Gentrification and related issues of rising rents, the paucity of affordable housing, and the astronomical gap between the wealthy and the poor have been appearing in public discourse at an increasing rate, in exhibitions, in public art projects, in organized protests. This is partly due to local issues, which are legion. It’s also due to larger forces, such as the structural shifts within the economy causing income inequality to widen to a chasm. For most working-class people, their lifestyles are no longer comfortable or stable; in fact, many teeter on the edge of financial oblivion. These issues are felt particularly acutely in densely populated urban settings — which compounds the problem, because more of us live in cities now than ever before in human history. To non-wealthy New Yorkers, the situation has started to feel like a crisis.
Into this fray comes Martha Rosler’s exhibition If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!!, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. The title is a quotation from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who allegedly said this when confronted about the city’s housing problems. The show is full of umbrage, disillusionment, and rage, but also humor and clear-eyed assessment of the entire suite of difficulties involved in housing. The show is said to be the presentation of the Temporary Office of Urban Disturbances, which sounds like an ad hoc name for the group of curators and artists who have helped Rosler revisit her pioneering project If You Lived Here…. Taking place in 1989, If You Lived Here… examined similar themes and was originally shown at the Dia Art Foundation in three parts; the current project is also divided into three parts, the first two of which were shown at the New Foundation Seattle earlier this year.
At Michell-Innes & Nash, the exhibition is full to overflowing. There are posters that read “Displaced,” “Money for Housing and Shelter,” “Housing is a Human Right,” “Affordable for whom?” There are T-shirts with slogans, a map of art galleries throughout the city, photo surveys of the East Village in the 1980s, the Bronx in the ’70s, and Williamsburg from the same time. There is documentation of housing developments in China, Japan, and South Korea that mimic those in Western cities and the legal records of the Campus Housing Alliance’s acquisition of land in Seattle to provide housing for people who are homeless. There are tables with a host of reading material and charts that display statistics regarding income growth at the highest percentiles, the percentage of the population living in poverty, the low-income housing shortfall versus population, the number of shelters for the homeless.
Amid so much visual information, two pieces jumped out at me. “The Annual One Night Count” consists of a blanket with an array of colored strips attached, indicating the total number of people in King County, Washington (which contains Seattle), found to be homeless on a given night each year: 7,980 in 2009. The Brooklyn Laundry Social Club, meanwhile, devised the irreverently funny “Bed Stuy Mapping Game.” It offers a large map and asks users to draw a pink line for a wished-for bike path, a sun for a black-owned business, a blue dot where “sophisticated people” meet, Xs where people are stopped and frisked, and more.
It’s not easy to take in everything here. It would require at least two hours, and then one would still need time to absorb the enormity of information and sit with just how great the need is for decent housing at rates below what the market seems able to bear. Yes, this show, if you have a conscience, should rile you up and expand your understanding, but what happens after that? The answer has to do with a related series of town hall discussions in June that were meant to move the rhetoric off the walls and into praxis. The ultimate goal, one assumes, is the mobilization of people to force action on the part of government, institutions, and key figures who can make policy change. But it remains to be seen whether this exhibition — or any art show at all — can cross over from aesthetic and political commentary to making a difference in people’s lives.
Martha Rosler: If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!! continues at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (534 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 9.