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

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