On October 25 and 26, the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley and the California College of the Arts are partnering once again to host a live-streaming of the Creative Time Summit, an annual conference in New York that brings together cultural producers–including artists, critics, writers, and curators–to discuss how their work engages pressing issues affecting our world. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, attendees have been asked to submit a paragraph that touches upon the topics relevant to the summit’s theme: Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century City. This posting is by Lauren Kroiz, Assistant Professor in History of Art at UC Berkeley.
In this list of terms, I’m particularly interested in dislocation. Unlike “art” and “place,” which I think of as solid nouns and things in the world, “dislocation” invokes the action of dislocating. I wonder about the obscured verb’s subject, object, and their relation. Is what I experience as urban flux, mobility and vibrancy always also the cause of dislocation for someone else? Can there be movement without displacement?
I’ve spent much more time thinking about the relationship between art and dislocation in cities of the 20th century than the 21st. At the risk of perpetrating my own historical displacement of this year’s theme, I’d like to consider a series of sixty paintings Jacob Lawrence finished in 1941 to explore the notion dislocation.
You can see the odd numbered panels in this Flash experience from the Phillips Collection:
and should be able to access the even numbers from Lawrence’s MoMA record:
Entitled The Migration of the Negro, Lawrence’s paintings envisioned the early twentieth-century movement of more than a million and a half African Americans from the rural South to northern industrial centers. Early panels chronicle the difficulties faced by blacks in the South, from boll weevils to lynchings. Middle panels illustrate the opportunities found in northern cities, but also show improved housing becoming increasingly scarce and dilapidated. Bombs explode from the homes of migrants who try to move to new parts of the city. Lawrence suggests the ways violence limited class and racial mobility in the urban North as it had in the South. Ultimately Lawrence envisions the results of the Great Migration as mixed; his migrants contract tuberculosis in the crowded city, but also exercise the right to vote.
I’m thinking of Lawrence because his abstracted forms and narrative show African Americans dislocated from the South by white racism and the failure of Reconstruction, but that’s only half of a story that also includes active agency. African Americans moved themselves North to new economic, political, and cultural opportunities and challenges. Lawrence dramatizes the complex links between dislocation and mobility in this early twentieth-century context.
Artists probably can’t take too much “credit” for gentrification or control it (Lawrence couldn’t even keep his panels together). But, I wonder if it is possible for art use its irrationality to hold two views. Can we preserve the utopian promise of urban mobility even as we critique the dislocation caused by that movement?