Sara Reisman, writing in relation to the project At First Sight, ISCP, NY
Sara Reisman, writing in relation to the project At First Sight, ISCP, NY.
Tina Gverovic’s At First Sight raises questions about notions of site-specific artistic practice and the possible obsolescence of locational identity. In the ever-shifting geography of the new globalized context, even location is no longer stable, and therefore the nature of site as a place of origin and identification has become elusive. Gverovic’s drawings of the liminal spaces of departures, arrivals, and the continuous journey give reason to believe that the orientation with a specific place is futile, and that the journey is now the primary reference point.
Working as a curator in New York City, one of the first projects I organized independently was called The Tugboat Film and Video Series, a roving, site-specific exhibition of screenings and installations presented in multiple locations along New York City’s waterfront. In my own movements through the city beginning in the early 1990s I noticed how the dynamics of the waterfront were beginning to change. For a couple of years, I used to pass a Christmas tree and gardening vendor who rented (or squatted) an empty lot near 14th Street’s western end on the Hudson River. Pedestrians came to this place for the views of New Jersey, the open expanse of the piers and the river, and for the freedom afforded by in-between-ness and a lack of regulation of such an ambiguous area that seemed at once both private and public. By 2000, much of Manhattan’s waterfront was under development. Some parts of the waterfront were built up to the point of luxury, complete with guardians, while others were still no man’s lands where lovers went just to look out on the water, teenagers found their underage congregation, and transvestites continued to hold court to a disco soundtrack in the night, the combined energy far from threatening. My attraction to the waterfront was that it was a continuous strip of land, uninterrupted in the way that most of the city is with its traffic lights and complex intersections. From the Battery (the Southern-most point on Manhattan Island) to the Intrepid (a historic ship docked near west 46th Street) one could walk, bike, and skate continuously along the waterfront, an excursion that was my recreational luxury, nature in the city, during my first years in New York. Understanding that development would make the waterfront less accessible, I proposed a film program to be screened on a tugboat as a reverse drive-in movie, that the public could view from land. My hope was to reverse the disappearance of spontaneity that was being structured away by development and management of these beautiful public spaces. For the next three and half years the project took on a life of its own and taught me a great deal about the culture of the waterfront and all of its instabilities and the politics of art in public spaces, connecting me with a number of film and video projects in other cities in the U.S. and abroad, a sign that many of us were looking towards the watery horizon in anticipation of an unknown journey.
On September 9, 2001, I was setting up for a one-night screening with a series of installations scattered along the Lackawanna Railroad Barge that had once transferred goods between New York and New Jersey. On the New York side at 23rd Street and the Hudson River, our production crew was hustling to set up a screening I had organized in collaboration with a Rotterdam-based curator named Florian Wüst, whom I still have never met in person. After learning about his curatorial work, I invited to make selections from his ongoing project entitled The Homeport Video Library, a publicly accessible video archive that was at the time installed on an annual basis in Rotterdam in the Euromast tower overlooking the River Maas. Wüst’s selections for Tugboat were to be screened that evening at the end of the barge in the middle of the Hudson River, while ambient installation-based video and sound works would play simultaneously along the barge. Of all the programs I organized during the four years of The Tugboat Film and Video Series, the selections from The Homeport Video Library was my favorite because it proved that this idea of transience was something common between disparate spaces. As the afternoon set-up continued, there was a commotion in the sky, many planes at once were noisily passing overhead and I worried that the planes might continue into the evening and therefore interfere with the sound of our screening. That didn’t happen, but two days later, I woke up to the chaos of September 11, when life changed drastically in New York City and America.
Another layer to this story is that for two years beginning in the autumn of 2000, I worked for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, an arts organization based in the World Trade Center. The Council organized a free performance series on the plaza of the World Trade Center, and we also administered a studio program for artists on the 91st and 92nd floors of the North Tower. The destruction of the World Trade Center marked the first time in contemporary American history that a location was erased from the landscape, as well as the first military attack waged on American soil. Nearly three thousand people were killed, and the process of its destruction was both fast and slow. The buildings collapsed that morning, but their remains smoldered for nearly three months. From five blocks away where I lived in the South Street Seaport, the smell of the burning was unavoidable until the winter. The dynamic of destruction drastically altered the cultural and political landscape of Lower Manhattan, giving public art new utility and meaning that fed into a cycle of real estate development, patriotism, and discussions about memorials. For many of the people working at the arts council (which became an itinerant organization for the next year) we questioned the importance of what we were doing on a daily basis. Six and a half years later it is difficult to know just how staged a political event September 11 was, but it gave many Americans a small window of understanding the instability and tensions that much of the world had already been living with for many, many years.
Twyla Tharp Dance performed the last outdoor performance on the World Trade Center Plaza on September 8, 2001. In the intermission, Tharp conducted a question and answer session for the audience, which included a short lecture about her artistic practice as a choreographer strongly identified with the visual arts. She spoke about the appropriateness of dancers performing at the bottom of the Twin Towers because these buildings were architecture in constant motion, buildings so tall that they needed to twist and shift in order to survive, much like the dancers themselves. At the time, this idea made sense, as it was common knowledge that the buildings were flexible in their design, but a few days later, any grace they ever had snapped. It was no longer enough to rely on a building, on a place, but stronger yet are the ideas and relationships that formulate life and the art that sustains it. I’m not more interested in the destruction of the World Trade Center than other world events that have proven the instabilities of site like Hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami in late 2004, and the war that continues in the Middle East. It is an event I experienced firsthand that changed my life and the life of my colleagues and neighbors.
When I met Tina Gverovic, she was drawing these unidentifiable horizons from perspectives that can be read from the point of view of both arrivals and departures. We met in New York while she was in an artist in residence in New York. Her drawings needed no explanation. The locations are unknown, yet they are rendered as if from a dream with the eerily familiar details of the sea, with its metaphors and experienced qualities. As the fixtures and landmarks that had become economic and political clichés wash away, there is still the maritime horizon where movement of water, the boat, the increasingly distant shore to be replaced by another. What else is there to do besides live in the moment and embrace the journey?
Sara Reisman is an independent curator based in NY.