T-Shirt Weather

The California-lization of New York’s weather is evidence that the forces of globalization – the process by which any locale in the world becomes like a quaint Bay Area suburb – are manipulating the environment, flattening it. This shift in the world’s weather patterns might ultimately mess heavily with New York’s sensitive arrangement of culture and intellectual life. New York’s crack-era rap music from the 90s seems mired in an eternal winter, but would it be more like the drawl-ly rhythms of California gangsta rap (made for driving sinisterly in sunny weather) if New Yorkers expected 70 degree weather everyday? Would rap even exist if New York was encased in the air-conditioned geodesic dome imagined by Buckminster Fuller?

Another question: Could the homogenizing force of climate change greatly alter the patterns of another institution of contemporary life: tourism – which depends on a delicate balance of societal stability and exotic difference? I once saw a ritualistic rain dance by Native Americans in a touristic section of Berlin, a city whose bleak winter weather offered an appropriate backdrop to its modern history and lends gravitas to its contemporary art scene. This tableaux on a crowded Berlin street could be read as a kind of environmental, cultural confusion where the truths of dislocated and local racial histories were distorted by the demands and desires of tourism. The significant crowd that had amassed to watch this dance lost themselves for a minute and Berlin became nowhere. Its history disappeared.

For the 2008 Olympics, China was able to shut down rain (for the opening ceremony) and conjure it (to freshen Beijing’s polluted air) at will, but could they impose a “real” winter on New York next year? China’s motivation: it would symbolically solidify their monopoly over this century.

T-shirts have a way of aging quickly, especially those made specifically for the tourist industry. My parents buy me one of these whenever they go on vacation, marking the cities and landmarks they’ve visited. But one stands out: a yellow shirt with a blue, quickly-rendered ink brush graphic of a simplified globe. “The world is my home” is scrawled above it. Unlike the other t-shirts they’ve bought me, I have no idea where they got this one. And its point is clear: it doesn’t matter. Could’ve been anywhere.


9/11/01

9/11/01 felt like one long moment. A moment that seemed to last for days, then weeks, then months, then years. I don’t know when the 9/11 moment ended for me, but eventually the vision from my Brooklyn rooftop of the first tower slipping towards the center of the earth amidst a cloud of dust became a memory.

I was brushing my teeth that morning, getting ready to go to work. “It’s a perfectly clear day, except for that strange lone cloud above the World Trade Center,” I thought to myself then. I had a distant view of Lower Manhattan from my apartment on 25th Street and 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. Still groggy from sleep and on auto-pilot, I turned on my TV which poured out loud static on all stations. I stopped on one that I could at least hear. “A small passenger plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” I remember the anchorwoman reporting. She didn’t sound panicked.

I headed over to the window and that’s when I realized why that cloud above the towers looked so surreal. By that time my roommate, Bryant Wang, had woken up and I was explaining the news to him in shocked tones. We winced at the TV, trying to make out an image, trying to follow along on the screen to what would’ve been plainly obvious if we had looked out the window. Moments later, the TV told us that a second plane had struck the other tower.

We rushed over to the window and saw a new cloud billowing over Lower Manhattan. It looked so far away. It didn’t look like a film or a dream. It didn’t feel surreal. It was surreality itself. It was more real than what was inside of me.

I got a call from my boss at Creative Capital Foundation not to come in until further notice, so Bryant and I watched a little more TV to get information. We learned that flights were canceled, that America’s airspace was restricted, that this might be the work of terrorists, that fighter jets could shoot down an airplane if it was deemed an imminent threat, that evacuations were happening in the towers, that people were jumping out of them. We learned that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. The scale of these events and their proximity suddenly became too much think about. We shook our heads at eachother.

Then we went up to our roof where the view of the city was clear, like a perfectly focused photograph. The towers stood there, burning. Fires used to overwhelm and consume major cities like this one and the one I grew up around, San Francisco. Looking at the scene, I was thinking about how to describe it to family and friends back in Bay Area who I knew would be getting in touch as soon as they woke up. “‘Surreal’ just doesn’t begin to describe it,” I thought.

Suddenly the first tower crumbled to the ground. It disappeared and I could faintly hear it go. My knees weakened and I remember thinking that we at least were left with one more tower. I couldn’t imagine the other also succumbing, though it was burning in the same way. And when it did a little later, I felt foolish for being so hopeful.

When the calls came in, I said the same things over and over. “It was surreal. I’m fine. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked. I don’t know.” A dark cloud brought by a wind coming from the West approached us and we could see the ominous shadow it cast as it made its way over. We waited for it like a fast forward night. The darkness brought a rain of paper and a mist of dust. We picked up office documents written in Japanese. The cloud moved on and we later moved back downstairs to watch the news. The reception was a little better.

We watched the news repeat itself for hours, and I was intoxicated by the constancy of it. The news was like a wall. It was there the whole time and I grew to hate it for simply being there.


Conventions

At the Organization of Chinese Americans’ (OCA) annual convention in the Grand Hyatt, which stands awkwardly like a fragile, tall ugly sister next to the robust grace of Grand Central Station. Cobalt blue vinyl table skirts hide only what everyone already knows – that underneath this plastic table is pathetic emptiness. Under the dull bright lights of this hotel’s ballroom, with its architecture of vagueness, enthusiasm is conjured, rehearsed then recycled.

A bronze colored curtain partially, inconsequentially, covers a section of wood veneer wall. A neglected table sits in front with pitchers of ice water and bowls of mints. A woman (Her description escapes me. I only remember that she carried 3 different bags.) drifts towards our table drawn by a weak magnetism. A conversation emerges, one that is expected and satisfactory, and ends with her cramming one of her bags with informational brochures.

New York Life, the insurance company, has the booth next to ours, separated by a low bar on which hangs a vinyl skirt like the one decorating our table, hiding its emptiness – the divider skirt, however, is cadmium red. Staffing their table is a mild-mannered, middle-aged Chinese man who smiles sympathetically towards me sometimes and who, with professional eagerness chatted with the interested about his company’s business either in Cantonese, Mandarin or English.

Inside their booth was a standing banner dominated by a black and white photo illustration of a business-suited man who’s shadow looks like a mideival door key. He looks up at a key hole which is out of reach, but through which a holy light shines at him. Above the illustration is the phrase “You hold the key to your success” and then underneath, the motivational punchline: “Opportunity knocks…but you have to open the door.” Finally, at the bottom, the banner proudly notes that New York Life’s credit ratings are triple A across the board.

This week, America’s credit ratings were downgraded by Standard & Poor’s in an unprecedented stumble for this country’s mighty economy and self-confidence. Towards the end of my time at the convention, as most were downstairs at an awards luncheon, a young Chinese woman walked briskly up to the table and announced herself as Echo. She lives “near the Belt Parkway” in Brooklyn and is here studying finance at NYU, and eventually looking to land a job. I could tell from the way she talked, directly and with an unleashed smile, that she felt the winds at her back and that she knew she couldn’t be stopped. She’s being carried along by the turbulent waves caused by her country which is shaped like a rooster.


New World Mall, Flushing, NY

To get to this new dim sum restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, you go into the New World Mall, walking through the two sets of glass sliding doors onto its red carpeted entrance, past the Futurist-looking fake gold abstract sculpture. You go underneath 2 ceiling mounted flat screen TVs playing Chinese pop music videos and up the escalator to the third floor, passing shops called Miss V Fashion Boutique, U.Nive, WINK, 101 Fashion, and 96GHZ. Once up the escalator you’ll notice sunlight pouring in from the skylight ceiling which is modeled after the coffered architecture of ancient Greece. The classical references begin there and take a Baroque turn elsewhere in this great hall, crashing head on with an obsessive pursuit of newness. Monumental faux-crystal chandeliers hover over the central spaces while the melting soft neon blues, greens, magentas and pinks of LED tubes highlight square pillars that run in two rows down the middle. But its shimmering newness is already beginning to show ragged age on its hastily assembled, cheap surfaces just 3 months after opening. Glass, marble, granite, satin, gold, crystal – they’re all either present or referenced. A grand piano sits on the stage next to a party of 12 unceremoniously devouring their dim sum. A sultry hostess in a crimson ball gown glides by to seat a table for 4.

New World is the latest of the many malls that have sprung up in this Queens Chinatown in the last 5 years, offering the kind of shopping and eating experience that my parents and others say reminds them of contemporary China. Each new mall sucks the business from the older ones, turning them into desperately abject vessels for cell phone stalls, teenage fashion boutiques, bootleg DVD shops and so forth. New World occupies a space that sat empty and unused for years before it burst open in a blur of construction.

It has packed them in, fielding a diverse array of consumer options like a massive supermarket, an unending food court in the lower level with a dizzying selection of cuisines, snacks and desserts from all over China, specialty shops like the one that only sells iPad cases, clothing stores for all styles, and a shop that sells motorized scooter/bikes popular with food delivery guys. Packs of Chinese teenagers and families take to this space in a state of near euphoria; they know how to be in this kind of architecture, comfortable to cruise its gleaming halls, wandering casually in and out of shops, and adding to the cacophony of buzzing chatter that reminds me of the soundtrack of dim sum. The new Chinatowns are malls.


The Biennial Problem

Where will art go next and what will it do there? Gratuitous amounts of art, material and labor have been flown or trucked in at great expense to Venice for the Biennale (currently on view), an event that every year it is held, attracts thousands to take planes, trains, and automobiles to experience it all. Over the long week of vernissage events (opening functions), biennials like this (of which Venice is certainly the oldest and most prestigious) necessitate a grand-scaled kind of contemporary art for the overall promotion and health of cultural exchange. This is a tradition, set in a cradle of Western art. And who would argue with building bridges through contemporary art shown in the sprawling circus tents of biennials? Or for that matter why demean the cold rationality of art fairs, where the desperate gaze of some dealers in their claustrophobic booths should be enough to silence any cynic’s rage against the commercial side. These two forms, the biennial and the fair, centralize a globally advanced cultural experience for the high art consumer, synthesizing leisure with big-ticket purchasing, vacationing with expensively choreographed schmoozing.

The roundtrip movement of this art and these people, however must be weighed against its environmental impact. And leaders of the art world (artists, dealers, critics, and curators) have to begin seriously evaluating where their work is coming from and find more energy efficient, sustainable ways to do things. Thinking this way might lead to a radical deconstruction of what art is today and how it can exist more potently in a globally-dependent market system. It might actually lead us towards a life that is art, one in which time is a medium, space is text, stories are objects, and inactivity is dynamic.


My Hip Hop

I moved to New York 12 years ago to see the world described by rap music – a loud concrete maze of crime, corner ciphers, eternal winters, army fatigues, Timberlands and fast talk. And tonight after dinner with fellow Asian American-from-California curator Aimee Chan, I set out to write about hip hop from my own perspective, but what more can you say, and how better could you say it, than what Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, or Tricia Rose with Black Noise, or Nelson George with Hip Hop America, or Hua Hsu with a body of articles and reviews revolving around hip hop. Chang wrote a defining piece of the hip hop generation, tracing the beginnings of the culture from Jamaica’s political strife to the street gangs and peace deals of the Bronx in the 60s and 70s. Rose rightfully asserted the role of women into hip hop history while also juggling a narrative about stylistic advances and the technological revolution that hip hop exemplified. George made that history personal in his book which I still haven’t read, while Hsu uses hip hop as a backdrop to pick apart the nature of cultural identity in a globalized, connected world. Other thinkers have done major work on the subject and big props must go to them.

I can get with all of the scholarship but I still identify hip hop with the ‘realism’ version of New York City, emanating like steam out of a manhole from the beats of DJ Premier, the tortured impassioned crooning of Mary J. Blige, and the street Shakespeare of Ghostface and Raekwon. Listening to the revolutionary funk of The Coup and Paris shakes me back to an angry, politicized Bay Area intellectualism. The Hieroglyphics and DJ Q-Bert brought the defiant nerd intensity of the Bay’s subcultural scene to hip hop. In Houston, Scarface and The Geto Boys laced soupy, languid beats and hooks with extreme, Gothic tales from their hood. They set the stage for the experimentation of Organized Noize and Outkast, whose lyrics described the desires and realities of a struggling class in Atlanta.

Hip hop for me is winter in New York, when the subways turn medieval, as artist Daragh Reeves pointed out years ago. Bums mumble jovially, dark stares from the tired eyes of rich and poor alike, the screeching, the rats, the garbage, the smells, the foulness…is hip hop to me. On street level, it’s the black Escalade with tinted windows at night, the cops, the new Nikes, the Black culture, the Puerto Rican side of things, Canal Street, Jamaica Ave.

When I got into it, rap described a specific place to me, one I didn’t know, and because of that the music I gravitate towards delivers various local angles to me. But the world has changed a lot since hip hop’s golden age to the point where cities across the world have become more alike than different. This is globalization, in which the world traveler can comfortably navigate a foreign land as much as his or her own. And I understand that this traveler demands a different, less threatening kind of music. Something that can be a walking-around soundtrack in Brussels as well as driving music in Port Charlotte, Florida. But I’m still looking for more lyrics and beats that can define me, where I’m from, and where I might want to go next.