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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.

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.

In Defense of Watts House Project

WHP Founder Edgar Arceneaux in front of Rosa Gutierrez's house

WHP Founder Edgar Arceneaux in front of Rosa Gutierrez's house

As an advocate for social practice and a former staff and board member of the Watts House Project, I feel a responsibility to respond to the recent LA Times article lambasting the Watts House Project and the character of its founder, Edgar Arceneaux. I am no longer with the project, though I left for purely personal reasons (mainly, the birth of my daughter and the time commitment of motherhood) rather than in protest (as the article implies). Though the project has indeed been rocky over the past few years, and there are indeed residents and former board members who are critical in very valid ways, the article paints a one-sided and partial picture of a complex situation. I don’t see Watts House Project as a looming, money-rich organization that has been surreptitiously hood-winking poor people, or as the product of a free-wheeling, unreliable charismatic leader who promises more than he can deliver with an overblown sense of his own importance. Though Ms. Finkel never explicitly says this in her article, she implies as much through its structure and selected quotes. Rather, Watts House Project is a small, capacity-poor nonprofit with a wildly ambitious mission that is attempting to produce a new model for grassroots urban redevelopment. It has run into a host of permitting, financial, and interpersonal roadblocks in a very complex environment, and has had to adjust itself many, many times to maintain a responsibility to its mission and values. Are there things that it could have done better from the very beginning?  Of course. Are Edgar, the board, the residents, and the artists struggling to find a model that will work well without disastrous unintended consequences (like displacement)? Yes. Is it taking longer than anyone anticipated? Yes, certainly. And does this frustrate residents who have been working with the project since the beginning? Clearly it does.

But these issues require a loving critique, one that responsibly investigates the root causes (many environmental and institutional) and the broader context of challenges facing the project, rather than a reductive expose that blames everything on the founder. This is unfair, and lifts the responsibility to work towards success from the many people who have participated in the project in the best way they know how (including the disgruntled residents, who have been collaborators from the beginning). It plays into the very real systemic inequities and toxic territorialism that makes it so difficult for such projects to succeed in Watts. In a brief effort to unveil some of this complexity, I’d like to address a few of the points in Ms. Finkel’s article that I feel warrant further investigation.

“ONLY THREE RESIDENTS”

Ms. Finkel cites that “only three homeowners” signed up for the ambitious home renovations that would be the product of artist-architect-resident collaborations. This is misleading, as there are only 20 homes on the block, and many are rentals with absentee landlords. Watts House Project made the carefully considered decision to pilot three initial projects with only families that owned their homes, and complete only minor façade improvements on other homes. The organization was very cognizant that significant improvements to rental properties could disproportionately increase the value of the properties and displace the residents of those homes. There are several other families on the block intimately involved with the project in other ways.

HAMMER “GRANT” AND MADRIGAL PROPERTY

Initially, before the project was a non-profit, WHP focused solely on façade improvement, and its scope was only broadened to more significant home renovation after its first year. So the accusation that WHP squandered money on just a paint job and a few improvements on the Madrigal property in 2008 is highly misleading. The Hammer Museum actually asked Edgar to be part of its Artist Residency program (not simply granting the money, as Ms. Finkel’s article states) based precisely on his proposal of façade improvement for the Madrigal property, and this was what happened during the residency period. It was only later, in a completely different phase of the process and unconnected to the Hammer, that larger home renovations were discussed. It is regrettable that Noemi Madrigal had a bad experience with the shed-building process, but the shed was requested by her father Felix Madrigal (who was not interviewed for this article), the owner of the house at that time. WHP prides itself on being responsive, with homeowners as collaborators, and as the shed was identified by Felix (a handyman by trade) as the most important improvement at the time, that is the project that the organization worked on together with the family. It took six months for various reasons –it was mostly volunteer-built (which takes longer than simply hiring an expensive contractor), and included a period of time when Felix was away in Mexico for personal reasons, which halted construction.

ROSA AND THE FLOWER HOUSE

This comment in the article particularly galls me:

As for [Rocco] Landesman, [NEA Chief] reached by phone inWashington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, “and it all looked good.” He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program.
He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project. And he didn’t have the chance to talk to residents of the three main homes promoted as renovation projects.”

This quote implies that WHP is trying to purposefully pull one over on Landesman, and is misusing monies so as to bestow benefits upon its own staff members. The article fails to mention that Rosa received the mural in 2008 through volunteer labor and at extremely low cost (most of the paint was donated), at the same time as the improvements to the Madrigal façade. She was not hired as a part-time staff member until over a year later, and her name is clearly on the website as being part of the staff and has been since her hiring. Another sensitive issue WHP has run into is the problematic of parading of residents in front of every potential art world funder, so it has limited its “tours” to staff members and residents who have agreed to this kind of meeting. I would be more concerned if Landesman had been introduced to every single homeowner in the midst of their busy days, as if they had nothing better to do than chat with the NEA chief.

GARCIA HOUSE and LOVE HOUSE

These projects have certainly been fraught with delays, and the homeowners have experienced great frustration. Some of that has certainly been WHP’s fault, mostly promising larger plans and in a shorter time than what proved to be possible, and perhaps not having the right expertise on board from the very beginning that could navigate LA permitting and tax law, not to mention Watts politics. But there is more to the story than what was reported in the narratives describing these projects. Just something that was not mentioned:

The Garcia plans were running along fairly smoothly until it became clear that the family had an illegal structure in the back of their property where one of the family members was living. The architects proposed some solutions to allow them to continue with the other plans they had formed (permitting law is such that in order to pull certain permits, illegal structures that are not-up-to-code would have to be rectified at prohibitive cost or torn down altogether – hence the “dining pavilion” idea) but the family was not interested in pulling down that illegal structure. So the plans had to be scaled down to what was possible within LA permitting law. As well, artists Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Karla Diaz had initially planned to do an artistic fence treatment, but were thwarted when Augusto Aguirre via the Watts Towers Art Center created an admittedly lovely mosaic mural literally over one weekend (and without anyone in the family notifying the WHP or the artists). Of course the work of Ybarra and Diaz ended up being delayed – they had to start from scratch in their plans.

CONTRACTS

But really the most vitriol comes from the issue of the residential contracts. I know that discussing contractual issues in depressed areas of our city is a tinderbox topic, because so many people have been taken advantage of. So many. And perhaps because so much of the board was not from this place, they did not anticipate that moving forward in the way they did would spark such negative reactions. For the record, the board was closely split on this issue, whether or not to even present contracts with these terms to the pilot residents at all. This was a real soul-searching moment for everyone who was part of the project. In the end, the decision was made to present the contract with the model terms, and if the residents were uncomfortable, to take those terms out (this is precisely what happened with Moneik Johnson). WHP naively didn’t anticipate that this strategy would generate such negativity. Hind sight is 20/20.

However, I will staunchly defend the terms of the contract, as they go way beyond a simple compliance to tax law. The discussion about these contracts was nuanced and thoughtful (even if the way they were presented to the residents was not). Rather, the reason for these contracts was to guard against the displacement that inevitably accompanies gentrification, and to ensure that money invested into the project would be cycled back into the community itself for a continued cycle of improvement. WHP is not a pay-day lender – just a non-profit requesting a small percentage of the value invested into family homes (50% of PROFIT upon sale, only up to $50k) in order to keep that money in the community and be able to reinvest it in more homes. It requires residents who agree to these improvements to place a stake of this whole project back into their own community, to invest in their neighbors’ future, to be part of a sustainable model. I think it is a key part of the whole vision for replicative capacity of WHP, and the board paused construction for an entire year to work on it, back and forth with lawyers, back and forth amongst ourselves. It was a responsible and important discussion, and there were no precedents, so it took a long time legally to research and implement. After that beleaguered, difficult process, WHP lost sight of how it would be perceived by the pilot residents, and that was a big, big mistake. But it was not a malicious one.

However, and this bears noting, this contract issue has also since been used to drive major wedge between neighbors by the very “community leaders” that Rick Lowe advocates for in the article – perhaps because Watts House Project did not initially pay the “proper respect” required and expected. But just because people are community leaders, does not means that their motives are always pure and their agendas beyond reproach (some are, some aren’t, we all know this). This is not to say that all critique of the project stems from manipulation – some criticisms, like those of frustrated homeowners, are completely valid. But to be escalated to such rampant hostility bespeaks other factors and other agendas at play. Watts is not a void. There are forces in Watts that have harbored personal vendettas against Edgar since day one – he never had a chance with some people, not least because of his color, his personality, his class, his home in Pasadena. He didn’t see this as a reason not to try to start WHP, and he has paid the price for that audacity.

THE FUTURE FOR WHP

As I hope I’ve demonstrated in these explanations, there is a selective collapsing of time and events in Ms. Finkel’s Times article that does little justice to the complexity of the context WHP entered into, its evolution in response to ever-increasing knowledge of that context, nor its very real successes and very specific failings. Which makes me wonder, why was this article written? I am grateful that the Times is paying attention to Watts, and that the article has opened the door for the kind of discussion I am now participating in. There are important larger systemic issues at stake in this investigation and I am thankful to have this forum to discuss them. But there is an air of malevolence about this article, searching for patterns of misappropriation of funds and resources, or just general destructive incompetence, which doesn’t quite add up. Citing the LACMA funding report, for example – the funds spent were pretty low indeed for two artist honoraria and for architects like Escher Gunewardena to create architectural plans for the property (the architects themselves did it pro bono, in fact, or it would have been 10 times as expensive – they only paid their staff for the hours needed to create models and blueprints to present to the Garcias). This is expensive work, and a lot of people worked incredibly hard for very little money to try to make it happen.

If competency is the issue, is the article trying to make the point that WHP should go away? It’s not going away, though I just learned that Edgar has resigned as Executive Director. Perhaps the rhetoric has gotten so toxic that he could simply not function effectively anymore. Did the article reveal this situation, or merely fan the flames? And in a recent LA Times blog post from April 7th, is it now being leveraged as an indictment against all social practice?

I have been a critic of WHP from the start, and also have spent years of my life working on it. I have had countless conversations with many, many people critiquing the project and its failings and how to make it better. So to say that WHP is not engaged in rigorous critique is an utter falsehood – a much more rigorous self-reflexivity than I ever see in the non-social-practice art world. I wish I knew exactly where this indictment was stemming from, but I can only hope that it is simply a product of trying to wrestle with a complex new model that is struggling in a contentious context, and reduce that very real conflict into a series of sound bites.

What can WHP do better? I am sorry that Edgar had to step down in the midst of ignominious circumstances, but perhaps it is for the best. Will Sheffie is an amazing person and will hopefully be able to shepherd the program into more stable era beyond the necessary chaos of its founding. WHP can separate its pilot residents from its larger replicative model, figure out amicable terms to move ahead (if that is still desired) on all sides, and move ahead on a specific timeline and pace. WHP can strive for greater transparency in its marketing and discussions with funders, and work with neutral evaluators and scholars on a regular basis to commission progress reports. All of these ideas have been discussed by WHP, and I have no doubt they are moving forward as best they can, as they have always done. After all, they aren’t going anywhere.

Incidental People

Barbara Steveni and John Latham, Artist's Placement Group (APG)

Barbara Steveni and John Latham, Artist Placement Group (APG)

@ apexart coming up…

The Incidental Person
Curated by Antony Hudek

January 6 to February 20, 2010

Opening reception: January 6, 6-8 pm

“The “Incidental Person” was coined by the British artist John Latham (1921-2006) to qualify the status of an artist involved in non-art contexts such as government or large corporations. This exhibition expands on Latham’s original definition of the Incidental Person to include those persons for whom all aspects of life – political, social, esthetic, professional – are integrated into a unified whole. The new Incidental Person can be an artist, but does not need to be since for her or him meaningful production is not the exclusive property of any one member of society: the Incidental Person can be anyone as long as each of her or his actions partakes of a larger, unified life practice.

The exhibition argues that the Incidental Person stakes out a new position, outside of the 20th-century triad Joseph Beuys-Marcel Duchamp-John Cage. Unlike the latter, the Incidental Person does not seek to solve the “art-life” or “mind-body” problems. Instead, she or he fails to see them as problems at all, since for the Incidental Person art, life, mind, and body cannot be understood in opposition to one another. But this does not mean that the Incidental Person declares that anything can be art, as Duchamp suggested with the readymade. Rather art itself becomes subsumed under a larger, all-inclusive category of motions or things that bear the elusive imprint of Incidentality. And while the Incidental Person shares Beuys’ interest in pedagogy, she or he eschews the self-mythologizing of the avant-garde: if you do not recognize the Incidental Person walking past you in the street, this is probably because you have yet to learn what makes their life-practice Incidental – and vice-versa. This exhibition bring together persons formerly known as “artists”, “writers”, “technicians”, and “bureaucrats”, who imbue their everyday existence with Incidentality. In particular, the exhibition will underscore aspects of the Incidental Person’s life-work that do not appear obviously “artistic”, thus becoming a pedagogical forum to learn how to recognize and act out the potential behind seemingly disparate gestures, regardless of their professional or aesthetic tags.”

Interesting thought, this idea of “incidentality” and life-practice. I’ve been reading a bit about the fascinating Lygia Clark, who like Latham, brought together conceptions of time, mortality, metaphysics and the body in her practices. She said she “longed to live like the hand of a clock; passing a thousand times through the same route.” Ever concerned with divisions between the past and the future, this sense of time defined the wholistic conception of her practice. She said, “With me it is always like this – while I live a thousand turns of the earth the rest of the people here are marking out time, with rare exceptions, going backwards, and nothing is dynamic, everything is pause or death.”

Lygia Clark

Lygia Clark

A language of critique can be formed around life-practices such as these, as evidenced in the truly stunning survey of conceptual art curated by Peter Eeley at the Walker Art Center, “The Quick and the Dead.” Eeley’s cogent essay on the works of artists like Clark, Robert Barry, George Brecht, On Kawara, James Lee Byars, Tacita Dean and others highlight these concerns with death, time, and the metaphorical object.

Yet the notion of the Incidental Person that Latham puts forth and Hudek will attempt to expand upon in this exhibition might be more problematic to discuss in such a manner. Many artists concerned with social practice are “incidental people” inserted into political and social arenas as problem-solvers, but where do the parameters and limits of their artistic practices exist? It is problematic to call everything that an artist does in a social or political realm an “artwork.” Are the workings of government or community or social service utilized only as the context for performativity? Are the artists actually “solving problems,” somehow pointing out problems that no one else can see? I could cite many examples, from Merle Laderman Ukeles’s “Touch Sanitation,” during which the artist was in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation, to John Latham’s stint at the Scottish Office’s Development Agency (through the Artist Placement Group). Besides these insertions, there is also the question of artist-conceived organizational structures that are called artworks, like Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses or Watts House Project. Is this a strategic in some way, positioning these entities in an “innovative” categorization (not to mention funding and development), or is there a larger intellectual and conceptual artistic process at work? Something special and unique that an artist brings that no one else can, a revelatory experience?

It’s certainly a romantic notion, but I struggle with it. And if it’s true, what about these other “incidental people” that Hudek speaks of? The engineers, the scientists, the technicians, and the bureaucrats? I can’t help but believe that there is some hierarchy, some question of authorship, and general muddiness about shoehorning these artists/non-artists into a curated art show that is not being addressed here.

(Thanks to Aimee Chang for the conversation that led to some of these questions).