Artist Sara Jordeno Maps Inequality, From Diamond Factories to Harlem Sex Trade

Sara Jordenö in New York, 2012
(Youmna Chlala)

Through the pulsing lights and crowds of people pushing up against the runway in MoMA PS1’s Performance Dome, Sara Jordenö was barely discernible. It was October 7, 2012, and The Movement Ball she co-organized with Twiggy Pucci Garçon was well under way. Standing against the far wall, the demure Swedish artist kept a low profile as the mostly black and Latino members of the House of Pucci, the House of Unbothered-Cartier, the House of Bangy Cunt, and others dipped, rolled, spun, and fell to throbbing dance music. In one memorable performance, Jordan Pucci, full of attitude, took the stage to shouts of ?“Oh shit, you got that Pucci fired up!” Leaning back on the long platform with outstretched arms, he crossed his legs dramatically before shuffling down the catwalk in a crouched position, arms and hands wildly striking the swift, angular poses so characteristic of voguing — a kind of dance derived from New York City’s house/ballroom community, made famous by Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning and by Madonna’s “Vogue” music video.

While the pop star’s choreography reduced the dance form to a series of redundant gestures, this was the real thing: sharp, pronounced, militaristic voguing that supplanted real street violence in the house communities of 1980s Harlem. Ostracized and bullied by mainstream urban culture, young gay, lesbian, and trans youth banded together under leaders during that period to form houses, such as House of Dior and House of LaBeija, which served as makeshift families and support groups for those abandoned by their own. In competitions, or balls, that featured categories like Evening Wear and Butch Queen Realness, contestants tried to emulate fashion models and heterosexual archetypes, such as “executive” and “schoolboy,” to claim these unattainably mainstream, mainly wealthy, white ideals as their own.


The Movement Ball was affiliated with the Kiki scene, a more socially conscious and activist subset of house culture tailored specifically to 12- to 24-year-olds, with an HIV/AIDS and substance-abuse prevention and education program provided by Faces NY, Harlem United, and other organizations. Over the past year or so, Jordenö and her collaborator Garçon have been shooting a feature-length documentary about the scene — including The Movement Ball — titled Gesture, a clip of which was shown in the dome just prior to the ball. Many months in, this is still a work in progress, proving that the at-risk community has become more than a pet project for Jordenö. The fact that she’s an educated, and in many ways privileged, Swedish white woman working with a predominantly low-income black community makes her vulnerable to charges of exploitation, not so dissimilar to the fallout from Paris Is Burning, when many in the ballroom community sued Livingston, claiming she came in, used them for personal gain, and then left.

While Jordenö’s race in this regard may be problematic, in many ways it’s not; playing that card is an easy — and reactive — accusation considering she was asked by Faces NY director Antonio Rivera to work with the Kiki scene. He and Garçon were impressed by Jordenö’s work interviewing Harlem pimps, a project instigated mainly by happenstance by her partner, Amber Horning, a Ph.D. student in criminology. What began as a part-time job helping Horning conduct interviews for her dissertation — a skill Jordenö had acquired through almost a decade of video work — led to a headfirst immersion in an overlooked, and often misrepresented, New York City subculture: the sex industry.

Here, too, race was a thorny if almost comical issue. Jordenö and Horning, leveraging the latter’s considerable contacts in the Harlem community, were able to conduct more than 100 meetings with current or former pimps over a six-month period. The duo’s encounters at several locations in Harlem, including notoriously dangerous low-income housing projects, can be compared jokingly to the scenes between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. They asked each interviewee to draw a map of his or her daily business routine, including what corners women stood on and where the police lookout was located. In the process, Jordenö had to face sometimes aggressive and direct sexual overtures intended to intimidate her. Though she is quiet, soft-spoken, and eloquent, she held her own. As a result, she was able to display the maps, as well as a collection of animated videos stemming from her research, in the group show “Matter Out of Place” last summer at the Kitchen, in New York. Her installation Time and Motion Studies (NYC maps), 2012, documented some of the most illicit and charged correlations between race, gender, and income inequality in the city.

The maps were installed on the wall in a loose grid with a roughly geographic arrangement. Stretching several feet, they represented, in varying degrees of clarity, the entire width of Harlem. Some featured detailed images of streets and local landmarks, others were simply gestural scribbles, but each took on the vagaries of its subject’s memory to document the sex trade’s particularly suspect form of labor. Using the drawings as a guide, Jordenö subsequently animated street-level views of the neighborhood with gestural marks. Looped on a cluster of monitors, the animations further grounded the spatial and temporal dimensions of sex trafficking. As Jordenö explains, before this project she had been “very interested in the idea of the formal economy,” referring in part to her interest in financial-district employees, with whom she worked in close proximity while in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in 2010–11; she could also be talking about a number of her works. Persona Project, 2000–10, comprises film, video, and interviews about a small island economy now dominated by tourism resulting from Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona. In Diamond People—Instructions for a film, 2010, Jordenö profiled one of her former employers, a synthetic diamond factory in Robertsfors, Sweden, and its subsidiary factories in South Africa and China. Moving between text and image, video and interview, Diamond People explores the effects of global economies through an anthropological investigation into far-flung diamond communities. With Time and Motion Studies (NYC maps), she continues, “I became interested in the structure of the informal economy, which I think is — not to excuse it — oppressive. It’s part of this constant need for money.” Tying all this together is Jordenö’s sustained, detailed, and interdisciplinary attention to disparate micro-communities: who they are, how they function, and in what ways they are beholden to larger financial mechanisms. The Movement Ball and Time and Motion Studies look at two very different — if geographically proximate — subcultures in many ways defined, if not emboldened, by their lack of financial resources. Persona Project and Diamond People, meanwhile, investigate two equally peripheral European communities under the demoralizing sway of global capitalism. In each instance, Jordenö casts a critical, clinical eye on market forces — and in the process makes the global both local and personal.

To see images, click on the slideshow.

This article was published in the February issue of Modern Painters.