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Heading Uptown:  Art and Activism in the Bronx

Unlike the southern portion of its sister borough to the south (Downtown Manhattan), the art and cultural production both created in and associated with New York City’s northern most municipality has gone largely unremarked upon in scholarly discourse. While there have been some curatorial and recent cultural histories, there remains scant academic commentary on the Bronx as a vital arena of cultural production, especially as it relates to activism.

Like the much more well-established discourse on the Downtown scene of Lower Manhattan, to study the intersection of art history and activism of the Bronx is to explode disciplinary and artistic categories: Sculpture, painting, journalistic and art photography, film and video making, street art and performance all collide in this fecund context. Akin to their Downtown compatriots, the culture makers and activists of the Bronx have demonstrated a consistent commitment to confronting causes that remain ever-present in New York City and other urban spaces including police brutality; housing and health inequity; and the legacies and contemporary realities of racial capitalism and the American imperial project. This call invited participants to think through and examine the histories and currents of art and activism in the Bronx, from the racist re-housing and redlining programmes brought on through urban development in the 1960s and the arson-for-profit scandals that gutted the area in the 1970s, to the brutal police killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and the borough’s on-going battle with an ever-encroaching neoliberal gentrification today.

Session Convenor:

Tom Day, Courtauld Institute of Art 

Speakers: 

Tom Day, Courtauld Institute of Art 

Relics of Urban Renewal: Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Archaeological Finds and the Bronx 

Between 1961 and 1965 artist, activist and cultural organizer Raphael Montañez Ortiz completed a series of sculptural reliefs that he collectively labeled Archaeological Finds. The works are the aftermaths of his performative destruction of a set domestic chairs, mattresses and sofas. The resultant relics are bloated, distended and even abject assemblages that have been viewed by art historians and curators as a central expression of the then emergent aesthetic of destruction in Fluxus-related art practice. They have been tied by the artist himself to a broader project of decolonizing gestures in which the spirits of ownership attached to material goods are excavated and freed. Notwithstanding these two long-held readings, this paper places Montañez Ortiz’s Archaeological Finds in the specific urban context in which they were conceived and created. By literalizing the work’s claims to archaeological discovery I see the sculptures as offering a potent rumination on the then in-process upheaval of urban renewal sweeping through New York City.  

While other artists, such as George Bellows, Danny Lyon, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg have seen their work productively read in relation to the seismic shifts in economic, urban and spatial politics throughout the history of 20th century New York, I argue that Montañez Ortiz’s work allows us to see a further reality of urban renewal absent from these examples. Whereas the majority of these artists were making work and situating their commentaries on urban change in a Downtown context, I argue that Montañez Ortiz’s sculptures offer an incisive vision of how urban renewal affected the northern borough of the Bronx, in particular the trauma of the racist redlining; removal and re-housing of residents as a result of the creation of the Cross Bronx Expressway (constructed between 1948 and 1972). My reading of the works is supported by the prominent exhibition, in recent years, of the Archaeological Finds in relation to the activist work of the radical civil rights collective The Young Lords; Montañez Ortiz’s support for the group and their activities in the Bronx.  

Alessandro Pozzolo, University of Chichester 

Disruption Through Style in New York Subway graffiti 

My paper will focus on Bronx-born writer Phase 2, one of the foremost stylistic innovators in the history of New York graffiti culture. Growing up in the Forest Houses project, Phase 2 painted on Subway cars throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a period in which pro-suburban government policies had led to disinvestment and intensified racial segregation in the South Bronx, and a further decline in manufacturing had seen new levels of urban poverty and blight afflict the once upwardly mobile borough. Within this context, Phase 2 began intervening in systems of language as markers of control and power. He accentuated the physicality of letter shapes in his works, making texts signify more as images than words. In his early art, he drew from cartoon fonts to render his calligraphy less sharp-edged, and painted self-portraits trailing into clouds that contained his letters. In later years, his paintings became near-abstract—more pointed and bellicose: having found a way to manipulate language systems, he used the new vocabulary of style to convey a restless defiance and frustration at the urban experience in New York City. My paper narrates the contribution of Phase 2 to the burgeoning graffiti scene and analyses his seminal role in the nascent writing culture of the city, especially his relation to the two ‘wars’ on graffiti enacted by  local politicians and the New York Police Department in the early 1970s and again in the mid-1980s. 

Christine DeFazio, Art Educator and artist working in the Bronx 

Art and Activism in the Bronx: gentrification and the commercialisation of art and activism 

How has the street art of the Bronx remained loyal to its origins in the late 1970’s and how has art and activism evolved as it has become commercialized? My study will focus on mural works located in the South Bronx. I will analyze the work of artists who began spraying in these areas in the late 1970s and are still working today. The paper will examine the historical contexts in which this artform began and its present iteration in a comparative transhistorical critique anchored in conceptions of gentrification and spatial politics. I will discuss the works and intentions of the current members of Tats Cru: Bio (Wilfred Feliciano), BG183 (Sotero Ortiz), and Nicer (Hector Nazario), as well as former Cru member “Brim” Fuentes. Works to be examined will include the Sonia Sotomayor and I Love the Bronx murals and Big Pun memorial wall. Discussion will take into account collaboration with Crash (John Matos), and photographer Ricky Flores. I will examine the purpose and funding of the murals in these locations. 

The purported value of these artworks is that they will educate the public as well as preserve and glorify the culture of the Bronx. This paper will tell the story of how graffiti culture has culminated in the murals that hope to do this as the Bronx continues to evolve. Art and Activism in the Bronx has just now shifted, with the movement that began during the “Bronx is Burning” era now over, we are witnessing the establishment of the area as a popular, tourist-baiting “arts district”.  

Alice Tremea, Currently working in education sector, with a focus on art-based community learning. 

Vampires vs. the Bronx, or How to Spot Gentrification in the Wild  

My visual analysis of Oz Rodriguez’s 2020 film Vampires vs. the Bronx reads the work as a contrasting and incisive portrayal of public life, art, and visual culture in the borough. I argue that Rodriguez’s work pitches the art of the Bronx against the homogenising and flattening aesthetics of corporate America. Using the narrative of a vampire invasion, Rodriguez unveils, and in some sense didactically narrates for the spectator, the constant threat of neoliberal gentrification in the contemporary city. Through the changes in art; people’s interactions with their surroundings; and the encroachment of advertisements into urban space, Rodriguez singles out the signifiers of contemporary gentrification that can be spotted through visual and cultural markers and warns against what those signs index for the future of heterogenous socio-political life in urban spaces. 

I also suggest that the film acts as an ode to the bright and vibrant public art of the Bronx, and showcases the borough’s graffiti, music, bloc parties and stylish inhabitants in an all too rare mainstream work of popular culture focused on this most occluded of urban spaces—a space whose ubiquity as a pioneering centre of art and music production is often rendered as tautological, one-dimensional and cliché.  

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