Now, more than ever what?
Maybe just that: things feel urgent. Now, more than ever, a new world feels inevitable, and a better one feels, maybe, possible. At the particular now in which we’re writing this (10:56 PM, Sunday, June 7, 2020), it has been exactly 100 days since New York City’s first confirmed coronavirus case, 13 days since the murder of George Floyd, and 5 hours since the Minneapolis City Council announced a veto-proof majority vote to begin defunding their city’s police department.
Three things there.
The first: an experience simultaneously collective and so very, very not collective — novel, yes, but revealing nothing new. What was for some reason seen as a great equalizer has mostly highlighted — and entrenched — preexisting social and economic inequities. That a grossly disproportionate number of the more than 100,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 come from economically disadvantaged communities is no coincidence. That, in some cities, Black residents died from the virus at twice the rate of white residents is no coincidence, either.
The second: an event neither novel nor revealing of anything new. The murder of George Floyd — along with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and hundreds more Black men and women across the country — is only the latest consequence of the 400 years of cruel, casual disregard for Black life upon which this country is built. That the protests sparked by these murders have been met with concentrated acts of violence on the part of the police is, likewise, distressingly predictable.
But the third! The third signals the coming of something, maybe, new under the sun. That those protests have placed serious attention on efforts to defund the police and introduce new, community-based models of public safety is remarkable in and of itself. That Minneapolis is poised to do it right now makes us feel, against all odds, hopeful. Whether that hope proves warranted will depend, at root, on the degree to which we can, with care, imagine newness. Which is to say: it is possible that in the coming years we begin to build a country that values service and justice over order and control, but it is very, very possible that we do not. It will take real people — you, reading, included — making efforts both physical and mental, over a long period of time, to change fundamentally the ways they go about seeing and living in the world. It will take, more than anything, an unprecedented act of collective, radical imagination.
Which brings us to art (this is, yes, an art exhibition, and we are, yes, an art organization). Because if all art is political (and it is), then there is no useful distinction whatsoever between artistic imagination and political imagination. Whatever imaginative force guides the hand of a painter is exactly the same force by which activists and organizers will envision our new world. Or, at least, it can be. It’s the same problem as before, on a smaller scale: it’s possible — and, we believe, essential — that contemporary artists become integral to the collective social imagination of our country in the coming years, but it’s very, very possible that they do not. It is helpful to remember that, to you viewing this show, the importance of contemporary art is likely self-evident, but that it is by no means self-evident to Americans at large — nor should it be. We are convinced that contemporary art can foster positive social change, but we are also clear-eyed about the fact that — given a commodity-driven art world that disproportionately elevates the work of cis white men — it very often doesn’t. This, too, will require an act of sustained imagination to remedy. For us at the Wassaic Project, we will, as just a start, be increasing the number of no-fee residencies we offer each year to artists of color from eight to ten, making a curatorial commitment to show the work of more artists of color, allocating more of our commissioning funds towards supporting that work, and working to make our board and staff more representative of the artists we show and support. But for those commitments (and the commitments to come) to mean anything will require your imagination, too — a willingness to let in, be affected, and be changed by the work you encounter.
So: this show. It features 161 works by 67 artists, laid out in a way that mimics the physical spaces in and around Maxon Mills — the historic, seven-floor grain mill out of which we host all our exhibitions. Almost all of the work in the show was selected well before the onset of COVID-19 prevented us from hosting a physical show, but, rather than push that work into next year’s show, we’ve taken the opportunity to explore a new medium for exhibition. What we lose by not being able to physically install the work, we hope to gain back in challenging you, the viewer, to engage in the same acts of seeing as the artists did and, in so doing, push yourself out of the frameworks through which you may usually see the world.
To take a few examples: on the first floor (so to speak) Shiva Aliabadi asks you to step right into one such way of seeing, onto the copper foils of her Yield II installation. Invoking her own experiences stepping into Iranian mosques, it’s engulfing to the point of mirage — there, but visibly fraying; the awe, yes, but the agitation, too, over moments that are always already fading. Conversely, on the third floor, Sholeh Asgary’s In Blue Time is more an exercise in witnessing than seeing. The overlapping drips of her water clocks are deliberately impenetrable — they’re “about” Asgary’s memories growing up as a refugee only insofar as they generate, in us, the same quiet wonder of not knowing that those experiences did in her. And on the fifth floor, Aisha Tandiwe Bell’s traps and trapped figures explore the delicate balance between protecting what you have and cooperating in power structures that keep you where you are — and the possibility, too, of evolving beyond those structures entirely.
There are, of course, any number of paths through, and into, the work in this show. But however you arrive there, on the seventh floor, take some time to pause and reflect. Because this show is, yes, about now, in the broadest sense, but it’s also, at root, about what might be, and a testament to the Wassaic community that’s so generously helped make our own what-might-bes happen for the past 12 years. That we’re still around — that we were ever around at all — is thanks to the community members highlighted here, to their willingness to commit to our initial dream for this project. In any and every way possible, we encourage you to seek those people in your own community, and to entwine your life with theirs. Start now, and start where you are.
Trust us: it’s worth doing. Now, more than ever.
Go to exhibition online at Wassaic Project here.