When Hudson Yards, the sprawling, $25 billion development-compound was first erected on Manhattan’s West Side, critics joined a vocal opposition. They argued that the site, funded by a handful of mega-corporations, billionaires, and the dubious EB-5 visa program, was at once wildly expensive, an architectural eyesore, and a shiny reminder of the city’s (and the country’s) sharp economic divide. Hudson Yards even shouldered pointed criticism from disability activists, who lampooned it for inaccessibility and various ADA violations. In recent weeks, a number of disillusioned artists who had plans to collaborate with the development’s art space have entered the protests.
Nearly a month after the neighborhood’s grand unveiling in March, it welcomed a scrappier, bohemian offspring, “The Shed,” a venue for new and emerging artists. By most accounts, the Shed, with its more inclusive tone and mission, promised to redeem the much-hated Hudson Yards. But even the Yards’s younger, hipper counterpart was bankrolled by the same corporate player: Shed board member and real estate developer Stephen Ross. And when reports surfaced earlier this month that Ross would be hosting a fundraiser for President Donald Trump in Southampton, the tycoon became the latest reason to boycott the Yards. The lavish luncheon and photo op carried a $100,000 price tag. For an additional $150,000, patrons were invited to attend a roundtable discussion with Mr. Trump.
The backlash was swift. Duo Zackary Drucker + A.L. Steiner announced last week they would be withdrawing from the Shed’s Open Call show, which invited underrepresented artists to exhibit their work. Designer brand Rag & Bone decided to ditch its Fashion Week slot in the Shed’s mainspace. This element of controversy and conflict is mixed into Hudson Yards’s concrete, which makes it a natural site for protest; and such is the timeliness of artist and DJ Thanushka Yakupitiyage’s performance, which was also a part of the Open Call, on Sunday evening.
Perched centerstage in a DJ booth, Yakupitiyage (who also goes by the DJ name “Ushka”) and her accompanying dancer Elsz wore neon t-shirts that read “Decolonize This Place,” a conspicuous nod to a larger activist movement in the art world. Throughout the hour-long set, the music — soothing, syncopated, and lively — was interrupted by four voices of migrants recalling their hellish experience with immigration to the United States. Occasionally the president himself would interject with an immigration or border wall policy promise. Even Ross made a brief appearance; Yakupitiyage played an audio clip of the developer boasting about Hudson Yards.
“Your life is in their hands,” one of the refugee voices said. “You’re living in fear.” Large white cards with black type were affixed to the base of the stage reading: “Are We Complicit?”; “$250,000 = One Ticket to Trump Fundraiser”; “24 immigrants have died in detention since 2016.”
The Brooklyn-based artist, activist, and performer told Hyperallergic that she has personal relationships with all four individuals featured in the audiovisual installation: Ravi Ragbir, Sara Martinez, Cynthia Pompa, and Audu Kadiri. “I was inspired by their stories of resilience and wanted to weave it together into a piece that showed the complexity of migrant experiences,” Yakupitiyage said of her final protest performance at the Shed, entitled MigrantScape.
“Institutions need to think about their moral obligations,” Yakupitiyage told Hyperallergic in an email on Monday. She continued:
My questions as an artist are: Is it enough to host and commission diverse artists (particularly black, brown, and queer artists) as a means to show a set of values? What are the limits of “inclusion”? How are artists (particularly “diverse” artists) instrumentalized as cover for profiteering? Is all money “bloody money”? And for those of us who are young, queer, creatives of color struggling to find grant opportunities to make meaningful work — what are opportunities to grow as artists and show our work with integrity?
“As an emerging artist who had this opportunity at The Shed amidst this controversy, I’m thinking a lot about this and my own sense of obligations to my art and my communities,” she explained.
The Shed’s outdoor performance space sits across from a Neiman Marcus and borders a Sephora, Cartier, and a cluster of luxury high-rises. It’s hyper-commercial and almost feels too ironic for reality: a wholly open space that remains closed to most. But Yakupitiyage managed to break the impenetrable border between the haves and have-nots that surrounds Hudson Yards. Elsz alternated between moving onstage and descending the stairs to join the crowd of onlookers, coaxing them to move to the music. Many did. Yakupitiyage’s performance, much like Hudson Yards itself, was complicated — both joyful and tragic. A devastating story of immigration and detention, set to danceable music; in her view, that is precisely the point.
“What I tried to do in the performance piece was tell a story of migrant resistance and pain in its totality, and that as we struggle for liberation, we also have joy,” Yakupitiyage said. “Through the tragedy of borders and colonization, we find pockets of rebellion through joy in and of itself. At its best, that’s what a dancefloor can do.”
Yakupitiyage may have produced her installation for the Shed, but her message is directed at President Trump and his administration. “I could not in good conscious ignore [Ross’s ties to Trump], given my work,” Yakupitiyage said. “Billionaires will always do what they need to stay in power.”
The Shed has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.
“I choose music as my weapon to tell stories […] I am always struck by the absence of art and spaces to express oneself joyfully at the same time as one feels rage and anger,” Yakupitiyage explained. “I don’t see arts and culture as just something ‘pretty to look at,’ it can engage people to think about issues in new ways, it can be disruptive. Culture shifts people far more than policy does in my opinion.”
MigrantScape was on view at the Shed August 9 through 25. Thanu Yakupitiyage’s DJ set at the Shed’s Plaza occurred on August 25 from 5:30-6:30pm.