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Airbnb’s Two-Faced Relationship with Artists and Art Organizations

As cities and states pass legislation to curtail Airbnb activity, the site’s future as a tool for artists and art organizations both large and small remains uncertain.

The Airbnb listing for the Art Institute of Chicago's live-in recreation of Vincent van Gogh's bedroom in Arles (screenshot via Airbnb)
The Airbnb listing for the Art Institute of Chicago’s live-in recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles (screenshot via Airbnb)

New York made the news late last month when, on October 21, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that fines people up to $7,500 for listing short-term rentals in multiunit buildings. Many states and major metropolitan areas across the US have also cracked down on short-term rentals, imposing fines and creating special regulatory laws to keep them at bay. In early July, the city of Santa Monica convicted its first Airbnb host under a new law that prohibits rentals under 30 days, fining the man $3,500. In Miami Beach, all short-term rentals in single-family homes and most apartment and condo buildings are now illegal, with a fine of up to $20,000 for the first violation. Airbnb is fighting back, filing lawsuits left and right — against New York, Santa Monica, and its own hometown of San Francisco.

An anti-Airbnb flyer in San Francisco (photo by Leigh Blackall/Flickr)
An anti-Airbnb flyer in San Francisco (photo by Leigh Blackall/Flickr)

In July, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren became the most high-profile government official to join the Airbnb wars, calling for a comprehensive investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into the effects of short-term rentals. Like many municipal and state representatives before her, Warren cited concerns about people running underground businesses through these kinds of sites, keeping entire houses and apartments (and sometimes multiple homes) solely for the purpose of renting them out day-by-day to visitors, thereby not only skirting local taxes and regulations, but also artificially inflating rental prices and displacing longtime residents. While companies and politicians fight over regulations, artists and arts workers — people who have certainly been affected by rapidly rising rents spurred by the so-called “sharing” industry — have been harnessing the Airbnb platform for their own means.

Artbnb

Screenshot of Miao Jiaxin's cage listing on Airbnb (via airbnb.com)
Screenshot of Miao Jiaxin’s cage listing on Airbnb (via airbnb.com)

A variety of different kinds of art projects have used Airbnb as their main platform, or even as their medium. In 2014, for instance, Brooklyn-based artist Miao Jiaxin posted a couple of performance projects on Airbnb, “Jail’s Seeking Prisoners” and “Blind Meeting in Bushwick,” both of which were quickly banned from the site. “Jail’s Seeking Prisoners” consisted of a cage in an apartment, where guests could pay $1 to do as they pleased for most of their stay so long as they agreed to lock themselves in the cage for 3 hours per day and do absolutely nothing — and be monitored doing so by a live webcam. Meanwhile, “Blind Meeting in Bushwick” offered a space where two people who only knew each other online could rent a room together and do whatever they wanted, except leave or sleep, for 24 hours — again, monitored by a webcam.

Jiaxin explains his projects as giving his guests the opportunity to “be performers on the internet” — as well as a very cheap place to stay in New York. Although both projects were banned from the site and Jiaxin isn’t planning on posting on Airbnb anymore, he’s going to continue exploring a concept of he calls “virtual reality in reality.” (He reposted both his listings on Facebook, where he had more success, even though he found that it was very difficult to get people to commit to “Blind Meeting.”)

“Playing with Airbnb is a tricky game,” Jiaxin says. “Any ‘successful’ business models are eventually conventional and conservative. They might work with ‘successful’ art institutions, but they will never want to touch any new art, or art with raw energy.” He adds that because of this inherent conservatism, the problems he had with Airbnb banning his projects turned out to be an integral part of their success. “I don’t think there is an ideal project for any platform; rather, a good project knows how to integrate a platform seamlessly.”

Although Jiaxin has given up on the platform, Airbnb is still used sporadically for art projects. This month at IDIO Gallery in Brooklyn, Ayden LeRoux set up four beds, each covered in an unusual material — salt from Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, soil, beeswax, and rice — inviting visitors to book the beds through Airbnb and sleep on them inside the gallery (for $50 per night). (Untitled), four beds may be sponsored by an art gallery, but only time will tell if Airbnb decides this project, too, is inappropriate for its site.

Part of Ayden LeRoux's <em>(Untitled), four beds</em> series on view last year during Gowanus Open Studios (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)
Part of Ayden LeRoux’s (Untitled), four beds series on view last year during Gowanus Open Studios (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

Museums on Airbnb

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) was all over the news last winter when it posted its first Airbnb listing for a life-size, live-in replica of Vincent van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom in Arles. The listing, which was quickly booked solid, was a very clever way of promoting the museum’s Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibition.

“Early in the planning for this exhibition, our advertising agency, Leo Burnett, came to us with the great idea of not only recreating van Gogh’s bedroom, but also allowing people to stay in the room,” says Katie Rahm, Associate Director of Marketing at the AIC and the in-house lead on the Airbnb project. “We were able to present ‘Vincent’ as the host of the room and speak through his voice throughout the listing.”

The Art Institute of Chicago’s re-creation of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” (1889), which was rented through Airbnb (courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)
The Art Institute of Chicago’s re-creation of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” (1889), which was rented through Airbnb (courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

Unlike Jiaxin’s projects, “Van Gogh’s Bedroom” was not banned from the site. It was also hugely successful in drawing attention to the museum exhibition. “Attendance was higher than that of any major special exhibition in the last 15 years,” Rahm says. “As for an ideal way to partner with Airbnb, I think it all comes down to authenticity. This promotion resonated with people because of their relationship with the painting and with van Gogh and because we recreated a bedroom in an actual bedroom. If other arts organizations found a similarly meaningful way to associate an apartment with a work of art or an artist, I think that could be similarly successful.”

Alternative Spaces on Airbnb

Then there’s the space in between the individual artist and the world-class art institution. At roughly the same time as van Gogh’s Airbnb listing went viral, the Broodthaers Society of America published its own listing in Brooklyn to honor Marcel Broodthaers and coincide with the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Unlike its cousin in Chicago, the listing wasn’t deactivated when the exhibition came down. In fact, it’s still up and available to anyone who wants to stay the night and browse through its on-site collection of Broodthaers books and archival material.

The Broodthaers Airbnb reading room (photo by Seph Rodney for Hyperallergic)
The reading room in the Broodthaers Society of America’s Airbnb rental (photo by Seph Rodney for Hyperallergic)

“I wanted to do a project that might be a kind of ‘sharing economy’ (that term always makes me laugh) update on Broodthaers’s famous rhetorical question of whether he, too, could sell something and succeed in life,” says artist Joe Scanlan, a founding member of the Broodthaers Society. “I think being able to handle his books and editions is an important part of appreciating their politics and meaning. The income from people staying at MBnb makes the free access to the reading room possible for people who visit by appointment but don’t stay overnight. It also helps us purchase new material for the archive.”

Using Airbnb profits to fund ongoing projects is also a strategy explored by Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center. “Starting in 2009, I wanted to start a short-term residency program that wasn’t just a work studio, because it’s so hard to find living space,” says director Lucien Zayan. “I had to fund it, so I put it on Airbnb.” The apartment is used as a rental for half the time in order to fund an artist residency program for the other half of the year. And when it’s used as a rental, visitors get to sleep among works in the Invisible Dog collection, many of them made by previous resident artists, giving both the art center and the artists some much-appreciated publicity.

Left to right: collage by Ruben B, photograph by Udom Surangsophon, photograph by Alan Kleinberg, map of California by Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin, drawing by Giuseppe Stampone (photo by Simon Courchel)
Left to right: collage by Ruben B, photograph by Udom Surangsophon, photograph by Alan Kleinberg, map of California by Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin, drawing by Giuseppe Stampone (photo by Simon Courchel)

Airbnb’s Effects on Artists

While these particular artists and organizations have used Airbnb as a sort of benign vessel to further their goals — whether they be publicity, funding, or expanding the scope of their practices — the larger issue of displacement is seriously affecting artists and arts organizations across the board.

Artists, nonprofits, and artist-run art spaces rely on the relatively affordable rents in many of the same neighborhoods that are now so saturated with Airbnb listings. In fact, partly because of New York’s recent passage of more stringent rules, Zayan cut down his Airbnb listings from the original three to just one. While this certainly negatively affects Invisible Dog’s artist residencies, one would hope that it opens up space for more permanent renters (artists or not), who will contribute to the community fabric of the neighborhood.

As for Airbnb as a company, it appears that it too sees itself as a benign vehicle for whatever people want to do with it — which is part of the reason why the company refuses to take responsibility for illegal listings. (Hyperallergic reached out to Airbnb for comment, but received no response.) But no matter how obstinately tech companies shirk responsibility for what their users do with the tools they provide, no billion-dollar company can ever truly be benign.

The Airbnb page for Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood proclaims: "Creative newcomers and restless twenty-somethings call canvases by many names." (screenshot via Airbnb)
The Airbnb page for Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood proclaims: “Creative newcomers and restless twenty-somethings call canvases by many names.” (screenshot via Airbnb)

Just as artists and arts organizations have found creative ways of making Airbnb work for them, so too has Airbnb put artists and art organizations to good use in promoting its brand. In addition to visibly sponsoring or promoting projects like the van Gogh room in Chicago, Creative Time projects like its 2015 Summit in Bed-Stuy and its exhibition in Central Park, Drifting in Daylight, and the Portals project — which gives people a chance to talk to someone on the other side of the world one-on-one — Airbnb has been milking “cool” and “artsy” neighborhoods for profit, much like a real estate developer. This is a deliberate strategy and anything but benign. Where there’s visibility to be gained and money to be made, Airbnb supports the arts, but where there isn’t, the company has no problem with shutting down your art project.

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