By Mark McClelland
At New York’s High Line a handful of vendors operate from trailers clustered between its southern entrance and the new Whitney Museum of Art next-door. I strike up a conversation with Dana, originally from Albania and now a New Yorker selling photographic prints of street art from all over the city. The prints capture moments in time; the street art which provides the source material often doesn’t last for long, supplanted by the perpetual redevelopment of this city. Dana tells me that her husband takes the pictures, which I initially believe but later come to question when I see other vendors with the same images.
In any case, no matter who took the photographs, there’s something happening here that says a lot about New York. If I allow the photographic images Dana’s selling as art; then I’m looking at art (the photographic prints) made from art (the street art that’s been photographed), next to art (The Whitney) under art (I’m classifying the High Line as art even though it’s much more).
Art from art next to art under art. And it doesn’t stop there; the High Line is not only art in itself, it’s also a platform and stage for art, both visual and performance. In fact hanging under the High Line right now, almost directly above Dana’s stall, are two handmade wooden boats by the artist Marie Lorenz who not only makes the boats but also takes tours of the Hudson in them, a work both visual and performative in itself. So let’s try the summary statement again: I’m talking to Dana and looking at her art, made from art, next to art, under art that is a stage for more art. It’s an entire bandwidth of art with Dana the street vendor at one end of the spectrum, the Whitney Museum as a highbrow institution at the other, and the High Line itself as an almost unclassifiable intervention that I’m going to call cultural infrastructure.
When art is this intensely layered it becomes something cultural; a deep well of creative energy that feeds the culture of place. And there’s no question that’s what’s happening; the place is full of people, both local and visiting, availing themselves of every facet of the culture that exists here. It’s that very culture that’s drawn them, and me, here.
After three days observing and experiencing the High Line I’ve come to see it as a microcosm of NYC; it’s depth and layering representing the diversity of the city as a whole. And for that reason The High Line is something that New Yorkers are proud of. It’s somewhere they can take their out of town visitors and say “Look, here is this city in a nutshell; its imagination and creativity, its energy, its will and determination, its capacity for change and evolution, its appetite for risk and experimentation”. I know that because over three days I hear countless version of that conversation taking place.
The High Line embodies all those characteristics and more. In my opinion it’s a work of collaborative genius; simultaneously urban renewal and cultural infrastructure – a platform for art and a stage for performance. It combines the intent of an engaged citizenry with the creative and technical skills of professions like landscape architecture, urban design, architecture, horticulture, art practice and engineering.
It’s an urban intervention, a connective walkway, a retail environment, a viewing platform and a park. Greenspace and treescape. A place for outdoor dining, reading, sunning and shading, photographing, appreciating art, people watching, walking and observing the city.
The High Line is an immersive, experiential environment. It’s created to be just that, with great care taken in designing for a wide range of human activities. It opens up vistas not out otherwise available and exploits them. Amphitheatres provide spaces to view the city, street furniture encourages hanging around, grass enables sleeping in the sun, trees deliver shade, art installations encourage interaction. The physical environment – the hardware – creates opportunities for encounter and in turn, these encounters develop the cultural software. Encounters with nature (I saw the biggest bee I ever have), with architecture (Iike the suddenly appearing Zaha Hadid building under construction), with sculpture, with the city, with painting and text (I sat contemplating a Barbara Kruger work for ages), and with performance.
And what is the point of all these encounters? They bring us into deeper relationship with our own humanity – and with others. And so contribute to our cultural evolution and the cultural capital of NYC. Which is why I think of the High Line as cultural infrastructure, and a microcosm of the city that birthed it.
The High Line is the sort of intervention the contemporary urban landscape demands. Imaginative, thoughtful, diverse and layered, in service of enriched human experience. Cultural infrastructure. It throws out a challenge to all of us engaged in making cities and places that enhance the lives of their occupants: What is our High Line going to be?
The High Line, NYC. Image from Cook Jenshel Photography
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Blind Idealism Is…), 2016, High Line Commission. Image from Friends of the High Line