Absentee Cities

An edited version of this report was recently printed in the 12/19/13 issue of H-Art Magazine (Belgium)

Absentee City: Who and What is Missing in Our Cities and Our Art?

Reflections on the 2013 Creative Time Summit

by Daniel Tucker

Photo by Casey Kelbaugh. — with Invincible at NYU Skirball Center for Performing Arts.
Photo by Casey Kelbaugh. — with Invincible at NYU Skirball Center for Performing Arts.

The garbage truck roars down the street at one in the morning, the taxis dodge one another near busy bars, peering into the late-night kitchens – new culinary fads are assembled for eager and hungry customers, signs of new construction are apparent on nearly every block. On my weekend-long visit from Chicago to New York City, strolling the derelict sidewalks of Brooklyn densely dotted with new businesses exuding immense style, there were no signs of recession and there were no signs of poor people. Obviously there are poor people in America’s cultural capital (last year’s census shows an increased poverty rate in the city rose to 21.2%), but that evidence of their culture and to a large degree their bodies, presents itself less and less every time I visit this city. To talk of “gentrification” is to invoke the ambiguous perpetrator of economic and cultural change – the ‘invisible hand’ of the last 30 years of urban life. But fundamentally, underlying the blame and guilt game of gentrification, is to grapple with the urgent question of who is allowed to live, and express themselves beyond mere survival, in the cities they have passionately toiled to create?

While economic recovery has its local expressions, the web of interests being served by urban “vitality” and “regeneration” (to deploy a few buzzwords) in cities like New York are decidedly global. When innocently asking friends, both small business owners, who was moving into the new and rehabilitated housing stock with an average monthly cost of $2,539 for a single bedroom in Brooklyn, they surprised me with the answer that it was mostly “rich Australian teenagers or Australians using Chinese investors money” to buy places. While this response is entirely anecdotal, the real estate industry has reported trends of this kind with Chinese investment in US real estate reaching an all-time high of 1.7 Billion this year. Without claiming full-on protectionism or conspiracy, the most tangible negative consequence of this trend are inflated costs of housing disconnected from local earning levels. The less-tangible impact is that frequently second homes or investment properties are occupied only by  part-time residents whose relationship to their surrounding communities is often distant as they carve out more space for themselves. Outgoing billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg has advocated his own brand of cosmopolitan trickle-down Reaganomics, recently exclaiming, “If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.”(3) This vision has progressed in reality, with a huge increase in millionaires calling the city home in recent years and the city’s richest 1% taking over 39% of the city’s income in 2012 according to the “The Gilded Age of New York” published by the Fiscal Policy Institute (4).

My purpose in this visit is to attend the fifth incarnation of the “summit” organized by the public art organization Creative Time, the sponsor of numerous large-scale projects throughout the U.S. and the arts-journalism website Creative Time Reports. This year’s theme, “Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st Century City,” is deeply preoccupied with gentrification, placemaking, and the socially-engaged art practices that might offer critical insights into those loaded concepts. In the text that follows, I will weave my general observations from throughout the weekend with attention to specific experiences that crystallize the most provocative images, forms, processes and themes introduced by a small number of the nearly 50 presenters. It is my hope to provoke a deeper consideration about the impact that those who are not present have on places and the people who remain present.

The impact this kind of development has on the arts is complex. On the one hand, major institutions, auction houses and blue-chip galleries have seen an increase in donations and sales by the super rich. The challenging question for urban dwellers concerned with living an arts-rich life is what kind of cultural production can thrive in a bastion of the super-rich residents and absentee landlords? In a recent pre-summit Creative Time Reports post by musician David Byrne, the dire problem and equally depressing solution were posed as “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists…If young, emerging talent of all types can’t find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been. Those places might have museums, but they don’t have culture. Ugh. If New York goes there—more than it already has—I’m leaving.”(5)

“Who owns Detroit’s Future?” shouts Invincible from the stage of New York University Skirball Center to an audience of 1,000 with countless more watching online. Recounting an experience from their adopted home city (Invincible is originally from Israel), the rapper told of an encounter with a group of Japanese businessmen in an abandoned section of Detroit. When asked what they would do with the large number of buildings they were buying, they suggested to “come back and ask us 30 years from now.” Lately social media in mainland China is buzzing with stories about cheap investments in Detroit, with one realtor claiming to have sold 30 properties at once to a  single buyer and fielding calls from others wanting 100-200 properties (6). In the face of this long-view planning that is disconnected from the needs of those living today in Detroit, “what we need is Speculative Decolonization” proposes Invincible (channeling the science fiction author Octavia Butler), as a way to address who has the power to imagine the future of our cities.

Conjuring another site of decolonization, Invincible applauded Creative Time for being willing “to use failure and contradiction as an opportunity to really grow,” referencing a recent controversy emerged at the previous year’s summit where several presenting artists backed out or made statements in support of the call from Palestinian civil society for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights. While the controversy occurred too late to properly worked through in 2012, the organizers have since convened a group of artists involved with the BDS campaign to discuss ways to respond. Creative Time has set themselves apart from many cultural organizations by actively responding to criticism both symbolically and materially (7).

Another outcome, certainly related to that process, was the selection of Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani as one of the recipients of the The Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change.  Hourani, who’s “Picasso in Palestine” project involved bringing Picasso’s 1943 “Buste de Femme” painting to Ramallah involved many logistical barriers. Almost comically, he used the recounting of this process to emphasize that Palestine is a war zone, “we don’t have airports, we don’t have borders, because we don’t have a state…yet.” His assertions of the Palestinian situation managed to reintroduce the real-world conflicts surrounding today’s most urgent struggle and urgent art. Struggles against occupation and colonial-rule by artists like Hourani serve to exemplify the potential solidarity found in themes being grappled with by anti-gentrification artists and activists addressing the right to thrive and survive in cities like New York and Detroit.

The organizers were also responsive to requests for many changes in the program, from a sliding scale on ticket costs to experiments with format that brought about the regional reports, film screenings, performances and dialogues to compliment the summit’s signature eight-minute TED-talks for artists format. Despite the field of contemporary art’s constant search for new subcultures and discourses to absorb, it is not typical for activist hip-hoppers, documentary makers and international politicians to co-mingle with Biennial curators and wealthy donors. To their credit, Creative Time has cultivated an audience that is comfortable with this eclectic mash-up of worlds. The pragmatic participants seem to understand that the silos in which activism, art and academia are entrenched maintain a marginal position that is not capable of cultural transformation of a larger scale. The most awkward part of mixing donors and presenters with content producers is the increase every year in self-promotional talks and “pitching” by the artists to get their work funded or shown – risking a trade-show experience if not carefully considered by the organizers. Otherwise, people are eager to hear new ideas and meet new people and recognize that there is not a single “art world” with monolithic values or objectives. Every year for the last five years the gatherings have grown (8) and next year it will expand and be held in Stockholm in collaboration with Public Art Agency Sweden.

The Summit began on a friday morning with an address from geographer Neil Brenner who was tasked with providing a critical context for the eclectic presentations taking place over the weekend. Brenner has made a name for himself as a theorist aligned with urban social movement struggles like “Right to the City” and “Occupy Wall Street.” Posing a challenge to the premise of “placemaking” assumed by Summit organizers, he warned that the “discourse of creativity is the new urban ideology…[and]…culture is being instrumentalized towards neoliberalism.” His provocations concluded with a suggestion that urban cultural producers should examine and assert their “core political values” over place-based rhetoric, as a way to avoid becoming enclaves or isolated islands easy to destroy or co-opt.

Photo by Casey Kelbaugh. — Pedro Reyes and Antanas Mockus Šivickas
Photo by Casey Kelbaugh. — Pedro Reyes and Antanas Mockus Šivickas

Throughout the weekend, Latin American speakers gave very strong contributions overall, most notably with a dialogue between artist Pedro Reyes and Antanas Mockus Šivickas (former mayor of Bogota) highlighting the use of games to transform the political culture of the Colombian capital. Torolab’s high energy report from Tijuana was invigorating and Ana Maria Millan’s presentation about the cultural scene in Cali was the only one of three “Regional Reports” that managed to pull back from the presenters practice to generously share more the activities of others in the scene, networks or region the presenter was representing.

Another of the live dialogues brought together Creative Time curator Nato Thompson and artist Rick Lowe, the founder of the widely lauded Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas. The dialogue afforded Lowe the opportunity to offer some sage advice to younger practitioners, especially those working under the banner of “social practice.” Despite being awkward and inadequate in nearly everyone’s assessment of the term, Social Practice art seemed to have fully arrived as the catch-all term for what Creative Time was celebrating with the summit.

Lowe urged social practice artists not to lose sight of the value of artistic gestures, when also trying to transform systems and places. Referencing a quote by artist Tania Bruguera (“I don’t like art that points at a thing. I like art that is the thing”)(9), the difficulty is that in order to truly “be the thing” in the case of Lowe’s work, would mean solving the housing crisis. “When you get into that level of placemaking,” Lowe explained,  “then the scale becomes important and you get criticized because you only have 80 units of housing and the problem of housing in your city is in the thousands. But the scale of the art project doesn’t have to be able to solve all the housing [problems].”

Photo by Christos Katsiaouni. — with Rick Lowe and Nato Thompson
Photo by Christos Katsiaouni. — with Rick Lowe and Nato Thompson

Critiquing the colonial mentality that emphasizes site over deep relationships, he suggested that, “If this work is about anything for me, its about empowering people, the human race, to get back to the point where we have the capacity to access our creativity in shaping the places that we want to be. We can’t do that by doing everything for people, we have to figure out how to empower them. People make a place, and you start with people. It is easier to go to the (physical place) than it is to the people.” He congealed the conversation about placemaking with race by suggesting that, “It is pretty certain that most people of color think about race on a daily basis. And if you are engaging in place-making and the place where the work is happening is in a community where there are people of color, then race should be on your mind all the time.”

For Lowe, race has been thoroughly grappled with by people of color and he warns that, “in the 21st century, the question of race is not for people of color, but for white people.” He went on to quote former President Lyndon B Johnson, who in 1960 suggested that “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s at least better off than the best colored man, he won’t notice you are picking his pocket – hell,  give him someone to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”(10)

This insistence that placemaking is about people and that racism is about people screwing themselves over to screw other people over posits fundamental challenges for artists claiming the mantle of socially engaged art. That challenge is that politics is about power in conflict, and conflict rests in the social relations within which we all live. If social practice art is intended to do more than reproduce those social relations in all their current deformity, then it has to consider the political. The “core political values” that Neil Brenner argued for at the opening of the Summit, are what is necessary to address Lowe’s provocations about relationships, race, place and art.

Photo by Christos Katsiaouni. — with Reginald Akkeem Berry, Laurie Jo Reynolds and Khaled Hourani at NYU Skirball Center for Performing Arts.
Photo by Christos Katsiaouni. — with Reginald Akkeem Berry, Laurie Jo Reynolds and Khaled Hourani at NYU Skirball Center for Performing Arts.

The other recipient of the Annenberg Prize was Laurie Jo Reynolds, who used “Legislative Art” to collaborate with a group of artists, activists, family members and politicians on the “Tamms Year Ten” campaign to shut down a rural Illinois supermax prison where men were held in solitary confinement for years despite United Nations calls to ban the practice in excess of 15 days (11).

After receiving the award, Reynolds announced that two of the activists from the campaign, both former inmates in Tamms supermax prison, Darrell Cannon and Reginald “Akkeem” Berry, Sr., along with Brenda Townsend, whose son was incarcerated in Tamms, would do a performance from the stage before the audience was dismissed for lunch. The performance involved both men standing on stage for one minute for every year they were held in solitary at Tamms, with Townsend standing in for her son. The three stood evenly spaced across the stage, the lights dimmed, and the audience fell entirely silent. After several minutes the audience began to stand out of respect, causing Cannon to breathe deep as he became choked up. Barry and Cannon soon left the stage when their respective eight and nine minutes were up and for five more minutes all eyes were on Brenda Townsend. The sniffles from the crowd began to intensify as the silence and the respectful stares wrapped her small body from three sides. There is nothing to compare to more than a decade of having your child in solitary confinement, but the gesture made at approximating that experience through a simple form of performance asserted the reality of what goes on “inside” those walls where generations have been lost, back into the social fabric on the “outside” where the rest of us are living life and attending summits on public art.

Reminiscent of the call by rapper Invincible to take seriously the long-term future of cities due to real-estate speculation by absentee landlords living in other countries, the reality of urban neighborhoods being depopulated due to spikes in the prison population has created another kind of absenteeism. The presence of two formerly-incarcerated men and a loved one on the stage with Reynolds representing Tamms Year Ten was a reminder of that impact that absenteeism has on cities: of the 1,598,780 people incarcerated in the United States at the end of 2011, most of whom are coming from urban areas, the issue of mass incarceration is a specifically urban one and shockingly disproportionate in its impact on African American communities and families (12).

Tamms Year Ten. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh.
Tamms Year Ten. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh.

As artists and placemakers grapple with the disorientation produced by gentrification and their implication in that process, the battles for the future of cities are being fought by new coalitions of those residents who are left behind. Left behind from the part-time super-rich neighbors, left in the houses that might one day be able to turn a profit to an international investor, left-behind in a neighborhood where huge percentages of the working-age population reside in prisons in far away urban areas. Consideration of who is missing from our cities is the key to understanding what is missing in terms of community, place, art and cultural vitality today and into the future.

Footnotes

1) http://www.mns.com/brooklyn_rental_market_report (Accessed 11/10/13)

2) An overview of this trend was recently reported in the Wall Street Journal http://live.wsj.com/video/chinese-property-investors-have-global-impact/899A7AD0-F340-482B-90B1-C40557632776.html and a closer view of the impact in Brooklyn neighborhoods is presented here

http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2013/07/all-cash-investors-beating-buyers-of-townhouses-in-brooklyn/  and in this article addressing the largest real estate deal in the US involving a Chinese State-Run company developing a new project in Brooklyn http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304520704579127822887005590 (Accessed 11/10/13)

3) http://nymag.com/news/politics/bloomberg/in-conversation-2013-9/ (Accessed 11/10/13)

4) http://fiscalpolicy.org/the-gilded-city-of-new-york (Accessed 11/10/13)

5) http://creativetimereports.org/2013/10/07/david-byrne-will-work-for-inspiration/

6) “Chinese investors betting on Detroit comeback, buy up real estate” http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/07/29/chinese-investors-betting-on-detroit-comeback-buy-up-real-estate/  (accessed 11/7/13)

7) See documentation of recent Creative Time related controverseys and their organizational responses here: http://art-leaks.org/2013/10/20/open-letter-to-suzanne-lacy-nato-thompson-catherine-j-morris-brooklyn-museum-creative-time/ and

http://creativetime.org/blog/2012/11/04/a-message-from-anne-pasternak/ and http://hyperallergic.com/58499/artists-cancel-their-creative-time-summit-appearances-over-controversial-israeli-partnership/ and this intervention lecture by Josh MacPhee from the 2012 Summit provides a rich context for the BDS campaign in relationship to cultural institutions http://creativetime.org/summit/2012/10/12/josh-macphee/

8) See my “Reflections on Creative Time Summit: Revolutions In Public Practice” in H-Art 2009

9) www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/nyregion/as-art-tania-bruguera-lives-like-a-poor-immigrant.html (Accessed 11/9/13)

10) For the entire story surrounding this quotation see Moyers, Bill p194 Moyers On America: A Journalist And His Times (Anchor Books, 2004/2005)

11) For background on the UN recommendations see https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/aclu-calls-tamms-closure

12) http://cjdegreeonline.bu.edu/infographic-incarceration/ and http://gothamist.com/2013/05/01/these_interactive_charts_show_you_w.php and http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2000/05/prisoners-census (Accessed 11/8/13)

Bio: Daniel Tucker is an artist, writer and organizer living in Chicago. He is currently editing a video about the politics of self-sufficiency and editing a book on the theme of Immersive Life Practices. His recent exhibition project, Crisis Image Archives, is touring throughout the US. miscprojects.com

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