Together with many other volunteers I helped out with ‘Occupy Sandy’, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in neighborhoods in Staten Island that are heavily damaged by superstorm Sandy. Occupy Sandy says it does mutual aid instead of charity. It aims to promote the self-organisation and self-expression of the community. But a lot of what we did was just giving stuff to people who needed it and plain work. I helped to empty houses that had been flooded; break out floors and walls before they were covered by deadly molds. It pained me to pick up personal treasures, caked with mud. CD-collections, photo-albums…how terrible I would have felt if these things were mine. The photos fascinated me. They were silent witnesses, of the lives of the people that lived in these houses, as well as of Sandy’s violent passage. Snapshots of happy moments half faded, full of scratches and smears and chemical discolorations.
Of course we gave the pictures we found in the houses to their owners. Other pictures that were found in the streets, marshes and beaches were brought to a community center, were they were washed, dried and spread on long tables in the hope that their owners would find them there.
I took quite a few pictures of these pictures and I was not the only one. The New York Times and the Staten Island Advance as well as other media published a number of them. On Facebook, there are veritable data-banks of found pictures that keep growing, as more and more people become aware of it and take snapshots of found pics and other mementos with their phones and post them with the same device on those Facebook pages. Hurray for the new media. Some of these pics were found tens of miles from their original place. Before the internet they would have been lost forever. The service is much appreciated. For some who lost everything, these pics are the only tangible souvenirs they still have of their pre-Sandy life. On the Facebook-pages of ‘For Shore’ and ‘ Hurricane Sandy’s Lost Treasures’ (both mainly containing pictures found in New Jersey) you can see hundreds of these photos.
Those who visited this blog before, will not be surprised by my interest in these pictures. Found objects are, more often than not, the point of departure for my art. Not only because of my interest in serendipity and contingency but also because of my need for a different relation with nature than what the present culture upholds. Instead of seeing nature as existing outside of us, objects to be measured , catalogized, exploited and consumed, I strive for a symbiotic relation with natural forces. There’s a political aspect to all that that falls outside the scope of this blog. In my art, I strive for this symbiosis by combining ‘regular’ painting and sculpting techniques with natural chemical processes such as oxidation, as well as using what wind, fire, water, salt and other natural forces have already done. It involves a degree of giving up control, of letting go, of taking risks, surrendering, for the better or the worse.
The coincidental marriage between snapshot and storm produced astonishing results. Most of the pictures are simply spoiled to a more or lesser degree but some are spoiled in a way that makes them touchingly beautiful. It may be a meager consolation to their owners but they have acquired layered meanings which they did not have before. Some have become exquisite abstract masterworks. I may be prejudiced, so judge for yourself. The pics below are not representative, they are chosen by me on the basis of the strength of the new image that came about after the storm. They are from the websites of the newspapers mentioned above, the ‘For Shore’ Facebook page and taken by myself.
A happy new year to you.
PS> If you are curious why so many people drowned in Staten Island, read this excellent piece in the Huffington Post. The short of it: in this society, profit trumps human needs. People are dying in growing numbers because we continue to believe that it’s all about making money.