CIVIC ACTION: A Vision for Long Island Cityby Sara Christoph
THE NOGUCHI MUSEUM | OCTOBER 13, 2011 – APRIL 22, 2012
While protestors on Wall Street fight to reclaim the economic system, the Noguchi Museum, too, is looking to re-occupy what has been usurped by corporate structures. Tired of the visual pollution from energy towers and fenced-off warehouses, the museum has teamed up with Socrates Sculpture Park to present Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City. The project allows artists to become industrious community leaders, giving their ambitions a platform on which to grow—hopefully—into real, physical change.
Civic Action began eight months ago and is comprised of four teams, each lead by an artist selected for their previous experience in public-based works. The artists—Natalie Jeremijenko, Mary Miss, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and George Trakas—were given total creative freedom, building their own teams of architects, urban planners, and writers. The resulting proposals, which currently fill the top floor of the Noguchi Museum, vary from the historical and practical to the playfully idealistic.
George Trakas began archeologically, delving into the neighborhood’s long history of change with photographs and flow charts. Long Island City has been, among other things, a Native American settlement, colonial-era farmland, a wealthy suburb named “Ravenswood,” and its current manifestation as an annex for the city’s industry. A befitting quote hangs on the wall from a local paper, dating back to 1877: “The aristocratic neighborhood of Ravenswood is beginning to be invaded by factories …and, like Union Square, New York, we may suppose these temples of industry to be ‘the beginning of the end.’” Gaze through the museum’s newly installed wall of windows to the left, and see irony incarnate: the dreary eyesore of a multistory Costco.
Trakas’s response is to reclaim the beauty of the landscape for people in the community. His proposed shore walk would revitalize the water’s edge, creating a public path from the 36th Avenue Bridge to Mark di Suvero’s studio. The artist has also installed a 360-degree camera on the top of the museum, a “periscope” whose direction is controlled by a joystick in the gallery. Position it right, and the eye can see what the feet cannot traverse—waterfront property that, while largely vacant, is inaccessible to all but the largest landowners, TransCanada and Con Edison.
Alternative green spaces emerged in other artists’ proposals as well, perhaps most fantastically in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “GreenWay.” The artist envisions a complete repaving of Broadway Avenue from the N/Q subway stop down to Socrates Sculpture Park, except instead of pouring concrete, he would plant grass seeds. It’s easy to impulsively deem such a proposal outlandish or impractical, but such a reaction reveals how deeply we rely on pavement as a visible boundary, cleanly dividing what is walkable and what is not. Why is it so difficult for us to imagine an area of transit in which nature flows freely, instead of partitioning it behind medians and gates?
The last two teams, led separately by Mary Miss and Natalie Jeremijenko, both seek to recast Long Island City as a site of inventiveness. Instead of remaining the afterimage of industrial expansion, the neighborhood could be a place where people come to test new ideas. Miss, calling her project “city as living laboratory,” hopes to repurpose existing structures into spaces for artistic expression. Smokestacks would be repainted as design elements in the skyline; scaffolding becoming a platform for hanging gardens and abandoned shipping containers being transformed into artists’ studios.
Jeremijenko’s ideas, on the other hand, focus largely on a re-harnessing of both human and environmental energy. Her numerous prototypes vary from a solar-driven version of the Victorian Magic Lantern (awnings that turn sunlight into dancing projections), to “Hot Rod Hi-Heels” that spring energy back into the wearer’s legs.
Autumn has ushered in a breath of fresh air, breaking the often stifling corporate atmosphere felt in our country. Although Civic Action at the Noguchi Museum began before the protests erupted, the efforts of these four artists move in tandem with the occupiers; all work to reclaim a space for community dialogue. This marks a continuation of the legacy of activism begun by Mark di Suvero and Isamu Noguchi, and with these new projects, the next generations of artists seem posed to take the next step.