I remember watching Alfred Leslie’s Pull my Daisy in my sophomore year of college and wishing that, one day, I would live the life of an artist with friends like his—fellow artists, writers, poets, dancers, composers, even art dealers (Richard Bellamy, who appeared in the film, was beloved by many artists). My dream has in fact come true, like those of many who come to this city willing to undertake a variety of jobs, ready to accept stress and difficulties for the sake of growth and self-discovery. In my case it wasn’t enough to be an artist who makes work in the studio and displays it in a gallery. My strong desire to share in a community, to exchange life’s experience—especially when infused with works of art in every form—is essential and inseparable from our social and political surroundings.
After having worked with exceptional colleagues to keep our beloved journal free (in print and online) to our readership here and abroad for fifteen years, I’ve come to realize it has changed in form but not in content. The following are a few segments, taken from my first long essay, Letter to the Artist, published in the first issue of the Rail in October 2000, which I think convey the commitment that lies behind our purpose:
Not long before his death in Paris in 1989, Samuel Beckett said to an interviewer, “I prefer to live in France during wartime than Ireland in peace.” This, of course, might well be the case for his mentor, James Joyce, and could apply to the nature of any artist longing for the Promised Land. It’s not that uncommon to assume that most artists have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rather than Ulysses (because of its length and complexities). In fact, for anyone who has experienced what Stephen Dedalus went through in his struggle with his family and the social surroundings that finally led him to leave Ireland, Ulysses is a continuation in real life experience for those who have already taken Portrait of the Artist to heart. Similarly, I am sure that many of us are already familiar with Joyce’s own definition of “epiphanies:” the moment of heightened perception and intense joy in a human sense—not mystical or religious—which is often initiated by trivial incidents, and manifests the holiness of life itself.
Furthermore, great art is never isolated as a product. The concept is of an ideological community—a collective movement, based on a certain larger and governing intellectual premise. An individual can be an innovator, but there is no such thing as an avant-garde individual. The flowering of an art movement is always the result of a group of artists—men and women whose lives are devoted to the vocation of art. The achievement of great art by the more accomplished artists only stimulates and furthers the commitment of those who are young and undisciplined.
Ultimately, the more people there are who wish to be artists the better it is for the livelihood of art. Surely there is no guarantee that a new identity will be found by simply shifting locations. Yet artists are a group of individuals who have already accepted the uncertainty of their creative nature. Hence, the social ambiguity is not a fearful factor to them. It is why we still believe in art for art’s sake and why we know that art’s pertinence does in fact touch people who do not even care about art at all.
The greatest challenge has been how to make the Rail into a work of art without a manifesto, a social environment as art, consequential and expansive in the lineage of Joseph Beuys’s social sculpture and Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. How can we embrace different forms of social interac- tion within public and private spaces? How can we activate temporal space without claiming ownership? How can we articulate the vision by its simple being? How can we evade definition without compromising the clarity of our potential? These are the perpetual questions that have kept my colleagues and me rigorous in our work, moved us forward between the cracks while avoiding the abyss of disillusionment.
Artists have explored these questions throughout history, and continue to do so today. Occupy Rail is a manifestation of this elastic space: it’s the logic of the editorially independent journals the Third Rail and Miami Rail; it’s also the logic that was present in our occupation of a room within the exhibition Come Together: Surviving Sandy two autumns ago, which operated as a functioning office and event center, an art piece within the larger show. We hope to bring this constellation of life and multimedia activity into an interdisciplinary space for the duration of a staged exhibition. Our fully operational office and communal lunches, evening events, as well as a curated exhibition (a reflection of the various sections in our publication) will be contextualized in a space that integrates human thought and action.
Meanwhile all of us at the Rail feel like it is the beginning of a renewed journey. On behalf of Laila Pedro, managing editor; Sara Christoph, managing director; Walter Chiu and Maggie Barrett, art directors; Taylor Dafoe, office manager; and our brilliant production team, we’d like to thank all of our marvelous editors and writers, and our superlative board members for their commitment and dedication to the vision of the Rail. Last, but certainly not least, we’d like to thank all of you, our readers and friends, for your support over the last fifteen years. The next fifteen will be even more exciting. Together we can make our world a better place.
Onward with love and peace,
P.S. We invite everyone to attend our many celebratory events this fall. On October 6 at 6:30 p.m., a conversation with Nancy Princenthal and Rail managing art editor Charles Shultz on Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art; on October 8 at 7 p.m., I will speak with Irving Sandler at the 92nd Street Y Warburg Lounge on his second memoir Swept Up By Art, forthcoming from Rail Editions; and on Sunday November 8 at 2 p.m., the Rail is proud host the U.S. catalogue launch for Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls, a Rail Curatorial Project and a Venice Biennale Collateral Event.
Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.