Cardboard Castles and Other Amenities...

I am really interested in using different forms of cultural action to help build better communities. Communities are a vital social model, allowing us to tackle problems beyond the ability of individuals with the focus of a defined (usually relatively small) group of people. How do the arts and cultural work in general help communities grow more sustainable futures? If you have a cool website or project or your own ideas on these subjects please let me know.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two Talks Worth Listening to: Ownership and Cultural Gentrification

I’ve been listening to two talks (1, 2) from City From Below through Groundswell.

The first talk is the problems of architecture in late-capitalist society through an anarchistic analysis (I think.) The first presenter, Shiri Pasternak, offers a short historicized analysis of property in a colonial setting (focused on the US.) She makes an interesting comment about the difference of capitalist notions of land ownership, in which decision-making is based on the needs/desires of the landowners, versus the more indigenous (northwest Canadian) notion of the people belonging to the land.

Now I have no idea what this means to those people (don’t really know which indigenous people she works with exactly) but it reminds me of the Land Group (ask me about it if you don’t know.) It makes me think about how “ownership” is an inaccurate description and ineffective mental paradigm in which to understand our relationship to the land. Our relationship to the land (at it’s ideal) has been based on a historic understanding that that ecosystem has evolved around human intervention for centuries. That for better or worse humans are intimately intertwined into the healthy operation of the natural systems in that area and as “owners” we have responsibility to continue providing the “services” (god damn this language) we humans have provided for centuries. I wonder what this would look like in an urban context? What would it look like if people felt responsibility to there homes? What about to the buses/trains or to the parks or the sidewalk?

This also connects to a conversation I was having with Sherry Wolf (of the Socialist Worker [I know scary]) about the use of “queer” in the LGBTQ liberation movement. Within a discussion about the effectiveness of reclaiming the epithet “queer,” Sherry mentioned being done with the “language war” between “gay,” “LGBT,” and “queer,” that there is a point where if you are not doing things it does not really matter what you call it. This is very true, however the property discussion reminded me of the importance of understanding where our language falls short. In both personal-spatial relations (“ownership” being one form) and LGBT liberation the real point is that there are not words that concisely express those ideas. It took me 66 words to briefly explain the Land Group’s beliefs about its relationship to the environment. Imagine if there was a one word that got even close to what I’m talking about and this is why it remains important to continue to analyze our language and how it impacts our ability to talk about the work we do.

The second talk is about gentrification, pointing out how as artists our job in capitalism has become to brand places as “cool” and then sacrifice them to gentrification. The talk also discuses means of creative resistance. Using the community determined zoning struggles in Williamsburg as a point of departure, a woman from Not an Alternative (I can’t tell who she is [from Dave at Groudsweel, the speaker is Beka Economopoulos]) began by discussing the popular story of Williamsburg as hipster-fucked gentrifying neighborhood devoid of any other population, which is inaccurate. She then broke down the traditional narrative of hipsters as a perpetually displaced people moving from one neighborhood to another acting as the protagonists in the story of gentrification. Not that pleasant if you ask me.

Using the cult classic The Warriors, Not an Alternative and the Williamsburg Warriors designed posters that cast hipsters (and other community groups) in a new narrative of “rebel outcasts.” Through this they provided a vision of the community the hipsters could not only identify with, but could also lead to transformation of the hipster identity. I think this is a great example of the ways cultural production can be leveraged to build coalitions between people who in the popular understanding are advisories, gentrifying hipsters and longstanding community members of color.

One great nugget from the talk was the line “It was our sense that any narrative has the potential to be misread in a useful way.” She talked about the computer mockup that developers created to present the “new” Williamsburg, she pointed out that the faceless “anybody” quality of these marketing campaigns present an opportunity for us to engage and rewrite the narrative of these advertising in ways that highlight the alienation of the community inherent and leverage them to activate the community. In the end all this work points Not an Alternative to move outside of the identity of counter culture or “not mainstream”, and instead step into the role of cultural producers and stand with the communities against gentrification and other forms of oppression.

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At 9:10 AM, Blogger Groundswell said...

Hey Eli, it's Dave from the Groundswell Collective. I'm glad you got a lot out of our City from Below coverage. Shiri's presentation was limited by time, so we didn't get to unpack as much of her analysis of property as I'd have liked (you might've gathered as much from the audio.) I'd like to hear more about Land Group, it seems there might be some overlap with Shiri's line of thinking, but that it falls more on the stewardship side.

The person from Not An Alternative that you didn't recognize is Beka Economopoulos. At the time I admit I was confounded by their approach to this project, but given time and your apt description of their work, I like it more and more. Plus, elsewhere they are doing incredible things. They're an inspiration for sure.

One last aside in this rambling comment: I was glad for your reminder that the focus on language is worthless if not rooted in struggle. It came up soon after in a discussion of dialogical art practice I'd been having with friends, and it'll continue to be useful as we flesh out a way to describe what we do!

Feel free to drop an email anytime.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger rio said...

this is really interesting


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