Artists, cultural critics and occasional collaborators Jennifer Dalton and Bill Powhida are launching a new public art project very soon, and it’s a most compelling one. It’s called MONTH2MONTH, and it’s an initiative that came out of artist-centric concerns, then gathered greater conceptual force and assumed more broadly public shape as it became a platform for potentially very crucial conversations regarding social justice. MONTH2MONTH will encourage, indeed demand that many of today’s most important discourses be addressed directly–from residential rights and market fairness to income inequalities and basic life securities—and it wants your input.
Add your voice to MONTH2MONTH. Pay attention to its #importantconversations, so to speak, as it gets underway. Here’s a conversation with its creators to help you understand why you should do just that.
1. MONTH2MONTH truly seems like a massive undertaking. Where did it come from? How long have you been working on it?
Jen: Bill did a drawing about the idea of an artist-owned, non-profit studio building back in 2013 for More Art’s “Envisioning New York” project, and subsequently they asked him if he’d propose a public art project about housing. He had an idea to address housing from the inside, making housing the site of the project, and invited me to collaborate and expand the scope of the public engagement, which now includes a series of events and discussions within the residency in two apartments, one ‘affordable’ and one ‘luxury.’ Situating a discussion about the affordability crisis in apartments with guests living temporarily in the spaces seemed like a way to ground all the discussions in concrete terms.
2. Both of you employ sociopolitical and art-world critique in your practices as artists and curators. Can you each comment on how this fits within what you do as artists, or branches out of it?
Jen: I work with information that’s relevant to my life and ideas that I think are important. A lot of my projects spring from the initial question, “Is it just me, or are things kind of awful?” And making access to the basic need of shelter dependent on the market feels strange and wrong the more I think about it.
Bill: For me, there is a direct link back to the work I began in early 2013 around the need for affordable workspace in New York City for artists. That organizational work, and thinking about how to re-imagine real estate development also led me to work with the Artist Studio Affordability Project, from which I learned a great deal about commercial and residential zoning restrictions, which are shaping the future of both housing and commercial workspace in the city. That so much of this work involves the market, the discussions I engaged in reminded me of the way Jen and I explored how the art market was shaping, for better or worse, the way people were thinking about art at #class, our third collaboration. I think MONTH2MONTH is another exploration of the way the economic conditions of the market shape our lived experiences, and I would consider it an off-shoot of our prior collaborations, #class and #rank.
3. It’s obviously a big year for increasingly blatant discourse about inequalities of all sorts—income, influence, property, outreach, voice, opportunity, and so forth. Comment thereupon, and place MONTH2MONTH therewithin.
Jen: Our project #class took place back in 2010. Since then we’ve been inspired by the energy and activism of the past few years on problems of inequality, racism and affordable housing. MONTH2MONTH is an effort to bring our artistic vision to the conversation. In our experience of #class and #rank, having open conversations in non-hierarchical settings, and bringing people together for satirical or uncomfortable events on a theme, have opened up new ways of looking at problems and sometimes hinted at new paths forward.
Bill: I would like to think we are hearing the crescendo of a discourse that began 8 years ago, when the housing bubble collapsed and almost took the entire global economy with it. I mean, “The Big Short” was just released last year, and it’s an example of how long it takes for society to understand the causes and effects of our economic activity. While the presidential primary campaigns have amplified all of the debates on inequality—from Ferguson to Black Lives Matter to LGBT rights, which are all progressive social causes I support—I think housing is a basic human right that is impacting all New Yorkers. All too often, art continues to be used as a way for the real estate industry to culturally whitewash the new luxury development for the economically advantaged through marketing and branding campaigns. We hope for MONTH2MONTH to be a way to use the notion of universally accessible art to bring the conversation inside private spaces. This presents a contradiction that is central to the project: Not everyone who might want to participate will be able to, just as not everyone who would like affordable housing is able to win a lottery or find an apartment that they can afford. This is a reality for the thousands of New Yorkers who apply for just dozens of ‘affordable’ units in luxury developments. MONTH2MONTH is very much a product of this particular historical moment in New York, where Bloomberg and now De Blasio pinned their plans for expanding housing to the market, which doesn’t seem to share the same socially progressive ideas as our current mayor.
4. You’ve invited a number of fellow artists and writers to collaborate with you on this, and some events are serious while others are fun. You’ve got Sharon Butler putting together a collective portfolio of stocks. You’ve got Felix Salmon guiding people as to how to drink like the 1%. What else? Are there other workshops and lectures still in the works?
Bill: We’re also working with artistic-activist Betty Yu, who is presenting a participatory workshop for a more equitable New York with “(Dis)placed in NYC: An Interactive Experience.” Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine (Oasa DuVerney and Mildred Beltre) are creating a space for the public to confess their gentrification complicity. Ana Fabrega, Lorelei Ramirez, Sean J Patrick Carney and Julio Torres will be performing experimental stand-up comedy. Artist Seung Min-Lee will host a real-estate themed karaoke night. And Kameelah Janan Rasheed will lead a reading group on the topic of where displaced people go when they’re priced out of their apartments, neighborhoods and cities. Additionally, Jen and I will be hosting dinners that invite housing policy experts, real estate professionals, housing workers, and the public to come together to discuss how public policy and the market shape our experiences with housing. We’re hoping that the social intimacy of dining together will allow people to really talk to each other about how all of us affect each other’s ability to live in this city. We also have an open call for the last four event slots for people and ideas outside our reach. We are looking forward to getting proposals for interesting events and discussions that we could never think of. You can see our programmed events and propose to host your own at www.month2month.nyc.
5. In brief, describe your ideal outcome for all of this for artists, participants, NYC residents, others. What do you hope to achieve?
Bill & Jen: We’re pretty realistic about the political efficacy of an art project. Ben Davis asks, “How political is your political aesthetic?” Achieving anything permanent or concrete that would improve the living conditions for millions of New Yorkers struggling with serious rent burdens and landlord harassment—like universal rent-stabilization or a city-wide progressive rent policy—is likely beyond our reach. We hope that we can mobilize the symbolic value of art to provide a counter-narrative to the developer-led, media-friendly gentrification narrative that artists can be depended on as the first wave of entitled white people trailing kale chips and craft beer in our wake. We are happy to exploit art’s disproportionate cultural value to help bring attention to the numerous efforts of activist groups like Artist Studio Affordability Project, the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, and the City Wide Alliance Against Displacement to fight back against unaffordable development and public policy. As we concluded back in 2010, art still needs to make friends.
6. Well, we’re talking politics here, so let’s close with that exclusively. Nominate someone to run for an office. Anyone, any office. You can even create the latter. For instance, I’m not kidding when I say that I’d nominate Dwayne Johnson for the office of President of Earth (at least). I’d nominate Alice Coote as well. Anyway.
Jen: Rachel Maddow needs to run for something, and it would be a dream for me to vote for her for U.S. President.
Bill: I’d love to nominate Elizabeth Warren to run for U.S. President, and I’d go with Rachel Maddow for VP this round so she can get some experience to follow Warren. That would be 16 years of brilliant women leading the Federal Government in their efforts to stem the tide of ignorance in America and make it a better place for everyone. Locally, I’d like to nominate artist and ASAP co-founder Jenny Dubnau for City Council so that she might take over as City Council President and be able to put The Small Business Jobs Survival Act up for a vote, which no one currently serving on the City Council has the political will to do (that’s right Brad Landers). After that, Jenny would probably introduce even more working-class legislation to keep New York from displacing itself into a playground for the wealthy—you know, if we’re talking about dreams here.
Follow Jen Dalton on Twitter @jen_dalton
Follow Bill Powhida on Twitter @Powhida
* Image at top features Dalton and Powhida. Photo by Joanie Gagnon San Chirico.