Multiple Pasts + Potential Next: A Conversation in Time and Space
Lindsey Dorr-Niro’s, This Land Again + Lisa Vinebaum’s, New Demands? at Sector 2337
I arrive in Cairo at night. One of the first things I notice are the empty billboards along the road: no advertisement, no cover, just long lines of fluorescent white light against a dark sky, creating different patterns per how many tubes are currently working. They look like code, they look like artworks in the sky, and their other reality lives, too: the absence of advertising, no commerce at this post.
I arrive at Sector 2337 at night, too, and notice first the major installation along the brick wall: a massive photograph of the back of a billboard, brown metal lines against a blue sky.
It is daytime in the gallery, regardless of the outside world. In the massive installation, a blue sky past the billboard creates its own weather. The front windows of Sector 2337 have also been transformed by the current show: a massive blue screen becomes the suggestion of another billboard, and fits into the space of the vertical windows as an intervention on the face of the gallery. Rocks on the floor, images of blue skies and grass and lake and billboard and stone. Although I arrive at night, it is daytime in the gallery.
Walking into the next gallery, Sector’s project space, massive words rise up the glass of the windows, commanding in exuberance: BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN, and: YOU TOO CAN JOIN.
Before I can read it all, lines of white fluorescence draw me to a grey room with the phrases STAND UP STAND WITH and IN UNION WE ARE STRONG facing each other from opposite walls. Speaking from one wall to the other, the way crickets and birdcalls echo to each other on a summer night.
On my first walk through both shows, the word potential rolls around my ideas. These two shows are connected, much like a good conversation between two strong voices. Each rouses a quiet idea: whether it is the unnoticed architecture creating our landscape, or the histories of our culture that have gone out of focus. The shows ask for a certain type of focus from their viewer, and allow the audience freedom and movement around the telescope of the artists’ own inquiries. And each show is enhanced by the other: a sort of electrical pulse of ideas, back and forth through the space.
As a child I loved to play Monopoly with my sister. (She was older, so got to be the dog; I second-choice-chose the top hat.) Once one of us failed to pay up, we provided each other loans, or breaks on the rent. We never foreclosed on each other’s property. We made pools of money from the bank in the center of the board. We knew of course, that it is no fun to take away your sister’s home. Or livelihood. So, we played until we got bored, not sunk.
As an adult I learned that Monopoly was created by a man of leftist persuasion, as an anti-monopoly, anti-capitalist game. That in the greatest of ironies, Parker Brothers stole it from him, and turned into one of the biggest selling, pro-capitalist games.
In looking up the history for this article I learned that the game was in fact invented by a woman of leftist persuasion, Lizzie Maggie, who worked by day and lectured on socialism by night, who sought a more interactive, wide-spread communication of her message, and created the The Landlord’s Game (since morphed into Monopoly) as a critique on the then-current structure of wages. I learn too, that she invented it in 1903, that it was played and modified by many until Charles Darrow took a neighbor’s version to Parker Brothers as his invention in 1935. I also found articles citing “little known facts” about the history of the game, including that it was invented by Charles Darrow in 1935. Which history wins out? How many realities can live side by side?
Lindsey Dorr-Niro’s show, This Land Again, takes its title from Woody Guthrie’s tune “This Land is Your Land,” on its 75th anniversary. Lindsey, seated on the stage she has erected in the gallery, reminds me the song was intended to be a Marxist critique, and instead becomes too often another basic, unconsidered symbol of American patriotism. The song has two lives, and both live simultaneously, mirrored, calling to each other, a conversation that likely can’t be finished.
Leaving Dorr-Niro’s, This Land Again, one exits one part of a conversation and walks into another.
The massive words of the project space belong to Lisa Vinebaum’s New Demands?, calling up phrases from demonstrations and labor movements past and present. “UNITED WE BARGAIN, DIVIDED WE BEG,” calls to us from union fights past and present—a conversation from union hall, to protest sign, to this window. Past it we see the fire escape outside, grey concrete and brown metal lines, echoing the lines across the back of the billboard towering over This Land Again. This is Vinebaum’s newest work in an ongoing series featuring the language of labor movements past and present, and in particular the language of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
The ILGWU is instrumental in American labor history and yet we barely know it. Theirs is another history, both missing and in multiple. One of the first examples of organizing women and immigrant laborers, who had previously been overlooked, who were responsible for major labor benefits, including increases in wages and reduction in working hours. And yet, we barely recall them, much less the fraught and violent past of the American struggle for working rights. Much less the women who marched, worked, demanded, and died. Their words return to us through Vinebaum’s language, echoed out of the past and into our current conversation, eerily accurate for our time.
When Dorr-Niro began her billboard project in 2015, she considered ways to extend past the billboard itself: a discursive lecture, a stage to become a platform for herself and others, for ideas. She tells me that the billboards are “part of our experience and structure of our environment, but we don’t think of them.”
“A big part of my work is giving materiality or history to things that are experienced as having no history or being immaterial,” says Dorr-Niro.
Vinebaum, living through the erosion of gains from the labor movement past, “wanted to create a space where the viewer is confronted with text.” It calls out to you, places you as “you,” and also as part of a “we.” The looming but adrenalized letters are a call to action, but also to memory: that we need the same phrases our grandmothers needed in 1922. That they did it. If we become a “we,” the phrases seem to suggest, perhaps there is hope for laborers. Take care of your sister’s house, and she’ll take care of yours. It is a conversation between time.
Both artists are taking something invisible, and placing it in front of us for examination, whether forgotten histories, or unnoticed landscapes.
My first viewing of the two shows was when I arrived on a Friday evening, to hear a conversation between Lisa Vinebaum and another artist, Angela Davis Fagan. The talk took place on Dorr-Niro’s stage, built as part of This Land Again.
Dorr-Niro is interested in both literal and figurative platforms, and has created that in multiple with her stage at Sector 2337. The space is transformed, and I moved through it differently than I have before. Watching a talk on the stage showed its abilities further: the set up of chairs in this orientation meant no one was very far from the speakers, the set up wide and shallow rather than long and deep. The audience engaged, and also moved comfortably. The artists negotiated the platform in their own ways too, moved more than I’ve seen artists in talks move. Not fidgety, but simply: the stage seemed to provide permission to not be perfectly still. And on this platform that considers and informs the space, Dorr-Niro’s work creates an energy, a carefully considered space, for other artists’ work to be shared as well.
Much of the talk considered ways each artist had worked to move away from capitalist practices and art commodification. Both Vinebaum and Fagan make artworks that are full of conversation: bursting with words and type, and each, through different approaches, seeks to challenge the capitalist world, and the capitalist art world within. As a viewer of these artists, the conversation begins in their bold words, and continues on with their process, presentation, and methods of dissemination.
Ideas on capitalism and commodification came up again on my second visit to the gallery, daytime inside and out this time, for a talk with Vinebaum and Dorr-Niro. We began with the two artists sitting on Dorr-Niro’s stage again. Each of them spoke of their attraction to Sector for being a move away from the traditional white box gallery. For its windows and spaces, and I’d wager a guess, for its non-profit status, which means Sector can have a nuanced set of motivations for what art the space chooses to support, sometimes including art that intentionally does not sell.
What New Demands? does to its project space is similarly enhanced by its mirror in the next room: Dorr-Niro’s liminal world of potential next. And the feeling is mutual, the sensation of This Land Again’s as a buzzing threshold is heightened by the complexities of the timeline next door: a conversation through time and space. Together the shows suggest that the conversation has always been there and will always be there, suspended in the air for anyone to grab at: to organize the next moment’s movement, to look at a bit of concrete by lake just so.
But these two aren’t simply grabbing the conversation out of the air. Both works possess a deceptive simplicity that could cause one to mistakenly think they’ve arrived at the end of a conversation. On the contrary, both Vinebaum and Dorr-Niro are finding ways to reflect and flow in the unending conversation, and thanks to curators Caroline Picard and Devin King, the works then are in conversation with each other: calling back and forth, like the crickets and birdcalls on infinite loop.
On a daytime visit to the current shows, watching the yard behind Sector, through the glass door covered in the statement BELIEVE WE WILL WIN, I was struck by the bold text with the transitioning background of green grass, red brick, blue sky.
Picard, co-owner and curator, mentioned watching the seasons change through the text. How she interacted with the project space differently, was no longer just passing through, but seeing the world around her space through it.
As the weather moved in the world outside Sector 2337, Vinebaum’s New Demands? caused those moving inside the space to experience the very building differently, to observe a little piece of the world more acutely, at the same time taking in massive statements of collective organization. The weather is striking through striking words.
Where the world’s current status is called into clarity in Vinebaum’s project space, This Land Again’s mirrored images of lake, platform, and construction site ask the world to hold still for the viewer to contemplate little-noticed elements of our lived environment.
In one photograph, the mirrored image of a concrete platform near the lake is captivating and calm. The vibrant greens and blues of the grass, lake, and sky make dull concrete pop, the reflection encourages a pause for the viewer. A construction site mirrored is at once beautiful and blight, future and destruction of the past. The back of the billboard is both a massive architectural imposition, and a question of anticipation.
Our current culture is set up to move us along quickly and without much question, through our architecture, our complicated histories, our rights. Both Dorr-Niro and Vinebaum’s current shows, and also the work of the artist in the talk that night, Angela Davis Fagan, seek to push, examine, and sometimes rectify some bit of this hustle. To be conscious, to notice.
Dorr-Niro, Vinebaum, and Fagan’s work all share a beautiful tension. Their works assert space and call attention. And yet there is a hum that resonates through each, carrying inside their methods and executions a clear line of long and meditative contemplation on their subjects. This resonance bursts onto the scene, ultimately, materialized as their work in time and space.
Lindsey Dorr-Niro, Lisa Vinebaum, and Angela Davis Fagan’s work live at intersections of the multiplicity of history and realities, of a desire to inquire deeper, to bring up and out what is lost in a commodified world, and to push the conversation. Each of them seeks ways to exist in art outside of its commodification.
The two shows living in the space mine the world for its potential: including its forgotten and misremembered histories, and its forgotten structures, creating our landscape and consciousness everyday. Where Dorr-Niro creates an open door to contemplation, but builds the world around it, Vinebaum constructs a world to view, that also invites the viewer to contemplate the world surrounding it. And so they mirror and loop, folding back on each other in a conversation that is historical and continuing.