Horizon Line: An Interview with Jennifer Harley and Emily Chow Bluck
Today on the blog, Elena Ketelsen González sits down with artists Jennifer Harley and Emily Chow Bluck to discuss their collaborative work on race and gentrification in the city. Their work Horizon Line is on display at Gracie Mansion until the end of December, 2019.
You both are deeply involved in the communities your practices examine. How did you two begin working together, and could you talk a bit about the intersections between the historically marginalized communities you identify as, and engage with?
Jennifer Harley (JH): Emily and I met when we were both interns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We had similar long term, paid internships in the Education Department that overlapped in 2015. I was an intern for a year working between the School and Educator Programs and Access and Community Programs sections doing a lot of teaching and Emily was working in Teen Programs mentoring and working with teens in the High School Internship Program.
Emily Chow Bluck (ECB): Right — we were two of the few long term interns who both were a part of the School and Educator Programs area of the Department, so we had a good amount of face time with each other during meetings. As we got to know each other better it became apparent that we both had an active artistic practice outside of work. I had recently graduated from my M.F.A. program and had just wrapped up a half year long residency in Philadelphia, and I believe Jennifer had recently graduated with her B.F.A.
JH: I had graduated a year before with a BFA in sculpture and a BA in Arts Management and I had recently completed an internship at the Studio Museum in Public Programs. I remember us after weeks of working tangentially to each other finally having a one on one lunch in the Met’s underground staff cafeteria where we spent a lot of time talking about art, how we came to be interested in Museum Education and about our own practices as artist.
ECB: It was an interesting moment! While we definitely had shared interests and approaches to museum education, our individual art practices, especially at that time, were SO different from each other’s. Where I approached my work from a socially engaged, performative, community organizing framework, Jennifer focused on the materiality and history of her art objects and the meaning that could be conveyed from them.
JH: In some ways it was because of these differences that, from the beginning, I think it was apparent that we were really interested to learn more about each other’s perspectives and approaches to art making.
Shortly after this we started a lunch meet up at the Met with some colleagues — Emily, what did we call it?
ECB: I don’t recall it having a name. It was definitely something a bit clunky like “Art Share Out.”
JH: Or Art and Share — whatever we called it, it originally was made up mostly of interns and younger full time staff members. Eventually some individuals who were in more leadership positions joined as well. The goal was to try and build a creative network between all of these immensity creative people who were interns and staff members at the Met. The group included artists, curators, writers, performers, and educators mostly from the Education Department. We shared thoughts about grad school programs, suggested residency programs to apply to, and asked a lot of questions about how our work at the Met was connected to and in many ways informing the work we were each doing in our various roles there. It was in these lunch meetings that I believe Emily and I initially started to talk about possibly collaborating as artists.
ECB: I think our first couple of lunches were dedicated to presenting and critiquing each other’s websites, which was when I first saw some of Jennifer’s work. From seeing her portfolio and learning more about her as a person, I had a gut feeling that there was something potent about the idea of creating work with Jennifer even though — no — especially because our work, materially and otherwise, were so different. I had collaborated with other artists in the past for various projects, so this was something I felt comfortable with, but wasn’t sure how Jennifer would feel about it. It can be an awkward, weird thing to broach! But Jennifer was receptive to the idea, and we were both clearly energized by the idea of working together. We just needed to come up with the foundations of a concept for our shared creation.
JH: Around that time we ultimately drafted a proposal, applied to, and were accepted to participate in to Art in Odd 2015 on the theme of RACE. The project we proposed and created was Horizon Line, the precursor to the artwork that is on view at Gracie Mansion.
One of the other things that I think initially drew us to work together was also related to the fact that our personal backgrounds and art backgrounds were different in many ways but also that there were a lot of similarities. For example, we are both originally from New Jersey, although I did most of my growing up in North Carolina; Emily also has family in The South.
ECB: I remember Jennifer telling me a lot about her mother’s experience growing up in Newark, NJ, which is really close to my hometown. Much of the time that Jennifer and I talked about our personal backgrounds we have also inadvertently talked about race and racism both historic and present as connected to place and time. I think our sense of politics have had a lot of overlap even if they don’t emerge from the same place. I’ve always felt that Jennifer shares the sense of nuance about politics and about race that I try to convey (or at least reflect on) in the art that I make.
A lot of my formative political “upbringing” occurred when I was living in Southern California where you couldn’t talk about Asian American politics without also talking about the Black Power Movement, the Chicano Movement, or sovereignty for First World Peoples.
When I was an undergrad I had interned as a young community organizer with a “think/act tank” called the Labor/Community Strategy Center, where I was mentored by some amazing, badass, queer women of color of different races and cultural backgrounds. Two of my mentors, Patrisse Cullors and Carla Gonzalez, spoke to me at length about the necessity for POC of different races to work together to fight for the liberation of all Third World Peoples as well as the integral role that art and performance would play in organizing strategy. Honestly, I think without their mentorship and coming to see art making as a part of radical political practice and community building I may not have gone on to pursue a career in art.
Anyway, this political outlook went on to inform my graduate school work in Community Art in Baltimore where there is a huge schism between the Asian and Black communities, and again during my residency in Philly where I worked with Rich Lowe and with Black and Latino men living at a homeless shelter in Chinatown North to create Kitchen of Corrections, a project harnessing food and storytelling as a vehicle for liberation and self-determination post-incarceration.
JH: Storytelling is definitely a throughline. I feel like while really different, both of our work is really interested in history and how we tell that history and our relationship to people and place.
ECB: Absolutely. Working with Jennifer has been an exciting way to approach telling stories of our respective experiences — her as an African American woman from The South and me as a bicoastal, mixed Chinese American — through co-created artwork that could speak to some of our communities’ shared struggles across race.
JH: From the North and South and back again really! My art education had been different from yours, I went to a predominantly white public university in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. There is an amazing history of craft in the area and a lot of that was a part of my BFA education. For me it was getting to spend a year in Johannesburg, SA that really started to open me up to some of the more socially engaged areas of the art world. Until Horizon Line I had never done a project that engaged as directly with the public but the themes we explored in that work and the way the work was physically created were and continue to be at the center of my practice.
Anyway my art background is rooted in sculpture, specifically a lot of work with casting in metal, clay, plaster, sugar in addition to sculptural work with paper, found objects and textiles. I enjoyed being challenged by Emily from our first conversations. She asked me things like “Is your work political?” The way Emily and I answer that question is really different. Both answers start with a “Yes,” but the forms of the artwork we create in some ways stand at two different ends of the spectrum. And I feel like I challenged you to think differently and get out of her comfort zone in how to communicate these complex ideas that we were having so many conversations about visually.
I was at the Met shortly after having completed an internship at the Studio Museum and was really energized by the diverse artists of color that I learned about for the first time and thinking about the many layered and wonderfully complex ways that artists like Howardena Pindell , Mark Bradford, David Hammons, Marren Hassinger, Senga Negudi, Nari Ward, Leslie Hewitt, and Lorna Simpson addressed political themes and race while making work that I really identified with and that I did not feel was overly didactic. This whole continued education was all happening fluidly as I saw more art by black artists especially young peers, met more people of color in the art world and became a part of diverse conversations through working at various institutions and building a creative and social network in NYC
The work currently at Gracie Mansion, and our collaboration together as a whole has always been about challenging each other and learning from each other. In my opinion our work together developed first as two artists who approach art making differently; the more we worked together and got to know each other better we started thinking more about what it meant to collaborate as a African American and a Asian American. To think about creating artwork that spoke particularly to those two communities, but also hopefully spoke to the overlaps in their stories and the way that those overlaps continue to often be overlooked. I think about everything that is happening now with the rejection of the proposal to remove the entrance test to elite high schools in New York and the way that African American and Latinx people are again pitted against Asian American people and vice versa. Emily and I have also talked at length about the violent incident against a Black woman at the Asian owned nail salon in Flatbush (where I live).
I think this work starts to scratch the surface of the complexities of those overlaps, that tension, that lack of communication. But it is challenging. We have continued to talk about working together again on other projects that attempt to tackle parts of this very large question, and I think that we have to just continue to keep talking about it until we find something that feels right.
This work was originally installed along a historic red line at 14th street, so it seems to have been born as a site-specific work. How does the piece transform as it lives in Gracie Mansion — a place that has been the mayoral residence since La Guardia moved in in 1942, and has also served as a concession stand, the temporary home of the Museum of the City of New York, and was originally built by ship merchant and slave owner, Archibald Gracie in 1799.
ECB: It definitely changes the piece and the impression that I imagine it leaves on viewers.
JH: I think it does too, but not in a negative way.
ECB: Sure, it’s definitely not a bad shift. But to give more context, when the first iteration — the original Horizon Line — was installed at 14th Street it manifested as a performative installation. In addition to the paper cast houses that we placed along the street we also had a literal redlining component in which we lay down a line of red pulverized brick dust that had been recycled from old brick homes and buildings. The messier, ephemeral line-making performance is completely absent from the work installed at Gracie Mansion.
That said, I think this extension of the original work as it currently appears at Gracie Mansion makes sense. It’s interesting; when we first spoke to the curator, Jessica Bell Brown about the work and its potential placement in the Mansion, it was hard to picture, but we were excited for the opportunity to be a part of such a seminal exhibition. Even on opening night when Jennifer and I went to see the show it was hard to digest how the placement of the work might impact how it was received. But the more I reflect on it, the more its placement on a wall in a central hallway seems important in how uncannily it reflects the presence of daily housing issues, gentrification, and the legacy of redlining; these issues are easy to walk past every day, harder to focus on and confront head on.
Jennifer and I also talked a lot about how having the work at Gracie Mansion at this moment in time was critical. We were invited to be a part of the show around the time that the Mayor was getting a lot of heat for the NYCHA housing crisis and for how he handled pressure from Vocal-NY to increase the number of affordable units designated for homeless people in NYC.
JH: That pressure for change continues. I think it is really interesting that this artwork has been up at Gracie Mansion to see the June 2019 extended NYC tenant protections that are great progress but still a lot of work to do!
ECB: At one point we did ask ourselves, “What does it mean for our work, which speaks to the pernicious housing issues formerly and presently plaguing low income and working class people of color in the city, to be displayed in the home of the Mayor at this moment in time?” Ultimately, I think we felt it important to be a part of the conversation of other brilliant women artists. Plus, the First Lady is amazing, and it’s hard to not want to support her initiatives!
JH: We asked ourselves and Jessica, she was an incredible resource. She let us know that her intention was always to use this platform as one that included artworks that were subversive and in direct conversation with policies being formed in Gracie Mansion every day. I know that was really important to me to hear that from the curator. Beyond having the work at Gracie Mansion, Emily and I always talked about continuing the project in other locations in the future. Yes, it is site-specific, but it can also morph and adapt to speak to the stories of different neighborhoods.
There is something so ephemeral about this piece — often visitors express concern for the delicate nature of the work and the fraying pieces held together by quite literally, a single thread. You two were very deliberate in the installation of this work and that it be hung this way, could you tell us about that aspect of the work?
JH: I can speak about the delicacy. It is something that has long been a part of the work I make, these are hollow cast forms made of rather soft cotton and flax pulp. As a sculptor I have never been interested in sculptures that overstate their presence or that are too permanent. I feel like we live in a world that pretends it is so solid and permanent, but everything is always shifting and each of us are always on the edge of something, changing together and sometimes in spite of each other. I think that delicacy in sculpture and in this work in particular invites intimacy, it makes you want to get a little bit closer and really investigate the moments, like you said, where the forms start to shift or fall apart, where the details bleed into something more open ended. We chose cotton and flax pulp because that is what is used to mint US currency (although our formulation is intentionally much less durable). The delicacy also speaks to how systems of oppression, like redlining, have put many people in situations where their basic human rights like housing are constantly in flux because people were never able to own their homes. Even for the families who were able to buy and own their homes, they fall prey to predatory lending and corrupt development schemes.
ECB: I think Jennifer really nailed it in talking about how the delicacy of the sculptures mirror the precarity of lives under systemic oppression. But to add to it, I agree that there is also something interesting about art that can’t or isn’t meant to or would be challenging to preserve and sustain as the exact forms from the time they were made. People should feel intrigued about the work and its material. I hope the piece evokes a precious quality to it — something to be cared for and attended to. It was funny — when we installed the work for Art in Odd Places, because the houses were so light weight, sometimes they would get blown over in the wind and go tumbling down the street. Or, because they were so low on the ground, sometimes people would knock them over by accident as they were walking by. Each time something like that happened, passersby or the individuals who knocked the houses over, would gently try to fix them and put them back in the right place! Their material delicacy, I think, contributes to one’s desire to maintain and care for the object.
But in the same vein, I think viewers should feel a bit uncomfortable about how fragile the work appears. It says something about the nature of what we put on the walls and call art. It says something, also, about the sustainability of the object as something precious or something of value. Sustainability is a concept that comes up a lot in socially engaged / social practice work, in part, I think, because people have high expectations for the sustainability of positive, healing, community building gestures especially when funding is attached to it. But perhaps to be sustainable, one must also be delicate and ephemeral so as to be able to bend and shift to the ever changing needs of the world around us.
This piece was originally installed in 2016, and since then you both have continued your own individual practices as well as collaborations between the two of you. Have you continued exploring gentrification in your work, and what are you working on now?
ECB: In a word, yes. Around the time of our installation for Art in Odd Places, I became involved as a member of Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), working with CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union around the community rezoning plan and general gentrification of Chinatown. As an artist and activist collective, we used creative actions to put pressure on slum lords and generally show up for rallies, actions, exhibitions against displacement. You might remember our creative action in 2017 against the James Cohan Gallery when they supported Omer Fast in his racist and classist installation depicting his imagined version of a run down Chinatown “waiting room.” (As a side note, ironically, just a couple months later the following year, James Cohen featured Yun-Fei Ji in a solo show of new works that talked about rural neglect occurring in the shadows of rapid urban development throughout China — in many ways, a parallel conversation with the issues of decay, development, and gentrification in the U.S. The timing of Yun-Fei Ji’s show — which I LOVED — felt a bit like overcompensation for the mishaps of Omer Fast’s show, or perhaps worse, a rabid declaration of the gallery’s negligently apolitical stance on art and its aesthetic and cultural value.)
Many of our actions were staged in collaboration with the Illuminator, another artist collective known for their massive scale projection work. From my time working with CAB and the Illuminator, I became obsessed with the idea of using light (projection and signage) as an artform and have since begun working on a new body work in neon related to gentrification and appropriation in Chinatown. It’s been slow going though, as I’ve wanted to take classes in neon bending and flamework to acquire the skills to execute the series myself! There’s something important to me about being able to make the work with my own hands instead of outsourcing the fabrication to someone else.
JH: Yes, I have been continuing this line of exploration in some similar and in some very divergent ways. Since this first work in 2016 I started to turn my focus to the neighborhood where I live and have a home studio, Flatbush Brooklyn. I have been creating a body of work that explores my connections to NYC, Flatbush, North Carolina and the other landscapes and urban centers that are a part of my history and family memory through exploring The Great Migration and the many migration stories that followed it for a lot of people, I have also been reintroducing the figure back into my work.
In the summer of 2018 I was selected to be a part of a group exhibition at Wyckoff House Museum, a Dutch farmhouse built in 1652 (in what is now East Flatbush) curated by Desiree Gordon. This project looked to connect contemporary artists in Flatbush to this historical house museum, the oldest home in NYC. This year I received a Brooklyn Arts Council Grant to continue my work with them. I have been thinking not about gentrification per say but about migrations, and how neighborhoods, landscapes and people change because of them. I am also really investigating the home space, particularly the interior or black home spaces. I am creating work that is centered on what happens there, what objects are significant. I am asking questions about it means to create artwork focused on black domestic life and the material culture in conversation with a home that once held slaves and now is a part of a large Caribbean neighborhood. My goal with the project it to think more about what is inside the house, how it feels when you are there, and to create conversations about race, history and moment by filling the house with evidence that black people were always a part of that space and continue to be a part of its story and life.
Emily Chow Bluck and Jennifer Harley are artists, educators, and organizers based in New York City. They both create art with a focus on communities of color, to complicate personal and historical narratives and to advocate in local campaigns for social justice. Emily is currently working at SITU, an unconventional architectural practice, where she manages day-to-day office operations. She is also a teaching artist with the W.O.W. Project’s Resist Recycle Regenerate (RRR) youth program. Jennifer collaborates with schools, community organizations and educators to build innovative creative spaces as the School and Educator Programs Coordinator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Elena Ketelsen González is a cultural producer based in New York City. She is the founder and director of La Salita, a space dedicated to highlighting the work of emerging and established artists working across Latin America, and Latinx and immigrant artists working within the US. She works as a consultant and panelist on issues of equity and language access in cultural institutions, and is currently the Program Manager at Gracie Mansion Conservancy.