For the better part of the twentieth century, Los Angeles was “clearly divided by a color line” and a class line. Discrimination in housing policies coupled with an industrial boom that elicited 600,000 new migrant workers seeking jobs resulted in an Eastside with a distinctive diverse non-white character and working class character. Ironically, the same policies intended to subjugate non-whites in the Eastside gave way to political and artistic countercultures like civil rights, the Chicano movement and graffiti and mural culture. Earlier this year, the city of Los Angeles demolished the iconic Sixth Street Bridge to erect in its place a $449 million dollar project that will feature parks and other luxury amenities symbolizing the upending of the race and class line in Los Angeles and ushering a situation in which Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District will sprawl over the river into East Los Angeles.
Today, diversity and culture are the grounds for a fierce debate in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles. Long-term residents contend that impending gentrification threatens their survival and long-standing countercultures, while an influx of developers and arts institutions claim to revitalize a deindustrialized community. This conflict has reached a crisis point. Local manufacturing, with the exception of the garment industry, dried up in the deindustrialization of the ‘80s and ‘90s, leaving many large warehouses vacant. Capitalizing on a booming arts industry in Los Angeles, new industrialists turned to the arts as the panacea for the problems of deindustrialization, and began to rent out these warehouses as studios and galleries. But deindustrialization has also cost many in local communities stable jobs that art galleries are incapable of replacing. Local residents – who must now increasingly seek precarious, piecemeal and low-paying jobs like domestic work or contractual day labor outside of Boyle Heights – also draw from genealogies of making do in situations of scarcity. Such residents use creative means to hold onto their homes and hold together the social fabric of their community. So, when urban planners and real estate developers promote Boyle Heights as a new “arts district,” they effectively privilege one manifestation of art – formally trained semi-professional Artists, Art galleries and the like – over and against the art which is already there. In this essay we make the case that the art which is already there is social practice through which the community reproduces itself. Thus, where the debate has largely been framed as “art vs. housing,” we believe that the questions that are actually playing out are “whose social practices get to count as Art?” and “who gets to have housing?” In this sense we insist that, for artists seeking to act in solidarity with communities resisting gentrification, there is much to be salvaged from the discourses of “social practice” and, for communities seeking to resist gentrification, there is a power in valorizing their work of social reproduction as arts practice.
Social practice artists have found themselves at the heart of this crisis in Boyle Heights and elsewhere. One particularly dramatic example is the protest of PSSST gallery in Boyle Heights in the summer of 2016 and the circumstances surrounding it. For context, PSSST describes itself as an artists’ space that “invests in artists by valuing process over product and community over singular success and actively works with underrepresented artists.” Through their aesthetics, their exhibition choices, and their mission statements they work hard to signal that they are motivated by dialogue and creativity, not profit and exploitation, placing them squarely within the portion of contemporary art often referred to as “social practice.”
Yet, PSSST was among the galleries protested by community activists and artists organized, united in a coalition called Boyle Heights Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAD). BHAAD has accused PSSST of being complicit in the fine art of gentrification of Boyle Heights. “In trying to establish a fine arts space within the professional sector,” says Dont Rhine, a member of the BHAAD coalition, “it’s next to impossible to start or maintain that space without direct complicity in speculative development. It’s impossible to escape complicity.” When BHAAD organizers use the term “artwashing,” they are referring to the kinds of marketing and political strategies that make use of art and artists to raise the price of real estate. The resulting rent increases result in displacement of the longer term poor and working class inhabitants of targeted neighborhoods, a dynamic that disproportionately impacts women of color.
While the term “artwashing” specifically implies arguments familiar to critics of the ways that corporations have used environmental initiatives to “greenwash” their image, BHAAD organizers are equally attentive to the ways that artwashing functions as a racial aesthetic strategy for real estate professionals. “Developers have learned that a key tool in the speculative real estate game is the use of arts initiatives to change the composition of historically working class and poor neighborhoods,” says Dont Rhine. He goes on to conclude that “Art spaces move in, rents go up, tenants and local businesses are evicted, and capital washes away the barrio […]” For the last decade, urban planners have urged city officials and developers to privilege amenities that would attract the so-called creative class to revitalize cities with their influx of wealth and creativity. Most municipal development and redevelopment policies and projects today lean on some sort of arts and cultural institution for legitimacy as bureaucrats, and real estate professionals have generated a consensus that cultivating arts districts is at once an economic panacea and a moral absolution. Artists are finding themselves increasingly entangled with city planners, developers and financial capital as they are rendered a spectacle in the service of speculation.
Rhine is also a co-founder of the sound art collective Ultra-red, who prefer the term “socially practiced artwork” to the more common “social practice” or “socially engaged artwork” in order to preserve both the specificity and breadth of their understanding of the term “social practice.” Social practices, for Ultra-red, are the variety of concrete activities that all social groups are involved in as part of their collective reproduction or survival. For the poor or marginalized classes, such practices most frequently entail habits of helping one another survive the daily life of capitalist exploitation. The breadth of Ultra-red’s definition of social practice is not an attempt to valorize as artwork the variety of such practices so much as to highlight that from the perspective of the oppressed, sociality has real benefits in its own rights. Ultra-red explain that in their experience, the difference between artists who seek to speak on behalf of a community in order to appropriate their participation as a form of value and artists whose creative actions are continuous with the struggle of the community is one of accountability: “If the artist takes a stand of solidarity with the periphery, then it is the social practices of the proletarianized to which the artist becomes accountable as the basis of social change.” This form of accountability inverts the assumption in the art world that the artist is accountable only to him or her self, which all too often results, de facto, in being accountable only to the entrepreneurial endeavors of powerful institutions.