BEING For people in New York City, the Hudson River is on the radar; they see it everyday. And it just, follows that up, you know. The Wassaic Project is located in the small hamlet town of Wassaic, New York, and is the last stop on the Harlem Line out of Grand Central Station. I mention this because it is west of New York City in Upstate New York, yet easily accessible two-hours from Manhattan. New Yorkers are the first to tell you that the United States begins only when you leave New York City. They don’t know how to get here. The Wassaic Project is an artist-led ‘arts community’, but I would say it is an arts community second, and a community first. The omission of the ‘arts’ descriptor is necessary and real. The reason being that the Wassaic Project’s Co-Directors, Eve Biddle, Bowie Zunino, and Jeff Barnett-Winsby, are committed to the future of the town in an actual, liveable (not solely artistic) way. The Project then exists twofold. There is the artistic project. All the Co-Directors are artists themselves, and this underscores the programming of the Wassaic Project: residencies; artists; writers; curatorial; exhibition; annual Summer Festival. The Wassaic Project also maintains a parallel endeavour that is focused on the restoration of dilapidated buildings in the township, and creating new economies through employment, the festival itself, and the artistic residents that are accommodated throughout the year. There is a concerted effort to become integrated into the community of Wassaic through ‘non-arts’ as well as arts related efforts. This is largely invisible from my position as an outside artist briefly in residence, but start talking to members of the community and it becomes apparent that the Project is something of a lifeblood within the hamlet. For me personally, there are so many artists in NYC that it’s hard to feel like you are part of a community. It’s oversaturated, it’s crowded, it’s commercially focused rather than community focused. The Wassaic Project see themselves as neighbours and friends within the community, hosting BBQs and fundraising drives, getting involved with the Wassaic Volunteer Fire Department. Even creating a Community Day and Parade in May: a town-wide block party, parade and fundraiser for a fire department administered high school graduate scholarship fund for Seniors to help cover costs of their first year at tertiary study. Or simply, getting involved in the fundamentals of a community because that is what neighbours do — because I really like my neighbours! There was a freedom in doing the work itself, because we would paint. Both my friend’s mother and father were painters, and they would give us canvases and paints and stuff. We would paint abstract stuff, and they would give some critiques. I was learning that it wasn’t just slap-dash; that there was a real form to this formlessness; there was discipline involved; it was more than just: ‘any kid could do it’. That was being explained to me as well, our pictures were being, sort of, professionally critiqued as we were doing them; ‘you want to do that colour, now what if you did this colour there.’ There’s more than just colour, you can work with texture as well, you know, that was pretty amazing, compared to… I mean I had been introduced to art, but Classic Art through my mother’s collection, and she had done some study of art history and things, but all of a sudden: ‘Abstract art’. I can’t remember if I saw my friend’s parents work first, then through that was introduced to the Expressionists and other abstract painters. I just can’t remember the timeline exactly. The Wassaic Project began in 2008 through a Summer Festival that initially involved artists and musicians in the recently renovated Maxon Mills; saved from demolition and restored by architect and developer team, Tony Zunino and Richard Berry. This brought 500 visitors to Wassaic, the next year 2500, 2015 over 4000, and this year there will be over 5000 people attending the festival and viewing the exhibition. To think then of the Wassaic Project as neighbours and friends is to acknowledge that your neighbours are the size of a small town, and your friends equal the maximum number allowed by Facebook. This is a nuanced situation of artists moving from an artistic epicentre, New York City, to a location that allows for praxis and affordable living. The discussion of such a context is often posited in gentrification, but this is a more complicated narrative of gentrification that exists within shades of grey. Well it’s partly tactile; I sort of feel what’s going on. The ability to see differently presupposes that you actually wish to, or a forced to, view the world through an alternate lens. My grandparents had a place in Maine. They lived in Maine on an island, and there was an arts community that started. The Wassaic Project as an organisation seems to be defined through multifarious details that align to create a cohesive placement and relationship within the community. The details are the artists, programs, staff and festivals, where the totality is the community of Wassaic itself. The Wassaic Project and the hamlet of Wassaic I see as synonymous with each other. Although each could feasibly exist without the other, both are enriched through the relationship of coexistence. Here is a model for a community-based organisation and a community ‘engaged’ artistic project that is necessary and inclusive of the community it is located within. Right at the edge. I just love the edges of things. I like the edges of where grass ends and the woods begin, and/or the back of the porch or the back of the garage; usually not seen, what I call the “border-lands”—those edges; they’re neither one nor the other; there’s a transition. LOOKING You just all of a sudden see colours…they become other colours. To look at something—an object, text, city, a community—from a fixed position, is an attempt to condense a context into an ordered understanding. Artists are good at the opposite; breaking things apart; observing the detail whilst engaging the totality of a context. This could be a reason why artists are often invited to collaborate on divergent projects, such as with scientists, or archives. The ability to look at detail and attain a totality is an artistic resource that occurs through critical praxis. Cézanne identified this through a recognition of his ability to see differently. The vista of Mont Sainte-Victoire expressed through an awareness of multiple perspectives and potentialities. Observation. Detail. Expansiveness. Seeing differently. I’m insecure because I can’t recognize faces, so if I see them casually down the street I don’t know if they’re my next door neighbours, or artists. This attribute often becomes problematised through the placement of the ‘artistic project’ within a ‘community’ setting, which immediately becomes politicised. Even as artists, it can be convenient to glance over the circumstances that attribute to the displacement (physical, virtual, temporal, symbolic, emotional, spiritual) of a community that an artist is connected/disconnected to. Best intentions aside, communities want affects. It’s very interesting, what these afterimages, or as they call them: hallucinations, they’re real; it’s the brain trying to figure things out. Whilst I was a resident artist at the Wassaic Project, I lived with my partner and our baby in a trailer that is used to accommodate artists participating in the program. Dually functioning as a residence, it also provided some context on the socio-economic and demographic of Wassaic. So did a large foreclosed yellow house that overshadowed our small trailer. This house existed as something of a symbol; it had no story then, no totality; it was a fiction that I mythologised which revealed pieces of its history over time through fragments. For me it became necessary to speculate on its existence and story; the people that once live there; the vibrancy of colour before the chroma eroded over time. Interpretations often happen to me. I would think I see a bicyclist coming down the path, but it’s just a shadow, and then I’ll see the same one the next day, and I still think it’s a person. Interpretation and mythologisation is necessary when a totality cannot be achieved through the accrual of detail. Mythologies however only go so far. And with mythology, there is always an implicit understanding that we are being nurtured through a fictitious understanding of our world that allows our present to be aligned with the past. I get more information through my fingers than I do through my eyes, and it’s always been that way. So maybe the eyesight thing isn’t that big a deal. That first year of the Wassaic Project—its inaugural Summer Festival, Eve, Bowie and Jeff brought instant lemonade and a pitcher to the then-occupied yellow house. Back then the house was warm and existed within a community. There was a large family with children, and during that festival the kids sold lemonade to make some money. We have always had a good relationship with the town… it is absolutely important to make a concerted effort to have a good relationship with our town—it’s like living with a roommate who puts up with you having lots of guests all the time!! You have to clean up and remind your guests that you don’t live alone. No colours. I mean there’s no green, or yellow, or bright purple, or any of that, there’s just these soft, kind-of monochrome colors, usually like warm greys or cool greys, or warm and cool greys together. During my four-week residency at the Wassaic Project, I started working with a local artist. I was really just talking with him over time in his studio, but he was always very much aware that I intended to make a work out of our discussions. And I entered that relationship the same way that I looked at that house; through a created mythology that allowed me to understand a totality without seeing all of the detail. So these little shapes linger. The harder we look at something the more difficult it can be to see. Cézanne was aware of this, and through praxis re-learnt seeing. To see as one who had never previously seen. The act of looking is just as much as an act of omission as observation. Often the periphery can be richer than the centre. I remember in art school being told to squint to see with more clarity, as if looking at a form with less vision; blurred; obscured; less, is necessary for looking. Sometimes, the brain is just, you know, just kind of flummoxed, and it doesn’t quite know what to do. Particularly if it’s used to seeing a certain way for so many years and then it gets given a new set of instructions. FEELING If I look down the path to my focal point, you know, the vanishing point. The first meeting of the Pequot tribe with Europeans occurred in 1614, when the Dutch traders from the Hudson River Valley began expanding east along the northern shore of Long Island Sound beyond the Connecticut River. These were a people which the Pequot would call the ‘Swanniken’. There was no earth in the beginning. Instead, there were two levels: a great ocean that stretched farther than anyone could see, and far above this, the Sky World. WEEPWOIUT-OHKE: place of the narrow pass, or strait—the water that is difficult to find. The Swanniken came across that great ocean from another side that the Pequot could not see. The Dutch had maps of the great oceans, the landscapes, and the sky above, with the intention of viewing the world from a fixed position as an attempt to condense a context into an ordered understanding. The people of the Lenni-Lenapi nations actualised the opposite. Through mythology, the people of these groups understood that in the beginning there was Konchi Manto (kawn-chee mun-doh): ‘Great Spirit’. In most contexts just Manto (the Spirit) is used. Konchi Manto refers to the divine spirit that has no human form or attributes, including gender. Konchi Manto is never personified in Pequot folklore. To define the Spirit outside of human likeness is to recognise the divine exists in everything that is beyond ourselves. The personification of the Spirit is an attempt to see the divine in our own image. The Swanniken, or later, the English “Owanux”, created no Great Spirit towards understanding the landscape of the Pequot peoples. They embodied the landscape through trade, and deeds. What was considered a totality; a great ocean and Sky World, became details that were taken, bought, and sold—reducing its context into an ordered understanding. Where is the black. I was told never to use black—particularly black—doesn’t exist in nature. Looking at the periphery, or seeing things differently, is an attempt to attain a totality through the negation of a fixed position. Cézanne introduced multiple perspectives into the landscape through a sympathetic understanding of the multiplicity of things. The danger of looking at the World form a fixed position—as did the Swanniken and Owanux—is the supplanting of one belief system and structure upon the existing ecosystem of another. Looking at the World from this fixed position locates the individual within a system that has the potential to be controlled and ordered. Where there is no room for a Great Spirit. As an artist I attempt to look at the World as Cézanne did; learning to see afresh at each moment so as to deny a fixed position. The Wassaic Project manifests this position within their community; seeing things not through their own needs, but always anew and from their unique location within a community. Occasionally, seeing differently becomes an actuality. And instead of limiting the imagination, the loss of vision can make the World wondrous, where it is not only seen as if for the first time, but can be imagined, in its totality. There’s so much light I just can’t see. I’m not seeing.
Special thanks to:
Joel Foster, Eve Biddle for their generous time and quotes.
Thanks to: The Wassaic Project, Amelia Wallin, Will Hutnick, Tara Foley, Tonia Shoumatoff.
Justin’s Wassaic Project residency was assisted by a grant from Arts NSW, an agency of the New South Wales Government and supported by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian State and Territory Governments. The program is administered by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA)