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.)
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.