New York City has long been recognized as a place where marginalized figures and outsiders are celebrated. But, as with cities across the country and globe, gentrification continually, brutally upends that dynamic —and in the process, New York has become more conservative, sanitized, and consumer-oriented. The Meatpacking District seems a microcosm of such change: once an area of industry, the working class, and the eponymous meat market, then a night-life destination behind closed doors, including a plethora of underground and queer night clubs, it has become a high-end shopping, hospitality, and cultural destination in Manhattan, transformed within the last two decades into an upscale neighborhood where long-standing residents can hardly afford to live.
In 2013, multi-media artist Ofri Cnaani presented a month-long, site-specific video installation in Gansevoort Square in the heart of the Meatpacking District focused on these past lives. Moon Guardians took the form of video vignettes featuring five ghost-like figures that reanimated the historical and social context of the neighborhood. Cnaani’s characters were real residents who had lived in the Meatpacking District since the neighborhood was very different from what it is today, and they evoked its rich history. The titular Moon Guardians of this piece, they included Ivy Brown, an artist and gallerist; Frank Ottomanelli, a butcher; Dorothy Durlach and Bill Kushner, long-term roommates; and famed drag queen Sultana.
In her footage, Cnaani had the participants move slowly and deliberately, going about their business or performing actions symbolic of their everyday lives. Between a static image and a film, the final, looping sequences were described by the artist as video haikus. For the work’s public installation, the videos were projected nightly on the windows and storefronts facing the square at Gansevoort Plaza, the figures interacting with one another and with the building, and looking out at the viewer, curiously, questioningly, creating a bridge between past and present.
The project brought together many of Cnaani’s abiding interests: archives, architecture, access, mapping and new media, the contested or liminal space between private and public, inside and outside. Across her work, technology, be it in the form of a photo-copier or web browser, often plays a role in making magic and conjuring other worlds. “In quite a few of my works that are related to new media and this kind of all-knowing world that we exist in today, I am very interested in the idea of the occult, in the unknown,” she said in an interview about Moon Guardians for More Art’s book, More Art in the Public Eye, excerpted here. “In a place, in a time in which we are hyper-connected, hyper-knowing, hyper-known, this idea of the occult, of the unknown, was very interesting for me.” In this instance, technology becomes a means of summoning the past — itself a powerful force, deeply felt but often unseen. The obscured histories of former tenants are as enchanting (hopefully not as ethereal) as any other mythical tale, full of meaning and mystery to be unpacked, worthy of reverence.
What I have learned is that always when you work with what I like to call classic texts — or with historical materials and archives — or specifically if you’re invited to a complex site, the experience is similar. I like to call the Meatpacking District the armpit of New York City — it’s really kind of smelly and dark and so dense. It attracted all kinds of communities of misfits — trans people, prostitutes, kids from public housing, artists, Harley Davidson dudes, some parts of the gay community, the butchers, and the highly controlled food market. It’s very, very dense, and if you go back to the archives, those are also very, very dense in what they can offer you. It’s very tempting to grasp between so many different stories. I always find myself, in the archives, basically picking up one box and then selecting a very, very simple image from it. Otherwise, you’re biting off more that you can chew, and it’s more the commentary-oriented approach, which I’m personally less interested in.
If we think specifically about the Meatpacking District, I feel it’s really telling the whole story of New York at an accelerated pace. It’s a very small area, a part of town that is difficult to negotiate. When you do public art, there’s dealing with bureaucracy and production and negotiation of different ownerships, and one of the first things you understand is how not so public public space actually is, and who owns what. The three-dimensional map of that is very interesting.
With this project, I was thinking about how we enter a site and how we map it — historically, geographically, based on what we see, based on conversations, on the exchange of different knowledges, the layered information of the site.
My interest as someone who is both working in public space but also is sometimes taking a more pedagogical role — which I think is very important — is to make the space as three-dimensional as possible and to take care of this idea of layered space or accumulated knowledge and the multiplicity of data one space can hold. When I completed Moon Guardians, I had worked with young students and spoken with residents and walked around and done historical research and collected images: I had a lot of data… I started to think of my body as a moving container of data on this area — that’s part of my approach. We spoke about written texts that you need to open — a book, or a box in an archive, or a piece in a collection in someone’s house — and one of the main movements is the movement of inside and out. It is taking something that is less accessible to the public for various reasons — perhaps inherent to the medium — and offering a personal reading.
Technology offers a way [to create] an augmented space, or to augment a different kind of knowledge onto the physical space as a form of excavation. It’s adding more layers, or a second skin, to the building in order to dig deep into the layers of information that are not accessible to residents, and definitely not to the general audience that walks by.
I often think about how to take spaces we assume we know and provide some kind of invitation — whether it’s a simple projection, again not with a very full, coherent agenda, with text and music and all the tools that are available to us, but usually of a suggestive sort, enigmatic in some way — to activate this movement of the space that was assumed to be known physically, psychologically, politically. We have a moment of alienation, of asking a question, and that by itself is a jump start for deeper inquiries.
I think that everything I do includes movement. The audience is invited to move around the space and often I produce moving images, so the element of movement is always one of the most important components. When I started to work with video back in art school, I loved that element of continuity of time. Now, I’ve started to think about architecture and other urban spaces as organisms. My playing with this idea of skins and other layers, that’s dealing with what’s inside.
For a long time I’ve been less interested in the audience as the passive observer of things that I actively made — that’s never been my thing — but I think I previously hoped to create a very strong, impactful environment for you to become an active interpreter. More and more I shift into “these are the conditions that are already here.” Since I work in museums and collections, these are often conditions that have been created based on cultural assumptions, that this is an art institution, and what I do — art, performance, whatever it is — is going to provide you with some other tools to be an interpreter, a producer of new knowledge, new connections, new understanding, and also to be a critic. They are tools for critical viewing in such a way that the infrastructure either of the city or of the institution can become somehow available to you.
Check out how Ofri Cnaani is thinking about tech and the ways we connect these days in her At The Table recap. And join the conversation — follow More Art on Medium and Instagram as we share updates on current projects and revisit past work to better understand our present moment and what’s to come.
Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.