As with other works invested in the social and political spheres of culture, Los Outsiders’ person/place/thing defines its agenda as temporary and geopolitically specific. Beyond the borders of Austin, this show would appear trivial if not outright meaningless. However, this type of specificity is where the very weight of this exhibition rests. The project’s entire fabric is stitched into the larger weavings that compose the broad quilt of Austin—a quilt that is slowly being re-stitched by the machine of a neoliberal economy. In a retaliatory gesture, person/place/thing attempts to remind its viewers of this gentrification by putting a face on it.
Person/place/thing is not alone in this reconciliation of the fading mom-and-pop corner grocery story and the given ground to the trendy fusion restaurant or luxury condo. The Austin Chronicle spends considerable ink on this issue, and it is a common conversation buzzing around the city and appearing in social media feeds with the before and after photographs documenting the changing Austin skyline. It is the issue in Austin right now, spurning both resistance and celebration as one side says, “don’t move here” while the other does. As for this latter group, I recently spoke with one of them. He made it clear that it was never his intention to move here, although he was excited to do so after hearing so many good things about the city. Instead, his corporate office had simply relocated to Austin, and he was ordered to follow. I am sure this is not an isolated incident. In fact, I would put money down on the speculation that the vast majority of the city’s sudden boom is due to the economic opportunities afforded to corporate business models that the larger state of Texas has allowed for under the governorships of Bush, Perry, and continued by Abbott. Yet, unlike other Texas cities that were built in the light of big business and even bigger profit (such as Dallas), Austin is being turned into this much to the worry and disdain of those who say, “I remember when…” and those who are being displaced by the Frost Bank Tower’s shadow. Subsequently, Austin finds itself as being another example of the dialectical history of Capitalism and Marxism where, in the face of the bourgeois, the proletariat attempts a reactionary gesture in protest of their abuse.
Artworks concerning themselves with these types of political situations are never arrived at easily. One of the great dangers of socially conscious art is its capacity to naturalize the abhorrent situations it addresses. In doing this, the issue becomes diluted, lost, and often turned into an explanatory footnote read by the bourgeois in some gallery literature. In short, the plight of the worker becomes the entertainment of the employer. Realizing this, socially conscious art can take a variety of directions from the outright protest banner to the more subtle methods of photographers such as Tina Modotti. Person/place/thing follows the latter to again prove that Los Outsiders is a politically motivated group that has mastered the art of speaking politically without the standard vocabulary for doing so.
Person/place/thing is part of the Drawing Lines project explained as follows,
“An artist-driven, community-based public project, Drawing Lines was commissioned in response to Austin’s historic political transformation. At its core, Drawing Lines is an exploratory conversation about the dynamics of place. It’s a project about process that examines the role of contemporary culture in the transition and transformation of place. The project explores how art itself, as a process, can be part of the conversation about Austin’s newly restructured political system and embeds artists within the foundation of a rapidly changing, ever-evolving city.”
Los Outsiders worked in District One documenting and photographing the area and its residences. While this activity could lend itself to a rather straightforward presentation of the facts, Los Outsiders uses the opportunity to speak about the larger issues of gentrification and its transformational impact as it displaces culture in the wake of commercialism. Some photographs are more obvious than others. Take for example the black and white print near to front door of the gallery that depicts the intersection between Martin Luther King Blvd and Chicon Street. Beneath the two intersecting street signs looms a large stop sign as if to visualize the calls of resistance against the march of commodification that threatens to alter that very intersection itself. Or, there is the photo of the Darrell K. Royal stadium with its back toward the east and the impending construction cranes looming in the background allegorically referencing the greed of The University of Texas and its cold shoulder turned to the residences who live near it—and possibly attend it and work for it. Then there are the soon-to-be demolished ghosts like the Savage Vanguard Theater that is now condemned to live on only in documents such as this. Other photographs are subtler. In another room, there is a collection of near surrealist collages juxtaposing imagery that fragment the area they come from. Although they are the snippets of that district, and they feel like trinkets of that region, arranged as they are, they illustrate the broader violence done to culture as it is cut up and reshuffled by larger industry.
Lastly, there is the room of faces. Residences of this district smile happily as they greet the camera and us. The face that jumped out at me was Ami Davis. When I knew her, she was working at The Omelettry back when it was on Burnet. She still has the same smile she did back then when she would offer me more coffee or ask about what I was reading, and that kind of kindness and attention to customers keeps this diner at the top of my food list. Yet, as I wrote about in Air Guitars and when cellphones replaced cigarette lighters, The Omelettry became a victim of gentrification some months ago. Denied its lease renewal, the café had to up and move out its home of some 20 plus years to a strip mall on the east side of Airport Blvd. And though it leaves behind a vacant lot soon to be transformed into luxury condos, it becomes a gentrifier itself as it pulls its clientele across Airport. This is the dangerous method hidden in gentrification that echoes the same detrimental mechanisms found in proletarian artwork. One becomes gentrified only to gentrify another. And this chain continues like ripples marching out to the edge of a pond. In this way, much how the celebratory depictions of the labor classes in fact naturalized their horrific conditions of subjectivation, gentrification becomes a status quo wherein the working class executes it against itself in an unknowing manner.
Subsequently, this raises a series of questions about the overall integrity of this project. As a subversive gesture delivering criticism on the bourgeois gentrifiers of Austin, the works in the show deny the autonomy of art. These images are not luxury objects designed for commodification and meant to travel from the hip gallery wall to rest in a rich person’s home alongside other such status objects. Yet, they nonetheless walk a fine line that could be criticized based on the very fact that the cultural identity of District One was dictated by Drawing Lines, and that an area of Austin has become subjected to a classification not self-dictated, but instead, imposed by an overarching hegemonic regime. Lastly, there is the issue of monetary worth and the question of whether or not drawing attention to the gentrification of Austin in ways such as this actually cheapen the reality of this situation by reducing these persons, places, and things to low cost objects. Photography liberated the image from singularity. Yet, it also celebrated mass production and allowed for consumerism to develop as a cultural force. Thinking of this show on the grounds of its medium alone, these figures become symbolic of the very consumerist culture that is bringing about the trouble person/place/thing dedicates itself to revealing.
This is the potentially volatile terrain Los Outsiders navigates with this show. And what I appreciate about them is their willingness to invite both praise and reservations. They aren’t hiding behind the safety of preapproved aesthetics, market commodity, or social structures. Nor are the interested in even appearing as investing any interest in the ideology of luxury economy and status. Instead, with person/place/thing, they give us a collection of photographs of the very people and places that are being slowly consumed by the very trends they helped to establish. With Austin’s friendly weirdness, the city presented a world to consumerism full of things highly sellable. In short, Austin commodified the very land out from underneath itself with a complete unknowing that this was happening until it was too late. This show casts a light on the fact that you have a place and people who, by being who they are, face losing what they have. That needs to be considered. When being yourself becomes detrimental to being yourself, something’s fucked up. Thankfully, Los Outsiders reminds us of this.
Posted 24th October 2015 by Arnold, H.C.