Brandishing durian and salted fish, artists and activists gathered at the lower Manhattan branch of James Cohan Gallery last October 15 to briefly occupy artist Omer Fast’s room-size installation of two defective ATMs, a bottled-drinks cooler, red paper lanterns, folding chairs, a large potted plant, and a vitrine of phone cases. Punctuating their conversation with English terms like “orientalism,” “gentrification,” and “colonialism,” the protesters talked energetically among themselves in Mandarin and Spanish, before loudly lambasting the “racist show” for “treating Chinatown like poverty porn.” Onlookers shot photos of signs that declared “displace racist art! not chinatown tenants! and racist art has no business here!”
This performative action initiated the first of two demonstrations organized by the sixteen-member Asian American collective Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) against Fast’s exhibition “August,” in which the simulacrum of a convenience store functioned as a foyer for a 3D film about German portrait photographer August Sander. Anticipated by Danielle Wu and echoed by other critics, including Holland Cotter, the demonstrators’ critiques spread rapidly among a wide audience, many of whom may have wondered if they might be the next target.1
In 2017, protests against gentrification generated as much discussion as artworks did, perhaps more, taking aim at major institutions like the Whitney Museum (where in November protesters disrupted the opening of an exhibition by Laura Owens, who runs a gallery in the rapidly developing Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights) as well as commercial entities like James Cohan. While the art industry’s inequities have been addressed previously through public engagement, institutional critique, and identity politics, recent activities have bypassed established modes of argument. Aggrieved parties argue that if its potential for social criticism is to be realized, art must divest itself completely of structural complicities.2
Even as financial deregulation exacerbates inequality in this country, New York chooses to incentivize construction of acutely needed affordable housing primarily through the 421-a program—a tax abatement for developers. This costs the city around $1.4 billion a year in forgiven taxes and reinforces a status quo that denies adequate social infrastructure to lower-income communities, especially those of color.3
Postindustrial and postmodern avant-gardes have benefited from urban disinvestment, deindustrialization, and white flight. In the 1970s and ’80s, artists found cheap lofts in SoHo, and dealers took cheap spaces in the East Village. Although margins are shrinking, galleries today continue to trade in global markets to support emerging artists while availing themselves of the low rent and cultural cachet of long-neglected neighborhoods. Some 130 art galleries, a significant majority of which are white-owned, pepper Manhattan’s Chinatown, occupying space they could not afford elsewhere in Manhattan or in north Brooklyn. Among other factors, anti-Chinese racism and legal barriers to assimilation created “Chinatown” enclaves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The perception of Chinatown as “dirty” lingers, and even stimulates predatory development.4 This creates an ethical obligation for those who participate in the area’s economy: artists and galleries, when newcomers to this context, need to actively oppose existing prejudices if they do not wish to repeat them.
A year before “August” opened at James Cohan, the Chinatown Art Brigade met with the Chinatown Tenants Union of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities,5 a nonprofit that works to empower low-income Asian immigrants, at the corner of Grand and Chrystie Streets, one block from the gallery, for the project Here to Stay. Working with the guerrilla projection collective The Illuminator, the groups beamed phrases written by tenants such as “gentrification is modern colonialism,” “support the cwg rezoning plan,” and “who did you displace when you opened your gallery?” in Chinese, English, and Spanish on the wall of 250 Grand Street, chosen for its prominence to both the neighborhood’s tourists and its low-income residents.
In a statement posted to James Cohan’s website in response to the protests, Fast wrote that in re-creating the appearance of the building before the gallery moved in, he aimed to heighten “the tension between appearance and essence” of the immigrant experience, which he has felt as an Israel-born naturalized American. Like many postmodern artists, Fast is interested in exploring the elusiveness of truth, even of empirical perception. Here to Stay made a markedly different epistemic claim, focusing on the undeniable material reality of colonialism and racism and their links to capital accumulation. The work’s presenters called for direct engagement with the concerns of those outside art’s socioeconomic system and demanded more accountability.
Here to Stay and the protests against Fast’s show continue a lively lineage of Chinatown-based artistic activism, a history documented by writers like Alexandra Chang and Ryan Wong.6 Artists’ efforts were informed by the Asian American Movement, an anti-imperialist, pan-Asian coalition that fought for community control of political, economic, and social institutions and against systemic racism in the ’60s and ’70s. Betty Yu and ManSee Kong, two artists and filmmakers who have strong ties to grassroots organizing, founded CAB in 2015 with Tomie Arai, an artist known for her involvement with the collectives Basement Workshop in the ’70s and Godzilla in the ’90s, as well as her murals like Wall of Respect for Women (1974), painted at the intersection of East Broadway and Rutgers with the help of local residents. Basement Workshop was a subterranean hub for activists in New York. Its members produced radical posters and publications, and fostered an expansive, cross-disciplinary outlook that encouraged collaborations like those between poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and the Morita Dance Company in the early 1980s.
Godzilla’s 1991 open letter to Whitney Museum director David Ross, which chastised him for the absence of Asian American artists in that year’s Whitney Biennial, prefigured the expanded interest in visibility and institutional representation for minority groups in the 1990s. The 1993 Whitney Biennial featured work by numerous Asian Americans, including Godzilla member Byron Kim, who debuted Synecdoche (1991–), a series of painted “portraits” in which skin color is abstracted into monochrome panels. Godzilla aspired toward pluralism and dialogue, and built relationships with downtown nonprofits like Art in General. Hosting slide slams and discussions in members’ lofts, the group attracted a wide base by locating work in multiple venues. These important efforts prompted debates that remain unresolved, as the tactic of institutional engagement can be criticized for its reconciliatory focus on expanding access to the canon rather than deconstructing it. Kim is today represented by James Cohan, and the number of Asian and other artists of color on the gallery’s roster suggests a policy of inclusivity. But the Fast exhibition and its fallout demonstrate the limits of diversity politics.
Supported by collectives including Decolonize This Place, Take Back the Bronx, and Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, CAB co-organized a second protest against “August” during the exhibition’s closing weekend. This time, the group mic-checked a pledge listing actions that artists and galleries can take to resist predatory development and displacement, such as providing translated texts about their activities and supporting tenant-rights advocates who are fighting against illegal harassment and eviction. The pledge is built on the understanding that “artists and galleries must accept the fact that they are complicit in the system of gentrification.”7 Complicity is a notion I am attentive to, as an employee of a nonprofit that borders Chinatown (Artists Space at 55 Walker Street) and as a white European expatriate. It is necessary to acknowledge complicity as a first step toward shifting positions from that of gentrifier to that of accomplice in the struggle against gentrification. Yet acknowledgment of complicity is an insufficient form of political action in itself. It must be accompanied by behavioral change and an upending of comforts: for example, reporting police harassment—an action indicated in the pledge’s eighth bullet point—and attending community meetings to learn about who is being threatened with displacement.
In January 2018, police and Department of Buildings agents abruptly mass-evicted residents from 83–85 Bowery at night, in freezing temperatures, after a court deemed their building uninhabitable. Landlord Joseph Betesh’s claim that eleven legal apartments had been illegally converted into some forty single-room occupancies was upheld by the judge, even though these families had been protesting his malignant neglect for years. The Chinatown Working Group (CWG) was formed in 2008 to develop a rezoning plan, a vast proposal of more than sixty reforms, to prevent such scenarios and to protect immigrants, working-class people, and public housing residents. CWG counts CAAAV among its voting members, who also include the 83–85 Bowery Tenants Association, the Museum of Chinese in America, the Asian American Arts Centre, and other local institutions. But in 2015 their proposal was rejected by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a figure hated by many housing activists.
Running against Democratic incumbent Margaret Chin—who, in 2009, became the first Chinese American elected to the City Council, and who has done as much as anyone to hand Chinatown to developers—Independent candidate Christopher Marte gained 37 percent of the vote in the November 2017 election for District 1’s City Council seat on a platform that amplified the CWG’s rezoning plan alongside a Small Business Jobs Survival Act. It was not enough for him to win, but was nevertheless a remarkable result for a third-party candidate. Residents of a neighboring public housing complex have condemned the environmental impact of an eight-hundred-foot condominium tower under construction at One Manhattan Place Square. The structure is already blocking sunlight and is expected to have a negative impact on local school and sewage infrastructure. Other groups are hoping to sue the city and to change zoning along the East River waterfront to halt the construction of at least three other high-rises.
Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan’s 1984 text, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” criticized East Village art of the 1980s for a lack of social engagement.8 But community engagement was vital to groups working in Chinatown. Basement Workshop taught ESL and citizenship classes, and ran a Neighborhood Youth Corps program, while Godzilla collaborated with working groups to stop anti-Asian violence. CAB’s pledge draws on historical projects like Chinatown AIDS Project: A Window Installation at Art in General (1990), in which artists Ming Ma, Lei Chou, and Kathy Chou presented critical information about AIDS to the Chinese community “in the language of our audience.” The bullet point in CAB’s pledge that galleries have most readily acquiesced to is that of providing information like names and opening hours in Chinese. But this satisfies more gallerists and viewers than Chinese-speaking immigrants, as it eases guilt rather than rearticulating missions to include new audiences.
Though provisional and even cosmetic at times, CAB’s pledge is a useful, stubborn reminder that cultural work precedes political formation, to paraphrase Stuart Hall. It resolves the tension between art and anti-displacement politics by affirming that change can occur when institutions are willing to reform without reward or redemption. Most ambitiously, it demands this willingness as a precursor to accountable aesthetic production. For only through sacrificing the comforts of skepticism and ignorance can art world professionals enter into meaningful conversations about gentrification and colonialism in lower-income communities.