Interviews

THE PREFIGURATIVE POSSIBILITIES OF THE ART INSTITUTION: IN CONVERSATION WITH JAMES MCANALLY

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James McAnally is a writer, editor, curator and artist based in St. Louis, MO. McAnally is the co-founder and curator of the Luminary, a non-profit incubator for new ideas in the arts. He is also the co-founder and editor of Temporary Art Review, as well as a founding member of Common Field, a national network of independent art organizations.

In “The Fate of the Landscape” you pose the question, “how should a city and its artists deal with decay and vacancy?” Here in Detroit there is a lot of debate over the concept of “ruin porn”, and who should have the right to photograph and frame images of post-industrial decline and decay. A lot of people get upset at the idea of artists and photographers from outside the city (typically young white “creatives” from its surrounding suburbs) coming into the city and photographing abandoned buildings, with most critiques centering around how “ruin porn” has a tendency to aestheticize and romanticize ruins while paying no attention to the social, historical, and economic realities of white flight and disinvestment that led to them. It seems to be an issue embedded in the broader conversation of cultural appropriation– who has the right to tell whose stories, and who has the right to frame the narrative of certain spaces? I’m curious as to if there are similar debates about who has the right to frame the landscape in St. Louis, and what you believe are the responsibilities of the artist in navigating this field?

Though our urban environment parallels Detroit in terms of vacancy and decline of a built environment that has been decimated by white flight, redlining and disinvestment for decades, our more urgent questions have emerged over who controls the narrative of the city. The ruin porn of St. Louis isn’t just the brick buildings and gap-toothed streetscape. It is a kind of appropriation of place, when boosters want to isolate the positive (“Best City for Startups”; “Fastest Growing City for Millenials”) from the systemic issues (structural racism, over-policing, institutional disinvestment) that define the daily reality of most of our city. What this does is further separate the experience of the city for people of color from the identity those in power want to project. It is an act of appropriation, in other words, of a lived experience. Those stories are generational; they are as old as the brick, and must be told.

There is a practice that is common in St. Louis called “brick eating,” which is a practice of stealing bricks from vacant homes until they collapse (at which point the rest of the bricks are then taken and shipped south for a veneer of authenticity). This feels as apt of an image as any of the worst of ruin porn, which just wishes to take until there is nothing left.

To your question about who may frame the landscape of St. Louis, I think it is necessarily a multiplicity of voices, because that is what a city is. It is true that St. Louis is one of the fastest growing cities for startups. It is also true that four officers were just indicted for beating one of their own who they thought was a protestor because police brutality is just that much of a reality here. Our city became synonymous with both police violence and racism as well as radical black activism and one of the most profound movements for liberation in a generation. Both are true, and they have to be held together.

There is, of course, a deep irony that I, a college-educated white man living in a predominantly black city, is being asked, “Who can speak?” My role in this is to speak humbly but boldly, to forefront the work of marginalized communities, to be open to critique at all times, and to cede my space when possible. I can speak only from this position, and aim for the truth. I’d ask the same of any artist.

In the last thirty years or so a lot of scholarship has been devoted to the relationship between culture and gentrification in cities. In her 1982 book ‘Loft Living’ Sharon Zukin theorized a near future in which “artists, especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums are a main engine for the repurposing of the post-industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefits of elites”, what Richard Florida would later characterize as the “creative class”.  As a co-founder of The Luminary, an artist-run space in a post-industrial city, how do you negotiate the role of culture as a possible agent of displacement?

It is undeniable that Zukin’s vision has taken hold and that the veneer of creativity, if not art itself, has been a significant tool of urban change over the last several decades. Artists and arts organizations aren’t the central subject of gentrification, however, but exist between the two dominant forces: developers and the displaced. Artists are neither the primary aggressors nor the primary victims of gentrification, but instead can be at any time either aggressor or victim. Artists typically have the mobility to act in solidarity with one side or the other, and it is up to each individual artist and institution to continually choose their role.

Without gliding over artists’ historical complicity, it is important to name the real forces that drive gentrification: developers, investors, politicians and policies. Art and artists, as Zukin notes, are a tool these entities use to achieve their ends, but aren’t the beneficiaries of the process and, in its later stages, are subject to the same forces of displacement. They are often the shock troops of gentrification who also end up sacrificed to other interests.

I say this because the levers of power we oppose are important to understand. As a co-founder and caretaker of a space that operates in a neighborhood that’s been on the brink of gentrification for most of the last decade, we have to be very clear in our allegiances, and address the dynamics of gentrification head on. We bought our building as a young, under-resourced organization because we wanted it to be a lasting anchor for our neighborhood – one that made space for our community in direct ways, and whose programming has always intended to reflect the needs of our neighbors. We felt a need to seriously answer if our space is for the community or simply in it. Is it needed there, or simply there?

For us, engaging the question of gentrification has meant anything from explicitly  framing programming around it to actively opposing policies such as a regressive sales tax that negatively impacted our lower income neighbors (which was only possible to oppose as a building owner). One of the first exhibitions we organized after opening our new space commissioned artists to create responsive projects within predominantly black and brown-owned businesses that had been active in the neighborhood for ten years or more. It was initiated at the invitation of a third generation barbershop that was our immediate neighbor, and who had wanted to host a gallery in their shop. We expanded the scope from there and also worked with a panaderia, a Mexican supermarket, a sportswear store, and an anarchist bakery within a five block radius. It included a retrospective from Dread Scott in the midst of the Ferguson Uprising, handpainted signs from Alberto Aguilar, and a shrine to Malcolm X and others by local artists Work/Play.

We set the framework of ten years because it was, more or less, when the ongoing phase of development began in the neighborhood, so we were interested in how art could engage a longer view of the place than many recent visitors would see. After a Public Radio piece on the project went up that explored not just the work on view, but the larger questions of gentrification in the neighborhood, the official neighborhood representative wrote the author of the piece asking them to change the language, that “gentrification isn’t happening on Cherokee Street.”

This making visible, giving space, and being honest about what is happening is really a baseline. Beyond that, there are questions for any citizen in these communities to ask regarding concrete policies and tangible shifts in their lived reality: How do we organize for tenant rights unions or policy shifts that affect renters and the most alienated in our neighborhoods? Can we help support or start community land banks and other cooperative options? Are there regressive sales tax increases, over policing, or other pro-development policies that harm our neighbors that we can oppose or prevent? What are the pressure points, and levers of power we can engage? What other kinds of proactive work can be done with our local politicians, neighborhood associations, and civic entities to protect those most vulnerable to the effects of gentrification?

I know your work deals a lot with how art institutions can serve as prefigurative models for other public institutions at a broader level, and the website for The Luminary states, “The Luminary investigates its own infrastructure as an artist-run organization in order to advance the understanding of our potentialities within broader social, cultural, and political frameworks”, I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on this and how you believe the art institution can set an example for how other institutions can function?

Arts institutions are one opportunity among many to model the worlds we want to see. This language for us points to the necessity to connect one’s values to the daily, lived decisions that make up an institution. We tend to focus on the outward programs of the institution, rather than the structures that uphold it. An institution is the collective result of many different decisions. We use a phrase often that our work is to “critique by building,” meaning that if we see a failure in institutional practices elsewhere, our role is not just to call that out, but to attempt to create actionable alternatives. That means how we raise and make money has to be ethical, how we pay artists and others has to be equitable, that our programs are reflective of the demographics of our city, and that our daily decisions reinforce a collective well-being of our communities and any individual that engages with our institution.

I think artist-run and independent institutions are sites of possibility because there isn’t a prescribed way to organize. They are inherently open-ended and intuitive with more opportunity to cultivate ethical and equitable structures. While scale doesn’t dictate equity (and smaller spaces can be among the most exclusive sites for many marginalized communities), larger scales do tend to impede radical possibility. It is very difficult for a museum with dozens of trustees (whom are typically not representative of the surrounding community), significant staff and budgets to meet every year, and overall aversion to risk due to having more to lose, to be responsive and radical in their operation. This is not to say that it can’t happen, and I would point to places like the Queens Museum, the Hammer Museum, and, locally, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation as larger institutions that have put serious effort into these questions. However, there is a reason that most museums are incapable of adequately responding when a wave of protest arrives on their doorstep. Most don’t know how to be responsive and transparent. It requires vulnerability – you have to learn and listen in public, be prepared to be wrong, and be prepared to change.

After five decades of institutional critique and little overall advancement towards true equity, I’ve become far more skeptical of this iteration of critique and reform, and far more optimistic about the possibility of forming new institutions that reflect our values. The practice of crafting an institution offers an opportunity to perform critique of existing structures simply by doing it otherwise.

I feel like we fall into patterns of how an art organization is meant to operate just by convention without asking why we do things this way. If it is a game of telephone in which the form degrades over time, I’d rather go off the grid and start a new sentence. To exit the game if at all possible. In our manifesto, we try to take seriously the entire arc of the organization. We have to care well for those inside the institution, and those outside. We have to think about how we form, but also how we are sustained, and, if it comes to it, how we close and how we are nourishing others in each life stage. As a nonprofit, there is a fundamental need, written into our existence, that we are for the good of the public. That is a foundation we should all take seriously, and really reflect on whether our work is doing that, or whether it is insular and self-congratulatory. Whether it is exclusionary and extractive, or generative and generous, as my partner and co-founder Brea frames it.

You define “prefigurative practices” as meaning that “the forms of one’s organizing must be inseparable from one’s goal” which leads me back to the conundrum of artists and activists who move into a city and perform critiques of the gentrification of that city. Do you believe it is possible for the very people and institutions that are causing displacement to critique displacement effectively?

To echo my earlier statement, I think it depends on one’s position in relation to the oppressed or oppressor. Artists and arts organizations (and some activists) operate from a privileged space in which their mobility places them in a fundamentally different position than the most vulnerable in our cities. However, to avoid any artistic organizing in lower income neighborhoods that may be subject to gentrification isn’t the answer, and just serves to alienate art further from the people who live and work there.

Fundamentally, I believe that art should live among people, and should reflect and advance the needs of its publics. For us, that means that our space should be in a neighborhood reflective of the demographics of our city, and that our neighbors are a primary public. We hope to be for and with them. However, to do so, one must be very careful to always side with the oppressed. To make space for their voices, to act and organize alongside them, and to do one’s best to ensure that art is a tool for liberation and connection rather than violence and displacement.

An art space can be an important place of gathering, celebration, organizing, reflection, and action. We embrace our space as convergence point for our city and its many communities. We push our model and structures to be more equitable, ethical and interconnected. We aren’t afraid to align ourselves with activists against oppressive structures. When we say that “the new institution protests” it arises out of our willingness to take stands on issues that matter to our communities, even if it risks our own position. Prefiguration isn’t about purity – we have failed and have to constantly critique and be critiqued – it is about orientation. Are you attempting to model your values, and are they continually being refined?

There is of course flashing danger signs in the piranha-like nature of how art spaces colonize neighborhoods and quickly devour them. Whether in Brooklyn or Boyle Heights, this flitting from neighborhood to neighborhood driven by hyper-development in which the pour over arrives alongside the printshop and the condo alongside the coop is undeniably destructive. What happens in low-density cities like St. Louis is more uneven, uncertain, and, I hope, optimistic. It offer opportunities for organizing and resistance to the well-trodden narratives of urban development. What does it mean when the new tea house and bottle shop, the boutique and fashion label in our neighborhood are all black owned and act as important community spaces? What is it when the “pocket park” on the street is a vacant lot that was unofficially occupied by a black business owner to create a communal space for kids in the neighborhood rather than an exercise in creative peacemaking? What happens when a white-owned venue space is passed to a radical and remarkable black owned record label to oversee? When the co-working space is for activists and ‘solidarity economy’ organizers? When the art spaces are also organizing spaces? When a new development for artists is set up as a community land bank and a majority of the houses are set aside for artists of color to own their homes? When we collectively try to steer this community towards equity? We don’t have a term for that, but it isn’t gentrification. It is perhaps prefiguration and it can only happen through deep organizing, long-term collectivity, and with artists acting intentionally alongside a host of other individuals, institutions, and stakeholders. That these are the on-the-ground narratives of our neighborhood give me some hope to oppose the drumbeat of development and displacement and move towards the kind of space that most of us actually hope to exist in: humane, creative, intersectional, and communal.

Lastly, many contemporary artists working in the field of social practice art/relational aesthetics are intentionally creating work that both performs a critique of gentrification, and seemingly cannot be commodified due to its ephemeral and relational nature. Martha Rosler writes in “Culture Class” that the problem of artists working in poor, urban neighborhoods lie partly in the possibility, however undesired, of exploitation.” While social practice work appears to be immune from commodification, it could also be argued that developers seize upon the attention and markets these artists draw to underdeveloped neighborhoods. What are your thoughts on this?

Complicity has nothing to do with intent. Narratives around neighborhood change and the culture industry are now decades old. Richard Florida is already a footnote and we’ve moved on to some other stage of late-late-capitalism, so artists don’t really have an out that they are party to the effects of gentrification. It’s narrative actually precedes them to the extent that the artists aren’t even needed anymore, just the branding as if they had been there. Gentrification surrounds us as a halo, and is inescapable without the work of actual politics. I’ve appreciated the pivot from social practice to citizen artist because art is of a lower order than existence and we have to find better ways to live together. Artists can help lead us there, I believe, but not naively. My favorite image of the critic (and here, artist) is that of “strategist.” I believe that we need to act strategically, using our positions and privilege to oppose predatory policies and advance actual lived liberation. This is relational, and may be aesthetic. It is definitely social, and must be a daily practice.

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