Monopoly Capitalism + Modernism

“The charisma of the art star is subject to an overdeveloped bureacratism. Careers are “managed.” Innovation is regularized, adjusted to the demands of the market. Modernism, per se (as well as the lingering ghosts of bohemianism), is transformed into farce, into a professionalism based on academic appointments, periodic exposure, lofty real estate speculation in the former factory districts of decaying cities, massive state funding, jet travel, and increasingly ostentatious corporate patronage of the arts.

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This last development represents an attempt by monopoly capital to “humanize” its image for the middle-managerial and professional subclasses (the vicarious consumers of high culture, the museum audience) in the face of an escalating legitimation crisis.” - Allan Sekula

Some Evidence .

Interview | Confronting Gregor’s ‘Creative City’: Evictions, gentrification, developers

We were interviewed by David P. Ball from Rabble. Check out our interview here or just read it below:

LEFT COAST POST: My article’s on the arts very broadly, essentially looking at the Vision promises and statements on the arts, and artists’ perspective on that. Not just about this election, but the importance of art in the city, how it relates to housing affordability and gentrification. Is it just about funding?

WE DON’T BACK THE JUICEMAN: The central issues around arts in the city is the same as the central issue around any community in the city. It’s a housing crisis in this city. It has nothing to do with funding. As the cost of space in this city is rising, we as artists can’t afford to live in it, either in terms of having a home or finding studio space or galleries being able to afford sites where we can show our work. Everything in terms of funding and public amenities is just a bandaid until we deal with the overall housing crisis in this city.

The city has a thesis called ‘Creative City.’ It’s not about supporting artists and making the city affordable for them to live in, but it’s about re-branding the city. The city has a crisis of identity, and it’s about recreating the city fabric itself to attract international investment.

In Vancouver, Vision has changed the definition of artist into an entrepreneur or creative accountant. These are the artists that Vision wants to foster in Vancouver. Creativity is lumped in with small business, not culture production. On the same platform that they advertize that they didn’t cut the arts they have advertizing that we have the lowest tax rate in the world.

LEFT COAST POST: It’s interesting that at a Vision Salutes the Arts event – I’m not one to encourage a restriction on who can call themselves an artist – but everyone I talked to was a commercial illustrator or designer, I found one painter. What do you think that says?

It pre-dates Vision. Culture is increasingly seen at the city-level as specifically tied to the revitalization of specific neighbourhoods.

LEFT COAST POST: Which ones?

Neighbourhoods with some level of cultural cache, but areas with low property values that can be transformed to generate the highest revenues to people developing it. But the key is to make the artist into the avant-garde of gentrification.

It’s a political and economic process that needs to bring in a new business model.

There’s an entirely new ontology that can be traced very easily back to the ideas of Richard Florida, where he attributes economic growth to this mythological creative class, as he calls it. He has dozens of books describing how you need to build amenities for the creative class to bring them here – because it’s the only way to make jobs in this post-recession world.

LEFT COAST POST: That is exactly the rhetoric that Gregor (Robertson) seems to be using – that you need artists in the city because companies won’t want to move here if there’s not a vibrant scene.

It’s not facilitating the artists that already live here.

Artists are easily manipulated by things like public funding. Basically what’s happened is they’ve gotten a bunch of funding and now they’re backing these politicians.

LEFT COAST POST: How?

If it’s about being able to make a living in the city as an artist, it’s really the exception for them to be able to do that. It’s not supportable for an entire group of artists to live in Vancouver because there isn’t an art market here that pays people enough to live, there’s not enough public funding for art, and we can’t afford to live in this city. There are real structural barriers to being an emerging artist in Vancouver that are not being addressed.

The people supporting the ‘We Back the Juiceman’ – maybe they are the exceptions. They have identified their interests. It’s not the art community.

Right now – in the last three years in particular, a lot of artist-run centres have been served cease-and-desist letters. Western Front is a great case. Across the street from the Western Front: high-end condos, luxury condos have gone up. In the summer of 2010, city engineers, firefighters, police officers were serving cease-and-desist letters to their door at the behest of the planning department. Red Gate – a space with 15,000-square feet of cultural space, a space for studios, bands, what have you – they were evicted.

It’s not just isolated on the level of studio space. There was a big announcement from Vision to set aside 10,000 square feet of space for artist studio space. Basically, this space has actually not new at all. It’s already been there and planned and set aside for over a year. And in that same month, we lost over 30,000 square feet of space between Dynamo Studios which is shutting down, Red Gate, Nyala. They’re replacing these artist-space studios with offices, because that’s where the new creative production in the Vision-creative-class ontology takes place. It takes place in an office and not in a studio.

In Richard Florida’s last book, he makes a direct connection in the last chapter between the rise of the creative class and inequality. He laments this. In each city where there is a rise in creativity, in this creative class, there’s an increase as well in inequality, homelessness, (lack of) affordability.

LEFT COAST POST: What’s his name?

Richard Florida. He’s a major advocate for the creative class, creative cities – he’s the urban development guru for second-tier urban centres in North America. And this is the policy that Heather Deal and Gregor Robertson rely upon.

The policing, the housing crisis, the affordability crisis – they’re not dedicating themselves to creating a liveable city. This whole thing is the greatest paradox. The city is relying upon developer money to build new spaces – they’ve relied upon this policy since the 1990s – but this is the same force that’s pushing us out of our neighbourhoods, pushing us out of our studios, pushing us out of the places we sell our art and make music – it’s a paradox.

Now public space is increasingly policed. It’s not just the liveable communities this election. It’s every single year, literally dozens of millions extra for the police, and yet every year they complain they don’t have enough money for x, y and z.

As crime rates in Vancouver and across Canada actually go down. The most embarrassing thing for me about artists backing the Juiceman, is that the Downtown Eastside has been a mixed neighbourhood for 40 years. There have been artists in studio spaces in my neighbourhood for 40 years living without displacing people. And now people who organize around housing are allowing themselves to be used by the city for a narrative that changes that dynamic within the neighbourhood. So now people in the neighbourhood actually see artists as a problem, when before they had been members of the community. And this is coming forth from people who naively are being used by Vision to support gentrification.

Part of what I would put to this group of people is: Can you back Vision and not back gentrification?

What I’m hearing is their pulling support from people based on a very narrow criteria of their existence. ‘We will give you more money for art’ or ‘We will give you this space for art’ – not seeing it connected to housing or other issues affecting artists.

It’s actually undermining support for artists in a community where for a long time there’s been an almost natural connection.

LEFT COAST POST: The Downtown Eastside?

Yeah. It’s politicizing the arts community. At the same time there are other artists who are explicitly aligning themselves with the housing struggle. It’s going both ways.

Artists, and people who produce – musicians, whatever – they find and create their own autonomous spaces, spaces of culture, spaces for them to play music, often without the support of the city. The city says, ‘We’re going to support all this new space.’ These spaces already exist. What they have to do is protect the existing communities. (COPE City Councillor) Ellen Woodsworth has called for a moratorium —

— A pause —

— A pause on condo development on the Downtown Eastside.

The logic of the creative class is completely ridiculous. You can’t legislate creativity on the level of funding or attracting people to the city. Creativity – artistic expression – is something that comes out of a community. It’s generated by people’s lives. It’s not a top-down thing. For every one artist that gets funding or new space that’s opened up, there are more artists that are having to move out of the city or their space is being closed, because they’re not able to afford being there. What the creative class strategy actually does is ramp up gentrification, and break up communities that are already creative and producing art.

It’s replacing actual artists with the spectacle of the artist which is actually the entrepreneur. The best example of this is across the street from the Western Front – where artist studios that are actually condominiums have opened up. The building is called L’Artiste.

(Laughter)

LEFT COAST POST: I asked Heather (Deal, Vision Vancouver councillor) about Red Gate and the rising costs. She said she felt heart-broken about that – it wasn’t their fault, it was unfortunate that the landlord didn’t want to do the upgrades.

What they’re looking for is not actually creativity, but in fact innovation, which is something easily deployed as a product. They want to create GDP (Gross Domestic Product), not art. Most art doesn’t add to GDP. Only particular kinds of of art add to GDP.

The types of people who put really bizarre public art in the foyer of their new building, or make their building into the shape of a leaning whatever.

In the 1980s, in the first wave of neoliberalism in Vancouver, there was talk of turning Vancouver into a finance capital of the world. And now, the exact same policies they implemented in the 1980s under neoliberal mayors, are being used to turn Vancouver into a creative capital of the world. Only one word has changed – from finance to creative.

The issue with the notion of creative art – it’s not a brand. In fact, art can’t be a brand.

The way the city – Vision – is using these artists that are backing them is as a brand. As a brand of creativity. Art is inherently not a brand. It’s actually the opposing aesthetic logic of branding. Art isn’t even just pretentious design. Art is an ethical ordering of relationships, through optics. It’s about inciting the potential for changing the way we live. To try to use it as a brand is a really scary way to position art.

LEFT COAST POST: Why is it scary?

It’s scary because it’s fascist.

Walter Benjamin said that fascism aestheticizes politics. Which is exactly what’s happening in Vancouver. As we become a heavily policed city, as politicians either break their promises or don’t even make promises in the first place – there’s an absolute absence of politics at election time. This is filled in with a new aesthetic. Obviously it’s not fascist, but it follows the logic. Revolutionary politics is the other way around – it shows how aesthetics are political. If you can locate Vision within one of those, it’s definitely the first.

LEFT COAST POST: They’re celebrating that they will maintain funding for the arts. How is that even a platform?

I would question their real support of the arts. If it’s being cut on every other level, and all they can do is maintain, it’s hard for me to believe it’s the crowning jewel of their policy to make Vancouver a more liveable place that attracts businesses.

This is a paradox – the people who fund arts in the private sector, are the ones who make huge profits from building leaky condos (Michael Audain).

LEFT COAST POST: Why are the art enthusiasts – patrons, if you will – often developers. Does that say something about the economy?

This is almost like a second wave of neoliberalism. You have to sneak in with these progressive capitalists – whether it’s green capitalists or progressive real estate agents that love Jane Jacobs. If you don’t there’ll be resistance and you can’t get elected. That’s what Vision Vancouver is – it’s a phenomenon all across the West Coast.

Not only is it green-washing, it’s art-washing. Art-washing is the biggest political spin for gentrification. Interestingly enough, if you walk down to Pender and look at the (development marketer) Bob Rennie Gallery, the only thing in the gallery right now is a poster that says, ‘Vote for Gregor: Vision 2011.’

Personally I don’t think Vision Vancouver is good for the arts, but a lot of artists see them talking about arts at all. Any initiative that goes forward, no matter how measly it is, will have artists saying, ‘Well, fuck – that’s better than what we have now.’ A lot of people trying to make a living making art says, ‘That speaks to me because nobody else is talking about it.’

Once upon a time in this province there was a belief that you had to have non-market interventions in order to create affordable housing for the poorest, for artists, for people who are lower-middle and working class. That was how you made up for the fact that the housing market is subject to the whims of the market. That philosophy has largely thrown its hands in the air and walked away.

LEFT COAST POST: Should we have non-market intervention? What would it look like?

There’s two aspects of it – there’s finding a place to live, which is the first priority, because if you don’t have anywhere to live, on the street you can’t make art. And there’s artist space, where you go to make art. What the city has traditionally done is bought a building and charged less than market rent – it’s that simple.

When I think of Gregor (Robertson), one second he can have a conversation with you, then turn around and say the opposite. Having had a chance to talk to him, he’s not only agreeing with me, but even gives evidence in favour of my very points. A lot of even young left-wing people have been duped. There’s a pathological two-facing, which seems lacking in conscience. It’s all a game, which is not a new thing in politics.

100% Social Housing at Pantages Theatre?

[Update: its a hoax! Of course it was, Gregor Robertson would never do such a thing.]

We just received this news release. There has been no confirmation in other news outlets. Apparently Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver have reversed their market-based approach to build Social Housing in the DTES.  

News Release

Mayor Gregor Robertson and Developer Marc Williams announce 100% social housing project at contentious Downtown Eastside site.

November 18, 2011 - Mayor Gregor Robertson is proud to announce a new 100% social housing project on the 100-block of East Hastings Street at the site of the former Pantages Theatre. This breakthrough contribution to the City’s fight to eliminate homelessness is made possible by “Sequel 138” condo real estate developer Marc Williams’ sale of the site to the City of Vancouver at real estate assessment price.

“Vision Vancouver’s housing policy includes taking real action to replace all SRO hotel rooms with dignified and affordable housing for low-income residents in the area,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson. “The Vision team is proud to be moving towards that goal in such a symbolically important area of the city.”

The 100-block of East Hastings includes hundreds of problem SRO hotels like the Regent, where two Aboriginal women have died under suspicious circumstances in the past year, and the Brandiz and Balmoral where city inspectors have worked for years with landlords to improve conditions.

“We decided that it just doesn’t make sense to build quarter million dollar condos in sight of some of the worst housing conditions in the country,” said real estate developer Marc Williams. “We tried, but the square peg just doesn’t fit in the round hole. We heard loud and clear that the community wants social housing not condos, and that’s got to count for something eventually.”

The City had approached the Pantages property owner with offers to buy in the past, but had not been able to agree on a price. Marc Williams explained his change of heart, “I was thinking about business when I should have been thinking about what’s right. I realized I can make a real difference in the lives of a hundred needy people and that’s what’s right. The Downtown Eastside is not a place for profit making investors and business. It’s a place to do what’s right.”

The Pantages social housing project will begin development in the summer of 2012 and is expected to provide housing for 122 low-income people.

Speaking Out # 4 - Vision Doesn’t Need Our Help

I am a professional musician who, despite having a healthy and diverse freelancing career, struggles to make ends meet in Vancouver. I’m disappointed in many of my creative colleagues, who failed to make the link between development-friendly government and our poverty level existence. While smothering the Vancouver music and arts community with red tape, clandestine bylaws and eviction notices, Vision has benefited from the hard, unpaid work of many of these same artists, who donated their time and art to “creative” campaign fund raising initiatives.

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Vision doesn’t need the help of the arts community. They have the backing of powerful developers who are running rampant across our city, expediting gentrification and making Vancouver unaffordable for the arts community that Vision claims to care so much about. Condo kings like Bob Rennie are cashing in on Vision’s shameful catering to the development industry. Council denies that construction projects like the Rize development on the corner of Kingsway and Broadway, or the upcoming condo tower across the street from the Biltmore result in the fracturing of neighborhoods and the forcing out of music venues and low income individuals. Council recently approved rezoning in Chinatown for numerous high rise market condo developments, previously restricted by height limits. Expect independent spaces like China Cloud and Blim to face eviction in the years to come as a result of Vision bending over backward to appease developers. 

Gregor’s stance on these and other issues, quoted from a 30 minute conversation I had with him this summer: “It’s unfortunate, but capitalism controls everything.” Not surprising words coming from the mouth of a wealthy business man. If Vision needs folks to work on their campaign, let them hire some of the painfully underemployed citizens of Vancouver, and let their wages come from the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Bob Rennie and the other developers donate to their campaign.

I do not back the Juice Man.


— Kevin Romain