Tuesday, July 26, 2016

KCET org feature on Boyle Heights gentrification and land development "Art and Complicity: How the Fight Against Gentrification in Boyl Heights Questions the Role of Artists"

Regular readers will know that this year we've had a blog post or two about artists vs the social welfare of non-artists.  Ever since Hayao Miyazaki completed The Wind Rises and film critics rushed to say it was a film about artists I've been stuck on this idea that if that's really what the film is about Miyazaki's most piercing observation has gone largely unremarked upon, that the vocational artist is invariably both the builder and servant of some kind of empire.  There are some artists and writers and musicians who would say that all art is political.  Then, in that sense, all art is propaganda made by the artists as servants of ideology on behalf of that ideology's empire.  If the reactionary right forever bewails the eternally receding golden age the left seems to have another problem, failing to recognize its own imperialist ambitions within any given cultural context and the existence of its own empires.

To put the matter another way, making a safe space for artists of a particular set of groups can be seen as a threat that could displace poor people in a neighborhood and disrupt what used to be what they had of a job base.

 Art and Complicity: How the Fight Against Gentrification in Boyle Heights Questions the Role of Artists

Carribean Fragoza|
July 20, 2016
Boyle Heights has witnessed eastbound waves of gentrification that have transformed Echo Park and Highland Park into more affluent and white neighborhoods. The proliferation of artist studios and galleries has come to signal the arrival of additional enterprises that raise property values and cost of rent for businesses and housing tenants, eventually resulting in their displacement.
Newcomers, including artists, have been drawn to Boyle Heights by its rich cultural character -- forged from generations of Mexican, Japanese, Russian and Jewish immigrants relegated to the city’s eastern periphery -- as well as its cheaper rent and property in an increasingly unaffordable city.
Today, one of the most standout reminders of this community’s hardships is Boyle Heights’ calcified industrial zone. The community now sits among the remnants of former warehouses and factories, like the skeleton of a creature that curled up and died many lifetimes ago. Longtime residents of Boyle Heights in some ways, consider themselves the keepers and guardians of these bones, for many still remember when they were animated and provided their families with humble but dignified sustenance.

Gonzalez and Ana Hernandez, another member of Union de Vecinos, recall the factories, warehouses and cold storage plants where families once worked. They remember that the building that PSSST now occupies on Third Street, was once a Halloween costume factory.

It was along these industrial zones that Father Greg Boyle and the mothers of Pico-Aliso organized walks that grew into marches for jobs for their children and husbands. Hence, these were the origins of Homeboy Industries and their famed mantra “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.” More broadly, jobs would help this community reclaim its streets.

So when galleries started moving into these warehouses in the mid-2000s, residents did not see it as a sign of new life breathed into their community, but rather many were cautionary of what that meant for their own future in this place. In their journey of recovering from decades of gang violence and drugs, they kept their eyes set on a new horizon.

“Our vision for Boyle Heights has been more jobs and better education,” Hernandez says. 
However, that future now faces different challenges with the arrival of investors, speculators and more affluent residents. Among them, the arrival of artists
. [emphasis added]

“It’s ironic and sad. People have lost their jobs. They were pushed out of their neighborhood. And today arrives a new force that is transforming the zone of the factories to create a completely different culture. So not only are they actually stealing their work, but also their labor of love for creating a space for the young people.  What the community created is now being occupied by others,” says Union de Vecinos member Leonardo Vilchis.

“We have struggled to make our community a better place. Now that we’ve cleaned up our community, it’s not fair for the galleries to just come here, like PSSST that gets to lease that space for free for 20 years. Its not fair,” Hernandez says. [emphasis added]

It's common enough to find artists and writers who talk about how great it would be for artists to have a place in a community. But uncritical acceptance of the idea that what makes for affordable housing and access to creative space for an artist would be good for a community is a foolish idea.  We've blogged a little about an article at the Atlantic that discussed artist-specific housing subsidies in the past.  Particularly for those artists whose allegiances are left, the prospect that the vocational artist and his/her interests may qualify the artist as, to use a blunt term, a class enemy of the actual working class, does not readily spring to mind.

Artists want space and so a question arises, "Why can't we have this space?" as the article goes on to discuss:
...Guarded only by a delicate gridded wire gate, PSSST is painted in pristine matte white. A set of clean concrete steps leads to what was once a loading dock and is now a small patio crowned with a tall white pedestal bearing a glass water dispenser of drinking water. Condensation embraces the cold surface. On a scorching summer day, it’s a vision of oasis, a promise and prize of arrival.
“The architecture is supposed to be accessible. It’s supposed to be inviting to the community,” says PSSST board member Adrian Rivas, who has strong grounding in the Chicano/Latino art community in L.A. He remains hopeful that PSSST can offer Boyle Heights residents and local artists access to a cutting-edge arts and gallery space.

“I’ve always heard, ‘Why can’t we have these spaces? Why can’t we show our work in spaces like that?’ We love our rasquache spaces too, but why shouldn’t we have a space like this?” he adds.
Most importantly, Rivas believes that PSSST could provide local artists with a space to experiment with new forms and practices.  He notes that recently, PSSST’s first artist-in-residence, Guadalupe Rosales, invited L.A. Chicano artists and DJs to collaborate in a series of performances at the gallery where they were able to share the work they are known for, as well as to experiment.

According to PSSST founder, Jules Gimbrone, the importance of experimental art spaces for marginalized communities, particularly for queer artists and folk, is underscored by the June shooting at Pulse, a queer dance club in Orlando that left 49 young men and women dead. “These spaces for freedom of experimentation are rare for trans, youth and people of color. There’s no room for mistake as they are always performing with a lot of risk. We need to cultivate safe spaces.”

So a shooting on the other side of the country becomes a reason for an arts facility in Los Angeles ... .

The trouble with identity politics is that everyone can invoke an identity. As the article goes on to report, not even all the artists in the area buy the idea that a "safe space" should be obtained in a conventional arts gallery way that displaces people.

Yet as community talks continue over weeks and months, as positions are clarified and guidelines drafted, the threat of displacement is not diminished, as development projects move forward and the arts district receives attention and accolades from the New York Times and art world insiders. “We are still waiting to see an example of where an arts district didn’t displace a community. The designation of an arts district is a tool of development. We don’t have time for artists to figure out how they feel,” says Rhine. [emphasis added]

Despite the community dialogues, Delmira Gonzalez sees little potential for co-existence between art galleries and the longstanding community. “We have 7,000 people here that need housing. And on top of everything, our bridge gets knocked down and we have a homelessness problem. Why do we need to accept them? Why do we need to have compassion for them? The answer is ‘no.’ The answer is 'get out.’”
Ultra-Red describes this action as “The art of resistance,” a practice that, like traditional and institutional art, has its own set of aesthetic and operational frameworks. One unique characteristic of this anti-gentrification movement in Boyle Heights, as well as in other parts of the city, is the strong involvement of institutionally-trained artists, graduates of prominent art schools who are equipped to use the language of arts but are pushing towards radical practice that breaks down institutional arts, especially as they are tied to a capitalist market.

According to Rhine, the pressure that artists are experiencing from community groups and other artists that support anti-gentrification movements clarifies their role in gentrification. “In trying to establish a fine arts space within the professional sector, it’s next to impossible to start or maintain that space without direct complicity in speculative development. It’s impossible to escape complicity,” Rhine says. [emphasis added]

Furthermore, this mounting pressure points to what Rhine and other activist artists believe will be the necessary future of art. “So if an artist is challenged by the communities facing displacement to act in solidarity, then the artist has increasingly no choice but to be complicit fully or to invent a different kind of art. It means changing what art is and it’s not going to be what we learned in school or see in galleries or what is celebrated in art history. It is going to be a new art that is not necessarily going to be recognized as art.” ...

So at least some artists in the area call BS on the idea that the "safe space" is worth the displacement of poor people who have been in the neighborhood for years before the gallery was begun. 

The proposal that artists need to think of ways of being artists that isn't dependent on late capitalist infrastructures could be met with another proposal, that the very idea of being a vocational artist should be up for question.  Sousa's warning about the emergence of the recorded music industry was that it would exacerbate and mutate musical cultures into an intransigent caste system in which there were vocational producers and buying consumers, attained at the cost of the amateur culture that really made a musical culture what it is from region to region.  In such a context the people most likely to formulate a potential change in the local arts scene wouldn't be the school-trained vocational artists but the amateurs.  If vocational artists can't appreciate the possibility, let alone the reality, that what's in their material best interests might not actually beneficial for working class, low-income people in their community, then the paradox of such an artist, if a leftist (as opposed to a Randroid) would be inadvertently being a part of the ruling class while embracing a self-deluding ideological stance that lets the artist speak of himself or herself as if it were otherwise.  Because, let's face it, if you could afford to go to school in the arts, odds are moderately decent you're part of the ruling class by socioeconomic origin whether you want to admit this or not. 

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