Freire (1970) called for an educational model where we learn by participating in social and political events. To him, education and politics are inseparable and the student is as equally responsible in the creation of knowledge as the teacher is. There are many examples from contemporary art that vividly depict these ideas. This ongoing examination will take a look at socially engaged works of art within the public space that are made in collaboration with diverse populations.
Ofri Cnaani’s Moon Guardians (2013), was a video installation (produced by More Art), which the artist projected on a historic building in Gansevoort Plaza. The site-specific project examined the socio-historical context of New York City’s Meatpacking District, which has undergone significant changes throughout its storied history. In realizing this project, Cnaani worked with local public High School students who interviewed several longtime residents from the neighborhood. Many of these residents, including a butcher, a drag queen, an art gallerist, and an elderly couple, could no longer afford to live there. By reflecting on their memories of the neighborhood before it became the fashionable hub it is today, they portrayed a vibrant narrative of its diverse history. Cnaani filmed them in a style that is distinctly haunting. Each of these characters appeared every night, lit up from a vista on the building, and performed moments from their lives when they lived there. The result was a powerful juxtaposition of old and new New York.
Moon Guardians symbolically details the relationship between the oppressor (gentrification) and the oppressed (displaced longtime members of the community) by conflating the two groups together. We are invited into the past, but cannot fully escape reality because we are aware that the people we’re viewing are essentially spectres that appear from within an unfamiliar frontier. The working class, small business person, and loft dwelling artist have vanished in favor of high-end products, chic-boutiques, and luxury apartments. The contradictions between the gentrifiers and the gentrified and the realization of the inequity between the two groups is exemplary of what Friere coined the ‘critical conscious.’
Freire, Paulo (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.