Artists Align with Anti-Displacement Movements


Protest of Fight for Beauty exhibition on December 16, 2018. Photo: Sungpil Yoon
Protest of Fight for Beauty exhibition on December 16, 2017. Photo: Sungpil Yoon

Editor’s Introduction | In the past year, across North America, artists in solidarity with anti-displacement struggles are voicing their discontent with the neoliberal turn towards developer-driven artwashing and displacement, but are they being heard?

Last September during a New York launch of her most recent book, After Kathy Acker, author Chris Kraus was confronted by a group of activists holding a banner that read “I LOVE DIckSPLACEMENT” (a play on her novel I Love Dick). Kraus, who co-edited a book called Hatred of Capitalism in 2001, was asked if she would cancel a book launch at the gallery 356 Mission in solidarity with the ongoing boycott of art galleries. Galleries have been identified as a factor in contributing to the gentrification of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, where resident activists have opposed the process of urban colonialism.

Kraus was initially dismissive of the young activists’ demands, but the event was eventually cancelled due to continued community pressure. A communiqué was issued to the publisher, Semiotext(e), demanding that they pull their titles from a bookstore affiliated with the gallery, as well as denounce all affiliates of the art space. These demands were received as censorship and symptomatic of a climate of “harassment and online trolling.”

In October, the Chinatown Art Brigade, an anti-gentrification group of artists and activists in New York, protested an exhibition by Berlin-based artist Omer Fast at James Cohan Gallery. Their banner read “RACISM DISGUISED AS ART” in English, Spanish and Chinese. The installation included a room replete with objects indicating a sparsely merchandised Chinatown business that visitors walked through in order to view an artwork screening in the back of the gallery.

The Chinatown Art Brigade issued a letter condemning the exhibition as “poverty porn” and an act of racial aggression. “It is not the first example of gentrifiers using appropriated histories of violent oppression to garner cultural or artistic clout. This exhibition is a hostile act towards communities on the front lines fighting tenant harassment, cultural appropriation and erasure.” The gallery’s response rebutted with implied accusations of censorship as well. Fast has also decried the protestors’ behavior as that of right-wing trolls in light of a poster that stated he is a not an American or New York-based artist. A member of Chinatown Action Group (Vancouver) was present in solidarity with these organizers on the last day of Fast’s exhibition during another protest, staged as a send off. In a comment to Hyperallergic she likened the artwashing taking place in New York’s Chinatown to developers and new businesses in Vancouver that employ stereotypically Chinese imagery or aesthetics to gain authenticity, pay a misguided homage, or clumsily conceal an exclusionary agenda. “This is a symbol of the larger issues of gentrification and violence,” she said. “New luxury condos seek to erase our culture.”

Last December in Vancouver, the Woodwards Anti-Capitalist Society (W.W.A.S), organized an “alternative tour” of luxury residential and mixed-use developer Westbank’s Fight for Beauty exhibition. The W.W.A.S., a group of artists and researchers, identify Westbank’s Woodwards development as a locus of historical and ongoing displacement on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish nations in Vancouver, pointing among other things to how the working-class struggle over the site, itself irremovable from settler-colonial dispossession, continues to be rebranded and co-opted by development firms.

Located just outside the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Fight for Beauty was a free exhibit of Westbank’s corporate art and fashion collection shown alongside architectural models of their developments and public art projects affiliated with market housing projects. The W.W.A.S. occupied the exhibit briefly and began its planned speakers who offered a People’s analysis of the articles on display. The W.W.A.S. was able to facilitate three speakers before protestors were ejected from the exhibition space where speeches and demonstrations continued near Jack Poole Plaza.

The Mainlander is publishing the speeches delivered by three of our editorial collective members, Steffanie Ling, Andrei Mihailuk, and Vince Tao, who participated in the action. We remain committed to local and global conversations between artists and organizers resisting artwashing in low-income and working class neighbourhoods, and reject developers who appeal to the sensibilities of artists, cultural producers and prospective condo-owners alike.


Andrei Mihailuk: Spinning Chandelier is symbol of “death from above.” Photo: Sungpil Yoon
Andrei Mihailuk: Spinning Chandelier is symbol of “death from above.” Photo: Sungpil Yoon

By show of hands, how many of you have a chandelier in your home? I’m willing to wager that if you do own one, you probably also own your home. They’re not really a common sight in basement suites or cramped apartments, are they? While today most of you probably think they’re pretty kitschy, they still preserve a distant, bygone impression of luxury. Before mass production, the ornate glass prisms that refract their light were handmade.  Before electricity, their light was produced from tens or hundreds of candles. Servants would have had to scale tall ladders and light every single one by hand, and then come back later to put them all out again. In other words, chandeliers are a symbol of conspicuous consumption, but in many ways they are an inert symbol.

So why hang up a five metre-tall spinning chandelier underneath the Granville Bridge? Like the rest of this exhibit, it’s an expensive publicity stunt masquerading as art. In the audio that accompanies the piece, Ian Gillespie says he wants the chandelier to draw people from around the world. He also says that he hopes one day, when you Google Vancouver, the first thing that comes up won’t be Stanley Park or the Lion’s Gate Bridge, but this chandelier. Isn’t that sad? It’s clear that developers are working to transform this city in their own image. In Gillespie’s case that means furnishing the streets like a McMansion. The people moving into Westbank’s condo next door may find it quaint or whimsical or ironic or funny. The same can’t be said for people who have been displaced by their projects all across these unceded lands, but especially in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown.

If you’ll pardon the pun, I’d like to give this chandelier my own spin. You’re probably all familiar with the scene in countless movies and TV shows when a chandelier falls on an unsuspecting victim. Death from above; not just symbols of wealth, but also symbols of violence. This piece represents the real violence done to communities in the name of Westbank’s colonial project. It is the violence of providing minimal housing for the poor in exchange for more luxury condos, which only serve to create more surveillance, more upscale shops, more zones of exclusion. It is the violence of clearing out neighbourhoods so the rich have new places to park their money. This chandelier communicates, and what it communicates is that developers are making Vancouver into a feasting room for capital, at the expense of people’s homes and livelihoods. This isn’t public art. It’s a warning.   


Vince Tao to artists: We can no longer afford to be naïve about our work and who we serve. Photo: Sungpil Yoon
Vince Tao to artists: We can no longer afford to be naïve about our work and who we serve. Photo: Sungpil Yoon

Hey, I’m Vince Tao, speaking on behalf of Chinatown Action Group. I’d like to thank everyone for making it out here today.

This tent and the total work of shit inside are a pathetic attempt to valorize the life-work of a developer  parasite, it is nothing short of a sick insult to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods to one man’s greed and egomania. Yes, we may be pissed off now by this celebration of criminal luxury and contempt for the poor. But in time this tent will go down and the vulgar works inside it will be shuffled back to their respective corporate lobbies. Our fury at the violence wages against communities, and the disfigurement of culture that this display represents, must not end here.

Artists: We can no longer afford to be naïve about our work and who we serve. Yes, they may toss us some crumbs here or there with a commission or a grant, but in the end they are the ones getting fat sucking us dry from the inside. We work two jobs so we can pay two rents. And once we’re given the ‘privilege’ to adorn their property with a mural, they’ll evict us from our homes and our studios the next day. This is called class war, plain and simple, and it’s time that we as artists determine which side of it we’re on.

Corporate commissions are only one part of the problem. The boards of our art schools and our public institutions of culture are teeming with entrepreneurs and financiers — shills of the highest order. The private-public troika of real estate, government, and nonprofits, together form an art-managerial complex keeping artists barely alive so that we may continue to churn out ‘beauty’ for the ruling class. We cannot let the paltry resources they set aside for artists destroy our organic solidarity with the working and the poor of society.

If our enemies have taken art and its institutions from us, we need new weapons and new solidarities to use against them. If they have stolen our language for beauty, we need new dreams for how to achieve it. What is the point of a beautiful city if no one can afford to live in it? With the need for at least 10,000 units of social housing, art is not enough. We, as artists, need to take direct action to end the housing crisis.

Together, in solidarity with those communities labouring to defend their right to live in this city, we must fight to bring about another kind of society, where the working and the poor have the right to define their lives outside hierarchies and divisions given to us, a society where we may together have the freedom to pursue better and rarer things. We might even dare to call that beauty.

Steffanie Ling previously wrote about the exhibition in an art review context and adapted her observations to rally artists. Photo: Sungpil Yoon
Steffanie Ling previously wrote about the exhibition in an art review context and adapted her observations to rally artists. Photo: Sungpil Yoon

As the dialogue around the housing crisis continues to mount in Vancouver, real estate developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank Corporation decided it would be a good time to mount an exhibition to showcase his dedication to beauty. Fight for Beauty is a tent in front of the Fairmont Pacific Rim filled with various maquettes of public artworks, placed next to architectural models of Westbank’s buildings and other bourgeois trinkets.

The first thing visitors see is a paragraph in neon called “Manifesto” by Claudia Cristovao. The first sentence earnestly asks, “When did we say yes to beauty being discarded, deleted and demeaned?” But this object is unironically confused—the text espouses beauty as some lost cause, yet the work itself embodies a dry conceptual art trope.

The audio guide, narrated by Gillespie himself, is the tissue that connects each display to his messiah complex. He really wants you to know that real estate development isn’t a walk through the activated laneway. Gillespie refers to the contentious Woodward’s redevelopment project as the “war for Woodward’s” and launches into a mythologizing effort: “Against all odds, we had gone out and sold all 440 condominiums on the basis of a very strong message—be part of something bigger than yourselves, be a part of the solution, be a city builder.” He then proceeds to congratulate the 440 Vancouverites that bought the condos in the pre-sale phase for “accepting that challenge.” The entry right after that details the elaborate production of Stan Douglas’ photo mural in the atrium of the redevelopment. Abbott & Cordova, 7 Aug 1971 depicts a historic riot in Gastown marked by police brutality, so according to Gillespie, this commission “perfectly represents what the Woodward’s project has always been: a fight.” In the same self congratulatory breath, selling condominiums and post-conceptual photography depicting social conflict are complementary endeavours in the abuse of power on display for us today.

But Reece Terris’ Triumph of the Technocrat, the cultural amenity contribution attached to a condo, is Gillespie’s real token self-reflexive artwork, described as “[emphasizing] the unseen mechanistic process of development and land speculation impacting the surrounding community.” Triumph of the Technocrat is a direct formal translation of a quick placeholder figure for the possible public artwork in the initial architectural maquette for The Lauren, a 22-story market rental tower in the West End. The community voiced concern that the rental suites were not affordable, but Gillespie frames this dispute as “a classic case of NIMBYISM” and that his “team was tested throughout by a small but very vocal and sometimes violent opposition.”

The broad consensus in the art community is that this show is a nightmarish marketing scheme and public sympathy generator masquerading as a philanthropic project. I encourage anyone who has to been privy to that hearsay to take a closer look at this exhibition to confirm intuitions, to see exactly how fallible and vulnerable contemporary art discourse and aesthetics (our precious critical lens!) can be to a marketing department charged with advancing real estate projects with site-specific flair. Westbank has claimed to have evolved into a “cultural practice” but as far as art and exhibitions go, what attempts to pass as art only insults the intelligence and conscience of the public.

Artwork in the service of displacement, of capital accumulation, is simply propaganda. Those of us who practice in this city, who pay rent, work multiple jobs, and recognize the dangerous relationship art plays in the unfolding of gentrification, we will not be complicit with what the 1% tries to impose upon us as art. We will not legitimize the contents of this glorified garbage can, this twisted trophy room of public art. In turn, we refuse legitimization that lends itself to the erasure of under-represented and displaced communities. We will not be instrumentalized in the destruction of our city to be rebuilt in the image of the rich and white.

Artists of this exhibition, your complicity doesn’t shock or surprise us, but we as emerging artist renters and cultural workers in this city, know what to do with our livelihood and we can still spare ourselves the embarrassment of your bedazzled betrayal.  

Afterword | The exhibition officially concluded on Monday but after effects of artwashing do not expire when Gillespie’s tent is dismantled. As we mentioned in the introduction, many groups have provoked and protested in attempts to initiate dialogues with artist galleries, and hold gentrifiers accountable for their roles in accelerating displacement and for deploying tone deaf displays of wealth in low-income neighbourhoods. However, Westbank is not a gallery, and Gillespie is not an artist, curator, or public cultural figure that protesters can confront at a public event and initiate a dialogue.

In response to an interview request from Democracy Watch, Westbank’s PR spokesperson dispensed this statement: “We acknowledge that not all share our perspective of beauty and our idea of city building but know that the frustrations they have expressed reflect, above all, a love for our city and a desire to shape its future for the better, a goal we share. The work of city building is done together and the responsibility of urban planning, all that it entails, is everyones to share. So we thank all who joined the conversation.”

Simple acknowledgment of differing viewpoints doesn’t constitute a “conversation.” On the contrary it has been the most effective way to evade an exchange. A tête-à-tête won’t temper a developer-capital complex as obscene us as Westbank. So, how do we “speak” to a corporation?

Following the December 16th action, the W.W.A.S initiated an open letter that continues to be circulated by artists to other cultural producers and institutions in Vancouver and Toronto: “As Westbank continues to expand across Canada, we reject their efforts to instrumentalize artists and ‘cultural creators’ as their projects continue to deteriorate standards of living and ways of life.” If they won’t talk to us, we proceed to disavow Westbank as a cultural proprietor in our respective cities and we will divest ourselves from the developer-artist relationship that unapologetically wagers the city’s most vulnerable communities and neighbourhoods for a bit of cultural currency or civic decoration.