by Julia Clift
This fall, the carefully conceived exhibition New Sight christened Tory Savery’s new ground floor gallery at 319 North 11th Street. Curated by Zoe Strauss and Sarah McEneaney, New Sight showcases the work of diverse Philadelphia artists and supports the Rail Park, a three-mile strip of public green space along the currently abandoned Reading Viaduct and City Branch rails.
The curators made selections through an open call. The included works are loosely tied by themes of urban life and tend to inspire new appreciation, or “new sight,” of the city’s everyday aspects. Sabina Tichindeleanu, Daniel Petraitis, and Joan Wadleigh Curran pay homage, each in their own way, to the beauty of urban detritus. EJ Herczyk’s 9-paneled paintings suggest a city’s balance between vibrant chaos and structure, and Joseph Opshinsky’s gorgeous paper collages speak to cycles of construction and decay.
I was particularly drawn to Dot Vile’s Cradle, a sling of white tulle and rusted steel caging that hangs from the gallery ceiling. A heap of powdered cement rests at its rounded bottom, some of which sifts to the gallery floor. The form evokes a sense of support and suggests the tender role of the city—with all of its paradoxical grit and sharp edges—as nurturer of the human spirit. I also lingered at Daniel Petraitis’s Crate, a milk crate built of fabricated steel. The crate retains its associations as an ordinary urban object—at first glance, it might be mistaken for a remnant of the show’s installation—but its metallic transformation subtly draws fresh attention. Its placement on the floor, rather than on a pedestal, makes the object obtrusive; Petraitis insists on our awareness of something we might ordinarily choose to ignore.
The exhibition mostly comprises stationary art objects that are ripe for contemplation, offering insights that may obliquely inform one’s considerations of urban transformation. Michael Kuetemeyer and Anula Shetty’s Time Lens Bioscope stands out, as it speaks pointedly on change in Chinatown North—the neighborhood surrounding the viaduct and 319 North 11th Street—and attempts to engage audiences more directly.
Through Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab, Kuetemeyer and Shetty collaborated with men from the homeless shelter Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission (SBRM) to document Pearl Street through photographs, videos, and interviews of themselves and other community stake-holders. Time Lens is the resulting interactive app that allows viewers to virtually explore a street over time and hear its residents’ stories. The bioscope is a mobile cart adorned with touch screens and headphones, parked in the gallery for New Sight.
Kuetemeyer and Shetty’s work with the men of SBRM is valuable social practice, but its presentation in the gallery raises concerns. The bioscope functions as a palatable substitute-experience for viewers, and the “interactive” model is misleading; it insinuates that viewers are engaged, when in fact they are removed, witnessing from a safe distance. In a world where human interaction and real world experiences are increasingly mediated by technology, it’s unsettling to watch viewers crowd a contraption to get a virtual glimpse of the people and places just outside the gallery door—the shelter, Asian Arts Initiative, and Pearl Street are all within blocks of 319 North 11th Street. For a single night, on October 3, the bioscope’s videos were projected onto the stone underbelly of the viaduct. I imagine it was more poignant to experience the oft-dismissed faces and voices of the homeless claiming the architecture of their neighborhood.
In recent years, Chinatown North has grown as an artistic hub in Philadelphia. The 319 building houses studios and a slew of respected galleries, including Vox Populi, whose reputations lean toward the intelligently experimental and away from the commercial. The gallery’s future direction and its impact on the existing scene is unclear, but New Sight sets a promising precedent.
The show posits a relationship between art and advocacy, one that feels less forced than other models offered by prominent Philadelphia-based organizations. Information about the Rail Park is presented in the gallery, and a portion of New Sight’s proceeds benefit the park’s construction. McEneaney and Strauss’s involvement promotes the visibility of the cause and the neighborhood more broadly. Yet the exhibit’s creative content remains unbound by any unified agenda. The curators place their faith in the uncompromised voices of strong, independent artists, an approach that fits with the established atmosphere of the local scene.
In their written statement, Kuetemeyer and Shetty ominously prophesize that “[t]he gentrification of this neighborhood will lead to the displacement of many long time residents including the homeless…,” suggesting the Rail Park, and the gallery itself, might in fact be implicated in a process with detrimental outcomes to a local community. In our brief conversation, McEneaney seemed optimistic that new investments in Chinatown North would not endanger its rich diversity. She states unequivocally, “everybody deserves access to a public park” (and, I’d add, great cultural institutions). But where is the line between uplifting existing communities and pushing them out for a more homogenous, wealthy population? Precedents for the latter have been set in Old City, West Philadelphia, and, some would argue, areas of Kensington. Kuetemeyer and Shetty ask “audiences [to] question their own role in the gentrification of a neighborhood,” bringing a necessary voice to the larger conversation that New Sight unearths.
Julia Clift is a Philadelphia-based artist. She currently teaches at the Simon Youth Academy and Fleisher Art Memorial.