Art in America Magazine: Issues and Commentary: Here to Stay

By Harry Burke

Brandishing durian and salted fish, artists and activists gathered at the lower Manhattan branch of James Cohan Gallery last October 15 to briefly occupy artist Omer Fast’s room-size installation of two defective ATMs, a bottled-drinks cooler, red paper lanterns, folding chairs, a large potted plant, and a vitrine of phone cases. Punctuating their conversation with English terms like “orientalism,” “gentrification,” and “colonialism,” the protesters talked energetically among themselves in Mandarin and Spanish, before loudly lambasting the “racist show” for “treating Chinatown like poverty porn.” Onlookers shot photos of signs that declared “displace racist art! not chinatown tenants! and racist art has no business here!”

 Chinatown Art Brigade’s first protest against James Cohan Gallery’s Omer Fast exhibition, Oct. 15, 2017. Photo Kah Ean Chang.

Chinatown Art Brigade’s first protest against James Cohan Gallery’s Omer Fast exhibition, Oct. 15, 2017. Photo Kah Ean Chang.

This performative action initiated the first of two demonstrations organized by the sixteen-member Asian American collective Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) against Fast’s exhibition “August,” in which the simulacrum of a convenience store functioned as a foyer for a 3D film about German portrait photographer August Sander. Anticipated by Danielle Wu and echoed by other critics, including Holland Cotter, the demonstrators’ critiques spread rapidly among a wide audience, many of whom may have wondered if they might be the next target.1

In 2017, protests against gentrification generated as much discussion as artworks did, perhaps more, taking aim at major institutions like the Whitney Museum (where in November protesters disrupted the opening of an exhibition by Laura Owens, who runs a gallery in the rapidly developing Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights) as well as commercial entities like James Cohan. While the art industry’s inequities have been addressed previously through public engagement, institutional critique, and identity politics, recent activities have bypassed established modes of argument. Aggrieved parties argue that if its potential for social criticism is to be realized, art must divest itself completely of structural complicities.2


Hyperallergic: Artist Omer Fast Compares Protesters to Alt-Right, Chinatown Art Brigade Responds

By Hrag Vartanian

The artist released a statement after Sunday’s protests, and the protesters have responded.

After Sunday’s protests at James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan’s Chinatown, artist Omer Fast released a statement comparing the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and their activist allies to “right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built.”

According to the protesters, Sunday’s rally came after CAB received no response to their letter to the gallery and artist. The artist has declined to speak directly to the protesters or the media. He released a statement through his gallery yesterday.

 Chinatown Art Brigade and allies pasting up the protest placard with their letter to the gallery and artist. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Chinatown Art Brigade and allies pasting up the protest placard with their letter to the gallery and artist. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fast writes:

The actual gallery is being used as an immigrant surrogate: a transplant that tries to affect an appearance and blend in, even while its essence is undeniably foreign. I suspect many of the critical reactions to my work have a lot to do with this tension between appearance and essence.

The Chinese have been part of the US for centuries and their presence in Chinatown specifically dates to the late 19th century at the very least, so it’s not clear what exactly the artist sees as “foreign.”

The artist is “surprised and distressed by the vitriol and name-calling” without citing specific terms, but then compares the mostly Asian-American protesters to white supremacists by writing, “I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.”

He also adds: “A group of protestors hanged a large poster outside the show, which accuses the gallery of representing ‘a non-US and non-New York artist.’” The artist understands it as a form of xenophobia. It appears the artist may be referring to the original letter that was enlarged and taped to the front of the gallery.

Alicia Grullon, who was a speaker representing Mothers on the Move (MOM) at Sunday’s protest, was disappointed by the artist’s response.

“Since Fast completely missed the point of Sunday’s protest, here’s perhaps a critique he might understand,” she wrote to Hyperallergic in a long email reflecting on Fast’s video piece also on display at the James Cohan Gallery. The video is inspired by the life of August Sander, the German photographer. She believes Sander’s work may touch on a few things that Fast may be missing.

“As noted on the Tate Museum’s website, ‘Five Things to Know About August Sander‘:  ‘Sander once said ‘The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.’ He believed that, through photography, he could reveal the characteristic traits of people. He used these images to tell each person’s story; their profession, politics, social situation and background.’

“Beyond superficial observation, the depth of Sanders’s relationship is in the exchange occurring in the lens — the comfort in the space allowing what needs to be said about a very specific place and time. This level of connection is one for which many documentary photographers aim. If Omer Fast (and on that note the curatorial team at James Cohan as well) had dedicated research, thought, and care in understanding Sanders’s portraits as testaments of successful relationships between artist and subject, Fast’s rather empty installation of a Chinatown shop before gentrification, as noted in his artist statement, could have been avoided. Yet perhaps the installation is a portrait of Fast — shallow and blinded by the colonized gaze.”

Today, CAB released an extensive statement in response to Omer Fast, and it is published at the bottom of this post in full. CAB suggests there may be a contradiction in the gallery claiming both censorship and that “our protest was exactly what their artist intended.”

They wrote that they “are not interested in responding to these comments by the gallery or engaging in any future dialogue with the artist and his apologists.”

And they explained that “We prefer to speak about who we are, our work and about the community that the artist and gallery felt free to ‘transform’ and appropriate.”


The Guardian: New York's Chinatown hits back at Omer Fast's 'poverty porn' art exhibition

  ‘We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the people who live and work here,’ the Chinatown Art Brigade said. Photograph: Kah Ean Chang

 ‘We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the people who live and work here,’ the Chinatown Art Brigade said. Photograph: Kah Ean Chang

By Nadja Sayej 

On Sunday, a group of protesters stormed an art gallery in New York’s Chinatown with signs that read “Chinatown lives are not poverty porn” and “Racist art has no business here”. They stood together to hold up a large, yellow banner that said “Racism Disguised as Art” written in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

The group was led by the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), a group of art activists targeting the James Cohan Gallery, where the Israeli artist Omer Fast has changed the outside to look like an old Chinatown storefront.

Meant to look like a dirty waiting room, the gallery features two broken cash machines, graffiti, shabby red lanterns, cheap plants and fold-up chairs.

The installation is meant to have “an eclectic aesthetic”, according to the gallery website, as the artwork “speaks about community, citizenship and identity”. But the protest group says the work maintains “racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown”.

The rise in art protests: how the gallery became a new battleground

“We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the people who live and work here,” the CAB said in a statement. “The artist’s choice to ignore the presence of a thriving community filled with families and businesses reduces their existence to poverty porn.”

Betty Yu, one of the organizers of Sunday’s protest, said the exhibition had upset local residents since it opened last month. The community of low-income immigrant tenants came and spoke about how disappointed they were at the exhibition.

“Chinatown is a 150-year-old thriving community that people built on their own,” said Yu. “When an artist equates our culture as garbage, it’s really insulting to the community.”

More than a hundred art galleries have opened in Chinatown over the past 10 years and are pushing out the locals. “We’ve mapped 40 new art galleries over the past two years and it’s accelerating,” said Yu. “Galleries are part of the system of gentrification.”


New York Times: Artist Defends Chinatown Exhibit After Protests


A protester’s sign outside Omer Fast’s exhibit at the James Cohan Gallery.CreditAndrew R. Chow for The New York Times

By Andrew R. Chow

Yet another bitter battle over art, appropriation and censorship is being waged this week — this time over a depiction of a Chinatown waiting room.

The Berlin-based artist Omer Fast presented his 3D film “August” at the James Cohan Gallery’s Grand Street location starting in September. The film dealt with the German photographer August Sander and Nazism, but Mr. Fast hoped to better integrate the installation with the surrounding community: to “transform the gallery facade and interior into what they were like before gentrification,” according to the gallery’s news release.

So he put up a yellow facade with faded red Chinese characters and constructed a waiting room, in a similar spirit to the airport loungesand doctor’s waiting rooms he had devised in Berlin, Minneapolis and other places. This installation was especially meant to conjure a Chinatown bus stop, with its mismatched tiles, hanging red lanterns and unglamorous folding chair setup. A representative for the Cohan Gallery said Mr. Fast visited the space and surrounding area several times to get a feel for the aesthetic.

But the Chinatown community saw it differently. “This exhibition is a hostile act towards communities on the front lines fighting tenant harassment, cultural appropriation and erasure,” the Chinatown Art Brigade wrote in an open letter. “The conception and installation of this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown.”


NBC News: Chinatown Activists Criticize Art Installation Called ‘Racist,’ ‘Poverty Porn’

A Manhattan art gallery done up to resemble a rundown Chinatown business is angering some in the community who see it as racist and offensive.

The controversy centers on the James Cohan Gallery on the Lower East Side, not far from Chinatown. Omer Fast, a Berlin-based artist, redid the inside and facade to resemble “what they were like before gentrification,” according to a press release on the gallery’s website.

That includes a yellow awning with faded English and Chinese characters in red, folding chairs arranged on a scuffed-up floor with mismatched linoleum tiles, red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and a grocery cart with a black plastic bag tied to it.


New York's Manhattan Chinatown. A gallery in the neighboring Lower East Side is being criticized for an installation some critics have called "racist" and "poverty porn." Maremagnum / Getty Images

“In that creation, he chose visual signifiers that involved making purposeful holes and dents in the wall, broken furniture, broken ATMs, graffiti, and a place of general filth,” Liz Moy, core member of the Chinatown Art Brigade, which protested at the space this past weekend, told NBC News.

“That is something that has been used to characterize Chinatown throughout its history as a way to keep it from getting resources,” she added.

The James Cohan Gallery, in a statement to NBC News, defended Fast’s remodeling for his exhibition, which features a 15-minute, 3D digital fictional film entitled “August.” The film is inspired by the life and work of August Sander, a famous German portrait photographer in the early 20th century.


ARTNews: ‘I’m Not Surprised There Have Been Critical Reactions’: Omer Fast Responds to Protests at James Cohan Show


Protesters at James Cohan Gallery this past Sunday. Photo: KahEan Chang

By Alex Greenberger

Following a protest this past weekend, Omer Fast has responded to criticisms of his show at New York’s James Cohan Gallery, which features an installation that attempts to return the Lower East Side space to its pre-gentrified state and includes objects associated with Chinatown in some stereotypes. The Israeli-born artist could not be reached when ARTnews reached out for a comment on Sunday evening; he now suggests the condemnations of his show might be misplaced. His statement, along with one from the gallery, appeared earlier tonight on the gallery’s website without an official announcement.

This past Sunday, a group of protesters, including representatives from the activist collectives Chinatown Art Brigade and Decolonize This Place as well as Chinatown residents, occupied the James Cohan Gallery’s space in the neighborhood. They brought with them signs that labeled the work “racist” and urged the gallery to shut down the exhibition. “It’s on them to figure out how to respond appropriately to the Chinatown community that is deeply offended by their racist show,” Chinatown Art Brigade told ARTnews earlier this week.

The installation at the center of the debate resembles what a release calls a “waiting room,” complete with shoddy tiling, dents, graffiti, and Chinese menus. A glass display with phone cases replaces an assistants’ desk, and the facade of the gallery has been covered in cement. Visitors can sit on cheap folding chairs to watch Fast’s 2008 video Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) on a flatscreen monitor. (A hallway connected to the “waiting room” leads visitors to a space where Fast’s 2016 3-D video August is being screened.) But the installation does not resemble the market that was previously on the ground floor of 291 Grand Street before James Cohan Gallery opened its doors there.


Art Forum: Chinatown Art Brigade Protests Omer Fast Exhibition at James Cohan Gallery


A group of artists and activists known as the Chinatown Art Brigade—established in 2015 by Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong, and Betty Yu—have called out what they perceive to be racism in the current exhibition at James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown location in New York.

The show is an installation by the Berlin-based artist Omer Fast that includes video and film, including a 2016 work inspired by the life and work of German photographer August Sander. The gallery’s press release notes that the exhibition features a change in the facade and interiors of the gallery to resemble “what they were like before gentrification: the waiting room of a Chinatown business with an eclectic aesthetic.” The gallery goes on to note that the installation is meant to address the following: “In a very tense political climate, this ambiguous gesture represents a futile attempt to roll back the clock and speak about community, citizenship, and identity.”

CAB criticized the exhibition in an open letter to the gallery. It stated: “Not only does this guise have little to no bearing on the actual works being shown, the choice of visual signifiers is a racist aggression towards the community of Chinatown that James Cohan Gallery is currently gentrifying.”

It also addresses the artist’s practice in the context of Chinatown: “As a gallery representing the non U.S., non New York based artist Omer Fast, it is reprehensible that you see fit to support this exploration of ‘temporal space’ while contributing to the displacement of low income tenants and business owners in Chinatown. The artist may be heavily invested in ideas of ambivalence, ambiguity, and the theatrics of performing authenticity, but let it be known that there is no ambiguity in the critical conditions residents here are facing today.” The writers close their statement with the hashtags #RacistGallery and #JamesCohan #ShutItDown. Their letter, issued on October 2, is available in full here.

On Sunday, October 15, dozens of protesters gathered at the gallery. According to DNAinfo, CAB’s Betty Yu read the letter aloud through a megaphone inside the gallery, while attendees held signs that read: “Racist art has no business here!” and “Racism Disguised as Art.”


Hyperallergic: Chinatown Art Brigade Protests Omer Fast’s “Racist” Exhibition at James Cohan Gallery


Members of Chinatown Art Brigade and other protesters taking over the front room of James Cohan Gallery, which was transformed to appear like a poorly maintained Chinatown business. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

By Hrag Vartanian

On Sunday, October 15, dozens of protesters from the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and other local art and anti-gentrification activist groups converged on James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown location to object to what they are calling “racist art.” The allegation comes after Omer Fast’s new exhibition, August, constructed a caricature of a derelict Chinatown business that visitors walk through to see the artist’s video work in the backroom. In a letter they sent to the gallery roughly a week ago, CAB called the exhibition a “racist aggression towards the community of Chinatown,” and added “this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown.” CAB is a cultural collective that “recognizes the power of art to advance social justice.”

 Protesters outside the transformed James Cohan Gallery

Protesters outside the transformed James Cohan Gallery

Protesters started their action at roughly 3pm EST in the gallery’s front room that included a broken air conditioner, folding chairs, a half-filled soda refrigerator, Chinese paper lanterns, vinyl tiles, a glass display case with cheap phone cases, two dirty-looking AtMs, cardboard boxes, and other objects that convey a sense of the space being a run-down Chinese-owned business.

Betty Yu, who is a co-founder of CAB, led the protest in the gallery first in Cantonese and then switched to English. “We are here today to call out the James Cohan Gallery and its racist show and treating Chinatown like poverty porn, and we are not … Omer Fast is not, doesn’t live here, doesn’t live in New York, and he comes in here and calls it a gesture to our community … this fake fabrication, spends tens of thousands of dollars to make this fake fabrication, it is usually a white box and this is how you treat us?” Yu continued as the audience recorded her words with cameras and smartphones. “This is how you depict Chinatown garbage? Linoleum floors all taped up with duct tape? Selling cell phones? Fan that is broken, chairs that are broken? Plastic bags that are attached to the door? … This is what you think of us?”


ARTNews: ‘Racist Art Has No Business Here’: Activists and Chinatown Residents Protest Omer Fast Show at James Cohan Gallery

 Protestors outside James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown space yesterday. Photo: KahEan Chang

Protestors outside James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown space yesterday. Photo: KahEan Chang

By Alex Greenberger

Yesterday, the art collective Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) led a protest at James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown space in New York, where the Berlin-based artist Omer Fast has transformed a ground-floor Grand Street facade and part of its interior into what a news release calls “the waiting room of a Chinatown business with an eclectic aesthetic.” Members of CAB, as well as representatives from the groups Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and Decolonize This Place, occupied the inside of the gallery and taped a statement about the show to a pole near the building’s facade, arguing that the show perpetuates racist stereotypes about the local community.

Following an essay by Danielle Wu that appeared on Hyperallergic last week, Fast’s show at James Cohan Gallery has become the subject of criticism from writers and activists. In addition to August (2016), a 3-D video about the German photographer August Sander that appears in a back room, the show includes a “waiting room” that, according to the gallery’s release, returns the ground-floor Grand Street space to its pre-gentrified state. The space’s facade, which is usually made almost entirely of glass, has been covered in concrete, and the gallery’s floor has been ripped up and replaced with distressed tiling. A display bearing phone cases appears in lieu of an assistant’s desk; visitors are invited to watch Fast’s 2008 video Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) on cheap-looking chairs. Chinese menus, graffiti, dents, and holes appear throughout the lobby area.

But Fast’s installation seems to bear little resemblance to the business that was previously located on the ground floor of 291 Grand Street: HK Manpolo Market, a grocery store that opened there in 2007 and closed in 2013, at which point James Cohan Gallery took over the space. A photograph from 2008 shows the store with a large red awning, and the initial New York Times report about the gallery’s second space refers to the previous tenant as a “fish market.” While the release describes Fast’s installation as “fictional,” it does not make clear that the installation is less an homage to the past business than a compilation of various objects that have been stereotypically associated with Chinatown and have little accuracy to the neighborhood.

 Protestors occupying James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown space yesterday. Photo: KahEan Chang

Protestors occupying James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown space yesterday. Photo: KahEan Chang

In a statement on October 2, CAB urged the gallery to close the show, writing, “This exhibition is a hostile act towards communities on the front lines fighting tenant harassment, cultural appropriation and erasure. The conception and installation of this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown.”

Following the protests yesterday, ARTnews asked CAB for additional comments. “We would also like to add that we feel that it is not our job to tell the James Cohan Gallery what to do or how to respond,” the collective said in an email. “It’s on them to figure out how to respond appropriately to the Chinatown community that is deeply offended by their racist show.”

At yesterday’s action, members from the collective brought signs into the gallery and read their October 2 statement. One sign read DISPLACE RACIST ART NOT CHINATOWN TENANTS!; another said RACIST ART HAS NO BUSINESS HERE!. At one point, a group of protestors held a large yellow banner outside the gallery that read RACISM DISGUISED AS ART in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. Many signs bore the hashtags #RacistGallery and #ChinatownNot4Sale.


DNA Info: Gallery Defends 'Chinatown' Display Critics Call Racist 'Poverty Porn'

 Protestors accused the James Cohan Gallery of hosting a racist exhibition that reduces the surrounding immigrant community to "poverty porn."

Protestors accused the James Cohan Gallery of hosting a racist exhibition that reduces the surrounding immigrant community to "poverty porn."

By Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — Dozens of protesters descended on a Grand Street gallery Sunday, saying an installation mimicking a Chinatown business amounts to racist "poverty porn" and ridicules the struggling immigrants often displaced by newcomers such as art galleries.

Jerusalem-born video artist Omer Fast has transformed the exterior and interior of the James Cohan Gallery on the border of Chinatown into "the waiting room of a Chinatown business with an eclectic aesthetic," according to a description on the gallery's website

The description calls the installation an "ambiguous gesture" intended to reflect on gentrification, representing "a futile attempt to roll back the clock and speak about community, citizenship and identity" by turning the space into what it may have looked like before.

The space features holes in the walls, a damaged awning, broken ATMs and damaged, mismatched tiles — an insensitive display local activists said reduces the surrounding immigrant community to "poverty porn."

"The conception and installation of this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown," stated a letter from artist collective Chinatown Art Brigade, read aloud through a megaphone by co-founder Betty Yu inside the gallery Sunday as the gathered protestors echoed her words in unison.

"We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the people who live and work here. The artist's choice to ignore the presence of a thriving community filled with families and businesses reduces their existence to poverty porn."


Bowery Boogie: Chinatown Art Brigade Protests Racially Insensitive ‘Poverty Porn’ at James Cohan Gallery

 Photo: Chinatown Art Brigade

Photo: Chinatown Art Brigade

A controversial show at the James Cohan Gallery that’s drawn local ire in the Chinatown community was the site of an invasive protest action yesterday.

The Chinatown Art Brigade, known for its nighttime projections of “Chinatown is not for sale” onto building facades, organized the rally on Grand Street in response to the racially insensitive nature of its latest exhibit by Omer Fast, entitled August.

The installation itself is essentially a collection of caricatures rolled into one. Basically, a ridicule and reinforcement of negative stereotypes of “uncleanliness, otherness, and blight” often associated with the neighborhood. The space tries to mimic a business in disrepair, complete with faded awning, broken ATMs, cracked linoleum floors, and plastic bags on door handles.

What began as a sidewalk demonstration with bullhorn eventually morphed into an invasion of the showroom itself, announcing their collective distaste toward the “protest porn” that this show represents.


Hyperallergic: Artist Omer Fast’s Take on Chinatown Angers Community Organizations

 Exterior view of Omer Fast’s  August , at James Cohan Gallery (all images courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

Exterior view of Omer Fast’s August, at James Cohan Gallery (all images courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

by Danielle Wu

If time travel were to exist in the future, what would happen if the owners of such powerful technology were white? Omer Fast’s new exhibition at the Chinatown branch of James Cohan Gallery, August, revels in the power of the Western imagination to utilize non-white cultures as a way to role play and “time travel” into playgrounds for voyeuristic pleasure-seeking that reinforce Western modernity’s sense of superiority.

The artist has transformed the gallery’s white-cube space into a caricature of a derelict Chinese business — a gesture that reads to me as colonialist aggression even if  the exhibition’s press release frames it as “an eclectic aesthetic” — in order to present video works from 2008 and 2017. The installation comes across as an amalgamation of stereotypes often associated with lower-income ethnic enclaves.

Fast’s vision of an authentic Chinese business begins with an entryway displaying makeshift debris, a damaged awning, and graffiti-defaced walls. The kind of racialized, classist mockery implicit in such a conflation of  Chineseness with destitution continues inside the gallery, which features defunct ATMs taped over with makeshift “Out of Order” signs, overflowing trash bins, and a broken patchwork of a floor. In place of a receptionist’s desk, a glass vitrine displays an unappealing array of cheap cell-phone cases. Exactly what Chinatown business inspired this dilapidated space? Certainly not the fish market that previously occupied the address, nor any of the other neighboring restaurants, bakeries, and shops, which all have legible awnings and clean storefronts. Not a single one of the bus stations dotting East Broadway, which consist of waiting rooms with working ATMs and continuous industrial flooring. The exhibition space does not reflect my own personal experiences living with generations of Chinese people or living in New York’s Chinatown.

The exhibition has angered other community members, including the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), a collective of artists and activists working with the Chinatown Tenants Union and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. CAB has released a statement condemning the exhibition that reads in part:

“The conception and installation of this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown. We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the people who live and work here. The artist’s choice to ignore the presence of a thriving community filled with families and businesses reduces their existence to poverty porn. This has a real and negative impact on how Chinatown is perceived by non- residents, politicians and developers who view low-income communities as wastelands ripe for investment and exploitation.”


SinoVision: Resilience of The Chinatown Art Brigade

Betty Yu and The Chinatown Art Brigade use art to raise awareness and give a voice to communities being threatened by gentrification.

With strong ties to her Chinese roots and the strong will of a revolutionary, Betty fights to preserve the history of Manhattan's Chinatown which is rich with perseverance and a sense community built during a time of severe discrimination.

The Chinatown Art Brigade understands the importance of reaching out to and involving the people of the communities they represent. After all, it is their stories that need to be told.

Aired on SinoVision

Art Reflects Reality in Chinatown Exhibit on Housing

  Members of the Chinatown Art Brigade at the “Resilience / Resistance” exhibit at Pearl River Mart. Photo by Betty Yu

Members of the Chinatown Art Brigade at the “Resilience / Resistance” exhibit at Pearl River Mart. Photo by Betty Yu

By Kari Lindberg

A pair of chopsticks, a small table laden with bowls of sweet dumpling soup being eaten by an older Chinese woman, a wall painted the color of yellow pus with air bubbles and peeling flakes are all images reflected back in the photographs hanging on the second-floor mezzanine gallery of the new Pearl River Mart, at 385 Broadway.

The images are part of a multimedia exhibition titled, “Resilience / Resistance,” by the Chinatown Art Brigade, a collective of Asian American artists, media makers and activists with roots in New York City’s Chinatown, and will be running until Sun., Jan. 22.

Co-founded in 2015 by Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong and Betty Yu, the Chinatown Art Brigade seeks to use art to address broader issues of displacement and gentrification in Chinatown. According to the New York University Furman Center’s “State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods in 2015” report, the Chinatown / Lower East Side area has seen a 50.3 percent percentage change in average rent from 1990 to 2010-2014, making it one of the city’s most gentrified neighborhoods during that period, second only to Williamsburg.

  Watching a video by Betty Yu. Photo by Betty Yu

Watching a video by Betty Yu. Photo by Betty Yu

“Resilience / Resistance” provides a platform for the Chinatown Art Brigade to build a bridge between the Chinatown community and local residents unaware of its changes. In doing so, the exhibition has grounded its work on art produced by Chinese tenants experiencing landlord harassment.

“What makes our artwork unique, is that it is really centered around the tenants,” said co-founder Yu. “Not only are they resilient — like the title of the show — but also they’re doing their own organizing.”

Highlighting the tenant artwork is a series of six photos by three local Chinese tenant leaders who are organizing their buildings to fight against their housing conditions: Mimi Yan, who is still involved in a lawsuit with her landlord over living conditions; Zheng Zhi Qin, whose landlord cut off her building’s hot water as an eviction strategy; and David Tang, who was subjected to construction harassment by his landlord to make his building so unlivable that residents would rather move out.

  David Tang gestures to his photos documenting substandard living conditions and construction harassment in Chinatown. Photo by Betty Yu

David Tang gestures to his photos documenting substandard living conditions and construction harassment in Chinatown. Photo by Betty Yu

Together their six photos show snippets of daily lives, ranging from a tradition of making sweet dumpling soup with friends and family, to buying produce from vendors underneath the Manhattan Bridge, to the physical walls of their home — yellowed with years of water damage.

Daily life is also given a voice though three continuously looping documentaries, made by co-founders Yu and See. One film by Yu documents her parents’ lives as Chinatown garment workers, while two others by See portray older Chinatown residents.

Adding to the emotional, visual and auditory mix are infographics made by Yu. These plainly state market-rate rents for the area as ranging from $1,200 to $9,500, compared to $934, which would be the rent for affordable housing for a family of four making the average median rent of $37,362.

READ the Entire Article HERE

Bedford and Bowery: How a Bunch of Brave New Futurists Zapped the Old Pearl River Mart Back to Life

By Nicole Disser

“Preservationist” has become something of a slur, used to denigrate the old-timers and neo-hippies who’d rather save ratty old tenant buildings and dusty mom-and-pop stores than make way for clean big-box stores with cheap stuff for everyone, and skyscraping mixed-use luxury complexes with their affordable housing pittance. It’s sorta like: C’mon, New York City is, by its nature, dynamic and changing. But the ever-faster pace of development and the lightyear rate of change have made for an urban landscape where transformation takes place exponentially and squeezes out the very people who have made this city vibrant and interesting in the first place.

Over the weekend, a slew of more than 40 local and visiting artists, as well as organizations like the Chinatown Art Brigade (a grassroots effort tackling the divisive issue of gallery-led gentrification in their neighborhood) demonstrated that preservation doesn’t have to be backward-looking.

Read the entire article here

  A booth dedicated to the old Pearl River Mart (Photo: Nicole Disser)

A booth dedicated to the old Pearl River Mart (Photo: Nicole Disser)

Hyperallergic: Artists and Gallerists Grapple with Ways to Slow Gentrification in Manhattan’s Chinatown

By Ilana Novick

For Liz Moy, a Chinatown native, artist, and member of Chinatown Art Brigade, 2012’s Black Foliage group show in the Chinatown Arcade was a small but uneasy signal that the art world had its eyes, and real estate dollars, on Chinatown. The press release described the exhibition space as a former “cell phone dispensary within the alley at 48 Bowery … a truly unique space recently uncovered by some of New York’s most adventurous curators,” as if the alley, which connects the Bowery and Elizabeth Street was waiting to be discovered, and not already home to longstanding businesses.

“I rationalized to myself that it was just a pop-up,” just like any number of group shows she’d been to or participated in, Moy told the 200 people who crammed into Artists Space Saturday night for Decolonize This Place, Artists Space, and the Chinatown Art Brigade’sevent, “Chinatown Is Not For Sale.” At the panel discussion and town hall event, artists, gallery owners, and community members discussed the role of galleries in Chinatown’s gentrification, and whether they can be a part of preventing it.

Peter Kwong, Hunter College Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Policy, began the night with a brief but illuminating presentation that placed economic changes in Chinatown in the context of larger market forces in New York City that have fueled large-scale neighborhood change everywhere from the East Village to Harlem. He explained that Chinatown, is “under attack … guided by aggressive corporate strategy with real estate development whenever possible,” particularly since September 11 and with the gradual disappearance of the garment industry, a key economic engine for the neighborhood. Landlords, are “trying to sell an exotic brand,” but in doing so are pushing longtime tenants out of their homes. He also noted that the presence of art galleries is often the first sign that large-scale development will follow. The audience for the panel — a mix of residents, activists, artists, and gallery owners — was surprisingly in agreement over many of Kwong’s and other speakers’ points, differing mainly on the question of whether City Council Member Margaret Chin is a friend of the cause or an activist who had sold out to developers.

Given that galleries are often a harbinger of gentrification, the million-dollar question of the night was: can artists and galleries play a role in preventing the displacement of longtime residents and the businesses and organizations that serve them while also preserving their own artistic practices and businesses? Going by the responses of the enthusiastic, engaged audience and the panelists, the answer is a resounding yes.

Or more specifically, yes, but as long as gallery owners and artists take responsibility for their roles in displacement. This includes learning about any tenants and businesses they may have displaced in order to live in the neighborhood and open galleries, and becoming active members in big and small ways, in both local organizing efforts to protect existing tenants (like the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence’s Organizing Asian Communities initiative) and in citywide efforts to fight for zoning laws and housing policy that support Chinatown’s existing economy and tenants, and preserve buildings and businesses for the future.

Betty Yu, a co-founder of the Chinatown Art Brigade, is both an artist and a native New Yorker, and drew on both experiences to present the Brigade’s eight-point pledge of resistance for artists and gallery owners. The document includes a map, designed by Moy, showing the new galleries that have arrived in Chinatown and highlighting sites of displacement. The pledge begins with what Yu calls “the lowest hanging fruit” of simply getting to know a gallery’s neighbors and finding which tenants and businesses the gallery might have displaced, all the way to assisting in organizing efforts started by existing advocacy groups, and pressuring elected officials to support the Chinatown Working Group’s Rezoning Plan and other policies that support affordable housing.

Read the entire article here

Bowery Boogie: Site of Mass Displacement: A Chinatown Gentrified by Galleries [Op-Ed]

The following was written by Liz Moy of the Chinatown Art Brigade.

There is an ongoing perception that Manhattan’s Chinatown has stayed relatively the same throughout the years whilst other low-income neighborhoods of color have been overtaken by gentrification. Ask someone how Chinatown fares in an increasingly unaffordable city and they’ll likely say, at least it’s “still Chinese.” However, to further this narrative of Chinatown as a holdout to displacement, as did last year’s New York Magazine article, would be a large injustice to the growing number of tenants whose livelihoods are most at risk.

 Photo by KahEan Chang

Photo by KahEan Chang

Over 100 galleries currently reside in Chinatown. This includes artist-run spaces, non-profits, galleries run out of apartments, and of course, more monied white box spaces. In such a large number, they have inarguably changed the landscape of Chinatown and the demographic of people who pass through it every day. This is in addition to the already sweeping commercial development happening, leaving Chinatown with hordes of luxury hotels and rising condominiums. The categorical differences between these galleries are irrelevant to the long-term residents whose homes these galleries neighbor. Many working class tenants are facing landlord harassment, forced evictions, and unsafe living conditions caused by illegal construction. To many, galleries are simply the businesses that replaced the restaurant or store that served them for decades. To others, in contrast with their cramped living quarters, the mostly empty spaces are stark visual indicators of inequality.

Read the rest of the op-ed here

Hyperallergic: Gentrification, the Art Gallery Influx, and Other Pressures on Manhattan’s Chinatown

By Betty Yu

Displacement and gentrification in Manhattan’s Chinatown has accelerated in the last few years. The influx of art galleries, hi-rise luxury condos, and hotels is jarring. At the same time, Chinese immigrant working class tenants are facing landlord harassment, living under unsafe conditions, and forced evictions. Small businesses, stores and restaurants that have been serving the Chinatown community for decades are closing to make way for high-end establishments, businesses, and art galleries.

Another projection from September 24 (photo by Louis Chan, image courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

In the past eight years, 100 galleries have opened in Chinatown with over 60% of them opening up in the last three years. Since galleries have been priced out of Chelsea they have been moving into Chinatown, it has been dubbed by some of the media as the “last frontier of downtown New York.” These galleries have contributed to the rapidly rising rents. There are galleries that are paying upwards of $9,000 a month, while low-income tenants next door are paying hundreds of dollars to share a small room in a dilapidated building. This kind of inequality is unconscionable. While it’s true that the galleries are one part of the larger machine of gentrification, it’s important as community-based artists that we hold these artist institutions accountable for their role in displacing Chinatown residents.  Their real estate choices have real consequences that affect people’s material living conditions. A 2013 report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund revealed that the number of Chinese residents in the area has declined between 2000 and 2010, while the number of white residents has increased. In 2011 less than half of the Chinatown population was foreign-born.


Bowery Boogie: ‘Chinatown Art Brigade’ Takes a Stand with Anti-Gentrification Projections [INTERVIEW]

“Gentrification is Modern Colonialism,” read the illuminated stencil above the corner of Chrystie and Grand Streets. That was but one message that traveled through the neighborhood last Saturday night.
These rather straightforward projections come courtesy of the Chinatown Art Brigade, which roams the namesake area armed with a light projector and a mantra of anti-gentrification.

We caught up with the Brigade’s founders – Betty Yu, Tomie Arai, and ManSee Kong – to learn more about the goals and inspirations.

Bowery Boogie: Describe your organization, its founding, and goals with the nighttime projections.

  Photo: Mike Hong

Photo: Mike Hong

Betty Yu: In 2015, Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong and I formed Chinatown Art Brigade, a cultural collective committed to advancing social justice. It was in direct response to the rapid gentrification that we’ve been seeing in Chinatown. The 3 of us are artists, media makers and activists who have history and deep connections to Chinatown. We are working in close partnership with CAAAV and the Chinatown Tenants Union, a Chinatown-based community organization that organizes for tenant rights, against evictions and displacement of working class immigrant Chinese tenants. One of the major goals of our collective has been to help advance the community-led organizing efforts against gentrification. CAAAV is doing the on-the-ground organizing work and we feel that as a collective of artists, our role is to help amplify the stories and voices of those in the frontlines, most directly affected by displacement. More specifically one of our messages in our projections have been appealing to NY City Councilmember Margaret Chin to pass a community-created Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan that has provisions to protect affordable housing and curb future displacement. Currently this plan is being ignored by the DeBlasio administration despite the community’s outrcry for it to be passed.

  Photo: KahEan Chang

Photo: KahEan Chang

We launched “Here to Stay,” a project that includes a series of large-scale outdoor mobile projections that addresses the themes of gentrification, displacement, community resistance and resilience in NYC’s Chinatown. Over the summer we held cultural production workshops with community members, artists and tenants. Through oral histories, storytelling circles, photography, placekeeping walking tours and mapping activities we co-created the images and content that would be projected onto buildings and public landmarks in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
Tomie Arai: Forming alliances and collaborations with other progressive groups is also one of the goals for our project. The Illuminator, a political collective that has stage hundreds of projections in communities across the country, has been an important partner. Their technical assistance and their experience has been instrumental to the success of our Here to Stay project.

BB: What do you hope the response will be?

BY: We had our first projection last Saturday, September 24, and the response from local community members has been really positive. The content for the projections was produced in close collaboration with Chinatown tenants and community members. It was important that the content was bilingual and cultural accessible. Our intended audience for the projections was the local community and Chinatown residents. Gentrification and displacement is on the top of everyone’s mind across communities in New York City. As more than 100 galleries move into Chinatown, condos, hotels, bars and fancy restaurants open up all around Chinatown, and hundreds of long time low-income residents are rapidly getting pushed out – it can feel overwhelming and impossible to stop. But what we are hoping to do (even on a smaller scale) is project the stories of other Chinatown tenants who are fighting back and organizing with others – and we hope to reach others who are sick and tired of what’s happening and want to get involved. We want them to know there is an organization like CAAAV that can join and unite with others to fight back.

ManSee Kong: We’re also hoping that the elected officials and city agencies will take notice and hear the community’s demands and concerns around rezoning and displacement.

Read the entire article HERE

i-D/Vice Article: why local nyc artists are fighting ‘artwashing’

By Annie Armstrong

"This neighborhood has changed" has become a clichéd "thing New Yorkers say" in 2016. The phrase echoes from Bushwick's graffiti-covered walls to the gallery-lined streets of Chinatown. But when we check out exhibitions and street art in these "up-and-coming" neighborhoods, we often fail to recognize an important part of the problem — "art washing." Coined by The Atlantic in 2014, the term refers to the superficial cultural narrative that new art spaces and non-native artists bring to gentrifying communities.

It might not seem obvious, but a newly commissioned mural of Biggie in Bed-Stuy can be just as much a signifier of gentrification as the LaCroix wall at Williamsburg's new Whole Foods. Gentrification isn't just the influx of fancy condominiums, it's also the art a community chooses to show, and who creates it. New York City has always been a welcoming destination for young, struggling artists, but how those artists live in and interact with their new neighborhoods also needs to be questioned.

Artwashing is a symptom of the mass gentrification of many major cities in the US. In Los Angeles, anti-gentrification activists have been speaking out against the wave of new art galleries cropping up in the rapidly changing Boyle Heights neighborhood; Atlanta's public art-heavy BeltLine project has redefined the city's infrastructure, making it even less accessible to low-income families; and in London, the city's abandoned buildings have been transformed into either art spaces or luxury high-rises instead of low-income housing, despite public outcry.

In New York City, this issue is often glossed over by both city officials and the city's growing population — to the detriment of long-standing local communities. In Chinatown, local artist Elizabeth Moy mapped out the galleries in the six blocks surrounding Mott Street. The map shows 91 galleries located in the area, and 60% of them opened in the last three years. This kind of growth mirrors that of Chelsea, which changed from a strictly residential community into one of the city's cultural centers after Dia:Chelsea opened in 1987. Today, as galleries are now being priced out of Chelsea, New York's art world is migrating southeast.

Betty Yu, a local artist fighting to keep the "local" prefix, tells i-D, "People see Chinatown as cheap art space that is now in a hip, central neighborhood with cheap coffee. And they don't give a damn if locals in the area never come in, because they're looking for that sale. The two sales they get for $5,000 each are good enough for them for the month. That's really problematic. The perception right now is that Chinatown doesn't actually have its own real culture. People think it doesn't have anything historical to preserve in culture or in art. There have been elected officials who are more or less saying that." 

"So how do we deal with these art galleries that are cropping up in the neighborhood?" asks Yu. "They need to become more community-oriented, no doubt. Unfortunately, way back when, the city council elected to preserve the East Village, but they gave up on Chinatown." Several official organizations dedicated to preserving the East Village, Greenwich Village, and Lower East Side have received funding from the city council, such as Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and Lower East Side Preservation Initiative. But efforts to preserve Chinatown have been left to grassroots initiatives. 

Read the rest of the article here: