Art Matters Now — 12 Writers on 20 Years of Art: Yxta Maya Murray on Artists’ Responses to 9/11

Banner image: Suzanne Lacy, Yutaka Kobayashi, and Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Beneath Land and Water: A Project for Elkhorn City (2000-2006). Photo by Susan Leibovitz Steinman.

Featured image: Nick Cave, Soundsuit. Photo by James Prinz, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

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WHETHER OR NOT Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.

In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrated its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB will publish 12 essays over 12 months on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introduction to the series, which reflected on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. In this essay, Yxta Murray mines the applications of 2002 Creative Capital awardees — including Sujata Bhatt, Sawad Brooks, Nick Cave, Tana Hargest, Suzanne Lacy, and Sabrina Raaf — to look at how these artists imagined a post-9/11 future.

Together, the essays in this series reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.

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2002 was a historical hinge. Just a moment earlier, the United States had seemed to be enjoying a period of peace; now it was at war. The art of that year offers a time capsule that reflects the millennium’s complex transitions. Reeling from 9/11 but working on projects begun during the Clintonian boom, before the Towers fell, some artists in 2002 were still able to romanticize millenarianism and the future: rather than imagining the specifics of the violence that would descend with the war presidency of George W. Bush, artists such as Sawad Brooks and Sabrina Raaf, for example, revealed a fascination with a speculative tomorrowland that resembled the visions of sci-fi writers such as Isaac Asimov, Iain Banks, and William Gibson. But others, such as Tana Hargest, Sujata Bhatt, Suzanne Lacy, and Nick Cave, forecasted a more difficult future.

Sawad Brooks projected a hereafter populated by codependent robots with his ingenious Emotional Lighting Systems. In this case, the Brooklyn artist grouped AI “emotional lamps” that would “explore various personalities of mood lighting.” Brooks suggested that one design would “need […] attention” and “‘wither’ and dim when no one is around, but rise up in the company of people.” A “nosey’ one would “like to ‘follow’ a conversation — quite literally, by roaming around a space.” Brooks’s Emotional Lighting Systems combines curiosity and watchfulness with a beguiling playfulness. About Emotional Lighting Systems, Brooks says: “The ELS corresponded in my work to an ambivalence about technology, being both delighted and concerned about the directions and implications for our democracy and sense of self.” With Emotional Lighting Systems, then, Brooks expressed worries about technology’s far-off impacts but also argued for its ability to bring happiness into the lives of human beings. Yet after the Towers fell, emotional triage motivated him more than the charm and enchantment that can be delivered through applied computer science. His work would come to bear an anxiety about the brutal exigencies yet to come.

After the full force of 9/11 descended on Brooks’s worldview and practice, that quality of playfulness in Emotional Lighting Systems would transmogrify into stripped-bare grief. Brooks’s later work engaged the nexus between humans and technology to explore mourning in his co-authored project Passages of Light: The Memorial Cloud. This ambitious concept for the 9/11 memorial (with Baurmann Brooks Coersmeier, Gisela Baurmann, and Jonas Coersmeier) would have involved honoring each of the 2,982 victims with individual lights that illuminated their names. Passages of Light became one of seven finalists for the Ground Zero installation.

Chicago-based Sabrina Raaf embraced a similar drive to create an artwork that merged technology with human affect with her inspired Translator II: Grower. This piece involved a robot plangently stranded in a small white room. Equipped with a digital sensor, it reacted to human observers’ emissions of carbon dioxide by marking green lines of ink on the walls, which Raaf characterized as “grass.” The robot would draw continually through its imprisonment in the gallery, welcoming guests with the ever-growing pampas that it scribbled on the white paint. Raaf’s view of technology, like Brooks’s, had utopian elements. “[My] simulated grass needs the breath of human visitors in order to thrive,” she stated. “The height of the [grass] directly reflects on the human activity or traffic in the space. The more people that visit that space, the more amenable that space is to my machine’s ability to create.” In subsequent years, Raaf has held on tight to this concept of helpfulness between objects and people, but her later projects appear motivated less by the possibilities of unbounded human-computer play than by the need to address migrant trauma and ecological devastation with practical, lower-tech inventions. Whereas in 2002, Raaf dedicated herself to high-concept robots who symbolized human want and reciprocity, in 2010, she swapped out metaphorical whimsy for pragmatic efforts to help people stay alive: for (n)-fold, she created a manipulable sculpture out of food-grade polyethylene sheeting to create a water-harvesting system that “nomads” could use in arid regions.

Like Brooks, Raaf’s more recent work embraces the fear and austerity that just had begun to manifest in 2002. That year, Operation Enduring Freedom had already seen its victories of northern Afghanistan and Kabul. In January, Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan, and the first detainees from the Afghanistan war were sent to Guantanamo. That March, Operation Anaconda routed al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shah-i-Khot Valley. Domestically, University of Colorado psychologists published a groundbreaking study verifying that Black people were at risk when it came to police shooter bias. Together, these disparate events indexed the racial violence that would come to qualify the 21st century both in the United States and abroad. In contrast to the jubilant, if still somewhat wary, leaps into the future of Brooks and Raaf, Tana Hargest, Sujata Bhatt, Suzanne Lacy, and Nick Cave would develop projects that reflected on race and class injustice and so seemed more sharply to predict the decades to come.

Tana Hargest’s New Negrotopia, for example, spoke to the rage caused by racial oppression that has since taken shape in the Black Lives Matter movement. New Negrotopia consisted of a virtual island resort and theme park, where racial assumptions and realities were sent up with scabrous humor: as part of Hargest’s Bitter N— Inc., New Negrotopia had patrons travel through monkey-bedecked lounges and gift stores bearing colorful, racially offensive paraphernalia.

Sujata Bhatt also evidenced a concern with racism that speaks to modern times, combining a narrative of tech dystopia with a critique of ethnic oppression in her theatrical piece, Invisible Hand, which included a mini-play depicting three Latinas who sell themselves on eBay in order to survive. This story bears an eerie resemblance to the 2012 news items reporting on a young Brazilian woman who attempted to sell her virginity on the site. Bhatt’s 2002 vision plugs right into today’s culture, when we fear that Instagram, Match.com, and eBay are threatening to turn us all into fungible objects, and the rise of the gig economy forces marginalized people to put their entire lives on the market by, say, working around the clock for TaskRabbit, or driving an Uber all night, only to wake up and go to a day job.

In 2002, anxieties over the intersection between poverty, life chances, and the environment had not yet become a defining political issue, but Suzanne Lacy’s Beneath Land and Water: A Project for Elkhorn City 2000–2006 looked forward to these concerns. In her five-year social practice action that engaged an Appalachian community in Kentucky, Lacy helped organize a park filled with native plants, a walking trail, a mural that honored the local residents, a website, and the publication of a new Elkhorn tourism brochure. “Ethical action by artists need to be oriented toward the long-term sustainability of the community and its urgent need for economic revitalization and ecosystem repair,” Lacy wrote.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit. Photo by James Prinz, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Lacy’s call for “ethical action” by artists seems more necessary today than ever, and her peroration was shared by others in 2002. Nick Cave’s Drop clearly described a US culture of racial and national conflict far before most people realized that it would become the new normal, and his work operated as a political Commedia dell’arte, or even a social movement. Cave is famous for his “Soundsuits,” collaged costumes that he and other dancers don for performances, which often take place in parade settings. Drop is a combination of sculpture, craft, choreography, and protest. Cave intended the suits to fulfill a complex role: as he wrote, they both “protect the wearer from outsider culture” and also “manifest […] the fact that as individuals moving through our contemporary world we must on occasion project aggressive behavior in order to be seen and heard — behaviors such as yelling or strong physical gestures.” Cave created one suit that looked like an earth man who has muddy fur and grass sprouting from his shoulders, and another that is a sequined, patched, and embroidered rocket ship/monster, whose googly eyes glare out from a cone head. YouTube videos serve as testaments to Cave’s thumping, dueling dancers, as they embody his suits to project vehemence and combat. Cave’s winning project not only uncovered the race discrimination and oppression that dwelled beneath the surface of Clinton-era advancements but also augured a present in which the president of the United States tells citizens of color to “go back” to where they came from, and domestic terrorists kill Latinx, Black, and Jewish people in an effort to prevent an “invasion.” Cave’s proposal was nothing less than an oracle’s foresight of the United States’s continuing saga of moral blindness and mass violence, and its evidently permanent culture of ferocity. Through his work, as well as that of the other artists, we can see creatives striving to step outside of the illusions of progress and harmony of the ’90s to describe what was really happening. As they lunged at the specters of capitalism, futurity, and US exceptionalism, they uncovered the racism, classism, environmental collapse, and nationalism that rumbled and then erupted within and without the United States.

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Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and law professor who teaches at Loyola Law School.

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