New York City-based artist Jenny Polak has long dealt with issues of citizenship and legality through her site-specific and socially-engaged projects. Drawing heavily on her background in architecture, but working across a variety of media, Polak’s work brings human scale to the urgent politics of immigration in the US. Here, we spoke about her recent project at Northwestern University’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the pitfalls of nostalgia, and the question of utility in art.
Your work is primarily about the experiences of undocumented people. How did you develop this as a lens?
I’ve got this simple outrage at the way the rules of nations and international relations are written to ensure that the people flowing across borders will remain vulnerable enough to be exploited. But it’s also a fascination I have with the complex interrelated migrant lives that are the life-blood of many societies, without the supposed benefit of the legal underpinning and authorization that comes with citizenship. I’m a Jew from England, where modern immigration law was founded on anti-semitism, capitalized on by racist loser politicians who insinuated a divisive narrative to use to their advantage.
Feeling pissed off about legacies of exploitation is a sort of lens. I got mixed up in immigrants’ rights activism in the US in the mid 90’s because Bill Clinton threatened to and then passed a couple of hugely terrible Acts that were going to catapult hundreds of thousands of people into immigrant detention. And then I would practically trip over shackled black guys on crowded Varick Street (then the location of a key detention center) where the architect’s office I worked in got me my second H1b visa. In the US of course the conceptualization of birthright citizenship got all bound up with the exclusion required to maintain the institution of slavery, and the seeming progressiveness of the 14th Amendment, driven by the need to legitimize a now undeniably free, and sometimes armed workforce has been followed by layer upon layer of gate-keeping legislation, to control new cheap labour supplies. Business as usual.
You recently completed a residency with the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University, where you worked with community activists who were opposing the building of a private detention center in Crete, IL. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like? What challenges did you encounter?
This was an amazing thing. I’d been following the local news as the battle developed and with many in the ‘immigrants rights’ world cheered when Crete said NO to Corrections Corporation of America, the huge company that profits from mass incarceration policies in the US and elsewhere. Right then I got offered this miraculous residency, which gave me the chance to go and find the people who had pulled off this extraordinary result. I felt this urgently needed to be understood, represented and commemorated as an inspiring model for other communities. It wasn’t an ideal residency project perhaps; 3 months is an unusually great amount of time for me to be able to concentrate entirely on art but it is short for the kind of community connections I wanted to establish. I researched and networked before going, and luckily for me I already knew a few people in Chicago, not least my Mother-in-Law, who always provides a supportive base.
The Kaplan Institute people were also great about the general idea for the project and for an interdisciplinary class I proposed dealing with socially engaged art as it relates to urban planning, with a close look at the case of the Crete prison, which of course was partly an urban planning issue.
So my big challenge for this project was to meet people both in Crete and the vital immigrant activists from Chicago, learn from them in much greater detail how they saw the whole struggle, and win these remarkable people who had already moved on to the next struggle, to the idea of working with me and a couple of Northwestern students to make art relating aspects of “The Sweet Defeat of the Prison in Crete” – as activist Anthony Rayson named a zine he made – to a possible wider audience. It’s a tricky thing that is tough to get right in socially engaged art: when you are not already part of a community, and will not be able to stick around, why are you there? The activists involved had already done brilliantly at PR. The very different affected communities – the Concerned Citizens of Crete (started by Cetta Smart) and the immigrant community centered on Fr. Landaverde’s Anglican Catholic Mission Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Little Village – knew what they were doing and Local and national news media had followed the story in English and Spanish. I wanted to see something else happen because I thought that a particularly striking thing was the coalition of citizen and non-citizen that formed across a big divide of consciousness.
The people found common cause thanks to the abilities of several leading people in both communities to frame the debate in terms of the high ground; the moral outrage of detention and deportation, and of profiting from them. I proposed some art under the heading (n)IMBY, exploring ways to represent and sort of idealize this uniting of people whose ‘profiles’ didn’t match, both for the people themselves and for possible art audiences who would never know them. A number of the people who had been involved graciously came back together at my request: Father Landaverde’s community generously hosted, the no name collective provided support and I quite old-fashionedly drew and photographed them. The photographs simply pair up citizens with immigrants with the gridded walls of the storefront church as backdrop.
Your work has multiple publics: the people it was done about, with and for – as well as the art world. How do you reconcile the function of your work in these two, often separate realms?
I have difficulty with thinking about an artwork that is not also understood as an object with meaning in the real world. So for the (n)IMBY project, I wanted to make something life-size – actually I thought about a commemorative monument of sorts, but the relationship to site was looking problematic, with two key foci of the struggle, neither of which I could just impose an object on without a lot more time to be with people and delve into what might be useful and share-able.
So I drank in the frequency of little Virgin of Guadalupe statues and tried thinking souvenirs – multiples thought of as ‘low’ art in high art world terms. I imagined narrative keepsakes that could be found in many people’s homes or places of assembly. There was a show of the figurines of John Rogers about that time – a prolific Victorian sculptor of Civil War and moral scenes. I was going to try and cast something but the Engineering Department at NU opened their Rapid Prototyping Lab to me and I made 3D prints instead – not as many as I would have liked, to share among more people, but it was an inspiring opportunity and I think those who have taken them to keep have an interesting connection now with both each other and the few art-audience people who may get to see some in a gallery context.
One big reason for making art objects at all rather than participatory events and such, is that the “communities of communication” (- a term like that I think comes from Walter Benjamin) that objects might generate – people who in potentially energizing ways are sharing ideas – don’t have to be all in the same place or exist in the same time, and this is important because you need so many different kinds of people on board and so much time to go after a real high ground kind of vision.
There is a feeling, in your work, that you’re not interested in getting nostalgic about the immigrant experience, but that you’re actively engaging the “now” on these issues, and imagining into future possibilities.
I grew up in crazily nostalgic culture – both England and the un-English, Jewish cultural time-warp I existed in are very tied up in their pasts. When I started to think about migration and its representation or manifestation in art I saw everyone doing ‘share-your-history-or-culture’-type-art. That was also THE accepted way for an artist to ‘work with the community’ – still is. These projects are celebratory, educational, cool, but tend to draw attention away from action or even from any representation that includes analysis of or fight-back against injustice. That’s not to say I think political art should be all about protest – many of us have done a lot of that and can see that there other ways to work so as to activate a space – not just the designated space of protest – with an awareness of its reality – its present, socio-economic networks – in such a way that people kind of unsuspectingly get a sudden jolt of their own reality and connection to others’. So after I tried making an art about my background, looking at the idea of the Jew in England, my amazing family, my own bizarre overdetermined history as a Jew sick with a supposedly Jewish disease and such, Lyle Ashton Harris said to me in a studio crit in the Whitney Independent Study Program one day, “why should I care?” A truly helpful thing. I said to myself, right, this stuff will be behind me, but now I will face outward, and look for ways to connect with other people, in the present and for the future.
How do you understand the relationship between your art and your activism?
Chicago was the first place I came to when I first arrived in the US, and the first thing I saw as I was driven from the airport was a huge demonstration about some art. (It was about “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” – the work of my husband-to-be, Dread Scott.) This added tantalizingly to my sense that in the US art could influence public opinion, which I had given up hope of in England. My activism for a time was kind of separate from my art, but I was saved by the experiences of collaborating with Repo-History and the poster collective Resistant Strains on a few projects. Plus I had had a kid, and started working for architects and there wasn’t time anymore; then it was suddenly clear to me that those things (kid, architecture) were the sources and the connections I needed for a new activist art combo. I drew on my architecture background and my immigrant activist network and made a web project (HardPlace) for which detainees from across the country supplied sketches of what they knew of their invisible prisons, (photos being forbidden) and I traced them into strange digital 3D models where you could find a few tidbits of info that cumulatively conveyed an idea of the terrifying Kafkaesque system that was proliferating since the 1996 laws had passed. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum funded the project so that I felt able to team up with web designer Lauren Gill to deliver a project that got quite a lot of attention on the predicament of detainees and the dangerous direction US immigration policy was headed in – it was launched soon after 9/11 and detention was taking on a new definition in the public imaginary and in abusive reality.
Having a social or political application in one’s work can lend itself to a particular kind of “usefulness,” often discussed in socially-engaged art. How do you address utility in your work?
There are different ways to be useful and to address usefulness. Many things I make use a language usually thought of as functional or useful but they are dysfunctional – they talk about their own inadequacy or misguidedness. I think of it as a sort of reverse-engineering the ready-made – art that escaped into the real world. It can’t be instrumentalised except in make-believe (unlike the Urinal getting put back to its intended use) but it can talk about what might have been or might be. I think when artists aim for ‘real’ utility, it tends to produce poor relations of things made by real designers and urban planners – partly because art in the socially engaged realm has generally had to accept a pathetically minimal funding structure as compared with architecture and urban design budgets, or even regular public art budgets – but of course those big budgets entail the forswearing of criticality- the pact with the devil. We are beginning to see some good results as the exchange flows the other way and urban designers merge into artists.
I was moved recently when Tania Bruguera’s Museum of Arte Util, soon to open in Holland, asked to include my Design for the Alien Within and other projects in their archive. My tactics may be frowned on by some advocates/practitioners of utility in socially-engaged art. For example during Occupy Wall St, I got involved with Mitch McEwen and others in the Architecture Group: there were interesting discussions and practical exercises to come up with temporary shelter strategies for public sites controlled by city regulations, as well as the chance simply to observe and engage with the structures that kept being built. While hanging about the financial district I picked up some bags of shredded paper and with advice from Michael Rakowitz about sealing plastic sheets into shapes, began making shapes like financial crisis graphs stuffed with shredded paper, that double as pattern pieces for assembly into warm, waterproof wearable shelters, coat-tents. But they will they actually be used? It doesn’t matter at the moment, it’s more that people who see and feel them immediately want to talk with each other and me, and these conversations are useful.