Guest Post by Jacob Wick.
Before we begin, perhaps it would help to get acquainted: in what follows, and in what follows what follows – over the next few months, or however long Bad at Sports allows me to report from my swiveling office chair in Little Bangladesh – I will be concentrating on what I would say is my main area of concern, or perhaps, to be redundant, a concentration of mine: the support.
Thinking about support originates, for me, with Shannon Jackson’s book Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, which I read two or three years ago and which burned a hole in my mind as I drove, with Marc Riordan and Frank Rosaly, around the Midwest and Southeast on tour with Tres Hongos. Driving the potholed and congested interstates of America through climate-changed constant downpour, hating everyone on the road and being hated by everyone on the road, arriving in what might as well have been safehouses in Lexington, Columbia, Asheville, Charlotte, places where I used to be surprised but now am simply glad to arrive…
From what I can remember, and from what I can glean from skimming the book again, three or two years later, Jackson points out that much recent performance work, “relational” work, socially-engaged work, “social practice,” and so on depends on a paradoxical relation to the conditions that make such work possible. A free school might, for instance, fill a vacuum left by a closed or too-expensive school; it might also absorb energy that might otherwise be used to advocate or agitate for better public access to education. The free school then either functions as a boon or a leech or both, a condition that many such attempts happily ignore. In any case, what stuck with me about Jackson’s thesis – which of course is, as she writes, inherited from Marcel Duchamp and Bertolt Brecht, among others, which I write not so much for the currency of either of those names but to point out that this, like so many other “contemporary” issues, is not new at all, or is related to the period directly before the Great Depression, or, again, both – is this focus on the support rather than the effect. Instead of bitching about a free school as too aesthetic or too political or not aesthetic enough or not political enough or some combination – a, b, c, d, all of the above, none of the above – it behooves us to wonder why on earth such a school might be necessary or appealing in the first place.
Nato Thompson’s recent piece in e-flux appears to be the beginning of a process wherein he either compares the strategies of socially-engaged artists to those of the US military in “counterinsurgency” mode, or compares them with the sorts of insurgent groups that counterinsurgency aims to eliminate. Regardless, I would write that what is most interesting or alarming about this comparison is not that it is possible to make – the similarities between insurgent practice, counterinsurgent practice, and “social practice” are stunning, in fact – but that the conditions that allow insurgent groups like Hezbollah or the US Army to function exist not only in what used to be the Third World but also in what used to be the First World: in Oakland, in Chicago, in rural Ohio, pretty much anywhere, even in Los Angeles. These conditions amount more or less to a vacuum of support.
In his alarming book Brave New War, published in 2006, military theorist John Robb makes an example of Hamas. Writing that Hamas thrives “in the vacuum created by failed states,” Robb points out that Hamas’s validity emanates from the social services it provides: education, food distribution, youth recreation, elder care, public safety, religious services, health care, grants to students and small businesses, and so on. Robb goes on to present a more-or-less identical model as an ideal model for security services in a post-nation-state age: something decentralized, something specific to its locale, something transparent: something rhizomatic, something site-specific, something participatory. Robb calls this the resilient community. The resilient community, in its very organization, builds the notion of resilience “into the fabric of everyday life,” so that, when presented with a threat – a threat posed by more-or-less identical groups like Hamas or the US Army – it responds in “what seems like an effortless way.” The idea seems to be to subsume ideology into everyday life, to make it seem not only beneficial, but necessary; not only ideal, but inevitable. Whether that ideology is that of an Islamic republic or that of neoliberal/-libertarian “resilience” or whatever ideology a given socially-engaged artwork might wittingly or unwittingly transmit, the methodology is the same: provide support where it is missing.
When I moved to Oakland two years ago, I read a book – American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, by Robert O. Self – thinking I was going to take a class at CCA whose purpose was to create some sort of site-specific project in West Oakland’s historic rail terminal. I did not end up taking the class – which, by the way, failed in its internal negotiations and negotiations with the relators at the terminal, who were/are intent on it becoming yet another yuppie mall in yet another tedious yuppie development in West Oakland – but I did read most of the book. As one can imagine, the history of Oakland is not pretty, and books like this tend to weigh heavily. Self focuses on the lead-up to the overwhelming passage of Proposition 13 – arguably the beginning of the nationwide tax revolt that led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent gutting of social services – as a turning point in the city’s history. Beginning in the 50s, white residents in and around Oakland – with an emphasis on around, since many white residents simply left Oakland for whiter hills or whiter pastures in surrounding San Leandro, Hayward, Walnut Creek, etc – began a campaign of racist real estate practices against black and Latino populations, ghettoizing them to tiny neighborhoods, shuttering or draining business districts, reducing civic services to a bare minimum or below.
It is too tempting, at this point, to not bring up the striking similarity between the services Hamas provides and the services the Black Panther Provided in Oakland in the 70s, as described by Thompson and others, and to marvel at the implication that the Panthers, too, operated in a vacuum created by a failed state. West Oakland, at this point, had been ghettoized by racist real estate practices; physically separated from the rest of Oakland by a highway; and had lost its historic business and cultural center to the development of that highway. I suppose here the state did not so much fail as leave, or actively act against the people that constituted it (or decided, more accurately, that these people did not belong in the state and tried to make them disappear); the effect, though, was the same. The emergence and subsequent demonization of the Panthers made the “grassroots,” “populist” campaign of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, a wealthy white realtor and a wealthy white former realtor, appear logical to white people across California; Proposition 13 passed with overwhelming support.
Proposition 13 limits property tax to 1% of real property value. Cities use property taxes to fund civic institutions: public schools, libraries, transit systems, and so on – even the police. When Proposition 13 passed, California’s public schools were ranked among the nation’s best; since the passage of Proposition 13, California’s public schools have scuttled down to 48th. Which brings us, finally, to my swivel chair in Little Bangladesh.
Since moving to LA, I figured I should start reading City of Quartz, a sort of go-to history of the city by Mike Davis. So far, I’ve read the preface, which is a sobering catching up of the first edition of the book, published in the late 80s, with the second edition of the books, published in 2006; and the Prologue, the first chapter of the first edition, which relates the history of the early-20th-century (1914 actually, the same year as Bottle Rack) socialist Llano community, its demise, and Davis’s discovery of and conversation with two undocumented itinerant day workers in its ruins. For now, I’ll focus on the preface, which makes the case that the conditions that produced the riots of 1992 – which I think went all the way up to my neighborhood, here in the north of Koreatown (here in Little Bangladesh, in the north of Koreatown, between Historic Filipinotown and Thai Town/Little Armenia) – persist. Since the early 90s, manufacturing has continued to decline, corporations have continued to not headquarter themselves in LA, and
real household incomes fell throughout much of Southern California, but the worst drop in the median income was in the City of Los Angeles, where it fell by 9.1 per cent. At the same time, the percentage of households in poverty increased from 18 to 22 per cent, while the percentage with an annual income of more than $100,000 increased from 9.7 to 15.7 per cent. Almost 700,000 working adults in L.A. County have incomes below the poverty line, and seven of the ten fastest-growing occupations in the city, including cashier and security guard, pay less than $25,000 per year. (xvi)
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably been listening to NPR or reading the news lately. Both Morning Edition and To the Point – produced here in LA! – have featured segments on growing income inequality recently, spurred by figures published last week by the Atlantic that show that the very richest Americans got even richer, richer than almost ever even, last year, richer than they’ve been since right before 2008 or right before the Great Depression. Davis places the blame largely on Proposition 13, writing that its effects ensure that
the greater part of the real-estate windfall annually passes through the economy, on its way to buy Hummers, Laker tickets, and vacation homes, without paying a tithe to schools and the creation of the human capital on which the future of California will rest. Luxury lifestyles are subsidized, as it were, on both ends: by a seemingly infinite supply of cheap service labor, and by the tax advantages that accrue to real-estate and sumptuary consumption. (xvi)
In the seven years since Davis wrote this, not much seems to have changed: Bentleys and helicopters shuttle the rich (or the police, or the news) across Los Angeles’s jumbled civic topography while precarious service workers cram limited and inefficient public transit and the rest of us in the ever-growing swath between stew in traffic. If anything, these conditions have simply spread across the US. The evaporation of traditional middle-class jobs – manufacturing, teaching – means that a huge range of people are clamoring for the same unpredictable and unreliable service sector jobs. As one of the commentators on the To the Point broadcast mentions (I think), the evaporation of the middle class means also the evaporation of class or income mobility. The poor will stay poor; the indebted will stay indebted; the rich will stay rich.
In the months between when I decided I was going to move to Los Angeles and the day my boyfriend and I actually did move to Los Angeles, I think the most common question – after, perhaps, a disgusted “have you been there?” – was a disgusted “why?” To which I would reply something vague and unhelpful about Los Angeles being ludicrous, fun, etc. Something about the discombobulated setup of the city being exciting, full of holes in which to do something. Perhaps also I would say something about LA being a place where dreams go to die and that I was interested in being in a place where dreams died and seeing what happened next. Actually, I probably never said that; I think I wrote it in a grant application though. Since moving here, I’m beginning to wonder if Los Angeles is just a microcosm – I hate that word, but there you go – of the US generally. In Los Angeles, there is a horrific gap between the rich and the poor; general public disregard for public institutions; shitty public transit; overwhelming belief in outmoded or disappeared dreams. Proposition 13 heralded a nationwide tax revolt and subsequent gutting of social services, leading in part to the evacuated and disjunct nation we have today. And if art can do anything in LA, perhaps it is a signal of what art – or anything, or anyone – might be able to do in the US generally, across all of its destroyed or depressed cities and towns.
Writing seven years ago, Mike Davis argued for a “more, not less, ideological politics.” Perhaps this is analogous to means more, not less, awareness of the ideology or ideologies buttressing a given socially-engaged project, relational event, or what-have-you; a focus on the support. What’s interesting about Los Angeles and the projects being undertaken here is not that they exist or that their structures might be analogous to those of Hamas or the Black Panthers (or InCUBATE), but rather the ideology being communicated by their action, the thing that they aim to build into everyday life, the thing that will appear effortlessly; what’s interesting about Los Angeles and undertaking a project here is not how hard or easy an environment Los Angeles is to undertake such a project, but rather if one can be organized in such a way that transmits an alternate ideology, something that focuses not on the same old neoliberal catchphrases - innovation, progress, a new vision - but on support, on fostering the conditions where mobility might have a chance to begin to occur again. We’ll see…
Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist based in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info.