Manhattan Project: Jeffrey Kastner on Friends of William Blake

By Kastner, Jeffrey | Artforum International, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Manhattan Project: Jeffrey Kastner on Friends of William Blake


Kastner, Jeffrey, Artforum International


The map, as the saying goes, is not the territory, yet experience suggests that some maps express their respective territories more vividly than others. As this issue of Artforum went to press, summer in New York City was edging toward its extravagant culmination--the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden, from August 30 through September 2. Although vague warnings about possible terrorist attacks seemed to have little effect on a citizenry hardened to hometown catastrophe in the wake of 9/11, there was nevertheless a creeping anxiety--mostly over the consequences that various closings and reroutings (not to mention the potentially combustible mixture produced by descending hordes of delegates and demonstrators) might have for Manhattan's already overburdened urban grid. Yet even as many local residents strategized escapes to avoid the predicted tumult, others were planning to engage it head--on. And for Friends of William Blake, a group of New York--based artists, writers, and activists led by Paul Chan, Joshua Breitbart, and Nadxi Mannello, the scenario provided an opportunity for a novel mode of collaboration: The People's Guide to the Republican National Convention, a foldout map designed as an all-purpose tip sheet for the city during what were expected to be four highly charged days.

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Chan, a Hong Kong--born, Omaha-raised video artist who in October will appear both at New York's Greene Naftali and in the 54th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, said in July that The People's Guide began serendipitously. Trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Bard College, Chan has had a long history of social activism; most recently, from December 2002 to January 2003, he spent a month in Baghdad on the eve of the war working with Voices in the Wilderness, an aid group whose contact with Iraqi civilians regularly ran afoul of US trade-sanction regulations. At the beginning of this year, while trying to scare up an extra camera for the organization, he got in touch with Breitbart--an activist, editor, and cofounder of Rooftop Films, the nonprofit filmmaking and exhibiting organization known for its alfresco screenings on city rooftops--and the two began to discuss potential responses to the upcoming convention. "We started talking about what people needed and what skills we had," remembered Chan, who had worked with the labor movement while still in Chicago. "I knew I didn't want to do hard-core organizing, but [I felt] there must be something we could do. And finally we both realized that maybe the thing to do is not to organize people physically but to organize them informationally."

Designed by Chan around a reworked map of Manhattan from Central Park down to South Street Seaport and featuring information pulled together by Breitbart and members of the New York chapter of Indymedia, the global network of independent media collectives, The People's Guide highlights the city's basic visitor services--police stations, health centers and hospitals, transportation hubs, libraries, Wi-Fi hot spots, and so on. Intriguingly, it also identifies a range of RNC-specific locations, from the hotels of the various state delegations to the offices of military-industrial companies and major Republican Party donors, to the locations of the "adult entertainment" complexes that were expecting (along with escort services that, according to the New York Daily News, were doubling their call-girl contingent for the run of the convention) booming business. …

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