Real Estate and Art | Rize and The Cheaper Show

A found public art piece on the Rize site, with the caption DEC 25. A fire, still suspect by many Mount Pleasant residents, burned down retail and artist’s studio space here on Christmas Day, 2009.

For far too long artists and other cultural producers have served as passive scapegoats for critics of gentrification, who spurn the rise of the so-called “creative class” and their role in urban redevelopment. In a recent article for eflux Martha Rosler takes a cue from Sharon Zukin, writing that in times of massive urban redevelopment, “artists and the entire visual art sector—especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums—are a main engine for the repurposing of the post-industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefit of elites.”

Zukin’s blueprint, initiated with Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), is often misunderstood as an organic and natural process. Here, artists are framed not simply as an artistic vanguard that sets the tone and beat for cultural production, but also an economic force instigating the first wave of gentrification. As the oft-misrepresented story goes, cultural producers fill-in inexpensive lofts and retail space in poor neighborhoods, making them more attractive for young urban professionals fueling the real-estate industry. Troubled by the initial identity and politics of the neighborhood—working class, poor, or no identity at all—developers latch on to these markers of indistinction and carve out a coherent, docile identity founded on the empty signifiers of consumption. While the working poor move to the suburbs and inexpensive areas of the city, the very same cultural producers who set the trajectory of the neighborhood are in time kicked to the curb as the rising cost of living moves in lockstep with the consumption habits of urban professionals.

Certainly, Rosler is correct to claim that artists are “passive” agents in the process of gentrification, yet to lay blame on cultural producers alone would miss the target altogether. As the English Urbanist Max Nathan states, “creativity and cool are the icing, not the cake.”

Any rigorous analysis of gentrification at any level requires that we chart the explicit relations of capital (represented here by developers and speculators) and the apparatuses of the state (municipal governance, city planners, police, etc.). While the state actively produces cycles of disinvestment and uneven development, it is capital that takes the advantage of buying low, sending investment into uncharted terrain. There is a mutual relationship of two forces that purposefully props up gentrification as a viable planning option for entire city neighborhoods. What is less clear within this dynamic, however, is the direct link between the rise of the passive and post-ideological cultural producer and their complicit connections to real estate speculation.

On June 25th, Rize Developments, a real-estate development company in Vancouver, is hosting The Cheaper Show. The Show is being held in a heritage building slated for demolition on the corner of Kingsway and Broadway, one of Rize’s many Mount Pleasant property holdings. The site is in the heart of Mount Pleasant, one of Vancouver’s many working-class neighbourhoods.

The developer would like to build a 19 tower on the site. Their plan allots retail space on the ground level, parking below, and luxury condominiums above. Since the rezoning was announced, residents have been mobilizing against the development. The majority of residents of Mount Pleasant are concerned with the precedent this tower will set. Other unaffordable developments in the area have pushed up rents, pushed out small businesses, and increased property taxes. Many businesses are already feeling the pressure of luxury developments, and several of the storefronts around the future site sit empty.

The tower has faced almost unanimous opposition from residents, frustrated with a top-down planning process that puts profits before people. As a result of the one public consultation that took place on March 20th, attended by over 200 citizens, the proposed development was cut down significantly from 26 stories to 19. Yet the tactic of Rize and other developers in the city is all too familiar: propose an unreasonable height (ie. 26 stories), then compromise (to 19), offer crumbs (unaffordable rental space), and claim that you have consulted the community. While the city has gone through the motions of consultation, performing only the statutory minimums, in actuality the controversial project has residents fighting for their right to their own neighborhood. Another public hearing will be held later this summer (details yet-unannounced) on the rezoning of the site.

The Cheaper Show, on the other hand, has served to polarize Vancouver’s artistic community. For some, it is a place where, for one night only, 200 “known and unknown artists” can show their work alongside one another. The exhibition enables artists to sell their work for a modest sum of $200. Faced with the rising costs of exhibiting and ever decreasing availability of art spaces, coupled with the most recent cuts to arts funding, The Cheaper Show provides a short-term opportunity for artists to network and showcase their work. Yet, it is also the same site where a critical public risks metamorphosizing into a consumption-driven audience who would not normally be able to purchase a few pieces at reduced rates.

The Cheaper Show frames itself as anti-establishment institution with an anti-hierarchical mandate. The equality between unknown artists and the known, as well as the gap between local and international artists, is bridged. “Equality” here is not envisioned in its emancipatory sense, but as a place-holder for the universal equivalent of money, or more specifically $200, acting as a foundation for equal aesthetic rights. This move levels out, in the same breath, all other discourse that would otherwise bring a diverse group of artists together. Collaboration and collectivity are not aligned politically with social struggle and advanced art, but are rather plugged into the circuits of the market, in which case egos are propped-up, branded, profiled and put on full display as like any other phantasmagoria.

The problem with the Cheaper Show is that they literally celebrate the problem of financial uncertainty, instead of organizing against it. Recessional aesthetics and the precariousness that goes along with it,  takes on a positive spin, understood as an “opportunity” that should be celebrated while millions are evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs and are forced to live in increasingly unstable conditions.

It comes to no surprise that with The Cheaper Show, there is no ideological engagement or consistent curatorial project. The Cheaper Show smashes you over the head with an illusion of quantity: a big tent program where it is above all insignificant what anything means or how the pieces speak to one another. In the absence of a dominant curatorial theme, the curators for the Cheaper Show “carefully selects” from thousands of submissions, works that meet some arbitrary condition of “goodness.” All notions of aesthetic judgement are thrown out the window. The event is more like fun-fast-party, not to mention, cheap cheap cheap. The social stakes of aesthetic production are reduced to the vacuous cult of design, all the while fetishizing the uncertain financial status of cultural producers. While the myth of individual productivity is consecrated, any morsel of subjectivity or a politics that could be derived from collectivity is exiled, not to mention the funding required for a series of works that is born out of a collective ambition which moves beyond domestic decoration.

To speak bluntly, the Cheaper Shows is symptomatic of the current ideological makeup of the “post-political” mentality of art production itself. The rise of the Cheaper Show as a cultural phenomena makes for pure and wholesome bedfellows between the rise of the post-ideological “creative class” and the logic of Rize. The “creative class,” as Rosler goes on to critique in e-flux, thirsts for a passive environment founded on a “managed diversity,” hyper-fetishism, anti-elitism, an anti-intellectual environment, positioned, most notably, at a distance from critique. Instead of an exhibition that offers itself up to the public to critical debate, the works are subjected to a flurry of activity and consumption. The public camp-out hours before, and then at the messianic hour of reckoning, the doors are opened. At that moment, each participant races against one another to beat-out bidders on individual works.

The Cheaper Show’s capitalist free-for-all is eerily reminiscent of the apparatus that fuels the real-estate market in Vancouver. Condominiums, including those which will eventually sit on the same site, are pitched as though tossed onto the market in a fire sale. And like the products available at the Cheaper Show, the condos are picked up by new young-urban-professionals camping out hours before each opening (often paying people to camp out in their place, if the developers themselves do not pay for such a line to give the appearance of value and hype). The Cheaper Show and Rize – and there are more than a few tenuous strands connecting the two – together attempt to re-create urban life as an uncorrupted, civilized ideal, encouraging the passivity of a public increasingly accustomed to “paying for a quality experience.”

The Cheaper Show is apparently “thrilled” to be hosting their one-day art fair in Mount Pleasant, in a neighborhood that many of their artists and staff “dearly love” and have called home for years. And according to the online magazine Vancouver is Awesome, The Cheaper is a thriving locus for Vancouver “community.” At the Rize public informational meeting held in March, artist Hank Bull pointed out that if they were going to be offering artist space in the building, they might as well also provide artists with bus passes, since most artists will be unable to afford living anywhere near Mount Pleasant. “Community” should be understood here in all seriousness as a disparate group of 99 B-Line bus riders.

Richard Florida is notorious for his redefinition of young urban professionals as the “creative class.” He claims that successful attraction of this group, in competition with other “world-class cities,” is required to fill the unending stock of new condominiums, and to prop-up the real-estate casino. Florida has called for environments that foster creativity in order to attract young urban professionals that he sees as promoting economic growth. His prescriptions are now ubiquitous in urban policy, and his books are becoming what Vancouver cultural critic Jeff Derksen recently called “how-to manuals for mayors”.

As Rosler posits in e-flux, Florida’s work is directed at “second tier” cities, such as Vancouver, pursuing “an ‘identity’ (as if to merchandise) that is to be fashioned from the materials of the present.” Cities like Vancouver glorify the accumulation of amenities as a means of salvation from an undistinguished history, a chance to develop and establish flexibility. In the search for authenticity, Rosler’s critique emphasizes the “platitudinous banality of Florida’s city vision…its undialectical quality and its erasure of difference in favor of tranquility and predictability as it instantiates as policy the infantile dream of perpetually creating oneself anew.”

For Vancouver, in a complete perversion of this logic, the action taken by City Council to promote creativity in Vancouver is through bottom-basement business taxes. The campaign is justified because it allegedly allures a flexible workforce – a globalized “precariat” – and small businesses to Vancouver. But it’s this very emptying of the public purse through business tax-cuts that has precipitated cuts to arts and artists. Many artists cannot support themselves on ever-disappearing grants and shoe-string subsidized art spaces. It’s also the influx of this financially overbearing class that pushes out low and middle income artists, as well as everyone else, except of course those who can pay.

It is no coincidence that the afterparty for The Cheaper Show will be held at the American Hotel, designated by Downtown Eastside residents as “a zone of exclusion.” In 2006, the owner of the American Hotel illegally evicted all of his tenants and closed the building. The illegal eviction was justified on the basis that 156 units of social housing would be built in the redevelopment. Today, however, when the American opens, there will be a total of 6 units of social housing – not 156. The remaining units will rent at rates far out of reach of the people formerly living at the American, and out of reach of most neighborhood residents, 70% of whom are low-income renters.

The rezoning of Mount Pleasant from the current 6 stories on the site to 19 will lead to windfall profits for the real-estate developer. Municipal law states that as repayment to the community for what amounts to free money, real-estate developers must give back to the community in the form on “amenity contributions.” Rize had proposed building 10,000 sq. ft. of artist space and market rental apartments in the development, though there are no affordability promises built into these amenities. The economic resources for art production lie halfway between governmentally administered dumping grounds for surplus tax monies and the generous allocation of public relations budgets that help to create and maintain a corporation’s public image as the committed sponsor.

“Art” according to municipalities, policy advocates, and critics of arts cuts, is and should be particularly “useful” for the community. Yet “use” is most often framed under the rubric of profitability or instrumentalization. During the 2009 campaign against arts cuts in BC, cultural activists would come to argue by way of offering a variant on the government’s own case, claiming that every dollar invested in the arts produces at least $1.36 profit (and that does not even factor in spin-off products and ventures!). Yet, critics of the arts cuts made it too easy for the BC Liberals, who could care less for a .36 cent profit. To put it simply, the government is on its knees before profits and profiteers, developing an entire ontology of profit: what is not remotely profitable has no reason for existence. There is a call for “new partners” with arts organizations: school districts, parks and recreation, chambers of commerce, developers, hotels. The caveat is a leveling of notions of aesthetic judgement and vision, with the underlying assumption that art should be instrumentalizated, which today means that it must be restricted to the tyranny of the market.