Taking the Plinth: what radical art in New Orleans can tell us about engaging citizens

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How should contemporary art respond to the rise in racial tensions in modern America? This Huffington Post essay by New Orleans born-and-based curator Nicolas B. Aziz tells of his starring role in Ti-Rock Moore's time-based and gallery piece, New Wars New Stories New Heroes (picture featured above). On Moore's site, it explains the picture thus:

At 3AM on a brisk November morning with a surveillance team in place, the now off limit public space that was designated over a century ago to commemorate General P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederate States Army and his contentious flag were claimed by artist Ti-Rock Moore. Despite the City of New Orleans’ heightened regulation of the space and risk, Moore and performance art collaborator Nicolas B. Aziz chose to reimagine our country’s past, present and future with the work “New Wars, New Stories, New Heroes”.

New Wars is a time-based piece that utilizes the power of space and insignia to ignite new dialogue and deconstruct a representation that continues to impede the intended ideals of this nation.  Through the reclaiming of this land and the literal dismantling of the Confederate face of oppression, the work seeks to combat the illegitimate foundations of a paradoxical nation.

Aziz's HuffPost piece also muses on his experience as an element of "Gazing", an earlier Moore piece where he sits on a plinth in a gallery, in the pose of Rodin's The Thinker, engaging with the public (see below). 

We are interested in Nicolas's experience of engaging with a local African-American woman, tentatively making her way into the gallery space:

One of my most moving moments atop the plinth occurred on only my second day with a woman named Ms. Terry - a meter maid whose area included the Julia street Arts District where Jonathan Ferrara Gallery exists.

Due to my placement in the gallery, I, along with Ti’s ArtPrize-winning Flint, was the most viewable piece from the street. Watching the reactions as people passed by confused about whether or not I was a real person was definitely one of the more amusing experiences of my life. 

After one day and a half in the gallery, I had already been able to get an adequate gauge on how people would enter and engage with the exhibition. I was particularly captivated by the manner in which some people, especially black people, were struck by 1) the sight of a water fountain and font-style that is deeply ingrained into the psyche of every [African-] American and 2) a black man(nequin) sitting atop a pedestal.

While some allowed these visuals to lure them into the gallery, others took a few seconds to inquire and admire from afar and then moved on. Too often, the latter were African-Americans. 

With the traditionally exclusionary vibration of contemporary art spaces, it is quite understandable why certain people, particularly African-Americans, would not feel as inclined to walk into them. When Ms. Terry opened the gallery door toward the end of my second day to express her shock at my ability to breathe, her posture and demeanor clearly portrayed a lack of comfort and belonging.

Noticing her curious indecisiveness, I invited her inside and suggested that she take a look around the exhibition. After entering the gallery, she walked to every piece, engaging intently with each. As she passed me to exit she was nearly in tears. “It (the exhibit) taught me so much I didn’t know; I learned so much,” she said. “I love everything about you. You’re so beautiful,” she added. 

Ms. Terry and people like her are an integral part of contemporary art’s future. She was able to resonate with artwork in a space that has excluded her for over a century. Her tears and expression of my beauty were simply the manifestation of seeing herself in me and the rest of the artwork in the exhibition.

Anything that has the ability to trigger the thoughts and emotions of someone like Ms. Terry, while simultaneously doing the same for a privileged white person, has perpetual purpose. And to allow an illusory construct (that was created to legitimize slavery) to inhibit our ability to acknowledge the power in a feat such as this would be a true disservice to our humanity. 

How can art practice bring citizens into spaces they've felt excluded from, and give their thoughts and aspirations permission? We are fascinated by this question at A/UK, and we're trying to integrate it into the design of our forthcoming political laboratories in the UK.

Thanks to Nicolas for the stimulation (and to Alternativet's UK ambassador Peter Jenkinson for the ref).