On ViewPublic Art Fund
Back and Forth Disco
January 29 – June 14, 2020
On March 12, Mayor de Blasio declared a state of emergency in response to the rapidly increasing incidences of coronavirus cases across the five boroughs. Shortly thereafter, the bulk of New York City went into a hole, for all intents and purposes. Around this same time, the 28-year-old Emerati photographer Farah Al Qasimi’s first big New York exhibition, Back and Forth Disco, was in the middle of its run. A collaboration between the artist, the Public Art Fund, and the advertising company JCDecaux, the exhibition consisted of 17 original photographs reproduced and installed in 100 bus shelters around the city. The idea was twofold. First, that in the course of their everyday existence, viewers would actively or passively experience Qasimi’s kinetic, intimate portraits of outer-borough New York life as inextricable from their own. And second, that the physical space the photographs inhabited would induce a consumer-psychological trompe l’oeil as art stepped in clandestinely for ads.
Prior to this commission, Al Qasimi, who is based in both Brooklyn and Dubai, had never photographed New York. Doing so “always felt too clichéd,” she told me in an email. She had begun to make a practice of training her lens on scenes from the Persian Gulf, which lent themselves to her particular penchant for color and texture: like the swaths of lustrous fabrics she tends to shoot, an Al Qasimi photograph appears to ripple, as if threatening to come alive. Nevertheless, she spent last fall exploring New York, not in pursuit of this city’s taxicab-and-skyscraper quintessence, but in search of pockets of unsung vibrance not unlike the kind she is accustomed to photographing. The images that resulted (all made in 2019) feature sights like the ornate ceiling of a Yemeni-owned Ridgewood bodega, a mise-en-abyme created by mirrors in a Bay Ridge barber-shop, and a tippy cockatoo named Coco who resides in a curtain store. In another, Mannequins, a duo of hijab-draped prosthetic heads commune with one another, Sock-and-Buskin-style, while a manufactured hand gestures, eerily, in the background.
Al Qasimi has an intentional tendency to avoid photographing people directly, an aesthetic and philosophical choice that has become a signature of her work. Sometimes, as in Mannequins, she solves this issue by exchanging people for their effigies. Other times, as in Woman in Leopard Print and Woman on Phone, Al Qasimi captures her subjects when they are turned away from the camera, revealing them only through the subtlest of gestures: a single eye in a compact mirror, a finger pressed against an ear. The result is an evocation of metropolitan identity, in which selfhood and difference are at turns emphasized and submerged. The Woman on Phone’s electric green hair accessory and canary yellow coat are as much testaments to her unique style as they are to her position as a constituent of an urban milieu.
Obviously, that milieu has shifted of late, and naturally, so too has Back and Forth Disco, which, as a public art exhibition, was in the unique position of being both inextricable from the city’s infrastructure and, well, open. As the pandemic ravaged New York, the landscape of public transportation was upended: more than 100 MTA workers died, subway ridership plummeted, bus fares were waived, and New Yorkers were asked—although not forced—to employ these services for essential purposes only. Later, as protests erupted on city streets, bus drivers became instrumental in the fight against police brutality by refusing the NYPD’s demands that they transport arrested activists. At the same time, museums and galleries and the shows they contained shuttered, or attempted to repurpose themselves for online viewing experiences. Installed unpreciously in their weather-proof cases, the photographs that compose Back and Forth Disco persevered, bearing witness to the physical and metaphorical storm.
When I returned to the city in early May, Al Qasimi’s energetic, saturated shots were not needles in the haystack of New York’s hurly-burly, but rather stark ensigns, conspicuous reminders of the individually inconspicuous lives we are supposed to be fighting to maintain. Moreover, the endurance of the exhibition struck me as an indicator of the ways in which the established, insular world of New York art and culture might at some point, like so many other institutions, be forced to adapt. “Store Closing. Everything Must Go,” reads a handmade window sign in a particularly prescient shot, which was hung in Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. I would’ve liked to see that one where I live, in the West Village, but for other reasons—for morale—Coco the Cockatoo was nice.