“The city is booming with no bust in sight. Is Amazon the new Ford? Could Seattle be the next Detroit?”
I read the wall text for Martha Rosler’s exhibit at the New Foundation several times while walking through the show, wondering if these questions it posed were true. Given the severity of their implications, it was hard to fathom the organization’s small storefront having the capacity to answer them. Yet Rosler’s show, If You Lived Here Still, immediately gives the impression that it has answers in some form, if only because its medium is information. As soon as I walked beyond the introductory text, I felt inundated—with flyers, infographics, advertisements, newspaper clippings, posters and research notes.
If You Lived Here Still revisits the renowned Brooklyn artist’s 1989 exhibit at the Dia Art Foundation, If You Lived Here, mostly through documentation of the earlier project. If You Lived Here Still is part of Housing Is a Human Right, a yearlong, citywide series of exhibits and programs in Seattle related to Rosler’s work that is supported by the New Foundation, on the occasion of their awarding her a $100,000 grant.
Rosler’s original three-part, collaborative show at the Dia in ’89 focused on homelessness and housing accessibility—topics that rarely appear in mainstream visual arts galleries and museums to this day, reflecting Rosler’s routine refusal to engage in typical approaches to art making. Instead of the standard solo exhibit the Dia invited her to present, Rosler chose to put together a show that had less to do with aesthetics and more to do with impact. There was no beauty to be found in media headlines like, “Why We Have a Housing Crisis” and “Life at the Top, Where Even the Weather Is Different,” which Rosler collected, photocopied and, in the case of the latter, blew up to poster size, as it is now shown at The New Foundation. A panel discussion at the Seattle Public Library accompanied the launch of Housing Is a Human Right in late January, featuring a conversation between Rosler and local activists Alison Eisinger and Mary Flowers. During the talk, Rosler recounted the intent behind the Dia show’s “reading room,” which she explained as including “…not only books but flyers and pamphlets so that you could use words in relation to these issues at any level that you wanted and could feel comfortable doing so.”
At the New Foundation, Rosler’s archive is spread across a set of tables that fill the main gallery’s center. Video selections from If You Lived Here cycle continuously on a projector, while 35 videos created for the original exhibition are available on demand on two smaller monitors. In the back of the gallery, boxes of the artist’s personal research files and selections from her library line the shelves. And, mirroring the original exhibit’s format, the work currently on view is only the first cycle of three. In a time when Mayor Ed Murray has declared a state of emergency in response to the city’s homelessness crisis, Rosler’s old flyers about combating increased housing costs and police brutality against those living on the streets sound like they could have been printed yesterday, rather than 30 years ago.
Later, Rosler’s words and collected images followed me out of the gallery and across the country. While recently visiting Detroit, I drove by enough lumps of crumbled buildings to become accustomed to the stillness that lingers beneath the stale blanket of snow covering the city. But it was when I ashamedly went to see the Michigan Theater—one of the more famous sites of ruin porn, now used as a parking garage—the exhibit’s questions about whether Seattle is the next Detroit came back to mind.
Looking at the remains of the Michigan Theater, designed by Cornelius W. and George L. Rapp—the architects behind the similarly opulent Paramount in Seattle—the ease with which the landmarks of our lives can disappear couldn’t have been more apparent. In the decaying flourishes encasing the empty parking garage, I could see the utopic facade that had once covered the eyes of a city on the rise so completely that the theater’s present day state would have seemed as absurd as the thought of the Paramount meeting the same fate. And yet, here I was, standing in a version of Detroit so far afield from its peak as the fourth largest city in America that I had to sign a waiver to even walk into one of its most historic buildings, lest it crumble as I stood beneath its rotting shell.
As I stared into the plaster ceiling and patches of red stage curtain that peeled like chapped lips on a frigid night, I thought of the panel at the library. Rosler and Eisinger spoke out against the dehumanizing impulse to photograph people living on the streets as if they are examples of a problem rather than individuals. Although I was only staring into an empty building, I felt like some part of me was doing exactly what she said not to do: merely looking, rather than acting. Understanding the exhibit’s concerns on a purely visual level won’t prevent Detroit’s past from becoming Seattle’s future. The point of Housing Is a Human Right is to be moved beyond seeing, to gain enough awareness of the lives and futures at stake to engage with the questions it raises well beyond the confines of its galleries and public programs. By that standard, we can only know of the project’s success when we see whether a change truly comes this time around.
If You Lived Here Still is on view at the New Foundation through 30 July 2016 as part of Housing Is a Human Right, a citywide project that continues through 15 January 2017.