One real estate frontier at a time, the narrative of artist-led gentrification has become naturalized as something close to an economic law. Williamsburg will surely replace Soho as the textbook example in the next edition, and everyone knows that Bushwick is next.
The number of artists present in the still-affordable, still-interesting neighborhood is reflected in its biggest art event of the year, Bushwick Open Studios. In 2006, BOS began as a coordinated weekend of 73 shows in studios and galleries across Bushwick — no small achievement in itself. This coming weekend, however, promises 542 shows, representing some 2,000–4,000 artists.
With an online directory that puts most city-wide events to shame, it’s a monster of a festival that no one Bushwickite could conceivably visit in its entirety, let alone organize. Instead, Bushwick Open Studios has necessarily evolved as an exercise in decentralized, volunteer-orchestrated action, with no outside grants or funding. If the narrative of gentrification can be disrupted, the instigators of BOS hope that this flexing of community muscle may be the kind of thing that makes another Bushwick possible.
Laura Braslow and Chloë Bass are two long-time members of coordinating entity Arts in Bushwick, and currently put most of their efforts into the Community Projects group. They put on discussions at every BOS on the role of art in the neighborhood, and maintain year-round contact and partnerships with other Bushwick organizations, artistic or otherwise.
“Community projects have been an aspect of Arts in Bushwick, and by extension BOS, since the beginning,” says Bass. “It’s a way of emphasizing that this is not just an art festival, but a process of neighborhood engagement.”
“And the vast majority of Bushwick residents, I would guess at least 95%, have nothing to do with artists or any kind of ‘art scene’,” Braslow adds.
By turning the first three days of June into an open door free-for-all, BOS brings even the most reclusive artists out to evaluate themselves as part of a community. The act of participating in the non-hierarchical process — printing off fliers and signs for your own block, curating with your roommates, meeting visitors from next door or the other end of the L train, taking your art out onto the sidewalk if you feel like you’re missing the sunny weather — builds links. These connections extend from the most amateur of living room curators to the biggest new arrival, Luhring Augustine gallery, whose fresh Bushwick space will indeed be participating with a solo show of veteran-artist Charles Atlas.
In the driest of sociological terms, the crisis of artist-led gentrification comes when cultural capital (the art, the color, the semiotics of cool) floats free from social capital (the glue that makes neighbors do things for neighbors). It’s when that happens that culture goes up for grabs, pushing out the artists along with everyone else. Social capital is what volunteer-orchestrated BOS runs on, and in doing so, the weekend exercises and deepens sociability.
Even when artists act together, opting out of the gentrification narrative is an elusive choice. Another artistic community, decades past, learned this when they trolled real estate agents with the worst neighborhood acronym they could think of: DUMBO. More than choices of representation, it takes attentiveness to the whole neighborhood and how the presence of art evolves within it.
In Bushwick it all began in warehouse lofts in the industrial park above Flushing Avenue, and this is still the image favored in media representations. It carries pleasing echoes of Warhol’s Factory, and presents Bushwick as a post-industrial wasteland fit for colonization. Often ignored is a substantial growth into low income residential blocks to the south — the bulk of Bushwick — and, increasingly, the Queens-side sister neighborhood of Ridgewood.
“I don’t think that this diffusion into the residential parts of the neighborhood necessarily interrupts the narrative of colonization,” Braslow warns. “In fact, it may exacerbate it, since it’s not just lofts that are ‘available’ but all sorts of buildings.”
“Unfortunately, seeing low-income and minority families living next to the art show you’re going to doesn’t necessarily make the neighborhood appear less of a target of opportunity, if that housing or land is still inexpensive. What could make the neighborhood appear less ’empty’ would be an actual recognition of, and policy supporting, the presence and value of residents and uses that are not related to the arts scene, rather than allowing the pioneer narrative — which is an intrinsic part of the urban growth machine — to continue unchallenged.”
One possible challenge is evident in this year’s show directory: making art about Bushwick. If the art is about the social reality, the living history, the contradictions of the neighborhood, it can’t be alienated from that.
For instance, there’s Hybrid Theatre Works’ site-specific performance tour Borderline Bushwick. There are journeys into community history with photographer Meryl Meisler and writer Vanessa Mártir (Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s) and Daryl-Ann Saunders (Pioneers of Bushwick, a series of portraits and stories presented at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center). There are discussion panels and General Assembly-esque non-panels like a 24-hour dialogue on a traffic island. There’s a group show at, and by, PS 123. There’s stop-and-frisk street theatre.
Of course, that’s all just a tiny selection from the total. There’s no bringing order to this chaos, and that’s the point as much as anything; BOS weekend is less Warhol’s Factory in 1967, more Zuccotti Park in 2011. As much as Occupy Wall Street dominates the imagination of autonomous organization at the moment, BOS has always been “self-produced,” as Bass prefers to phrase it.
“However, like OWS, Arts in Bushwick has no demands,” she says. “We just hope to keep going in the spirit of public interest, solidarity and honest local pride for as long as we can.”
The 2012 Bushwick Open Studios takes place June 1–3 all over Bushwick, Brooklyn.