Housing Works

Andreas Petrossiants on “After the Plaster Foundation, or, ‘Where can we live?’” at the Queens Museum

Betty Yu, Speculating Flushing, 2020, housing ads, dimensions variable.

A LARGE CHUNK of the Queens Museum is taken up by its most famous attraction: the permanently installed and periodically updated to-scale Panorama of the City of New York built for the World’s Fair in 1964. Commissioned by Robert Moses, the urban planner instrumental in engineering a postwar city that catered to an exclusionary class of day-tripping managers as a growing undercommons transitioned to a service or underground economy, its proximity to a current exhibition on housing injustice and urban planning, “After the Plaster Foundation, or, ‘Where can we live?,’” makes for a rich historical and discursive combination. The miniature city’s production also roughly coincides with the timeline of the new exhibition, which begins with Jack Smith’s eviction from his SoHo loft (he called it the Plaster Foundation), undoing some of the mythologies about the free and easy lives of bohemian artists in the ’60s.

While mostly contemporary, many works by the dozen artists and groups featured in “Where can we live?” allude to a long postwar history of land use in New York and the way the politics of space relate to the so-called art world. Vitrined ephemera from a Smith film invokes the experimental, junk, protoqueer milieu of the Lower East Side. Simon Leung’s three-channel video installation POE, 2007/2010/2020, includes dances by Yvonne Rainer—in front of the façade of Edgar Allan Poe’s Greenwich Village apartment that was swallowed up in 2001 by an expansionist NYU. In what art historian Jenny Lin calls a “body-versus-architecture dance,” Rainer stretches what seems like a tape measure and surveys the land through hands right-angled into frames, as though miming a hungry real estate speculator. Even if unintentional in the work’s conception, in this show Rainer’s presence alludes to early-’60s downtown art scenes, like Fluxus, that repurposed vacant warehouses in lower Manhattan into living, working, and performance spaces.

View of Simon Leung’s POE, 2007/2010/2020, channel one of three-channel HD video installations, dimensions variable. All photos, unless noted: Hai Zhang.

In efforts to bridge protest and “critique” or dematerialization and deindustrialization, curators and critics tend to privilege 1968 as a go-to marker in postwar art history. But another sociopolitical rupture is arguably more germane to this exhibition: New York’s 1975 fiscal crisis, when austerity and privatization stamped out the remaining embers of New Deal idealism. (The breakdown of the city’s budget garnered international attention; even the mayor of Moscow chimed in to say he wouldn’t want to helm the dying city). Amid the ongoing pandemic, as in the mid-’70s, the spectacle of municipal collapse continues to trade on classist, racist discussions of which workers are “essential.” In 1975, per Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (2017), “the press kept demanding answers to the question of what ‘essential services’ the federal government would cover if the city declared bankruptcy.” Among forced cuts catering to President Ford and Donald Rumsfeld’s dictums, public schooling was not considered essential, for one example. Today, in a more obviously necropolitical era, essentialness indicates those workers whose lives, as well as livelihoods, the city is willing to sacrifice.

Can art adequately reckon with the politics of displacement when its very institutions remain integral to cities’ gentrification processes?

Phillips-Fein’s book tracks how over the course of just a few years—during what we could call a financial capital strike—a city with an expansive public hospital system, free university for all, labor protections, and strong unions fell to the whims of a burgeoning technocracy. A new understanding of municipal planning emerged: “A corporate and financial elite, along with technocratic politicians … could be counted on to prioritize the interests of business and the wealthy; indeed, they often regard that as the only way to help the city.” Since then, as urban blight became synonymous with “overspending,” and as neoliberal ideology was put forth as the only way forward, gentrification became the standard model of urban planning and for raising municipal funds.

Peter Scott, “Arcadias” (detail), 2020, nine photographs printed on translucent vinyl, each approximately 60 × 105".

Making this connection between the two eras more explicit, the Queens Museum hosted a conversation with Mierle Laderman Ukeles on November 12, halfway through the exhibition’s run. Artist in residence at the New York City Sanitation Department for over forty years, her “maintenance art,” conceived in the midst of the fiscal crisis, offered a dual critique of the gendered and racialized structures of municipal labor and the social reproduction of capitalism. In 1979, for Touch Sanitation, she shook the hands of every New York sanitation worker, telling them, “Thank you for keeping the city alive.” During the pandemic, MTA ad screens, Times Square billboards, and the Queens Museum façade have displayed a new work by Mierle—this time, socially distanced—thanking each “service worker” in a brief handwritten letter. In Ukeles’s 1969 Maintenance Art Manifesto, in addition to brilliantly equating reproductive labor with art, she also proposed an exhibition for which the museum would become a waste and recycling plant—from institutional critique to “infrastructural critique,” to use Marina Vishmidt’s term. In many ways, Covid has forced institutions, cultural and otherwise, to think infrastructurally in the ways Ukeles presaged—in June, the QM, finding itself in the epicenter of the epicenter, started to host a food pantry.

To get to the Queens Museum by public transit, you’ll eventually have to catch the 7 train. On one end, the line stretches from Hudson Yards, built with over 4.5 billion dollars, including money taken from working people through a corrupt tax system that was destined for impoverished areas. Infamously, per a CityLab report, this surveillance sinkhole and steel-frame dumpster fire was built with “Harlem’s lunch.” Eastward, the line extends through virtually all of Queens: Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona, Flushing, and onwards—contested territories eyed by developers for decades. Among recent battles against planned displacement in Queens, communities fought off Amazon when the city offered them billions in tax cuts. A new battle is afoot in Sunnyside, where the corporate nonprofit Economic Development Corporation is trying to approve a massive luxury development scheme seven times bigger than Hudson Yards. In Flushing, tenants and community organizations are fighting against proposed redevelopment.

Panorama of the City of New York. Photo: Queens Museum.

If you walk by the façade of the Queens Museum today, you’ll see artworks masquerading as the luxury advertising ubiquitous to city life. In one, a tacky nouveau-riches chandelier foregrounds a glittering Manhattan skyline; in another, a carefully manicured public park is pictured as if it could be the prospective tenant’s private garden. Even after many of these luxury apartments are built, they often remain empty, unhaunted but ghostly nonetheless. In 2017, there were three times as many vacant apartments in New York than unhoused people. Some remain empty because they are investment properties, others because the developers can’t sell them; unlike genuinely affordable housing, there is no need for them. However, in these photographs, which belong to the 2018 “Arcadias” series by Peter Scott—the artist behind Chinatown’s Carriage Trade, which puts on consistently thought-provoking shows about urbanism—the frame is expanded to include surrounding elements that disturb the picture-perfect shot. The chandelier kitchen is flattened in front of a young garden; the public park sits atop green plywood, inaccessible as most new parks are to residents that have been displaced by green gentrification. Inside the museum, he’s contributed other pictures that instead capture the graffiti common to these ads. “NO ONE CAN AFFORD THIS, Go Away.” “Fuck you.” Both groups of photographs recycle the imagistic detritus of development. On the other side of the museum, Jennifer Bolande’s voyeuristic Globe Sightings, 2000, features windows around the city with globes on their sills, a playful archiving parameter that reveals unexpected information about the sites. For example, the distances from which the photos are taken demonstrate the different levels of public accessibility to buildings—which areas are fenced off, and thus policed even more forcefully than what is ostensibly public space.

Left: Jennifer Bolande, Globe Sightings: West 37th Street, NYC, 2000, C-print, 25 × 29.5“. Right: Jennifer Bolande, Globe Sightings: Ste. Catherine Street, Montreal, 2000, C-print, 32.5 × 38.625” Photo: Hai Zhang.

Located between the panorama and the exhibition’s main gallery is Ilana Harris-Babou’s Fine Lines, 2020, a bathroom-vanity-cum-video-installation that lampoons the artist as a producer of creative capital by marketing beauty products made of solicitations by real estate companies. Following a developer playbook that sees artists as producers of “immaterial” content that can be extracted and transformed into (land) value, planners, developers, and art institutions use tactics like free studio space for “local” artists, grants, and commissions to artwash their dispossession. Even if well-intentioned, such projects often only serve real estate capital. As artist and Take Back the Bronx member Shellyne Rodriguez puts it, “artists have this lingering stench that follows us around . . . It’s a Trojan horse tactic. You place art events in the middle of the community and then this shit starts to happen.” Artists are both gentrifiers and gentrified, often simultaneously. For these reasons, the questions Rodriguez poses in her 2018 essay “How the Bronx was Branded” remain crucial: “How would an artistic practice that aims to disrupt alienation appear in our hallways, elevators, and all the spaces we share in our communities? What if these considerations were practiced outside of the art world, without foundation grants or institutional support as just an act toward freedom? Rather than only thinking about the aesthetic qualities of space, artists can aim to topple the neoliberal scaffold that holds capitalism steady above us, like a firmament.”

Somewhat regrettably, only one work in the exhibition explicitly deals with contemporary housing organizing. Perhaps the most materially relevant elements in the physical exhibition are the references to ongoing housing struggles in Betty Yu’s Resistance in Progress, 2020, a series of short documentaries about organizers in Flushing and a bulletin board covered in flyers. Given that art institutions are already imbricated in the injustices of land use, the inclusion of information about local struggles and community activists lends pedagogical power to the show through contradiction, and also creates connections to the analyses of displacement undertaken in other works through aesthetic, psychogeographical, and personal lenses.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, For ⟶ forever..., 2020, vinyl on the Queens Museum facade facing Grand Central Parkway, 24.3 x 195'. © Mierle Laderman Ukeles.

Originally scheduled to open this April, “Where can we live?” was pushed back due to Covid, and its didactic materials migrated online. The show’s organizers—head curator Larissa Harris, Sophia Marisa Lucas, Lindsey Berfond, and Andrea Escobedo—produced a stellar online publication, to which each artist contributed materials with which to study housing, gentrification, settler-colonialism, and land use. Among their entries are excerpts from books such as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2019 Race for Profit (chosen by Harris-Babou); a clip from a Jacques Tati film accompanied by viral footage of tech bro gentrifiers arguing with local kids in San Francisco’s Mission District (Scott); and a short checklist for how to fight gentrification by veteran New York City radical urban planning scholar Tom Angotti (Caroline Woolard). Even if not all the works explicitly refer to displacement, the textual elements comprise a powerful bibliography.

Despite the breadth of the exhibition and its supplements, a blind spot is the violent histories of Indigenous displacement and genocide. Heather Hart and Shawn Maximo chose excerpts from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013) that builds from postcolonial and autonomous discourse; a 1795 text by Kant selected by Leung critiques colonialism, if in sweepingly ideal rather than material terms; and Sondra Perry excerpted Kathryn Yusoff’s 2018 A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Beyond Perry and Douglas Ross, more attention in the exhibition could have been given to the Indigenous dispossession at the core of private property in the so-called United States. This, in fact, points to the sometimes-strained relationship between housing organizing and Indigenous resistance against the settler-colonial state, wherein the former does not adequately refer to or engage with the latter. One of many recent examples of housing activists trying to remedy this disjunction—beyond the pro forma land acknowledgments adopted by many North American museums—is the Eviction Defense Handbook by Housing/Eviction Defense & Solidarity (HEDS Up!) that not only acknowledges the stolen land they occupy, but also expresses gratitude for Indigenous struggle, past and present.

In the spirit of its title, the exhibition focuses more on prompting questions than on providing answers. Can art adequately reckon with the politics of displacement when its very institutions remain integral to cities’ gentrification processes? Can artists speak with their “communities,” rather than on their behalf? There has been no lack of exhibitions surveying these fraught topics, some superficially, others with rigorous research, as in this case. Regardless, often the key problem—one endemic to an oft-critiqued though nonetheless accepted idea of aesthetics that imagines art as separate from labor, capital, politics—is that the proverbial “community” pictured or addressed in the work is missing, as absent as life is in Robert Moses’s Panorama. For this reason, the strongest parts of the exhibition remind us that artists are also tenants. That they are also workers.

Andreas Petrossiants’s work has appeared in Historical Materialism,,, The Brooklyn Rail, the Verso Blog, Blind Field, and e-flux journal, where he is associate editor.