Pioneer Renewal Trust: Rules of Engagement
When Michael Thomas asked us to put together a project for the Dogmatic space, an art gallery located in Pilsen, we instinctively turned to the subject of gentrification. As politically-minded residents of Chicago, we continually grapple with the problem of gentrification, and many other issues that are bound up within it: the disappearance of affordable housing, widespread displacement, loss of culture and community, homelessness, police brutality, etc. This art gallery, located in a Mexican and Ukrainian neighborhood two blocks south east of the freshly demolished Maxwell Street area, positioned to feel the effects of the encroaching UIC Village, and in the path of developers and speculators, seemed like an excellent location for highlighting these issues.
It is commonly said that artists serve as the first wave of gentrification, that yuppies select their next neighborhoods based on their taste for old housing stock, and that poor people are the ones who most want developers to come to their communities because it improves the quality of life. Such “truisms” serve to mask the larger system of relationships at work. Too often the discussion of gentrification ends up in a bundle of catch 22s and finger pointing, where everyone is complicit, and where displacement appears inevitable. Such is the nature of capital acquisition and its self-justification. We embarked on this project with a desire to take one small step into questioning this morass of rhetoric. Our method was to intervene at the point of purchasing a home by recontextualizing it as a performance. We used art practice to examine the discourse of real estate, and see what forces were at play right at the point of purchase.
The selling of 1822 S DesPlaines was an intervention into the complicated and variegated terrain of real estate. We developed a fictitious real estate agency “Pioneer Renewal Trust” with the motto “Staking your claim in the urban frontier.” Advertising in the classifieds, posting flyers and displaying an exuberant realty sign out front were our marketing stratagems. We positioned the show to attract the attention of real estate speculators, as well as other people who had some interest or stake in purchasing the property. As opposed to an art audience whose frame of reference immediately neutralizes interventions into an object of study, we were interested in those not quite prepared for our sleight of hand. Once potential buyers arrived, they would be confronted by an ambiguous, unsettling atmosphere where all was not right. from a computer kiosk replete with dubious information about the origin of real estate to the erection of condominiums within the house itself, to the agents of Pioneer Renewal Trust engaging visitors in a discussion of ethical investment–our intention was to create a space of uncomfortable ambiguity for the audience. This simple exaggeration of a very common scene was intended to transform the rules of engagement. Our hope was that this space would be a productive one for considering the type of rhetoric that we had imitated and caricatured.
From what we understand, everyone has had a different experience of this project. The audience ranged from those who responded to the advertising, to Pilsen residents who drove by and saw the sign, to those who visited the art show that took place in the basement, th the neighbors who lived nearby. (Even he real owner of the house became an unintended audience member.) Certainly, the act of deceiving people always raises ethical questions and we do not attempt to shy away from them. Many of the people we deceived share no blame in gentrification, absolutely deserve to live in this house, and “really don’t have time to deal with this bullshit.” Our conceit was certainly the notion that this conversation is relevant to everyone, and that we could impose it on them for a brief moment in time. Such practices are not justified unless they offer people a point of critical reflection. And the feelings, emotions and ideas generated by this project are certainly worth exploring. Why does the quest for a home bring up such excitement in some people, unreal hope in others, and rows of dollar signs in the eyes of others? What are the larger forces at play and how will this affect a community urban environment in the future?
We hoped that we could use our performance as real estate agents to invite questions about why and how that role is performed every day at 1000s of similar locations in the city, and every other major city as well-what type of rhetoric is used, who it is targeted to, and how do “real” audiences respond to it and make it part of their lives? How does this eradicate communities and send poor people to live in the outskirts of the city? How can gentrication be confronted and resisted? In this spirit, we invite you to join us in a panel discussion. It is at this point that we want to change the terms of the conversation. How does globalization relate to Chicago? Who benefits and what do they gain? Who loses and what do they lose? How can we confront displacement on a local level? How is gentrification actually planned through alliances made within the city? We thank all of you for your feedback and interest. We have no doubts the discussion will be complicated, but we believe the need for results is imperative.
So please join us for an Open House being held at 3pm on September 08, 2002 to discuss the issues and realities that surround gentrification and our experiences working in your neighborhood at Dogmatic. The panel will feature Charles Daas, Executive Director at Chicago Mutual Housing, Juanita Martinez, from the Resurrection Project of Pilsen, Pat Wright, author and professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Gregory Sholette, Chair of Arts and Administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Pioneer Renewal Trust