Decolonize This Place

Artists Space
September 17 – December 17, 2016

Walking into the meeting hall at Artists Space Books & Talks is like stepping into community-based organizing center with the energy and excitement of a rock concert. One is not only greeted by a crowd of young artists and activist, but immediately inundated with a spate of hand-painted banners—battle flags for social justice and equality, as it were. Covering the walls and hanging from the ceiling, these large placards bear spirited political statements such as: “Black Lives Matter,” “Respect The Ancestors,” “Abolish White Supremacy,” “When We Breathe We Breathe Together,” “Don’t Play With Apartheid #BDS,” and so forth. These activist posters—some previously carried through the streets for demonstrations and protests, and others created in the space, waiting to be utilized—are carefully displayed at 55 Walker Street as a backdrop to Artists Space’s current project: Decolonize This Place.

“Our Uprisings: Art Action Assembly.” Artists Space Books & Talks, Sunday, November 20, 2016. Courtesy Decolonize This Place and Artists Space, New York. Photo: Marz Saffore

Organized by the art activist collective MTL+, at the invitation of Common Practice New York, Decolonize This Place presents a series of weekly public events and workshops with artists, activists, academics, and writers focusing on the Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, Free Palestine, Global Wage Workers, and De-Gentrification as points of inquiry. For a period of three months, Artists Space will act as a creative commons for artists and activists alike to come together and organize against structural racism and the legacies of settler colonialism.

The movement broke out this past May as a protest against two exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum: This Place and Agitprop! The protest brought together over 150 artists and activists to occupy the Brooklyn Museum and speak out against This Place—a photography exhibition that took Israel as its subject and depicted the State as a homogenized and whitewashed country irrespective of the violence upon and marginalization of the Palestinian population in the region—and Agitprop!, an exhibition that looked at the crossroads of contemporary art and social activism, which saw participating artists in the show protest against the museum’s ties to real estate developers and its participation in the gentrification of Brooklyn. The movement received a lot of attention and challenged (and continues to challenge) art museums and institutions, asking them forthright whom they aim to serve: their community or their funders?

In this evolution of Decolonize This Place at Artists Space, we are presented with something quite different… in essence, a social practice think-tank that aims not only to mobilize artists and activists to bring about social justice, but also to bridge different social movements to work in solidarity with one another. Members of MTL+ (Nitasha Dhillon, Amin Husain, Yates McKee, Andrew Ross, and others) have successfully brought together a diverse group of art and activist organizations—both local and abroad—to not only inform visitors but to unite them towards a common cause. Some of their more noteworthy events included “Decolonize this Museum”—a conversation between Liberate Tate (a group of artists that fought for years to end BP’s sponsorship of Tate), G.U.L.F. (a subsidiary of Gulf Labor Artists Coalition, a group fighting for the labor rights of migrant workers building the new Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi), and NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective (a group of indigenous activists and supporters) on action-led movements in museums; and “Palestine, BLM and Boycott in the Arts”—a discussion on the politics of solidarity, the connections between the Black Liberation and Free Palestine movements, and BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions), with members of MTL+ and the activists/academics Robin D.G. Kelley and Jasbir K. Puar.

However, one of the more prescient concerns that repeatedly came up as a point of discussion was the problem of gentrification and the influence art has on the other side of the issue. Conversations on the gentrification of Chinatown spearheaded by the Chinatown Art Brigade (an art collective fighting against the displacement of Chinese-Americans in lower Manhattan’s Chinatown) looked at the growing rise of art galleries in the area as a potential threat to the community’s cultural makeup. Additionally, talks between other groups like Defend Boyle Heights in LA, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa in Bushwick, Mothers On The Move in the Bronx, Queens is Not Sale, Take Back the Bronx, NYC Not 4 Sale, and the North East Los Angeles Alliance, all spoke about their concerns around gentrification in their respective neighborhoods, the organizing that’s being done to resist it, and the role art plays in the displacement of people of color. Shellyne Rodriguez’s (from Take Back the Bronx) riveting PowerPoint presentation, which among other things, looked at artist Lucien Smith’s and super developer Keith Rubinstein’s controversial art party in the South Bronx—one that displayed trash can fires and dilapidated cars with bullet holes as art, and was an attempt to solidify the neighborhood as a marketable real estate venture—was especially moving and eye-opening.

Not surprisingly, artists have historically been the first gentrifiers of low- and middle-income areas, a trend that is unquestionably positioned as an ironclad formula developers use to slowly “reinvigorate” areas, displacing small businesses and other life-long residents of the communities. As leftist organizers and artists come together to formulate actions and solutions to the problems of gentrification, an unfortunate dilemma arises: How do artists work to fight for social justice, in particular against gentrification, when so many artists are regulated by an art system that also serves the interests of the capitalist machine? How do artists resist being agents of gentrification? As much as Decolonize This Place might offer viable solutions and strategies for artists, the inherent contradictions or conflicting forces that exist between art and activism do not just simply go away. In fact, they are all the more visible, impossible to ignore. It seems that leftist artists today need to either reimagine, rethink, and reposition their roles in this complex art system, or else abandon it altogether—perhaps more so now than ever before.

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