As a student of both urban planning and contemporary art, I am often greeted with quizzical expressions when I mention my degree. “Oh, like murals?” people ask, understandably confused about what either of these fields has to do with the other. Yes, definitely murals, I respond. But actually, the points at which art intersects with conditions of urban life are more ubiquitous.
Perhaps the most classic story of art carving out space in the realm of the city is that of Soho, a once-gritty neighborhood colonized in the 1960s and 70s by artists who were attracted to low rent for the large, raw spaces available in industrial buildings. It was through the lofts of Soho that New York became a global epicenter of post-war experimental art; several decades later, the alternative galleries and artists’ studios that once proliferated have long since been displaced. Indeed, “Sohoization” has pervaded New York and most major cities around the world, as not only artists but middle and working class people of all stripes are being pushed farther from their long-established communities. New York, many will say, is in an acute state of crisis with regards to housing affordability and spatial equity.
It is within this context that the public art organization Creative Time held its annual Summit conference to address the theme(s) of “Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st Century City.” A series of presentations, performances, and conversations by artists, writers, urbanists, architects, activists and organizers, the Summit acknowledged the present complexities of place-making, cultural production, and the possibility for arts communities to resist the processes of gentrification that they partially catalyze.
The many presenters illustrated how movements and groups at the intersection of arts and activism are actively developing grassroots practices that suggest alternatives to the capitally-produced city. There was a common commitment to disrupting the institutional systems that alienate and disenfranchise many city dwellers.
Solutions proposed by the speakers range from abstract to concrete, from cataloging entropy to providing affordable housing to growing mushrooms. Antanas Mockus Šivickas, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, shared his strategies for creating a better public realm, including inviting voters to play casino games with their tax money.
“Is placemaking a weapon for social justice and for promoting radical democracy, or is it a trap?” asked urban theorist Neil Brenner in an invigorating keynote talk. Brenner began by pointing out the depoliticizing shifts in global conditions, citing austerity as “a form of corporate welfare” that polarizes and destabilizes all but the very richest. Most importantly, Brenner acknowledged the troubling process by which cultural production becomes coopted in the interests of a neoliberal urban ideology. Bravely, he initiated the course of presentations with the implication of Creative Time’s own fraught role in the very processes the Summit was developed to confront.
“Detroit is a microcosm for the rest of the world— pay close attention,” demanded Jennene Whitfield, the director of the Heidelberg Project, an organization in Detroit that was born out of a local artist’s attempt to transform his ravaged inner-city neighborhood— the most depressed zip code in the country— into something beautiful by making colorful environments of its abandoned homes. The effort is part political resistance, part public safety measure, and part social service, as it has employed and engaged residents who might otherwise find shelter in prison or gang membership. Now a significant source of pride and hope— as well as concrete change— in Detroit, the project represents the long-term possibilities of a strong-willed creative gesture.
Michael Premo, an artist and human rights activist, discussed his work with communities that, over a year after Hurricane Sandy, are still struggling to establish stable housing. Sandy Storyline is Premo’s participatory film project that has given disadvantaged residents a platform to share their experiences of displacement and neglect. Premo also directs an ongoing storytelling project called Housing Is a Human Right.
Lize Mogel, an artist and geographer, uses her art work to examine the geopolitical meaning inherent to maps and the subversive cartographic strategies that can help dislodge such artificial meaning. In a talk that responded to recent protests in Brazil and expanded the growing conversation around the role of Olympic Villages in the development of global centers, Mogel dissected the social, political, and environmental challenges that arise from the massive government spending and exertion required to produce international “mega events.”
The weekend wrapped with a stirring performance by Invincible, a media and hip-hop artist who rapped about gentrification, housing equity, and the overwhelming domination of capitalist interests in the conversation about— and reality of— Detroit’s future. Invincible’s explosive spoken word performance set up her critical take on the landscape around her, which she followed with an explanation of her work with young people to promote activist leadership and execute media projects around the city. She described her mission to advance principles of solidarity, “co-resistance,” and creativity as a tool for building human dignity.
The lyrics to Invincible’s “Locusts” evoke the threats to Detroit, and to communities everywhere:
Locusts and buzzards circle and hover above the Abandoned houses shattered windows with the crooked shutters Cross the street construct a cookie cutter condominium Lining Woodward, it's the prime meridian You divide the city and In the hood, wonder why you pay two times the premiums? They been redlining the dark-skinned Owners of homes where they loan with a sharks fin Arson the property probably for the insurance policy It's a prophecy that's self fulfilling They claim to cure us of poverty, BUT It's serving removal Of residents with urban renewal.
Elsewhere, a group of young artists dispersed and collected survey booklets with the oft-asked question, “Can art make a difference?” A perennial source of existential anxiety for many cultural producers, this inquiry is often met with an overwhelmed shrug of the shoulders.
Yet the resounding consensus seems to be that this question is no longer relevant— that art makes a difference is a proven point. How to best activate that process, and navigate its contradictions and risks, is the question that we face with each individual project that takes up a public cause. In this way, the fields of producing art and of planning the city are converging. While there are significant gaps in the discourse, the common ground and collaborative spirit are opening up new spaces of possibility for more democratic means of building and shaping communities.