A hater's response: Why I can't get down with Klip Collective's installation at Bok - Technical.ly Philly

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Jun. 7, 2016 12:45 pm

A hater’s response: Why I can’t get down with Klip Collective’s installation at Bok

In a city rife with reinvention, Christopher Rogers asks, what's the creative class's responsibility to Philadelphia?

Part of "Vacant America," Klip Collective's new installation at the Bok.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post by educator and entrepreneur Christopher Rogers. If you want to discuss these issues further, join Rogers' Social Justice Book Club this summer.

“When a commercial project is subjected to artwashing, the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation. … By highlighting the new creative uses for inner-city areas, it presents regeneration not through its long-term effects—the transfer of residency from poor to rich—but as a much shorter journey from neglect to creativity.” Feargus O’Sullivan, 2014

A “hater’s” response.

For the past week, right around when creative agency Klip Collective launched its latest art installation at the former Bok Technical High School, I have been trying to understand what I am really mad about when Bok’s reinvention crosses my ears and eyes.

I was one of the many who had questions for Scout, the real estate developers who announced in 2014 that they would turn Bok into a massive creative space. Last fall, I tried to make sense of it in a blog post. One that not only exposed their “artwashing” actions, but also the larger trend of creative placemaking in Philadelphia and its role in urban gentrification.

Scout managing partner Lindsey Scannapieco’s team are made up of good people. But maybe that’s my issue. It’s too easy to be considered a good person in a world where we know increasingly ugly things are happening. Where we know increasingly ugly things are forgotten. Where we find increasingly ugly things are dismissed.

In this process, good people find opportunity (and often, support from those in power) to reimagine deep histories for shallow, surface, pop-up allure because reinventing and repurposing is what keeps us afloat amidst the oceanic abyss of poverty, violence and injustice.

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Under the veil, this serves a clear purpose: We must quickly do away with the feelings of anxiety, guilt, disgust and fear that haunt good people when reminded of yesterday’s persisting failures.

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My mother was a public school teacher in the perpetually troubled Chester-Upland School District. She instilled in me a love for learning and a zeal for working within community. Success in my home was never to be defined in an individual sense, but rather the spillover effects that one’s labor of love could offer the family and community surrounding them.

My inheritance of her love for learning would sustain me through the needle’s eye of opportunity that is (and remains) available in Chester. I persevered well enough through the failed state education policy interventions at Chester High School to be bestowed a diversity scholarship to attend the nationally-recognized Villanova School of Business.

When the Bok team dabbles in the language of the 'forgotten' and 'discarded,' they must take into consideration that many are still grieving.

There, I was first introduced to the idea of “social entrepreneurship.” The concept of socially responsible business offered as an altruistic act of generosity was a cheap lament far from the proverbs that my momma had left me. I understood that working on behalf of was a distant cry from being with and for. My momma would say that your life was never about you in the first place, but your ability to live up to ideas outside yourself (“God’s work,” she’d say): community, reciprocity, love.

This tension has never left me. Chester taught us that I am because we are. Chester taught us that we would be judged not only on the merits of our individual lives, but on how we offered counsel to those within our midst as they confronted their struggles. Because our fates are linked.

Chester taught us that collective purpose was our legacy to uphold. When more than 20 schools are shuttered across Philadelphia, a majority of those schools serving Black and Brown families, I have to take heed to what message that sends throughout the neighborhood. I don’t find there to be any honor or anything to save from that act and continued message of closed opportunity. I brokenheartedly know too many lives that have been squandered and/or lost due to their self-recognition of the unlivable destiny that society has set forth for them.

When the Bok team and others of the growing and needed Philadelphia creative sector dabble in the language of the “forgotten” and “discarded,” they must take into consideration that many are still grieving, still wounded by the erasing public promise of quality education.

Narratives of a golden past serve as a reminder of stolen futures.

South Philly's now-shuttered Bok Technical School. (Photo via Next City)

South Philly’s now-shuttered Bok Technical School. (Photo via Next City)

“I hear the storm. They talk to me about progress, about ‘achievements;’ diseases cured, improved standards of living. I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.” Aimé Cesaire, 1955

In my practice as an education entrepreneur, I attempt to keep a steady diet of critical inquiry gleaned from the practices of social justice movements to keep my work honest and what I feel to be in line with my mother’s blessing from above. Particularly for those whose work accentuates the community-minded and forward-looking, I believe them to be of critical importance. Questions like:

  • Are we, across the organization, acutely aware of the suffering, both historical and current, that our work seeks to respond? Am I aware of how my past and present labor, decisions and ignorances may contribute to this problem? How is this info public-facing for those around us to self-assess?
  • How might our project work obscure, or be made to obscure, structural injustices that led to this current opportunity? How are we publicly pointing towards the interconnectedness of this issue with other issues, simultaneously local, regional, national, global?
  • How can we leverage resources to ensure dialogue and action centers on the necessity of structural changes to address those populations left vulnerable due to the imbalance or failure that we have recognized? How are we planning towards our eventual obsolescence?
  • How does my project continue to recognize and invest resources in the marginalized communities’ capacities and skills to struggle toward systemic change? How are we uplifting their voice in our current approach?

This response is not centrally about the merits of Bok’s reinvention or whether South Philly can sustain a 216,000-square-foot creative hub within a very recently disinvested and shuttered Philadelphia public school. Nor is it seeking to condemn folks who with all their greatest intentions are attempting to make the best out of a terrible situation.

In my clearest understanding, I know that no individual supersedes the whole and we must keep our minds aimed towards collectively reorganizing the systems that leave many Philadelphians exposed to various vulnerabilities and striving to make a life in spite of imposed precarity.

I hope this response can be useful in exposing the “rise of the creative class” in Philadelphia and centrally about us all never forgetting that we exist within a shared death-dealing situation; its mechanics and effects are still very much so present and in need of much more than a singular solution. Creatives — both lifelong neighborhood residents and newly-minted transplants — must recognize that we all are within a struggle between Philadelphia populations we deem as deserving of investment and those we curse as disposable.

I beg of you that this is everybody’s problem, and that those who have been privileged by this unnecessary violence hold great leverage in its dismantling. This is about recognizing that there is no neutrality in reuse and redevelopment or any creative enterprise. This is about the construction of an ecosystem of transparency amongst those searching to live, love and work in Philadelphia.

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Christopher Rogers

Christopher Rogers is the lead director of JustMaybeCo., an education startup looking to bridge community engagement and deep learning in the classroom. He is a local educator and core member of TAG Philadelphia.

  • ambiguator

    Thank you for this insightful piece that raises important issues.
    I think this perspective has been missing from some of the earlier critiques of the work going on at Bok.

    I read your blog post from last Fall (linked above) as well.
    Compared to last year’s, this post is less lamentation and more actionable advice and principles.

    One question though: did you see the installation?
    Does it, as you suggest, attempt to “do away with the feelings of anxiety, guilt, disgust and fear that haunt good people when reminded of yesterday’s persisting failures”? Or does it honor those feelings? Does it bury those failures under the gauze of sentimentality? Or does it help us reflect on them, and educate those of us who aren’t familiar?
    I’m asking sincerely, because I haven’t seen it yet to make up my own mind.

    As a relative newcomer to the neighborhood (“only” 10 years) I don’t share the deep sense of loss that you illustrate above.
    If the building had turned into condos, there would almost surely be no such opportunity for reflection.
    Can we appreciate that pieces like this help to educate folks like me?

    • Christopher Rogers

      I didn’t see it either. But i read the article last week and was annoyed with how Ricardo Rivera attempted to erase and belittle our claims by calling us haters and saying our motives were bullshit. So I wanted to respond. Your question here I really do appreciate, and think reverberates around many issues in Philadelphia. Education around issues. Where does that happen? What pathways are there for those around us to figure out the context in which we are placed or step into?

      For those burdened by unjust systems, it brings me back to this:

      “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”
      ? Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

      There lives the constant delusion that what the problem is a lack of education. I don’t really see that as true. I see it more as selective viewing and a willed ignorance that happens when we construct segregated worlds. Because, truth is, I’ve only been here in North Philly 4 years out of Chester, PA. But my work, and more, my personal choices and commitments bring me within a world where I understand, feel, and strive to alleviate the ridiculous amounts of trauma that is experienced within the marginalized communities of Philadelphia. And also knowing that across neighborhoods, these systems are connected. So I think we can choose to learn more and embrace. Like we can educate ourselves, if the will is there.

      So maybe Vacant America and the Klip Collective see a market there, the ability to educate the public and also draw in some revenue or capital (for some sort of philanthropic purpose I’m sure), I don’t see that as bad. I do see it as placating some righteous indignation at an instance (Bok) and larger trends (Philadelphia gentrification spurred by the rise of the creative class).

      At the end of the day, I am seeking for our collective focus to be on the behavioral and policy changes needed for transformation.

  • Butch S.

    Ironically, the issues that Mr. Rogers raises in this article are some of the same issues that Klip Collective’s Vacant America project seeks to address: the past, present and future of our country’s vacant spaces. Why Mr. Rogers “can’t get down” with the installation remains a mystery after reading this, since not one word of his piece specifically addresses the installation’s content or its message. While Mr. Rogers sets forth a detailed set of criteria by which a work of art can be critiqued, he never actually applies these criteria to the Vacant America piece, probably because he hasn’t actually seen it. I think that if Chris Rogers had bothered to experience Vacant America at Bok, he would realize that Vacant America is asking some of the same questions he is asking. This is what is meant by “hater” – someone who has formed an opinion without first considering what he is criticizing.

    • Christopher Rogers

      well, true. I decided I would probably never go when Ricardo Rivera called folks who had something to say about the Bok reinvention “haters”, and said our reasons for protest were “bullshit.” But maybe that was part of his grand marketing scheme to get people to come to the exhibit in the first place…for the artwork to repeat what we already said and were criticized for?…but this time to get past the criticism, they stacked chairs and ran some projectors (from the photos) inside the building w/ the management’s approval instead of passing out leaflets and beginning conversations out front.

      So, if its true that we agree on said conditions, then we are talking about policy and behavioral changes. So I’m not so much interested in critiquing the art, which is probably awe-inducing and handled with care, but awe-inducing artwork isn’t a strategy plan to fix unjust systems. I propose that it serves as a distraction from it. A way to process feelings without due reparations.

      -Chris

  • https://twitter.com/seo207b Anittah/Digital

    Boy am I sick of privileged white men like Ricardo Rivera voicing opinions.

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