By David A.M. Goldberg
Special to The Advertiser
By David A.M. Goldberg
Unokea? Try kea, or try harder not to. With "Alternative Urban Futures," The ARTS at Marks Garage, a project of the Hawai'i Arts Alliance, comes close to perfectly advertising its profound faith in art's ability to alter one's core understanding of the everyday environment.
True to the organization's reputation for socially conscious themes and (at times reckless) curatorial inclusiveness, the show began with an open call for the local creative community to "imagine the best possible transformation of the Mid-Pacific's great urban hope."
This yielded a small collection of formal artwork that, though compelling, are conceptually and visually drowned out by professional and academic projects in architecture, urban planning and culture-jamming propaganda. The imbalance is symptom and symbol of contemporary art's confrontation with far more pervasive forces.
Hawai'i knows that Mainland franchises erode the foundations of its uniqueness. Struck with a kind of psychic paralysis, Hawai'i responds with the hugely popular window sticker: "Ainokea, I do what I like."
With the case all but closed, how can art respond to such ambivalence? Kirsten Rae Simonsen and Scott Groeniger's "I Do. Well I Don't" answers directly. With a globally spoken style of "visual pidgin" they create an island from abstracted personal, technical and commercial elements that allude to street and resource location maps, social networks and a compelling link/tension between childhood and adult modes of personal transportation. Their rich range of intentional smudges, tints, smears and aborted erasures grounds the psychology of the piece: These are subconscious Hawai'i's repressed questions of sustainability, energy and land, which are constantly subjected to threats and promises of (re)development.
This inaudible discourse hums beyond the gallery's windows, in a neighborhood that local branding agency Bedrock described as potentially "the best" Chinatown in the world in its "Rediscovering Chinatown Honolulu," a public-relations bible commissioned by the Department of Planning and Permitting last year. A copy is on display for you to thumb through. The ARTS at Marks Garage creative director Rich Richardson literally pulled out of the closet this beautifully designed 11-by-17-inch artifact, richly illustrated with graphs, Chinese calligraphy and everyday-life photography.
Discovery and development are old themes in modern Hawai'i, and possibly the engine by which its futures get generated. The show traces this socioeconomic vein back to the late 1880s, when King Kalakaua pursued a unified Oceania; so actively in fact that a nascent political alliance between Hawai'i and Samoa became a sort of "axis of evil" in the eyes of the U.S., Germany and Great Britain. A historical summary of Kalakaua's efforts in league with Samoa's King Malietoa is provided courtesy of the Bishop Museum's Noelle Kahanu. We are invited to wonder how "One People — One Ocean," an idea for which Kalakaua had even designed an emblem, could have evolved had the U.S. not launched economic and military interventions in 1887. Would the Pacific have come to be known by brands other than those of tourism and strategic military outposts for colonial forces?
In the same spirit with which Kalakaua went to centers of European power to negotiate on behalf of colonized Pacific Island people, the group FoundFutures samples and repurposes the visual language that colonizes us today. From recognizable branding strategies to government-style posters, FoundFutures projects look at current political, ecological and socioeconomic situations and projects them forward by 10 to 20 years.
"Birdcage," the story of the 2016 H8N2 or "Hang Ten Flu" flu epidemic in Hawai'i, is the most thoroughly realized. FoundFutures, led by University of Hawai'i graduate students Jake Dunagan and Stuart Candy, crafted everything from the government's quarantine zone maps to this-property-is-condemned posters, to the 9/11-style missing-persons fliers that citizens would post in the wake of forced quarantines. The finishing touch is a tourism poster for Maui (unscathed by the flu, how?) which proudly declares that the island is "Still Paradise."
Typically cinema is the chosen medium for visualizing the future. By installing elements of their projects in the urban fabric itself, FoundFutures turns Chinatown into a movie set of sorts, approaching the level of production design that goes into films like "Children of Men."
Closer to local cinematic tastes, animated Japanese films such as "Akira," "Metropolis," "Steam Boy," and most recently "Tekkonkinkreet" are works that fuse futuristic architecture, urban sociology, storytelling and digital and traditional art. These films, which all feature teen protagonists confronting adult authoritarian society, end with exquisitely choreographed urban destruction (echoes of Nagasaki and Hiroshima) that triggers their emotional and psychological evolution and renewal.
Though "Alternative Urban Futures" clearly and boldly engages these same issues, and the show is graced with touches of the cinematic mentality that dominates our thinking, it lacks a decisive "ending" or "focus" that will make its efforts clearly relevant and engaging to the inheritors of the decisions we make today: young people. It therefore misses informing those who truly need to know what is at stake and how to connect these examples of creative thinking to everyday life. The Superferry controversy, Big Island wildfires, public transportation and waste management crises should not be treated as independent news stories, and anomalies in the world of grownups but as part of a single relationship that ties all of us to one future or another.
David A.M. Goldberg is a cultural critic and writer. He is a lecturer in art, art history and American studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.