Imani Brown On: Prospect 3, Blight in New Orleans, and the Occupy Movement

Imani Jacqueline Brown is a curatorial associate for Prospect New Orleans, co-organizer of Occupy Museums, and co-organizer of Blights Out.

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Name: Imani Jacqueline Brown (Quezergue)

Title/Company Name: Curatorial Associate, Prospect New Orleans/Co-Organizer, Occupy Museums/Co-Organizer, Blights Out

Website:

prospectneworleans.org

occupymuseums.org

blightsout.org

One- to two-sentence description of what you do:

Professionally, I work as a curator with Prospect New Orleans, helping artists to bring their projects to fruition. Tangentially, I am what I would call a “cultural agitator”; with and beyond Occupy Museums, an international, collaborative group of artist-activists, I work to bring the grievances of Occupy Wall Street to the so-called “art world” (privatization and commodification of culture, profiteering and racketeering, art as corporate PR, etc.), and work toward building alternatives.

Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career:

First, let’s strip away this idea of a career. I don’t see my path as a series of ladder rungs that take me ever higher. How did I get on this ladder to begin with? I consider my lowest moment to also be my highest: when I was an anonymous organizer with Occupy Wall Street, a body in a swarm. A thankless, penniless opportunity of a lifetime. I am going to cheat and use an excerpt from a paper I wrote to explain why:

We existed on top, around and in between the structures designed to keep us apart. We were fluid and we spilled over—bodies and voices—onto Broadway and flooded down Wall Street. We did yoga barefoot and performed ballet on police barricades. We dropped mattresses and bedded-out for peace. The Smithsonian Institution scooped up our cardboard signs; the Museum of Modern Art purchased our posters and newspapers; they deactivated their energy and stored them away in their vaults. But these arbiters of the corporate-sponsored cultural canon could neither collect nor interpret the true artistry of the movement: as we lay together at the center of Manhattan on our patch of prime real estate, gazing up at the electric glow of corporate logos, we caught wind of the sublime: Freedom. We marveled at our creation: an autonomous micro-society guided by a collectively-determined system of values, built on a resource-based economy of mutual aid, sustained by a swarming mass of bodies united in a single, thunderous voice that radiated outward from spontaneously rotating loci within a churning nebulosity. The power of this experience was numinous; its beauty transcended the realm of the aesthetic as delineated by Western theoreticians.

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Was there ever a point where you thought, “This won’t work”?

Oh, for sure—every day. But not just about me and mine—about all of it. The “art world,” the economy, this nation, this planet. As a species, we are failing spectacularly together every moment. But at a certain point, failure becomes indistinguishable from success; sometimes failure is success, sometimes success is failure. Many arts and culture organizations in the city (and nation) receive funding from questionable sources. If we succeed at executing cultural programming with funding from corporations that view our labor of love as an opportunity for tax write-offs and greenwashing, have we not also failed as a society?

The commodification of everything is trending, and it is slowly trickling its way down here. And it’s changing us. This pestilence isn’t something carried on the bodies of transients or added sinisterly to our water. It’s stemming from us, every time we let a Wal-Mart open without protest; every time we allow the oil and gas companies who destroyed our wetlands to use our names and our work to mask the ugliness of their business; every time we neglect to join community members in their fights against crooked development; and every time we accept the failures of our two-party system as inherent.

We are all complicit in the destruction of our planet and the degradation of our species. Our silence is complicity. This won’t work.

What attracted you to New Orleans?

I moved here with my mom, a native (bona fide) when I was five, and lived here until Katrina. Long before The Storm, I always figured that come college, I would leave and never look back. But, as we all know, they all come back—a result of the pseudo-scientific yo-yo effect: a psycho-regional anomaly endemic to our swampy paradise and related, phenomenologically, to the Bermuda Triangle. New Orleans is kind of like a Monet: it makes you nauseous when you look too close for too long. But it’s also the kind of place that leaves me laughing out loud on my bike for no reason other than the sheer joy of being. Thank you, New York, for forcing me to reassess what a healthy relationship with a city feels like. When I came home, I had a realization, brought on by research into archaic Carnival traditions and indigenous anarchisms, that our homegrown culture produces citizens like antibodies to capitalism. We just need to give our collective immune system a little jolt.

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Tell me about a moment of failure.

I pushed away someone I love.

How did you overcome this temporary defeat?

Can’t say that I have.

Where do you see New Orleans five years from now?

I’m working on a project called Blights Out with P.3+ artist Carl Joe Williams and P.3 artist Lisa Sigal. It seeks to use art and architecture as catalysts for community-led blight remediation and neighborhood development. Working with residents of Mid-City and the National Organization of Minority Architects, LA Chapter, we will purchase a blighted property and rebuild it as a multipurpose cultural and resource center that demystifies the process of buying property in our Kingdom of Cronyism. By forming a Community Land Trust, Blights Out will act on the belief that communities can and should “own” development in their neighborhoods. I hope New Orleans, five years from now, will be heading in a direction of creative development in resistance to divestment and displacement.

What words of wisdom would you give your 20-year-old self?

Guard your compassion with vigilance.

What is the biggest challenge for creative people in New Orleans?

I’m going to hand this one off to Antonin Artaud (from What I Came to Mexico to Do, 1936):

There was a time when the artist was a sage, that is, a cultivated man who was also a thaumaturge, a magus, a therapeutist, and even a gymnasiarch—that combination which in carnival language is called a “one-man band” or “Protean man.” The artist united in his person all the faculties and all the sciences. Then came the age of specialization, which was also the age of decadence. One cannot deny it: a society which turns science into an infinite number of sciences is a society which is degenerating.

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