ON RECALIBRATING COLLABORATION
Emer Grant, Nora Khan & the Fellows of Recalibrated Institute at ArtCenter South Florida, Fall of 2017
It seemed a heady and impossible task to attempt in three months. The residency call’s ambit, and the opportunity to get to rewire our practices and orientation towards the art world, were appealing, so we all put our lives on pause for the experiment. We arrived in Miami in September, right after the hurricane, from South Africa, Los Angeles by way of Northern Ireland, Amsterdam by way of China, Copenhagen, and New York by way of Bangladesh. We met our Miami-based fellows, themselves by way of Puerto Rico and Spain, at The Corner, a bar that would become its own institution for us in three months-time.
The fellowship led to revelations that were either enlightening or full of apprehension and contradiction. At first, all gathered were on board with trying to parse and debate what it would mean to recalibrate an institution. As part of the fellowship, funded by ArtCenter South Florida, and co-organized with BUX (Bureau for Cultural Strategies), our focus was on culture, institutions and art, reframed as rhetorical spaces being (and yet to be) claimed. The group planned to attempt some kind of “cultural strategy,” drawing on the fellows’ diverse experiences in design, theory, and technical and artistic research. Big themes were on the table, including how cultural institutions allowed access to financial networks, how they played at radicality while keeping up a traditional backend, and how they still served the role of “being critical” of societal processes at large, while themselves supporting the most oppressive of those processes. Timeless questions! And we would inevitably need to navigate our own personal relationships to those institutions, acknowledging complicity and thinking through possible intervention.
The path to getting to such ambitious strategic insights was rocky. The non-Miami fellows lived in a surreal Twilight Zone-like building next to Club Space, mostly not-the-good-kind of techno rolling underground up to the rooms each night and deep into the mornings, rendering most sleepless. And for a few days each month, the whole residency attended discussions with theorists, design strategists and organizers, some with no evident familiarity or interest in American urbanism or its complexity, let alone Miami’s, decreeing what role art and culture should or shouldn’t, can or cannot, play, in that and every context.
But art and culture were already clearly playing important roles in the lives of Miamians, and with such vitality and force that such arguments seemed without teeth. Over the months, there was a distinct, growing, and persistent feeling of disconnect between visiting faculty’s ideas, interesting enough in theory, and the grinding reality of practice on the ground, outside of academia and the art world, which meant learning to work collaboratively with people who do not think in the same way, and who do not share the same language.
We probably weren’t doing our best at first, either, taking Ubers to avoid walking through Overtown, the predominantly black neighborhood the residency space bordered. What would it entail to make relationships that spoke to and valued local context? Did we even have the capacity? There were admittedly many complex realities to take in. The city emanated warmth, and wholeheartedly from many of the incredible people we encountered. Its pace was furious, driven by enterprise infernos.
As a Miami-based fellow rightly pointed out, and others would iterate in different ways, the worst possible scenario would be for someone not from Miami to come in to tell people living in, raised in, rooted in Miami, what Miami “is all about.” They pointed out that visitors only saw a good time, luxury, ease, an escape into bliss and privilege, and gorgeous weather, though storm clouds and winds were on the horizon, and the sea was dark and roiling and heavy at many points. The day-to-day of a Miami resident was radically different, filled with worry about the future of the city’s coastline, about clean-up and restoration post-hurricane, about high rents and real estate moves, about the state of its most vulnerable populations.
The Miami fellows were easily the most serious of the group. This made sense and the whole residency gravitated around their energy, insight, deep knowledge, and expertise. The issues we were discussing in a white room were about their lives, their communities, their friends, and their families. And they were, of course, right. Any attempt to describe what Miami “is about” would be absurd, insulting, and extractive. We discussed the outcomes we didn’t want: to be artists and critics seeming to take the experience of living in Miami as ironic, mining the stories and lived realities of a city’s residents and distilling it into abstracted “research” material, to make another book, another art object, another exhibition on another circuit.
Sensitivity to context became a core point of contention, between faculty and fellows, and within the group’s critical discussions. The residency structure and layout itself seemed to replicate the very issues about the art world we were there to discuss.
And so the debates were knockdown dramatic. They focused on the political: on whose mental and creative labor would be used disproportionately, on which institutional name we fell under, on the program’s hierarchy, on credit given or erased or subtly denied. One Miami local, a friend of the residency, commented wryly that having such complex, political drama was “so very Miami.” Maybe we were, at the very least, open to our environment’s unique, vital influence.
In truth, Miami’s social politics made the call to “recalibrate” cultural institutions totally overwhelming. It became clear to us all that we were not equipped to handle these questions solely under the rubric of critical art talks or purely abstract inquiry, making more attractive maps and graphs and slide decks.
It was not that Miami was hostile to such conversation, at all. To the contrary, the theory brought in felt insufficient for Miami. Voided abstract frameworks, in which the body is without history or politics, clashed with the realities of an American city that is both transnational and deeply local, with specific and essential histories, wrought by complex and violent, racialized socioeconomic dynamics, and institutions that play on and shape those very dynamics to their advantage. We had to understand these dynamics to make any kind of strategic insight work. Gesturing at ideas without rooting them in locality seemed less and less productive.
It was evident, instead, that our ambitions would have to fit the particularity of context if we wanted any institutional critique to be legitimate. Non-Miamians had to acknowledge the transience of their roles, and the group, acknowledge that true relationships between like-minded thinkers across contexts, not to mention community partnerships, are developed over time. If we didn’t want to fall into the trap of mining a locality for capital, then we had to strategically, hopefully, at least, avoid that. It turned out that thinking through the question “How do we, as arts and culture professionals, not be extractive?” was comedically difficult.
We did agree on one point. Most of the non-Miamians didn’t want to feel like they had just floated through Miami, as voyeurs, mere tourists. To be fair, we could see all the reasons why this happens a lot, in part because Miami is so familiar to so many. It, or rather its image and promise, has been sold to us globally so many times and in so many different forms. Many people have been to this city in their minds. This itself reveals a paradigm of imagining specific cities in contemporary global capitalism in a way that describes both their peril and opportunity. And the reflections we gathered as a group were then not ever, solely, about Miami, but about creating institutional critique from and through our experience of Miami, of our time spent with people living here. We began to understand how this could happen only in this city, and beautifully so, as the local context seemed built to sync with international ideas exchange and flux.
The collective self-reflection on the residency’s aims would be, in turns, illuminating and infuriating, revealing the wildly different, often contradictory lexicons, training, and theoretical and artistic values shared between the fellows. It seemed essential to find some kind of common language and a project to work on, to give the experience some direction.
One of the most enterprising fellows, Malose Malahlela, seeking to enhance his practice of getting to know grassroots artistic communities and collectives that thrived outside of bigger institutions, began to initiate site visits through his research. He took the initiative of going off-path, finding the cultural producers in Miami he found interesting, who weren’t participating as frequently in museums or like institutions but were creative, organizing forces and spaces. After researching a number of essays and articles related to Miami’s history of segregation, its artistic and cultural histories, and the relationship of the city’s high-rise land to climate change-led gentrification, causing further displacement of low-income black residents, he identified Cuthbert “Broadway” Harewood of Broadway Arts District in Liberty City, and Charo Oquet of Edge Zones. He casually invited any interested fellows along to these sites.
His project idea was infectious, as it spoke to the desperate need we had for a common investment. Out of Malahlela’s initiative we came up with a brief for mapping cultural spaces, one to last through the remaining months of the residency. All of the fellows, in turns, visited several more cultural spaces across Miami and interviewed the directors and founders or key staff. We identified all these cultural spaces as either in opposition or in contrast to bigger artistic institutions from which hierarchical ecosystems emerged, to attempt to form a looser cultural map of the city.
Another fellow, Nora Khan, proposed a collaborative writing program, out of an idea of creating some kind of collective language between the diverse fellows. The injunction was simple – the exquisite corpse, a technique used by Surrealists, a parlor game in which one person started with an idea on a piece of paper, or a doodle, and passed the piece around for each author to draw, add, or write on. For a writing game, the hypothetical result would be strange, chance-driven, and direct responses to a prompt. It seemed like a possible way to recalibrate critique through collective writing, a way of thinking through collaboratively our experiences of visiting cultural spaces across the city.
The projects began working in sync. After each visit, a “field report” was created from small collaborative writing groups, which talked through the visit, and then wrote out its reflections through the exquisite corpse game. The reports started out quite formal, then got looser and more associative as the residency drew to a close, and we moved into a final weekend with our closing faculty, Rachel Rosenfelt, founder of The New Inquiry.
The fellows started to find productive intersections and reconnected with at least a few of the reasons we all had come to Miami. Each was written by at least four people. Though not all fellows took part in the exercises, the collaborative writing process generated a huge body of material reporting and reflecting on multiple cultural spaces – including the Broadway Arts District in Liberty City, the Edge Zones Cultural Center, and the Borscht Corporation. Excerpted below are parts of the reports written, hopefully situating many of the subjects of the residency, its challenges, and its many perspectives.
Emer Grant and Nora Khan
FIELD REPORT ONE: BROADWAY ARTS DISTRICT
62ND STREET — 71ST STREET ON NW 18TH AVENUE, MIAMI, FL, 33147
Our visit to Broadway Arts District in Liberty City was led by a charismatic man, Cuthbert “Broadway” Harewood, wearing his signature fedora, a low-smoldering cigar in one hand that remained lit the entire trip. On Youtube, you can find dozens of videos of Broadway, a civic leader and businessman, speaking to the local Miami City government councils, petitioning for funding, arguing for investment in one of the most stricken neighborhoods of the city. His name appears in several newspaper articles on how climate change is affecting the real estate map, elevated areas of the city that have been historically overlooked.
The neighborhood has found its time on screen this past year as the setting of Moonlight; in the ride to the area, we passed a sign for the street Moonlight Way. Liberty City’s story, of course, is more complex than that shown in the film.
Our online searches and passive media consumption couldn’t have prepared us for the day’s insights and reveals. “Art” plays an entirely different social, economic, and emotional role in the lives of the community in Liberty City. Broadway described how the many murals – some by Serge Toussaint, a famous Haitian-American artist whose signature murals can be found all over Miami, others by local muralists – provide hope and beautify the space, giving residents a feeling of worth and investment. There were stunning murals for politicians and activists, others of famous singers. We talked of how Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., and Billie Holiday, had come to Miami to perform for the “beach crowds” to then come home to sleep at Hampton House Motel, just outside Liberty City.
Over the course of four hours, Broadway led us slowly up and back down four blocks on Broadway Avenue. He told us the story of his efforts to develop the area and bring art and art initiatives to the community, one “the mayor doesn’t see.” And the story was driven by more than Broadway’s clear desire for art education; it was the story of how difficult it had been and remains to be to establish and sustain a structure for such education and cultural spaces outside of big-moneyed institutions. The story of building an arts district in Liberty City, he seemed to tell us, was really the very long story of larger systemic inequality, of municipal mismanagement intersecting with rapacious property development. It was also the much more rich and complex story of a neighborhood’s people, its community’s struggle and tenacity, and its actual (internal, local) needs versus perceived (external, abstracted) needs. It seemed that while art cannot claim to solve the deep social issues at play in the area, it can collectively demand a kind of revisionist history that erases tired narratives.
We visited as artists, educators, writers, and designers from around the world, here in Miami on a residency that explores the role of art institutions in the 21st century. We also visited with varying levels of involvement in social activism and journalism, some with none, so thinking carefully about our position and approach for site visits felt vital. The visit with Broadway, in retrospect, felt like an important reveal of our individual lacks. It revealed important gaps in the residency program and its curriculum, which needed to be filled in with interviews with locals, with new relationships, and with more research that provided a counter to solipsistic discussions about the art market in a white room.
Liberty City is valuable property for today’s art and real estate markets
Urbanologist working in the twilight of capitalism
What is the reason for this transfer of property?
Local zeitgeist as a savage and invigorating explosion of repressed energies
Monopoly game board tactics to buy the block back
A new capacity for adaptation
G_d is Good G_d is Great Thank G_d
From Being Homeless, I’m a nurse in the hood today
Using a militaristic language imbued with a dangerous romanticism, Rene Ricard spills out his notion of the ideal artist. “I want my soldiers – I mean artists – to be young and strong, with tireless energy performing impossible feats of cunning and bravura…”
Ronald Reagan’s campaign optimism: an enthusiasm that knows no bounds, and an optimism that ignores hard social realities and complex political questions: questions, in the first case, about what is being done to other people’s countries and, in the second case, to other people’s neighborhoods.
The Art Business will soon invade one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. For a unique blend of poverty, trap, punk rock, drugs, arson, prostitutes, the dilapidated housing of Liberty City mixes in with the new mid-rise housing units as an adventurous avant-garde setting. A brave new art scene is also a strategic urban arena that is positioned versus the city, financed by big capital, that wages its war of position against an impoverished and increasingly isolated local population.
Broadway, what type of artist you want to have coming in? One that will use Liberty City as their portfolio, and then force you out, or the ones that can emerge from here and grow out? Artists in the city are being used as vectors for massive rent increases and widespread displacement. The trope of artist-as-gentrifier goes back much further in time.
Apocalypse? No doubt in many inner cities, but for now we have it good here. But what the crime and poor schools and high taxes in inner cities does is drive out the working class, all tax payers, and make matters worse. Most inner cities are not improving but getting worse.
As a community activist and business leader Broadway Cuthbert Harewood proved to be a force in Liberty City and an important voice that disrupts, questions, interrogates, and aligns the community’s interest with Miami-Dade County’s policies around development. He’s invested in property and passionate about education and the use of arts to unite the community. He commissions local artists to do murals and mosaic sculptures to beautify properties that are deteriorating all the way down Broadway Avenue.
Throughout the entire walk and tour with him, he consistently mentions the word ‘community’ and the power behind people coming together to fight a just cause. He walked us down Broadway Avenue to multiple properties that he owned, and explained how he strategically bought them next to plots that are owned by Miami-Dade County in a way to place himself in the center of conversations when it’s time for rich developers to come knocking. He managed to make Broadway Avenue a free-trading zone so businesses can buy stock outside and be able to trade and sell to the community. His businesses are constantly fined, and he is harassed with code enforcement to limit the kinds of businesses that can operate there. For example, he can’t open a gas station, hotel or build a third or fourth story building in his own neighborhood, but rich developers can.
I haven’t looked at the world through the lens for awhile, partly because I have been busy to questioning the frame that frames the camera: what makes a certain kind of gaze more legitimate than others?
When we met Broadway, I immediately realized he wants the camera, and he kind of knows how to perform within the frame. I tried to move my camera away so that he could talk with my friends less performatively, even if the visit was already a show of his. Instead, I tried to film the context that made him. The neighbors, the kids with loud portable speakers, the strongly-voiced, conservative, doomed opinions, the community art that has nothing to do with that in contemporary museums. He directed me to take pictures of some work that he commissioned, proudly.
Some neighbors asked to be on camera and have their opinions on tape. I nodded and tried to figure out whether I should take close-up or medium shot, as they spoke to the camera. They seemed to believe their opinions, no matter how emotional, were critically objective. They seemed to believe the lens would give them justice. I hesitated on the composition, as my immediate reactions to their utterances were definitely subjective and lacked context.
And what goes into the frame, goes into the frame. The shots ended up showing my hesitations rather than their words.
At his office, Broadway talked about the importance of art and his hope for the community. Naturally, some of us asked about Moonlight. He paused, then asked me to shut down my camera. I did. He started to talk about the film [in terms we were asked to not repeat]. He pointed out clearly how Liberty City residents now feel doubly victimized by an appropriative and rapacious tourist’s gaze because of the film’s success. It took me weeks to chew on the undocumented speech. It was, counterintuitively, familiar and understandable to me.
I still remember how I felt, or understood, the wave of Chinese “exported,” acclaimed-by-West films in the 90s, which blended homosexual stories with the history of contemporary, or communist China. Farewell My Concubine (1993), The Wedding Banquet (1993), East Palace, West Palace (1996), Happy Together (1998), Lan Yu (2001). They’re all beautifully crafted, sentimental, delicate, and repressed. They all expressed an unleashed desire of freedom which carefully intertwined with the history of an oppressive society. As a closeted bisexual teenage girl by then, I secretly loved those films, but simultaneously hated them as I understood those narratives weren’t about us, but for the Western consumption of a repressive China. The homosexuality, thus, became only a signifier, more than a substantial issue to be tackled. I wanted to be understood, not consumed. I felt like I understood why Broadway said what he did about Moonlight, even if I disagreed with him, even if I no longer feel the way I felt when I was an adolescent.
Broadway has his interests in developing art in Liberty City, as he is a businessman that has a stake in the land. He spent decades in building the art in the community. From his perspective, it hardly gets appreciated. Yet all that he did cannot compare to one famous film. Knowing that a marginalized community can never build their own art, but can only await to be framed, to be beautified, to be gazed at, indeed feels like being doomed. At the end of the day, Broadway directed us to take a picture, to give a speech about the day on his smartphone that was livestreaming on his Facebook. I felt relieved. He knew how to use the camera, after all.
“Artists! They’re here to help! I’m not alone anymore in my fight,” Broadway says to a friend, as we start our tour of the murals that populate the Broadway Arts District. Liberty City is a historically black Miami neighborhood that has been suffering from immense oppression and neglect from local government for decades. When the I-95 highway was built in the 1960s in Overtown, another historically black neighborhood in Miami, many middle-class families moved to the Miami suburbs, while lower income families moved to Liberty City. After the post-civil rights movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s, crime in the area grew exponentially.
The legacy and trauma of systemic racism hits me like a wall of bricks as we step out of the car. Broadway greets us with a big smile. He is happy to see us. I am shocked that we are so well-received. As he shows us the murals, he talks about how very little is different today, with real-estate developers watching the area like hawks as they wait for local residents to give up after years of unbearable and unnecessary code enforcement, intentionally oppressive policy, and lack of funding. One example Broadway talks about is a gallery he opened a few years back that he couldn’t afford to keep open, because he kept on getting slapped with fines. He tells us how much people loved the gallery and how much people love the murals.
Again I hear him say, “These are artists! They’re here to help! I’m not alone anymore in my fight.” As I hear his words, heavy and intimidating, they are echoing in my head. Help? Yes, there are some examples of artists helping communities (my personal favorite being Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation), but they are few and far between. Most community-based projects seem like they are more concerned with the branding of contemporary art as “socially good” as opposed to implementing any real change. Artists, in which I include myself, are generally now seen as the problem. We are the gentrifiers. As soon as we enter into a neighborhood, we raise the value of the area and the locals are priced out, replaced by fancy coffee shops, restaurants, and condos. People are afraid of us. We have started to see examples of backlash from communities popping up in New York, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Miami, and other cities. One very loud example at the moment is the activist groups in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, that have been protesting the Laura Owens exhibition at the Whitney in New York. The goal of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, in particular, is for all galleries to be removed from Boyle Heights completely.
The Boyle Heights Alliance writes a blistering invective I think of as I walk through Liberty City: “We have been telling PSSST and the other galleries what the community needs instead of galleries all along: Authentic affordable housing for low-income people, emergency housing for homeless people and people displaced by gentrification, a laundromat, a needle exchange or harm reduction center, an affordable grocery store, etc. Why was there funding for a 501(c)3 to run a gallery to attract new people to Boyle Heights, but not for services for the existing community? Because the forces that backed PSSST never had any interest in Boyle Heights, except as a real estate investment opportunity. This is the tragedy of artwashing: it channels philanthropy into destroying neighborhoods.”
Various communities around the world are working furiously to get art out of their neighborhoods. How can we ignore this? As artists, curators, cultural producers, and humans, how can we ignore the extremely real and detrimental impact of our actions? Artists are perpetually creating value for others at the expense of the community and themselves. We all know this story. What I want to focus on is, why art? Why do we fight for art? What does art do that could possibly be worth all of this trouble?
We know why a lot of real estate developers, art dealers, and collectors do it: oftentimes either to multiply, wash, or shelter their money in a completely unregulated market; to hide the problematic source of their wealth and actions under the cloak of Contemporary Art’s goodness, or simply, just to be cool.
Why is Broadway happy to see us? And why do artists do it? This is what I want to focus on. I am a working artist, curator, and cultural producer, and I do believe in the ability that cultural production has for positive change. I see a similar belief in Broadway’s eyes as he tells us the story of each mural. They give the neighborhood a sense of pride and immense joy. He tells us that when he gets kids involved in art production, the crime rate falls by half. Murals, galleries, and classes – he wants to bring more art into Liberty City. Broadway probably isn’t afraid of artists, because he is a property owner who is desperately trying to improve his community and property to the utter dismay of private real estate companies and local government. He wants to raise the value of the area, giving him more power, a greater voice, and more opportunity to redistribute resources throughout the community.
FIELD REPORT TWO: EDGE ZONES ART CENTER
3317 NW 7TH AVENUE CIRCLE, MIAMI, FL 33127
We circled the block a couple of times, driving back and forth along NW 7th Avenue, eyes peeled for 3317. We stopped by a large white gallery space, like the sites we’d seen in Wynwood, and then stalled a bit by an explosively colorful warehouse papered in murals. I looked for the signature round glasses I’d seen in videos shared by Malose. We counted carefully down the numbers again and realized we had overlooked some of the more modest spaces set back from the busy main road.
We rocked up to a garage. It took us a long time to find Charo’s space amongst the small, obscure commercial units and storage solutions. You’ve been here before. A garage or warehouse on the outskirts, industrial leftovers being utilized by creatives. It reminded me of spaces in East London a decade ago, or most Berlin artist run initiatives – badly lit, old, used concrete and metal shutters on either end of a rectangular room, ‘edgy’ as some fucktard estate agent would probably tout. In such proximity to Wynwood, it’s hard to know whether it’s old or new. Spaces like these feel like waiting rooms, both waiting for and coaxing the trickle of directional flow. The shiny touch that will validate a life’s work, or accreditation in the form of a nearby Helvetica-populated light box, a tungsten light bulb or a good flat white. I am reminded of artist Irena Haiduk writing about hope as a whore, an old Eastern European saying that complicates our desire for progress, to just be closer to the source.
Charo greeted us in a luminous yellow Nike t-shirt that had been partially extended at the bottom, customized by hand, presumably her own (given the wall of material scraps and sewing machine at the back of the space). Her dark rimmed glasses of matte plastic rested upon her pronounced cheekbones, set below inquisitive eyes, all composed by a cropped salt and pepper crown. Easy on the eye is a discredit; she was both enticing and shocking, deliberately aware of the material affect of neon and matte, the contrasts of light and dark, the tonal passages of guidance in between extremities.
She cracked open the metal door and seemed spritely and full of energy. “You didn’t have trouble finding us, did you?” Below her mesh shirt, she wore black and white zig-zag leggings. I was mesmerized by her careful color coordination: everything down to the piping on her sneakers echoed the select black, white, and green neon aesthetic. Despite the playful, iconoclastic color scheme, she was also statuesque. She was both iconic in presentation but also seemed Loki-like, capable of taking on many costumes and disguises. Later, we’ll learn she’s actively taken on the “trickster” role in many organizations, a looser, destabilized position which allowed her to slip between her edge zones to the center, and back again.
She seemed a little suspicious of us, but either way, welcomed us and started to show us around. The first room was a storage space, with a “room for residencies” behind. I amusingly imagined an artist from Columbia or Brazil, Turkey perhaps, showing up and being a little shocked, (and perhaps I am speaking out of place here) at the stark reality of it all. As we moved around the space, we saw the walls had been smoothed, the light fixtures were in place, moments of polish and care that immediately reprimanded me for my last thoughts.
We followed her to the back of Edge Zones, where she remained the focal point of the airy space, the breeze filtering in through the open back door. On a long table behind her, a riot of neon, pieces of mesh and cloth.
Arrayano: the line between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, a line established by Spanish colonials, an edge zone. Arrayanos, then, the people who live in between, the people of the edge zone. In Arrayanos, a performance of the same name, Charo, in white linen, drags a paintbrush dipped in blood red to create a long, deliberate line across the images of priests, saints, and iconic kings and queens and deities from many different religions, faiths, and cultures.
I remember flying over the line between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The line of demarcation is distinct. What comes to mind is the difference between what is lacking and excessive. Trees or no trees. Exposed or hidden. Resources or no resources. Somehow these extremes are indicative of art. Is the goal of a zone to inhabit the edge? Does that make art ‘edgy’ or is it merely a precarious game? Charo has played the game to her advantage or better yet, bent the rules. I wonder if by doing so she’s creating something less edged and more to center – meaning an establishment of history that is/has existed.
What is made possible by intentionally being in the periphery? By choosing to be in it over and over again? By embracing the edge, by recognizing the fact of dismissal before speaking? Charo spoke of the work of decolonizing as one of radical hope, of generating such hope through paradigms, communities, and groups that are normally ignored – whether people of color, or women, or .
“I wanted to do dirty work. I didn’t want to be in a gallery. I wanted to do [real] work,” she tells us. Charo walked us through her twenty plus- years of maneuvering through Miami as a Dominican artist. She arrived in the city in the late ‘80s, as a teen who had to learn English from scratch.
She relates being bored to “kept wives” on the boards of major art institutions, and Miami art relegated to folksy crafts storefronts. So she made her own publishing press. She created her own art fair. “If they didn’t invite you to the party, you make your own party.” When you can’t find the history or images you want to read and see, you must make them yourself.
Whose center do we assume, without thinking? I think of Ousmane Sembène, the famous Senegalese filmmaker, who, when asked whether he was excited his films had such success in the West and in Europe, said, “Europe is not my center.” Which city is the center? Whose art forms the center? What culture, still, is the center, and how is it slowly decentered?
Across media and organizing practice, her guiding interests and themes seemed consistent:
Equalizing cultures by forcing the margins to the center
Redefining what “The Center” is and what the center should even look like.
Decolonizing space through strategic repositioning: of figures, of artists, of resources.
In Trenzando una historia en curso: Arte dominicano contemporáneo en el contexto del Caribe, Charo’s Two Queens painting is called “a strategic epistemic intervention,” juxtaposing the African canon with the Western. This idea of strategic intervention sticks. The queen that Charo placed on the same plane was Yemayá, known in West African Yoruban faith as Ymoja. She is the queen of the ocean, Goddess of the Sea. Sometimes she appears as a mermaid. She rules the maternal as the goddess of motherhood, but came to mean many things in the Caribbean. She intervened daily in the lives of women to give them strength in oppressive circumstances, and often helped women raise the children of other people.
It seems clear to me that Yemayá is far more powerful than Elizabeth I. Elizabeth I probably needed to pray to Yemayá, or would have if Yemayá was in her pantheon of deities. A single such delightful and uncanny juxtaposition helps us rewrite history. I can start to imagine new fictional scenarios, traversing the distant past to the present, to a future in which it is easier to have many centers, to embrace hybridity, multiplicities of meaning.
Charo seems to have a real strategy of equalizing through a forced or deliberate rebalancing. Researching her work, the early “equalizing” was deliberately hectic and chaotic. She would jam imagery from Dominican voudou up against Santeria, on the same plane as Haitian Voudou and Cuban Yoruba practices, in an alchemical pastiche. But over time, this equalizing unfolded a little more carefully, subtly, strategically.
Charo helped facilitate Miami artists to move out into the Caribbean and South America and connect with artists there. She created wider networks. We read of how she found a network of Haitian intellectuals and thinkers in Miami after seeking out research on the Haitian massacre back in the Dominican Republic, and not finding it.
“You have to be the change you want to see.” Charo’s words resonate a lot with my practice as a cultural practitioner who is creating access to ideas and artists that won’t be entertained in the mainstream space. If you want to be part of the conversation within the contemporary art practice that’s happening, then it is impossible to do it from an enclosed setting. It needs to be in one more open to public participation.
She took the initiative of starting an art fair that was Miami-based, parallel to Art Basel, and she was the first to do so, taking the lead after Art Miami disappeared for a couple of years. She inserted and implanted herself to mirror the mainstream art practices in Miami and give opportunities to local artists, and to elevate them in form. “If it is an Art Fair world, you gotta call it an Art Fair.” She started by lending space to European galleries, and would give away gallery spaces to local artists.
The international art market symbolized a kind of gray, dark, toned-down depression that sucked the life out of the local vibe. Toning down colors, toning down life, toning down vibrancy was equivalent to a kind of death. Charo says, “I insist on colors. Colors represent resistance … It’s about being happy regardless. About having a party, even though you are f**ked …” Power, for Charo, is in color and performance, masked in the form of public art. It is the Carnival. We looked into her closet at floats from parades past and speculated on what she was able to smuggle in this time. This ritual of switching between the center and the periphery, the ritual of play, of dance, around the makers of “real” meaning, mocking, poking, undoing them.
In Play the Devil, drama is smuggled within the wider context of Trinidad’s Carnival: love, death, obsession, affairs, aging, young men and women struggling to grow up. Carnival becomes the safe space in which to enact bigger questions that are difficult to tackle in normal conversation. The game, the artifice, its play can smuggle in complex truths.
Laissez les bons temps rouler – ‘let the good times roll.’ Let heads roll. Carnival oh carnival. Turn me upside down. Or right side up. The queen is dead. You surely jest. Am I slave, a jester or a queen…
The jester risks ridicule and dismissal.
The jester is or can be the most powerful player in the game.
FIELD REPORT THREE: THE BORSCHT CORPORATION
7814 NE 4TH COURT, MIAMI, FL 33138
There wasn’t any sign of Borscht’s logo in the temporary space, aside from one modest flag tucked into the window jamb – an ouroboros of a black alligator swallowing the tail of a snake swallowing the alligator’s, a possible reference to a viral video on Youtube. Borscht’s members have an obvious deep interest in digital culture, on capturing the essence of a meme’s wiliness. And Borscht as an undertaking seems to subvert and play with the same issues we were so cautious about at the start of our residency, about how Miami is seen, of how its culture is seen. They use the loudness, brashness, the love of jolie-laide (ugly-pretty), of joy and play and color and performance all to their advantage. The feel is unmistakably, proudly Miami.
The conversation with Jillian Mayer, Lucas Leyva, and Lauren Monzon of Borscht flowed easily enough, between the politics of experimental collective structures, the advantages of working outside New York and Los Angeles, to the details of how The Borscht Corporation thrives. They wanted to make and foster work about Miami, made by Miamians. They seem focused on ideas first, hungry to help filmmakers working with limited resources realize their visions. They talk about staying close to their roots, the research, the original ethic that they were founded around. They really didn’t want to be lost.
They seem surprisingly relaxed for three individuals helming a critically acclaimed studio. They seem unperturbed by success. I find the effect is completely disarming, expecting to be intimidated but instead leaving charmed and eager to think about how such a model could be attempted in other cities, like Detroit, like D.C., where I know young filmmakers just dying for a space, for the chance to try their first ideas.
Most good, I think, is how they are reasonable about the impact of their films. The conversation mentioned Moonlight, a film Borscht were involved in at the beginning of its production and how Barry Jenkins, the film’s director, remembered many moments during filming, when kids from the neighborhood gathered to watch him filming. They seemed energized and thrilled by seeing him make a movie, to see the filming taking place. The image was for them, by them, and that image was critical. I was reminded of Charo Oquet’s process of strategic equalizing through image. Visibility, forced. Representation turned into strategy.
The Artist as an Entrepreneur. In the absence of state involvement in the arena of culture, private foundations have stepped in, channeling funds to local institutions and, in some cases, to artists themselves. For some of the most active foundations in South Florida, supporting the arts entails training artists to become entrepreneurs, and successfully operate in a neoliberal, “share” economy. It means teaching them to think of art as a market enterprise, and of the art “product” as a commodity and/or a service that yields a profit. Some artists are okay with that, while others, particularly those in non-commercial, non-commodified, and more experimental and iconoclastic sectors might have a hard time pushing the limits of the imagination. Private foundations do not allow for more creative experimentation than did the welfare state did – or does in Europe and elsewhere – as funding is always conditional. In the current environment, however, they are often the only game in town, and ventures like Borscht have been able to flourish, thanks to them.
Their projected experiment in cooperative filmmaking, as described to us in our meeting, recalls that of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) during the 1960s. At that time, filmmakers, with the support of state funding, set up a cooperative system in which scripts were collectively read and feedback was circulated. Detractors have claimed that such a system also stifles individual creativity and might operate as censorship. But whether the state or private foundations, funders tend to set the agenda, even by mere selection, or by the conditions placed on the artist, even if only of method.
Memory perhaps is the domain of intellectuals when it comes to someone else’s history, or perhaps we just have competing memories. It is interesting to see how different subjects situate themselves within different memory-locations-axes. I am calling Borscht on a tradition that they seem not to be conscious of, and they in turn invoke another, different, tradition. Who is the one who steps back and sees the long historical durée?
But of course creative neoliberalism is its own reward. The discussion becomes more difficult, spiraling. We spoke at length about risk: how the Knight Foundation supports more risks than others. A fellow volleys back that the model of the Knight Foundation offers great reward, but only in return for matching funding, which only few organizations can accomplish.
It seems so difficult to be critical in the face of success. It is tempting to pit past golden eras of socialist-funded film up against the brutally competitive landscape of being creative in America in 2018. But the context has changed. I’ve been near scrappy institutions that became financially successful, and that success was then seen as a dent to experimental and avant-garde credibility. But why should they be at odds?
The ethos of the creative entrepreneur is one increasingly taught in business schools across the country. The artist is a business person first, who has to become fit, flexible, supple. Instead of systemic changes that would, say, place the value of art front and center in our civic life, supported by the state or the government, people are encouraged to be individualistic, financially-savvy financiers who can innovate and support their passion. If you can’t support your creative endeavor, it’s your own moral failing, says this horrific, crushing ethos. You just didn’t want it enough.
I think it would be nice to compare how the same proposal has been made in different timelines, and different infrastructural contexts. Coming from a post-communist country, I have the memory of resisting any “socialist” approach. Even now, Chinese hacker communities have such difficulty proposing co-op solutions, because of their memories. People there still much more prefer corporate approaches, even if the toxicity of those approaches are severely exposed. At the same time, when I am in Europe, almost every independent creative maker is looking at socialist approaches as liberation.
I think today we are facing a much more difficult time, politically, culturally and economically. What Borscht is trying to propose is much harder than it seems. They are a small organization working in a city that is remote from the center of American contemporary culture, and the Cuban film industry, I suppose, [is] WAS a state funded department.
Borscht also stressed the particular freedom of making films in the lack of an MFA network and a well-established infrastructure. I am at end interested in how the disconnection, which some might read as almost dystopian in neoliberal communicative capitalism, can be strategized by creative makers and individuals. It seems like a useful model.
It’s such a different proposal, theirs, when you consider the infrastructural context they work within in Miami. I am interested in how history repeats itself across both the third and the fourth dimensions.
The stories that emerged about the cultural sites started to echo one another. They were stories familiar to us all. Artists needed space and resources. They were always conscious of imminent displacement. Their precarity was real, but their privileges exacerbated the precarity of low-income communities they were displacing. They were dependent on or in the orbit of institutions, insistent on performing a public good while acting (and investing) in every way counter to that good. Institutional critique of one’s income and career source can only go so far. Artists felt that relationship was usually at odds with their values (or their self-perception). To create spaces for more risky and experimental work meant accepting massive personal cost. Despite this untenable economic situation, art and activism were seen to be at odds, and political artwork was seen as dirty and cheap.
In attempting to work collaboratively, and somewhat experimentally, we learned about the simultaneous impossibility and the necessity of having many voices at play: parrhesia as (still) the great paradox of collaborative methodology and democracy. And a desire for a greater good was often compromised through a codependent ego, that of creative desire. The culture of business, holistically, is still the business of culture. The core questions of institutional critique would need to first be rhetorical ones.
Hedging all the way, we planned a long-term project – a collaborative and digital map – that emerged from the site visits. The group’s shared technological skills and interests in digital production, critical design, and marketing synced well in the effort. Early in the fall, during a “field trip” to Brickell City Center, Miami-based fellow Felice Grodin, an architect, talked through all the properties and buildings that she knew the key museums and cultural spaces had transitioned through. She described that movement in relation to what she termed the rise of “3D assets,” the outrageous high rises and luxury buildings, shooting up around us.
Working through Felice’s framework, we discussed mapping Miami. We didn’t want to dramatically “reveal” or “expose” anything that wasn’t already known. The map would instead present the flux of Miami institutions and artistic spaces over time. That movement would be visualized in relation to neighborhood decay, rising property values, and demographic shifts, presented without comment.
The working group planned to distribute the institutional critique throughout the site’s design, structure, interface, and use of virtual assets. As – superficially – a representation of our site visits, it would embed the key economic and political issues and themes we’d heard in all our interviews. It would, for instance, mark the legal and financial networks that allow money to flow from real estate scions to museums, from local government into new art districts.
Further, the map would activate the group’s criticism and collective eye, expressed through loose, multi-voiced critique. The more poetic insights of the exquisite corpse exercises would fuel the critical infrastructure of the map. The idea of having the digital follow and emerge from our local and global perspectives, to make a hybrid representation of Miami, was pretty thrilling, and energized us.
To that end, fellow Eddie Negron and his colleague Moises Sanabria of the collective Art404, initiated digital rendering with their Matterport camera, creating artistic 3D scans of field sites, including buildings in Liberty City along Broadway Avenue. We gathered topographical maps of predicted sea-level rise, of simulations of population movement in response to rising property values. We toyed with creating virtual fly-throughs of the field sites.
As an experience and reflection on “doing theory,” and practicing institutional critique, we opened up more questions: Do we ever really represent the labor, ideas, infrastructure, and contributions involved in institutional practice? When bodies become organizational bodies (particles become mass), what perspectives, voices, are left out, or left behind, in the streamlining process? Can narrative ever tell the whole story, or is the attempt to craft one that is both open-ended and as accurate as possible, with the intention of good practice, the best we can hope for?
Enter: Rhetorical Software, or a model for software that can intervene strategically in material spaces. Rhetorical Software was the initiative and child of Rachel Rosenfelt, co-founder and publisher of online magazine The New Inquiry (TNI) and a core experimental collective of programmers, researchers, writers, critics, and technologists affiliated with TNI. The collective had produced the White Collar Crime Risk Zone App and Bail Bloc, two highly successful and viral proof of concepts of the model. Fellow Nora Khan had met Rachel through the group, and saw the model would be clearly effective as a teaching tool. She told Rachel about the evolving project and then, upon group consensus, invited her down to be the residency’s final faculty.
Rachel had experience over a decade of creating and sustaining spaces for critique of unethical political and economic systems. She mentored great writers at TNI and out of their work created a culture of conversation. She could help the fellows to create a coherent narrative and decide on an audience and voice.
To that end, Rachel presented the concept of Rhetorical Software for the group to workshop. The aforementioned collective had designed and written the model’s tenets, many of them being formalized still. But the core concepts of this critical software, as an emerging form of journalism which mobilized technology, spoke to us all, and to the residency’s theme: the only way, the manifesto argued, that the institutions and entrenched power could be challenged and critiqued, was in the language it used and in the terms it understood.
So, if software – apps, media platforms, algorithms, and all the surveillance and extraction methods embedded in them – are used to organize so much of civic life, then counter- critique would ideally be in the form of a software experience. An API or a bot or a game could have far more traction than an essay. Software experiments like Bail Bloc could swiftly mobilize critique against the carceral state, for instance, both exposing its claims of power, revealing the violence of the financial and political system upholding it, and arguing for alternative outcomes – in this case, paying bail for destitute inmates through crowdsourcing on the blockchain.
The fellows worked with Rachel’s guidance, answering her pointed questions and prompts to try and articulate their findings and research, through the framework of Rhetorical Software. How would the mapping not just be a theoretical gesture, a well-executed art project? How would its critique reach those being critiqued? How would it incite overhaul? Answering these questions felt imperative, as institutional critique seemed most futile when it lived and died within a residency’s closed discussions.
Rachel asked us to narrow focus, first, on a narrative, that of the first visit to Liberty City, which was one that many of us held close as the genesis project. It was arguably the most important visit for some of the fellows, lasting in our memories for being antithetical to the residency experience. The meeting with Broadway had also brought a core group of fellows together, suggesting community relationships and partnerships that could extend beyond the residency.
Over three days of ten- to eleven- hour sessions, with few breaks, the fellows told and retold the story of visiting Liberty City in September, with crucial context, research, and local knowledge brought to life by the Miami fellows. Liberty City already played a key role in the American imaginary through its figuring in Moonlight. (This turned out, in coming months, to be the best initial way to ground an idea of the neighborhood in conversations outside Miami). And all the most important issues were present and concentrated in Liberty City, specifically in how art institutions led gentrification in tandem with real estate companies to increase the vulnerability of black Miami, living in sickening contrast to hyperreal skyscrapers.
The neighborhood was also sensible as the first real case study of anticipatory climate displacement in the States. It exemplifies Miami’s high-elevation land crisis, as the focus of projections of climate scientists. It is the focus of luxury development, forcefully reshaping the region. And art-led gentrification was the crucible in which all these emerging trends merged into systemic erasure.
Elegant and concise, the rhetorical software manifesto tapped into pressing needs of the group. We wanted to create a project that imagined alternatives, that critiqued institutional structures while embedding that critique within larger questions of class, race, gender, and sexuality that the curriculum had barely touched upon. To be critical, the topographical assets map would need to be more participatory. It would need to be based on the work of on-the-ground activists and community organizers. It would need to make data on land tenure, property values, and obscure legal and economic loopholes apparent. Shaping the map into a software project, it seemed to possible to have a longer-term, investigative, research-driven provocation that both try to imagine what responsibility we had, as artists, to the spaces around us. It would ask more people to think about the role of art and culture’s intervention in the material.
After all, the injunction for the residency was to provoke experimental thinking, to reflect on what it means to be a cultural institution. What would be more radical and experimental than a long-term, sustainable collaboration of artists built around ideas, specifically ideas of investing in local community and not extracting from it? To work thinking in terms of years, not months, in terms of relationships built, and not content? To be confident that artists and cultural producers can change their relationships to the communities they are set in antagonism with?
On the final day, we risk modeled possible issues and disasters. The audience of the software project would first need to be the community of Liberty City. Organizations doing direct-action, localized work in Liberty City and in Miami would need to be the face and head of the project, leading on the ground. And the investigative research needs would be immense, not to be underestimated: on the history of community trusts, the network of affordability campaigns across threatened Miami neighborhoods, not to mention data on land auctions, real estate strategies, property structures, and more.
We needed a bigger and deeper network of expertise to help us. And so, over the following months after the close of Recalibrated Institution, fellows Nora Khan and Eddie Negron would lead building new relationships and partnerships in New York, within the experimental software collective, and in Miami, respectively. Partners solidified in Miami, including Art404 (Eddie Negron, Moises Sanabria, and Manuel Palou), a well-known Miami-based architect and city planner we dreamed of heading the project, along with the interest of a network of radical lawyers. In New York, we could count on the talents of a ProPublica investigative researcher, data scientists focusing on algorithmic accountability, senior editors at The New Inquiry, and software developer-activists.
The energy and capability of the new coalition is clear. The forthcoming project announcement will detail the full (and global) scope of this initiative, and suggest clearly how an accessible, opensource technology can model and imagine alternatives for civic engagement and self-determination.
When we arrived, Miami was positioned as an ultimate result of the effects of accelerated global finance merged with disaster capitalism. Living in Miami, even briefly, demanded we come up with better stories, better engagement, and better thinking than that offered by art theory. And thank God for that. We met so many incredible, energetic, brilliant people working in beautiful, diverse, often heartbreaking contexts, ecosystems, and cultures. In trying to create a new model of institutional critique, we ended back at the communities that institutions shape, shift, and determine. More than cultural content, we wanted the possibility of strategic counter-action, of an inversion of business as usual, of a model for community self-determination. Our learnings in Miami, we hope, can be ones we can spread far beyond, while never losing sight of that first day in Liberty City.
Broadway messaged one of us on LinkedIn today, and wrote his signature close: Teamwork makes the dream work. A deceptively simple aphorism, but actually, difficult, yet, always true.
Nora Khan and Emer Grant
Yin Aiwen is a designer, researcher, and filmmaker from China.
Emer Grant is a curator, artist and writer.
Felice Grodin is an artist and architect based in Miami.
Ariana Hernández-Reguant is a cultural and urban anthropologist based in Miami.
David Hilmer Rex is an artist and cofounder of Primer, based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Nora Khan is a writer of criticism and fiction based in New York.
Malose Malahlela is an artist, organizer, cultural producer, events manager, shebeenist and co-founder of Keleketla!
Negron & Rosen is a collaborative project by Eddie Negron and Marla Rosen.