There is displacement, and there is expulsion. The former implies a possibility of coming back to the place from which someone or something was displaced. The latter implies a permanent expelling of a person or thing, never to return. This was a cornerstone idea that emerged at a recent Town Hall meeting in Chelsea. Except this Town Hall Meeting was in a gallery, and it was part of an exhibition.
In the urban sense, displacement and expulsion are highly political terms. The individuals experiencing these forced movements are often uninvolved in the development decisions that trigger them. It is this paradox that Martha Rosler confronts in her exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!! The exhibition not only confronts this paradox, but embraces the idea of pardox to involve the viewer in the sentiment of urban development.
The exhibition is not a sterile white cube. The walls do not appear to hold polished gems of art. The space is instead casual, with benches and tables. The walls are unceremonious, holding posters pinned up, stitched fabrics, spray painted quotes, and sticky notes. The exhibition is the tidied up version of an intense brainstorming session. Rosler creates a space that recreates the chaos, thought, and desires present at community development meetings. There are bird’s-eye view photographs displaying time-lapses of different areas. Next to these photographs is the fine print, explaining the who, what, when, where, and why of the image. Then, there are large painted quotes, making proclamations about the social problems attached to urban development. Like there would be side conversations delving into the nitty-gritty of the dimensions of sidewalk, as well as a hard headed speaker clamoring to have his voice carry the opinion of the crowd, shouting over the noise at a town hall meeting, there is this similar fight for attention in the gallery. The fine quality of the photos, the bold brashness of the quotes; it all mimics the kicking up of dust, both literally and figuratively, that occurs over the creation of new neighborhoods.
Below is a nuanced look at some of the paradoxes Rosler and the Town Hall analyzed. And as any diligent community organizer would communicate, the ideas are presented in bullet points, and bold.
Balance: Change can be classified as that moment when the Starbucks chain takes over the bodega. Is there a way, in the process of changing, to maintain small businesses? How does a community know when to fight against the change, versus “grow out”, suufer through some growing pains but ultimately get stronger and better? This is a loaded question as many at the Town Hall meeting felt that the latter is never even an option. A community does not grow when change comes from the outside, it instead gets taken over. Those who come to develop do not offer a helping hand to make improvements; they offer a dominating blow to restructure the fabric of the community.
Necessity: Development needs to happen. We certainly know that time always marches forward, and that change can be a good thing. In fact, change is an innately human phenomenon; as a race, we survive by innovating, adapting, and modifying. If this process is innately human, why do we have such issue with it when it comes to shaping our urban landscape? Communication. Those who feel the change versus those who implement it are not coming from the same lived experience. Thus the acronym SCOPE was born: Society of Community Organization, Peoples Education. This is what the individual who have to live with the change want from the developers instigating it. Development is inevitable, so how do we make it successful?
Democracy and Capitalism: Democracy is equity, Capitalism is favoritism; Democracy is the people, Capitalism is the developer; Democracy is good, Capitalism is bad. This is what the Town Hall proclaimed. But, are democracy and capitalism really such mutually exclusive, and opposing forces? Capitalism generates opportunities for social mobility through job creation. Democracy gives everyone the right to build the life her or she wants. While the expression of democracy and capitalism may take differing forms, they both fundamentally address the challenge of how to give everyone a chance to create, in complete and total freedom, that which they envision. When leveraged correctly, these two forces can actually cause the equitable social heterogeneity that makes cities thrive, be desired, and cherished as home. Just as Rosler presents images of the homeless directly alongside architectural blueprints for shiny new residential complexes, the co-existence of democracy and capitalism is another seeming paradox that takes time to unpack.
Rosler presents an exhibition about the very human process of developing new spaces, spaces that grow from buildings, to homes, to communities. Once a space becomes a community, the process of displacement and/or expulsion becomes one of human injustice. Rosler forces the visitor to think about the working out of complexity, the confrontation of paradox, and the finesse of asking the right questions. She is subtle and brash, keeping the viewers mind nimble, and their assumptions ever-changing. One has to get close to a photo to understand its meaning, but then step far back to read the full quote splayed across the wall. The exhibition, like the topic it presents, is deep and shallow, clear and confused.