“Art Instrumentalized Must Be Utopian,” for exhibition at “Art in the Contested City” conference, November 3, 2006, Pratt Institute; essay online at www.prattcollaboratives.org [dead link -- see below]

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Art Instrumentalized Must Be Utopian

I. Artistic Economies and Social Capital

Regular and continuous feedback is necessary to creative work. So artists make connections with others around them to check their work. They check it with other artists, others of like mind, and others who seem open to them and their work. Working on their own schedules, artists have time to chat. They derive from social interaction a sense of grounding and purpose in their work. They have more parties than usual. They spend more time in coffee shops than usual. They have more people over. Their activities are normally outside the 9 to 5 grind, so they activate resources of time and space within a community that are ordinarily unused.

Why are artists so social? The economy of artistic production is a mixed one.(1) Rather than subsisting normally within a consumer commodity economy, artists are able to work by regular resort to the economies of patronage (medieval) and gifts (tribal) as well as to markets. (This is mystified by the recent surge of institutionally sponsored campaigns to educate artists in how to market themselves which emphasize one aspect of artistic economy at the expense of the others.) Artists rely upon connections to get by. They continuously make them in whatever community they are in. Artists then increase connectedness or “social capital” within the communities in which they live as a byproduct of their own para-economic activities.

II. Leaving the Ghetto

Recent historical exhibitions of downtown New York art(2) have considerably illuminated the erasure of the downtown bohemia, and the “malling” of the East Village. The ongoing gentrification of a traditionally working class community and the replacement of local businesses by corporate chain stores ended the Lower East Side as an artists’ district. This process has gone hand in hand with the suburbanization of the New York art scene. No longer concentrated in the dense urban neighborhoods of the central city, most artists have been priced out to the residential boroughs. (The low rise buildings of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg filled up fast, and prices soared. No longer a growing artists’ neighborhood, it is understood today as full of “hipsters.”) NYC today is a fundamentally different art scene, knit together not by proximity as in the manner of the 19th and 20th century metropolitan culture of cafes and bars, storefront galleries and little magazines, but online and through meetings in galleries and large exhibiting institutions. (Of the latter, the “Warm Up” events at P.S. 1, with beer bars and DJs, are extreme examples as the art museum stands in for the nightclub.)

The dispersal of artistic communities marks the end of the metropolitan culture model as the seedbed for advanced art and culture. Yet the spread of European-style cafes, the open storefront with coffee bar, is one of the clearest signs of gentrification in the East Village. So the malling of bohemia is a more complex process than at first it seems. The European-style café is the very signature of metropolitan culture, yet transplanted here it is a signature on a rather expensive check, not on an artwork.

III. The Double-Headed Coin

Artists represent resistance.(3) At the same time, artists represent capital in motion. When they show up in your neighborhood, you know that gentrifying capital is on the march. Artists are the cosmeticians of the face of capital. Working in (or being worked over by) the advertising and media industries, they are slaves to the spectacle which upholds the masks of capital. At the same time they are -- or can be -- in its face as critical analysts. Those who know the secrets can tell them.

Is the erasure of (genuine, functional) metropolitan culture a crisis, or simply change, driven by the adaptation of technology to social interaction? Technology has altered the landscape of creative work, so why not creative life?

How do artists act in the face of change which is inimical to their interests? How do they respond to change which displaces them, disrupts and disfigures their communities? They adapt.

Maybe it's not so bad. But that doesn't mean it should be accepted. Resistance to this kind of profit-driven change in itself yields social benefits. Resistance increases local social connectedness, increases government responsiveness, and confers survival advantages in the shared information and resources among activists and their allies.

My understanding of artistic economy and community is based on experience and feeling. It includes a sense of a future based on theory and works of art, collective projects that have succeeded and failed, projects that have passed away but are not forgotten, rather held up as models. It is an analysis based on narratives and full of intention.

"Change-alujah," cries Reverend Billy.

IV. Lost Horizons (On Method)

The emerging cultural policy establishment in the USA does not seem much interested in the actual lives of artists -- who they are, how they live, how they make a living -- and they are definitely not interested in art.(4) There are sound reasons for this. Only through particular kinds of discourse will these practitioners of an emerging discipline gain any audience in councils of power. That is, they must enunciate the numerate discourse of social science, public policy and business management which strives for validated generalities and actionable conclusions. This discourse scrupulously avoids particularity, interest, and excitement. It is an-aesthetic.

Artists’ work, their projects and undertakings are responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Art projects are instances of social action. In the terms of social science then artistic practice provides anecdotal evidence and case studies – i.e., literature and works of art. In attending to this work, analyzing and disseminating it -- “best practices,” “idiot’s guides” – a kind of critical history of activist practice emerges which acts as a supplement to the discourses of cultural policy and arts administration. This history has had a kind of arctic destiny, ignored by the art markets and museums, and relatively disregarded by the sociologists who dominate cultural policy. Still, some artists read it. Some write it.

V. Epilogue: Direct Action

I recently visited Europe for the first time in decades, and was fascinated in Berlin by the remnants of the occupied houses known as squats. These residential buildings, taken over in waves of action most recently after the fall of the Wall in 1989, gave evidence of a concerted cultural program. They tended to have key features in common: a café, a cinema, a bookstore (library or “info shop”), and often an art gallery (and/or a “façade exhibition” program), internet access and a collective kitchen as well as political offices dedicated to immigrant rights and anti-fascist work. The squatted houses of Berlin(5) functioned as cultural centers. They were seedpods of metropolitan culture.(6) Artists, architects, musicians, and filmmakers played leading roles in these anarchist ventures.

Squatting is an international movement in Europe. It had particularly energetic cadres and tactical formulations in the Autonomist movement in Italy and in Amsterdam as an outcome of the Situationist-tinted Provos, both most active in the 1970s. In Holland too the movement was tied up with the networked hacker underground of the ‘90s, as real and intellectual property were understood in continuum.(7)

In Berlin – and as it has spread throughout other cities and countries in Europe – squatting is direct evidence of the mitigation and compromise attending the “triumph of capitalism” since ’89-’91. The most congenial aspects of state socialism -- food, lodging and social services for all – are unfulfilled by free market capitalism. Europe is too close knit and too civilized to soak up the damage, like people dying of exposure on the streets of major cities. The squats filled in during a systemic interregnum, with lodging, community, left activism, and culture. They are do-it-yourself government, insurrectionary urban development.

Squatting of course is a worldwide phenomenon, a ceaseless tug of war for space with elites and their governments.(8) It is politics – including, or rather made up out of social formations and cultural activity – which is outside of governance, like art outside the museum gallery. It is the work of the poor and of artists standing with the poor.

This music we have heard before in old New Amsterdam… harsh, grating and discordant sounds, like those drifting up of a Saturday night to the windows of the new Dakota apartments from the Seneca Village shantytown below, built on ground soon to be redeveloped as Central Park.

October, 2006

1. I argue this in Moore, “Political Economy as Subject and Form in Contemporary Art,” Review of Radical Political Economics (special issue on the political economy of art), Fall 2004, vol. 36, no. 4

2. That includes “East Village USA” at the New Museum, “Downtown New York” at the Grey Art Gallery. Both shows, however, typically neglected political activism by artists such as that discussed by Greg Sholette in this catalogue.

3. Clayton Patterson, et al. eds., Resistance: A Social and Political History of the Lower East Side (Seven Stories Press, 2007) offers proof for this contention. This sprawling volume is the first extensive historically linked record of the resistance to gentrification on the Lower East Side.

4. The European cultural policy establishment operates very differently, given its much longer history. It also includes a substantial resistant sector, that is, practitioners who are not governed by a single dominant set of economic models, e.g. EIPCP.

5. It should be noted that squatting is no longer tolerated in Berlin, since the pace of redevelopment has quickened. Still, a recent large-scale takeover in the old Bethanien hospital by evicted squatters, called New Yorck 59, is in negotiation at this writing.

6. I saw some sign that this idea is being used now as an instrument of governance, in the ceding of an abandoned building to a design group in a very un-metropolitan communist-built East Berlin suburb. I did not visit the group – on the Web at Anschlaege.de – but spoke with another tourist who told me the project consisted of the typical squat house mix of café, cinema, etc. which the group of design school comrades had set up in an abandoned kindergarten with city approval.
The recent history of New York City’s Lower East Side cultural institutions and green spaces is in large measure one of government working with civic-minded squatters. The most salient example of the squat as cultural center, if only because it is the most recent, is ABC No Rio.

7. Squat.net and the Kraak video magazine, the media voices of the European squatter movement, are both Dutch. Some in the squatter and hacker intelligentsia are active today in critical cultural policy; the Convention of International Creative Industries Researchers convened in Amsterdam weeks after this conference at Pratt, for example, includes a segment on “subterranean creativity.”.

8. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006), surveys the world scene; the book is in hardcover now, simultaneously translated into German at the Schwarze Risse bookshop.

The prattcollaboratives.org link, with the conference materials from Art in the Contested City, has been demounted. I found a reference to the conference at http://www.nolandgrab.org/archives/2006/10/art_in_the_cont.html. This blog is principally concerned with the progress and resistance to the Atlantic Yards development of high rise complexes in residential downtown Brooklyn. The national and global issues have been set aside in the face of this local crisis.