Kameelah Janan Rasheed, “Are We There Yet” (2017) sign (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Forward Union Fair 2017, the second iteration of a political action symposium inaugurated last year, took place this past weekend, and this edition, from what I saw, harnessed and amplified the energy brought by artists and activists concerned with facilitating economic, social, and ecological justice.

The front desk at the fair

While this version of the fair certainly looked better organized (the majority of the participating organizations’ tables were moved to the section of the bifurcated space that held more square footage; there was an on-site concession stand offering hot beverages; both days were filled with programming, instead of just one) there seemed to be no decline in the fervor of the participants. If anything, the past year under a rankly incompetent and manifestly corrupt government administration seems to have fired the resolve of the participants.

This year, there were more groups in attendance than last year — almost 50, according to co-founder Jennie Lamensdorf. Lamensdorf describes Forward Union as a “social action info[rmation] fair that combines activist organizations.” Among them are Gays Against Guns, NYC Shut it DownNational Women’s Liberation, the Democratic Coalition, Sierra Club, March for Racial Justice, and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. Many of these groups specifically referred to the current president and the policies he has promoted as motivating factors.

The Art Condo table

The groups focused on the arts, such as the People’s Cultural Plan, had more local concerns that nevertheless had the imprint of resistance to the kinds of plutocratic notions that underlie the current nationwide dominance of a predatory, conservative agenda. Art Condo consists of a group of artists who have taken a collectivist, entrepreneurial approach to the twined issues of gentrification displacing long-term residents and housing scarcity by pooling their money to purchase a buildings that may then be renovated to provide stable, dependable live/work spaces for local residents and creative workers. Spaceworks, a nonprofit dedicated to developing more long-term, affordable rehearsal and studio space for artists working in New York City was also present at the fair. Lamensdorf expressed particular enthusiasm for the Artistic Freedom Initiative, an organization that provides legal services and resettlement support for artists around the world who are censored or persecuted for their work.

The “Art and Community: Responding to and Preventing Sexual Violence” panel, and in the background, Amanda Browder, “Community Sewing Day — A Combo of Two Projects from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Buffalo, New York” (2017) fabric mural

The artist Andrea Arrubla working at her table on her project “Portraits of Immigrants in Limbo” (2016–the Present)

When I walked in on Sunday, December 3, a timely panel was already in process: “Art and Community: Responding to and Preventing Sexual Violence,” with the coordinator of a hospital-based victim services program, Chauntel Gerdes, and artists Emma Sulkowicz, Annie Malamet, and educator Jillian White. At that hour I had apparently just missed a performance of Dominique Duroseau, which was disappointing, since her recent exhibition in Newark concerning blackness as a kind of focus on embodiment made me curious about her performance practice.

I was able to catch the next performance, of the group Brick x Brick, whose members, costumed in suits designed in black and white brick face patterns with intermittent slogans such as “slob” and “bimbo” printed in color formed a silent line on the sidewalk outside the exhibition and workshop space. They stood saying nothing for several minutes while passersby wondered what it all meant.

Brick x Brick performing outside of the fair

Several other visual and performance artists were involved in the fair, including Amanda Browder, Gopal Dagnogo, Shaun Leonardo, Shervone Neckles, Nichole van Beek, and Jesus Benavente. Dread Scott lent the fair his “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” (2015) banner, and Kameelah Janan Rasheed loaned her piece “Are We There Yet” (2017), which was included in this year’s Venice Biennale.

Jesus Benavente, “I’m Not Dancing; I’m Struggling to Survive” (2017) video still

Benavente’s piece was the most fun. It consisted of a room in the venue’s basement with subdued lighting, white balloons covering most of the floor, and a video taking up the majority of one wall. Before going into “I’m Not Dancing; I’m Struggling to Survive” (2017), I was given a pair of headphones. The joyful dance music that came through was the antithesis of what was depicted in the video: police officers walking through a downtown thoroughfare, using a portable loudspeaker to play dissonant and grating sounds amid verbal instructions to clear the street (which came through the headphones at a subdued volume).

Nichole van Beek “New York State Senate” (2017)

On the main floor, in the room where most of the organizations had their tables, a kind of collaged mural made by van Beek was installed. “New York State Senate” (2017), the most politically pointed visual work I saw at the event consisted of a series of drawn likenesses of the members of the senate with the Republicans circled by a red nimbus and the Democrats by blue, while a splinter group of senators who ran as Democrats but caucus and vote with the GOP were depicted against red and yellow backgrounds. The yellow, I assume, refers to their cowardice or treachery.

The fair overall felt like a work of resolve. While the previous year’s event felt like a symposium that was birthed in outrage and fear and disgust, this time the programming, visual art, and activist groups gave me the impression that all participants had decided to hold hands and mobilize their resources for a fight they know will continue for some time.

Some Images by Dom Duroseau’s “Black Face Index” (2015–the present)

A view of the interior of the 2017 Forward Union Fair

The 2017 Forward Union Fair took place December 2 and 3 at 714 Broadway (Greenwich Village, Manhattan).

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...