Benign Diplomacy: The Bushwick International Reviewed

by Joseph Henry on October 28, 2014 · 9 comments Reviews

Montreal's BROOKLYN Cafe  (Image by, courtesy of

Montreal’s BROOKLYN Cafe (Image by, courtesy of

In Montreal, the place where I moved from just this summer, there’s a completely generic café in the Mile End neighborhood called, in caps, “BROOKLYN.” The humor is immediate: Brooklyn, presumably once just a borough, becomes its own marketable brand signifying contemporary cultural capital. To maintain the image and regulate quality control,  the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce even offers certification for authenticity.

With Brooklyn as its own consumer brand, then, Bushwick distillates as the locus of the borough’s aspirational creative class. As gentrification splits the neighborhood into incoming artist-types and outgoing long-term residents, the image of the former becomes a trademark. Maybe the cosmopolitan conception of Bushwick is summed by the geopolitical commentary of Vogue, which ranks the district 7th on its list of “World’s Coolest Neighborhoods”: “As far as the buzz goes, few neighborhoods garner as much attention—globally—as Bushwick. Believe the hype.”

Bushwick’s magnetic reputation, then, is an undeniable feature of trans-national exhibitions like this weekend’s Exchange Rates: The Bushwick International. The multi-gallery exhibition—a partnership between London’s Sluice__ Art Fair and Bushwick’s Theodore:Art and Cencotto—gathered works from as far as Beijing and Johannesberg. Unlike cross-city exchanges like Montreal/Brooklyn, this one consolidated its focus to the nexus. The world came to Bushwick.

In Exchange Rates’s lopsided model of globalization, its scope didn’t guarantee any artistic multiplicity, but rather cohered its art into a mostly unremarkable mass. All the art could have been made in any of the festival’s locations, and definitely anywhere in Bushwick. As with most aggregations of so much art content (more than 16 galleries hosted exhibitions), the result of Exchange Rates was a normalized average. Low-grade sculpture and dull, stylized drawing were ubiquitous from one gallery to another. (As a disclaimer, I failed to catch Karl England’s mobile performance and Fresh Window were away on a tour when I came by, so I can’t comment on them.)

Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf’s "HORIZONS BUT MULTIPLE HORIZONS" at Signal Gallery (Image courtesy of Joseph Henry)

Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf’s “HORIZONS BUT MULTIPLE HORIZONS” at Signal Gallery (Image courtesy of Joseph Henry)

There seems little point in publishing another overview of Brooklyn blandness , so it’s worth it to outline some work that did seem to rise above the fray. SIGNAL provided the festival’s best offering via Zürich’s Up State gallery, which showed Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf’s HORIZONS BUT MULTIPLE HORIZONS: a pair of installational works within SIGNAL’s lowered, darkened garage entrance.

Grüter and Graf divided a print of a sunset over Casablanca into four diaphanous polyester sheets, abstracting the image into a gradient of warm colors. Depending on the angle you viewed them from in the pit-like section of the gallery, the panels were either monochromatic sinewy material, or reflective shimmering surfaces. Above, the artists have projected the entire range of colors in the light spectrum, shifting extremely gradually over the course of 78 hours, longer even than Exchange Rates’s weekend running length. The projection moves so slowly that it doesn’t seem like moving image, but the prints noticeably morph as they absorb the color spectrum. The end product was something which, at first glance, registered as mundane post-minimalism but that eventually transformed into a subtly evolving engagement with space. I came toward the later afternoon and the spectrum projection emulated the actual sun coming in through a crack in the steel gallery where artificial simulation mimicked and even enhanced the real thing. Grüter and Graf exhibited an intelligent sensitivity to site, as both space and time, in a way not seen throughout the festival.

Active Space also warranted a visit this weekend, even if Heeseop Yoon’s egregious, sprawling tape mural threatened to dominate the experience. Beijing artist Bai Ye installed four digital prints, each depicting a bust-like figure as if drawn free-hand in charcoal. Ye installed the prints on top of a digitally-rendered textual wallpaper; the elaborated modeling of his abstracted busts, which in their awkward depth but detailed surfaces, dynamically contrasted with the smooth rhythms of the background layer. Joshua Johnson’s readymades got the most mileage of the “mixed media” genre, combining rocks, angular forms, and dated technology in bizarrely tragicomic, yet understated combines. I have to divulge my affection for Jan Tshikhutula’s immersive linocuts, which perhaps showed off a reactionary streak in their sentimental landscapes, but also showed off the optic richness of a medium underrepresented in contemporary practice. To hazard a descriptive cliché, Tshikhutula’s works played on a tension between the articulation of detail and the composition of the whole. For what its worth, the best offerings when visiting galleries like ArtHelix and Honey Ramka weren’t part of Exchange Rates, but were rather just the local talent: Elizabeth Ferry’s surrealist figural patterns and Shingo Francis’s controlled color fields.

When the background of Exchange Rates’s talent importation is the glaring, if now very familiar, process of gentrification, the undefined content-push of the festival seems all the more myopic. Art like this too often becomes an occasion and not an engagement: well-heeled cultural visitors moved from industrial block to industrial block, with chicly geometric gallery maps in hand. The ideas of locality and place played an uncertain role this weekend. Exchange Rates advocated for Bushwick’s cultural traction, but perhaps only at the level of globalized marketing.



Susan Surface October 28, 2014 at 5:50 pm

I wish you’d had an opportunity to stop by (or perhaps you did?) our show at the Vazquez Building, which is in dialogue with representatives from NOCD-NY ( ) and Fourth Arts Block ( ) to organize into an affordable, neighborhood-centric cultural space.

ASAP ( ), CUP ( ), and Generis ( ) held a workshop on Zoning on Sunday the 26th, which brought artists and community activists together to address how artists can work together with their neighbors to resist gentrification. In fact, to this room full of diverse local residents educating ourselves and organizing actively to better the issue, a white guy rode by on his bike, saw only an art gallery, and screamed “GET A JOB, GENTRIFIERS” at us – which is what happens when you look at something at a glance without a closer look. At the smaller scale of our own exhibition, we exhibited multiple working class artists of color who are from the neighborhood and even sold some of the work, which certainly helps struggling artists economically.

Of course you can hold your own opinions on the quality of the art, that’s not something anyone can or should dispute. And there is the reading of the Expo as a whole, which again each person is entitled to apprehend as they will. Just wanted to address that there were indeed a core group of us who were actively confronting the issues in your last paragraph, and using Exchange Rates as an opportunity to do so.

Susan Surface
ASAP / Generis

Stephanie October 30, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Seconding Susan here. It doesn’t sound like you even bothered to visit most of the exhibits, much less take a close look. Some of the works /performances took some initiative on the part of the viewer. And if you had bothered to speak to anyone involved it the expo, you would have found artists and exhibitors from far-flung places as well as Bushwickers really enjoy the collaborative aspect of the weekend. but that also would have taken initiative. This is the worst kind of art criticism, the kind based on stereotype and presumption, not the five senses.

Paddy Johnson October 30, 2014 at 5:06 pm

“Enjoying the collaborative aspect of the weekend” isn’t criteria for evaluation.

Paddy Johnson October 30, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Weird. This comment is now reading as anonymous, when it first showed up as written by Stephanie Theodore.

Honey Ramka October 29, 2014 at 11:46 am

Thanks for the mention, but Honey Ramka *was* a part of Exchange Rates (we hosted the group show ‘British Low Culture’ by Transition Gallery in our project space: In fact, that show (as well as Elizabeth Ferry’s) will remain on view until November 23rd.

All best,

Jesse P. Martin
Co-director, Honey Ramka

Joshua Johnson October 30, 2014 at 5:45 pm

First, thank you for the positive mention of my work :).

I find the framing of the event in terms of the issue of gentrification interesting, but am uncertain as to “ideas of locality and place” as particularly useful remedies for the problems cited by the reviewer. Globalization and gentrification are two large intertwined issues as regards the transformation of NYC and its boroughs, both driven by the larger systemic issues of capitalism’s drive to extract surplus and rent. More particularly, the hollowing out of the city center in favor of speculative real-estate, and the drive to push further rent extraction from the margins of that bubble. Improvements made to property as a result of gentrification may have negative benefits, so far as they price out existing populations, but I think better transportation, food access, housing quality, and a myriad of other benefits are not necessarily negative things. The real problem is that these benefits are not evenly distributed and accrue to those who already have the means to benefit from them. In framing the debate as a clash between the culture of an aspiring precariat class and the culture of existing low-income neighborhoods we risk driving wedges between two groups who could form a common coalition of interest in opposing the larger issue of rent speculation and extraction. Furthermore, I am uncertain as to how “ideas of locality and place” are supposed to help stop this trend — at best they are merely preservationist of the status quo and at worst they are reactionary, in so far as they resist any progress that could improve the lives of people living and working in these spaces.

All of that said, while I think the organizers of Exchange Rates made a number of overtures to connect with the local artist community and work with them, I am not opposed to criticism of the coalition of money and the arts. But, if we want to go down that road, there is much much more to be said in regards to how art today is thought, financed, produced, and consumed to satisfy the desires of a small elite community who persist in using its culture as a self-interested tool. In this we are all to varying degrees complicit, and any decoupling of art from capitalism and a revival of its emancipatory potential requires some serious rethinking of its very conditions of possibility.

Joseph Henry November 1, 2014 at 3:05 am

Thanks to everyone who commented. I’ll try and clear up misconceptions, clarify my points, and ideally speak to comments to hint at larger questions.

On the informational side of things: I know Honey Ramka was showing work for Exchange Rates, but it was exactly Elizabeth Ferry’s work, not part of the festival, that drew my eye to a stronger degree. Thanks to Susan for pointing out the groups she mentions, though I didn’t see these dynamics at play in the work in the Vazquez’s sprawling space. Given the time for looking and writing, I didn’t attend any of the workshops. As for the guest’s (Stephanie Theodore’s?) comment, this review functions as a broad evaluation. Those works either didn’t appear to me or if they did, they weren’t particularly memorable (I think there’s more to be said as to the value of works that are hard to find as a part of a fairly big festival).

My main issue with Exchange Rates was its mobilization of “Bushwick” as both an abstract brand and concrete space of international art display precisely when that neighborhood shifts from a working-class community to an art center, a status only confirmed by Exchange Rates’s choice of the area. Are both Vogue Magazine and Exchange Rates interested in using the same hype? I didn’t see art that took on an international dynamic, of being from say England and now in Brooklyn, in productive ways. Most of it looked the same or felt the same. “ideas of locality and place” are of course not in themselves useful, but rather their deployment. I also I think the very structure of the “festival,” which is a usually a temporary event that demands concentrated periods of quick viewing, is one of the worst ones to take on longterm political problems.

I’m grateful for Susan’s anecdote about the biker who identified the artists as gentrifiers in a knee-jerk reaction; it might express a general attitude toward art among leftist/progressive political circles. To cast artists as gentrifiers and residents as the gentrified is probably a reduction, but is this a hard reduction to avoid? Joshua might see that reaction at play in my review, when of course there are strategies certain artists employ to engage their community in productive ways that demand specific, contextualized considerations. Last weekend, I didn’t see these strategies in the work. Also, the merits of what gentrification brings – the infrastructural benefits Joshua talks about – are probably too complex for this review and this comment to accurately comment on. In New York, it’s hard not to read those improvements as preparations for the expansion of the market, which necessarily relies on hierarchies of value and privilege.

I’m left with big, difficult questions that are brought up frequently: is art incompatible with less symbolic means of political resistance? Where does art shed its image as produced and consumed by the privileged, when that privilege is determined by cultural capital and not strictly material comfort? Can that image even be shed?

In any case, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

– Joseph

Joseph Henry November 1, 2014 at 3:06 am

Annoying this appears first on the comment chain! Read down for critique if you’re just seeing this for the first time.

Susan Surface November 1, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Thanks for your considerate reply. I had many of the same reservations as you had when I heard about the concept of Exchange Rates. Do we need a temporary influx of gallerists and artists when we have so many artists – overlooked artists! – in our own communities? Who benefits from such an event happening? Is there a way to open it up so that more than just artists will be interested or get something out of this event?

Our curatorial response, instead of coming down on the hardworking organizers, was to contribute something to the event ourselves that addressed this issue. The organizers provided an open, inviting framework which allowed participants to bring our priorities to Exchange Rates as a whole. If it happens again (or in future neighborhood events) I certainly would love to see more conversation not only about the issue of gentrification and the branding of neighborhoods as artsy, but what can be done about it!

At least in our case (we were only in the storefront, and can’t take credit for the whole Vazquez), the art on view did not immediately confront casual viewers with big bold text announcing, THIS EXHIBIT CONCERNS SOCIOECONOMIC JUSTICE. Perhaps this is a difference of opinion, but I don’t think one must produce exhibitions that are primarily “about” being equitable – you simply *do* it – you make those choices in who you show, where you buy your construction supplies, what audience you have in mind when you’re thinking about who’s going to visit, and primarily try to curate the strongest shows you can curate given your interests and your means. I don’t find “confronting gentrification” inherently interesting or useful grounds for an exhibition… It’s just the way to operate, the barest minimum of how to behave when you’re doing this stuff. Is this approach successful? Well, that’s up to those who experience it… I’m definitely thinking about your feedback and how this was missed, because I do want it to be really, really clear.

Concerning the longer-term, I’d invite you to investigate the newly open Vazquez Building, which used the Expo as an opportunity to announce itself as a new space. It might be worth knowing about, since this issue is important to you! If you are interested in reaching out to the owner, as well as the folks from NOCD-NY and Fourth Arts Block who are helping program the space over the next several years, I’d be totally happy to make an introduction.

I’ll also point to another assumption that reveals itself “the biker who identified the artists as gentrifiers…” we were in an art show, but we weren’t all artists; it’s not only art world people who set foot in art shows! There was a mix of community organizers, urbanists, and, yes, artists, who are all interested in the way that artists affect neighborhoods. In addition to the workshop, during our open hours we had much foot traffic that wasn’t art world people. Many people born and raised, or who have immigrated to, and are living in, working class neighborhoods are in fact quite interested in art, make art themselves or have friends and relatives who do, and like to discuss works on view.

Is the association of artists=gentrifiers a “hard reduction to avoid?” Well, it’s definitely an assumption that many make, the issue is how and why that came to be. ASAP’s working actively to dismantle this artist-as-gentrifier narrative, and shift focus properly to the systematic targeting of artists by landlords, real estate developers, and city-wide planning and policy decisions.

One thing that cannot be disputed is the awesomeness of Elizabeth Ferry and her artwork, and that sunset piece at Signal – we have that in full agreement!

Susan Surface
ASAP / Generis
info at generis dot co

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