The studio crisis. It’s a multi-leveled thing.
And it sucks. And it’s relentless, and it’s a symptom of the larger change that regulates the death and life of our American cities . President Obama, in 2008, talked about change that we could believe in. Eight years later, artists in particular are seeing that such change is a force that we can direct and influence, but not completely control. The accelerated production rate of the world now, as opposed to in our ancestors’ time, means that huge changes that they would anticipate over the space of decades can happen now within a few years. And through these changes, we hold on to the belief that we have first realized in childhood- that we can make our inner worlds and fantasies real for others to see.
Over the past year, there has been a great deal of change in my life. I’ve been forced out of my last place in Philadelphia because my landlord wanted to raise the rent and leave the broken apartment locks and window in disrepair, and I lost the roommates that was helping me pay for it all. I also lost most of my possessions (except my art) when I made the move down here. I am not exaggerating when I say that I came to D.C. wearing little more than the clothes on my back and some of my works strapped there along with them.
Being here, despite the greater opportunities, does not necessarily translate to less injustice. The larger forces that influence the daily lives of all great American cities- economics, politics, social justice- all seem to be amplified in D.C. The stakes are higher, and the losses potentially steeper. And with the heightened nature of the situation, the results are wider spread and more drastic for those less inoculated against the forces of change.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his book Breakfast of Champions, illustrates this by using islands and air balloons.
Every bit of land...was owned by only about forty people, and...those people decided to exercise their property rights to the full. They put up no trespassing signs on everything. This created terrible problems for the million other people on the islands. The law of gravity required that they stick somewhere on the surface. Either that, or they could go out into the water and bob offshore. But then the Federal Government came through with an emergency program. It gave a big balloon full of helium to every man, woman and child who didn't own property. There was a cable with a harness on it dangling from each balloon. With the help of the balloons, [landless people] could go on inhabiting the islands without always sticking to things other people owned. (101)
At this particular moment, we artists are being handed out balloons, filled with hot air, meant to take us far, far away.
I honestly don’t know much about the inner details of the gentrification process in D.C. I know that it is disproportionately affecting people that look like me and have deeper roots here than I do. I know that there are white, brown, and tan people that are also facing low-priced buyouts and high penalties of moving and restarting somewhere else, away from the places and communities that they know and love. And I can personally attest that losing your sense of home, being rejected and ejected from the place that you put all of the time and effort into building, is hard, hard indeed. But survivable.
As it is right now, I have my beautiful studio in AAC until June 20th. After that, I will have to put my stuff in storage once again, strap what I can onto my back, and keep moving. Somewhere. *
Knowing that I need to move on is hurtful, but freeing. It reminds me that the things I hold dear are just that, things. Not me or my ability to create. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been illustrating this cycle of creation and destruction with a mural in my temporary studio, that will be completely painted over when I move out. I have decided to dedicate it to gentrification. Not just because it will be crowdsourced by a community of people that visit the wall to contribute art, and tended to by me; but also because, like the sprawling neighborhoods and cultures that have grown up along with them, it will change form and structure over time, and finally be rolled over and remade into someone else’s image. I have a limited amount of control of when that will be, and how that will happen- a joke compared to the levels of control that people in gentrifying communities face. And I won’t pretend, once again, that I am intimately entrenched with the landowner/renter struggles here. Instead, I can only offer the empathy of seeing a work that I and many others put a great deal of time and love into be eroded into nothing for us, and something new for someone else. This is not happy or sad. This is change.
With this loss, however, comes a new challenge, the opposite of comfort, safety and stagnation, a new opportunity to create and to believe in the future. Artists often create under pressure and few resources, and are the ones that can truly transform a place of fear and raw potential into a thing of beauty. It is a gift that we give to the world, that works in favor of the landlords and landowners that are the agents of this change. However, it is also the thing that no one can take from us, and the thing that, deep down, our opposites wish they had. And we also have the ability to change the way we advocate and own for ourselves. Without belief, we have no hope to manage change. Without change, we would have no need to believe and forge new boundaries. One regenerates the other, and the cycle continues.
*Update- I have worked out a plan with the staff to continue staying at the AAC, part-time, until the end of the summer. I will keep the mural up until September 2nd- I hope to add great things to it and expand the conversation about change, art, and audience participation. Thanks, AAC staff, for being awesome!- LP