art should not be the first sign of gentrification, but the first line of defense against its implementation.