On June 7, I attended Martha Rosler’s exhibition, If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!!, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (renamed “The Temporary Office of Urban Disturbances” for this exhibition.) From the title, I expected the exhibition to discuss gentrification through art, and this is exactly what it did. But, I had no idea that the quote “If you can’t afford to live here…” is not just an example of an ignorant statement that one might hypothetically say, but it is actually something said by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Curator and critic Nina Möntmann, who wrote about the original exhibition cycle organized by Rosler in 1989, referred to this statement as “the principle of gentrification in a nutshell.” Many advocates for social justice would likely agree with Möntmann’s assessment. After all, gentrification involves displacement of people, especially people of color and poor people, on the basis of their ability to afford the areas in which they live or once lived. Koch’s encouragement of this displacement is, essentially, an encouragement of gentrification.
These words — “If you can’t afford to live here mo-o-ve!!” — spray-painted in red on the gallery wall, welcomed the artists, students, and activists who attended the exhibition opening on June 7. They sum up the main message of the exhibition, which is that gentrification is hurting marginalized populations, especially people of color and poor and homeless folks, and all of us must participate in a conversation about this issue in order to move our collective energy forward to produce lasting change. The exhibition featured Rosler’s living archive, yet her message was largely conveyed through the eyes of people affected by gentrification, the wage gap, the minimum wage, destabilized rent, and vacancy control. For example, Picture the Homeless, a New York City-based grassroots organization that fights for the rights of homeless people in the city, including the decriminalization of homelessness by the NYPD, contributed to the exhibition. According to the organization, “homeless people are the real experts on homelessness,” and thus many of their members are homeless or formerly homeless people.
The art displayed on the gallery walls included handmade cardboard signs, furnished by Picture the Homeless, which read “Housing is a Human Right,” “Affordable for Whom,” and signs which commented on the too-low minimum wage. Other works included a painting of a young Donald Trump, a model for a new solidarity economy, and posters displaying the number of homeless people counted in the Seattle area on one night in 2009 (2,827 people). The latter was contrasted with bar graphs and charts showing that Seattle “ranks fifth for average household income of the top five percent” at $422,607. The exhibition even showed over thirty videos and films, some over an hour in length, and, in one display, provided an observational commentary and analysis on the international influence of Western urbanization. According to this photographic display by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, several Asian countries including China, Japan, and South Korea have been visibly influenced by western colonialism, trade, and military intervention, and, subsequently, Asia’s recent proliferation of housing developments appear to mimic Western cities.
The works displayed as a part of this exhibition and the exhibition as a whole attempt to accomplish political and cultural change in two primary ways. First, the exhibition included many pieces that were created directly by those affected by the vehicles for and products of economic and racial inequality listed above, focusing the agency of the exhibit not on the artist Martha Rosler, but rather on those fighting to stay in New York City. Rosler commented on this approach when I asked her what her motivation was to hold an exhibit like this in an art gallery in Chelsea, one where the audience appeared to be predominantly white. She explained that it was important to address “people who have more” and “people who are not homeless,” rather than only people who have less and communities of color. By this, she meant that the people who have more fiscal resources and social and political influence, as opposed to most homeless people, have a greater capacity to use those resources to produce social and political change. Thus, it is fruitful for people with power to engage in these conversations and this work, as we all must in order to move forward and produce change. Although Martha intended to address those with the most societal power, she contends “problems are never solved by one group for another” and “there has to be autonomous action and collaborative action.”
Secondly, the exhibition also calls into question the definition of “art,” in the traditional (read: Eurocentric) sense of the word. Here, what constitutes the art on the walls is emotionally charged political appeals from marginalized groups, illustrations of inequality, and visions for better, more equitable futures. This art is raw, messy, collaborative, explicitly political, and less focused on visual aesthetics than on communicating its radical message. This was buttressed by the provision of practical resources for attendees with an interest in gentrification, affordable housing, the minimum wage, and other relevant economic problems.
The exhibition also provides solace, one imagines, for those who have experienced or are experiencing hardships due to these injustices. Along with the exhibition, Rosler hosted four “town hall” forums on “Art Estate” (6/14), “Trending Neighborhoods” (6/16), “Trending Neighborhoods Part 2” (6/21), and “Privatize!” (6/23) at the gallery. One hopes that the exhibition and programming motivate people to think or continue thinking about economic and racial injustice from a variety of different perspectives and artistic mediums, and will encourage them also to continue these conversations not only in these artistic and intellectual spaces but also in their own communities.