Art Against Austerity/Memories of Disinvestment: A Journal
Art Against Austerity is a social practice project connecting artists, researchers and urban tactitIans with local organizers and historians of resistance against austerity, displacement, land speculation and gentrification in and around the city of San Juan, Puerto Rican. The project is a collaboration between Social Practice Queens (SPQ), Queens College CUNY Urban Studies Department. In December of 2017 QC Provost Elizabeth Hendry and Interim Associate Provost William McClure we were generously awarded a grant to initiate phase one of the project. What follows does not necessarily reflect the opinions of other team members or of Queens College, but represents my impressions and observations of this first fact-gathering research trip.
Between May 12th and May 26th 2018 four researchers traveled from Queens College CUNY to San Juan Puerto Rico in order to gather information and develop contacts for our ongoing project focusing on community-based forms of rebuilding and resistance taking place on the island following the post-2008 bankruptcy and of course the devastating effects of two hurricanes in the Fall of 2017. During this initial research phase of the project I was joined by Rafael De Balanzo: a Visiting Lecturer in the QC Urban Studies Program; Naomi Kuo: MFA student concentrating in social practice art; Kimberly Torres: a QC Urban Studies graduate student, and on many days interested auditor Lucrecia Laudi traveled with us bringing along her expertise as a Washington DC-based architect/urban designer who wanted to observe how our project got off the ground. Meanwhile, back in NYC, our other project members include Chloë Bass: Assistant Professor of Art and co-director of SPQ; Scott Larson: Urban Studies Program Professor; Jeff Kasper: artist and SPQ Associate Administrator; Libertad Guerra: Chief Curator and Artistic Director of the Loisaida Center; and Monxo Lopez: environmental activist and co-founder of South Bronx Unite.
Over the course of nine days we visited a number of projects relevant to our research ranging from governmentally funded community assistance agencies to urban gardens and various squat occupations with assorted degrees of legality. The following blog post represent a journal of my impressions, observations and questions as we move forward on this SPQ project Art Against Austerity/Memories of Disinvestment.
Monday, May 21 2018
Our first full day in San Juan began with an interview for the local PBS radio station WRTU 89.7 and was followed by an impromptu visit to CAUCE, a community activist organization that is also sponsored by the University and we concluded the day over dinner with a reflection on our initial impressions about the issues affecting the island and its residents from crushing debt, to gentrification and land speculation, to a history of environmental damage and 120 years of essentially a colonial relationship to the mainland USA.
Dr. Carmen A. Perez Herranz greeted Rafael, Kim and me (Kimberly will arrive a day later) on the San Juan, Río Piedras branch of the University of Puerto Rico where she escorted us to the local PBS radio station located on the campus. Dr. Herranz teaches with the faculty of General Studies and is in the process of launching an Urban Studies Doctoral Program [Herranz, Pollock, Edwards] hopefully within the next year. She is also an extraordinary font of knowledge about the issues that brought us to the island including the cycle of disinvestment, followed by so-called “rejuvenation,” and then gentrification and displacement and expulsion of local residents, small business and native culture. For approximately an hour this morning Dr. Herranz interviewed us on the air about our project and our own research and art.
Rafael explored his activity in his hometown of Barcelona, Spain focusing on grassroots organizing to resist evictions and develop community redevelopment in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial implosion. Naomi described her work in the Asian communities of Flushing, Queens where as a native of Houston, Texas she has for the past five years observed and interacted with other Taiwanese Americans, as well as Chinese Americans. Through her collage works that combine drawing, painting and found materials she has come to understand that minority communities recreate identity through a montage-like process by redefining their culture using both memory and what is available “at hand.” My own contribution pivoted on the anti-gentrification street art installation we carried out on New York’s Lower East Side in 1984 with PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution), and the site-specific historical mapping project REPOhistory produced in the 1990s, as well as our Social Practice Queens project at QC CUNY.
On and off the air, Dr. Herranz discussed with us some of the less immediately visible aspects of Puerto Rico’s history pointing out that a key turning point on the island took place in the 1940s when, in a sort of Robert Moses inspired discharge of concrete and macadam, the country’s fledgling public transit systems were discarded for miles of looping highways that connected cities and countryside into one enormous, automobile loving network. This in turn led to the suburbanization of much of the island as tropical style villages and rural landscapes were subsumed by housing developments resembling much of the US mainland. And while this superimposed cement matrix worked well for what French Situationist theorist Guy Debord acerbically labeled “The Dictatorship of the Automobile,”
the human and environmental outcome was a fragmentation of organically structured social spaces and ecologies leading to fractured communities and spaces not unlike greater Los Angeles or The Bronx. Logically at this time Puerto Rico became increasingly dependent on the US car industry and of course the petroleum economy, while at the same time local agriculture, industries and crafts were dispersed and replaced with a system of imported foods and services, a reality we discovered first hand when shopping for groceries and finding that the only produce we found grown in Puerto Rico was basil, the only product was a bottle of hot pepper sauce.
During our visit to the University we discovered a space squatted by students. We also met with professors Eva de Lourdes Edwards, Gene Edwards and Janet Saumell a graduate student working with Dr. Herranz. Their range of interests was captivating and included studying the history and culture of the Caribbean region through its poetry and literature (Dr. Eva Edwards), focusing on the underground street art and graffiti that often expresses the real subterranean feelings of Puerto Ricans (Gene Edwards), and the macro suburbanization of the island by US-based development policies starting as far back as the 1940s and 1950s (Dr. Carmen Herranz). In conversations with graduate student Janet Saumell –whose family came to PR from Cuba years earlier– it became clear that one immaterial but no less significant outcome of both the island’s ongoing economic crisis (especially after the 2008 real estate and financial meltdown), followed by the two 2017 hurricanes (Maria and a lesser degree Irma) is a collective paradigm shift in which many Puerto Ricans who once imagined themselves to be middle class Americans now view their status visa-vie the United States as second-class citizens living in a colony. This was a sentiment in fact echoed by other island residents throughout the time of our visit.
Later the same day we drove a short distance from the campus to a unique community action project run by the University known as CAUCE: Centro de Acción Urbana, Comunitaria y Empresarial de Río Piedras (The Urban, Community and Business Action Center of Río Piedras), though driving in San Juan was complicated by the absence of most traffic lights following Maria’s devastation of the city’s infrastructure. What I found impressive however, is they way Puerto Rican drivers have worked-out a system for dealing with this problem. A certain number of cars would flow through an intersection in one direction. Then this group would stop and wait for the perpendicular street’s traffic to do the same, just as if an invisible green, yellow and red light hovered overhead as always. This urban gallantry became more complicated with multi-lane boulevards involving left turns across several lanes of traffic. And yet even this complicated maneuver was managed with remarkable calm. Hardly did I even hear a car horn during my entire trip. Whether or not such self-restraint is particular to Puerto Rican island culture, or a development in response to extreme post-Maria conditions is unclear, but methinks were a similar signaling blackout to befall Manhattan the outcome unlikely be so civil, at least based on my forty some years of experience on our concrete island.
CAUCE’s Executive Director Dr. Mercedes Rivera Morales generously met with our research group on short-notice. She described to us that CAUCEis a locally-based organization that is simultaneously a program supported by the University. CAUCE’s mission is to assist the nearby community in rebuilding the economy of the river basin region, though the project has also engaged in resistance to top-down development schemes. When the Puerto Rican government began excavating a site for an enormous new government office tower that it claimed would serve as a spur for regenerating the area’s businesses, community members had reason to believe that residential displacement and gentrification would be the actual outcome of the project. CAUCE supported neighborhood demonstrators who protested and also chained themselves to construction site equipment, ultimately stopping the tower from being realized.
As an organization, CAUCE appears to be an unusual admixture of top-down and bottom-up grass roots activity. With funding from a large institution (the University) CAUCE’s local focus is centered within the specific community of Rio Piedras –a formerly independent municipality set along the shores of the river Piedras until its 1951 incorporation into San Juan proper. At the same time its larger goals appear dedicated to bringing about social change on a far broader level. For example, in her small neat office Dr. Morales has posted a copy of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals logo with its 17 objectives aimed at ending poverty and hunger, gender equality and renewable energy. Sitting on her desktop is also a calendar from Barcelona, Spain, perhaps the leading center for bottom-up urban transformation and direct-democracy. Barcelona also happens to be Professor Rafael Balanzó’s home country and the city where his research is primarily focused. These seemingly coincidental connections became less accidental in nature after further conversations with Dr. Morales whose commitment to social change at the local level is clearly informed by a more comprehensive analysis of poverty and injustice situated at the global level.
At the end of our first day of research Rafael whipped up a delicious and filling vegetarian & pasta meal in which sweet onions and garlic dominated Barcelona style, as Naomi innovated a fine salad dressing using clementine oranges and cashew nuts (we forgot to purchase lemons or vinegar). This gave us another opportunity for discussion in which soon enough questions about own position and roles as visiting academics, artists and architects, but also as outsiders to PR. Perhaps inevitably the paradigm of the so-called Creative Cities /Creative Class was a topic of debate including How do/did artists and academics fit in to that model? Has it failed? Did it ever really work/have any merit? Could these ideas be “reused” in a form more in keeping with the commons and resistance to gentrification/displacement? Finally, how do we avoid producing a research paper and exhibition that will join the many, many other research white papers and art shows about these concerns, and yet in which nothing very much seems to actually improve?
Tuesday, May 22
This morning we were joined by Queens College Urban Studies graduate student Kimberly Torres, thus completing the research team for this initial phase of the project Art Against Austerity/Memories of Disinvestment. Today we focused the first half of the day visiting a couple of artists in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce, then followed this up with a trip to a government and university sponsored development company on the Cantera Peninsula whose mission is to provide residents in one particular environmentally precarious part of the city with support, including relocation to non-flood prone neighborhoods but also in some instances legal title to their own homes that were often built by the residents or their parents using construction techniques apparently lost today.
Uziel Orlandi is a 20-something muralist in his own right and led us on a tour of the local graffiti subculture. Taking us to the Calle Canals underpass we were dazzled by spray-paint masterpieces the likes I have not seen in NYC since the 1970s and early 1980s (thought I have come across such street art in Barcelona and Athens). Though Javiar said he studied art for a while at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico in Old San Juan (the art school, not the University) he expressed a strong alienation from the “art world” of museums and galleries, preferring instead a DIY approach to culture, an outlook that he insisted is commonplace amongst people of his generation. Proof of this assertion was not long in coming. Our next visit was with a Santurce-based painter, graphic artist and silk-screen entrepreneur. Uziel showed us to the back of a painfully ordinary photocopy shop where artist Javier Matura screens images and logos on bags, t-shirts and makes posters, some of his own design. His latest work was a graphic announcement for the 1970s post-punk New York band Television. Javier also expressed his disinterest in, or perhaps more accurately, his enmity towards “high” art, which both he and Javier associate with academic and institutional discourse.
Perhaps this rejection of white cube aesthetics and the link to 1970s/1980s DIY punk and post-punk music and culture is not entirely coincidental? I could not help but think of groups and projects I encountered in NYC back then including Collaborative Projects akd COLAB, The Real Estate Show, The Times Square Show, and East Village Art in general with its gritty, anti-formalist aesthetic that sought to overturn the abstract modernist paradigm of Greenberg et al. But if true, what on earth was this four decades old artistic model doing here in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2018?
In the afternoon of our second day we traveled to a government sponsored program set on a lumpy peninsula that projects into the San José Lagoon roughly separating the larger urban area of San Juan from its airport. Decades earlier this region was settled by farmers and other rural migrants seeking to move close to the city in search of work. The Company for the Integral Development of the Cantera Peninsula (Company for the Integral Development of the Cantera Peninsula) comes in. The Company is a government sponsored program that works to upgrade local water, sewage and power systems, but most notably it also obtains proper legal titles to these decades-old homes, thus transforming residents into property owners.
Seeking to serve the people’s needs while guarding the fragility of the peninsula’s ecology is the stated mission of the Company explained spokesperson and project engineer Alfredo Pérez Zapata. Using a set of aerial maps he provided us with an overview of the Company’s target region and then offered to take us for a tour around the immediate neighborhood. We moved from his air-conditioned office to the hot and humid outdoors where Mr. Zapata pointed-out with barely concealed pride that many of the locally constructed homes withstood hurricane Maria rather impressively thanks to the indigenous building skills of an older generation of Puerto Ricans.
As we walked he pointed out the colloquial construction methods employed by residents involving combinations of wood, poured concrete, sheet metal roofs and siding, all of which is then set above an elevated foundation to guard against flooding. In other words, according to Mr. Zapata the locals had a sort of local, DIY knowledge regarding how to rig a structure against storm water and wind. Sometime in the 1960s he believes, this local knowledge vanished. In any case, while the Company sports its own sleek, newly fabricated community center overlooking the lagoon, the surrounding vernacular homes are at the heart of its mission to established property rights for their owners. Is this program pushing back against the mass modernization of the island as explained by Dr. Herranz? We were left with more questions than answers. The Company’s approach also made me think of the once highly touted thesis to end poverty that was offered by Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto Polar in his 2000 book The Mystery of Capital.
De Soto’s methods were endorsed by Bill Clinton, Vincente Fox, Milton Friedman and even Margaret Thatcher among other prominent pro-market policy makers. His thesis is pretty straight forward. Why, he asks, does capitalism succeed in certain Western nations even as it fails in the Global South and elsewhere? The answer is that most residents of developing or underdeveloped nations are not actually property owners, not legally entitled to where they actually live, even though many have done so for generations. This means they have no way to enter into a system of leveraged credit to say startup a small business or make home improvements.
De Soto’s process of legitimating “dead capital” sought to bring back to life populations that now remain in the shadows of informal economies involving barter and other forms of non-market exchange. such gray economies undergird the actual social fabric of many developing and underdeveloped countries. De Soto proposed moving such assets from the margins underground into the formal economy where everyone would benefit: capitalists, businesspeople and the newly minted landowners turned consumers. In short, this is land reform without casualties. No expropriation or redistribution of property, only the tedious research task of providing people with a legal title to their actual residencies.
However, this neoliberal necromancy has not always worked its magic as planned. Swedish economic theorist Staffan Granér points out that “what de Soto presents as a simple confirmation of the informal rules is in fact a battlefield of conflicting interests and legal claims.” In other words, concrete issues of history, class and ultimately relations of power are not necessarily erased by legalizing claims to property, in fact they can be exacerbated leaving newly established land owners vulnerable to vulture capitalists and other speculators. But whether or not this caution pertains to the situation in Puerto Rico in general or to the Cantera Peninsula project is unclear. In truth we all thought that this program had merit on the face of it, especially if it is really backed up by the government when and if deep pocket developers came a calling with an eye to building luxury condominiums and hotels beside the lagoon.
As we strolled snapping pictures along the way like visitors from another world, many people greeted Mr. Zapata with obvious deference and more than once he stopped to chat with them. This was clearly not a cold institutional relationship. We also came across some curious public art installations with stuffed animals bound to a tree and a jet plane made of painted rubble (signs of dark matter creativity?). And all the while throughout our excursion a furry micro-municipality of neighborhood dogs, feral cats and one small pig kept track of our movements.
Wednesday, May 23
Our primary task for the third day was to make our own brief presentations to students at the University of Puerto Rico working on urban studies coursework. Dr. Herranz introduced our team and one-by-one we discussed various aspects of our individual research and practice. I again focused on arts-related interventions from 1980s and 1990s New York and the Lower East Side (Loisaida), but also added documentation about my work with Gulf Labor Coalition, the informally organized international group of artists and cultural workers focused on labor justice for migrant workers involved with constructing high art museums including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Gulf Labor asks “who builds your architecture?”
Naomi displayed images of her large collage works based on Flushing, Queens Chinatown and discussed the aesthetics of what she called “Asian Spaces” involving the reuse of materials and the hybridization of identities whereby immigrants construct a relationship to their place of origin. She also pointed out that this “Minority-Majority” neighborhood has its own internal conflicts of nationality and class given the combination of Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, Korean and other groups that make it up.
Naomi concluded with a description of her quilting project “Common Thread,” a collaboration with Queens Memory at the Queens Library where local residents of all ethnicities gather and are encouraged to exchange sewing skills and reflect on their own histories.
Rafael presented his research involving the application of adaptive cycle theory to cycles of urban transformation in Barcelona from 1953 to 2017, in which two temporal developmental loops, the first dominated by private capital interests, the second emerging from networks of horizontal cooperative social movements including squatters, activists and community land associations. Citing from his work with Nuria Rodriguez-Planas “The heterogeneity of these social networks (shadow groups) fosters learning and social innovation and gives them the flexibility that the front-loop’s dominant groups lack to trigger change not only within but also across spatial scale (local community-based, neighborhood, city) and time dimensions, promoting a cross-scale process of revolt and stabilization, also known as Panarchy.” Wikipedia defines Panarchy as a combination of: “1) ecology and complex systems, 2) technology, and 3) politics.” While “the “pan” of ecological thinking draws on the Greek-god Pan as a symbol for wild and unpredictable nature.”
Kimberly acknowledged that she is still in a learning phase and interested in the way Community Land Trusts and hurricane relief efforts have or have not been successful as a means of opposing or reducing gentrification and displacement on the island.
Community Land Trusts as a means of fighting gentrification, displacement and uncontrolled commercial development is also the focus of Dr. Scott Larsons own research (see: Imagining Social Justice and the False Promise of Urban Park Design.) Following our discussions we had lunch with Dr. Herranz and students Gabriela Rebollo and Abner Fernandez. Gabriel provided some additional sites for us to visit including a squatted space on Day Five, while Abner commented dryly that while there is a lot of collective activity at the moment in Puerto Rico though very little collectivism. He reiterated that following the economic crisis and the storms the island has been revealed to be a colony of the United States above all else. He intends to move to Estonia to study semiotics at the University of Tartu. “We have no Puerto Rican identity per se because the island is pretty homogenous. We are not American, not Nuyorican, not ever really Puerto Rican. We are simply “us.”’
Thursday, May 24
Thursday afternoon we traveled to Old San Juan to meet with Charles Juhasz-Alvarado and Ana Rosa Rivera Marrero who manage the remarkable art center La Casa De Los Contrafuertes. On the way there we spotted an enormous cruise ship towering over the harbor that brought about a flashback to recent travels in Venice, Italy where locals battle invasive tourism from the very same gleaming white multi-story vessels carrying thousands of passengers. The incongruity of scale is startling (for more about this phenomenon in Venice and its link to the art world and biennial see my piece: Venice Biennale – meet the activists repurposing the global art show.)
Once we arrived at the Contrafuertes space Charles and Ana took us on a tour of the center’s exhibition galleries, artist residency accommodation, and a large outdoor garden area which contains a stage for performances. It was immediately clear that their project has managed to claw-back a piece of Old San Juan from speculators and high-end luxury retailers by converting a former government museum into what might best be described as a Gesamtkunstwerk or all embracing, total work of art incorporating residencies for artists, a vegetable garden, exhibition spaces and a beehive themed library and reading room. Every detail of the building has been re-imagined from floor to ceiling to window treatments and hanging lights. Even an expertly installed exhibition of Haitian art works entitled “Haiti Aqui” offered an opportunity for subtle interventions including a rusted chain along the base of one wall to a framework of Russian Constructivist-like lattices holding up and framing several pieces. The overall effect made installations at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico look remarkably conservative and uninspired.
For many years Charles has taught at the nearby art school (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico) and is highly regarded as both artist and teacher within the broader art community on the island and beyond. Ana Rosa is a renowned sculptor herself who graduated from the art school in 1992. They are in a sense part of an older Old San Juan arts community. Together they impressed upon us the many challenges involved with running The Contrafuertes space including dealing with the government (that provides some support), expenses for programming (as artists they know how important it is to pay people who assist with events, though funds to do so are often lacking), and also pushing back against what they see as unscrupulous offerings to assist from potential backers with a very different vision of the project than their own. At one point Charles characterized one such encounter as a blatant art washing strategy where fiscal sponsorship would require artists to “perform” as, well as artists by working in studios made visible to the public, thus exhibiting the creative city as these precarious cultural laborers are soon replaced by upscale lofts and “artsy” retail stores. We know the drill, as does Charles and Ana who, needless to say, rejected this mode support.
And there are the dreaded “bit-coin people.” Charles described to us a visit from a couple of handsome young rich investors from California touting a surplus of crypto-currency capital and eager to become patrons of La Casa De Los Contrafuertes. Honestly, my initial thought was that this story reflected the somewhat eccentric artistic disposition of Charles until we began hearing the same scenario from a number of the people we met on our trip. A bit of Googling verified the veracity of the report. As one journalist puts it these “cryptocurrency entrepreneurs have moved to Puerto Rico to build a crypto utopia – initially dubbed Puertopia but now named Sol – where they plan to pay little in taxes.”
Later in the evening Contrafuertes hosted a jazz program that drew a sizable crowd to the center.Continue reading “ART AGAINST DISPLACEMENT PROJECT MAY 2018, SAN JUAN pPUERTO-RICO URBAN RESILIENCE THINKING PROJECT”