Artists Grappled With Climate Change, Capitalism, and Gentrification at Common Field Convening

Capitalism and art have always had a contentious relationship. Artists struggle to find ways to produce sustainable work. In Miami, where the juxtaposition of luxury and poverty is so pronounced, artists feel pulled to produce work that reflects the state of society but also pays their bills.

Common Field Convening, which took place October 20 through 23 in Little Haiti, addressed critical and uncomfortable topics that artists and the organizations that support them must grapple with, both in Miami and across the globe. Participants were instructed to check their privileges and take deep breaths before engaging in the discourse about capitalism, gentrification, and institutional privilege.

The panel Art Making in a Time of Accelerated Capitalism set the theme for the conference. Panelists Naomi Fisher, Gene Moreno, Annika Kuhlmann, Marco Roso, and Christopher Kulendran Thomas discussed how artists can brand their art and convert it into commerce. Kuhlmann, who is an artist and curator based in Berlin and London, created the brand Brace Brace, a line of emergency equipment and safety gear, which transforms the anxiety underlying climate change into commercialized art.

“Parts of South Beach flood at high tide under the full moon even if it doesn’t rain. You can see a change in the sea, but no one talks about it," she said. "While the ground seems to be dropping lower as the water rises, we’re building higher and ever glossier. So in climate crisis, economic disaster, accelerated capitalism, and the seduction of luxury, we are in the undertow.”

Brace Brace produces golden-plated nautical buoyancy rings that are meant to be displayed and sold in galleries. Kuhlmann explained, “We’re understanding and embracing the context of art as an ideal targeted retail environment for high-end luxury products. We’ve created functional art objects that use the space of art as a starting point for a commercial trajectory outside the field of art.” While the brand embraces the gallery as a retail environment, Kuhlmann said brands need to stick to a philosophy.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas proposed a Marxism-rooted real-estate endeavor called New Eelam. His company aims to create collective ownership in a shared real-estate system. Shareholders of the company are able to live in a number of properties around the world without the restrictions of a lease or mortgage. The company promises frictionless living, housing in subscription form.

“The art world is great at prototyping new lifestyle formats,” Thomas said. He intends to inhabit the art world as a discursive research-and-development space. Thomas is working with a software engineer and is in the early stages of his project.

Real-estate development, land use, and gentrification were common themes in the conversations at Common Field this year. “A lot of people are talking about gentrification and capitalism at the convening,” multimedia artist Monica Lopez de Victoria said. “I think it’s extremely relevant here in Little Haiti because everything is shifting. It’s this neighborhood that has history, and it’s being pushed out. It’s scary that it’s happening. It’s already done and over in Wynwood. I was one of the people, ten years ago, who would go into the warehouses and get access to throw concerts and art shows. Now it’s completely changed over.”

Tom Virgin, a printmaker and art teacher for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, says, “Artists go where they can afford to go. I don’t think any of us has money to throw around. Gentrification is going to happen everywhere we go. We don’t move into neighborhoods with the intention of making a million dollars; we move into neighborhoods with the intention of making meaningful work.”

Pamela Palma, a textile designer and fiber artist, moved to Miami Beach in the '90s. “When I moved here, Lincoln Road was a disaster. Most of the buildings were boarded up. ArtCenter had five buildings. Little by little, the City of Miami Beach said, 'We should clean it up.' But it got too big, became too commercial, and all the artists left. Who could afford it? It became totally gentrified and totally commercial.”

Palma says she sees the same thing happening in Wynwood, where her studio in the Bakehouse Art Complex resides. “When big developers come from other countries with all kinds of investment money, where do we go? We keep moving farther north, farther west. Neighborhoods get morphed into something else, which can be positive, but people are displaced. In the long run, it might come around and bite itself in the tail.”

One of the organizers of the convening, Bas Fisher Invitational (BFI), lost its exhibition spaces last year after a deal with developers fell through. The nonprofit now operates on a nomadic platform. Naomi Fisher of BFI spoke about how the Miami arts organization has been supporting artists and embracing the city. BFI created the series Weird Miami Bus Tours, which combines art with tourism. One of the bus tours was with the company TVGOV. The tour, titled Nightmare Americana, was about dead real-estate spaces and abandoned malls. It juxtaposed defunct buildings with luxury high-rises in Miami.

Another topic of deep debate among participants at Common Field was how to address the hierarchy of the institution. At a breakout session called the Pedagogical Shift, a fiery, unwieldy combustion of critiques about institutions and education took place. Gene Moreno, curator of programs at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA Miami), informally led the conversation.

John Massier from the Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, New York, asked, “How is art not just mimicking, using, or manipulating accelerated capitalism, but how does art fuck with accelerated capitalism to get its way, move itself forward? Are these accelerated capitalists not merely evil, but help us sustain our goals and ends? We at nonprofits go to funders and corporations, and we have to mimic these business models to get their largess. Even though we are all crazy, fucking hippies and socialists, we have to adopt that language.”

Moreno responded with a history of ICA Miami and his goals at the museum, where he's worked since this past February. “The Institute of Contemporary Art had a very troubling birth in this city. It was a board of directors that fled one museum and created their own. It was very contentious, and it’s famed in Miami history. So I work there,” Moreno said. The room laughed in a moment of levity from the tense confrontation. “And there’s some skepticism around the initiatives that institution does because of the way it was born and the way it’s funded. So what do you do with that? You siphon resources to what you think is important. You do that until they send you home.”

Moreno also critiqued the Art Basel scene in Miami. “All the art in Art Basel is imported. Most of it doesn’t come from here. Art Basel isn’t a good place to critically engage the objects that are shown because they are so decontextualized and functioning in a bubble of sorts,” Moreno said.

But the Common Field Convening wasn't just about pointing out the troubles facing artists and society at large; it was about solving them. Moreno called upon Miami artists to educate their communities about the problems facing the city.

“I think there needs to be an entry into climate discourse in cultural production in Miami," he said. "For a city that is so in the middle of it, it’s not reflective in cultural production beyond illustrational modes, like a painting of a coral reef. I try to be on the more discursive end and build pedagogical programs, public programs. The fact that climate discourse is not centrally present in cultural production is something that needs to be addressed.”
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Minhae Shim Roth is an essayist, journalist, and academic.
Contact: Minhae Shim Roth