why i didn’t go to the sugar factory
MoMA, along with most Associated grocery stores and the Walgreens on the corner of Fourth Ave and 14th Street (pre-renovation) is my happy place. I’m comforted by the visual over-stimulation and as a designer, feel at home among the colors and shapes and textures. I enjoy visiting when there are as few people there as possible, turn up the music in my headphones and zone out. When I occasionally tune back in to the activity of the other museum go-ers I see around me vacant and uninterested tourist faces. The appearance of someone who is doing something to do it, because it’s the thing to do. MoMA is in all the guidebooks; gotta go to MoMA. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone enjoys things differently and I’m not knocking it. What I find the most bizarre and frustrating is the people that you will see with cameras or iPhones going to each piece, taking a photo, and walking on. They don’t stop to read the information that accompanies a piece or even look outside of their viewfinders. Capture and move on. I’ve never understood this practice and I’m genuinely infuriated by it.
As I’m sure you know, Kara Walker’s “A subtlety: or the marvelous sugar baby” has been on view at the doomed Domino Sugar Factory, here in Brooklyn. I almost went once. I’ve been so put off from the negative things I’ve heard about people who visit the piece that I decided not to do it. I feel weak and sad about it, that I can’t tolerate the behaviors of other people to the point that I would avoid seeing and supporting an important piece of work. I was nervous about being placed in a room with groups of people taking photos with the work, making obscene gestures, and just being generally disrespectful. I didn’t want to feel that embarrassment, shame, disappointment, and otherness. It was enough for me to see my friends’ social media profiles flooded with images of them being “those guys.”
People want to document their lives and experiences, myself included. I like to share what I’m doing and thinking through social media. It allows me to have something to look back on and say, remember that time we hiked all the way to the top of that trail, remember when we saw our favorite artists perform live, etc. Honestly, it’s also incredibly validating to say, by posting an image of what you are doing, “this thing I’m doing is cool or funny or cute or inspiring” and have others agree that it is cool or funny or cute or inspiring. As a person who has struggled with feeling a sense of permanence in the world, it is gratifying to have my life documented and shared. I also think it is equally important to not take oneself too seriously, and sometimes that means selfies, and that’s just fine.
What I’m trying to say is, I suppose I understand why people take photographs with art or of art sometimes. I’ve done it and I’ll probably do it again. You want to point to it and say, “I’ve been there, I’ve done that thing.” Everyone has different ways of engaging with and enjoying art and culture. The problem comes when documenting gets in the way of respecting, communing, sharing, discussing, and appreciating. The frustration is somewhere between “You’re just not getting/appreciating/respecting it!” and “That’s not what I think the artist intended and I find your actions harmful and offensive” When you are alienating a group who’s history that the artist is trying to represent by taking a funny selfie in front of a piece, you are doing it wrong. You are not documenting, you are demeaning. You are detracting from another person’s experience with the work. You have made the moment about you being in a space, rather than about you appreciating and understanding. Have you ever seen the blog Selfies at Serious Places? We can all agree that it’s not cool to take funny pics at Holocaust memorials, yeah? Can we also agree then that it’s not cool to take funny pics of significant, complex, and deeply-felt art? No? We cannot? Okay, well then I choose not to engage with you and then guess what, we both lose.
I am concerned sometimes over-documenting is a response to the much-discussed “fear of missing out” that our generation is generalized as suffering from. We see or hear about our friends doing interesting or exciting things and we don’t want to miss out on those experiences, is my understanding of this term. I don’t know how valid it is beyond being a buzzword that is used to demean our generation. Is it bad to be afraid of missing out? Isn’t it better to be actively seek out experiences and exciting things, especially in art and culture? I guess the concern could be that we are seeking things out just to be able to say that we did them but I think that is an unfair assumption and would defend my generation against that label. However when I check out a hashtag on instagram or twitter for any popular or trendy topic, in this case #karawalker, I begin to doubt this defense. I wonder why so many people are recreating this same image, over and over. It’s like the people taking photos at the MoMA all over again. Why is it so important for us to stake our claim on something, contributing to a mass of the same image repeated over and over. I feel a bias as a creative person to actively seek creating new things, or to at least reflect, iterate upon, contribute to what already exists. I hope that the people taking photos, spending their limited time at the sugar factory are taking time to reflect and appreciate the complex and significant piece they are experience.
My final note would be to advise against what I have done. Be tough and don’t avoid things you struggle with, even when it makes you uncomfortable and fed up and embarrassed. Talk to people who don’t agree with you. Get the most from the experience and keep an open mind, in hopes that others will do the same. Take the opportunity to educate yourself even further, as that’s what you are asking others to do. Seek out like-minded folks. I so regret not taking part in events like “We Are Here”, organized by my mentor and very special lady Nadia Williams. Put yourself in a safe place, with people you know will understand and you can look up to across a room and look at knowingly, if that’s what you have to do to be present. I’ll try harder next time to do the right thing.