Gray Area Gallery… and Gentrification

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

As I have been talking to people since the Gray Area Foundation‘s official opening, one of the concerns that always comes up is that of gentrification of the Tenderloin area. What are we, as a “new media” gallery in the Tenderloin, a harbinger of; Again, the question arose last night at opening exhibition artist Camille Utterback‘s ATC Colloquium lecture last night and was re-asked again on the HASTAC site by Margaret Rhee today. While Camille’s lecture wasn’t the venue to address the issue, I would now like to offer at least some thoughts on the subject with the standard disclaimer these are my thoughts and do not reflect the opinions, strategies or future intentions of any of my employers, clients or affiliated groups. That being said, as part of the group working to make Gray Area successful I hope my thoughts in on this topic carry at least some insight.

Writes Ms. Rhee:

How can new media art fully engage with members of marginalized communities who are not fairly represented in dominant culture, and have little access in the production of art? What does public art actually entail in terms of engagement? How could artists empower marginalized communities to create their own images and art? Would it entail providing not only access in participation in an exhibit, but actual training and skills? How can digital citizenship be extended to all people through art and culture?

Indeed.

As background I think it is worth saying that, as a digital media artist, I have always been incredibly aware of what a luxury it is to be involved with the kind of work I have built my career on. If you decide to dedicate your life to something like advancing the arts through technological innovation and infrastructure, as I have, there are obviously many important issues related to the wide daunting base of Maslow’s pyramid which you are by definition not focusing on. This realization on its own fills me with a certain amount of humility when approaching our subject of media arts in an underprivileged community, but while nausea is the realization that there are near infinite paths to take in this universe, but I have made my choice for now. So we must move on past this first impulse of damning ourselves from the outset by asking if and how our endeavor can benefit a community with creative options.

I found myself installing Liquid Time in the big front window “Tendorama” gallery at the Foundation. As I was just beginning to spend a lot of time in the new space, these issues of how our work would be received and affect the community were strong in my mind, and to me the very architecture of the space in which I was spending my time (a large glass paned window in front of a small gallery room, out-looking onto Taylor St.) seemed less like a gallery and more like a terrarium – at the time I wasn’t quite sure if I was looking in or out. Indeed, I could not tell whether the wall of glass separating me from the outside was transparent or opaque; a point of connection to the outside world or a solid cultural wall highlighting just how out of touch we were bringing digital art here. Installing projectors and screens worth hundreds of dollars didn’t help the equation much. But again, this just brings into focus the actual question: Will the community be engaged by what we are doing, or are their base needs unfulfilled to such a degree that they have no interested in such superfluous things as interactive projections?

tendorama by GAFFTA.

The answer came, as good answers always do, from practice and not theory. Very shortly after we (myself and Gray Area’s own lovely and talented Stephanie Sherriff) started installation on Liquid Time we started getting interest, play and interaction from the community. Not a day went by when someone on the street didn’t thank us for being there, and ask us when the public opening was. Not a night went by (and I was there many nights until 2 AM) that someone came stumbling down there street, whose interests would seem maligned from ours, showed great affinity toward our work.

So it appears that my anxiety about our curation and programming being received with apathy by the very community we have set out to interface with was only a matter of perception, and largely unfounded. As we go forward at Gray Area we will be beginning programs with the Boys and Girl’s club, and then other community organizations, empowering individuals to create their own artistic work with tools such as Processing. We particularly look forward to working with the youth of the Tenderloin, of which it has ~4000.

Are we a vanguard of rising rents?  Is “cleaning up” the Tenderloin code for something a bit more sinister? Is a media art gallery in this neighborhood an obvious front of “higher class” culture encroaching on a diverse community. However prevalent these forces might be, they are larger than the Gray Area Gallery, and we are largely bystanders to it. We seek to build relationships with the population around us, and the very act of putting an art gallery in this area forces an interplay that would be impossible otherwise.

The real answer to all of these questions is that for all the talk about us changing the Tenderloin, it is the Tenderloin that will change us.