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.
MARIO YBARRA JR.’S FRAMEWORK FOR CULTURAL PRODUCTION
#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: KEYNOTE ADDRESS
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.
IN CONVERSATION: RICK LOWE & NATO THOMPSON
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.