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Originally published in The New York Times, April 23, 2006.


First Prize: A Chance to Stay

They want to live in the United States, but a gallery competition for foreign-born artists may be asking too much.

Partisans in the roiling national debate over immigrant rights have waged their fight in Congress and on the streets of American cities. A more out-of-the-way front will open this week when an art collective takes over a Chelsea gallery for a week with a guest-worker program of its own: a show that doubles as a contest pitting foreign-born artists against one another in their quest for permanent residency here.

More than 200 artists from 43 countries applied to take part in the experiment, “AsylumNYC” at the White Box Gallery, and the collective, Wooloo Productions, narrowed the field to 10. Upon arriving at the gallery on Monday, the “contestants” will have to give up all of their own materials. In exchange, each will be issued pen, paper, a mattress and space on the floor. For the rest of the week, that’s where they’ll live, getting three meals a day and creating artwork to be judged by two Wooloo members on Saturday. Where they get other materials from is their problem, but they can’t leave.

The prize is the services of Daniel Aharoni, an immigration lawyer who has promised to help the winner secure an O-1 artist visa good for three years. (His fees will be covered by Franklin Furnace, an avant-garde group in Downtown Brooklyn and a sponsor of the show.) Wooloo will also organize a New York solo show for the winner.

That much is clear. What the contestants are being asked to create is hazier. Indeed, Wooloo’s aim all along has been to mimic the uncertainty of the immigrant experience. According to Martin Rosengaard, director of the collective, that means applicants who persistently ask the right questions — pressing the show’s organizers for details about the contest or hitting up gallery visitors for extra supplies — have an advantage.

“Yikes! What am I gonna do, just sit there?” Naohisa Matsumoto, 33, said when a reporter told him of the rules. Mr. Matsumoto, a Japanese furniture designer who lives in Brooklyn, applied to “AsylumNYC” because his work visa expires next year. But the contest’s limits present a problem: “I’m an object-maker and I need specific materials, specific tools.”

Dusanka Komnenic, 29, a painter from Serbia and Montenegro, was surprised but unfazed: “It will be interesting to see what interaction is created between us in the box and ‘them’ in the outside world,” said Ms. Komnenic, who teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design under the provisions of a student visa that will expire in July. “It’s sort of a gladiators’ arena in a sophisticated setting.”

To Lanfranco Aceti, a mixed-media artist from Cassino, Italy, that sounded too much like exploitation, an aspect of the immigrant experience he could do without: two days after learning Wooloo had accepted his application, he decided not to take part.

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