Los AngelesMuseum of Contemporary Art
October 14, 2018 – June 24, 2019
Cameron Rowland's exhibition, D37, is bookended by two slowly searing works that rewrite how we look at art and public policy. Using artwork budgets and legal research, Rowland reveals the city of Los Angeles's role in the violent displacement of the poor and people of color. The first, 2015 MOCA REAL ESTATE ACQUISITION (2018), hits particularly close to home, taking the form of an addition to the museum's donor plaque. The addition states that MoCA bought its site from LA's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in 2015 for a mere $100,000, for land that was assessed by the city of Los Angeles at $8,500,000 after leasing the land for free since the museum opened in 1983.
MoCA is located in Bunker Hill, a historically Mexican and Chinese neighborhood marked area "D37" and assigned the lowest Security Grade by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1939 for its "subversive racial elements," which it equated with "dilapidation and squalor." HOLC's Residential Security Map, cited in the exhibition pamphlet, calls Bunker Hill "a slum area and one of the city's melting pots," a description that allowed the CRA to evict and raze the area in 1959 to increase tax revenue for the city. In other words, HOLC set the rules to allow itself to hold mortgage financing and displace low-income people of color.
Of course, HOLC could not continue operating with its blatant racism, so it shapeshifted into the Federal Housing Administration and influenced the CRA, which attempted to cover up its violence through faux acts of community service like granting a city museum. These instances of government evasion and legally sanctioned racism are what Rowland tracks in D37, laying bare how Los Angeles and the country more broadly have continued to engineer chattel slavery into modern policies of redlining, into restricted citizenship, into racially targeted asset forfeiture—all created to foster the systemic discrimination of the poor and communities of color. Organized by Lanka Tattersall and Rebecca Lowery, D37 unveils the very mechanisms of a government that makes its own rules to justify its own injustices.
Rowland is a visual researcher whose medium is sculpture, and his work is often accompanied by lengthy texts and excerpts. While one might balk at the more-than-usual amount of reading Rowland's work requires, in a sense, that's exactly what the people who make the obscurantist laws he cites are hoping for. Rowland operates in the tradition of institutional critique, following artists like Andrea Fraser, whose recent book 2016 laid out alphabetically the political contributions of over 5,000 board members at U.S. art institutions during the 2016 presidential election. In a similar vein, Rowland shows that museums' public service and patrons' philanthropy do not excuse their mistreatment of the disenfranchised. He encourages museums to not just show work about the marginalized but to do something about how they live. D37 demands that all viewers within and without the art world pay closer attention to the rightful histories and ownerships etched on our everyday objects. What specific circumstances—and potential abused inequities—allow us to be in this very spot, looking at art?
In the center of the main gallery are carefully selected objects seized by police under civil asset forfeiture that resonate as shells of past ownership. Used bikes glint bluntly in two careless piles, slapped on with scribbled auction lot number tags. I imagine police officers, so used to taking bikes to sell, storing them similarly in a disorganized property room. Two grimy leaf blowers and a single green stroller cut deeper, sitting there as if plucked from their owners—where are they now? These objects' poignancy is heightened by their sad purpose. In the exhibition pamphlet, Rowland cites a 2011 study that shows that 60% of 1,400 municipal and county law enforcement agencies rely on forfeiture profits—earned primarily from communities of color—for their budget. The police continue the work of a government founded on slavery, strong-arming non-white residents into funding the very patrolling that ends up targeting and arresting them. "To protect and to serve" whites only, it seems.
Labeled "Rental at cost," the used bikes, leaf blowers and stroller are not for sale as works of art. Instead Rowland stipulates that the objects can be rented in five-year periods for the total price they realized at police auction—collectors can never fully "own" these works, in the same way poor minorities can never live securely with their belongings. By participating in these auctions and exhibiting the resulting objects, Rowland withdraws them from their normal circulation to use as examples of how abusive asset forfeiture routinely continues on unnoticed. The small amounts paid ($104 for a group of eight bikes, $1 for the stroller), as well as the thousands of auctions that happen online daily at propertyroom.com, reveal the darker edge of how the police aims to seize a high volume of low-value goods. The police invoke a probable cause to seize assets, much in the same way HOLC designated D37 a "low red" rating to be redeveloped.
Assessment (2018) stands at the end of the gallery, a late eighteenth-century English grandfather clock acquired from Paul Dalton Plantation in South Carolina. Framed mid-19th century property tax receipts on slaves and other owned goods from Mississippi and Virginia show how slave states profited and relied on black bodies to build their infrastructure and governments. The clock's burnished gold face is decorated with a large cargo sailing ship, an image that exalts the vehicle which brought Africans as chattel to the New World. In the exhibition pamphlet, Rowland cites 42 USC § 1981, "Equal rights under the law," a section of the United States Code last updated in 1991 that maintains "equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens." The law establishes whiteness as the standard for proper treatment in this country, re-adapting the supposedly abolished standard for owning property and becoming a citizen. That governments withheld citizenship from slaves, as they now withhold it from undocumented immigrants of color merely reinforces Rowland's point: systemic racism was and continues to be a closed feedback loop.
D37 closes with Depreciation (2018), which feels like a counterpart to 2015 MOCA REAL ESTATE ACQUISITION in its larger critique of this country's tying upward mobility with white land ownership. The work consists of a series of legal documents and contracts that reveal how Rowland used part of D37's budget to acquire one acre of land on Edisto Island, South Carolina, only to actively devalue it by imposing a restrictive covenant on it, all of which is indicated in the subsequent appraisal which reports the current value to be $0. Edisto Island was part of the Maxcy Place plantation, which fell under General William Tecumseh Sherman's "40 acres and a mule" slavery reparations project. The initiative planned to give newly emancipated slaves 40 acres of land and a mule as some redress for slavery and was instituted in haste in 1865 "out of concern for a potential uprising of the thousands of ex-slaves who were following his army by the time it arrived in Savannah."1 The initiative was an empty promise, however: President Andrew Johnson rescinded it in 1866 following Lincoln's assassination, and the land was repossessed by Confederate owners, who never gave it to former slaves, and instead sold or passed it down.
By wresting the power of land valuation HOLC once used and instead using it constructively to wryly co-opt the restrictive covenants that white property owners used to keep blacks from owning their land, Rowland dismantles the idea that property can be a means of reparation—in this case doubly symbolic, since the land proffered was never given. He shows how complicit our government is in the cycle of dispossession of the underprivileged. Police brutality against black bodies is an obvious country-wide epidemic, but Rowland goes further to uncover the quiet, seemingly innocuous but equally violent property auctions that construct and fund its perpetuation, and which we willingly take part in. These extant laws are smears on our history, which too few of us understand or have read. Rowland, thankfully, is here to force us to.
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, updated ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1988; New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 71. As cited by Rowland in D37 exhibition pamphlet, last page.
Images and Text by Cameron Rowland
Cameron Rowland, 2015 MOCA REAL ESTATE ACQUISITION, 2018. Donor plaque (detail). Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the Artist and ESSEX STREET, New York.
The redlining map of Los Angeles drawn by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation in 1939 gave Bunker Hill, block D37, the lowest possible rating. D37 extended from West 4th Street to West Temple Street, and from Figueroa Street to South Hill Street. The report indicated that residents were "low-income level" and were predominantly "Mexicans and Orientals." The HOLC's Residential Security Map report for Bunker Hill states:
It has been through all the phases of decline and is now thoroughly blighted. Subversive racial elements predominate; dilapidation and squalor are everywhere in evidence. It is a slum area and one of the city's melting pots. There is a slum clearance project under consideration but no definite steps have as yet been taken. It is assigned the lowest of "low red" grade.
The Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles was formed in 1948 under the California Community Redevelopment Act of 1945, in conjunction with the 1937 and 1949 federal Housing Acts, which authorized its "slum removal." The CRA was granted powers of eminent domain to be used in the redevelopment of "blighted" areas. A primary purpose for the CRA's redevelopment projects was to increase tax revenue for the city. One of the first redevelopment projects proposed by the CRA was in Bunker Hill, on the basis that the neighborhood spent more tax dollars on police, firefighting, and healthcare than it generated. A CRA pamphlet promoting the project stated, "Blight is a liability, Blight is malignant, Blight is a social peril." The CRA's "slum clearance" project in Bunker Hill was adopted in 1959. Through seizure and through sales under the threat of eminent domain, all 7,310 residential units were demolished and their residents were forcibly removed. The CRA's slum clearance in Bunker Hill was one of the first redevelopment projects to rely on tax increment financing.
In 1980, the CRA issued a request for proposals for a project called California Plaza. Proposals were required to include an outdoor pedestrian plaza, a parking structure, and a modern art museum. The winning group of architects called themselves Bunker Hill Associates. The museum outlined in this proposal became The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 1983, the CRA offered MOCA a lease on the land located at 250 South Grand Avenue for a ninety-nine- year term at no rent.
In October 2015, the CRA sold the land at 250 South Grand Avenue to MOCA for $100,000. One month later, in November 2015, a tax assessment triggered by the sale recorded the value of the land at $8,500,000.
Cameron Rowland, Group of 11 Used Bikes – Item: 0281-007089, 2018. Group of 11 Used Bikes sold for $287. 45 × 130 × 54 inches. Rental at cost. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the Artist and ESSEX STREET, New York.
In the United States, property seized by the police is sold at police auction. Auction proceeds are used to fund the police.
Civil asset forfeiture originated in the English Navigation Act of 1660.1 The Navigation Acts were established to maintain the English monopoly on the triangular trade between England, West Africa, and the English colonies.2 As Eric Williams writes, “Negroes, the most important export of Africa, and sugar, the most important export of the West Indies, were the principal commodities enumerated by the Navigation Laws.”3 During the seventeenth century, the auction was standardized as a primary component of the triangle trade to sell slaves, goods produced by slaves, and eventually luxury goods. The auction remains widely used as a means to efficiently distribute goods for the best price.4
Police, ICE, and CBP may retain from 80% to 100% of the revenue generated from the auction of seized property.
Rental at cost: Artworks indicated as “Rental at cost” are not sold. Each of these artworks may be rented for 5 years for the total price realized at police auction.
- Caleb Nelson, “The Constitutionality of Civil Forfeiture,” The Yale Law Journal 125, no. 8 (June 2016), https:// www.yalelawjournal.org/feature/the-constitutionality-of-civil-forfeiture.
- Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), 56–57.
- Williams, 57.
- Brian Learmount, A History of the Auction (London: Barnard & Learmount, 1985), 30–31.
Cameron Rowland, Assessment, 2018. Late eighteenth-century English grandfather clock acquired from Paul Dalton Plantation, Yemassee, South Carolina; 1848 tax receipt from Mississippi; 1852 tax receipt from Mississippi; 1860 tax receipt from Virginia, 92 × 135 × 12 inches. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the Artist and ESSEX STREET, New York.
In the United States, property taxes on slaves were collected by slaveholding states. By 1860, slaves constituted 20 percent of all American wealth.1 Tax collection practices varied from state to state, but taxable assets typically included slaves, land, horses, cattle, carriages, and clocks.
Plantation owners adopted clock time during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, further regulating the labor of slaves in an effort to supply the increasing demand of industrializing Britain. The overseer would echo the chime of the housebound clock by sounding a horn or a bell. “Simultaneously tyrannical, modern, and profit-oriented, the nineteenth-century clock and its attendant ability to rationalize and order the behavior of human beings became the planters’ weapon of choice in their ongoing battle with their chattel.”2
Property taxes collected on slaves were used to develop the slaveholding state governments. These governments remain intact.
- Robin L. Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 214.
- Mark M. Smith, Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 5.
Alex Jen is a writer based in Chicago.