Re: Writing History
in the Making
Re: Writing History
in the Making
James Gregory Atkinson
New York City has always fascinated me because of the coexistence of different cultures and worldviews. In the past, New York was a refuge for people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and financial circumstances―whether due to the European emigration movements in the late nineteenth century, the Great Migration of Black folx from the South, or the flight of people during World War II. On the one hand, this is the source of the huge range of experiences that coexist in New York. On the other hand, no other city is so fraught with the naïve promises of social advancement. Globalization, the threat of terrorism, deadly police brutality, COVID-19, Trump’s authoritarianism and xenophobia, as well as rampant gentrification that has almost eliminated affordable living and working space—all seem to have put an end to this massive immigration for the time being. While in the past immigrants were drawn to the city by the promise of advancement regardless of their origins, today it is mainly the members of a global elite who can respond to the lure of New York. The same developments can also be observed in the art world. In the economically diminished New York of the 1960s and 1970s, there was space for experimentation that seems unthinkable today. Meanwhile, subculture is continually siphoned off by mass culture and circulated on a global scale.
My own artistic and curatorial practice reflects my hybrid experience as a German-American, queer, Black cultural producer. I first encountered Ludlow 38 in 2015 when I was invited by my fellow graduate student and Ludlow 38 curator Vivien Trommer to produce a site-specific installation for her group exhibition The problem today is not the other but the self with the Frankfurt-based artist Helen Demisch. At that time, I was an exchange student at The Cooper Union School of Art. Taking part in the exhibition allowed me to enter a dialogue with a local institution and local art workers and thus to better understand the city and its cultural landscape. I have continuously asked myself what kinds of collaborative structures can be established by non-white artists in the hyper-capitalist reality of today’s big cities. Is it possible to counter the cliché of an artistic existence free from monetary needs by creating (physical or non-physical) spaces for collaboration that are driven by community and not market imperatives?
In 2015, the astronomical cost of living made it almost impossible for young artists in New York to create such spaces. Many of them were forced to either shift their priorities or leave the city entirely. Almost all of the artists I met at that time—who were not financially supported by their families’ trust funds (there are a lot more of those than you’d think)—had to keep afloat with various full- and part-time jobs or with other side hustles, including sex work and DJing.
Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement, which had been initiated in 2013, gained international media attention. Politicians were repeatedly challenged by voters to take action against deadly police brutality against African Americans including Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, among others, and to create long-overdue structural change. In New York, people took to the streets and demanded social justice in demonstrations, campaigns, and rallies.
Drawing from a personal history of displacement, for me, this felt both foreign and close to home. I was born the son of a Black US soldier stationed in Germany and a white German mother, three decades after the end of World War II. In a sense, my cultural legacy is the Black Liberation Movement and the history of Nazi Germany—two contrasting and seemingly irreconcilable legacies. Interestingly though, Germany has emerged as a critical reference point in African American demands for an end to segregation and for equality. My own biography is rooted in a very important dimension of US foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century and in the involvement of African Americans in these oversea initiatives. My experience helped me understand the connections between the so-called old and new worlds, and the lasting consequences of colonialism and white domination. Institutional racism and police brutality in the US are a legacy of the enslavement and genocide of African Americans. Abroad, this is often perceived as a US problem, but it is important to recognize and understand the pervasiveness of white supremacy in Europe past and present as well. This extends to the art world, as it is built on the same oppressive structures as everything else.
“Beginning in 1967, German student radicals started reaching out to African American GIs serving in Germany, hoping that an alliance with Black Panther GIs could forge anti-imperialist solidarity against US militarism and racism in both Germany and abroad. (…) The visibility that African Americans received through this campaign also reintroduced ‘race’ as a critical category into West German public discourse.”1 In the early 1970s, when Angela Davis linked the end of racism to the end of capitalist society, the European Left deposited its hope for a “good America” and a better world in the American Civil Rights Movement. Years earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Nuremberg Trials (1945-1946) and the Auschwitz Trials (1963-1965) had received attention among African Americans. Initiated or supported by the United States, they became models for the way in which African Americans could demand justice.
Art production has always been linked to its historical context. But race and class are now, perhaps more than ever, its determining factors. Many galleries in the Lower East Side pay monthly rents in the five-digit range. According to a 2017 study by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, 40 percent of the artists surveyed said that they could not afford their materials. Furthermore, 90 percent said that having access to affordable housing and studio space was important to them.2 When a subsidized residential building of 89 units opened for artists in East Harlem in 2018, over 53,000 applications were received.3 This is a clear sign that creative production and discourse are still in the hands of an elite―the same one that built the white cube on white supremacy and cemented it in social inequality. The public health crisis created by racism and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified this dynamic.
After generations of institutional neglect of African American artists, tokenism is currently trendy in the art world. But the actual participation of Black cultural producers and their representation in art institutions and collections is still marginal. Rather than contributing to real structural change in the wake of social movements, many of these institutions trade in empty discourse and outward appearances. As the artist, curator, and art dealer KJ Freeman notes, “[what] we’re seeing now is what we saw during the AIDS crisis; it’s what we saw during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War”—art and activism produced by minorities become an asset of the super rich. Freeman, referring to the $1.5 million sale of an artwork by David Wojnarowicz in 2018, notes that it is “not radical inclusion to sell a work by Wojnarowicz for a record price. That’s just capitalism. When you can control the value of that moment in history, it’s a form of power.”4
Cultural institutions have a moral responsibility to build a strong foundation for the safety, freedom of expression, and cultural visibility of minorities, and to challenge the often white, capitalist, and heteronormative cultural landscape in which they operate. Taking this responsibility seriously is important because these institutions are often lacking diversity in terms of class, race, and gender.
In addition, local structures should counteract the so-called trends set by large institutions, event/biennial culture, and the art world’s jetset lifestyle. I’m talking about structures that give cultural producers more power, freedom, and opportunities to actively participate in their own production, historiography, and canon formation outside of cultural-industrial legitimization; structures that react to the radical incompleteness and exclusion of the “official” archives in history and culture and help us create alternative institutions, associations, groups, and ways to gather. In my work, I focus on the creation of alternative archives by queer and non-white artists who often work on the fringes of the mainstream. I reconnect with missing and often incomplete histories and edit, modify, and bring them back to the present through my practice. What might an archive that exists as an open, collective system of circulating, shareable artifacts and media look like?
Founded on the idea of bringing art closer to the people, the Kunstverein Glossary Kunstverein: was brought to life by 19th-century German bourgeoisie. It was a pioneering effort towards a more local and democratic cultural sector. Ludlow 38, albeit in a different place and moment in time, had a similar potential: it was one of the few spaces in New York that remained close to the artists and did not have to submit to the untamed capitalist market. In 2018, I had a New York studio grant from the Cultural Foundation of Hesse and was able to rekindle and deepen my relationship with the space. As a gallery assistant to Avi Feldman and Franziska Sophie Wildförster, I was given the opportunity to actively help shape that unique place, working with them on groundbreaking exhibitions and events such as Devin Kenny’s revenge body politics or Cruising Pavilion, New York. These projects opened up new perspectives on social progress and artistic engagement for me. The programming at Ludlow 38 always focused on ideas rather than sales or visitor numbers. At the same time, the residency program was only able to secure its existence through a partnership with the BMW Group; while the art market was circumvented, capitalist philanthropy was a supporting structure. When this partnership ended, the Goethe-Institut decided to discontinue the program, as it no longer aligned with their newest vision of transatlantic cultural diplomacy. After 11 years in the Lower East Side, Ludlow 38 leaves a gap in the cultural fabric of New York. This space founded and run by a German organization showed New Yorkers that there are still ways to make and show experimental art outside of profit structures. Government funding for the arts is essential in the age of capitalism.
Ludlow 38’s closing means the loss of one more space in which artists and independent cultural producers were at home. It brings to mind artist-activist Martha Rosler poignant decades-long exploration of housing and homelessness in New York City, If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!!. Is that New York’s message to young artists today, or is it time for real structural change?
- Höhn, Maria. “The Black Panther Solidarity Committees and the Voice of the Lumpen.” German Studies Review, vol. 31, no. 1, 2008, pp. 133
- Create NYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers. Released by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs July 19, 2017, createnyc.cityofnewyork.us/the-cultural-plan/main/
- The Creative Economy: Art, Culture and Creativity in New York City. Published by the NYC Comptroller October 25, 2019, comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/the-creative-economy/
- Margaret Carrtigan. “How the art industry is grappling with its systemic race inequality.” The Art Newspaper, July 10, 2020, www.theartnewspaper.com/news/art-industry-systemic-racial-inequality