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The Artist Community on Gentrification: Q & A with Justin Blinder

February 10, 2014
Justin Blinder

Justin Blinder is another Envision New York 2017 artist whose submission addresses gentrification. Vacated uses Google Streetview to highlight the vacant lots where new buildings now stand in gentrifying neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn. The work is ephemeral in the psychical world, but online it exists long after these vacant site become shiny new luxury buildings. The result is a virtual walking tour of gentrification. It is interesting to see the history of the buildings surrounding the vacant lots as well. In some areas we can see how remnants of the past –historical turn of the century buildings, graffiti tags, and urban decay – are juxtaposed with box shaped new condos.

We asked Justin some questions about how Vacated manifested and about how gentrification has affected his experience as a Brooklyn based artist:

What is your background as a New Yorker?

I originally moved to New York from Boston to attend Parsons the New School For Design. I’ve lived throughout various parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn for the past 6 years.

What specific issues or ideas have shaped your practice, and what issues continue to inspire your work?

Much of my work focuses on the transition of physical artifacts and infrastructure into the digital sphere, and the new criteria for value and ownership that are formed. In the context of physical urban landscapes, my practice often focuses on how urban artifacts can serve as social and cultural signifiers and form narratives about our cities. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to conflate these artifacts with digital tools. Currently, we often see data and statistics represented through data visualizations. New York’s “ghost bikes,” white bicycles indicating where cyclists have been killed or severely injured, could also be viewed as a data visualization, and to me are much more substantive and emotionally evocative than most charts showing a statistic. I often think about what sorts of urban markers can be used in place of graphs and numbers to tell stories about cities.

What role do you feel you have as an artist to create a public discourse?

For the past few years, most of my projects have primarily been dialogic. I’ve been experimenting with building tools and online communities to incite discussions about specific topics. An example of a past project, entitled Dumpster Drive, took the form of a file-sharing network I built in 2011 that allows users to dumpster dive through each other’s digital trash. The software serves a utilitarian purpose, but the real intent of the project was to engage participants in talking about how our notions of sharing have changed drastically when comparing physical and digital media. We don’t think twice about putting an old book on the stoop for someone else to reclaim, but giving someone the chance to do the same digitally raises a lot questions that we often overlook due to the ease of online sharing.

Can you elaborate on your connection between art and activism, what inspired you to make civic-minded art?

Most of my projects focus on hacking or repurposing existing systems to engage others in discourse about certain issues. I don’t think of this process as inherently artistic, but instead as a civic duty. The activist component of my work is not about any specific ideological thesis, but about framing and distilling a slice of everyday life and spaces in a way that, hopefully, incites questions about (and maybe even change) the larger political and economic forces that shape our cities and social worlds.

Your project for Envision New York 2017 is titled Vacated. When did this idea first strike you?

Over the past couple years, “NYC Open Data” has released a wealth of civic data spanning numerous city departments. I wanted to use this data to look at gentrification from a critical perspective. The project originally focused on how graffiti complaints in different Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs could be used as a lens into how certain neighborhoods are becoming increasing gentrified, and also serving as a visual archive for graffiti that had since been erased by the city. My intention was to use 311 data via and show the graffiti that had been removed using Google Street View. Most of these locations still exist online in Google’s cache, but they have since been erased from the physical world.

When I took a closer look at the locations, I began to realize that a large amount of complaints were located in areas that were saturated with new housing developments. These modern buildings often neighbored graffiti ridden vacant lots that had actually been developed since Google’s Street View car had taken these photos. So I decided to use a NYC building footprint dataset to search for buildings that had been constructed in the past 2 years on Google Street View – many of them appeared as vacant lots, gaps where coffee shops or luxury condos now stand in gentrifying areas.

We often think about gentrification as what newly appears in neighborhoods. Vacated uses cache as a narrative tool, showing instead the absence of new establishments that currently exist, and accentuating and acting as a sort of reminder of what is not there, either because it is gone or has not yet been built.

How have you felt the ramifications of gentrification?

In just these past few years, I’ve visually witnessed accelerating gentrification – the sort that only accompanies widening wealth inequalities in the midst of a great recession or economic crisis. Since moving to New York, I’ve lived in 12 different apartments throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn in just the past half decade. Most of my relocations were initiated by rent increases. Besides seeing physical manifestations of gentrification through new housing developments and boutique shops, I’m fascinated with how the names of neighborhoods change over time as well.

As others have discussed and lambasted, real estate agents seem to often use the term “East Williamsburg” to describe developments that are technically deep in Bushwick. Hearing “North” and “South” Williamsburg has also become more common. These toponyms hint at the social cachet that certain neighborhoods carry over time. I find these terms interesting both because they create meta-cartographies that can easily change our perception of certain locations, but also how they can be used as a tool that carries political capital. The modifiers within neighborhoods themselves are either being used to further gentrify neighborhoods, or to strategically fend off developers. The fact that the original plan to repel developers by using the less enticing acronym DUMBO backfired also emphasizes the complexity of the gentrification process to me, and just how many political and economic actors and forces are at play.

How do you see the rapid rate of gentrification affect the arts community?

I think that rapid gentrification has raised a lot of interesting questions regarding the need for physical space within art communities and the political economy of the art world. The Internet has been liberating as a means of creating meta-communities that can be more inclusive and reach much broader audience than physical institutions, but I am not sure that it is enough on its own. Physical space and materiality are very important to me. I hope that members of the arts community (myself included) continue to explore the various ways our online and offline worlds shape each other, and how form influences the types of communities and interactions we experience in each.