Amid all the election paraphernalia of the past few months, some bold stickers have been appearing across New York City. With white text on a red background, they demand: “Decolonize This Place.” After seeing the stickers strewn about the city—on shop windows, the subway, or on the Guggenheim’s golden toilet (Maurizio Cattelan’s “America,” 2016)—curiosity might lead one to trace them to their source. But, at Artists Space Books & Talks, the home base of Decolonize This Place through December 17, the “source” is more complicated than any one person, location, or idea.
One recent evening, I headed to Artists Space, at 55 Walker Street in Tribeca, for a potluck organized by El Salón, a group that meets every third Friday to share ideas and creative work with a focus on the experiences of minority and indigenous diasporas. A small group sitting on the steps outside discussed rising rent prices in Brooklyn and Chinatown. In the back room, banners of various languages, colors, and messages were hung on the walls: “De-Occupy,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” “Abolish White Supremacy,” and, across the ceiling, “When We Breathe We Breathe Together.” As people trickled in, talk of topics including art, colonialism, and gender filled the room.
The potluck was one pocket of discourse among many that fill the weekly programming of Decolonize This Place, a project that brings together community organizers, artists, and activists in conversations and public programs that lead to direct actions against what they identify as oppressive systems. In the words of DTP, it aims to transform Artists Space into “a self-regulated commons” that forms ties “between grassroots organizing and creative activism.”
El Salón’s event was a vantage point from which to see such ties form. At one point, half the crowd headed downstairs to watch From Spikes to Spindles, a documentary film by Christine Choy about Chinatown in the 1970s and the community’s long labor history. The other half of the group gathered around to listen to artists speak about their work. Aman Mojadidi talked about his project Payphone Storytellers, an installation, planned for spring of next year, for five old phone booths in Times Square. Visitors will be able to step into the booths, pick up a phone, and hear strangers tell stories about their migration experiences in both English and the participants’ native tongues. (The work is being made in residence with Times Square Arts with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and a Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation grant for Art & Social Justice.)
Mojadidi spoke about the lost magic of a long-distance call, hoping these booths will give people an opportunity to pause, escape the noise, and listen. Artists Space, in a sense, operates like these phone booths, as Decolonize This Place creates a space where people are invited to voice their struggles among those who share their language as well as those who don’t.
Artists Space’s director, Stefan Kalmár, told me that his organization has increasingly been involved in addressing the interplay and blurred lines between contemporary art and political practice. In the present case, the focus is on gentrification and how contemporary arts organizations “institutionalize antagonisms.” Artists Space and Common Practice decided to investigate these questions further by reaching “outside of the art world.” They invited artists Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain of the collective MTL+ to facilitate programming that would unite activist groups across the city under five “strands”: Indigenous Struggle, Black Liberation, Free Palestine, Global Wage Workers, and De-Gentrification.
Stemming from a photo series that they worked on together in Palestine, Husain and Dhillon formed MTL+ as a group that works to foster critical relationships between research, aesthetics, and organizing. They began to build a rapport with Artists Space through their participation in Yates McKee’s book Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. Husain and Dhillon, having been involved in the Occupy movement, agree that community organizers must work now to undo a lot of the ideological framework of that movement. “We’ve done Occupy and we’ve learned from our failures,” Husain said. “Occupy was strong on class but weak on race. Both need to be centered.” Change cannot happen, Husain suggested, unless many specific struggles unite under a common goal: “a shared horizon towards liberation.”
Can this horizon be formed in an art context? To begin to answer this question, they argue that it must be acknowledged that the art world is not exempt from the struggles of communities both local and global. “The art world is not a bubble,” Dhillon said. “It’s deeply connected to and rooted in a lot of white supremacist structures that exist today.” For this reason, Husain and Dhillon have directed their more recent actions at cultural institutions. Museums, for example, are sites where knowledge is supposed to be created and shared, yet they often erase or aestheticize political struggles because of donor influence. The capital supplied by board members and trustees is not politically neutral. Sometimes it comes from real estate in Crown Heights. Sometimes it goes to the development of stealth drones at an Israeli university. Shouldn’t artists know where their funding is coming from?
The title Decolonize This Place comes from a day of action at the Brooklyn Museum in May, when MTL+ and many other groups entered and surrounded the building to denounce the museum’s normalization of displacement, from Brooklyn to the West Bank. In an exhibition called “Agitprop!,” works about gentrification, sexism, and racism by artists including Alicia Boyd, Jenny Holzer, and Dread Scott were presented as if issues of the sort were concluded struggles. Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump has confirmed that xenophobia and misogyny are more prevalent than some may have thought, and the gentrification of Brooklyn continues to push families out of their homes. (Real estate investors even met to swap ideas at the Brooklyn Museum’s real estate summit last year.) Decolonize This Place pointed out the parallels between the situation in Brooklyn and the displacement of Palestinians, a reality left out of a concurrent exhibition at the museum, “This Place,” which presented tourist photographs of Israel and the West Bank. DTP’s brochure for the day of action stated: “[The Brooklyn Museum] proudly hosts an exhibition that aestheticizes apartheid and settler-colonialism—even while patting itself on the back for displaying works of art produced by the liberation movements of the past century.”
This past Columbus Day, Decolonize This Place organized an anti-Columbus Day tour at the American Museum of Natural History. After walking through the museum, pointing out the colonialist narratives perpetuated in the “historical” displays, over 200 participants gathered around a statue of Theodore Roosevelt that stands proudly at the entrance of the museum. The statue shows Roosevelt atop a horse, with a Native American man standing on his right and an African American man on his left. Protesters covered the statue and demanded its removal, condemning its racist connotations.
Direct actions may make demands, propose solutions, and foster a sense of solidarity, but do they form a basis for shared progress? Or do separate struggles remain fractured once the crowd disperses? This is where the work being done at Artists Space comes in. Dhillon thinks of Decolonize’s actions as points that become visible in a wider process that is transpiring behind the scenes and often going unnoticed.
“No mainstream art media is covering what we are doing,” Dhillon remarked. “I think one of the reasons is that people don’t have the vocabulary to figure out what this is. People question if this is art. People question if this is art activism. Or people purely put it in the framework of activism because the only things that they fall back on are the actions that we do.”
Decolonize This Place is art and activism, but it purposely strives to avoid the pitfalls of both. It differs from pure activism because of its art context (i.e., Artists Space’s invitation to host it), and it creates an aesthetic that calls on human contact. The banners, stickers, posters, and logos are the result of real hands-on work, discussion, and cooperation. The visuals thus form what Husain described as “an aesthetic without aestheticizing.” The banners hanging on the gallery walls do not represent struggle, as art is expected to do; instead, they hang in the service of struggle. Every program at Artists Space is meant to roll into direct actions that then bring more groups and struggles into conversation. A banner is not only a piece of fabric. Conceptually and materially, it is a barrier and a bond.
The aesthetics of Decolonize This Place do not rely on efficiency. The visuals and slogans are not attempts to condense or summarize. They are collaborations that open up more discussion. Husain said he has come to a realization: “When you think you don’t have the vocabulary, use more words.” A sign hanging outside Artists Space right now makes for an example—in English, it reads “Decolonize This Place”; in Mandarin, “Chinatown is not for sale.” Translation makes evident the gaps between separate struggles, and here it is used to reflect the concerns of the local community while linking them to the project inside.
Kalmár spoke about the ideological challenges of collaboration in such a fluid setup. “Decolonize This Place drew beyond the usual audience of Artists Space,” he said, suggesting that most of the visitors have come to the space for reasons more complicated than an interest in art.
Is it that the usual audience feels unwelcome, or just uninterested? As community organizers gather in what is more normally a gallery space, the language of art neither disappears nor loses its academic authority. Artists Space is very much an “art context,” yet the gallery-turned-commons pushes art historical and curatorial questions to the background. Is it naïve to think that political art can find a clean slate within the gallery schema? At a panel discussion, Husain explained that his notion of boycotting conventions of art is part of an ongoing effort to develop an “artist-as-organizer” profile. Perhaps the future of successful political art must come from artists first, and galleries later.
Can contemporary art actually enact change? Kalmár is hopeful. Decolonize This Place has given Artists Space the opportunity to step out of analysis and into action, he said, and he sees Artists Space, with a small staff of only eight, as a place that can experiment with different organizational models on the micro level. “If we can’t figure out how to do this,” Kalmár said, “how will larger institutions ever be able to?”