Play-by-Play of my Artist Residency at the Ace Hotel

About the Residency

The Ace Hotel in New York has an amazing residency where it houses creative artists for one night. I was nominated by Word, a great indie bookstore with branches in Greenpoint and Jersey City.

From the outset, I knew that I didn't really want to write anything. Writing takes me a long time and the editing process is often longer than the writing itself. So I decided I would like to try a hands-on art project. This was a great challenge, since I don't identify myself as a visual artist.
My brother is in fact a super talented visual artist and designer so I've tended to shy away from visual art—although he has taught me a number of great skills. Originally, I had planned to make art about income inequality, but the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and in Staten Island with Eric Garner made me want to create a piece related to racial justice as well, something I explore often in my fiction but not in my daily job. Once my wife CJ decided to come along to help, I decided to do both projects at the same time.

Space to Create

The room was great. Although the guitar was out of tune (I tuned it using relative tuning), there was plenty of space to spread out and create things. There was a record player but its auxiliary output wasn't very good, so we switched to the radio. There was not a lot of time and we went to work immediately.

Toy Bin of Art Supplies

The hotel provided a bunch of art supplies, including rulers, ink, scissors, mounting adhesive, and plenty of fancy pencils and paper. I imagined a real visual artist would have been in paradise, but I didn't know what to do with most of them.
The desk was fairly large, which was great because I had to do a lot of measuring, cutting, and pasting.

CJ at Work

This is CJ busy at work. She clipped out text for the piece on income inequality. This involved reading a bunch of newspapers and pulling out clippings. The hotel had collected a few papers for me already and I bought a few more on my way to check in. I also stopped to buy my own art supplies at Blick, because I figured the hotel wouldn't have everything I needed. This turned out to be a good move.

Laying out the piece on income inequality

This is the income inequality piece before we added the newspaper clippings. I wanted to use the form of a typical capitalist to hammer home the point, which I grabbed off a Creative Commons license, and I silhouetted it against gold paper to catch the viewer's eye.

The Finished Piece on Income Inequality

This is the finished piece, which I entitled Billionaires and the Papers Who Love Them. The clippings are meant to swirl like a cloud around the capitalist's head, suggesting obfuscation as well as ignorance about the realities beneath. The clippings also follow a narrative flow. As you read the clippings on the left, you learn about billionaires and extreme wealth, often in a laudatory manner. On the right side of the figure's head are clippings about poverty. Emerging from the mouth is a quote questioning the sustainability of these trends, which are in tension.

The piece came out of my frustration with the news media, which I often feel celebrates extreme wealth and excess and allows the cycle of greed to continue. Meanwhile, real lives are trampled upon in pursuit of these goals, when they do not, in the end, provide more happiness to the greedy.

The finished piece on racial justice

This piece is entitled Never Co-Opt Someone Else's Pain, after a quote from Amy Wilentz, a fantastic author who has written about Haiti since the 1980s. The picture is a silhouette of Trayvon Martin. Originally, I had intended for the piece to be more of an infographic. The target on Trayvon Martin's chest has a fairly obvious meaning: the darker the skin, the more likely you become a target.
But I wanted to convey other messages too. The arrow that projects into the heart was supposed to indicate to the viewer that the farther away you are from an experience of being the victim of racism, the more you have to listen. The implication is that the darker your skin (the more melanin you have in your epidermal layer) the more likely you will be a victim of racism; conversely, the more you are lighter skinned or white, the less likely you have been a victim of racism. The arrow indicates that you should listen more about the incident if you are not dark skinned. I recognize that this is a problematic simplification of racism because many marginalized minorities are victims of racism, but I do think it's a decent rule-of-thumb.

The bar on the right side of the image represents distance. Here, my suggestion is that the further the physical distance from a conflict involving racism, the more you have to listen. So if you are from Maryland, and you did not experience the racism in Missouri, you have an obligation to listen to people closer to the experience before you open your mouth. Or, if you're two blocks away from an area where an act of racial injustice occurred, you should probably listen to the neighbor who actually experienced what happened before you start spouting opinions. Again, this is a rule-of-thumb.

I'll admit I have been extremely bothered by the extent to which people who are neither African-American, nor remotely involved with these communities, tell me how I should feel about racial justice, even going so far as to tell me where I should go or what I should watch. To me, this feels like a double injustice. The first is the injustice that occurred to the victim of the violence and the second injustice is depriving me of my agency. I feel a lot of people are motivated for entirely selfish reasons when they protest. They would rather shout and yell about the police than actually ask people of color, or people who may have lived a similar experience, what they think. Unlike my Billionaires art piece, this piece is not about the media portrayal of racial justice in America. It is about behavior that I have personally observed. Of course, I often feel torn because I am mixed race—and Nigerian-American—but I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about these issues.

I'll admit that the Trayvon Martin piece didn't quite come out as I had hoped. The infographic was hard to implement in practice. I hope to revisit the piece again with some graphic design on Scribus, an open source layout editor, and I'll release it soon on this blog.

I'd like to thank Word and the Ace Hotel for providing me with this amazing opportunity. The staff were extremely kind and generous, except for one particularly aloof bartender, but I think that is probably in his job description because he works at a hotel that caters to hipsters, or to hipsters as visitors to New York imagine them to be.

One Response

  1. First, as often happens, I am amazed at your breadth of creative skills. Please consider that as a true compliment.
    The question: could you explain to me what you mean by “the second injustice is depriving me of my agency.”?

Leave a Reply