Andreas Petrossiants and Vanessa Thill in Conversation on the Cultural Work in Anti-Displacement Struggles

This conversation is intended to share strategies employed by Bad Barcode in the 2018–2019 fight against Amazon HQ2 and beyond, as recounted in the discussion of two cultural workers. How is the culture industry entangled in displacement? How are culture workers responsible, and how are we vulnerable? Who do we target? What are our tools, and what are our goals? While our experiences are certainly not emblematic, our intention is to share strategies, consider points and forms of solidarity, and further work toward making our collective struggles stronger.

Vanessa Thill: What was your experience organizing with artists and writers during the Amazon HQ2 debacle? Was there a formative moment that led you to this point? Beyond showing up in a basic sense, and helping out pre-existing grassroots organizations, are there ways that people working in arts and media can uniquely contribute to anti-displacement struggles? I continuously return to this question as it relates to AAD’s mission.

Andreas Petrossiants: When Amazon announced they were building new headquarters in NYC and DC, a bunch of “cultural workers” (a term we chose to accommodate the many different types of work we all did), who would later start working under the name Bad Barcode, first got to talking on a listserv many of us were on. We started compiling research on the HQ2 deal and sharing experiences from our various parts of NYC. Before long we had a lot of research and wanted to make it available. We wanted to help organizers, militants, community groups already doing the imperative community work necessary to building popular power, not just by providing our bodies for protests and actions—which is key as well—but by thinking how we could organize ourselves and provide help without stepping on toes or asking for credit. I believe it was Huey P. Newton who responded in an interview to how white people could help the Panthers by organizing against racism and police violence in their own communities first. 

Bad Barcode is a loose coalition of folks working together autonomously—I use this latter term in the sense of the autonomist movement, signifying that we work outside the union, the party, or other structures and organize across occupation. Though, some of us are unionized workers, some of us sell our labor to large institutions, and so on. Many of us are precarious cultural workers: educators, artists, freelancers, students. For this interview, I’ll speak on behalf of myself and not the group. Given that we are very loosely organized (something that is both beneficial and detrimental), a lot of different views and positions are incorporated. Readers can consult our website for our collectively-agreed-upon positions

VT: The precarity of culture workers is an important point to bring up. We also have a lot to lose. We are also getting squeezed, exploited, and priced out, and this could be a unifying point for us to build solidarity with our neighbors. But at the same time, cultural workers often have a lot more privilege, more of a safety net. We have mobility and access to media and other resources that many of our neighbors don’t have.

AP: For sure. We have to constantly keep this at the front of our minds. Bad Barcode’s position was, broadly speaking, that artists and cultural workers are implicated in a double bind of complicity and victimization in crises of displacement and artwashing: we produce the cultural capital that is used to terrorize communities, but we are also often those victimized by the city’s neoliberal policies. The racist and classist exploitation present in society is only magnified in the “art world,” given the privileged place of art as you already mentioned. This position does not undo or mitigate violence against people, but makes it even more clear, reformist liberal identity politics notwithstanding. Our goal was to help those building struggles against the mayor, the opportunist politicians that vie for power and attention, and the police that defend their policies. Since cultural workers are strategically placed to provide and foster solidarity, we wanted to band together via our shared work, but also to act as a support structure for many groups already on the ground, especially by joining the Fuck Off Amazon Coalition with groups like Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, Take Back the Bronx, Sunset Park for a Liberated Future, and so on. 

VT: What are the tools that we have at our disposal? There’s a perplexing knot of problems related to how politics operates in the art world and how art is complicit in corrupt politics. Although Art Against Displacement (AAD) was started by art dealers, that has been a tough demographic to organize, because by and large their business is their priority, and agitating puts that at risk. We can understand why, because the “developer class” collects art. In one sense that weirdly excites me. It feels like our target is within reach—like we could get in the room and have someone to address directly. We can look at Warren Kander’s recent resignation as an example of using art’s proximity to power to make threats. At least in theory, we have the ear of the 1% that our low income neighbors don’t have, does that mean we need to use that access? Or is it a red herring?

AP: Firstly, we should put the Kanders victory in context. This was not accomplished (only) by the eight artists who boycotted by removing their work halfway through the exhibition. A large number of workers at the Whitney penned a letter, and then Decolonize This Place and dozens of other community groups agitated for 8 weeks together. This was a show of how communities around NY “showed up.” This is exactly the kind of cross-class, cross-”occupation,” and city-wide movement that can show our collective power. This wasn’t a movement by artists, but by and with communities and radical groups that included artists. As Decolonize wrote after Kanders’ resignation: 

For those who may think that the work we do is to be measured and valued by whether a Warren B. Kanders is removed or a certain curator is hired, or a problematic show is cancelled, etc., fundamentally misunderstands the political project Decolonize This Place is engaged in. We, and all our collaborators, seek collective liberation and are unafraid to unsettle everything. We are accountable to, first and foremost, communities we belong to and not simply the art world, its gatekeepers or funders. 

As far as I’m concerned, art can only be a tenable vehicle for sabotage and disruption if it interrupts the functions of value production. I’m not so sure I believe in the value of propaganda via the artistic product unless it reaches publics that are not the collector class. Shaming is definitely still a valuable tool though. There is something to be said for critical art that operates via the institution, but that potential, if it still exists, or ever did for that matter, is largely predicated on the assumption that the museum exists on the edge of the private/public boundary. Museums are spaces that are ostensibly public or open to the public (though the asymmetries of attention that guarantee a canon will by their nature be exclusionary). But the value of the publicness of the museum and the benefits of greater and greater viewership become less important and worthwhile for us as art continues to become more professionalized, as cultural funding drops lower and lower, as unpaid internships and low salaries guarantee that mostly white and well-off people can begin cultural work in institutions in the first place, and as artworks continue becoming total speculative investments, not to mention that most big museums are just money laundering centers for the ultra wealthy. The museum is a place of producing surplus value, via the markets of attention and finance. 

I think we need to build collective power with artists and communities by understanding artistic production as another form of precarious work. We must be vigilant about our work’s use in the violence that we fight against whether it is through commissions by historically violent institutions (like NYPD-sponsored art commissions), “beautification” methods, or advertisement. 

VT: It does seem tough to make structural change using artwork as a vehicle, but I don’t rule it out as a strategy. One lesson I took from the Whitney is that artists can opt out of “opportunities” and it can really matter when it happens in unison. The majority of people won’t think it’s a good idea until after the fact. But what are the material effects of our activities? When we make compromises in our beliefs, what do we really gain, and who is losing? Maybe we will realize that we aren’t as powerless as we often feel. This leads us to the question of how culture is specifically used as bait in gentrification, and in the long term, how artists lose along with almost everyone else. 

AP: Of all the writing on art and displacement that I read in the last year, by far the most crucial text for me was Shellyne Rodriguez’s “How the Bronx was Branded.” I cannot recommend anything more for those who need to see how artwashing plays into larger processes of violence and displacement, and how art workers and their neighborhoods are pitted against one another by the developer class. Key here is to also address the racist, anti-poor, and colonial registers that dictate current socio-political realities, and by extension the culture industry, which is an important system from which to understand the crises/contradictions of speculative real estate capitalism, or what Samuel Stein so astutely terms the Real Estate State. Museum expansion, the construction of jails, the misuse of public funds, the criminalizing of the poor are all tied up in one bow of “creative capitalism.” See the MoMA Divest campaign or the recent revelation that Margaret Chin sweetened the jail plan by offering performance spaces to MOCA. 

VT: Precisely because artists are complicit in the destruction of low income neighborhoods, they need to advocate for their neighbors. Where LA activists such as Defend Boyle Heights have been targeting artists and gallery spaces over the past few years as primary agents of gentrification, I think some NYC groups are reframing the conflict and bringing artists into the fight (this is certainly a core part of AAD’s mission). In your view, what leverage do we have? Is there a way that we can demand that art spaces are not creating more harm? 

AP: Before we can even begin to answer this question, we have to be as organized as possible. Not necessarily within the rubrics of our occupations as “art workers” or “graphic designers” etc., but in our neighborhoods, our communities. Historically, the worker’s leverage is a withholding of labor. But this has become practically impossible in the freelance gig economy. How to construct a contemporary factory floor, so to speak, that will cease to produce surplus value if we fuck off?

I think of the organizing work by NMASS’s Ain’t I A Woman campaign, which is such an unbelievable example of solidarity. How have care workers with three 24-hour shifts a week succeeded in organizing themselves to fight against the city-supported withholding of half their wages? They work alone in isolated environments, have little contact with one another, are threatened by their bosses and by the city, toil 90+ hours a week, and many of them are immigrants. And yet, they have mobilized. 

My feelings are that cultural workers’ “leverage” lies in mobilizing physically, in agitation, in publicity, and in exposing, in providing our skills in and adjacent to art, but not necessarily via the artwork itself—the fraught histories of institutional critique make this seem less tenable. This doesn’t need to happen only through the press, though this doesn’t hurt, but has to happen on a grassroots level, activated through social media and public conversation. At the community garden, at the market, in front of the museum. 

The recently-formed New Museum Union is a good example. Once organized they gained a lot of leverage: they could threaten a strike of much of the museum staff in anticipation of the installation of a huge Hans Haacke retrospective. At the same time, they were not able to organize with the sanitation staff of the museum who are likely the most exploited and precarious workers there, nor with the security guards, because certain labor laws don’t allow security and other employees to be in the same union. All these complications aside, now the workers at the New Museum have a structure through which to organize and to exert solidarity. 

VT: When you talk about being organized, in a massive sense, what are some unifying principles that people seeking change can really unify around? What has worked well in your experience so far?

AP: Amazon was a very convenient container for organizing and mobilizing across the many schisms that rule the grassroots, the left, and the city itself. So many different struggles are addressed in Amazon’s operating model: connection to the carceral state, collaboration with ICE and the military, abuse of workers, embeddedness in techno-finance, implication in gentrification and displacement, the list goes on. Amazon coming to New York was instantly imbricated in so many different fights, which helped many come together to shout at them get the fuck out, and to take Cuomo and de Blasio with them. 

Another unifying principle is the condition or precarious work which allowed vast types of workers in the service sector, artists, care workers, freelancers of all types, unemployed folks, and generally workers with unstable or nonexistent contracts to organize together in the last two decades. This has been the strength of many worker-led movements around the world since the early 2000s that have abandoned outdated 20th century taxonomies (employed/unemployed, skilled/unskilled, etc). Precarity is not just a form of unstable work, but a generalized condition.

But most importantly, I think, we must follow the lead of organizers and groups that wage specific struggles. The city-wide organizing against the recently-passed jail plan is an example. We don’t need to come up with struggles, we need to listen to our comrades. And just as other communities “outside” to art came to the Whitney because the museum’s finances are inextricable from the profits from weapons used to occupy Palestine and terrorize and kill asylum-seekers at the US-Mexico border, we must fight within our communities to make sure these jails never get built and that Rikers closes ASAP. 

VT: It was interesting to listen to anti-gentrification comrades at a recent rally against the Department of City Planning (DCP). Imani Henry, an organizer from Equality for Flatbush, spoke about the major changes in this movement over the past decade. Until more recently, each neighborhood’s struggles with rezonings and predatory developments have been siloed into regional issues. While it was clear that the organizers from these neighborhood groups are deeply fed up and have no faith in city government, the effect I hope for in 2021 is that people in the mainstream will see the urgency of these patterns and make land use a major topic in the next election.

Although DCP is a city agency, not an elected body, the idea of holding our local government accountable is a useful unifier in fighting displacement in the Two Bridges fight and across the city. We can see the effects of putting better candidates in office last November (and continuously pestering them) when you look at the new laws that were passed in New York, including rent reforms. If we start by refusing to accept gentrification as an inevitable “progression” of “the free market,” we can see the crux of the problem: City Planning and the Mayor’s Office has the power to stop this mess. They are the ones approving construction permits and massive rezonings. The City Council is selling out their districts by cutting lousy deals. Should politicians be our primary target in your view?

AP: I’m much less optimistic about using electoral politics to our advantage. Elected officials are our enemies—they are the defenders of the state and control the police and prisons and will use popular opinion like a shawl to cover up their own class interests. This is why it’s so important to create tangible power in our communities, dual power—not via the community board which only has advisory power, not necessarily via the union, and not via the party. Pushing discourse is all well and good, especially when you use that platform to carry propaganda into the mainstream, but we need to cultivate power via tenants organizations, in the streets, and in other popular configurations. Important work on this regard is being done by the Queens Anti-Gentrification project, and other groups in Queens, to continue building a popular assembly, for one example. Anyone who lives in Queens can come and participate in the agenda, and vote for next steps. This is not electoral representation, but the people’s assembly. Slightly different, but other important community-led and community-designed projects include the Chinatown Working Group plan and the People’s Housing Plan.

VT: These are great examples. So it sounds like we have to do the work of imagining something new, and this is a skill set culture workers can offer, among others… we are accustomed to following through on weird ideas, even when they seem impractical. I came to organizing after doing curatorial projects, and I sometimes think about the similarities. Being in and creating imaginative spaces in which people could participate, feel valued, and be themselves was what made New York feel like home. I feel that love even more when we are more explicitly pursuing a common cause, and coming up with real strategies to help each other and our larger community of neighbors.

AP: Totally, but I think we should frame it as using our skills to imagine together, and not just among ourselves. If art workers approach struggle like an artwork then it will be reduced to a performance of politics. I think our strength is rather to repurpose the tools we use to make artworks and to organize in the broadest sense to instead build struggle outside of art, because art isn’t just art—it’s prisons, it’s high rises, it’s privatization, its colonial violence. Let’s take a second to remember that just as you and I are not against art necessarily, we also are not against “development” necessarily: it would be great to have public development that grows out of our collective power: infrastructure, genuinely public space, low-income housing, public kitchens. Let’s imagine along with our comrades what those $11 billion for these new fucking jails could have been used for instead. Funding NYCHA, after school programs, medical care for elderly folks and others who need it, a functioning train and express bus system. It is in rejecting the opportunists in government (as in the art institutions) that we can create avenues of solidarity. As a comrade in Queens recently said, instead of coming to their bargaining table to collect some scraps, we should build our own table. 

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