Dec 26, 2011

You Will Be Gentrified, In Good Fun


The idea that some good could come from making designers active builders and developers may be overstated. Yes, it could allow them to profit more fully from their own work and make it possible to realize their own ideas without waiting to win competitions or being hired by a developer. But designer and USC real-estate development professor Liz Falletta, in her “How It Took Me Two-and-a Half Years to Draw Three Lines,” demonstrates what harm can be done by unchaining designers from the drafting table. Falletta’s self-initiated redevelopment project displaces four low-income tenants in El Sereno by converting their apartments into condos.


Falletta presented the development at Machine Project, an alternative event and educational space in Echo Park, as the first event of Boundary Pageant, a monthly series of talks organized by Rosten Woo. Cofounder, with Newark urban designer Damon Rich, of New York’s Center for Urban Pedagogy, which produces educational programs for underserved communities about how the urban environment is shaped, Woo relocated to Los Angeles two years ago and is teaching graphic design at CalArts in the spring and consulting with ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute), the company that invented GIS, to redesign its mapping software interface, along with other work for non-profits and advocacy groups. The Boundary Pageant series, a collaborative research and publication project exploring the political boundaries that shape how people live in Los Angeles, is his first self-organized public program in the city. 

In an unusually aggressive demonstration of the outrages committed against people of lesser means on behalf of the college-educated urban elite, Falletta cooked up a scheme to profiteer from a loophole created by a new zoning ordinance in Los Angeles. The Small Lots Subdivision Ordinance is a discretionary statute that allows new property lines to be drawn within small lots, with the intention of creating greater residential density and housing affordability. Falletta picked a small rental cluster inhabited by a group of unsuspecting low-income tenants in El Sereno. Her aim was to convert the four rental units into single-family homes for a specially entitled class of creative types.

Through sheer chutzpah and a few slightly dishonest acts that she openly describes in her presentation--and that, in fairness, are probably typical of any real-estate development--Falletta bought the property and converted what were perfectly good if under-maintained affordable units into redesigned $250,000 to $300,000 condos for members of her own class. As Falletta describes the process, she talks about buying out the lease of a poor old lady who was paying $500 a month for her apartment for $14,000 ("the going rate," she says) along with the three other tenants. In order to sidestep a requirement to build a separate sewer system, which would have swallowed up her profits, a friend of a friend in the buildings department made a special call on her behalf and got the department of sanitation to waive it.

Falletta describes how a poor neighboring resident without a car traveled all the way across the city by public transit to testify in a hearing, fearing the project would cause undue construction noise. Falletta describes how she patronizingly allayed her concerns at the hearing, and after the project is rubber-stamped through the public approval process, drives the poor defeated woman home.

While Falletta pretends to have blundered her way through this process, joking about her naiveté and stupidity at various phases of the approvals, Falletta teaches students at USC how to engage in such villainous but completely normal acts of exploitation. Ostensibly a well-intentioned liberal-minded person typical of her class of unthinking educated urban elites, she goes so far as to half-jokingly rationalize the project by saying she did it because she has to support her lifestyle of refusing to have a full-time job.

The premise of "How It Took Me Two-and-a Half Years to Draw Three Lines" is that it took an extraordinarily long time to get a few property lines drawn, and the process reveals the cumbersome and unnaturally complex character of gaining approvals for buildings. But as much as this talk revealed the underlying urban processes at work in the formation of urban housing typologies, it boldly revealed the arrogance and self-importance of our new class of liberal ruling elites as they tyrannically rove through the city occupying neighborhoods and taking over space.

Falletta isn’t content to be an individual agent of gentrification—a word unusually justified in this case by her self-conscious intention to create a happy mini-community of bourgeois designer-artist-professional types. In El Sereno, she goes out of her way to spread the inequality. She argues in favor of increased density, but in the end, her project simply replaced four affordable rentals with four upscale apartments—estimated after taxes to cost more than $2,000 a month.

A generous interpretation of the talk, which was coded as a “performance,” is that it was Brechtian theater in the manner of The Threepenny Opera, and the audience was meant to revolt against the truth of this representation of itself. Several attendees, even in this seemingly complaisantly hip, horizontal LA audience —which, by contrast to New York, freely spoke back and forth with Falletta without the need to cosy up to power or establish their political bona fides—recognized the monstrous nature of her project and repeatedly demanded to know, in the kindest way, without getting a satisfactory response, what was the point of doing this?

Dec 17, 2011

Materials for Protest and Memory

Los Angeles-based photographer Farrah Karapetian began making photograms in 2002 after a trip to Kosovo; an accident in the darkroom resulted in her first cameraless print. Photograms are photographic images created without a camera using photo-sensitive paper. Karapetian felt at the time that the photogram responded to her frustrations with the editorial assignment and the process of making prints.

The immediacy of that experience and the potential for experimentation made her stop using cameras. The resulting images bear a more tangible relationship with things in the world without the mediation of the camera apparatus; at the same time the technique abstracts the image, creating a haunted representational glow.

Her earlier photograms were more formal explorations of process, but as she began to apply her work to site-specific installations and re-enactments of news photographs, the one-to-one relation to material became a way of making the capture, printing and display a social sculptural act.

Accessory to Protest, her show of photograms and constructed negatives that opened December 16 at the LeadApron gallery on Melrose Place--a shopping-bag rich strip of high-end boutiques like Carolina Herrera, Diane Von Furstenberg, Helmut Lang, Vera Wang, et. al.--takes the everyday accoutrements of political demonstrations as a primary material and implicitly comments on the location of their display.

A pamphlet widely distributed in Egypt during the spring revolt instructed demonstrators on eight items of "necessary clothing and accessories" for participation in protests: goggles to protect against tear gas, a hoodie to protect your face, a scarf to protect your mouth and lungs, pot lids to use as shields against rubber bullets and beatings by security forces, thick rubber gloves to defend against tear gas cannisters, a rose as a gesture of peace, spray paint as self-defense, and shoes that enable you to run and move quickly.

Aestheticized and commodified through the act of exposure, processing, and display in a gallery on Melrose Place, the flyer becomes a questionable artifact of living history, and the photograms become documents of cultural contradiction, re-situated in a place where the demand for economic activity to drive job growth confronts the radical inequality pervasive in the existing liberal-democratic model.

As part of the Flint Public Art Project--the ongoing program to activate disused sites in the Midwestern city of Flint, Michigan through public art and urban interventions--Karapetian has proposed an installation on the Chevrolet brownfield site that would expose the memory of the former factories, whose outlines remain embedded in the landscape in the form of concrete foundations of demolished buildings.

She proposes to have workers and city residents engage in a series of tours of the site that would demonstrate the persistence of memory and the possible transformation of the site into a public space.

"The tours would have as their guide nothing, initially, but the stories and muscle memory of the people leading them. As these tours take place, a map of the stories would be made: who traveled down this hallway and at what time, who had a breakdown here and a laugh there, who was late to reach this point and whose office was he sent to for a reprimand. The maps would accumulate and intersect, re-writing the floorplan of the former factory. This would be a performance of memory that would write its own script."

"That script could have its own future: it could be recorded digitally, as a scan of the overlapping drawings and a transcription of the stories. This could be printed. If, as the Flint Futures Group develops and realizes one of its two proposals – Flintʼs Urban Riverfront or the Flint River State Park – the Group would like to see one of these maps made into a permanent part of the landscape, it would be very possible to integrate a full-scale rendering of the memory of former workers into the ground. For example, in the case of the Urban Riverfront, which calls for a containment of contaminants and a capping with concrete, the memory-made map could be etched with environmentally safe acid into the concrete, creating a two-dimensional path not unlike a labyrinth or a game of hop-scotch that would re-institutionalize the stories of local people into the land."

Nov 29, 2011

The Blue Light at Storefront

At Storefront for Art and Architecture right now, there's a really special light and performance installation reminiscent of Fluxus artist LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House, the light and sound installation on Church Street established 18 years ago with help from the Dia Foundation. See a video of the performance here.

The installation uses an absorbing blue fluorescent light, sound, dance, and performance to literally play with the building. The dancers interact with the interior columns and the swinging walls to make it consciously present for the audience and passersby. The permeable facade was asking to be used like this some day.

As director of Storefront, Eva Franch is hosting some of the most visually exciting exhibitions ever seen in the space. She brings the same flair and willingness to take risks that she brings to the everyday with her self-consciously over-the-top style and self-presentation.

There are some questions that could be raised about the discourse in another place. I somewhat refuse to figure out what is meant by "pharmacophore," for instance.

During the performance, you see people on the sidewalk peering in with curiosity and interest. If I saw this event without knowing the people or the place I would be intrigued and entranced, but I'm not sure I would have the sense of entitlement to stay. I might assume, which is commonly true when happening onto random Soho fashion events, that it was an exclusive private party. That has become increasingly likely, for better or worse, in this weird in-between area where Kenmare feeds traffic onto the Williamsburg Bridge.

This is free and open to the public. Go see it. A lot of fun.

Sep 14, 2011

Proposed Action: Cut Down the Fence at Bushwick Inlet

According to the public trust doctrine, the state holds public trust lands for the benefit of all of the people. The public has a right to fully enjoy them. Public trust lands include all land up to and beneath the high water mark in tidal waters.

"When the tide is in, he may use the water covering the foreshore for boating, bathing, fishing, and other lawful purposes; and when the tide is out, he may pass and repass over the foreshore as a means of access to reach the water for the same purposes and to lounge and recline thereon."

In Greenpoint and throughout New York City, this land had been previously sold to shippers, manufacturers, and industrial producers on the principle that it provided a public benefit: jobs, production of commodities, and the provision of essential goods and services. Now that these uses are no longer in effect, the land is disused and closed off from the public. The property is no longer serving its intended public benefit, and the ownership rights have been transferred to other entities. This property must immediately revert back to public use. (Sign and mail in a letter regarding Noble Street closure.)

Provide Immediate Pathway to East River at Bushwick Inlet ***

The citizens of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Maspeth and adjacent areas have a right to remove the fences blocking public access to the tidal waters of the East River. We invite the citizens of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Maspeth to immediately cut down the fences blocking Bushwick Inlet at Franklin Street from Meserole Avenue to North 14th Street.

Allocate Funds for Purchase of Bushwick Inlet South of Monitor Museum

The City of New York is in the process of gradually purchasing waterfront property (sign the petition here) from East River Park at North 9th Street northward to Bushwick Inlet: we demand that the city immediately allocate funds for the purchase of the land on the Bushwick Inlet itself not already owned by the nonprofit Greenpoint Monitor Museum.

Remove Threat of Eminent Domain

We demand that the city immediately provide a letter of assurance that it is not now and will not in the future seek to use the power of eminent domain to take property from the Monitor Museum corporation.

Revise Conceptual Plan for Bushwick Inlet Park

We demand that the city immediately remove the Monitor Museum property from its conceptual plan for Bushwick Inlet Park in order for the site to be independently developed by the Greenpoint Monitor Museum with support from the community. The threat of future taking of the site is impeding public access in our community.

Revise Development Plan for Bushwick Inlet Park

We demand that the city immediately revise its plan for the purchase and development of Bushwick Inlet Park to provide immediate public access to the East River at Bushwick Inlet to the underserved communities of Maspeth, northern Bushwick and Southeastern Greenpoint.

Sep 9, 2011

How Can We Use the Waterfront Now? A Greenpoint Community Meeting

How Can We Use the Waterfront Now? A Greenpoint Community Meeting
Tuesday, Sep. 13, 6:30 PM
Polish National Home
261 Driggs Avenue, Greenpoint

Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism and the organizers of Bring to Lightthe light- and projection-art festival planned for Oct. 1 in Greenpoint, invite you to join us on Sep. 13 at 6:30 PM at the Polish National Home for a meeting about realizing a shared vision for the waterfront in our neighborhood.

How Can We Use the Waterfront Now? will present plans for this year's Bring to Light festival, including the scope of the event and all of the ways the organizers are responding to concerns about noise, crowds, flows of pedestrians, bikes, and sanitation. We will give neighbors a chance to respond to those plans and share ideas about how we can improve the festival. We are also inviting a diverse group of community activists, designers, artists, officials, and leaders to provide a broader picture of plans in effect and under development for the transformation of the East River in Greenpoint into an active publicly accessible and sustainable environment.

We would be especially grateful for the participation of those of you who enjoyed the festival last year, as well as everyone who has concerns or misgivings about the role of artists and young people in our community. We believe that this event can only be a success if it models a better future for Greenpoint. We would like the event to be inclusive as possible and build consensus among all the groups that live in our community. We would like to come out of the meeting with an agenda on a number of related issues.

Last year, we produced Bring to Light through an accelerated two-month process of consultation with community activists, elected officials, parks advocates, the city administration, business owners, and neighbors. It was done on a shoestring budget, funded by donations and our own personal investment, through volunteer labor and the commitment of a few individuals. Your participation turned the American playground and Noble Street into a magical place filled with families, young people, and people who have lived in Greenpoint for generations.

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Since the event last year, a new floor was opened for artist studios in the Greenpoint Terminal Market, Fowler Arts Collective has grown and prospered, new cafes have opened up along Franklin Street, a new pier was completed with ferry service connecting the neighborhoods along the East River, the Transmitter Park is nearing completion, planning of the the West Street Greenway was initiated, the Exxon-Mobil case was settled, and the Department of Environmental Conservation began consultations regarding the environmental benefits agreement for the Newtown Creek watershed. There was also a hugely controversial proposal for a Night Market on West Street that was rejected by neighbors and raised many fears about the future direction of Greenpoint.

We want to help create the kind of cultural life and waterfront access you envision for the area. We missed many of you during last year's community outreach process. Are there ways we can produce the festival that can be a tool of advocacy and an advanced front in waterfront access for the public? In the future, would you like to see a children's science center, a small burger stand on the edge of the water, a beer garden, or a protected wilderness for endangered species? A swimming pool in the East River, a place for small boats to launch, a museum dedicated to the industrial history of the area and its service to our country, a preserved historic site, affordable housing, or a place to play? In the absence of real estate development, we have an opportunity to produce the neighborhood we want now and fight for the parks and waterfront walkways promised by the city in its rezoning plan.

Join us in a discussion of the Bring to Light festival and how it can serve as an advocate for your interests, strengthen the community, improve its physical character, and expose the many initiatives underway to make the Greenpoint waterfront more publicly accessible, greener, more sustainable, and a better place for the everyone in the neighborhood. Although our festival is a one-night event, we want it to have a lasting positive resonance throughout the year.

Please forward to your mailing lists and to anyone who might want to participate, and share the invitation on Facebook:

When: Tuesday, Sep. 13, 6:30 PM
Where: Polish National Home
261 Driggs Avenue, Greenpoint
Why: To work together now to activate the East River in Greenpoint

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Aug 7, 2011

Living (and Criticism) as Form

Oscar Wilde wrote that all criticism is autobiography, but criticism can only bear to look at itself so closely. When an art critic or a curator trained in art history, or a curator with a background in art activism, compiles an account of socially engaged practices in contemporary art, he or she wears their personal story as a kind of badge of honor: I was once arrested for protesting against MTV's Real World, he might say, for instance, and references the World Trade Organization protests and Zapatistas of that era of activism as part of his argument. This gives a special authority, or at least particular reference point, to claims about the work being discussed. He's not interested in simple judgments--I like this, I don't like this--but he wants to take for granted, possibly, that any work making oppositional social and political claims is equally worthy of our attention. They're all equally legitimate examples of Living as Form, the name of a Creative Time program curated by Nato Thompson that examines art that models new ways of living. Nonetheless he's obligated to make choices about what examples are more worthy than others. This is his thumbs up--he puts the work on exhibit, invites a speaker, etc. Or in this case, he invites 20 curators to put the work on exhibit.

For Thompson's talk as a part of a corresponding series of engaging lectures examining work that blurs art and everyday life, he self-consciously raises all kinds of questions that are so much on target, without being quite satisfactorily addressed in so many cases. If art is being used to model new ways of living, one question is, where is the boundary of what's legitimately considered art, and does it matter? We're living in a world where everything is in a sense marketing, he says; from Facebook pages to life stories, our lives are terms of art tied in ever-more idiosyncratic ways to the production of economic value, and every personal exchange becomes a resume builder for the job of being ourselves.

How much should we demand of art by way of proof of its alternative possibilities, or its possibilities of resistance, to use a phrase once favored in academia? If an art project claims to be plotting a new mode of economic exchange, should we judge it based on its viability? Or should we all just agree that artists are too naive and ill-trained in social and economic theory--lost in misconstrued French socialism of the 1960s usually--to be using these big words but it was fun anyways?

What about claims that art can benefit a place by attracting economic revenue--in what Thompson sharply describes as the hipster bedtime story we tell ourselves, having assimilated Richard Florida's theory of the Creative Class. Yet city agencies, foundations, and cultural institutions are constantly making claims about the multiple million dollar economic impact of the art economy, arts festivals, art programs, and art institutions. It's especially striking how little art critics and curators are equipped to judge the effectiveness of work making social and political claims given that the standard criteria of foundations and grant-makers require the artist to ascribe impacts on communities. Creative Time was obviously founded and supported for decades on the basis of these claims, which have been substantiated, possibly, by the city's ongoing accumulation of value.

How can we reconcile the assumption that art is always supposed to be functioning as a tool of economic growth with the deep questioning of the economic system underlined by Thompson's appreciation of the Zapatista's anti-free trade movement, the carnivalesque Seattle protests, and his approving use of terms like "neoliberal." A dismissiveness about the use the market as a tool of social progress is taken for granted in artistic communities, without ever needing to be examined.

When Thompson concludes by saying it's "not just the charge of artists, but the charge of everyone on this planet trying to make sense of a coercive, dominating political system,” it signals both a desire to make art accountable for making a difference in the world and a totalizing view of political power. This view of power conflicts with his own observation that power is being constantly mediated through a circus of claims and counterclaims. It doesn't matter how faulty or absurd the argument, how misguided the economic theory in the world of the media circus. As long as it can occupy a few weeks of the 24-hour news cycle, with or without the support of the public, it can sway the terms of debate and produce debilitating changes to the social and economic order. The abandonment of the responsibility to judge consequences or effectiveness is shared by the art critic, the curator, the reporter, and the political leader: it's too complicated, and our only professional obligation is to focus on affective responses. We adhere to the truthiness standard of social and political judgment.

It's worrying when a really careful critic like Claire Bishop rejects any judgment of social and political work based on effectiveness because it's just too complicated to evaluate. It suggests that she's relying on academic training in a field that has never had to approach art as a tool and has no resources to evaluate social, political and economic ends. To abandon this realm of judgment as simply unknowable is to suggest that art criticism is not equipped to take social and political work seriously.

Artists are not technocrats, and they can't be expected to function like an NGO. But we have to take the claims that people make seriously. Artists can't be expected to understand economics enough, perhaps, to put together a thorough analysis of markets and then create an entirely new model of economic exchange. Yet this is precisely what the category of art described in Living as Form is frequently trying to do. The unwillingness to take their claims seriously may be a defense against the embarrassing fact that so often these are lovely experiments, great to participate in, but totally inconsequential unless you consider the economic effect of the artists themselves as consumers and attractors of consumption.

It remains true that everywhere the artist goes, he or she, often inadvertently, attracts capital around him or herself and produces increased value. It may have a minor effect, as so many isolated projects do, or it may be really consequential, if it can draw a critical mass of resources to a place that had previously been subject to neglect. This standard of social and economic impact would be difficult to accept if you presumed an oppositional relation to existing forms of economic exchange.

The art world lives in a contradictory bubble; it wants to claim social and political effects, wants to remodel the world, but is unwilling to look at its real economic effects through available tools of measurement. The anti-capitalist economic theory prevailing in the art world allows it to continually create work in an economic bubble produced by its own presence without ever having to be conscious of the profound inflation of value around itself. Institutionally, producers are often unable to move resources out of that asset bubble; the institutions continue to exist, in large part, to prop up and reproduce their own value.

May 30, 2011

The New Midwest: A Day on a Bike in Flint

In New York, around 600 people are murdered every year. Flint is statistically more dangerous because there were 20 killings in the first four months of this year. The news of its danger dominates outside perception of the place, rather than the everyday normalcy of the way that people live in the city.

On a recent bike ride through this most-dangerous-city in the country, the air was filled with the smell of a landscape that was alive; lawns were being mowed, a man was painting the awning of the Vegan Soul Hut, a health food restaurant he had just opened on Flint Park Boulevard and MLK Avenue. His wife Regina was promoting the Esau Lentil Burgers as "so good it will make you sell your birthright." She said they were bringing an awareness of good food back to Flint. "It's vegetarian food for meat lovers. Because of the look, the texture, the taste, people think they're eating meat. Now I don't have to eat meat," she said, "Let the little chickens live!"

A group of young men were chatting around a gold-painted Buick Regal that had been installed with a lifted suspension, men and women waved as they sat on their steps or tended their gardens, children laughed as a reporter rode past on a bike with tall handlebars dressed in skinny black jeans and ankle boots.

Well-cared-for churches abounded, closed-down school buildings were outnumbered by working community schools, countless blocks were immaculately cared for, there were signs for block associations on corners. The Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association had put up signs throughout the area northwest of downtown recognizing the value of the place's Victorian homes. You could find abandonment and neglect, stretches of homes that were rotting, evidence of arson; you could also, if you were looking for it, see a living city.

At night the downtown strip was buzzing with bars and clubs: it was the last night of the Flint City Theatre's production of Macbeth at the Buckham Gallery; Rasberries was charging a ten dollar admission to the African American kids driving in from the suburbs to dance and socialize in an upscale discotheque; the Torch was filled with burger-eating beer-drinking intellectuals; another crowd of younger people were hanging out at the bar in Churchill's.

It was someone's birthday party; rows of cupcakes were lined up on the table, and a few heavyset men and women were twirling to a 90s techno hit. It was no exclusive bar being promoted by celebrity publicists; it's also not a dangerous hell on earth.

In Flint and other areas of the Midwest, job losses and reports of decline predominate the image conveyed to the outside, rather than parallel processes of restructuring and rebuilding that are adapting the cities for new uses. Instead of looking at the past, the Public Art Project tries to look at Flint and other cities in the region as they are today, and how they're actively producing a new city.

May 17, 2011

Flint Public Art Project: Flint Meetings

This March, during a week-long visit to Flint, Michigan, the idea of a wide-ranging experimental public art and urbanism project that had been circulating privately during the previous year, posted publicly in January on this site, started to take on a more tangible form. In a series of conversations and meetings with residents, and business, institutional and political leaders, it became clear that there was a broad receptivity to the idea of a collaborative public art project with a group of invited artists from New York and around the country. They were excited about the idea of visiting artists and urbanists arriving this summer to team up on community-based public projects in Flint's amazing industrial ruins, renovated downtown, and historic landmarks. The main doubt seemed to be whether prominent artists would really want to come there.
Tim Herman, CEO of the Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce, said "What can I do to help? If you want to use storefronts on Saginaw Street or lofts upstairs, just let me know." Doug Weiland, director of the Genesee County Land Bank, said there was all kinds of property all over the city we could have access to. The former McDonald Diary, in particular, had been recently closed down and was completely unprogrammed; it would be a good site to explore. 

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Gary Hartley, a retired police officer who owns two historic fire stations in the Grand Traverse neighborhood--one right on the Flint River--told me about his dream of an ice cream parlor where kids would dock their canoes and come up for ice cream and sit on benches by the restored waterfront.

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Nearby, he showed me the Indian burial ground discovered when the Genesee County Land Bank started digging foundations for infill housing. It was claimed by the Saginaw Chippewa tribe and is surrounded by a fence for a future memorial.

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The other fire station has massive open spaces on the second floor with wooden floors and views of downtown Flint that would be perfect for experimental dance and theatrical performances.

The outreach office at the University of Michigan-Flint was willing to enlist its student body in the project. Cade Surface, an interdisciplinary urban design student at U of M-Flint saw the blog post and sent a note offering to help. I met him in the Good Beans Cafe near the Grand Traverse fire station. Andrew Morton, a British U of M-Flint theater professor, was producing a site-specific production about arson based on interviews with people affected, and offered many helpful suggestions and references. 
Artistic director designate of the Flint Youth Theatre Jeremy Winchester was enthusiastic about contributing to the project and supporting in whatever way possible, including as a fiscal sponsor. John Henry, director of the Flint Institute of Arts, loved the idea immediately and wanted to be a part of it. The Flint Institute of Arts had finished a $20 million renovation by Frederick Fisher and Partners in 2006, was aggressively adding to the collection, and his son is a young sculptor based in Bushwick.
John Gazall, of Gazall Lewis Architects, director of the American Institute of Architects-Flint, and George Ananich of THA Architects showed me the boards of an architecture competition they had launched for the Genesee Towers building, a disused 19-story building that the city had been trying to demolish since 2004, at enormous expense to taxpayers. They wanted to show that the building--the tallest in Flint--could be saved and made into a great asset for the city. They had managed to draw imaginative and practical submissions from around the country to prove it.
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Gordon Young, a Flint native reporter for national magazines based in San Francisco with a blog called Flint Expats, was working on a book about the city and met with me at the Brown Sugar Cafe on his way to a meeting with the 37-year-old mayor, Dayne Walling. Young was interested in reporting on the project. Mayor Walling had already offered extremely insightful suggestions and put me in touch with a program officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, who was enthusiastic about the idea.

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Finally, a group of around a dozen residents, including community advocates, college professors, artists, Tim Monahan, head of the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association, and Catie Newell, an architect teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, came to a meeting in an unfinished second-floor space on Saginaw Street owned by Joel Rash, a former hardcore punk show organizer who led the facade improvement program in downtown Flint. I got to meet Nayyirah Shariff, who had grown up in the suburbs, worked as a community activist, and started a baking company called Revolutionary Bread, and had been recommended as a possible local program manager. Tim Monahan wanted to bring our attention to Spencer's Funeral Home, a historic building that the city was planning on demolishing and he wanted to turn into a collective art space.

Guy Adamec, a ceramics instructor at Flint Institute of Arts, came with a group from the Buckham Gallery's board meeting, along with Margo Lakin and John Dempsey, an artist and teacher and Mott Community College. Alan Harris came on behalf of the Creative Alliance, a large group of young artists in Flint that collaborates on initiatives and productions. They spoke about their interests and concerns, how the project could potentially be of use, and what the dangers might be if it weren't done in an inclusive way.

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Not only was it clear there was a large receptive group of collaborators, there was an enormous amount already happening: studies of former factory sites commissioned, redevelopment plans for the Flint River investigated, federal funding for dam reconstruction and riverfront restoration allocated, a landmark hotel successfully converted into condos, highway overpasses remediated with streetscape improvements, a master plan for the University of Michigan-Flint's connection to the downtown area starting to be implemented, construction underway on a new all-ages show space downtown, and countless other projects initiated. Flint was not a blank slate but an immensely engaging partner that could be a great host and collaborator to visiting artists. I returned to New York to share the information with invited participants.

May 16, 2011

A Beautiful Ruin: Producing the New City

Sail, 1974, by Anne Healy. Photo by Mariette Pathy Allen, courtesy Creative Time.
In New York, we have an overabundance of artists, architects, designers, and urbanists drawn from all over the world by its cosmopolitan culture, creative freedom, money, dense history, universities, underground and pop cultural heroes. It starts to seem like we're all patting each other on our backs, talking to each other about the great city we've created.

Outside the New York bubble, outside the art bubble, outside the architecture bubble, few people know or care very much about all of that.

New York is a tourist destination. Times Square, with its bright lights, advertisements, skyscrapers, chain stores, live television studios, and over-the-top musical theater productions, is a great attraction, recovered from a half-century of neglect and underinvestment. Tens of thousands pay to take an elevator and gawk at the city from the top of the Empire State Building. The Statue of Liberty is the great symbol of America, embodying the spirit of a Nation of Immigrants. Does it matter if the rest of the country wants to close the border to Mexican migration? Give us more of them. They have enlarged the soul of the city and the country.

New York is thought to be an exception. City planners call it a "superstar" city, like London or Tokyo. The scale of its buildings cannot, mostly, be attempted in other places. Its 8 million residents produce a density and diversity of experience that keeps it in an inexorable state of creative destruction, new businesses, shops, bars, restaurants, apartment buildings, highrises erasing places that six months ago were novelties.

It wasn't always the case. Other cities and struggling suburbs can learn from the rebirth of New York.

A Beautiful Ruin: The Rebirth of New York, 1975-1986 is the story of the generation of immigrants and college-educated kids who came to New York when it was said to be dying and made use of it as they found it.

They took burned-out lots and planted them with gardens. Abandoned industrial ruins invited sculpture on a monumental scale. Unheated warehouses became open plan modern living spaces illuminated by walls of windows with no division between kitchen, workspace, and bedroom. Closed-down public schools were installed with ad hoc exhibitions and made into museums of experimental culture. They sawed abandoned buildings in half and blow-torched gaping holes through three-story warehouses for fun and sport. They performed dance and theater on streets and sidewalks as if they were rented ballrooms. They created previously unimagined clothing styles and genres of popular music, tough, dirty, full of attitude and personal expression, telling stories of a violent world that was ironically filled with excitement.

In uneasy parallel, sometimes in conflict, often in concert with this artistic transformation, in Chinatown storefronts, Lower East Side tenements, reclaimed East Village schoolhouses, and Bronx public housing community centers, a new generation of Americans banged out what it meant to be Puerto Rican or Asian or Jamaican in the United States.

The nation had just gone through radical legal reform that had forced it to demolish the century-old survivals of a feudal system of legalized slaveholding. The social consequences of this legal revolution remained unresolved, and coincided with a fissure between the city and the country. The destabilized society of the post-Civil Rights movement-era pervaded the perception of the city. In common usage, urban had become a code word for places where non-white immigrants and ethnic communities that had endured European colonialism, imperialism, and the Atlantic slave trade predominated.

In the decades that followed, through the popularization of their music, the publicization of their lifestyles in films and TV shows, the commercialization and worldwide distribution of their artwork, the commodification of their fashion, the development of new modes of real estate production that replicated these ways of living in modern building forms, the assimilation of their culture into the mainstream of American and global culture permitted a new model of urban life to emerge from the ruins of the previous century.

The postsuburban, post-Baby Boom, post-Immigration Reform Act, post-Civil Rights movement generation fashioned a new culture of the city that displaced the suburban ideal of post-World War II America. The housing industry, banks, and government policymakers have barely begun to recognize how completely this new way of living has modeled a newly productive economy of urbanism that extends beyond the Superstar Cities throughout the world.

Mar 7, 2011

The Unbearable Density of Images in the Age of Free Economies

It’s important to move at a steady pace through Art, stopping only when something attracts your attention. I don’t believe in spending too much time contemplating abstractions or searching for meaning that isn’t handed to you explicitly. I don’t have time to do the artist’s work and explain their half-articulated ideas. It doesn’t have to compel you—it just has to stand out enough to make you wander toward it for a second and take a quick picture, maybe attracting the attention of gallerists if you’re wearing a press badge, who will quickly give you a few snippets of information as you try to keep your pace—have to keep moving.

I always find it amazing to walk around art fairs with other people, especially after I have already made a tour. Inevitably they walk too slowly and constantly stop and point out things that I don’t see. I went with a buddy a few years ago who noticed every cute animal and brightly colored object in the hall. It’s not that the color hadn’t attracted my attention. Whatever idea or image it contained did not register with things that were framing my experience, the categories that make things intelligible to me, available to my understanding, render things meaningful.

Every year the same complaint from sort-of-would-be insiders: not enough good work at the Armory Show, say, and wow, you must see the Independent, or some other novelty that the art elite has decreed will displace the official center that opens New York’s spring art market. Often this other thing is meant to be independent of the marketness of the art market, which is still, always, supposedly a bad thing, no matter how poor the artists and critics are becoming, and no matter how many times sociologists and historians and political scientists or self-conscious critics force the point that art is and always has been encompassed by and drenched in marketness, even when it’s not.

I’m struck by the backwardness of this ongoing preoccupation as a citizen of the contemporary free economy, in which much of the work you do, even when valuable and recognized by colleagues and peers, does not have a monetary value. On Thursday, the market went up nearly 200 points. I turned on Bloomberg to find out why. On Bloomberg they were betting on the price of commodities. Wheat, corn, soybeans, and oat had nearly doubled in a year, oil was above $100 a barrel, but rice had only gained five or six percent. Did that mean you should be betting on rice? Droughts were going to put pressure on future supply in the coming year, a hopeful sign for traders. It was only last year’s bumper rice crop that had kept the revolts against dictatorships in North Africa and the Arabia Peninsula from spreading throughout Africa and Asia, and prevented good money from being made by rice traders. Sugar and coffee are untouched by this inflation. Agricultural subsidies, I presume. Hogs and cattle anyone?

Meanwhile, here in New York, it seems that everyone is busy from predawn to the Jon Stewart show doing free, unpaid work. So busy they can barely find time to eat. They cook all their food themselves now. (The quality of restaurant cuisine too is astonishingly good and innovative. Who goes there apart from the critics? Someone must have money.) They put enormous care in the buying and making of food. There’s a concern for the relationship between the individual practice of making and eating and the broader impact of consumption on the global market. It’s probably just a preoccupation of the urban elite. But you can see it trying to colonize the heartland; Jamie Oliver proselytizes good food on network television, movies like Food Inc. expose the commodification of eating, the federal government begins to do its rightful job of creating market incentives that originate in the moral decision to preserve life rather than inducing better profit margins for agribusiness. It’s still lagging pretty far behind.

As a member of the press, I enter the Armory Show for free, rather than paying the $30 entrance fee. That’s worth noting to start. I presume the enterprise is paid for mostly by fees from vendors, so I’m not worried about it. For images I relied on the free Philips camera I got five years ago test-driving Lexus hybrid SUVs at a press event during the NY Auto Show.

More than the work, I stop to greet friends and acquaintances, talking business mostly; I have my own for-the-moment-free projects that I’m investing hundreds of hours producing for free, and working hard to induce others to contribute their own free work. I ask myself, how is it that value is created? How is it that it is sold? I am convinced that this work has an enormous value, that it’s an investment, but I don’t see clearly exactly how it will produce revenue on the back end for me. I have seen it do so forever—everywhere this activity takes place, it attracts consumption, it brings bodies, it creates agglomerations of development, real estate profits, tax revenue, business for corner stores and restaurants and boutiques. But is there any direct revenue for cultural producers? When and how? I think we all believe that this investment is going to be paid back in the future in the form of recognition that will translate into paid work and an increased value of that work. In any case, I don’t have a choice. I had an idea, I am compelled by it. I must do it.

The work that grabbed my attention were heavy images. None of it was particularly useful for my own free project; work that would activate a city, create public space, bring people into the streets, spur economic developments, define the identity of a place. There’s some fine line in social and political art between the cloyingly explicit and the suggestive and seductive, and I don’t want the work to be so explicit that it tells me what to think. I want it to please my sensibilities first, but also perform some conscious act of producing meaning alongside the pleasure of sensible experience. Despite that I couldn’t avoid dealing with one image. It was the most unbearable of the heavy images at the Armory show. It was a photo by Jodi Bieber of a woman disfigured by her husband in Afganistan. Her nose and ears had been cut off. It was a portrait of this disfigured woman, printed about 2 ½ feet in height, placed in a corridor and impossible not to notice. My first impulse was to run away, to walk fast past it. Then I had to turn back and confront it. What was this image representing? What had happened to this woman? There was a story next to it, and fortunately there was some redemption in it, at least for her; she was in the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. She would be made more whole again. Brutally heavy image. This is, in short, why we fight.

Nothing else in the show compares, but a few others registered in some way, they were complex but straightforward, I understood them immediately but they lasted a little longer. There were probably a dozen pieces that were pleasing or meaningful or registered in some technical way as innovative. At first I walked right past the paintings by Ronald Ophuis of Africans holding weapons. They’re rendered in thick textured paintings with muted colors that recall the expressionism of Egon Schiele combined with the dense surfaces of a late-20th century abstract painter like Anselm Kiefer. The tension between the two made me stop and turn back and look. It’s uncanny to see an African woman wielding a machine gun rendered in a media so identified with high European modernism, and it makes you question those relationships and categories. Strange intentional aestheticizations of violence.

A lot of the work that registered to me was of this nature, confusing categories in a simple pleasing gesture. Images of different types embedded in the same frame—an urban scene photographed from a hilltop by Gianfranco Faschino: from time to time a little movement appears within the otherwise still photograph. A woman appears in a corner of the frame and shakes out a tablecloth on a balcony. A plume of smoke from a chimney, a cow hops down a narrow street, a boy runs in the distance and then is hidden by flimsy hillside dwellings.

I walked past an image of men carrying bags up a hill. Agitprop I thought. Then the shimmering light stuck with me, displayed as a lightbox with chromogenic transparency. I turned back and looked at the gleaming gold on every part of the image: the burlap sacks, the shoes, the dirt, the bodies. Gold mining by Chilean photographer Alfredo Jaar. The content makes you think too about the material in the photograph itself, the silver emulsion in the color photograph. They might as well be carrying the photograph on their backs.

There’s a compelling photograph by Isaac Julien, at first just a sparkling image of modernity, the top of a glass tower and glimpses of a new city in the background, in the foreground there’s the calm rationalism of a modern hotel room with glass windows, and a woman standing in front of them, gazing out. She’s wearing a neat, modern printed dress, she’s pretty, Chinese, maybe. By a British photographer of African descent who established himself as an artist addressing questions of postcolonial black identity, it’s a strikingly cosmopolitan image that reflects the emergence of a new historical age. What does it mean? Where is all the money coming from, and where is it going?

There were also a series of technically interesting images: James Casabere’s photographs of models constructed to create imagined landscapes. They so closely resemble the real that my friend claims to have heard a couple trying to figure out if it was Ireland.

Leandro Erlich’s subway car installation presents a flat video image of a modern R160 car in New York framed by a door, as if you’re peering through the end of the car at passengers. Again, the stillness is interrupted by small movements.

Scott McFarland’s digital composite of a lake scene captures the capacity of the eye and the mind to take in a big scene and process it so that multiple depths of field and peripheral information are all thrown together in one immense sense of worldness that photography always has to crop and frame. Here it’s seamlessly merged in one uncanny image that could seemingly go on forever.

Gregory Scott plays with stillness and movement by embedding video screens within the frame of still photographs of a man looking at paintings in a museum. But the paintings gets picked up and carried away, in a funny technologically enhanced version of a trompe l’oeil painting.

Vitali Massimo’s image of a square filled with tens of thousands of people partying, presumably on New Year’s Eve, gets some of its density by contrast with recent images of similar masses in Cairo and Tunis participating in political revolutions. You have to take a moment to take in these masses of people congregating, awe-inspiring even if they’re merely participating in infamous acts of Western consumption. In consumer-democratic societies, we get our revolutionary moments by small acts of quasiresistance, by buying organic vegetables and doing work that we’re convinced has a value, rather than spending the enormous time it takes to press it into the narrow form that makes it pay.

A dollar used to be the going rate for words in some print magazines; now it’s less in most places. Tant pis--it was always worth more and the work often suffered for it. Why bother to sell it when you can easily give it away for free. I'm grateful to one colleague I ran into, the photographer Magda Biernat, who reminded me that part of the value of this kind of work, undervalued, free, or grossly overpaid, is being able to go to a place and gain access to experience, which is refreshing in a place where you can sometimes get an impression that, much more than the market or money, art is a competition for accumulation of status.