A Tale of Two Cities Illustrated

Income inequality is a tale as old as cities themselves. At various points in our cultural history we’ve heard the phrase “A Tale of Two Cities.” In the 19th century, it was the title of a Charles Dickens novel pertaining to the French Revolution and the plight of the French peasantry against the aristocracy. When Mayor Bill De Blasio was elected as Mayor of New York City in 2014, he too used the term “a tale of two cities” to describe the social and economic dichotomy of contemporary New York City.

The exhibition In Search of One City: Sensing (in)equality currently on view at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, draws it’s name and inspiration from Mayor De Blasio’s mission to rebuild a city where everyone has a high standard of living no matter their social  strata. The theme of the exhibition is a scrutinizing look by artists at issues of income inequality within New York City particularly, but also across the nation.

Katherine Gressel, the show’s curator, chose a roster of socially engaged artists who critique the system that brings about income inequality, as well as artists who are working with the community, specifically underrepresented groups towards developing a plan for a more equitable, inclusive, and livable city. This call and response is specifically why this show transcends beyond traditional socially engaged art exhibitions. We’re presented with a glaring problem, one that through artistic critique draws us in, and through social practice brings us together. The full list of artists in the show are Artist Volunteer Center & With Food in Mind, Daniel Bejar, Mildred Beltre & Oasa DuVerney,Jennifer Dalton, Laura Hadden & Tennessee Watson, Brian Fernandes-Halloran, Sue Jeong Ka, Kenneth Pietrobono, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Dread Scott, and Jody Wood.

First, let’s look at some of the artists who present poignant institutional and socio-cultural critique. One of the more well known works is Dread Scott’s video documentation of his June 22, 2010 performance on Wall Street Money to Burn. The artist wearing a shirt with safety pinned bills ranging in  from $1 dollar to $20 dollars for a total of $250.00, burned the money in a metaphor for the stock market where millions of dollars vanish in thin air over the course of a 9 to 5 day. The stock market, and Wall Street dealings are one of the greatest factors of income inequality today.

Jennifer Dalton, Your Name Here, 2014 One year of credit card offers, acrylic briefcase, wax seal, rhinestone numbers 3 × 17 × 13 in

Jennifer Dalton, Your Name Here, 2014
One year of credit card offers, acrylic briefcase, wax seal, rhinestone numbers
3 × 17 × 13 in

Jennifer Dalton’s Your Name Here, displays a clear briefcase (an allegory for cash deals often seen in gangster films) filled with promotional offers from credit card company’s. The flashy promos from banks and lenders are a stark reminder of the massive amount of debt that plagues many individuals and communities.

Daniel Bejar’s installation Forever (Brooklyn), is whimsical in it’s profundity. Bejar altered the familiar U.S postal stamp with the American flag and the wording “equality,” to read “inEquality.” Bejar affixed this manipulated stamp onto postcards from New York City’s most gentrified neighborhoods currently experiencing a rapid influx of wealth and social inequality. Typically, the post office would take note of an altered stamp and decline to send it, however, these all went unnoticed and successfully made it to the gallery in time for the installation. More clear proof that inequality goes along with apathy?

Kameelah Rasheed’s eye catching posters contain mock-advice directed to the poor by their rich counterparts that instruct them on how to “suffer politely.” Seeing these posters, I could not help to think that these signs would actually exist around the luxury condominiums that provide “affordable housing,” while making their lower-income tenants use a separate entrance, A.K.A “poor doors.” Thankfully the poor doors were deemed unethical and banned by the city. However, it’s this disgraceful mentality by the upper class that the poor should behave in certain ways in order to make the rich comfortable that lives on, and Rasheed’s work strongly amplifies this ideology.

And now, let’s examine some of the art, which was made in conjunction with others outside of the art world, such as Laura Hadden and Tennesse Watson’s Wage/Work Jukebox. This multimedia piece contains interviews the artists had with various workers, which are proportional in length to their wages. It creates a how we value, and give attention to different types of work.

Artist Sue Jeong Ka worked with immigrant domestic workers who told their stories on a compelling video titled Alison and Pauline. Along with the video Sue also created mock formal documents to try and formalize the typically unwritten relationship between these workers and their employers. The artist explains: “Agreement of Domestic Employment for Undocumented Female Workers is a quasi contract that covers female immigrant workers’ rights and suggests ethical responsibilities instead of legal responsibilities as not only human but also as female. At the same time, by stating not to ask the female worker’s immigration status in the contract, I question the role of verification of one’s official identity and how we re-define a legal binding when one cannot prove oneself in the government system.”

Beauty in Transition from Jody Wood on Vimeo.

Jody Wood’s Beauty in Transition, is a mobile salon set up in cities that provides hair styling, make up and other fine services to the homeless population. Beauty in Transition has operated at shelters in Denver, Colorado, nine locations throughout New York City, Philadelphia, and Reading, PA.

Mildred Beltre and Oasa DuVerney who are neighbors in their Crown Heights Community first started making art together in each others apartments in 2010. The artists reflected on their  “As we shared stories and experiences while making our work, we wondered if we could bring a similar experience to our other neighbors… dubbing ourselves the ‘Official Unofficial Artists in Residence’ of our block, we set up tents, tables, a banner, and art supplies on the street outside our apartment building, and began working.” They’re piece in the show, A Guide to Tenants Rights and Community Activities, was realized through collaboration with their neighbors and local residents to help tenants advocate for their rights and become resilient against luxury gentrification and displacement.

Artist Jason A. Maas founded the Artist Volunteer Center (AVC) after Hurricane Sandy affected not only his studio in Red Hook, but an entire waterfront community, the majority of whom are low income residents. The Artist Volunteer Center has been giving back to these residents by partnering with the local community on addressing issues such as income inequality, housing/rent, food justice, education, and more. AVC gives exhibition opportunities to emerging artists and art students in exchange for their requirement to volunteer weekly at local organizations working within the community. For example the work in this exhibition is from FOOD FIGHTERS an art and community internship program that is centered on food justice as it relates to income inequality. For this program the AVC collaborated with With Food in Mind. Over the course of six weeks, teen artists from local High Schools completed volunteer internships at different food justice organizations in New York City, such as Drive Change, Mt. Sinai Health, and Harlem Grown. Some of the resulting artwork informed by this internship program is on view at the Old Stone House.

Each work in the show provides a unique perspective that will hopefully inspire others to become more involved as citizens, above and beyond their artistic practice or personal lives. As a curator, Gressel has successfully started to address this complex issue through the lens of a strong group of artists and art works. Workshops and other events will supplement the exhibition, encouraging the local community to take part in sessions that seek to create new solutions towards the vision of one united city.

The exhibition will be on view through October 10th, 2015 More information can be found here.

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