Leslie Dreyer: (In)equality Inevitable?

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban,

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center co-sponsored the Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space on September 30, 2013. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post "on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape." This posting is by Leslie Dreyer, a first year MFA student in Art Practice. This post originally appeared in the Arts Recearch Center blog, Muses.

Dr. Shannon Jackson, who co-organized Reimagining the Urban, opened the symposium with questions including, in summary: What kinds of creativity are valued and for whom? And how can collaborating across sectors create solutions rather than obstacles? Another question to ask here would be: solutions for whom? Margaret Crawford, who blogged about Richard Florida’s theory and Creative Class policies “pushing up rents and displacing local businesses and residents,” restated Jackson’s questions by mentioning San Francisco’s “success” alongside the displacement of long-time local and influential artists. I was curious how the panelists would address questions of equity and access in their strategies of “reimagining.”

Session I seemed focused on creative business models for arts organizations and survival under neoliberalism, especially in the new tech boom. Andy Yang of Forest City described the 5M project, which is a 4-acre mixed use network of buildings and organizations, all of which Florida would categorize as belonging to the “creative class.” He mentioned new enterprise opportunities emerging from 5M, including a “homeless to hacker” success story, which showed what is possible but perhaps not probable for the majority of the surrounding disenfranchised community. He also acknowledged the low rate of community attendance during Grey Area Foundation’s (backed by 5M) Urban Prototyping Festival. I started to wonder how the arts orgs involved in the symposium interpreted “serving the community” and “community-based” art. Do they serve those fortunate enough to afford market-rate rent, those with a longer history of residency that are facing displacement, both?

Deborah Cullinan, executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, emphasized wanting a “place at the table” and parity between the “indigenous” community (using a potentially controversial definition meaning long-time residents), arts organizations and developers, though she didn’t explain how this parity would be achieved. She said that “instead of standing on the sidelines in protest” they were going to “throw [themselves] into the change and make it better.” Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for me to ask the questions: 1) Better for whom? 2) Instead of standing on the sidelines in protest, can’t we stand on top of the “table” (the one at which arts non-profits hope to sit alongside city reps, tech industry reps and developers) and not accept the change, specifically the displacement of long-time locals, as inevitable? 3) Who is not at the table, and is sitting there with “unlikely allies”(i) an act of survival of the fittest or solidarity for those who aren’t invited?

In Session II the speakers described technology-driven urban arts projects while avoiding the equity question. The projects were “accessible” meaning one didn’t have to be tech savvy to use or understand them. Some of them appropriated vast amounts of user data prompting Dr. Teresa Caldeira to ask how technologies that collect such data is being / could be used in this era of expanding surveillance. Joel Slayton of Zero 1 responded that it was inevitable that it would be used to surveil the public but that the arts could be a “cultural watchdog,” which seemed to elude tech developers’ role in public surveillance and privacy infringement.

Why were increasing inequity and surveillance imagined to be “inevitable” by many in this symposium, and what would it take to move participants to reimagine that they’re not? Is our only hope as artists or arts orgs to become “radical parasites,” a phrase mentioned by panelist Raquel Gutierrez, feeding off the tech industry for money and disenfranchised communities for content and perhaps more grant money (or is she using the phrase in more of a Robin Hood sense: feeding off tech to give to the poor)? I don’t have quick and easy answers as to how to achieve equity in a city with such high rates of evictions, economic inequality and unaffordable housing, but I know the policy changes that we need to stem the tide of gentrification and class-warfare, starting with mid-market as ground zero, require the sheer force of the masses. Will non-profits play a role in muting dissent, a critique posed in INCITE!’s book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex? Will they leverage their “place at the table” to inspire support for policies that help keep the disenfranchised in their homes and in the community arts programs designed for them? In what ways can artists reimagine the urban that makes equity inevitable?

(i) A term used numerous times in Session I of the symposium