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This text is by Seth Ellis in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

The Local's Outsider

Seth Ellis

My hometown is a suburb of Philadelphia. When I was young, I would have said that I grew up in the great state of Suburbia; its primary identity seemed to teenaged me to be its resemblance to everywhere else. Going back later, I was surprised to see the local identity that had been there all along. It was composed of things I wasn't part of, and things I didn't want to be part of. What had seemed to me to be its generic American contours were also a sign of my particular connection to the place: my parents moved there for work when I was very young; they were part of a transient professional class that I grew up to become a part of. That too, is a part of being local in America: the local newcomers, the perennial transients. These come in two flavors, separated by class: immigrants, either assimilated or members of a diaspora and a floating professional class that is eternally unrooted in place. (On top of these, at least in the East, is another group, the real money, who stay in the area because their money is part of the local fabric.)

Here I want to think about the role of the artist, particularly in America, as a professional transient, and the consequences that has as an economic and social actor.

. . . . .

Three blocks from my parents’ house is an Italian grocery called Carlino’s. It’s been there, and locally owned, for longer than I’ve been alive—and even longer since my family moved there when I was five. It’s a local institution, but it doesn’t sell much local goods and it isn’t cheap. They have the best imported prosciutto I’ve ever tasted, and you pay for how good it is.

Also a few blocks from my parents’ house, in the other direction, is a new restaurant called Local, opened just last year. It’s an upscale place, open only for dinner; its menu boasts that it serves only food made from regional ingredients (not that local; you have to drive a fair ways from our town to get to farmland). But nothing about this restaurant is distinct; you could drop it, name, facade, interior design and all, into Chicago, or Portland, or any town in America and it wouldn’t look out of place. Its “local” character is so self-consciously, purposefully generic that I was surprised to learn that the owner did in fact grow up in the next town over; his father owns a fancy Italian restaurant a block from Local.

Pictured: an ex-bank, an Italian restaurant, a fire victim, a survivor, an anonymous structure, a local landmark, all the same building. Image copyright 2015 Seth Ellis.

Pictured: an ex-bank, an Italian restaurant, a fire victim, a survivor, an anonymous structure, a local landmark, all the same building. Image copyright 2015 Seth Ellis.


. . . . .

Most people know these days that American “Italian” food isn’t Italian, and American “Chinese” food isn’t Chinese. These things are brand identities, not specific to a particular company but widely accepted as aesthetic currency in American culture. “Local” is another such brand (along with its frequent co-conspirator, “organic”) and one that is wielded by a variety of culture actors, for purposes good and bad.

By “culture actors” I mean anyone who uses and manipulates received aesthetics in the creation of experience for an audience—that is, pretty much anyone. Restaurateurs, corporate strategists, industrial designers, professional fine artists all present cultural artifacts for economic effect; in this sense, the rhetorical positions that are part of a given aesthetic become part of the commodity one is selling.

This is not an essay about the responsibility of the artist. The artist has no responsibility aside from our responsibility as humans and as citizens. If it seems that we do, it is either because we claim to, and expect to be congratulated on it, or because we actually enact our public engagement in public, where people can see us, and so our successes and failures as citizens are more visible and available for comment. One such rhetorical position, still an essential part of an aesthetics of localism, though it has been much criticized: Authenticity.

Homi Bhabha has been one such critic. Bhabha has suggested that the manner in which local cultures self-define within a colonial framework should not be defined as "authentic"—that is, an ideal identity separated from the actions of colonialization—but as a hybridization, a non-imitative adoption and adaptation of the colonizer's culture.1 This adoption is not an aspirational imitation of the colonizing culture, but a negotiation with it, a means of negotiation with their own identity and with larger global pressures.

This idea of cultural identity is in part a reaction to the fetishization of "authentic" cultural product by a politically and economically dominant culture. Navaho jewelry, Pakistani rugs and so forth are often generated specifically for tourist markets, not for the local community that makes them. One possible result is for members of a local community to feel alienated from the signifiers of their own culture, as they see its products generated for a larger, moneyed, decontextualized audience.

Professional fine artists, as I'm using the term, don't make product for tourists; but professionalized artists, as professional transients, can often find themselves in the role of tourists. “Artists,” of course, is a broad term. What I’m talking about here is what’s generally called studio art or fine art, the system of practitioners, educators, and venues that make up an art scene. There are many, many other forms of cultural production, and while formal barriers between them as modes of production are beginning to break down, the institutional barriers between distribution streams still have a lot of inertia to them. Today, artists are still rewarded professionally for their participation in a global art economy, one that is purposefully not tied to a local community, physical place or regional culture.

The danger artists face—even artists who are making work about their home culture, but in a different context—is that they will enact Bhabha's hybridization going the other way, selling "local" forms to a wider audience. A "local" art scene might have more in common with similar venues in other cities than it does with other physically proximate scenes; artists who exhibit across state or country lines find their work in the traditional series of white boxes, removed from context.

Globalization can foster an illusion of connectivity without real connections. The network of communication in which an individual is entangled means that I'm in touch with other people in other towns all around the world, but largely those who come from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. Each global village has the opportunity to be insular, without being able to see its own borders from the inside.

…..

There's a shopping center across the tracks from the downtown stretch of my hometown, right by the train station. Sometime in the 90's, the whole footprint was bought by a Swiss holding company, which turned the whole thing into an upscale outlet—Ann Taylor, Sur La Table, that kind of thing. But they overdeveloped for the local zoning regulations; they had too much commercial development, not enough parking. So they sponsored, or rather suggested, a proposal to raze a block of downtown, turfing out all the businesses that were there, in order to make new parking—notionally for the train station, to handle the influx of regional shoppers who would, they assured the council, suddenly see our town as a destination. The town council (many of whose members were real estate developers, not coincidentally) approved this proposal in a final dinner meeting held in a local Chinese restaurants—one of the local businesses they were agreeing to raze.

The proposal was headed off, after much local protest and some comical Wild-West-style skullduggery. For years afterward, I still had a bumper sticker on my car from the local protest organization, though it happened long after I'd left home. I'd have felt disloyal if I didn't.

Pictured: Downtown architectural collage by history. Image copyright 2015 Seth Ellis.

Pictured: Downtown architectural collage by history. Image copyright 2015 Seth Ellis.


. . . . .

There's been a lot of talk in the past year about artists as entrepreneurs2, as the models for distributing and experiencing art necessarily change. Entrepreneur is a loaded term, of course, one that's ready for magazine profiles but that, in the working lives of many artists, promotes the same sort of self-gaze and isolationism that descends to us from the gallery world.

Successful professional artists have always been entrepreneurs, but an artist with gallery representation is insulated from the appearance of professionalism so that they can continue to practice within the self-conscious avant-garde traditions that make their commodities marketable to collectors. To break this model isn't to adopt the term entrepreneur, so that fit more comfortably into the dialogue of startups and academic professional programs; instead artists need to become aware of themselves, and present themselves, as economic agents. Whatever one's position in the economy, both local and global, one is shaped by it and responsible to it.

Artists are economic actors, but not very important ones. At best, they are symbiotes; at worst, they are parasites. It should be noted that parasites aren’t necessarily harmful; they’re just not beneficial. It should never be said that self-expression and cultural communication are unnecessary; not only are they necessary, they’re unavoidable products of being human. Artists are also cultural actors, and, indeed, this is often the form their economic action takes in ways not generally very well analyzed by the artists who are engaged in it. Art can be the decorative fringe on top of the engine of neoliberal economic forces.

Of course, art can also be an embedded critic of those forces; but, as a profession, it can’t not be embedded. And there’s always the danger embedded criticism is itself a form of value-add commodity. As culture-consumers use critical art, they convince themselves that they know better than the economic systems in which they’re still complicit. “Political” art, “avant-garde” art, “outsider” art; these sub genres are all commodities, or they can be. Go to the underground art show and it means you’re absolved of late-stage capitalism.

Artists can also be political actors, but this is so rare in America as hardly to be worth comment. Political art is generally in the position of a politely stage-managed protest in a “free speech zone” half a mile from the scene of the action. Art that has genuine political affect is called activism.

…..

Every time I go back, the town is a little different. In the 1990s, it got boutiqued; in the 2000s, it made a big deal of its historical heritage (the plaques along the road refer to it, rather optimistically, as a village), but its heritage isn’t unique enough to be that big a deal. In the 2010s, locals are worried. There’s a new condo development coming, external investment, that’ll probably shut off access to some of the backroad stores; the generic upscale chains thrive, but there are empty storefronts, and the success stories star newcomers. And, meanwhile, little of the new economic development makes it into the black part of town.

Pictured: neo-neocolonial pseudo-traditional 21st century bridal boutique. Image copyright 2015 Seth Ellis.

Pictured: neo-neocolonial pseudo-traditional 21st century bridal boutique. Image copyright 2015 Seth Ellis.


. . . . .

On one hand, a local economy driven by outside investment means that if that outside money moves away, the local economy collapses. On the other hand, it’s capitalism out there; no single location has enough money in it to drive itself, especially since we’re living in a post-expansion America whose economy is still driven by expansion. We have to attract outside money; but we have to insist that that outside money is fully invested, that is, that they’ve got something to lose. The money has to come in and stay in.

Gentrification has two parts: class distinction and foreignness. The two often work in concert, since professional-class people are the ones with the interest and ability to move from place to place, to completely shift contexts. At least, they’re shifting physical contexts; professional and social contexts often remain the same or at least of the same type. On top of this, or in combination with it, is of course race, which is entangled with class in America as elsewhere. Professional-class transients are the agents of gentrification because they are the ones who have the luxury of choosing to belong—which means that, when that choice stops working out for them, they can choose not to, and move on.

Being professional-class isn’t defined by the money you make, but by the options you have. One of the luxuries artists afford themselves is the choice not to think of themselves as professional class. This even though many of them have professional degrees (B.F.A., at least)—you can tell they’re street-level, so to speak, because their cash flow is a trickle. But this short-term lack of resource gives them another advantage, that of mobility. Artists break open a neighborhood for gentrification because, basically, they are the ones that can; they have opportunity, and little to lose. That they aren’t the ones that make the money from gentrification is a separate issue. How often are artists, as a kind of professional-class floating citizen with low lifestyle expectations, the avant-garde of gentrification, of the new localism as a brand? As often as we participate, consciously or otherwise, in the perpetuation of localism as a late-capitalist neo-liberal brand without transparency or consequence.

…..

Earlier this spring, I was part of a symposium on emerging documentary practices, at which I met the photographer Nate Larson, who teaches at MICA in Baltimore. A few weeks later, the Baltimore riots began. Larson went out into the streets and took portraits of the people he found there—on both sides of the violence and among bystanders. He posted these images to the Web; they went viral and, then, were picked up by mainstream outlets. In this interview3, he describes first his method and intent and, then, the way in which his photographs started gathering their own momentum.

I made pictures that I thought were important based on events that were happening in my city. I didn’t have any plan to get them out there – they were just important to me personally to make. I edited them and posted them to my own website the same days that I took them, which is way more quickly than my usual working methods. I don’t consider myself a journalist and I don’t usually work on that sort of fast-pace deadline. I do think of myself as a documentarian, though, which to me implies a longer commitment to a subject…

...The first were y’all – BmoreArt – based on my relationship with Cara Ober. She saw the images on my FB post and immediately wrote wanting to publish. The second was the CNN piece, which came off Twitter when a curator that I’m working with on other projects retweeted my images to the CNN photo editor directly (my understanding is that they’re friends already). The third was Hyperallergic, which I think came from Cara sharing the work with them. I was already on their radar, as they had previously written about both my solo and collaborative work, so I’m sure that helped as well. Medium’s Vantage was next, which I’ve had a relationship with that editor for a while and he saw it on my Twitter. He has a strong interest in social justice issues, so it wasn’t a surprise that he responded to the work. Frieze was next, my MICA colleague Ian Bourland writes for them and asked if my images could accompany his written piece. Ian and his wife Barbara were out with our class while we were photographing so it felt good that we had shared that experience.

For a couple of weeks on social media, Larson’s posts were full of enthusiastic updates about who had picked up his photos. Some spectators were excited that the images were getting out there; some were excited for Larson; a few found the apparent careerism in Larson’s comments and links distasteful.

Pictured: Baltimore resident, unidentified. Image copyright 2015 Nate Larson.

Pictured: Baltimore resident, unidentified. Image copyright 2015 Nate Larson.

Two questions are raised here: what is the relationship between local engagement and individual careerism; and does it matter? Does artistic intent matter, in the face of the work itself and its affect?

In this case, it’s too soon tell what the political or social affect of Larson’s work might be. Is it reportage? Is it a noncommittal spectatorship, encouraging others to feel connectivity in the absence of real connection? Does it spur action, or greater knowledge? Is it a convenient gesture of belonging, along the same lines as Larson—an Indiana native—dropping “y’all” into his speech? He might not even have been aware that he did so, incidentally; “y’all” is such a handy piece of language that it’s hard not to use when you’re exposed to it daily. In many ways, even if we don’t start to belong in a place, we become entangled.

Bearing witness is a powerful and necessary tool and sometimes outsiders are in a position, by training, privilege or circumstance, to act in that role. But witnessing doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it isn’t an end goal. Who are artists speaking to when they say these things and who benefits and how? Where is the capital going—not just financial capital, but social and cultural capital?

At the same symposium, I met Fabiola Hanna, a Lebanese artist now at UC Santa Cruz. Hanna is part of the We Are History project4, a collaborative venture that, like the Lebanese Atlas Group, generates and archives oral and other histories of Lebanon. In the case of We Are History, the histories are of the 1981 siege of Zahle, part of a long, contested period of history not covered in Lebanese history books. These histories, being videos, are literally articulate in a way Larson's photos are not. They are heavily contextualized by the interface; they present themselves as a form of sociological record rather than as a traditional art experience. Whether We Are History is art, documentary or scholarship is an open question.

Indeed, the contextualization here is complex: it premiered in Santa Cruz, but is intended for Lebanon; its interface is in English, but the histories are in Arabic. In America, its audience is twofold—the Lebanese diaspora, who are engaged with the content; and non-Lebanese Americans, generally professional artists and scholars who are aware only of the context and that only as a distanced, abstract idea.

In both of these projects, I would never have seen the people being documented without the intervention of the artist. In both cases, the people represented are unavailable to me as actors: In Larson's images, due to silence, and in We Are History, due to the language barrier. And, yet, I have more trust in not the authenticity, but the veracity, of We Are History. Larson's images are structured in a very traditional art mode around the real moment of contact between viewer and subject. The premise is that no other information can supersede this moment of contact; I have it with Rembrandt, I have it with Larson's subjects. Everything else is extraneous, safely relegated to wall text. And, yet, this connectivity with the subject can act as a false assurance, a moment of contact that doesn't spur me to further action, but absolves me of the consequences of inaction. I recognize this person as a person; therefore, I have fulfilled my duty, and I need to know nothing else about them.

Engaged art in this sense must be more documentary; the call now is not for contact, which is cheap, but context. Art that is operating in this connective mode must come to resemble sociology more and that means that the institutional and logistical frameworks around it—gallery settings, short-term public festivals, etc.—will have to change to match. Of interest here is the goal in We Are History to create multiple kiosks around Lebanon—public history as art intervention.

Old-fashioned professionalism, a floating art economy that rests on top of the status quo, is the enemy; a new, long-term regionalism has to develop. In this, the position of the professional artist is not to become local, to go native, but to present an intelligent, transparent connection between local and global economies and cultures. What we have to ask ourselves is a) who benefits, and b) not only what we have to gain, but what we are putting up to lose. That’s the difference between a gamble and a con.


link - footnotes

1 See Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge 1994.

2 For instance, The Atlantic article “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” in the January/February 2015 issue.

3Nate Larson Going Viral,” BmoreArt. May 29 2015.

4 See documentation on the project in process at Hanna’s website.

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This article is part of a series on art and gentrification organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January – June 2015.
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link - issue 18: June 2015