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NOTES ON LA: HOMELESSNESS IS A EUPHEMISM

Worlds of Homelessness, the LA Poverty Department, Philipp Guston at Hauser & Wirth, Skin Stealers group show at Nicodim, Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985 at MOCA Grand Avenue & Francis Fukuyama at the Thomas Mann House

 

The first temptation experienced upon landing at LAX, waiting to be picked up to get to the city, surrounded by a mass stuck on their smartphones, is to ask an Uber driver about labor conditions of the app market. The driver is from El Salvador, and came here as a missionary, studied interior design, and works for Uber, making sometimes only 100 dollars for a 12 hour long driving day. Of course part of what he earns goes towards his student debt. The other driver that picked us up tells us about his anger at the art market after visiting The Broad and how he can only see it as a horrible portrait of the art market— a bubble inflated by a generation of artists compromising with what galleries dictate (like Jeff Koons, Mark Bradford, Shirin Neshat, etc). Our next driver is a Political Science student who has a strong opinion about what should happen in order to have a less polluted, warming world— less cars working on gas, better batteries, no plastic. Everything that countries like the USA seem to run on.

"How can you call this place a city, if you barely see humans interacting on the streets?" Alina asks while we have a stroll through the empty downtown Broadway. This question summarizes a few truths surrounding Los Angeles and its social and economic inequalities. We spent half of our mornings on our commutes due to the Getty Fire. The air smells of smoke, and we see endless rows of people sitting alone in their cars, running from A to B, arriving late to appointments. We wonder during our time in traffic, why on earth everyone wants to come here. L.A. is a place where fallen angels, with their spread arms, lie high on every corner, every bridge, on hot asphalt.

If this is a city, its citizens are in its majority, “homeless”.

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Santa Monica State Beach

Worlds of Homelessness, Skid Row, LA

Streets are an extension of a home. Community is an extension of a home. A home provides privacy— we all need one.

It is inhumane to not be able to be alone. The streets don’t belong to everybody, but that public space is not a safe place.

What we understand— and mainly— misunderstand, about the euphemism “homelessness” was a large part of the discussions during the series of encounters which make up the project Worlds of Homelessness’, initiated by Lien Heidenreich-Seleme, Director of the Goethe Institut L.A., who invited us— the editors of Arts of the Working Class—  to this summit.

“Homelessness is only a paycheck away” recited Crushow Herring at the opening day of Worlds of Homelessness, at the LA Poverty Department (LAPD) in Downtown L.A. This is a popular quote, and Crushow a popular man on Skid Row, a “high tolerance” zone occupied by tents of around 15,000 people living on the streets. The Skid Row History Museum and Archive, run by John Malpede and Henriette Brouwers, is the place where culture can be discussed, where art turns into a source and tool for change, for the ones without shelter. Without Shelter is also the name of an initiative started by Crushow and Orion to engage with the people on Skid Row who have not been employed for decades, giving them new ways of finding direct financial resources. Arts of the Working Class is compatible with the initiative. We talked with Crushow and Orion about the ways to collaborate from the very first moment we encountered them at their table on the street just outside of LAPD, where they were selling some of their products.

Crushow promised us a tour through Skid Row to see his murals there. We stopped for a lemonade at Kevin’s diner, who organizes dinners for the community on holidays, while Adrian told us about how people living in Skid Row are categorized; the druggies, the dealers, the mentally ill, and the recovering. “You gotta know who you are dealing with”, he says kindly. We walk through the neighborhood and are introduced to many. Both guys seem well connected in the community. We meet Ben, who explains to us how the sanitary facilities work— bathroom, showers, laundry machines—  for the entire neighborhood.

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Skid Row Street view

In LA there is are approximately 60.000 individuals currently experiencing homelessness, and this project— between a symposium and a festival— offered interdisciplinary engagement with the issue, bridging the gaps between wealth and poverty, participation and solitude, inequality, racism, gentrification and migration into something that should be discussed actively and much more openly. We were lucky to attend places that gave space for these conversations: the renowned and independent architecture school SCI-Arc, the Institute of Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin and Navelm, a collectively driven cultural organization, and the LA Poverty Department.

John Malpede, who came from New York in the 1980s as a performance artist and stayed to found the LAPD as a non-profit organization engaging with the growing homeless community through culture and multidisciplinary artworks. He and his partner Brouwers, a performer herself, are recipients of the Santa Monica Artist’s Fellowship that keeps their work going, along with donations from other anonymous artists and other organizations like the Andy Warhol Foundation. “It is hard to receive any money,” Malpede said, when Maria mentioned that their work must be seen as indispensable at the city hall. Their engagement resembles a passionate drive for the wellbeing of others, just like the ones all the other speakers the Goethe Institut LA invited to join Worlds of Homelessness. Amongst them are fashion designer and ballet dancer Radames Eger who invented a piece of garment that can unfold into a tent. His driving force of designing fashion is to design for individuals who need it most, by which he challenges the idea of beauty and class. Or Licko Turle, who created a rehearsal through the lack of a common language, a stage to understand the logics of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. Or Fabian Debora, who told his story about a life full of cruelty, drugs, and what converted him into an instructor for community artists and students throughout the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, with Somos LA Arte, a creative workshop for everyone. 

A whole day of conversations is dedicated to Architecture. When it comes to the question about how architects can change the route in which money is being accumulated by real estate, the answer stays in the air. We learn that when a moderation accidentally turns into self-advertisement by Carlos Zedillo, the important voices from community based projects like the ones leaded by Anne Graupner and Thorsten Deckler in Johannesburg, or Ana Elvira Vélez’s successfully created collective housing project in Medellin can come up relatively short next to the neoliberal ideas of ‘mixing’ the interests of the wealthy and the needs of the poor in the projects that Michael Matzan and Alexander Hagner presented at SCI-Arc. They call it a misconception: that city planning and architecture are not there to provide solutions to end homelessness. We are glad that even if some are still lost in the idea of the designer as the hero of quality thinking, the projects of Gaupenraub and the Skid Row Charette remain to oppose that which house-less people need: a community driven process, a bottom up development in conjunction of what the students at schools of design and architecture have the privilege to gain in order to produce an aesthetically pleasant environment.

Homelessness is approached differently in various disciplines and among different countries. Like Cristina Cielo from the University of Quito reminded, there is no such thing as ‘the poor’ in countries like Bolivia or Ecuador. They call themselves ‘the popular class’. 

The kind of diversity that Lien Heidenreich-Seleme brought together, makes all the difference in the rest of symposiums on the matter; everyday, the audience remained a heterogeneous group of people, and the quality of the lectures created an interval between personal and academic experience with social concerns. What kind of bridges should be renewed, which things need to be unlearned and which infrastructures need to be built in order to make scientific research more useful for the everyday life of people. Gentrification framed the issue on a large scale, and experts like Barbara Schönig at the Bauhaus University in Weimar or Michele Lancione at the University of Sheffield plead for radical rent control, to reframe housing as a critical infrastructure, and to completely question the idea of “home”.

 

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L.A. Streetview

We stayed at The Hoxton, for which the Goethe Institut seemed to have gotten a good deal, as it was about to open. Everyone there was making an effort, but one could feel a kindness only driven by an automated logic of customer service. Wondering how the rates get along with silent protests of the carpenter’s union right outside the Hotel, sitting and holding their huge red banner complaining about their working conditions while millennials run to the rooftop for cocktails. Only a few blocks from here is Skid Row. How brainwashed we all are from the advertised appeal of gentrification.

 

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Studio visit with Katerina Olschbaur

The Art World, LA

In the few days that we spend in the city, we float between Skid Row, Worlds of Homelessness conversations, and the “Art World”.

Still jet lagged, we decided to join the opening of Skin Stealers at Nicodim Gallery. A world away from where our mindset has been for days, we enter a space a bomb of color and costumes. The art district is so different and so near at the same time.

“I am very thankful that there are openings at galleries, because this is when I see friends and people I like without the need of making an appointment with them first”, said Amedeo Polazzo, while we all drank water from a gallon bottle in his half empty brand new studio. “I actually love the way things happen here, the quality of things that are produced here, the quality of life…well no, forget that I just said this.”

We think back to someone’s quote that still echoes in our minds, "You have to understand homelessness in LA as a historical issue, and go back to the time in which Nixon brought all the people who were freezing on the streets of Chicago or Detroit to this city.“ What the history does to a place, and how we experience contemporary America.

The Roma paintings and the Nixon drawings Hauser & Wirth show since September, prior to a huge retrospective of Philipp Guston traveling through the museums in Washington, London, create an overwhelming critical rejection of a time of social and political turmoil in the United States in the late sixties, bearing with the death of ideological leaders. It is like looking at sketchbooks from the present.

 

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Phillip Guston at Hauser & Wirth

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Phillip Guston at Hauser & Wirth

We walk down 6th street in Downtown L.A., discussing our meeting with Francis Fukuyama at the Thomas Mann House, laughing at saving on dinner expenses as we ate our way through the snacks at the MOCA Grand Avenue opening of Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985 & going through all the other thoughts again, that now serve as Footnotes of our Memory. 

The pathways are impassable, the wide street has an apocalyptic layer of dirt and junk, people sitting on the sidewalks, the few who stumble towards us seem to have zoomed out of mainstream reality that holds sway just outside Skid Row’s streets. The people who don’t live in the neighborhood don’t only have respect, they are afraid of the neighborhood, the poverty, the poor. We were advised against walking these streets by ourselves. We didn’t listen. The streets always are a place of inclusion and exclusion. We entered a home. A home of many. 

A home that was shown to us by people who care about it, a home that provides a space for those who are expelled by society. A home that feels warm and giving even though it has so many problems. People try hard wherever they are, why do you think you are different?

 

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"Worlds of Homelessness" from the Goethe Institute LA is the EXTRABLATT*5 for print issue 11, "Faux Culture"

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