PRINT September 2004

Manhattan Project: Friends of William Blake

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.

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. And for the many activists who promised to flood the city, the foldout includes a comprehensive schedule of both pro- and anti-RNC events, information on legal resources and sanctuaries, and tips on how to avoid being arrested—as well as on how to behave if you are. “The thing I thought about most on this map is if in fact this administration is the most secretive that American history has ever known,” said Chan, “our job is to simply reverse the terms, and make it the most transparent convention possible.”

Mannello, a writer and editor who coordinated the project’s finance and distribution, said that an initial print run of twenty-five thousand would hit the streets in the beginning of August, with a second run of fifty thousand to follow. Featuring an introduction written by novelist Matthew Sharpe, a scattering of quotations gathered by Chan and video artist Peggy Ahwesh, and a number of artist-designed images integrated by Chan into the design—curated by Julianne Swartz, these include contributions by Amy Sillman, Emilie Clark, Yun-Fei Ji, and Suzanne McClelland, among others—the 22 x 33" foldout détourns the deadpan mode of an MTA subway map with flamboyant flourishes that suggest William Blake, a subject of Chan’s current work. The artist was reluctant to predict what practical impact The People’s Guide and the protestors it was designed to serve would have. Yet “the thought that thousands of people on the streets are unwilling to give up the city as a backdrop for the Republican National Convention,” Chan said, “that wherever they go, there will be thousands of people screaming their heads off so they’ll never get a peaceful photo op from New York, I think is enough of a change for it to make a kind of difference.”

Idealistic? Perhaps. Yet as Chan noted, the entire enterprise is inspired by the ideas of Charles Fourier, the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century utopian socialist who, with Blake and the influential feminist author Kathy Acker, make up what he described as the project’s trinity of “patron saints.” To this group Chan might have added that great fin de siècle rebel Oscar Wilde, whose discussion of utopianism in his brilliant and confounding polemic on politics, society, and the role of the artist, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1890), seems to have been channeled almost directly by the spirit of The People’s Guide. “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” Wilde wrote, “for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based critic.