Topical Cream Prize 2021
Topical Cream is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2021 Topical Cream Prize. The Topical Cream Prize is an unrestricted cash prize awarded annually to one artist and one activist whose efforts have made a meaningful impact on their community. This year’s recipient in the artist category is Carolyn Lazard, whose work is focused on the relationship between care, labor, and value. The recipient in the activist category is Zenat Begum, the founder of Playground Coffee Shop, Brooklyn.
Winners in both categories were chosen by an advisory board of leaders from the Topical Cream community that included: Lyndsy Welgos (Topical Cream Director, Prize Co-Chair), Marcella Zimmermann (VP of Cultural Counsel, Topical Cream Board, and Prize Co-Chair), Elizabeth Baribeau (Topical Cream Grants Director), Alexandra Cunningham Cameron (Cooper Hewitt Museum), Cynthia Leung (Native Agents), Rosie Motley (Someday Gallery, Topical Cream Arts Writing Mentor), Sam Pulitzer (Artist), Anna Raginskaya (Blue Rider Group, Morgan Stanley), Yulu Serao (Topical Cream Board), Seth Stolbun (Stolbun Foundation), Rachel Tashjian (GQ), Harrison Tenzer (Artist), and Elizabeth Wiet (Topical Cream Editorial & Programming Associate).
Topical Cream will be celebrating the winners on Thursday, December 9th, 2021 with an event that will also honor the launch of an online NFT benefit hosted by Foundation and curated by Topical Cream’s 2021 Editor-in-Residence Nora N. Khan. The event will be hosted at Chapel Bar and sponsored by UME.
To mark the occasion, Topical Cream’s Elizabeth Wiet spoke to both Lazard and Begum about the award.
Moving across video, installation, performance, sculpture, and writing, Carolyn Lazard creates artworks that interrogate the temporality of chronic illness and illuminate the forms of labor, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, that go into the maintenance of care. Slowing down our standard perceptions of time, Lazard’s durational works query the tenability of capitalism’s lightning pace and its ceaseless demand for productivity. “Instead of trying to make art about sick people, I’m trying to make art that is sick in all of its material and formal qualities,” Lazard said in a 2019 interview. But Lazard’s works are not just acts of critique: as they explore the experiences of illness and disability, they also forge new models for collectivity and being together.
Earlier this month, I spoke to Lazard about their upcoming solo show at the Walker Art Center, the importance of peer networks, their writing practice, and what it means to make art about chronic illness within time-based mediums.
Elizabeth Wiet: Often, interviews with artists tend to be very project-focused—they are usually used to promote exhibitions that are about to open, or monographs that are about to be printed. But with the Topical Cream Prize, we just want to honor everything that you’ve done over the years. So, instead of beginning by asking you “what are you working on?” I wanted to ask something a bit more capacious: “what have you been up to lately?”
Carolyn Lazard: That’s a really nice way of framing that question. I’m doing my best to take care of myself and my people as a high-risk person during a pandemic. A lot of that has required me to rethink sociality and find ways to hang out that don’t require me to potentially sacrifice my life in the interest of pretending things are “chill” or back to normal. Also, I’m working on a solo exhibition that’s going to open at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in February 2022. It’s a big part of my life right at this moment.
Our Editor-in-Residence this year at Topical Cream, Nora N. Khan, has framed much of the writing she’s commissioned around the idea of maintenance. What does it mean for artists—whom society so often relies on to push the discourse forward—to take a step back and simply maintain during a time of incredible upheaval? Discussions about the pandemic often underscore how unique this time is, and how it’s totally separate from everything that’s happened before. But that’s not entirely the case: the pandemic has also shone a light on social concerns, inequalities, and barriers to access that are actually long-standing.
Is there anything you want to add about your show at the Walker?
The project is a response to the historical legacy of dance films and collaborations between dancers, filmmakers, and artists, reading that through my specific lens around access. I’m trying to think through some of the claims of postmodern dance and its relationship to Black improvisation and debility. I’m basically working on a dance film that’s primarily experienced sonically. It’s been a fun collaboration with friends and artists, namely Jerron Herman, Joselia Hughes, and Kayla Hamilton.
On maintenance or maintaining, I think this moment in time is specific and particular, but not especially unique—and not discontinuous with previous conditions or the social order of things. A lot of my work is about maintenance, before, during, and after the pandemic, if we can even conceive of the pandemic as being bracketed in time. And when I say maintenance, I guess that’s just a euphemism for care or life itself.
You said you’ve been thinking about the history of dance film. That relates to something that I wanted to ask you about, which is the subject of influences and interlocutors. One name that came up repeatedly in critical appraisals of your 2020 show at Essex Street is Marcel Duchamp. There are other moments in your work that feel like subtle art-historical references: the lids of the pillboxes in CRIP TIME (2018) feel like sculptural stand-ins for the modernist grid, for instance. And yet, I sometimes find discussions about how contemporary artists “stage interventions into the history of modernism” to be a bit inaccessible—especially for those, like myself, who don’t come from typical art history backgrounds.
That said, I do find that it can be helpful to place artists in dialogue with one another in a more modest way—because it can allow us to find entry points into conversations about artists whom we might not otherwise be familiar with. When you mentioned that you’re working on a dance film without image, I was immediately reminded of Tony Cokes, who also seeks to revise hierarchies of image, language, and sound. The “Notes for the Waiting Room” (2017) publication that was placed on a side table in the installation you and Jesse Cohen created for EFA Project Space reminded me of the zine-filled Roomba that moved across the gallery in Sondra Perry’s show at The Kitchen in 2016; and your work on medical experimentation in the video Pre-Existing Condition (2019) resonates with Rodney McMillian’s recent show Body Politic (2020).
In other interviews, you’ve said that we should frame “access” as being less about clarity and transparency, and more about being together, collectivity, and care. To me, talking about how the practices of different artists relate to one another seems to model that idea of collectivity-as-accessibility. It’s not about building a canon, but about building a network. How do you think about collaboration and influence? Are there interlocutors who are important to you?
I’m in a similar position—I ended up going back to school for fine art later in life, but when I started making art I wasn’t formally trained, I hadn’t studied studio art or art history. My introduction to art, and the deepening of my investment in art, really came from being an art worker in New York. I got to know about art from working in the field. I love to occasionally nerd out on some art-historical legacies and trajectories, but my work doesn’t really live there. My hope is that my work can meet people wherever they are at, because that’s literally what my practice is about. I tend to find that the people who appreciate my work the most are those for whom the signs, symbols, and strategies I engage are immediately legible because of something in their own lives. My work is as simple as it appears.
One thing that’s challenging about being an artist is that your job is to be individuated in the public, even though you’re a person embedded in a community of people thinking together, sharing resources, and providing care. It’s hard to look at an artwork as being the concentration of one’s individual efforts, and not the efforts of so much more. My artwork is as much made from my ideas as it is made by the fabricator who made a physical object that I appropriated, or a hug from a friend, or the person who picked up my trash this morning, or the vitamin D from the sun that’s keeping me alive, or a viewer who experiences the work. Also, Tony Cokes, Rodney McMillian, and Sondra Perry are some of my favorite artists, so thanks for the citation.
In addition to your studio practice, you also maintain a significant writing practice. You’ve written essays about illness, access, and care for publications like Triple Canopy, and your video and installation works often incorporate text. As you know, Topical Cream is both a public programming platform and a digital publication—we believe strongly in writing as a tool for intervention not only in the art world, but in the world more broadly. Could you tell me about your practice as a writer, and about how you bring text and print into your video and installation work?
I don’t necessarily see writing as separate from my art practice. They operate alongside each other, and pierce each other in certain ways. Something I think a lot about is the different ways language and art succeed and fail. I use writing to do the things art can’t do, and I use art to do the things writing can’t do. Usually when I incorporate text in video work, it’s for structural reasons or for access. If there is text in the work, it’s because there’s some part of the work that requires text. I tend to not use it expressively, and save that for essays and other forms of writing.
I know I mentioned some art-historical references that I’ve felt in your work, but I’d like to take a moment to mention that works like “Notes for the Waiting Room” have also resonated with me personally. I’ve had that experience of sitting in a waiting room about to undergo some diagnostic tests, and feeling a sort of palpable, if silent, sense of community with the other patients there. Being in a waiting room can also mess with our standard perceptions of time: time can feel elongated, even if we’re only in there for a few minutes. I would love to hear you talk more about how you explore ideas of time in your work, and what it means to think about chronic illness—which has the Greek word chronos at its root—within the parameters of a time-based medium like video. Has your thinking about time evolved as your practice has evolved?
I’ve always been invested in and interested in time-based media, and in particular, moving image art that approaches duration in experimental ways. I think chronic illness also has an experimental relationship to duration, though maybe I should actually define it as being experimental and dominant since most people in the world live with some form of chronic illness. It’s just a part of being alive, but it’s also important to say that it’s a heightened condition of racial capitalism: these chrono-normative systems disproportionally affect Black and Indigenous, poor and working-class, and gender non-conforming people. Yet people always, somehow, resist them on their own terms. Standardized time is a relatively recent invention. Our understanding of time as progressive is simply not true, whether we’re looking at quantum mechanics or chronic illness.
Illness is disruptive: it changes everything around it. That disruption, depending on your subject position and your politics, can be painful, challenging, and full of grief. But that disruption can also be life-changing, and amazing, and bring you into relations of care that save you from the drudgery of a shallow, individuated, non-disabled existence. The thing that’s funny is that, yes, illness disrupts the flow of time, but also literally everyone gets sick. The fact that we even relate to it as disruptive says so much about how we are told things should go.
For Zenat Begum, entrepreneurship is a form of care. On the heels of Trump’s election in 2016, she opened Playground Coffee Shop in a Bedford-Stuyvesant storefront that had previously been a hardware store operated by her parents. The forces of gentrification had already begun to displace the neighborhood’s long-time residents and businesses, and Playground became Begum’s earnest endeavor to serve the needs of the Bed-Stuy community that had been such an integral part of her life when she was growing up. Elsewhere, she has described her business model as being a bit “Robin Hood-ish,” as she uses the money she makes selling coffee and snacks to cafe-goers to support the essentials drives, greenhouse, and free food fridges that she’s developed via Playground’s non-profit wing. This mutual aid work is what Begum is now best known for.
“Mutual aid” has become a bit of a buzzword during the COVID-19 era, as institutions and individuals have had to re-evaluate their commitments to the wider world around them. And Playground has received much attention for how deftly it’s responded to the particular forms of precarity that the pandemic has intensified. But when we spoke, Begum was quick to note that the success of her 2020 initiatives would not have been possible without the work she had already been doing with, and for, her community. Inspired by the after-school arts programs that were so central to Begum’s childhood and adolescence, even the aesthetic of Playground is meant to make the coffee shop feel lived-in, as if it has always been there.
In our conversation, we talked about Begum’s initial reasons for opening Playground, what she learned from her parents, the behind-the-scenes work of non-profit building, and the relationship between art and mutual aid.
Elizabeth Wiet: You were born and raised in Brooklyn, and Playground occupies a Bed-Stuy storefront that used to be your parents’ hardware store. How did you first arrive at the decision to transform the space into a coffee shop?
Zenat Begum: My answer to that question has changed a lot as I’ve gotten older, and my relationship to who I was when I first started Playground has evolved. I come from a very strong Bangladeshi family that immigrated to the United States for the American dream. When I went to college at the New School, I studied things that I thought would appease my parents. But after I graduated, I struggled to find a job, because I realized that for what I actually wanted to do, I wasn’t qualified. My dad had also liquidated his business in 2015, right around the time I graduated. I was distraught, watching him lose his business at the same time that I was trying to create a career for myself. I was young enough to venture off and explore my interests, but for my dad, it felt like the end of his entrepreneurship. I didn’t want to let go of this physical space—I was fearful of what the neighborhood was going to look like as it continued to gentrify. This was my childhood home, and I spent so much time here.
At the same time, I also went to high school on the Upper East Side on a scholarship. To be POC or Black on the Upper East Side is a huge contradiction of what exists there. But my friends and I would go to this coffee shop in the neighborhood called Gotham, which was owned by a Guyanese woman. This place gave us so much—the forty-five minutes we spent there prior to homeroom were everything. With Playground, I wanted to mirror the experience of peace I felt at Gotham, and at the cafes I would visit when I studied abroad in Amsterdam. I thought: “What if I tried to recreate the sense of freedom that I felt in these other cafes right here in my hometown of Brooklyn?”
I called it Playground because the space was a literal playground for me and my sisters growing up—we would run around the store as my dad would try to make sales, with screws, and tools, and trucks everywhere. We started to do DIY shows and classes. We actually opened around the time of Trump’s election in 2016. At the time I thought, “what can I do with Playground to actually benefit my community?” We held a big town hall meeting right after the election—I think over one-hundred people showed up. And I realized the power that space had to be able to hold this level of conversation among strangers. That town hall set the precedent for what Playground is now.
On the surface, hardware stores and coffee shops seem like very different kinds of businesses. Yet the purpose of a hardware store is to provide tools and supplies for people to build and maintain their homes. And much of what you’re trying to do with Playground is to create a space for longtime Bed-Stuy residents who are seeing their neighborhood rapidly transformed due to gentrification. So there seems to me to be a through-line from what your father was doing with the hardware store to what you’re doing with the coffee shop: both enterprises are about maintaining homes, and communities, in very concrete ways. You said that starting the coffee shop was, in a way, an exercise in freedom. But I’d be curious to hear if there are also ways in which you might think of yourself as continuing the legacy of your parents’ business. Are there things you learned from them that you bring into your work with Playground?
One thing I learned from my parents is motivation and drive. I’ve seen them lose their home and business, but family, and their desire to provide for us, always kept them going. I also didn’t have a lot of things growing up, but a lot of the resources I did have were the result of free programs—music was an important thing for me as a child, and I played the clarinet for ten years. I had to make the best of my situation, knowing that I might have to spend summers in the hardware store rather than at camp. I still learned how to jump rope, sing, and run on that block in Bed-Stuy. I also went to great lengths to do the things that I wanted to do. I grew up in a very traditional and strict Muslim household, so a lot of my free time was spent in my room. Playground is the legacy of my parents’ values of motivation and hard work—but it’s also the legacy of all the things that I had to actively pursue on my own while I was growing up, whether in the form of free music programs or just time spent alone and with friends, outside of my parents’ purview.
My parents really wanted me to be by the book, to become a lawyer or doctor or whatever. It’s funny that they ended up propelling me to a career similar to theirs, because it’s something they were fighting really hard for me not to do. Owning a small business involves so much hardship. There’s no passive income. I’ve worked every day for the past five years just to make sure I can support myself. But, fast forward five years, and Playground is still here after a pandemic. So I think my parents finally understand that this is something that I really want, and that I’m very similar to them in how I go about it. In the same way that they were strong in amplifying what they wanted for me, I was strong in advocating for myself and what I wanted.
One thing that’s so impressive about Playground is the real nimbleness you’ve shown in the way you respond to the evolving needs of the community you serve. During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, you assembled supply kits for protestors. You’ve also established a community fridge initiative to provide free produce to residents, organized meal pop-ups and essentials drives, and created a greenhouse on the street outside of the coffee shop. This is but a brief snapshot of all the work you’ve done.
In media, we love to laud organizations, artists, and businesses who have somehow managed to thrive and grow in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—I think part of that is borne from the natural human desire to find models of persistence. We want to believe that, “OK, we can get through this, there’s some hope.” Yet, I think in telling these stories of pandemic thriving, we often end up underplaying the incredible, often grueling labor that is involved in this kind of work. Many New Yorkers are familiar with your public-facing initiatives. But is there anything you might want to say about what we don’t see—about the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes work of activism and non-profit building?
I’ve had the same team for the past three years—a lot of people have been with me since the beginning. It might appear like these initiatives have popped up out of nowhere, but my friends and I were doing mutual aid, essentials drives, and pop-ups long before COVID. I had a fully free and accessible radio station before COVID. I also have a volunteer team of over two-hundred people.
I do think that the pandemic has made a lot of people realize that our previous models for success were unsustainable: to be successful, you had to be kind of ruthless, and ignorant and avoidant of all sorts of local and global issues. But the pandemic caused priorities to shift, and for the first time, people had the time and space to absorb everything that was happening. I didn’t have the privilege to work from home—I had to be in my store, every day. There are women who live near Playground in Bed-Stuy who are caretakers and who still had to go to work. When I say that I wanted to create something for the community, I meant it. When we started the Playground fridges, it really took over the world. Everyone was like, “How did you even think of this?” But it was so simple. I saw people, including myself, who were finding it difficult having to buy all of our meals, to make all of them, and also to go get them. The fridges and other pandemic initiatives wouldn’t have been so successful if our work wasn’t already so ingrained in our community.
When the Black Lives Matter protests started in June 2020, there were all these bundle sales, and all of these posts on social media about how to support POC creatives and businesses. But there was also a huge level of capitalism involved here, because you needed to purchase something to participate. We put the fridges and free library outside of Playground for a reason: we didn’t want people to feel like they needed to step into the shop and buy something in order to contribute. As we started to assemble the protest kits, we literally created a military, for lack of better term. We had phones that had police scanners and could document which way the traffic was flowing, so that we could meet people who needed water bottles or other support at available access points. For better or for worse, I think we needed this pandemic to happen because it actually showed the world what we needed to care about. You need to hit a wall before you can actually think about what’s next.
Since Topical Cream is an arts organization, I’d like to end by talking about the literary and artistic programs you’ve developed with Playground. In addition to operating the coffee shop, you also operate the Playground Annex, which is a bookstore that prioritizes work from Black, Brown, Indigenous, Queer, and POC authors. You also mentioned Playground Radio, an open-access platform featuring DJs, musicians, artists, and other storytellers from the community. And, through Playground Youth, you organized the Midsummer Playground Art Fair in 2018.
All of these artistic programs you’ve developed in tandem with your mutual aid initiatives. You might be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which places our human physiological needs for things like food and shelter at the foundation of a pyramid, and our aesthetic needs toward the top. So there’s this idea that food and shelter are what we require to survive—we prioritize those first—and the arts are something we can access after all of our other needs are met. And yet I know a lot of artists have tried to revise this hierarchy. I think, for instance, of the group Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, whose work since the ’60s has been very activist-focused. They share their own fresh bread at every performance, believing that art should be as basic as bread to life.
I’d love to hear you talk about how you conceive the relationship between your artistic programming and the essentials drives and other initiatives you’ve become so well-known for. How do you see the arts fitting into the other work that you do with Playground?
I love that question, because when we started doing the community fridge initiative, we were simply placing these residential fridges that people had donated to us outside the shop. They were these big bulky white appliances, super heavy, and I was like, “God, this is an eyesore. What do we do about this?” So I started inviting my friends to paint the fridges—and I invited them to paint the take-one-leave-one library, as well as the greenhouse. Free resources usually look pretty shabby and utilitarian, but they don’t have to look that way. People were confused. They were like, “Why are you working so hard to do this?” And I was like, “Well, I want people to be happy to use these resources. I want these to be a source not of pain, but joy.” When you pour energy into these things, people give the same energy back. This also gave my artist friends an opportunity to leave their own houses during the early days of the pandemic and do the things they love again—so many arts workers have been laid off or furloughed. Painting these fridges also makes it feel like they’ve been there forever. They don’t just feel like a temporary COVID thing.
Asking my friends to paint the fridges allowed me to merge our arts programming with our mutual aid initiatives. Art, as much as food, is life. When I walk down the street and I see a bare wall, I think about how I want a mural to go there, or something. I love the aesthetic of after-school programs: everything’s made of construction paper, everything’s lined up. That’s my artistic vision for Playground. I don’t ever want to have regrets about what I feel I should have done with the space, inside or outside the store.