In January, New York City residents received fliers in the mail that pictured Queens’s iconic Unisphere — a giant stainless steel globe originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair — accented by Amazon’s smirking swoosh logo. The 140-foot-high Unisphere is a 30-minute train ride from Long Island City, where, until last week, Amazon had been planning to build its “second headquarters.”
Situated in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the Unisphere is built upon the original foundations for the Trylon and Perisphere, two monumental modernist structures that were the centerpiece of the 1939 World’s Fair. Emblazoned with the blunt pitch of “25,000 new jobs,” Amazon’s fliers might seem a poor inheritor of the World’s Fairs’ utopian model of the future exemplified in the Democracity exhibit housed inside the Perisphere.
Each World’s Fair, through their discontinuity with contemporary reality, has invited a critique of their futurist visions’ false premises, drawing attention to present injustices. The ’64 edition, for instance, saw the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) stage a “stall in” to protest discriminatory urban policies. In that sense, Amazon’s appropriation of a landmark dedicated to “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” is fitting, reshuffling forces inextricable from the symbol’s history: steel orbital rings now gesturing toward circuits of commodity exchange, capitalist domination decisively privileged over global collectivity.
The building facing the Unisphere was originally constructed to house the New York City Pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair. That building is now the Queens Museum, and in recent years, it’s served as a site for work against this pattern of erasure. With the founding of programs such as an artist residency, a Social Practice MFA in partnership with Queens College, Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, and the recent acclaimed tenures of Laura Raicovich as Executive Director, and Prerana Reddy as Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement, the museum has hosted vital conversations about what cultural institutions can offer local communities.
In October, the museum launched its eighth biennial edition, Queens International 2018: Volumes, featuring 43 artists and collectives from 15 different neighborhoods in the borough. QI 2018 is organized by Assistant Curator Sophia Marisa Lucas with performance artist Baseera Khan, and includes pieces spanning media assemblage, painting, video, sculpture, print, and participatory works.
This year represents the first time QI exhibitions reach outside the museum. Curators collaborated with the Queens Public Library to exhibit work at three of the system’s 65 branches (Central Library in Jamaica, Lefrak City in Corona, and Flushing) in anticipation of a new branch to be located inside the museum. The library collaboration offers clearest entry to the show’s loose thematic subtitle of “Volumes,” suggesting manifold meanings — a book in a set, or a definition of quantity, degree, or dimension — while implicitly aligning the art museum with the library as features of the civic landscape.
Encompassing a diverse selection by emerging and established artists, QI 2018’s framework comes alive in the work of artists who materially intervene in ideas of space and place. A long banner, “Volumes Cyanotype,” hangs under a skylight in the middle of the gallery space. This communal artwork originally served as a tablecloth at a dinner for the exhibition’s artists and organizers, facilitated by Essye Klempner and Queens Museum Assistant Curator for Public Programming Lindsey Berfond. Before the meal, the tablecloth’s fabric was treated with a photosensitive cyanotyping agent, so that tableware and objects participants contributed left blueprints when the fabric was exposed to sunlight. The resulting sun-print banner, its familiar shade of pale blue and round plates diplomatically organized along the edges, recalls earlier gatherings during the building’s former use as the United Nations General Assembly headquarters from 1946 to 1950. As the dinner was prepared by Chef Quentin Glabus of the Frog Lake Cree First Nations in acknowledgment of the indigenous Lenape people who inhabited what’s now New York City, this international assembly attempts to center traumas that took place on this land.
Evoking tools of non-diplomatic relations, Asif Mian’s installation, “Nothingness & Specter” investigates the technological limits of thermal infrared cameras used in drone targeting. Plastic bags from local Queens businesses are fused together to form multi-patterned polypropylene smocks, which hang on steel stands like wispy scarecrows. Nearby, oscillating fans circulate hot and cool air, as ghostly figures appear and disappear on a closed circuit monitor fed by a thermal camera. This use of cameras associated with drones reminds viewers of the United States’ forever wars abroad, opening a searing critique of the domestic surveillance of Queens’s diverse population, by staging this elaborate decoy diverting state violence.
Gloria Maximo’s “Client States” is composed of a white plaster panel set atop a desk, flanked by two white folding chairs and one cushioned tan chair behind. A nearby video monitor displays the artist in monotonous activity in the museum director’s nondescript office. The gallery installation desk is coated with white paint, and resembles a museum display surface more than functional desk. The canvas-like panel appears at the center of a bureaucratic exchange, yet the art object nearly vanishes within the overwhelmingly white space.
Meanwhile, Umber Majeed’s video installation “Hypersurface of the Present” creates a feminist meditation on the color green (haraa), taking its role in Islamic culture, and shaping a fabulist motif incorporating technological visuality through green screens, light therapy, and phallic conical shapes in physics, the body, and technical diagrams, critiquing patriarchal nationalism and commemorations of the dawning of Pakistan’s nuclear age.
From reshaping public space to hijacking national histories, others work with personal archives to express individual perspectives on collective experience. KT Pe Benito’s pegboard installation “Entries to Faustina (Growing out of colonialism for my grandmother’s sake)” is deeply informed by Audre Lorde’s maxim of self-care as self-preservation. The board is covered with an assortment of photographs, sketches, torn history book pages, sandals, Florida Water, and Trader Joe’s dried mango slices, alongside a podcast installation titled “diaspo:radio.” These objects are periodically reorganized and the podcast updated. Handwritten notes addressed to Pe Benito’s grandmother illustrate the artist’s research into non-binary Filipinx identity — a subtly radical act of decolonization.
Milford Graves, an innovator in free jazz since the mid-’60’s, also contributed archival artifacts from his home studio in addition to the nine-part kinetic sculpture “PATHWAYS OF INFINITE POSSIBILITIES” reflecting on his eclectic and prolific career. Elaborating a theory of vibration received and emitted through the heart and brain, the scultures combine models of human physiology with whirring electrical components; nearby video monitors display rare documentary records such as Graves working with Japanese dancer Min Tanaka at a school for people with autism in the early 1980s. This thread — exploring the body as medium for experiencing and acting upon the world — anchors the latest QI, keeping the exhibition’s thematic concerns with the materiality of artworks and the location of their production rooted in aesthetic experience and lifelong artistic discovery. QI 2018 represents a real investment in a community’s future by advancing understanding of the present.
Queens International 2018: Volumes (QI 2018) continues at the Queens Museum (Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens) until February 24. The biennial is organized by Sophia Marisa Lucas, with New York-based performance artist Baseera Khan.