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."