The BMW Guggenheim Lab
Reviewed by the Department for Urban Gastrology
Hanns Eisler Nail Salon. (H.E.N.S.)
In assessing the Guggenheim BMW lab we should avoid the more tiresome pageant-plays of cultural criticism. It is inadequate to focus either on the “capitulation” of those artists involved or on the “recuperation” of alternative art practices and spaces by the capitalist corporate behemoth. In this context, critiquing artists’ “capitulation” amounts to little more than vying for radicality–as-art-world currency, and bemoaning the fact that your favorite edgy dance club has become a set for a Nike commercial is dangerously in line with the melancholy enforced by New York Times coverage of gentrification. Artists must weigh their various capitulations against the terrors of poverty and remember that, while our trade-economy-squatter-printshops are great, it is not because they exist beyond the pale of capitalism.
The problem with focusing on “capitulation” or “recuperation” in a critique of the Lab is that, in doing so, we obscure the more pernicious aspects of the project. What the lab accomplishes with deadening efficacy is the forfeiture of any engagement with local forms of domination in favor of a captivating smorgasbord of leftist cultural production; the cheese-plate of progressive “urbanology,” creamy radical architectures and glocally farmed sustainable eco salads are presented as viable substitutes for any building of resistance to forms of domination at work in the neighborhood. This sort of substitution is nothing new, and becomes more commonplace as corporations/art institutions vie for the cultural capital and marketing potential afforded by “community involvement”, “relational” art practice and art’s permeation of the realms of urban studies, activism, environmental sciences, gastrology, phrenology et al.
Going forward, the most successful corporate art-programmer will be the one who commissions the most immersive spectacles of involvement, the tastiest interdisciplinary couplings and the hottest left-chic graphics while ignoring immediate brutalities or, what is better, displacing their consideration on to different times and other geographies. If some slight erotic charge is required they might present local micro-forms of resistance, or stage a rare moment of confrontation, provided that it is amply buffered by the air-bag of carefully designed meditation programming. The Guggenheim BMW Lab effectively accomplishes all of the above. Issues of gentrification, income disparity and workplace exploitation are enough on the table to avoid accusations of willful ignorance and effectively inoculate the corporate art-body through the introduction of low-level radicality. The turn-on is achieved by flirting with resistance, by courting annihilation in oppositional “community” activism. Crucially, this arousal is contingent on an assurance that the brand will only be enhanced and that structural inequalities are never systematically addressed. Art again functions as the most conservative form of romantic sublime, returning us to our job after a wild experience of sustainably farmed tacos. (figure 1)
Specifically what is elided in the Lab’s comforting program of non-confrontation are the racist/classist zoning policies implemented in the neighborhood and the brutalities of displacement which result. Also largely absent are the structural impediments to effective organizing confronted by local worker movements, as well as any reflections on, or opposition to, the exploitative employment structures of the project’s two sponsors.
The Lab is situated in Manhattan’s Community District 3, along a corridor on East Houston street massively upzoned by the East Village rezoning plan of 2008.1 This upzoning increased the Floor Area Ratio (FAR- the ratio of the total floor area of buildings on a certain location to the area of the land of that location) from 2nd Avenue to Avenue D, facilitating the development of luxury high-rises along the block. (figure 2). The average allowable building height on the corridor was more than doubled by the plan. At the center of this rezoning, is the “inclusionary housing” program whereby developers receive an increase in total luxury development in exchange for a small portion of “affordable” housing subsidized by tax-breaks. Affordable housing, in this deal, is calculated based on a median income for all of New York City whereas the actual median income of the Lower East Side and Chinatown is approximately 60% lower. As a result, this housing is not affordable to most local residents and the long-term program of displacement will be achieved. This inclusionary housing is not mandatory so it is up to the developer whether or not even this little bit of not-affordable housing gets built at all.
The 2008 East Village rezoning plan protected the predominantly white and affluent neighborhood to the north of Houston Street from high-rise development by preserving current zoning. The plan even down-zoned in some areas (figures 3 and 4). The area to the south, home to a population that is largely Hispanic and Chinese and with significantly lower median income was not covered by the plan and left open to development. This is part of a long, proud tradition of leaving poor, working class, and ethnically diverse neighborhoods with zoning that allows for extensive new development when luxury desires new territory. Whether we call this zoning plan racist class warfare or just acknowledge that it builds on rich traditions of racism and classism in urban policy is sort of beside the point.
The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side is an umbrella group which has come forward in opposition to the East Village rezoning plan and in support of the preservation of real affordable housing in the neighborhood2. They have developed a program for rezoning the rest of Community District 3 which includes affordable housing calculated to include a range of neighborhood incomes, 100% affordable housing for development on all NYCHA and city owned property, special permits for chain stores with 11 or more branches, the certification of no-harassment for any renovation or demolition of a building and other provisions. We must ask why the Lab has chosen not to engage representatives from any of the groups that form this coalition or to make the study of their materials a prerequisite for Lab discussions of displacement issues.
The lab did apparently screen an interview with Tom Angotti, from the Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development, as part of a pastiche of interviews and “kickstarter” footage on zoning issues related to a documentary on the rezoning of downtown Brooklyn. Angotti is one of the most astute critics of the city’s zoning policies and has worked on the coalition plan for Community District 3. This was a fragment of video within a weekend of events called the “NYC Leftover Bailout.” It is instructive to read the first sentences of the Lab’s description of this event: “The NY Leftover Bailout is a weekend-long program looking at how vibrant, diverse communities are created and maintained despite gentrification processes.” The “gentrification processes” are irrevocable, biological necessities and the “despite” celebrated as the preservation of fun authentic diversity to be found withstanding the irrevocable course of capitalism. In fact there are other forms of resistance, neglected by the Lab’s programming, in excess of this defeatist imaginary.
The program for the weekend was closed by remarks from a representative of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) a community group that advocates for affordable housing while making fewer and much less comprehensive demands than the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The group has not signed on to the Coalition Plan and gets much play in the New York Times’ coverage of the issue. That some fraction of the Lab’s programming on displacement issues was decent and can be described as “oppositional,” serves only to obscure the fact that the main voices of opposition are omitted from the dialog and the non-debate pre-decided in favor of real estate interests.
If the Lab’s treatment of displacement and gentrification can be considered a comforting non-confrontation with the brutalities of development, then their treatment of labor issues must be considered a frictionless eye-fuck of corporate employment practices.
Glaringly absent from the lab is any address of current workplace organizing efforts in the neighborhood. Worker-based groups such as National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association have organized in the neighborhood for decades with much of their membership coming from service industries- the providers of much of the comfort that the lab claims to be so anxious to confront. Some of the struggles faced in building reasonable working conditions in the neighborhood (and in the country at large) include the use of the Employer Sanctions law to fire, intimidate and divide workers based on immigration status- essentially the creation of an easily intimidated slave/sustenance- labor class ready to hand for employers in many industries. Compounding this is the ease with which abusive employers, even when fines are leveled against them, are able to hide assets and avoid paying even the legally required recompense.
An interesting public conversation could be had about the differing conditions in which workers are able to address grievances and find alternative forms for organizing. What could be learned from the current efforts to resist BMW’s attempt to fire most all their unionized workers in Toronto and replace them with a nonunion expendable workforce contracted through a third party?3 In 2006 workers at the BMW plant in South Carolina won a large class action lawsuit for nonpayment of wages, however, none of these people were invited to present at the Lab4. Similarly, none of the workers from BMW’s sweatshop subsidiary in China, Tyco Electronics (in which a workforce of mostly women works under a virtually all-male management team) contributed any of the Lab programming.5 BMW may not be particularly better or worse than any large manufacturing corporation at the moment but given its sponsorship of the project it is incumbent upon the organizers of the Lab to directly confront its abuses if they aspire to move beyond the oppressions of comfort.
The fact that BMW has been a beneficiary of the decline of the American labor movement and the viciously anti-worker legislation of “right-to-work” states, opening a massive non-union plant in South Carolina, does not seem to be up for consideration in Lab programming. Neither do the widespread accusations that the Guggenheim has sought to mobilize a highly exploited workforce in construction of their architectural branding mess in Abu Dhabi. 6 Rather than interrogate the labor policies that are the preconditions for the Lab’s existence, they screen the film The Take, (an excellent film incidentally) about worker control in Argentina. There are also plans to tour a local, worker-controlled, “green worker collective” (also a great project). Other geographies and micro-local movements are preferred over confrontation with systematic brutalities that are too close for comfort.
The Lab’s propaganda posits the primary conflict of the urban environment as one between “consumerist comfort” and the drive to social and environmental sustainability. According to the Lab website, “empowerment as social individuals,” is made possible through a revision of our notions of comfort: “How can we find a balance between notions of modern comfort and the urgent need for environmentally responsible solutions that empower us as social individuals? If we were to achieve such balance through creative solutions, how would our understanding of comfort change?”
Within this framing, progressive change comes not from organizing and mobilizing resistance, building solidarities and lobbying for policy change, but from creatively revising the individual and collective notion of comfort. We must ask the obvious question: who is this silly fantasy of transformation catering to? Is not revision of ones notion of comfort only possible when the experience of comfort is socially and economically provided for? According to this logic, it is not zoning policy that needs changing, rather, change happens when real-estate developers become more comfortable with lower-income housing mixed in with their luxury residential, like mixed greens with grass-fed steak. It is not workplace organizing that needs to happen, instead, bosses and shareholders need to revise their thinking to become more comfortable with less exploitation. Agency is allied with comfort and increases as we climb the social-economic ladder. All power to the comfortable! (figure 5)
The curators and advisory committee of the BMW Guggenheim Lab are squandering a massive opportunity for collaboration that would risk moving beyond comfort. They doubtless have connections with Community Board 3. They also have a serious advertising budget. They could be facilitating both public and private meetings between the community board members, members of the Coalition to protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side and local residents. They could be helping to create the public discourse on zoning policy needed to get a new zoning plan passed for the lower east side and Chinatown. They could hold public debates about the relationship between cultural production and corporate advertising as well as channeling, to whatever extent possible, the corporate advertising dollars spent on the project into actions for reform of labor policy.
Lab curators have a great opportunity to publicly acknowledge their role as corporate advertising personnel, and to drop the poorly imagined pretense that the Lab can act as an innovative community center. 7 Alternately, a much more engaging discussion could be had as to why the Lab will never be a community center, not in the sense of that term as it has been built and contested by groups working in the neighborhood for decades. Going forward the curators could frame every event at the Lab as an opportunity to interrogate corporate sponsorship, demand BMW improve labor policy, lobby for an end to Employer Sanctions Law and the protection of affordable housing in the neighborhood. Even if they fail to do so, there will be other opportunities; as the Lab travels from city to city, the ways and means of doing this will vary widely, but by learning from the total failure of the New York Lab they can perhaps strive to cause discomfort elsewhere and, if they are lucky and diligent, get themselves fired in the process.
Currently the Lab is artistically respectable, relatively entertaining, and designed to work its violence unnoticed, through lethal non-confrontation. Criticism of the Lab is difficult in that much of the art they show is excellent and many of the speakers they engage are brilliant and tackle crucial issues. The writing presented on the Lab’s site is remarkably hard to argue with, being a terrifying allegiance of the favorite catchwords of corporate marketing with clichés of expanded art-practice: “globalism”, “innovation”, “sustainability”, “interactivity,” “community”, etc. To read the propaganda statements of the Lab is to be battered with a kind of corporate deconstruction in which a consciousness of meaning as always differed and different is replaced by the reminder that meaning is always rendered innocuous and noncommittal by power that wants only to perpetuate itself. Aligning itself as it does to a set of incontrovertible liberal values, the project displaces any criticism of itself onto those values – a smart if somewhat boring tactical head-fake. In this regard, the appeal to “sustainability” in the Lab’s propaganda, made as it is on the part of the art/advertising branch of a major automotive corporation, is worth considering. Specifically, use of the term should be considered an obfuscation of the fact that human industry has caused the sixth major mass-extinction in the planet’s history as well as irreversible climate change. The issue is no longer one of “sustainability” but of coping and survival and, most of all, a widespread experience of death. Strangely, death is shortchanged in most corporate art public relations campaigns. In attacking the Lab’s elision of displacement and labor issues we might deliberately or unconsciously belittle some of the environmental issues it does address and we should be clear that H.E.N.S. supports sustainably farmed tacos. They are delicious, offer a horribly inadequate salve for the ecological brutalities essential to current modes of production and help to make mass-extinction more palatable. However, it should be clear that “sustainability” achieved through “a confrontation with comfort” in this context amounts to little more than willful ecological ignorance coupled with the refusal to confront economic power.
1 For a critical review of the East Village Rezoning plan and presentation of a counter-plan, see the website of the Coalition to protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side (www.protectchinatownandles.org). For a critique of the environmental impact study done for the rezoning plan, see the Analysis of Draft Environmental Impact Statement East Village/Lower East Side Rezoning prepared by the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. (http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/ccpd/publications )
2 Groups in the coalition include: Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, Chatham Green, Chatham Towers, Chinatown Small Business Alliance, Chinese Voters Alliance Corp, Chinese Staff & Workers Association, Guangdong Alumni Association, Lin Ze Xu Foundation, National Mobilization against Sweatshops, Project Reach, Seward Park Shareholders Coalition, and Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development amongst others.
3 See “BMW layoffs exemplify the evisceration of the middle class,” Michael Hiltzik. Los Angeles Times. July 03, 2011 for a good story on the planned layoffs. (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/03/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20110703)
4 See “BMW to Pay Back Wages to Some Workers.” Spartansburg Herald. August 2nd, 2006. Alexander Morrison. (http://www.goupstate.com/article/20060802/NEWS/608010366)
5 See “Tragedies of Globalization. The Truth Behind Electronics Sweatshops.” China Labor Watch. 2011. (http://www.chinalaborwatch.org/pro/proshow-149.html)
6 See the statement by Human Rights Watch supporting the artist boycott of the museum for labor violations in Abu Dhabi ( http://www.hrw.org/node/97397 ) and the organizations report on labor conditions on Saadiyat island where the Guggenheim branch is being constructed (http://www.hrw.org/node/83111).
7 Come on… I mean you guys are young and super hot. You have so many four-oclock shadows, those come-hither former squatter eyes, that slightly stooped earnest way of smiling at the camera, really cool glasses, lots of cheap education, socialized medicine and humanitarian glow. If any of you are free after an urbanology workshop some evening and wanna just hang and maybe grab a drink or a glocal bite, we know plenty of impoverished freelance cultural workers who could make time for some immaterial labor. (some of us have nice illegal live spaces and roommates who stay out late…)