New York Minutes – Lessons in Communication (Nov 2011).
Face-to-face…and yet so far away
Sitting in Starbucks near Wall Street on a short visit to New York this week I am struck by the number of customers using communication tools beginning with the letter i. Surprisingly, one latte drinker has commandeered three spaces to create a virtual office. He’s using a combo of iPad, iPhone, lap-top and two other unidentified gizmos and is working full-tilt. Meanwhile at a neighbouring table two companions are perfectly motionless, save for their Blackberry twitching thumbs. Almost every other customer has an iPhone at the ready. It seems as though we have reached the stage where virtual friends and cyber responsibilities carry a much higher priority than real interactions with the real people who are right in front of us.
If a picture paints a thousand words then the 9/11 memorial speaks a million paragraphs without uttering a single syllable. We join the orderly queue and weave our way to the sacred space of the memorial which features two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools, each about an acre in size, set within the footprints of the original twin towers of the World Trade Centre. In each reflecting pool the fallen water plunges further downwards into what appears to be an eternal void, generating a feeling of powerfulness and powerlessness all at once. A reflecting pool that forces you to reflect on how something so hideous could have happened here. And then you look up and you see and hear rebirth in the form of a suite of new skyscrapers being constructed. Pheonix like symbols of man’s capacity to move forward while never completely forgetting. A gracious security guard offers welcome information. “That tallest building there – it’s 95% occupied: tallest building in New York at 1776 feet high. Someone must have put a lot of thought into that dontcha think?” Yes.
The Museum of Modern Art
MoMA is currently featuring a retrospective exhibition of the life’s work of the prolific modern artist Willem De Kooning. My knowledge of the art world is strictly limited but this exhibition is enlightening. The first painting of over 200 is a still life, painted by the artist when he was 12 years of age: so now we know that he can really paint ‘properly’. Almost all of the following exhibits are abstract. I find myself wanting to see more life-like images and I admit to being fazed by the abstract ones. I learn that De Kooning once said “Not even for a million dollars would I paint a tree.” and gradually I begin to understand why. In the breadth of his 80 years of paintings you can recognise the artist’s progression from one phase to the next and the next. Complex abstractions seem to gradually give way to simpler abstractions. When we reach the final part of the exhibition – paintings completed when the artist knew that his life was drawing to a close – the contrast is striking. These latter paintings appear to be stripped down to deliver the barest possible message with the simplest and fewest number of brush strokes.
Occupy Wall Street
On 16 November we move freely through the OWS protest. NYPD officers are on hand to assist us to cross the street safely. Protesters ranging in age from 20 to 80 are there and the mood is calm. On 17 November, following two months of the protesters’ occupation of Zucotti Park near Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg orders a 2.00 am raid in order to clean up the park. Tents and sleeping bags are confiscated and from now on the protesters will be permitted to protest but not to lie down or sleep on the site. Most New Yorkers seem sympathetic but many of them resent the disruption. The protest site was described by the NY authorities as a ‘veritable petrie dish of infection’. And somehow that seems to be a more appropriate description of the banking system that created the current economic pandemic. Passing near the protest site that evening our taxi driver points to a line of 50 or more police cars. “You see that – we are paying for it – all those cars, all that overtime – someone’s gotta to pay and it’s always us.”
Commenting on the financial crisis the cabbies and waiters that we talk to seem mentally resigned. Whether originally from Bangladesh, French Guiana or New York itself they tell us similar stories of lost investments, failed mini-business ventures and of working much longer hours for much less pay. Their stories always end on a similar note: “I have my health and now I’m just taking life as it comes.” As we say in Ireland WAWWA! (we are where we are).”