Forward Union Fair
October 16, 2018
This interview with Forward Union, a coalition-building initiaitive connecting social justice organizations with artists and creative communities, was conducted and condesned by frank news.
frank: Could you tell me more about how Forward Union Fair was founded?
Jennie Lamensdorf: Shortly after the election, we went through an exercise assessing what everyone was talking about in the news and online. I took stock of my privilege and one of the things that I took stock of was that I have access to space in New York City, and I wanted to do something with that. I work with a real estate developer who had empty retail space in Manhattan that felt too extraordinary not to take advantage of. I have access to this space. I want to do a thing, and I don't know what the thing should be.
I was honestly thinking something small like, "We could make protest banners", or "We could do guided meditation". What could we do? It was around the time of Art Basel and so we were in this mindset "art fair season", and Holly Shen proposed an anti-Art Basel fair.
We didn't want to generate something new because we knew there were all these people doing really good work, and we didn't need to step into the fray to produce something from scratch. We wanted to create a platform that could support the people who already do the things. Then we wanted to do something that created face to face conversation.
Julia Clark: Get people offline.
Jennie Lamensdorf: Get people offline! The internet was already super toxic. It was frustrating all of us, and making all of us really angry. We wanted to create a space, supporting people doing good work, that made people interact differently.
In a tense political climate, do you think art helps us focus on culture? Focus on politics? Or is there even a discussion about people making art for arts sake at this point?
At all times art can be made for all reasons.
Artists make their work for whatever it is that moves them. I think maybe it's possible that more artists are being explicit about their political values right now.
An artist we work with named, Emily Noelle Lambert, makes paintings and sculpture and she produced all the furniture for our lounge the first two years. Her work didn't change but her titles changed in a way that made the painting a lot more politically explicate after the election. Her values didn't change, she was just being motivated to be a more political.
I also don't think art has to be about anything ever. It's just I think what I'm interested in might be changing, and what the audience is interested in is be changing, but I don't think the artist has to do anything ever. It's for the greater audience to shift the attention not the artist. Otherwise it comes off fake.
How do you select artists for Forward Union?
Jennie Lamensdorf: We've been working with a core group all three years and it is personal because they came out and supported us no questions asked in the beginning, when we had no track record and we were doing this on a three week timeline, and it seemed a little bit bonkers. There are a lot of artists that have been working with us and continue to do so.
This year we have a big instillation by Jesus Benavente. We have one by Aram Han Sifuentes and Lizania Cruz. The selection process is organized by Holly and me, who we're interested in working with, and who has an exciting project going on right now.
For the first time this year all the artists are getting paid W.A.G.E guideline fees.
We're not W.A.G.E certified, because we haven't gone through the process, but each artist is getting a fee based on the guidelines that are on their website. In the past we haven't had the resources to be able to pay the artist to produce work for us so that's really exciting. But in order to do that we had to have fewer artists. The first year we had 35, and this year we have 13. We have fewer artists, making fewer things, with better resources.
I think it also comes from learning how the fair works. The first year we had normally sized work on the walls. We had a lot of paintings that we hung by number of artists. What we realized is through an event of this scale, these domestically scaled objects get lost in the fray.
The spirit of the fair is a civics fair more than an art fair. The aesthetic is all over the place. It's rather DIY. We want to encourage that and make everything feel accessible. We want to encourage that in this space, because Redbull Arts is way more like a gallery than where we've been before, it's way more polished and feels a lot more professional, but we also don't want our audience who isn't part of the art world to all of the sudden feel like this isn't a space for them. The big work is more successful. You can see it from all angles, it occupies more space, its responding to the energy.
Who is this fair for?
Julia Clark: It's for everybody. The idea was to bring it offline – this is tangible, this next step, this action. This call to action. Obviously the art world is our audience and our network, bringing the creative community to the organization is sort of this new resource and outlet for them.
Then there are also the advocates and grassroots communities who aren't as involved in the art world, and they're more interested in the participants and the programs than the other things. It's bringing everybody together. Organizations are coming together and realizing that they are all overlapping, and they are having a conversation, and finding out how an artist can come and tap into that, and have a different view or perspective.
In some way the art is a conversation facilitator.
Julia Clark: Yes. And it complements. The same conversations are happening, and you can see them. Art has the capacity to communicate complex situations in an immediate fashion.
You talked a little about bringing things offline. It's no secret we're inundated with visual imagery all the time. When it comes to imparting a political message do you think that's helpful?
Jennie Lamensdorf: I am over the internet in some ways. I get social media specific, where I want to comment, I want to talk to people, and have a conversation, and organizing Forward Union Fair has us tapping into a world that we wouldn't necessarily. Learning about different organizations and being hands on and having a conversation is important. I do think seeing things online is also important.
Do you think art and activism are headed offline in a bigger sense?
Jennie Lamensdorf: No, I think we need both still. For example, Swing Left is coming to the fair and their big initiative now is called hashtag the last weekend (#TheLastWeekend) and that's because it is known that the most important moment to get out the vote for an election is the Sunday before a Tuesday election. #TheLastWeekend is a project to promote phone banking and knocking on doors on the last Sunday in October. What they're doing to promote that is a really big digital online social media push. The name of the project has a hashtag in it, in order to engender things to happen offline. In that way, I don't think you can remove the digital from anything.
Even here. We're basically only promoting the existence of the fair with online promotion. We did have print yesterday. We were in the Metro, New York.
Julia Clark: We did have a street team with post cards.
Jennie Lamensdorf: We did do some post cards. But mostly we are sending lots of emails we have a website, we are doing social media, and all of that work to get people to show up in real life.
Why is none of the art at the fair for sale?
Julia Clark: Selling art is a really hard job and we are not equipped to take on that role. We aren't sharing art that is very sellable and if someone was like "Oh my God, I am in love with Joiri Minaya instillation. I would like to acquire that" I would say "Amazing, here is Joiri's information." Selling art is really hard work and despite the fact all of us are from the art world, none of us are from the commercial art world.
Jennie Lamensdorf: When we organized the first fair, we without thinking used an art. A curatorial methodology, being that we though about the issues that were critical to our subject. Our subject being like "Oh My God that just happened, like Trump is now the president." So that is now the subject "What do we do next, what is going to happen? How do I survive? How do I get through the panic and the dark?" That was the subject matter and we used a curatorial methodology we looked at the subject matter we thought about all of the issues and we wanted each issue represented in some form. So that's how we targeted different organizations to participate.
Julia Clark: We felt like, we have to have representatives from immigrant communities, social justice communities, the health care community, gun control, LGBTQ etc. And that's how we reached out to all these organizations, and that's how we ended up with this, I think very diverse intersectional group of organizations because we have a lot of return. Every year there is some change but by and large we're getting lots of organizations over and over again. Turns out that is 100 percent the wrong way to organize an activist event. And environmentalism obviously. When activists do events is very subject oriented. So there is environmentalism and they have their events and there is women's reproductive health and they have their events and there is prison reform and they have their events and this is in part due to funding structures, they need to be tight to be on brand, on mission. Its tight because of the complexity of the issues.
Jennie Lamensdorf: In order to be an expert you have to be quite focused. I think its tight because of the way lobbying works and the way changing legislation works. So what we did was we did it wrong because none of us are traditional activists and we did it using the traditions and the structures of the world we come from and we ended up creating this amazing event that has all of these voices and one of the beautiful take aways from Forward Union is the incredible interdisciplinary networking that happens and opportunities for collaboration or thinking and idea sharing that come from it. So with the fair we actually open to the orgs two hours before we open to the public and we serve breakfast and we have this open mic where they can talk about what they do and do calls to action so they can all engage with each other.
I really think that the doing it wrong-ness and using the traditions of the art world to design a program that isn't exclusively for the art world is one of the things that makes Forward Union very different and very special and I think valuable, and adaptable, because it has morphed over the years and I think it has opportunity to continue to do so as like the world changes.
Julia Clark: That's interesting. That access in itself. Its taking a somewhat closed off seeming methodology, a curatorial methodology and overlaying it on an industry that doesn't look at things that way. Right?
Jennie Lamensdorf: Yeah, we disrupted them.
Julia Clark: Yeah, that's an element. I agree with that. That's exactly why I think its important and interesting.
Jennie Lamensdorf: We did by accident the first year, and we sort of leaned into it the second and third year. The first year we didn't have the open mic, we started the open mic last year. We did it one day last year and it was so successful we're going to do it two days this year.
Julia Clark: And it was literally like "Somebody canceled what do we do?" Thing. And it ended up being all of our end of the day roses and thorns. It was so great.
Activism is weird in the sense that I think people really do stay in their lane. That's a shame.
Jennie Lamensdorf: So much! It's super weird.
Julia Clark: Activism has its traditions. I'm sure they look at us in the art world and think we do things wrong and I think it's just our outsider perspective that accidentally allowed us to create something beautiful.
There is an irony that the art world has an exclusivity reputation but you guys were the outsiders in this case. You were not the insiders.
Julia Clark: I find the art world to be an incredibly welcoming and inviting place, but I think because so much or what people outside the art world know about us is from headlines like "$350 million paintings", it tends to be really grand market stuff, and not the lived DIY reality of most people.