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From Freehouse to Neighborhood Co-op: The Birth of a New Organizational Form

I recently wrote this article for the new Grant Kester-edited journal coming out of University of California, San Diego called Field, and it was a wonderful opportunity to dig more deeply into Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk’s long-running Freehouse project in Rotterdam. Here are the first couple of pages.

One year ago I was invited to “Radicalizing the Local,” a gathering in Rotterdam described as the “international closing symposium of the Freehouse art project on co-ops as an organizational form in order to combine value determination, local qualities, organization, art economy, initiative, and co partnership.” This sounded great, if a little confusing, but once I understood that this symposium was connected to the twenty plus years of urban development and artistic research efforts initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk in 1998 in her native Rotterdam, I was intrigued. The event marked the handover of Freehouse to a self-organized, resident-run Wijk (Neighborhood) Cooperative, which would continue the economic development and community organizing work of the art project and scale it up. Though often touted as a desired outcome in place-based social practice work, the actual birth of a truly self-run organization that is the outgrowth of artistic thinking around urban development is like a unicorn—a fairy tale creature that may not actually exist. The opportunity to witness the formalized “handover” to such an organization and my curiosity about the Co-op’s development over time was the impetus for my original visit to Rotterdam, and for the research that follows.

Freehouse Origins

Much of the work of Freehouse predates the concept of “creative place-making” that is so ubiquitous in discussions around urban planning. A notion at once pursued by city planners and touted by the likes of Richard Florida, creative place-making has outcome problems (one such criticism being that neighborhood vibrancy indicators can rarely be proven to lead to economic growth or crime reduction).[1] Freehouse, however, was able to work on a small scale with collectives and individuals to achieve demonstrable success. This success related not to the instrumental value of art and artists as a means to catalyze profit or investment, nor to the idea of art as possessing an intrinsic value (art for art’s sake). Rather, it was due to a process that enhanced the opportunities afforded to people in the neighborhood to improve their social well-being. In short, Freehouse was able to provide more choices to people about what lives they would like to lead and how. It is no accident that this effort was called Freehouse—the working process relied on individuals to autonomously determine their own economic priorities, while also aspiring to expand that choice in the long term for the community as a whole.

Read the rest of the article online here, or download the pdf here.

And recently, I was fortunate enough to continue the conversation with Jeanne in a Social and Studio Conversation organized by the awesome Daniel Tucker at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. You can watch that conversation below.

This House Is Every House: The Journey of “Funeral for a Home”

What follows is the essay I wrote about the Temple Contemporary-initiated project in Philadelphia called Funeral for a Home. This is the result of nearly a year of interviews, discussions, and documentation of the artistic and organizational process that culminated in a funeral for a condemned 142 year old row-home in the West Philly neighborhood of Mantua. More about this project, which encompasses elements of art, public history, performance, and community organizing, can be found on the website and archive The project’s book contains an abridged version, along with excellent contributions by Rob Blackson, Patrick Grossi, Bernard Herman, Andrew Hurley, and Thomas Lynch. 


Chairs set up for the May 31, 2014 home-going celebration for 3711 Melon Street.


Part One: Impetus of the Project

Philadelphia is a large city of tiny neighborhoods with long histories, where blocks shift in character from one end to the next and people live in the same spot for generations. Philadelphia is also a city undergoing enormous and rapid change–the death throes and birth pangs of any post-industrial American city with the blue collar history and cultural-geographic assets Philly possesses. When I first found out about Funeral for a Home, a project initiated by Temple University’s contemporary art gallery that would demolish, eulogize, and celebrate the passing of a Philadelphia row home, it felt like an impulse I couldn’t connect with, something more suited to post-Katrina New Orleans than the city where I grew up. My childhood home was in Wyndmoor, a suburb within spitting distance of the city line and cobble-stoned, well-heeled Chestnut Hill. Most of my world revolved around these places, with occasional visits to Fairmount Park, Mount Airy, Center City, and Chinatown. Most of Philadelphia proper, however, is a tapestry of row home neighborhoods, sporting neat attached houses spanning entire blocks. This working class vernacular architecture, once a thriving housing stock that brought home ownership within reach of so many, has systematically been demolished bit by bit for various interconnected reasons (abandonment, blight, decay, development, slow and steady population loss).

As initially conceptualized, Temple Contemporary would identify a house (ideally a Philadelphia row home) within an otherwise populated neighborhood that was abandoned, condemned, or slated for demolition by the city. They would commission an historian to research and investigate the stories of the neighborhood, and artists to conceptualize the funeral of the house–including procession, service, and reception. The funeral is meant to be less an occasion for mourning than a celebration of the life and history of the house, a pause for its denizens to consider the continuing evolution of their city.  It is the capstone on a year-long process of research and relationship-building, as well as a focal point around which to discuss the rapidly changing character of housing in Philadelphia.


Refurbished row homes in Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood.

My role in this context is less an essayist than a documentarian of this process. Since the investigation of urban evolution–change on both micro and macro levels–characterizes the core of this project, this text will take its shape over time as well. Using a diaristic form, I will analyze the project at key benchmarks: during the initial research and house selection phase, the beginning and middle of the neighborhood investigation phase, the active funeral production process, and after the event has culminated. Rather than focus solely on urban histories, I look through the lens of the artists, their engagement process, how the social history of the neighborhood influences the project, as well as what reciprocity or impact the project offers.

The impetus of this project arose from the responsive nature of Temple Contemporary’s programming and decision-making structure; namely its highly engaged Advisory Committee, which votes on questions that determine the institutions programming priorities and resource commitments moving forward. Rather than a group of solely artists or cultural patrons, this thirty-five member volunteer council includes a broad and vertical cross-section of Temple’s immediate and broader community; namely, “neighboring high school and Temple students, faculty and civic leaders representing a range of interests (economists, farmers, philosophers, artists, community activists, historians, etc.).[1] From the Council’s monthly direct democratic process emerged the question of the Philadelphia row home – as Rob Blackson, Temple Contemporary director put it, the council asked “what are we doing to address the issues of surplus row-homes in the city, and the stories that are being lost as they are removed?” This question spoke to the larger concerns of the changing nature of Philadelphia housing stock, the wholesale erasure of history in a rapidly gentrifying city, and the uncertainty of the city’s future (especially for the working poor, who were once able to live quite well in industrial Philly). It was voted a top concern by the council, thus the programming staff of Temple Contemporary began to consider how it would creatively and meaningfully inform their future programming.

As this question percolated, Blackson and his colleagues learned about a small event conducted by formerly Philadelphia-based artist Jacob Hellman. Once an employee for the short-lived Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), a city-wide planned designed to clear vacant housing stock and relocate residents into newly built houses in an attempt to stave off blight, Hellman’s job was to ensure that properties were indeed vacant before sealing them for demolition. Touched by the detritus of past lives in these houses and their unceremonious erasure, Hellman held a small funeral for one of the houses with a few friends. Out of this event came the conceptual grounding and title for Funeral for a Home.[2]

Artists Billy Dufala and Jacob Hellman survey a North Philadelphia neighborhood with public historian Patrick Grossi.

Artists Billy Dufala and Jacob Hellman survey a North Philadelphia neighborhood with public historian Patrick Grossi.

Blackson and his colleagues began building the rest of the project team, engaging historians and artists who could work responsively and creatively around this question, and who could involve an expanded network of invested others in ways that reflect the embedded organizational ethos of the gallery itself. Temple PhD student in history Patrick Grossi signed on to be the project manager and public historian for Funeral, charged with both locating an appropriate house for demolition and gathering the in-depth research and oral histories of the neighborhood’s constituents. With a primary interest in urban and local histories, Grossi described the compelling nature of the single Philadelphia row home left on a block–formerly a symbol of working class prosperity, and now a memento mori recalling forgotten histories and sweeping disinvestment. He began his engagement with Funeral by diving into the murky, inefficient, and politically-charged world of demolition, and by building relationships with neighborhood community development organizations, city officials, developers, and home associations. Committed strongly to collecting oral histories as a core part of the project, Grossi has also worked on launching a web platform with the capacity to collate interviews, articles, and current neighborhood information, as well as an uploading capability that will allow participants to contribute material directly.[3]

Along with Grossi, Temple Contemporary asked the artists, brothers and collaborators Billy and Steven Dufala, to conceptualize the funeral itself and work with the existing cultural assets in the chosen community (musicians, speakers, caterers, etc) to produce the event. Self-described sculptors who are also excellent draftsmen, the Dufalas are perhaps best-known for their street performances featuring absurd sculptural vehicles (the toilet tricycle and cardboard tank). This interest in symbolism, procession, and public spectacle (as well as the politics of public space) form the basis for the artists’ engagement in the process of putting together a memorial service for a home.

The team, including Jacob Hellman (who acted in an advisory capacity at the project’s inception, but is no longer actively involved), gathered for a meeting in summer 2013 at Temple for a check-in, discussion of the project’s goals, and tour of a couple of the three neighborhoods being actively considered as project sites (Kensington, Fishtown, and Mantua). Both artists expected to be highly influenced by the collected and uncovered oral histories in these very different geographies, and Billy expressed particularly keen interest in intensive on-the-ground relationship building. As he put it, he really wanted to “be there, get to know people, be in the neighborhood, offer and exchange and form relationships, leave it open to see what happens.” This openness and responsive bespeaks an approach influenced by methods of popular education and social practice–a methodology that is partly practical (Steven said “get people from the neighborhood more invested, and things might actually happen”) and partly activist (with the influence of this positive project, perhaps enough support, momentum and attention can be funneled to the organizations already existing in these neighborhoods to create some kind of lasting investment). Steven expressed an interest in the confluence of art and demolition; considering what used to be there in order to build something new.[4] This is an appealing way of viewing artists’ projects that investigate the space of urban development and community organizing.

Indeed, the question of what residue the funeral would leave, what lasting service could be leveraged from the enormous resource access, official interest, networks, and capacities created as part of the infrastructure of this project, was the most open and difficult conceptual question still floating around at this initial meeting (along with the logistical question, “Which house, and where?”). The demo, building preparation, procession, material removal/repurposing, and big reception/meal at the end seemed like givens, but each member of the team had different ideas about what to leave behind. Blackson cautioned that Temple was theoretically supportive of a longer term effort, but could not continue financial support post-funeral. In the significant lag time between the demolition and the development of new housing (the city’s ultimate redevelopment plan) the artists suggested a “ghost” house, the outline of a house, or a garden; and the oral histories collected on the website were mentioned. Patrick suggested that the neighbors decide.[5]

After this, Patrick, Billy, Jacob and I went on a tour of the neighborhoods under consideration (all but Mantua, which was too far away) – Patrick had identified some possible houses and we went to go check them out. We rode under the El for most of the way, an elevated railway that runs through North Philadelphia. The storefronts beneath ranged from pawn shops, liquor stores, optical shops, donut places, pharmacies, barbecue joints, and check cashing places. The place was lively, but turned quiet when we turned north of Lehigh on Emerald and pulled up to the burnt-out shell of a building. Near this house, a relatively friendly man named Omar sat on his stoop with a silent young man with neck tattoos. He chatted with Billy and Jacob for a bit, who were asking him questions about the neighborhood. He had lived in the house his whole life on a little street that certainly held poverty (and a burnt-out building), but seemed otherwise populated and cared for. The house, he said, used to be a brothel, but the owner is now in jail. He was very supportive of the idea that it could be a place for art, or turned into a park. I was uncomfortable with the hope this brought to his tone and wished for a moment that we hadn’t mentioned it. When he heard we were associated with Temple, though, a hard veneer crossed his eyes. Temple’s taking over everything, he said. Later, Patrick shook his head. This is a huge challenge we have to continually overcome, he said. The history of universities gentrifying and developing historically black neighborhoods ruthlessly and with rampant displacement is not a good one in this city.

The author standing on a flight of stairs to nowhere in North Philadelphia.

The author standing on a flight of stairs to nowhere in North Philadelphia.

The emptiness of our next stop, just around the corner, struck me viscerally like post-Katrina New Orleans, or areas of Detroit. Nowhere else have I seen stairs to nowhere, rising up a graded street to houses that no longer exist. Everything was overgrown with the lush vegetation of a mid-Atlantic summer, and a few blank sidewalls of severed row homes rose through fields that seemed to stretch on forever. Where were we? Patrick noted that two-thirds of the land in the city of Philadelphia existed in these disinvested neighborhoods, up in the northern badlands. This is the Philadelphia I never even knew existed growing up, and the territory seemed the complex result of unseen power struggles of land-banking, development, and strong underground economies of drugs and crime that created these landscapes.

Our final stop was in Fishtown, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with a hipster tidal wave of new restaurants and brand-new condominiums. The house we were viewing was a single row-home, boarded up, with a lonely shamrock decorating its white-washed facade. Two women in pajama pants walked by smoking cigarettes, and Jacob and Billy engaged them in some conversation. With vitriol, they noted that the house has been continually boarded up and that crack addicts just keep breaking in over and over again. They said, “We’re all just waiting for fire to take it away,” and sent chills down all of our spines.

Billy mentioned that fire and abandoned row homes in Philly is a big problem. Apparently, it happens a lot and sometimes spreads to the nearby occupied houses. No wonder the city views them as decaying teeth that could spread to a whole block, and my experience with the empty neighborhood near the “stairs to nowhere” north of Lehigh did nothing to dispell that notion. Better to extract and remove than to preserve.[6]

A burned out building in a North Philadelphia neighborhood.

A burned out building in a North Philadelphia neighborhood.

PART TWO: Selection of the Neighborhood and the Beginning of Planning

Over half a year has passed since my initial meeting and tour with the project team. Since then they have selected a house, got the website up and running, and talked with dozens of people, digging into the specific histories of place and time. Story, rumor, context, and how the narrative is crafted around these processes is such a huge part of social practices such as these – it is the cornerstone of the artistic work. Who gets to speak, when, and what information comes forward through what filter of power and privilege is a window into the complex dynamics that emerge in projects like this. Artists like Måns Wrange, who combatted xenophobic fictions in the San Diego-Tijuana border region through The Good Rumor Project (2005), deals with it overtly as material, but every artwork has another life as a story–especially those that are ephemeral, performative, or unfold over time. Because of this, artists and cultural organizations become their own scholars, out of necessity, because a compelling story is the currency they can leverage, the foothold in popular culture in which they find purchase.

As of February 2014, context and story again shifted dramatically in Funeral–the neighborhood we didn’t visit last summer because it was not in Northeast Philadelphia, that West Philly neighborhood called Mantua, is where the project ultimately landed. Because this funeral project will amplify, project, and mirror Mantua to the city at large, the story of the neighborhood through the lens of the house is already being crafted via myriad perspectives — through the historian’s research, the artists’ experiences and explorations in the rhythm of community, the perceptions of a long-time pastor. The scales through which we view Mantua and this funeral within it shift from the macro to the micro in a second, from a long-view history of the neighborhood and its importance to Philadelphia, to the different occupants of the house on Melon Street, to Billy and Steven’s personal relationship to the neighborhood, to Pastor Harry Moore of the Mount Olive Baptist church’s emerging relationship with Billy (representative of many such conversations with residents swirling around this idea and ultimate event).

As Patrick Grossi tells me the story of the neighborhood over the phone in February, he laments that he can’t just give me a book “The History of the Bottom” (the “Bottom” is an affectionate colloquial term for Mantua), because it does not exist. His narrative, however, gleaned from months of intensive research into these local histories largely overlooked by other scholars, is very consistent when told to me, to the artists, to Rob Blackson, to others in the community, and it is clear that he is composing this very book in his head. There are benchmarks, points of consensus, around which the team coalesces.[7]

Mantua is in West Philadelphia, much closer to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University than it is to Temple. It is bounded by 40th street on the west side, with Belmont and Mill Creek lying just beyond its borders, and Spring Garden Street to the south. Like most of the neighborhoods in West Philadelphia, removed from the city’s center by the dividing line of the Schuylkill River, it emerged as a suburban enclave during a speculative real estate boom in the 19th century. Jewish and Irish immigrants established Mantua as a classic 2-story row-home neighborhood, like the peripheral row-home neighborhoods all over the city.

For nearly 60 years, Mantua has been a predominantly African-American neighborhood like many of its abutting regions, including an area called the “Black Bottom” to its south. However, in the late 1960s, Penn and Drexel in the west and Temple in the northeast launched aggressive campaigns to rapidly acquire property in these neighborhoods. The “Black Bottom” is now Penn’s campus and the renamed University City. Its name and history has been almost completely erased from official recollection, but people in the surrounding neighborhoods have long memories and very complicated feelings about university expansion. This erasure of history, the threat of displacement, and the imbalances of power between monied forces of development, the city, and historically black or minority neighborhoods are both so specific to Mantua and West Philly; and so universally experienced in urban centers throughout the United States.

Row homes in Philadelphia.

Row homes in Philadelphia.

As Margit Mayer writes in “The ‘right to the city’ in urban social movements,” the development of our cities have mirrored one another, not just in this country but around the globe:

In the reaction to the crisis of Fordism, since the 1970s, urban development patterns have become increasingly similar across advanced capitalist countries, and forms of urban governance have converged so much that it is not surprising that movements challenging and resisting them, across the global North anyway, have gone through similar cycles.[8]

Mayer focuses on urban social movements that have arisen in the past 60 years in reaction to aggressive urban development and rapid change. Dubbed “right to the city” movements, they appropriate Henri Lefebvre’s notion that establishing rights through social and political action in opposition to the power of urbanization (defined by Lefebvre as “the transformation of society and everyday life through capital”) challenges the claims of the rich and powerful.[9] This resonates with Mantua’s own local history and civic context, including a deep history and recent resurgence of powerful grassroots planning organizations, CDCs, and civic associations.

The Mantuan civic context was prototypical of a first wave of “broad urban mobilizations” in the 70s, which was largely in reaction to the post-Fordist urban renewal campaigns of the 1960s (like university land-grabs in the Bottom in addition to other housing and rent struggles) that “drastically restructured cities and displaced many, particularly poor residents.”[10]  In the United States many such mobilizations were mostly led by African-Americans (those most excluded from “Fordist prosperity”) and they mostly demanded “participation in the decision making of their own design.” (p. 67) In Mantua, several progressive community planning groups arose in the 70s to seize control of their neighborhood’s future; among them the Mantua Community Planners led by Andy Jenkins (who is still a pillar of the community today), and the Young Great Society (YGS) led by the revered Herman Wrice (1939-2000). YGS and the Community Planners launched a number of progressive development projects designed to increase leadership and prosperity from the inside, including day care centers, a small business hub, sports and education programs for youth, and gang and drug prevention programs. The long-standing slogan of Mantua’s resident-driven development is “Plan or Be Planned For,” and this resonates with Mayer’s analysis of these urban activist movements in the 70s in the US, which were practically focused on community control and grassroots participation.[11]

As we enter the more recent era of the neoliberal city, which Mayer sees as a result of the restructuring and integration of global financial markets in the early 2000s and the concomitant polarization of socio-economic class it is no surprise that there has been an incredible resurgence of civic associations and social movement organizations in Mantua that have formed within the last five years.[12] These include the very new Mantua Civic Association, with a board that includes both veteran organizers like Andy Jenkins as well as a younger generation of Mantuans; the Mantua Community Improvement Committee, which is focused on safety, lighting, and trash removal; the Mantua Alliance, a group that is business-oriented and acts as a glue between the various civic groups; the Hub Coalition, dedicated to community service; and the People’s Emergency Center CDC, one of the most robust CDCs in the city covering the West Philadelphia area.

The Mt. Olive Baptist Church choir, waiting for the funeral procession.

The Mt. Olive Baptist Church choir, waiting for the funeral procession.

Each member of the Funeral project team has separately remarked on how Mantua has turned out to be “more perfect than expected,” because of this activist history, existing infrastructure for progressive community development, and engaged citizenry. There are likewise many social practice artistic projects that exist within urban space and deal with issues surrounding development and gentrification that thrive under similar conditions; they are able to create partnerships within an already networked community, gain access to broader lines of communication via a trusted figure or two, and in some cases, leverage resources that will be effectively implemented by the community itself after the art project ceases to exist. Some examples include Jeanne van Heeswijk’s Freehouse project in Rotterdam’s Afrikaanderwijk (1999-ongoing), which leveraged the existence of a long-running weekly market to activate new business co-ops and advocacy organizations; Transforma in New Orleans (2005-2009), which utilized a strong existing network of artists, social clubs, and neighborhood development organizations after Katrina to fund projects that would help to rebuild the city; and Park Fiction in Hamburg (2000-2006), which took advantage of a deep tradition of housing activism among residents to launch a grassroots participatory planning process resulting in a community-designed park.

One key difference in this project is that it is not an initiative designed to “help Mantua”–as is clear from the long history of advocacy and organizing, Mantua needs no catalyst to determine its own destiny. Rather, in a city of racially divided, isolated neighborhoods, this project is an opportunity to take the example of Mantua and connect it to neighborhoods all over Philadelphia (and from there, cities throughout the Northeast). This goal is perhaps best illustrated in an exchange between Billy and Steven Dufala (the artists), Patrick Grossi (the historian) and Pastor Harry Moore, leader of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church congregation for the past 20 years. After the artists had gotten into a deep conversation with the pastor about funeral practices in the community (which he aptly prefers to call “homegoing celebrations”), Pastor Moore again returned to an unanswered question he had asked earlier:

What is your goal here? What made you guys want to do this? Is there any money in this? There’s always motives for doing everything.[13]

This question, asked in a friendly but shrewd way, is complicated by the long history of university land grabs and the fact that Funeral is associated with Temple University. Steven said “I wish we have a 10-second answer for you,” and the pastor shot back, laughing, “Well, think of one.”

Billy and Steven described their personal connections to Mantua, with Billy speaking passionately about his unique studio for the past 10 years, a giant former trolley shed just on the border of Mantua at 41st and Haverford. As an artist and a renter, he described the precarity he felt and the pressures linked to rising rents, development interest and a general feeling of unease. He acknowledged that his situation was very different from the neighbors who had grown up in Mantua, but felt that the economy of demolition, development and rebuilding in the city was very personal to him. Perhaps focusing on the story of this neighborhood and block could be a mirror for telling those stories outside of Mantua to those who don’t already think they are important. Funeral could help people understand that this house is every house.

Funeral-goers on May 31, 2014.

Funeral-goers on May 31, 2014.

Patrick added that the city demolished hundreds of houses every year, and it’s usually a fly-by-night operation. He sees this project as an opportunity to look at the history of these places and what this change means–for housing stock, for current and future residents, for displacement, for erasure of history, for shifting balances of power.

The pastor got it. “You want this to take on legs, huh,” he remarked.[14]

At this point in their process, as indicated in their conversation with the pastor, the artists are building on their initial personal connection to Mantua to form lots of new relationships. Billy remarked in a recent phone conversation that he felt they had engaged in many open conversations that were ongoing, that required check-ins and follow-up and further articulation and digging. He was painfully aware of the careful balancing act they were performing–between the agenda of the project, and the existing neighborhood agendas they didn’t quite understand yet.

The Dufalas thrive on one-on-one connection, and they are quite skilled at communicating with passion and sincerity, which was evident in the conversation with Pastor Moore. They are likeable, and dedicated. After the conversation with the Pastor, Billy recounted that he was “challenged” to visit church on Sunday, which he did several times (and continues to do). At one point, Pastor Moore introduced him to the entire congregation and endorsed the project, which Billy realized was probably the most powerful instance of community outreach so far, and something they never could have orchestrated themselves.

The flip side of this is the decidedly cool reception they have had when presenting to large-group meetings; people find it difficult to get beyond the Temple university connection and quickly understand the higher goals of the project (“We need to work on our elevator speech,” one of the artists said). Even in one-on-one meetings, though there is ample interest, many potential participants are waiting on a more concrete plan. As Rose Evans of the Dorsife Center, who attends every Mantua Civic Association meeting said, “I’m getting it, but I need to get it.”[15]

In this “mire of open conversations,” as Billy put it, the core tension seems to be the specificity of the articulation of the project’s vision, and allowing for a continued elasticity of possibility. The artists want to get as many people involved as possible in the final funeral event, and allow for new ideas and participations they have not yet encountered–yet many potential participants among the residents are rightly cautious, and await further articulation of a plan. What is the tipping point in this balance, the point of crystallization?

“We are beginning to see the edges,” Steven said hopefully. “But we’re not there yet.”[16]

Part Three: The Funeral Takes Shape

I had the opportunity to speak to the entire Funeral team on the 17th of April, about two months after I had last checked in with them. The Dufala brothers, Patrick Grossi, and Rob Blackson all met me for kababs in West Philadelphia, and it became clear through our conversation that the shape of the funeral event (now only about six weeks away) was coalescing. The artists were clearly preoccupied with the detailed logistics of the events itself, thinking about volunteers and people-movers and the size of the dumpster they would use after the demolition.

Artist Billy Dufala surveys the scene.

Artist Billy Dufala surveys the scene.

The framework of the ceremony arose from a variety of practical factors and artistic ideas, but the artists’ ongoing relationship with Pastor Moore of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church was a key factor in sharpening the conceptualization of these events. At this point in the planning process, the event will loosely follow a funeral service, which Pastor Moore calls a “homegoing celebration,” founded on the four “R”s; remembering, rededicating, reflection, and resurrection. By remembering the one who has passed, reflecting on their life, reminding others to then rededicate their lives to one another, and then thinking of how this life will be resurrected, a community of people can celebrate the homegoing of a soul and thus strengthen their bonds to one another.[17]

The artists were clear that they did not want to invent anything new when applying these rituals of remembrance, closure, and celebration to a house, but rather broaden and interpret these traditions to encompass the historical evolution of a neighborhood. They spoke about transplanting the church on the block—people would enter on a song, Pastor Moore would give a eulogy, and the choir would sing some musical selections. The service would peak with the demolition of the house, with an excavator filling a dumpster with material. The congregation would follow the dumpster in a processional down the block, ending at a community table in which they would reflect and connect with one another over locally catered soul food. Finally, the materials would be repurposed, as the brick path entrance to the park on Brandywine and 34th, or a temporary community gardening shed on the site of the empty lot. Drill and step teams from the local schools and the Play On Philly string quartet will be featured as part of the processional to infuse music and movement into the event.[18]

Though they were settling on all the unique pieces of this earnest re-siting and re-contextualization of the homegoing ceremony, the artists both expressed some discomfort that so much of the planning process was about not knowing. They had just found out, for example, that Pastor Moore would improvise rather than type out his eulogy, that the notoriously hard-to-reach step teams really just wanted to know where to show up, that the minister of music had his own specific ideas about music selection that were nuanced and brimful of unspoken traditions and cultural resonance.[19]

Throughout this planning process, the artists have negotiated the line between over-determination and a sensitivity to call-and-response culture; they are both driven by a desire for the aesthetic orchestration of the event and the achievement of true meaning for the people involved. In the pursuit of this meaning, they have allowed a culture to which they do not belong to collaboratively determine the contextual framework and realize a large part of the content of the event, while simultaneously seizing certain aesthetic opportunities when they arise (for example, “dressing up” the demolition excavator and dumpster that will lead the procession).

As the dumpster coffin processed through the streets of Mantua, Play on Philly string quartet serenaded the crowd with Amazing Grace.

As the dumpster coffin processed through the streets of Mantua, Play on Philly string quartet serenaded the crowd with Amazing Grace.

Artists have performed and produced notions of the procession or parade throughout contemporary art history, from Deitch Projects’ famous Art Parades to Arto Lindsay’s Penny Parade in Berlin to Rikrit Tiravanija and Arto Lindsay’s Trespass Art Parade in Los Angeles in October of 2011. Whereas these parades focused around celebratory events and involved that city’s art world luminaries and musicians in a public display of art world culture, others have appropriated the processional traditions of place for conceptual or memorializing purposes. Another Thai conceptual artist, Navin Rawanchaikul, conducted a fairly traditional second-line jazz funeral in New Orleans as the kick-off to the post-Katrina biennial there, Prospect.1, to celebrate a jazz great that had a similar name: Narvin Kimball, one of the last members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In these examples and others, what role does aesthetics play in the realization of these projects?

Funeral exists within a spectrum of contemporary public art projects that seek to memorialize, reimagine or remediate housing in the era of the post-industrial late capitalist city, ranging from the powerfully aesthetic temporary sculptural works of Gordon Matta-Clark and Rachel Whiteread to ongoing performative or community-engaged projects like Project Row Houses in Houston. With the house as both medium, site, context, and conceptual force, many of these diverse works resonate with 3711 Melon – uniquely situated and historicized within their city neighborhoods (Paris, London, Houston) but largely working-class, vernacular, and iterative housing (called row-homes or town-houses in Philadelphia and Houston, called terraced housing in London). The imminent loss of these historical architectural forms prompted all of these works – and all, save Project Row Houses, were demolished or repossessed within the span of a few months. In its process, however, Funeral is not easily compared to any one of these preceding works—it strives to capture both the destructive, powerful, and spectacular aesthetic gesture of orchestrated demolition, but also has engaged in an in-depth participatory process that often overrides the artists’ personal desires and recalibrates their paradigm.

In 1975, Gordon Matta-Clark cut a series of holes into a working-class Parisian town-home dating from the 1690s slated for demolition. His Conical Intersect was a complex geometrical conceit that simultaneously focused a raw sense of energy and instability into the soon-to-be-forgotten. The cuts exposed plaster, studs, wood and wallpaper, piercing the home with light and air while baring it to the public. Matta-Clark’s anarchitecture prompts both reflection on the formal elements of a home as well as its conceptual meaning, and serves as an aggressive reminder of the disappearance of swaths of the formerly industrial city in the name of progress.

This “transcendence through the ordinary,”[20] of the destructive aesthetic gesture that Matta-Clark affected through his architectural interventions was echoed by Rachel Whiteread in her masterwork House, completed in October of 1993 and demolished by January of 1994. Though little is written about the Parisian public’s reception to Matta-Clark’s work with abandoned buildings, Whiteread and Artangel (the commissioning public art agency) entered a very different situation on Grove Road in the East End of London. Unlike the Parisian town-houses that Matta-Clark cut into, the terraced house that Whiteread intervened upon was the only one left on the block and was staunchly occupied by Sydney Gale. Mr. Gale eventually agreed to relocate, and Whiteread proceeded to modify her unique casting process for the entire structure—applying a de-bonding agent to the inside walls and spraying layers of concrete reinforced with wire mesh along the entire interior of the building. After the “mold” of the house was removed (an effective demolition of the structure), the remaining concrete sculpture was an inverted, impenetrable, but intimate residual of the house’s living space, with strangely bulging fireplaces and window wells, and negative doorknobs and architraves.[21]

Perhaps because of its hermetic form—as James Lingwood writes, “…it was by no means clear what values it sought to promote…it did not seek to predetermine the ways people could respond to it”—or perhaps because of the destructive forces inherent in its making, House was almost immediately surrounded by controversy and argument.[22] It was not only in the questioning of its value as art that conflict arose, but in a broader and more pervasively painful reminder of displacement, demolition, and erasure in the urban environment. House did not seek to soothe, remediate, repurpose, or even listen to the frictions it unearthed, but crystallized and amplified them in a certain place and time, for a moment. Its eventual destruction was voted in by the outraged Bow Neighborhood Council, and it was demolished not even three months later.

The powerful but pointed energy of these intensely unstable, memorializing, and spectacular symbolic gestures contrast with the rise of socially-engaged artworks in the 90s and after, which approached the issue of housing very differently. Project Row Houses in Houston, which was founded by Rick Lowe in the same year as Rachel Whiteread’s House, began with the grant-funded purchase of 22 abandoned shotgun-style row houses in Houston’s Third Ward. The homes were facing a now-familiar fate—a once-working class neighborhood succumbing to blight in the face of disappearing industry, and taking with it communal bonds and networks of social support built around these geographies. Rather than create an aesthetic or theatrical gesture around these properties with the purpose of memorialization and reflection, Lowe envisioned an on-going, participatory project that would provide both artistic and social programs to catalyze the transformation of the surrounding African-American community. Twelve houses became artist exhibition and residency spaces, seven became homes for young single mothers looking to complete their degrees, and other spaces include affordable housing, a park, community gallery, and education spaces.

Though Lowe’s project was among the first and longest-lasting artist-initiated community-based artworks that strove to catalyze a neighborhood to seize control of its future and address issues of social justice through a leveraging of aesthetics, art world interest and philanthropy, pedagogy, and grassroots revitalization, a handful of other such projects have followed suit. Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk has engaged in several such iterative, long-term and catalytic projects dedicated to radicalizing a local populace towards specific and self-determined action within their communities to seize their own “right to the city.” Among them are Freehouse in Rotterdam (which transitioned recently from a community center and organization to a resident-run cooperative) and the 2UP 2DOWN/Homebaked project around the destructive Housing Market Renewal regeneration scheme in Liverpool and its effect on the (again, terraced and working-class) neighborhood of Anfield. The Heidlberg Project in Detroit and Watts House Project in Los Angeles are among other examples, each incredibly varied in its program and responsiveness to context and site.


Funeral does not claim to be this kind of remediating or long-term project; its organizers will not stick around, they will not start a non-profit organization; they will not work with residents to provide services. Its organizers and participants do share some of the goals of these other socially-engaged art projects, however, of becoming catalytic agents in some sense, and in emphasizing self-determination as the key to future change. They share the processes of listening and relationship-building as key ingredients in the formation of the event itself, and they worry keenly about the meaning generated not for the media and their friends and the art world, but for the block.

Neither does Funeral claim to be a spectacular agonistic gesture, designed to shock those who witness it out of complacency a la Michael Fried, though it certainly involves its share of theatrics. Rather the pageantry seems designed to offer a ritual of comfort, like church, and the revelatory piece comes in the contextual dissonance when confronted not with a funeral for a person, but a funeral for a house. What does such a thing mean?

Part of understanding the multivalent meanings and perceptions around this project involves the history of the house itself, and the first question on everyone’s lips: “Who lived there?” The significance of the house and the project at large lies in how its history reflects that of the neighborhood (and even city) at large, and benchmarks the changes that led to the present through its series of occupants. Though Patrick Grossi wrote and posted a much more detailed and thoroughly research history of the home on the project website, in short the 1872 two-bedroom row home was occupied from at least 1900 on by largely Irish-American families at first, then Jewish and Italian families in the 20s and 30s, until the block became solidly African-American in the 40s and 50s. Like her neighbors who had mostly emigrated from the South, young single mother Leona Richardson hailed from Louisiana, and bought 3711 Melon Street in 1946 and raising her only son Roger there until she moved down the block in 1990. Since then, the house had been occupied by a series of renters and squatters, eventually falling into disrepair and being sold to West Philly Real Estate in 2012. It is one of only four original row homes left on the 3700 block.[23]

This trend of occupancy matches the recollections of Ardie Stuart Brown, a Mantua resident for six decades, whose parents came up from North Carolina in the 40s. She has fond memories of a diverse Mantua, an idyllic place that did not have a lot of money, but was rich with community bonds and resources. Her memories of childhood there, the school programs, 4H club, a free summer camp, and diverse business owners (Irish, Jewish, Italian and Chinese) who all knew her name and her family, have sharpened with time and in contrast to current perceptions of Mantua. She expressed deep hurt at how the neighborhood is often characterized from the outside, as a crime-ridden place where Black Panthers were raided and gangs thrive and the city burns. “Crime is something for the media to speak on,” she said. “It becomes elevated and the perception is reflected back into the community.”[24]

Even around Funeral, newspaper stories that have recently come out about the story, including the AP wire from the day of the event, almost always describe Mantua as “impoverished.” This infuriates Ardie:

I’m not impoverished. I’m a third-generation college graduate. It was a neighborhood of love. The atmosphere and the recipe for growing up to be a strong, friendly, peaceful, and idealistic person was “down the bottom” cause that’s where I grew up. I wasn’t from “up the way” and I had some of the most fantastic neighbors. That’s what makes a good neighborhood. Not a reputation of what it could be or could have been or was.[25]

The questions of what impoverishment really means and by what metrics a neighborhood measures its own worth, strikes at the core of this project. This is reflected in the reactions of the people I have told about this project–they are either familiar with Mantua and remark on how it is a “dangerous” place, remembering the West Philly MOVE fires of the 1980s or the Black Panther raids from before that—or they speak about it in a more insipidly patronizing way, the proud black neighborhood that is down-trodden and impoverished.

Ardie Brown speaks about such things a little differently — she remembers the Panthers as “proud black men stripped down” in front of their neighbors and clearly recalled the unnecessary shame and humiliation perpetrated on them by the brutal institutions of Philadelphia.[26] Ms. Brown insightfully recognized the role of forces of power in both isolating and shifting perceptions about the neighborhood as a means of control, just as French philosopher Michel Foucault theorizes in his conceptualization of power/knowledge. In talking about the subject (in this case that of the neighborhood or the individuals within it) he says it “is not a naturally occurring thing, but is contrived by the double work of of power and knowledge to maximize the operation of both.”[27] Institutions of power require systems of knowledge, an epistemology of characterization (designating a neighborhood low-income, down-trodden, impoverished, blighted, on welfare, junkies, dangerous, ghetto) to justify what they seek to do. And what they do is no less than the impersonal, discourse-driven social control of human populations by the isolation of normal from abnormal behavior. Institutions of power thus implant certain perceptions of societal worth within the collective consciousness, of the place itself and to those beyond the place.

These perceptions can damage a community beyond anything else, especially when they are internalized.

What this project ultimately aims to do is resurrect the possibility of connection beyond preconception. It doesn’t need to broadcast the history of Mantua back into the place—the history of Mantua is present and graspable. It is not a project about monuments or even really memorializing, ironically enough, and it is not about making the place stagnant or frozen in memory. Rather, it prompts us to observe and push the boundaries of how we perceive what is happening in our own communities, how we address the future and the past, and how we recognize ourselves in the other. This house is every house.

Part Four: The Home-Going Celebration

3711 Melon Street, adorned with a crown of garlands.

3711 Melon Street, adorned with a crown of garlands.

On a verdantly beautiful Pennsylvania morning, Saturday, May 31st, 2014, I drove to Mantua from Bryn Mawr straight down Lancaster Avenue. The city changed drastically around me and I was reminded of how many small slices of land and parallel histories make up Philadelphia. My surroundings changed from several-acre wooded estates with no sidewalks to the pastoral grounds of Villanova and Harcum Colleges, to cute shopping districts to industrial warehouses to the autoshops and corner stores of Overbrook to dozens of row-houses in various states of care and disrepair. Mantua appeared from the outside to be one of the more physically disinvested neighborhoods, yet it was the only place I saw any kind of significant interpersonal connection on the level of the street – people on stoops chatting, a father ushering his small toddler down the block, two boys in matching uniforms bouncing a ball down the sidewalk, people shopping at a neighbor’s informal flea market.

When I came upon Melon Street, I first saw a demolition excavator in the middle of the street, and soon after, the flowers. Though they were fake, they were nice-fake, and beautifully arranged in a crown on top of the house with black and ivory silk ribbons framing its facade. Next to the excavator was a dumpster painted black and gold like a hearse, with another crest of flowers decorating one end. I received a letterpress-printed program on cream-colored paper, a pamphlet about the project, and a fan printed with “In Memory of 3711 Melon Street, 1872-2014; Peace be to this house (Luke 10:5).” I pinned a red-flecked ivory carnation on my shirt (I was informed this was also my “ticket to the community meal”). On the other side of the fenced-in excavator hung additional wreaths, flanking a podium made of half of a door decorated with a master lock key in front of rows of white chairs.

When I arrived about an hour early, musicians were sound-checking under a small white tent, Billy Dufala was on top of a Genie lift installing a camera (ostensibly to document the ceremony), and Ms. Audrey Davis was wearing a sparkling black hat and holding court on the front porch of her home, kitty-corner to 3711. Calls of “Hi Ms. Davis!” and “Hello neighbor!” “How you doing, neighbor!” rang out as people involved in the ceremony and Mantua residents were the first to arrive. Dozens of school-age children dressed in black and pink from the Unique Miracles step troupe set up in the shade, and older folks arrived in their Sunday best – vests and suitcoats with pocket squares, summery dresses and chunky jewelry, sunhats. The atmosphere was celebratory, despite the somber black suits peppering the crowd, and the youthful ushers (mostly Tyler art students and and few neighborhood teens) who wore a uniform of black pants, white shirts, and black armbands on their biceps. Attendees had various reactions, from remarking, “Well, it sure is different” to marveling “Look at that, flowers all up and down” to exclaiming, “I never heard of a funeral for a house, but this is a beautiful thing here.” The chairs and grassy empty lot next to them filled in, a diverse mix of Mantua residents and former residents, Temple students, artists and their friends, representatives of the many community and civic organizations that partnered on the project, and a smattering of reporters, photographers, and camera operators.

Reception table at the home-going celebration.

Reception table at the home-going celebration.

Though the anecdotal comments I overheard leading up to the ceremony were mostly positive, Pastor Moore betrayed a deeper uncertainty at work as the funeral started. In his welcome, he assured the crowd that he knew the difference between a real funeral and this event. That a funeral was related to the cremation or burial of a person, and this event was something else entirely. He just wanted to clarify this for those who had been asking questions. However, he went on to explain how he interpreted the event — as an opportunity for the community to gather together to be an authentic witness to the destruction of a historical house, to inform and radicalize people around the issue of disappearing housing stock and affordable housing in the neighborhood, and to incite others to become invested in the legacy of Mantua.

Annie Hunt and Julia LeBlanc spoke next, both nieces of the house’s longest and most remembered owner, Ms. Leona Richardson. Annie, who grew up in Louisiana, fondly recalled “3711 in the big city,” Aunt Leona’s house, and felt it was important to honor her memory and what the home meant to her while she was living. Julia expanded on this thought, expressing that she felt the home represented the ability of a single African-American woman in the 1940s to be able to purchase her own home, raise her child and give him a quality education. “If this is the sort of thing you want back,” she challenged the Mantua residents in the audience, “you need to realize you are in control of your neighborhood. You need to be part of the plan. If you can have a funeral for a house, that means you can also have a resurrection. And that can be the resurrection of neighborhood — a neighborhood of opportunity.”

Ardie Stuart Brown spoke next, a slight, elegant woman in her 60s who had been a resident of Mantua nearly her whole life. She spoke poetically about the 141-year-old house, giving broad context and asking the congregation to this about the dozens of babies conceived there, the hundreds of house parties, the thousands of family pictures, the hundreds of tired bodies that went to sleep within its walls that were sheltered from hurricanes and rainstorms. She then remembered Mantua as a wonderful place to be raised, evoking Main Street USA imagery in her sepia recollections of Cowboy Hill, the butcher shop, the Chinese laundromat, the hardware store, kids running around on Chicago skates, everyone looking out for everyone else. Some older folks in the crowd called out affirmatively with each mention.

The young De’Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, spoke next, reciting the Maya Angelou poem “I have learned,” and again reminding his neighbors to “organize, don’t agonize.” After that, Pastor Moore really got going with the eulogy. He must have had fewer prepared points, because he was clearly a much better performer without them. He soon hooked on the call and response refrain of “This House!” (“This House!” the congregation would call) and was off. “This House!” (“This House!”) “Sheltered its residents from storms-ah! This House!” (“This House!”) “Is made of brick and wood but represents so much more-ah! This House!” For one who has not heard many baptist preachers really go for it – it was rousing and emotional, and very effective. He ended with a final call for action, “Let this not be the bandage over cancer, but rather the prestigious start of a movement for affordable housing in this city.” The Mt. Olive choir ended the ceremony with “There’s a Leak in this Old Building” (a change from the prepared program, but Pastor Moore said he was feeling that song right then), and the excavator began its work. As the crowd watched breathlessly, riveted, it gently scooped up the crown of flowers on top of the house with its giant metal claw, and started to tear away at the roof and gutter. It seemed to take forever, but we soon learned that it was more a symbolic gesture than anything else – the rest of the “real” demolition was probably too dangerous or unpleasant to happen right then (particulate was already flying through the air) but would take place the next day. This felt right, if slightly disappointing. Though it is morbidly fascinating to watch a house get torn apart violently and dramatically by a big machine, after the eloquent and meaningful eulogies we heard, it seemed a lot more respectful to not destroy the house just then. Like throwing just a handful of dirt on the casket rather than watching the laborious process of filling in a grave.

An excavator ceremoniously removes the crown of garlands.

An excavator ceremoniously removes the crown of garlands.

An informal procession followed, with the step troupes and drum majors performing just behind the truck hauling the black and gold dumpster. About 150-200 people followed behind, fanning themselves and chatting, and it felt very much like being in a second line parade – with the drums, the hats, the langorous walk down the block. Small flowered wreaths bearing the house numbers of already-demolished row houses decorated vacant lots peppering the parade route — an unexpected, quiet, but powerful reminder of the pattern of demolition in the neighborhood. 3711 Melon would become just one of the many deceased historic attached houses of Philadelphia. We paused near a lush urban garden by the train tracks, and  the string quartet Play On Philly played a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the middle of the street. A SEPTA bus kept a respectful distance until we moved on.

When we arrived back on Melon Street, ten long tables (each seating 24 people) covered in white tablecloths and real china, stretched nearly the length of the whole block. We sat (there was plenty of room for all) and after Ms. Audrey Davis gave the blessing and Rob Blackson said a few words of thanks, we were served dish after dish of delicious locally catered food from [where?] including green beans, mac and cheese, fried fish, roasted chicken, Spanish rice, biscuits, sweet tea, and banana pudding. A DJ played funk, soul, Michael Jackson, and Pharrell, which really got people dancing. I learned that everyone dances to Pharrell. Sated, the non-residents began to drift away first, and Mantuans and funeral participants and organizers were left to step-dance to a few popular songs. There was palpable joy dancing in the middle of the street.

Though Funeral borrowed notes from second-line jazz funerals, and modeled its underlying structure on traditional African-American funeral services in the Baptist tradition, how the aesthetics of the day played out struck me as both spectacular and modest. Having a day-long event to celebrate the “passing” of a house certainly engages with spectacle, ritual, and a potential for an over-the-top, maudlin aesthetic bordering on the ridiculous. But the funeral was restrained and elegant, hitting notes of familiarity, beauty, comfort, and style. From the flower arrangements to the procession-route wreaths to the quietly decorated hearse/dumptruck, the aesthetic decisions were just shy of overt, giving the impression of sincerity and sobriety rather than gimmick. As well, the procession, community meal , food and music were designed carefully to allow for the maximum connection between the disparate groups of people there. The day was ultimately put together by the artists and organizers to orchestrate opportunities for crossing boundaries, something to talk about, something to rally around, some further understandings to be worked through together.

Though it is certainly too early to assess whether these processes yielded any fruit like catalyzing action, or shifting perceptions (Temple is in the midst of conducting a post-evaluative survey), we can recognize the opportunities residents saw in this endeavor, and whether the artists foresaw those opportunities or not. Finally, we can also examine some of the main critiques that arose and consider the future value of such projects to a community like Mantua.

The community reception on Melon Street.

The community reception on Melon Street.

At the community meal after the funeral, I sat across from Anne, a Mantua resident who had recently purchased property in the neighborhood as an investment, and she certainly saw the value in the potential for cross-neighborhood connection the event engendered. She felt it was theatrics, but in a positive way, characterizing the event as “great public relations” for Mantua. For her, it was about perception, and she was glad to see people representing such a mix of ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds attending the ceremony. For Anne, it was a way to show off all the Mantua had to offer by way of investment. She wants “rich people to move in,” unlike many of her neighbors (according to her), and contribute to a better neighborhood. Maintaining diversity is the key, she said, and an event like Funeral was a positive step in that dialogue — how to encourage investment without creating the conditions for displacement.

It is not that other residents of Mantua disagreed with Anne’s thoughts — indeed, I heard many similar sentiments in the interviews Patrick Grossi conducted beforehand as well as expressed by the event’s speakers, but many also recognized the need for the community to be actively involved in determining future conditions for business and housing development. If nothing else, the event functioned as a platform for leaders in the community to inspire activism among the young and disaffected. It is far too early to tell the effects of this catalytic call to action, but the message existed in an environment outside of church or civic association meetings, with an aesthetic backdrop designed to inspire a shift in perspective. Along with this call for activism, the event has also been a factor in catalyzing community leaders to archive their own history more thoroughly. The Mantua Civic Association has already started work on a website that would do this far beyond the life of the project, and it is in no small part due to the year of thorough participatory history work that Patrick Grossi has conducted with residents throughout the neighborhood as part of Funeral.

Certainly the same critiques that plague many such art/community engagement projects all over the nation have been applied vigorously to Funeral for a Home. The first such critique is about the money it cost to produce such a program, and that such money should be directed in a way to really “help” the community more permanently. This question plagues all such projects, but is in a way a moot point. First of all, the money secured was for the express purpose of realizing this project (largely through a PEW Art and Heritage Foundation grant) and could not be re-allocated to causes outside of the grant’s funding mission. Secondly, the idea that more money funneled into a community in more traditional ways would “help” it more than this project is reductive and raises a host of of other complicated questions — what is the greater use value? Should it be funneled towards affordable housing? Funding a public policy initiative? Building a community center? A new park? And who gets to make this decision, not to mention how it gets implemented?

Another common question that arose surrounds the fact that young white men affiliated with Temple University were coming in to a largely African-American neighborhood and mining that neighborhood for artistic and historical content. The universities of Philadelphia (like Temple, University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel) do not have a brilliant track record of community “outreach” and it is a common occurrence for content to be extracted from urban West Philadelphian neighborhoods and utilized as a stepping stone to tenure, without reciprocity. Similarly, in the arts, privileged white people taking advantage of a people and a culture to make work (no matter how generous in spirit) is frowned upon, sometimes with good reason. Certainly these kinds of projects can be harmful when artists or organizations promise long-term benefits that they can’t deliver (and they do sometimes make these promises in order to get participants and funders to sign on). Certainly artists take advantage of poverty and difficult situations to lend weight to their practices and increase their cultural capital. This can happen recklessly, without any thought — in fact, not to do so takes effort. Just promising hope for change to disadvantaged communities can turn the stomachs of observers when things go awry.

These critiques can be very legitimate, but they plague all such projects. Are they reasons for inaction? When applied as blanket issues, they can unfortunately result in throwing away all possibilities for learning, for inter-neighborhood or inter-cultural connection and dialogue, for reciprocity to occur. The organizers and artists of Funeral were aware of these pitfalls from the beginning, and made it exceedingly clear what they were and were not promising to the community. Moreover, they demonstrated their respect and commitment by going to local churches, attending frequent community meetings, and learning the history of “the bottom” through dozens of oral histories, interviews, and research for the better part of a year. Only then did they feel equipped to make decisions about the actual funeral event, and even so they wanted to “allow people to do what they do” within the context of the strengthened relationships they had worked to form.

However, the Dufalas were still worried about “the rumor mill” and reactions to the event within the Mantua community after the fact. Steven worried that people might reduce the event and perceive it negatively – he was quite aware that the stories told afterwards about this “Funeral for a Home” would determine the effectiveness of its catalytic action. The artists and organizers wanted to leave something lasting in the community, but since much of that action needed to be the result of the neighborhood’s own self-determination, what happens remains to be seen. Steven gestured to the joyfully line-dancing funeral-goers as we spoke towards the end of the event, after the dance party had started. “Hopefully this kind of thing ensures against bad rumors.” The words of the recently-passed Maya Angelou came back to me, as read (very appropriately) by De’Wayne Drummond only an hour before during the ceremony: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”[28] By making Funeral for a Home of Mantua, something was left behind for Mantua — the opportunity to radicalize the locals, and the possibility to shift entrenched outside perceptions. For a moment, perhaps both residents and visitors felt a little differently about the neighborhood, and they wanted to talk about why.


[2] Robert Blackson, interview with the author, August 13, 2013.

[3] Patrick Grossi, interview with the author, August 13, 2013.

[4] Billy and Steven Dufala, interview with the author, August 13, 2013.

[5] Blackson, Grossi, Dufala and Dufala, meeting with author, August 13, 2013.


[6] These observations occurred on August 13, 2013 during a tour of the North Philadelphia neighborhoods, and were recorded in field notes by the author.

[7] Patrick Grossi, interview with the author, February 8, 2014.

[8] Margit Mayer, “The ‘right to the city’ in urban social movements,” in Cities for People, Not for Profit, eds. Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse, and Margit Mayer, (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 65.

[9] Mayer, 71.

[10] Mayer, 65.

[11] “Welcome to Mantua,” Share Your Story section, Funeral for a Home Website,

[12] Mayer, 68.

[13] Interview with Pastor Harry Moore, Billy and Steven Dufala, and Patrick Grossi, January 14, 2014.

[14] Interview with Pastor Harry Moore, Billy and Steven Dufala, and Patrick Grossi. January 14, 2014.

[15] Billy Dufala, Interview with the author, February 15, 2014.

[16] Steven Dufala, interview with the author, February 15, 2014.

[17] Interview with Pastor Harry Moore, Billy and Steven Dufala, and Patrick Grossi. January 14, 2014.

[18] Billy and Steven Dufala, Robert Blackson, and Patrick Grossi, interview with author, April 17, 2014.

[19] Billy and Steven Dufala, Robert Blackson, and Patrick Grossi, interview with author, April 17, 2014.

[20] Nicolai Ourousoff, “Timely lessons from a rebel, who often created by destroying,” The New York Times online, March 3, 2007.

[21] “Rachel Whiteread: House” Artangel website,

[22] James Lingwood, “Introduction,” in House, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995).


[24] Ardie Stuart Brown, interview with Patrick Grossi (recorded), January 2014

[25] Ardie Stuart Brown, interview with Patrick Grossi (recorded), January 2014

[26] Ardie Stuart Brown, interview with Patrick Grossi (recorded), January 2014

[27] Nick Mansfield, Subjectivity, (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 59.

[28] Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned,” poem.

When a Rock Hits Steel: Glenn Kaino’s Meditation on Political Agency

Note: This essay was produced in collaboration with the artist for his solo show Leviathan at Kavi Gupta Chicago, on view through December 20, 2014.

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Syria), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 8: 18 x 28 in., 4: 20 x 28 in. 4: 28 x 40 in.; 231 x 124 in. overall

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Syria), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 8: 18 x 28 in., 4: 20 x 28 in. 4: 28 x 40 in.; 231 x 124 in. overall

In Glenn Kaino’s series “Now Do I Repay a Period Won” (2014), each piece begins with a pristine mirrored metal surface shaped into abstract geometric forms that have then been deformed, presumably dented from the impact of an unknown and unseen projectile. Rather than shattering the mirrored steel, this violent attack creates a circular indentation that appears smooth and liquid, calm and resonating; a poetic contradiction to the means of its inception. The dents interact dynamically as one scans the visual plane, rippling into one another fluidly within the reflected image of the world.

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Turkey), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 26 x 38 5/8 in., 30 x 76 in.; 58 x 76 in. overall

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Turkey), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 26 x 38 5/8 in., 30 x 76 in.; 58 x 76 in. overall

The dents bend space as the mirror ingests it. Their curved shape mysteriously captures and projects more panoramic space than the flat reflection; a larger world implanted within the indentation. In “Of Other Places,” Michel Foucault writes of the post-modern phenomenon of the heterotopia as a real space of “otherness” that functions both in the physical world and simultaneously within our minds. He uses mirror-space as a heterotopic metaphor – its duality is expressed as both a real object that shapes the way you see yourself and your context; but yet the reflected image does not exist as a real place. The heterotopic is placeless space that distorts all other places by its very existence.[1]

Time also becomes skewed in these distorted planes because of its relationship with space; these works embody a mutated space-time. With a miniature replication of the world reflected in the dents, microcosmically repeated and compressed inside the macrocosmic linearity of the smooth steel surface, a different mode of nonlinear time is implied – mirror-time. The passage of time inside the dent paintings, inside these heterotopic mirrored spaces, is elliptical, nesting, reversible. Roland Barthes first proposed mirror-time in his analysis of Robbe-Grillet’s “The Erasers.” He describes this circular plot device as being when the beginning of the story involves “men and objects in an itinerary at whose end they are left almost the same as the start. It is precisely as if the whole story were reflected in a mirror which puts on the left what is on the right and conversely…”[2] The mirror-time of these paintings is exponentially intensified – not only are they reflecting space from left to right and right to left, but within the reflection are infinitely more complex reflections of upside-down, repetition, and ripple.

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Syria), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 8: 18 x 28 in., 4: 20 x 28 in. 4: 28 x 40 in.; 231 x 124 in. overall

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Syria), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 8: 18 x 28 in., 4: 20 x 28 in. 4: 28 x 40 in.; 231 x 124 in. overall

We return urgently to a more traditionally linear understanding of place, of time, and of history when it is revealed that the dents are made from real rocks collected from the streets where protests against state power occurred in numerous countries around the globe.  But these rocks are ghosts, simultaneously present but absent; the activation of the history of their effort in constant play long after their expiration.  The complication continues when one learns that the shapes of the mirrors themselves are taken from the silhouettes of broken windows and doors from American Embassies that have been attacked around the world.

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Athens), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 2: 60 x 18 in., 1: 68 x 18 in.; 68 x 72 in. overall

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Athens), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 2: 60 x 18 in., 1: 68 x 18 in.; 68 x 72 in. overall

Questions immediately arise given this new understanding – what were the circumstances of these attacks? Who were the people involved, and what political agency did they have? When and how did these referenced attacks occur? We cannot know these unknowable conditions, because they do not exist in real space within the paintings. We do learn that these works reference sites of both recent and older conflicts, including Benghazi, Damascus, Yemen, Turkey, Cairo, Athens, and Sudan. All likely involve uprisings against instances of power, against capitalist irresponsibility, and against tyranny. And all repeat, as history repeats itself, in these areas of the world. Roland Barthes says of mirror-time plots, “Of course, for the return to be significant, the point of departure must be singular.” There is a murder mystery to these works. An attack occurred, in this case the violent act of a rock hitting polished steel in an artist’s studio, but this is conflated into all attacks, into an imaginary of transformation through place-based political protest.

In their work Economic Imaginaries, JK Gibson-Graham write about the mutability of seemingly immutable forces of power: “In the place-based imaginary, every place is to some extent “outside” the various places of control; places change imitatively, partially, multidirectionally, sequentially, and space is transformed via changes in place.”[3] The distortions in the ersatz mirrored embassy windows are both a reflection and re-imagining of the space around it, bending space by mutating place. This embraces Foucault’s heterotopia, but also assigns political agency to those doing the bending, and this speaks to the transformative power of protest in creating new social imaginaries. Rather than a singular act of tearing down the system, though, this is a more subtle, ongoing, circular practice of continual struggle – a struggle to “transform subjects and places and conditions of life under circumstances of difficulty and uncertainty.”[4]

The rock does not shatter the steel, nor destroy it, nor dismantle it – it transforms it from something intentionally fabricated to something altered. The violence of the act bespeaks struggle, and frustration, and even desperation. It is uncertain how rock and steel will interact, how the result will shape the mirror-world.

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Turkey), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 26 x 38 5/8 in., 30 x 76 in.; 58 x 76 in. overall

Now Do I Repay A Period Won (Turkey), 2014; Polished steel, wood, foam; 26 x 38 5/8 in., 30 x 76 in.; 58 x 76 in. overall

JK Gibson-Graham go on to assign masculine and feminine orientations to these imaginaries – not social imaginaries, they posit, but rather two ways of expressing transformative politics. The male orientation embraces positivity, something wholistic like Empire, of which “it is the project of politics to dismantle and replace.” The female orientation starts with a negativity, “disarticulated places and empty subjects,” around which the practice of politics involves “articulation and subjectification.”

These works embrace both of these orientations in constant and uneasy tension with one another; the shape of the steel reminiscent of Empire, a positivistic instance of power staking ground within foreign territory — just as seemingly monolithic, just as impenetrable. The violent attack on the surface is meant to dismantle, to replace this power, but this is shown as a futile act. Instead we are left with these beautiful distortions, which articulate the space, the conditions, the surfaces in a way previously invisible or opaque to us. This is a metaphor for a new vision of politics: “Politics in this vision is an ethical process of becoming.”[5] It is never fixed and always unexpectedly molded, requiring a constant process of recalibration – of our own subjectivities and relationship to place, space, time, and power.


[1] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Places” March 1967,

[2] Roland Barthes, Critical Essays , Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1972, p. 22.

[3] JK Gibson-Graham, “Economic Imaginaries,” excerpted from JK Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 6.

[4] Gibson-Graham, 7.

[5] Gibson-Graham, 8.

Homebaked: Updated



I was recently asked by the Liverpool Biennial to expand an article on Jeanne van Heeswijk’s Homebaked project in Anfield, Liverpool that originally appeared on this blog in February of last year. As Homebaked is an ongoing project with ongoing ramifications, I leapt at the chance to revise, update, and delve deeper into my initial media analysis of the project. The biennial helpfully put together an online publication (called “Homebaked: A Perfect Recipe”) about the project that included this expanded article of mine, but also a number of other fine pieces of writing about the project, and even recipes and participant interviews from the people of Anfield.

Check it out here. (My article is called “2Up 2Down/Homebaked and the Symbolic Media Narrative.”)

How Can We Get Paid?

Spread from Cipher #1 showing off the shoes that funded the publication. Modeled by Aaron Sandnes.

Spread from Cipher #1 showing off the luxury shoes that funded the publication. Modeled by Aaron Sandnes.

In December of last year, I left my beloved art world job for something completely different – a field in which I was a total newbie (the entertainment industry), working on the cutting edge of digital media and online education. I had many reasons for making this shift – I continue to believe strongly that online education is an important piece of the puzzle in broadening access to arts education, and although this job is not in the “arts,” the subjective content of the online curricula I am developing seemed applicable. Plus working for a business with the resources to really experiment, research, and invest in developing excellent products in this untested educational space is an experience I know I would never be able to have otherwise.

I also get paid a lot more.

As jolting as the transition was, and as much as I am still actively freelancing, writing, and advising on a number of art initiatives, it allowed me some time and space to reflect on my prior job experiences. Again and again, this consideration of resources – their scarcity or relative abundance – kept rising to the surface of my thoughts. I have never before worked for a business that made any kind of money – only public educational institutions (i.e. the public school system, elementary to college level) and non-profits. I have often worked for free, or for far less than I should have. Though I tried to avoid it as much as possible, I have also asked others to work for me for free, or for very little pay. I became accustomed to scarcity, resigned to disparity, and I am not the only one. Recently a friend admitted he was sick of working his heart out for underfunded arts non-profits and living in near poverty, and another friend who just earned her PhD marveled that her new highly-sought-after curator job barely paid more than a graduate school stipend. Though it is not the only reason I made the switch, a salary on par with my skills was certainly one factor in my decision. An organization that invests appropriately in its people (in real, monetary, salaried terms) is not unheard of in the art world, but it is exceedingly rare. This is a particularly egregious recent example, but how many paid internships in the art world can you find? And how many artist honorariums exceed a couple hundred dollars (if they even get an honorarium)? There just aren’t enough resources to go around.

Infographic detailing how Cipher was funded and produced. By Rob Daurio.

Infographic detailing how Cipher was funded and produced. By Rob Daurio.

This is not to say business is good, non-profits bad, or the reverse (Bad business! They only care about making money, not things that matter, I myself thought for years). But I wanted to understand how money could be made, how an arts organization could become profitable, at least enough to sustain itself and grow a little without relying on the fickle trends of donors and grants. This was prompted by a series of interviews I did for KCET Artbound in the fall of last year (with collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama) on seven small artist-run spaces across LA. At least two of those spaces no longer exist because of their extreme precarity, and others still struggle to piece it together month after month – often by dipping into their own pockets or relying on free or volunteer labor. How to position these interesting, radical, culturally rich practices on solid ground? And how to offer their value in a way that would also sustain their output?

I had no answer at the time, and I still don’t – just the question that emerges again and again. I thought maybe I could gain some insight by working for a profit-driven business with a commitment to excellent cultural products meant to be consumed by a broad general audience.

Cipher #1, published May 2014.

Cipher #1, published May 2014.

I also embarked on a project with artist Glenn Kaino, who asks similar questions about systemic investment and leverage in his work, called Cipher. This series of zines, each on a different theme, explore societal micro and macro-systems and our relationship to them – both in the generation of knowledge and art for the zine and in the production process of the zine itself. The first issue, Cipher #1, addressed artists, commerce, and capital – and was funded through the production and sale of luxury shoes that Glenn and a group of collaborators produced. We discussed this unusual funding model in depth in an interview with urbanist Neil Brenner, contrasting it with donor-reliant or grant-funded methods of funding.

I have yet to discover any clear answers to this systemic reality, but our hope through Cipher  is that the question continues to be asked, and that young artists know no restrictions in experimenting with new models.

Check out the full issue of Cipher #1 here.

Open Engagement: Does it end at art?

Gran Fury. AIDS activism poster by the Silence = Death Project, 1986. Courtesy International Gay Information Center Collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Gran Fury. AIDS activism poster by the Silence = Death Project, 1986. Courtesy International Gay Information Center Collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

I recently participated in the ongoing Open Engagement blog project “100 Days 100 Questions,” which has employed many (100 actually) artists and organizers and writers in the socially-engaged art practice field to answer questions. As number 64, I was given “Does it end at art?” and my answer goes something like “No! Well…yes, kind of it does. But not really. Sort of.” Best kind of answer! Check it out.

When I first started thinking about this question, only cliches and tired arguments came to mind – perhaps indicative of how entrenched certain critiques are when discussing social practice. My inner monologue went something like this:

First thought––well, art can clearly be a catalyst for and contributor to social change. I can think of lots of projects–likePark Fiction in Hamburg Germany, which after many years years resulted in a park and became a paragon for participatory planning and right to the city movements; or work that proposes alternative societal systems while simultaneously exposing problematics, like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicles or FutureFarmers founded by Amy Fransheschini; or the viral political and iconic power of the graphics of Gran Fury during the Act-Up movement. So art is not an end, it’s a beginning. Who’s to measure the resonant power of political artwork anyhow, “social practice” or not?

And then the second thought reared its head––well, measurement is a problem and will always be a problem. Art has to be an end in itself, despite its social value, because otherwise it must be leveraged to meet metrics. It then loses its inherent risk capital, its experimental nature, its agonistic outlook––because art investigates the exclusions in society, the unforeseen, the imbalances and impossibilities––and would be fettered unimaginably by having to meet a standard. Any success realized by an art project according to some outside metric would need to be taken up by someone else, isolated, replicated, and built upon. This is not an impossible task––just impossible for art.

So I reach the third thought. Art is an end in itself, and here I go policing the boundaries of art, exactly the tired (and frankly, boring) exercise that I try rigorously to avoid when thinking or writing about social practice.

Read the rest here.


Freehouse signage

Freehouse signage

Jeanne van Heeswijk.

Jeanne van Heeswijk.

Recently, in the second week of January 2014, I was invited to a conference in South Rotterdam’s Afrikaanderwijk neighborhood called Freehouse: Radicalizing the Local. This “closing” conference marked both an end and a beginning in the lifecycle of a sweeping neighborhood-based artist project and community organization catalyzed by artist (and Rotterdam resident) Jeanne van Heeswijk. Though I didn’t know much about the Freehouse project initially (like most of Jeanne’s projects, it is complex, long-lived, experimental,  and conceptualized and implemented by many collaborators), I have become very interested in what happens to a long-term community-engaged project when it ends. Does it pull up stakes completely, or does it leave something behind? What is its residue and the future of the changes it catalyzed? This conference had a compelling purpose that promised to address some of those questions; over three days, it would ceremonially “hand over” Freehouse to the community as it transitioned to the collectively-run Afrikaanderwijk Co-op.

The conference took place in an old pump house ‘t Gemaal (literally meaning Pumphouse) in the heart of South Rotterdam, directly across from the famed market in the center of the ethnically diverse and largely working-class Afrikaanderwijk. The pump house itself was the physical site that coalesced the Freehouse Foundation over the past year (though the organization has been running for many more), and was dubbed Het Wijkwaardenhuis, or “Neighborhood Store of Goods and Values.” The site also houses the Wijkkeuken van Zuid, “Neighborhood Kitchen of the South,” a vibrant community kitchen that catered the entire three-day conference event with some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted (a meld of Turkish delicacies and traditional Dutch kitchen fare), taunting participants with a sensory melody of wafting cooking smells as we sat listening to presentations.

Freehouse: Radicalizing the Local Conference, January 2014.

Freehouse: Radicalizing the Local Conference, January 2014.

The participants, strategies, methodologies, and history of Freehouse were present throughout and within the conference, and the project itself was experienced firsthand by its many international participants, but was never fully explained. It was only later that I pieced together a bit more of a timeline and history of the project that helped give context to what we experienced. In short, Stichting Freehouse (Stichting loosely meaning “foundation”), began in 1999 as a gathering of resources and neighborhood cultural assets to investigate a history of restrictive laws limiting the potential for economic vibrancy of the Afrikaanderwijk, despite its many multicultural businesses and attractive semi-weekly central market. Slowly, solutions were demonstrated by the neighborhood councils, partnerships formed, new economic opportunities explored, and connections created. These activities multiplied and expanded as the community became more and more involved in creating their own economies and organizations, and it became clear that Freehouse was no longer necessary as a centralizing catalyst.

Aptly, the first day focused on New Organizational Forms, and the second on New Economic Forms. Each day had a series of 4 speakers, 4 critical referents who responded to the presentations, and afternoon discussion workshops in small groups, scattered throughout neighborhood businesses that planned to become part of the newly forming Afrikaaderwijk Co-op. On the third day, a series of small conversations with conference attendees and Freehouse participants resulted in a ceremonial “handover” — business owners and workers in the neighborhood signed into existence the Afrikaanderwijk Co-op, an umbrella organization, as well as a Business Co-op and a Workers Co-op.

Freehouse: Radicalizing the Local Conference, January 2014.

Freehouse: Radicalizing the Local Conference, January 2014.

There is an incredible amount to discuss in this watershed event and barely enough time or space – first of all, to witness the complete transition of ownership in what began as a social practice project to its participants (without the continuing financial support of a cultural organization or the leadership role of an artist) is rare and special, and an instance I can compare to perhaps a couple of other examples in the past 20 years. A political project that radically and sustainably distributes power and responsibility horizontally (evidenced in the co-op structure) is also exceedingly rare in any field. This not to say that Freehouse never had any detractors, but its structure and distribution has insulated it to the frequent issues that plague more hierarchically organized non-profits or CDCs or LLCs. Rather than adopt the same structures that led to the economic oppression of its own community, it has actively sought new organizational forms and new economic infrastructures (hence the main topics of the convening). It is an interesting collection of activities, and though I am barely scratching the surface of its complexities in this post, I hope to return to some of these ideas and threads in future work. It was very educational, influential and exciting for me to be a part of this unique project, if only for a few days.

For more on Freehouse and the conference, check out the following links:


Hubs and Hybrids: Seven Artist-Run Spaces in Los Angeles

Photo Courtesy Control Room

Photo Courtesy Control Room

My collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I have been speaking with artist-run spaces in Los Angeles, most of which have started in the past three or four years, and posting the interviews on KCET Artbound. Near the end of this Hubs & Hybrids survey of seven spaces, we have been both awed by what these fairly young spaces have been able to accomplish in a few short years, but also painfully aware that their precarity is the greatest threat to the work they are trying to do. At stake in this balance is the unique ecology of Los Angeles as an arts capital and a center for experimental work to flourish. Sustainability is a problem for all of these spaces, especially those that lean towards more experimental programming, because they are doing work that does not conform to a neoliberal capitalist model of economic success. In some ways our focus this week, Concord, a two-year-old collectively-run space in an old warehouse in Cypress Park that recently closed its doors, took to an extreme the underlying themes of live-work space, networks of makers, and an interdisciplinary and a multi-faceted approach that we found so attractive about the other spaces. By living where they worked, creating artwork individually or together and investigating their own relationships as the raw material in their art practices, the members of Concord had so much at stake; they existed within the space and it existed because of them. It was tied to their livelihood, their values, and their friendships. One can argue this is true of many other artist-run spaces to lesser extremes; they thrive in the hidden corners of our society not yet consumed by ambitions tied to the accrual of capital.

Please check out all of the interviews so far on the KCET Artbound site: links below. An interview with Control Room is coming along on Friday.

Actual Size

Favorite Goods

Elephant Art Space


The Museum of Public Fiction

Concord Art Space


The Creative Time Summit Dispatch #2: Passion, Empathy, and People (or, After Lunch)

"The Sixth Borough" Lunch at Judson Memorial Church, by Stefani Bardin and Mihir Desai.

“The Sixth Borough” Lunch at Judson Memorial Church, by Stefani Bardin and Mihir Desai.

Lunch was interesting. Called “The Sixth Borough” it was an art/food project, or perhaps an aesthetic food experience curated and designed and made by artist Stefani Bardin and chef Mihir Desai. The conceit was that each borough in New York City was represented, and those of us who signed up for the lunch could select or were assigned an area and a cuisine. “Brooklyn” focused on rooftop gardening, “Staten Island” was seated on the ground in the manner of a Sri Lankan wedding feast, and I got Queens, which served food out of a cardboard cut-out “food truck,” drinks out of metal buckets, and we all sat on a scattered simulacrum of park benches and stoops. I was initially a bit bummed that I didn’t get to sit at a beautifully made table, but my bahn mi sandwich was really substantial, and I was very hungry. I’m glad I got that one and not one of the more “experimental” meals (one table had what looked like a pillar of air and coal dust). After lunch was an incredible and very intense set of experiences at the Summit, and I have just a few highlights described here. There is always a tension between providing a wide range of projects and not nearly having enough time to go deeply into them. But these are some of the ideas I was glad to know about.

In session 2, which was all about Brooklyn, Risë Wilson, founder of the Laundromat Project, opened the discussion with a provocation to think and talk differently about race. She noted that one of the problems with gentrification is that we don’t unpack the language, and that is also the problem with a conversation about race. This is an opportunity to think not about skin-tone, but about power and wealth. Who historically has the ability to acquire and leverage assets? The only way to change the conversation is to trust one another, and the only way to trust one another is to tell the truth. To help us do that, Risë then had us do a yoga-inspired exercise where we sat up on the edge of our seats, put our shoulders back, and put a hand on our heart and the other on our belly. She asked us to deeply consider our own bodies and our own relationship to privilege as we listened to what we heard.  As we took deep breaths with eyes closed, she asked, “In the context of your own relationship to privilege, what would you be willing to give up in the pursuit of equity?”

This was a perfect segue into director and documentarian Kelly Anderson’s short presentation, which focused on the social and physical changes in Fulton Hall, a small historical shopping district in Brooklyn that is the protagonist in the film My Brooklyn. Told through individual stories and the emotional and social fabric of the neighborhood, it became clear that the redevelopment of downtown Brooklyn was not natural and not inevitable. There was a close collaboration between government and corporations to significantly change the character of the city, with very little opportunity for the public to intervene. Over 100 re-zonings occurred under Bloomberg that increased inquality and racial segregation throughout the city. Once people saw the film, they wanted to do something, and have begun to self-organize screenings as a part of “My Brooklyn, Our City.” Perhaps this interest is a glimmer of hope in a landscape of such sweeping injustice.

Artist Michael Premo used the example of superstorm Sandy as an opportunity for communities to come together and help one another. He said, “Communities have solutions. What we need to expand are the platforms for participation, and the resources to execute these solutions.” For me, this really gets to the core of what I was trying to talk about with my co-production posts. The role of a socially-engaged artist has evolved to encompass both the infrastructural platform and leveraging resources to invest in communities.

This is not to say that the socially-engaged artist or cultural producer is the only or even the best person to be in this role. In the panel afterwards, Rise urged the speakers to give strategies for the average person to be empowered to shift the structures of power that determine how change occurs.

Some final thoughts from the panelists:

There was general agreement that we need both the grassroots change and the ability to push policy (what Michael Premo called a “dual-power strategy”).  We need more participatory economic and democratic processes, like participatory budgeting.  We want to live in a place where when we get good things (like a park) it doesn’t feel like its the beginning of the end for that neighborhood as it currently exists. We want to have more of these conversations with the people who we are talking about, who are not in the room.

The focus on people, empathy, and agency has been a refreshing theme in these discussions, and a quite sophisticated shift in the tenor and language of conversations around social practice. No hand-wringing over the boundaries of art and the definition of social practice, or setting up oppositions between politics and aesthetics. This conversation has been rooted in the stories of people, the displaced, the activists, acknowledging how the rate of change outpaced human reactions to it,  and how empathy, platforms for self-determination, and the radical democratization of civic processes can arise from personal relationships.

SESSION THREE: Building from the Ground Up

Kenneth Bailey, urban designer and founder of Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) spoke about social tragedy, and how some events, actions, and episodes serve to make places more brittle, more fragile, and more likely to break. He referred to this as “placebreaking.” Social tragedies are unevenly layered, and affect different people differently. If you don’t have the means and assets to withstand a social tragedy, it affects you so much more profoundly. There is also the third aspect, which is that the media reflects and reports upon that tragedy back to the people within it. Some tragedies are reported upon with warmth, while others demonize the victims of that tragedy at the same time that they are trying to get through it. Kenneth ended with a call for conversation with a small group of people about placebreaking–if people have endured a social tragedy, what remains?

Artist Christoph Schäfer spoke about Park Fiction, a project set in the red light district of Hamburg Germany called St. Pauli, which is directly adjacent to the harbor. The harbor had recently been rezoned, and was slated to be developed into a series of warehouses blocking the harbor view from the tenements across the street. Rather than protest, they decided to start an unauthorized planning process based on the production of desires from the people in the neighborhood. This culminated in an “Archive of Desires” that were leveraged, through exposure, to convince the city to buy into the idea of the park. The park itself is not enough, the park is merely a platform to “spatialize desire,” which is where true power lies. Schafer reiterated the Lefebvre idea of “the right to the city” which he said is also the right to centrality, and the right to re-imagine and re-define space. This became a movement of localized struggles in Germany, and the park played a part in that movement. Resistance continues. Recently, the park renamed itself Gezi Park Fiction in cross-city solidarity for the protests in Turkey, and Schafer ended with a call for more inter-city Gezification.

Chido Govera, an amazing woman from Zimbabwe who grew up as an orphan in Africa, connected place-making to passion. She focuses that passion around building communities around orphan children that empower them to provide for themselves, as she herself had done. She found the tools to do that in studying the process of cultivating mushrooms. Mushrooms grow on waste, do not require many resources, and getting men and women to work together empowers cooperation. Her work goes so much beyond that notion, she has expanded this to seeding entrepeneurship in many countries, to help people rise up beyond their situation and not have to accept victimhood.

Section 4: FLANEURS

Vito Acconci began by repositioning the flaneur not as an idler, a dawdler, a drifter who is passively acted upon by the city, but as an activist, an agitator who shakes up the geography of the city and disrupts it.
He sees his work since the 80s not as art, but as architecture and design. The difference, is that in design, you are inside of something. In art, you are on the outside looking in. He mentioned Acconci Studio as an important factor in his design work, because he believed that work in the public should come from at least three people. One is solo, two is a couple, and the third thickens the plot. Even the Catholic Church knows this, he quipped, because they brought in the Holy Ghost. The future of architecture, he mentioned as a preface to his project “Mobile-Linear City” is that it moves. Architecture that is immovable acts upon people – only when people can act upon architecture can they gain some measure of power.

Again in these panels, we return to the question of empowerment. How to invert agency, create ways to include the voices of people who live in these contested places? Who knows what might happen then? This day of the summit didn’t provide concrete answers, but that was never the point. What was powerful were the individual stories, relationships, and the grounding of theoretical principles or concerns in the real. Mary Jane Jacob, moderating the discussion for the final panel, probed for individual stories and experiences from her presenters, appropriately underscored that theme, and justified the very work of the Summit itself. It is only by the ambitious and proactive formation of platforms for relationships (bolstered by the honesty, self-knowledge, and awareness of context that is so necessary for trust and understanding) through which change can be born. It is difficult and cumulative work, but the Summit provides a tempo to the conversation that allows it to be built upon.

Unfortunately I must return to LA, so this will be the final dispatch; and a return to the Hubs & Hybrids interview series of LA artist-run spaces.

The Creative Time Summit Dispatch #1: Race, Place, and Empowerment (or, Before Lunch)

Paul Ramirez Jonas project during the kick-off party at Judson Memorial Church.

Paul Ramirez Jonas project during the kick-off party at Judson Memorial Church.

Today I am in New York City attending the Creative Time Summit on art and urbanism, and decided to try my hand at a live-blogging. Or at least quick-turn-around blogging, which is not usual for me. Whenever I come here, I am a little culture-shocked by such a very different quality of urbanity than Los Angeles, which is characterized to me by bubbles of isolated experience, existing simultaneously in a sprawling series of metropoli that rub up against one another. In New York, everything overlays everything else and the urban environment is constantly reproduced, very used and traveled and expediated (rather than disused and overlooked), and that state brings its own challenges. So as to the question of the role of cultural production in urbanity, this bicoastal perspective is an interesting context from which to begin.

Settling into a red seat in a packed NYU Skirball center auditorium, I watched Creative Time president Anne Pasternak and chief curator Nato Thompson introduce the summit, and attempt to frame the conversation as a way to bring fresh, honest ideas to an old conversation – one of artists in the city, placemaking, and all of the sociological and political complexities that come with that. Like gentrification, race, equity, and justice in urban development. How do artists embed within and rewrite the city?

As if to respond to my own dual experiences, Los Angeles-based artist Mario Ybarra Jr. gave another framework, meant to give what he called an “insider” view from an artist’s perspective, trying to make work in the city. In his typical manner, he made things very accessible. Urbanist Neil Brenner then spoke eloquently about the very real questions of co-optation and a neoliberal agenda in gentrification, and Nato Thompson and Rick Lowe had a very provocative discussion about race. These were the highlights before lunch, and below follow my notes and summaries.


#1 Intent – You want to bake your mom a cake for her birthday.

#2 Content – Your mom likes chocolate, strawberries, and whipped cream. That will be the content of your cake.

#3 Context – Your sister made a great cake last year that everyone will be talking about. That is the context in which your cake is being made.

#4 Production – What are you going to need to produce this cake? Money, Tools, and Help (and I would say, Time).

#5 Distribution – How are you going to invite people to your party? How are you going to serve the cake? Where are you going to serve this thing?

#6 Documentation – Proof to your sister that your cake existed, and was better than hers. But who is going to take the pictures and put up the Flickr feed? It also gives you leverage to make your next cake.


Neil Brenner from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, who is a professor of urbanism, gave a quick but rousing keynote presentation. He gave a very hard-hitting lecture about urban revanchism under conditions of neoliberal capitalism. Revanchism (based on the word “revenge” and applied to territorial losses) is a local growth and development mechanism that actively leads to disempowerment, exclusion and gentrification in the space of the city, and he believes that Guiliani’s NYC is a paradigm of this. Brenner focused on the way cultural production is leveraged in service of this profiteering development and growth scheme of current neoliberal urban ideology. Brenner asks, is place-making a weapon for social justice in this context, or is it a trap? Place is instrumentalized by capital for profit-making, which is continually reinvested into the marketplace for more and more surplus. But in order to work, capital must be invested in place in a moment of fixity to combine with labor power. It imprints itself on the places that we live in. But places are not only the realm of capital. People live, work, and struggle within places, and articulate different ideas (beyond the economic) of what places can be.

Brenner rooted these ideas in urban philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “The Right to the City” – which he sees as a potential counterpolitics of place that advocates for the democratization of places. Lefebvre descrived this as a double-edged democratization. First, you radically open the city for all, but that is not enough. Most importantly, you also democratize the POWER to produce place (beyond the owners of properties and production), and by doing that you open up the possibility of producing a radically different world. There is a long history of radical social movements dedicated to this kind of openness; Lefebvre himself was inspired by the Paris Commune and May 1968 general strikes, where as the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and the recent Occupy movements also were about different ways to produce the world, by democratizing access to the urban spaces of the world as well as the means to produce. There is a battle going on, and it continues, in the Arab world, in Brazil, and elsewhere.

Brenner than identified these risks that come with creative place-making:

1)      Place can become an enclave (if it is confined to a building or housing or commune). It can be very inspiring, but in this form it cannot disrupt the forces of gentrification that flow unmitigated around it.

2) If place is too disrupted and radical movements intervene in the structures of power too much, then they are repressed by the full force of those in power (police actions, annihilation of the place)

3) Radical placemaking is co-opted by forces of power. These powers connect with radical ideas of cultural production, but instrumentalize them for the local growth economy and development machine, as described in Richard Florida’s work on creative economies. This actually makes conditions more favorable to the neoliberal project.

The radical politics of place must avoid these traps…but how? How to appropriate and mobilize place for social justice and radical democracy? But we must be aware of these vulnerabilities to be best positioned to do that.

Neil offered these strategies:

1) Stay dialectical. We must continue to be aware of the dual nature of space.

2) Assert core political values. Be clear about our radical values and state them clearly.

3) Expand our spatial imagination. We must think not just about places, but interconnected networks and larger-scale spatial politics.


Rick Lowe and Nato Thompson opened up a really interesting conversation about race, place, and class in art practice in the city. Rick made the point that community art practice has been going on forever, from people embedded in communities who organically generate projects out of the community organizing they are already doing. As someone who came from a community arts background now crossing over into social practice, Rick commented that graduates from these new credentialed social practice MFA programs now want to go into neighborhoods of black and brown people and “help them.” He wondered, “Is social practice a gentrified version of community arts?”

They attempted to hit the question of race head on, but ended up identifying and exploring some of the barriers to honest conversation about race. Oftentimes, getting the right people at the table when embarking on socially-engaged projects is the most challenging part. Nato made the point that in Suzanne Lacy’s recent project that Creative Time helped produce, “Between the Door and the Street”, she taught him that it’s important not to just start with the project idea, but with who is sitting at the table that help get to the idea.

Rick agreed about the importance of people, and that his methodology always places people as the starting point. He said, “If this work is about anything for me, this is about empowering people to produce their own places. We can’t do it for people, we need to figure out how to start with the people and give them agency.” His warning to young artists interested in social practice and placemaking is that “It is easier to get to the physical place, and much harder to get to the people. Many artists hide behind that, and don’t want to acknowledge that. Everyone should write on their mirror ‘What is my race question today?’ People of color think about race on a daily basis, and white people don’t, it is like shadow-boxing to talk about race with white people. If you are a young artist doing a project in a neighborhood where there are black and brown people, race should always be on your mind, all the time.”

Rick and Nato also tackled the question of aesthetics in concert with impact in socially-engaged work. Rick remembered that artist Tania Bruguera once said, “I want to make art that doesn’t point at a thing, it is the thing.” Rick proposed that these typologies are not diametrically opposed, but can exist in concert. The art project can be “the thing,” but the aesthetics of the work can also point at the thing (that is the project itself). In other words, the work is both a structure (as in it builds an infrastructure), but it is also a gesture. It need not be a solution, but can retain its poetic nature. It can be both the thing and can point at the thing. Rick insists that as art practitioners and cultural producers, we must guard the poetic capacity of the artwork, and that this is in fact necessary. The pull of capitalism is so strong that it leverages everything in service of a profit mentality, and artists can become co-opted by these insatiable growth mechanisms and subsumed by problems of scale. For example, if you just do housing (as Project Row Houses does), you get criticized for only having 80 units when the housing problem in your city encompasses tens of thousands. But an art project doesn’t need to be at that scale, it can very much be a non-profitable, poetic gesture. I like that Rick used the work poetics rather than aesthetics, because poetics allows for context to a much larger degree (Boris Groys goes deeply into this discussion in his book Going Public), and the “sovereignty of context” as Roberto Bedoya put it, is absolutely key to this work.