Opinion

How to Draw a (Picket) Line: Activists Protest Event at Boyle Heights Gallery

A meeting of the Artists’ Political Action Network failed to take into account its location in a neighborhood that’s been mired in gentrification controversy for quite some time.

Protesters outside of 356 Mission on February 12 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — A group of artists organizes an event, “a call to effective political action,” in order to bring together a network of art practitioners to address “the increasingly alarming executive actions, policy proposals, and the culture of fear, hatred, and exclusion” and “to affirm that art is not neutral.”

They schedule it at a location, 356 Mission, along the new gallery row in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, which has been visibly mired in gentrification controversy for quite some time. They investigate the controversy but do not contact the local community activists who instigated the anti-gentrification protest. When met at the entrance to their own event by these same activists, they and a large number of audience members proceed to cross the picket line in order to hold this political event.

Save giving the activists a platform to say a few things, the event proceeds as scheduled. Although, as reported from the inside, many participants sympathize with the protestors, and a committee is even formed to instigate dialogue, very few people step outside the doors to attempt a conversation. When a member of the art community known for her professional work as a mediator tries to intervene, she is told that the protestors have already been given their platform.

I arrive at the event fully intending to participate. At the scene I am met by a raucous picket line, one that I have been anticipating for over six months now. “Of course,” I say to myself, “here they are — the protestors — picketing the event inside.”

In many ways, I am a member of that “inside,” part of the Los Angeles intellectual and academic art world. I identify with the organizers and participants. On Sunday afternoon, I longed to join what promised to be a productive discussion about art and activism, organized by a group called the Artists’ Political Action Network. I nevertheless found myself at a threshold where I had to make a decision, and I decided not to enter — because, with all due respect, what possible art world event would merit crossing a picket line? Unless you strongly disagree with the position of the picketer, you just do not cross a picket line. That is activism 101.

Outside of 356 Mission, members of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement approached me and asked me not to step inside. I stayed and listened. I stayed and was convinced.

The galleries are acting as forces of gentrification, causing rents to rise and the local community to be displaced. Although much more could be said, this alone is reason to heed a request to boycott the galleries — they can go somewhere else. They’ll likely be doing just that in a year or two regardless, when the rents go up drastically. As a bibliography compiled by the activists shows, these arguments are well rehearsed. The paradox is that they’re also familiar to all of us art world participants on the inside.

And nevertheless, I stood there watching members of LA’s institutional art scene walk all over the picket line organized by Boyle Heights’ activists and artists.

Many were respectful enough to engage and apologize for walking in; several stopped on their way out to hear additional perspectives. But more than a few participants waved their fingers, scolded, and even attacked the protestors verbally. Some got angry at the audacity of the protestors to disrupt a well-intentioned political meeting. Most were likely oblivious to the cumulative effect their behavior had on the protestors.

I understand the frustration of the visitors: it’s hard to organize, to give up one’s time, to make things happen, and no one wants their work to be challenged. But communication has fallen between the cracks of good intentions, and it’s on us, the visitors, to stop and listen. A not-so-savvy choice of venue unleashed a contradiction that escalated because of a lack in flexibility. What would have happened if the panel and whole group had just stood up and stepped out? How is it possible that, in a room full of artists, not one idea emerged for how to approach the situation differently and more creatively? I had to choose a side. Now I am writing in the hopes that my colleagues will recognize that they could, and still can, redraw the line.

I was not alone outside. I overheard the voices of a number of artists who chose not to cross the line. They not only identified with the community, but saw their place in the vicious cycle and wondered aloud whether the quest for cheap studios is not itself a displacement machine. But artists also are forced out by gentrification. They face a very different prospect than making a profit at the direct expense of the local population, which is what the galleries do. So why is it that many artists still choose the side of the galleries and not the community? Here we must erase the imaginary lines of identification and redraw them, not because we are kindhearted or have seen the light, but because we realize on which side of the divide our best interests lie.

The group gathered inside 356 Mission (photo courtesy Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement)

“I have no place in that world,” a protestor told me, in what was an informative and pleasant conversation, despite rumors that the picketers were confrontational. “But most of those people inside do not either,” I said. “The vast majority live under precarious conditions — they have no job, living, studio, or health care security.” My interlocutor nodded in recognition. Why does this art world crowd support a system in which only a handful of them will end up making a living by selling their art or landing a tenured job? If we really mean to come together in solidarity, how can we not take the protestors’ side?

Some event attendees complained about the unwillingness of the protestors to compromise and their allegedly hostile attitude. The paradox again is that the inside crowd knows the answer to every one of their own objections. Most of them have spent their careers deconstructing power; they know the protestors have a right to agitate, and they know that political speech is often intense. Are seasoned spectators of performance art really too sensitive to handle a megaphone or to entertain a provocation that might force them, for a few minutes, to check their privilege?

The organization and sheer tenacity of the protestors should have been enough to earn them the respect and ear of the art world. Instead, we arrived in their neighborhood and demand that they compromise. It is us who have miscalculated where the line should be drawn. The only question left is: where do you stand?

Correction: This article originally misstated that the Artists’ Political Action Network did not investigate the gentrification controversy in Boyle Heights, when in fact the group did. We regret the error. It has been fixed.

comments (0)