Watching abandoned and vacant buildings, many labeled zombie properties for their in-between ownership statuses surrounding foreclosure, eerily but beautifully breathe with an otherworldly soft white glow last fall, I couldn’t help but think of a line from Marx’s Capital: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire–like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
Artist Adam Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson, along with teams of dozens, put together this spectacle that was branded Breathing Lights and distributed throughout poorer neighborhoods in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady. They received a million dollars from Bloomberg Philanthropies to do so, one of four such Public Art Challenge awards given nationally, plus another half million in cash and in-kind support from local organizations.
Coverage in the press has been almost universally positive. The project is over now, their closing summit, originally planned “on vacant homes and abandoned buildings to engage local residents, prospective buyers and investors, and policy makers,” has finally occurred. The arts website Hyperallergic described plans for this final event as sounding “a little like a gentrification strategy meeting.” The summit appears—I say appears as it cost money to attend, so I did not—to have focused more on evaluating the project, trying to quantify the impact of art on our communities: here’s how many workshops we offered, how many people came, buildings we lit, and so on. Art, however, must be assessed not just along the lines of data. Attention must be paid to context, to visual analysis, to meaning, to effect.
To begin, context. It is useful to remember that vacant housing, fallen into disrepair, is not an accidental tragedy, but the result of policies both public and private, and often explicitly racist. The bulk of the homes illuminated by Breathing Lights are in neighborhoods which were redlined—the practice by bankers of deeming areas, usually older parts of inner cities and often black neighborhoods, undesirable for lending. As an aesthetic gesture, the lit windows signaled (as they resembled beacons or lighthouses with their oscillating glow) that there is now an opportunity for investment. Where policy once sucked wealth from these areas, Breathing Lights suggested there is wealth to generate. As Bloomberg’s money derives from providing the digital infrastructure for Wall Street financiers, the connection to the forces of capital couldn’t be more direct.
These neighborhoods, if not these very houses, were ravaged by the subprime mortgage crisis, a crisis that lingers with us today and was facilitated by Bloomberg’s technologies. Bloomberg’s money shall help fix our neighborhoods, Frelin and Nelson implicitly claim. Indeed, the project borders on a data visualization for real estate investors: here are buildings that are ready, their vacancy and disrepair is no longer a blight and danger to the community, but is quite literally a beautiful opportunity.
Rather than standing on its own merits, the artwork had to be endlessly explained to the communities. With all its staff, PR team, slick videos and design, and “community ambassadors,” Breathing Lights often appeared as more of a branding project than an artwork. All this effort taken to reach out to the community, to say “no, we’re not gentrifiers,” gives away the fundamental disconnect between the project and the communities Frelin and Nelson placed it in. Further, the installation abdicated its responsibility for the impact of its gesture by buying indulgences through a series of re-grants.
These auxiliary projects in the community, and their funding, should be taken as evidence of the artwork’s failure to do meaningful community work itself. While many of these partner organizations and artists do excellent work, and the re-granted funds that supported them, their workshops, and their projects are commendable, to tie these in as constituent of the artwork is a stretch at best, preposterous at worst. They read as an afterthought to the lights. In a happy coincidence for the artists and their PR team, these grants and partnerships captured organizations and public figures that might have otherwise been critical as collaborators, rather than opponents. This reconfigured relationship camouflages power dynamics, resembling moves that politicians and businesses often make in order to co-opt and silence their opposition.
Any suggestion that the project did not encourage tourism and gawking in poor neighborhoods is undermined by opening celebrations which quite literally toured gallery-goers on buses to see the houses glow. There may be an argument that poverty tourism has merit in education and awareness raising, but a spade is a spade. Those living in the shadows of vacant houses are already aware of the distressed and overlooked aspects of their neighborhoods.
While the infusion of funds and conversation generated around vacant housing may be a net positive (grants secured for land banks certainly are), it must be stated that such ancillary programs could have been executed without the visual spectacle and its slick branding—they bear no relation other than their subject matter (and brand). This begs the question: what would an artist who engages in a more inclusive social practice have produced? Chicago artist Theaster Gates provides one model with his Public Art Challenge project, ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen. Gates and his collaborators in Gary, Ind., transformed an underutilized restaurant into a community space complete with permanent public art installations and space for performances that serves as community center, business incubator and job training site.
Rather than such robust community engagement, community outreach was grafted on. Indeed, the Times Union, reporting on the closing summit, quoted Frelin saying that if he could’ve done things differently he would have involved the community “from the very beginning.” Breathing Lights, grafted onto the skeletons of houses in neighborhoods turned to skeletons by finance, rehabilitated the forces of finance and gentrification rather than the buildings. For people interested in actually rehabilitating a home, there were workshops for that—run by partner organizations who already offer such services, with the Breathing Lights (and Bloomberg) logo added. Yet such rehabs are out of reach for many in these neighborhoods, given the costs and the extreme disrepair of many of the highlighted homes, some marked with X’s indicating their instability.
I can’t help but think of how breath is politicized—and racialized. Residents of Albany’s South End suffer from lower air quality because of commerce flowing through the port and the highway. Residents of Arbor Hill suffer from police brutality. Capital gave breath to these houses, but takes it away from their residents.
So the “breathing” of these properties did not conjure the gentle glow of family homes restored to activity, healthy communities, but the cold light brought to mind vampires continuing to suck and suck from the afterlife of these once prosperous communities, as they once sucked the life out of them. This new breath shouts to developers, “I’m here!” The slow glow, darkness, glow is reminiscent of the business cycle: these properties which once hummed with life and have sat silent, now buzz again with the electronic life of cash flowing through a Bloomberg Terminal! They’re ready for the taking, for urban homesteading, for gentrification 2.0 wrapped in the language of creative place-making and the worst trends in contemporary public art. With the lights once again out, and the conversation on public art in the Capital District taking important steps forward, we must be mindful to make art that serves our communities rather than the quantifiable interests of bankers.
Matthew Clinton Sekellick is an artist and writer living in Troy.