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At first, the idea of an archive seems straightforward: an official repository of items that hold some kind of public or historical interest. But it’s all too easy to take that definition for granted without unpacking what lies beneath. Who has the power to make something official? Which public’s interests are being catered to? Whose histories do we deem worthy of preservation?
These are some of the questions raised by a small but impactful show at the Bushwick nonprofit Nurture Art. The Archive of Affect features six artists and groups who are building their own, more fluid archives than the concept traditionally suggests — evolving collections of art and testimony from people too often left out of official histories. All of the artists and groups — OlaRonke Akinmowo, Chloë Bass, Lise Brenner, Sarah Dahnke, Liz Linden and Jen Kennedy, and the Workers Art Coalition — have received Fellowships for Utopian Practice from the arts organization Culture Push, which curated the exhibition.
Akinmowo’s and Dahnke’s projects are the most affecting. The former, The Free Black Women’s Library (2014–ongoing), is a mobile library of books written by black women. The project has no fixed home, popping up every month or so in various cultural and outdoor spaces, and the rules that govern it are simple: Any book by a black woman can be a part of the library. You may take a book as long as you replace it with another one. At Nurture Art, Akinmowo’s installation doubles as a sort of shrine, with the books arranged on a small shelf and, hanging above them, black-and-white head shots of some of the authors. Standing before them was bittersweet: I felt both the inspiration of their brilliance and the shameful awareness that my culture, white American culture, had ignored them for far too long.
Dahnke also focuses on amplifying the voices of a group that’s shunned by society: prisoners in solitary confinement. For Dances for Solidarity, the artist sends a list of 10 basic movements to people held in solitary; they’re encouraged to not only perform the choreography, but also to respond by adding their own movements. According to Dahnke, nearly 300 incarcerated people have engaged with the project thus far; at Nurture Art, their choreographic contributions include “a basketball jump” (Israel Balboa), “add something vocal” (Dustin Clark), and “booty popping” (Shantaniqua Scott). The display also features letters, poems, and artworks sent by the prisoners. Dwayne McKinney’s drawn Afrofuturist portraits are the stunning standout.
The strongest thread running through the show is the notion — so obviously true, yet so frequently neglected — that ordinary people are repositories of valuable knowledge. This underpins Bass’s The Department of Local Affairs, which crowdsources information about specific neighborhoods from people who actually live in them; the result is a delightful amalgamation of Yelp, travel guides, and community message boards. Brenner’s Distributed Archive: Joe’s Story (with design assistance from Christopher Kennedy) is presented more like a traditional archive than Bass’s work — boxes of typewritten cards, tagged photos — but shares a similar goal: the artist is mapping important, longtime community spots in the gentrifying Queens neighborhood of Dutch Kills, Long Island City.
The final two projects in the exhibition also build on an ethnographic impulse. Linden and Kennedy’s Virtual Forum (2010–ongoing) invites anyone who’s interested to respond to the question, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word ‘feminism’?” In the gallery, a selection of answers covers two long sheets of striped paper that roll onto the floor, while a nearby tablet lets you type in your own reply online. Unfortunately, the results are not very interesting, likely because the prompt guiding them is under-thought and overly broad. Ordinary people contain valuable thoughts and ideas, but they’re not often stored at surface level.
The Workers Art Coalition demonstrates this principle by way of its inverse. Illuminating History (2017) is a project documenting the work lives of IBEW Local 3 union electricians (that is, notably, destined for the Library of Congress). At Nurture Art, visitors can listen to audio clips of workers telling stories about their jobs while sitting within an installation of swooping metal tubes, which both showcase the electrician’s practice of conduit bending and frame prints and photographs of related objects and scenes. It’s an elegantly integrated display that uses multiple sensory approaches to immerse the visitor in a world of highly specialized knowledge. Having never given much thought to electricians’ work, I found myself fascinated and wanting to hear more. All it took was someone to remind me that their stories were worthwhile.
The Archive of Affect continues at Nurture Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through April 16.