Troubled by a remark recently made to her by a social worker—that avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with Black people—an artist conceives of a conceptual project that will engage New York City’s African-American community. To this end she enters a float in the African-American Day parade, a Harlem procession that occurs every September along Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. The float is surmounted by a giant art-deco style gold picture frame and emblazoned on the side is the elliptical phrase “Art is….” Circulating around the structure as it rolls through the streets are 15 costumed performers, each of whom carries an empty gold picture frame. Spectators are invited to pose within these frames, in effect becoming momentary works of art. The artist hires several photographers to document the action.
As the resulting photos attest, the experiment is a huge success: onlookers of all ages step forward to put themselves into the frames, and seem to have great fun doing so. Even a good number of the NYPD officers who show up at the edges of many photographs appear to be enjoying themselves. But when, some 30 years later, the artist looks at the photographic record of that day she can’t get over how much has changed in Harlem, and in the world in general. Occurring not long before the crack epidemic and, as she puts it, “before a different kind of policing hit Harlem,” her parade intervention has become “unintentionally historic.” It also belongs to a period before widespread video surveillance. She tells an interviewer that when she recently tried to film a parade in Brooklyn she couldn’t get anyone to talk to her. But what strikes her most about the 1983 photos, which she now looks back on from the moment of Black Lives Matter, is how relaxed police-community relations seem. In one image a woman is seen interacting playfully with a policeman. “Could this even happen now?” the artist asks herself, before responding: “It’s unthinkable.”