Ideas City 2013: Tiny Parks, Bacteria Drawing, and Trash Art

Last Saturday, May 4, I visited Manhattan’s Ideas City Festival, hosted by the ever-revolutionary New Museum. The festival, which lasted for four days, highlighted the capacity for an art institution to not only foster innovative ideas concerning the contemporary urbanite, but to also directly support the burgeoning artists, architects and social innovators of our time. That, I think, is the true innovation; while the New Museum functions very much so like a traditional institution – the NYC 1993 exhibit is literally antique, but wonderfully retrospective – the museum still manages to fantastically burst through the barrier between the esoteric and the socially-relevant. Below are a few highlights from the festival that I thought were exciting, innovative, or just plain cool.

Kim Holleman’s “Trailer Park: A Mobile Public Park. The trailer, which is filled with planters, seats, and, usually, people, is a great rethinking of public space. It’s somewhat cramped, but that’s kind of the point; it’s really, truly a community space in that it is an almost aggressive community-building exercise, forcing all of the trailer’s occupants to reconcile themselves with the presence of those around them. It drives the public park back to its roots of being a natural space that fosters community growth.

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The travelling park also addresses the shifting needs of the city-dweller; while we all would love to see a lot more open public space, I can see the “Trailer Park” working as a temporary fix for city-dwellers, or at the very least a nice personal escape from urban life. What’s more important is that it draws attention to natural spaces as necessary for both the sake of ecology and the sake of community.

Genspace. Genspace is a great non-profit I came across that is dedicated to enabling the community to take part in biotechnology. Their tent was especially exciting to me in that they were exploring biotechnology to support sustainable methods of living, from green cement to bacterial paint.

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Obviously, I was really intrigued by the thought of bacterial paint – as much as I love art, a lot of its materials and practices are terribly environmentally unsound – and got the chance to make a little bacterial drawing on a petri dish.

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The bacteria needed time to grow, and Genspace needs time to photograph them all and post them online, but the above drawing will eventually be made of red bacteria. It may not be very efficient to paint a rendition of the Mona Lisa using bacteria (although it would be great. Any artists reading should think about it, please) but the exhibit made learning about bacteria very, very cool. And that’s the exciting thing about combining art and science: it makes you re-think the science in a way that really sticks.

FABnyc and the Scrapyard ChallengeFourth Arts Block’s tent was very cool in a very similar way. During their most recent LoadOUT!, during which used materials and miscellaneous items are collected and redistributed to artists free of charge, FAB got the Scrapyard Challenge to come out and provide a workshop on how to creatively reuse electricity-conducting materials.

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In the Scrapyard Challenge, New School professors/artists Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki teach participants how to make electronic instruments out of just about any object. This project was really exciting to me in that it takes imagination and uses it as a channel to rethink our so-called scrap. It’s very Zizekian in that it makes the participant confront and reuse what he or she would usually throw into the trash. And no, I won’t ever stop talking about Zizek.

Especially if I’m going to talk about Terreform’s “Trash Star.” As New York City disposes an average of 38,000 tons of waste per day, the “star” represents a 30-second burst of trash in an epic architectural form.

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The star’s artistic function is similar to the Scrapyard Challenge’s. It captures the audience’s and participant’s audience through aesthetics, then proceeds to ask grander questions about the city and the urbanite’s own practices. The work would do well as either a standalone piece or a participatory one, as it was at the festival, and really speaks to the potential for art as a form of education. In proposing questions, however, the star is less didactic and more a form of Socratic method, something I think is extremely important in environmentalist art (and contemporary art in general).

Sub Rosa‘s “Sustainable Play” was similarly participatory. For their contribution to Ideas City, design collective Sub Rosa called on participants to make playground-like structures from underutilized sustainable materials like bamboo and recycled goods. By placing the role of the architect in the audience’s hands, the project really became a functional art piece rather than an architectural presentation. It was less “look at what WE can do” and more “look at what YOU can do,” which I think is way more effective in instigating a cultural paradigm shift. In implicating the audience’s agency, the project was able to resound with each individual participant, contributing to a (hopefully) lasting culture of sustainability.

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All in all, the festival was incredible. Many of the projects were intriguing, if not entirely enthralling, and it seemed as though most visitors felt similarly. It was a testament to the power of the museum as a cultural institution rather than just a place for artists and art-lovers to indulge in themselves. In organizing the Ideas City Festival, the New Museum continually contributes to city culture at large: something I think contemporary museums should always strive for.

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