No Longer Empty’s Youth Action Council line up tp give personal reminders attesting to the importance of voting for one of the keynote addresses; they are: Ashanti Strong, Jade Villegas, Jontay Beckles, Justice Hamlin James, Kalia Asencio, Megan Vega, Marvens Volcimus, Mariel Martinez, Sarahfina Cunningham, Stephanie Martinez, and Yewande Ogunleye (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Last weekend the third incarnation of the Forward Union Fair took place — a gathering of advocacy groups, artists, and civic engagement organizations to pursue the overarching cause of social justice. After being hosted for two years in Manhattan’s Noho district in an ad hoc vacant retail space, the event this year was mounted in the Red Bull Arts New York space in Chelsea, at an earlier time in the fall calendar (September instead of December) and with a new sense of urgency.

James O’Brien, the MC for the fair, introduces Jennie Lamensdorf, one of its founders.

This new hosting venue struck me as better organized and more finely tuned compared to the previous iterations. Jennie Lamensdorf — one of the founders of the fair, who also include Julia Clark, Lauren M Jones, Rachel Nackman, and Holly Shen — spoke with me on the morning of the opening day, telling me that having a space that was this well organized out of the box freed up all the founders to do more work on curating the public programs (instead of, for example, Lamensdorf says, having to install lights). The central aim this time was to orient visitors and participants to the upcoming midterm elections and bring more young people in. As Lamensdorf told me, “We are really trying to target the age group where they might be getting their first opportunity to vote this year, and they may not be registered to vote.”

Joirie Minaya’s installation piece, “#dominicanwomengooglesearch” (2018)

With this goal in mind, the programming was thematically structured with four modules scheduled each day. The first centered on voting and civic engagement, followed by an afternoon session focused on immigration. Sunday’s morning session centered on healthcare and the following afternoon session looked at gun control. Lamensdorf explained that each module “is activated by an artistic intervention.” She used the example of Amy Khoshbin, who was scheduled to perform “a political speech turned cathartic rap dance-party” on Saturday. Khoshbin, Lamensdorf assures me, is genuinely running for the New York City Council in District 39 of Brooklyn, while also using the campaign to inform her own art practice. Khoshbin writes on her website:

This is a real political run that I’m also using as an information-gathering strategy, to demystify the complex structures of government and to empower others to vote, run for office, and get involved in local government. I want to shift our culture towards supporting creativity, intersectionality, and diversity.

Members of the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America pose for a picture (photo by Chris Butterick)

The political significance of this work mirrors the themes I gathered as I watched and listened to the opening remarks on Saturday, September 29. The master of ceremonies, James O’Brien, officially opened the fair to the public at noon and invited Lamensdorf to talk about the general aims of the fair and what initially animated the event (the presidential election of 2016). Immediately after, several representatives of organizations talked about their aims, among them Shijuade Kadree of the New York City LGBT Center, Katie Robbins of the Campaign for New York Health, and No Longer Empty‘s Youth Action Council, which included 11 young people who spoke about the concerns that motivated their involvement. They all spoke with a clear sense of purpose. In addition to these groups, other organizations that were involved include Artistic Freedom Initiative; Resistbot; Make the Road New York; Parade/The Young and Mighty March for a Voice; Theatre of the Oppressed; Spaceworks; New Yorkers Against Gun Violence; and the Climate Mobilization.

Shijuade Kadree of the NYC LGBT Center talks about what the center aims to do and be in the current political climate (photo by Chris Butterick)

This year 13 artists created installations, such as the large one by Jesus Benavente, titled “I Still Remember You Mijo” (2018), consisting of large, red vinyl lettering spelling out the title of the piece, along with about 600 air-filled white balloons that slowly deflate. It evokes Benavente’s distress as a Mexican-American who has witnessed the malevolence toward immigrant communities leveled by the current federal administration, such as the separation of families at the border. Furen Dai’s “Silverwords” (2018) also consisted of balloons with black vinyl lettering spelling out phrases like “against the tide,” and “fearless,” while some words appeared to be written in Chinese characters. The overlap of their work speaks to New York’s art community, which largely consists of immigrants and has international connections; the precarity of the immigrants’ lives is poignantly evoked by the ephemeral balloon.

Jesus Benavente, “I still Remember You Mijo” (2018) (photo by Chris Butterick)

Installed downstairs was Dominique Duroseau’s photo studio — a project that is thematically related to the fair in that Doroseau produces large, black-and-white portraits of Black people, to make them more present, more visible to the popular imagination. When I spoke to her, she told me that she would be present throughout the fair, taking pictures of visitors and workers. Additionally, Azikiwe Mohammed contributed furniture and art pieces to make the downstairs lounge where Lamensdorf and I spoke. The very good news for all the artists involved is that for the first time, they were paid a W.A.G.E.-based artist’s fee. This year’s version also had financial support from the Rubin Foundation, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Images from Dominique Duroseau’s portrait series Black Face Index/ (2015-present) installed outside of the fair

Furen Dai, “Silverwords” (2018) (photo by Chris Butterick)

Forward Union Fair continues to attract palpable civic energy and commitment, at least partly because several leaders, organizers, and concerned citizens recognize that this kind of conscientious cross-pollination of arts and civic organizations is a tool for transforming our politics. We need both the artistic appreciation of the everyday practices that can be accomplished with time, attention, and creativity allied with the discipline of community mobilization and strategic planning. As Forward Union demonstrates, it is possible to bring them together in harmony.

The “Love Wall” in the downstairs making area (photo by Chris Butterick)

The downstairs lounge area as designed by Azikiwe Mohammed

Forward Union Fair took place at Red Bull Arts New York (220 West 18th St Chelsea, Manhattan) from September 29 to September 30. 

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...