U.S. Politics and the Economy

Ghost Ship is Our Triangle Fire

By Alexander Billet and Adam Turl

America hates its artists. America hates its young working-class people.

Thirty-six people are dead. They are victims of an art and music economy that doesn’t work for the majority of artists and musicians. They are dead because art has become financialized. They are dead because gentrification is taking away our right to the city—and pushing artists and young workers to the margins—especially (but not only) artists of color. And because of gentrification the urban life-rafts for gender non-conforming and queer young people are shrinking. You can’t stay in the small towns, but you can’t afford San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle and Portland.

Real estate developers want to take advantage of this tragedy for their own ends. Instead of making these “underground” spaces safe for the people who live there—they will take them away and make expensive condos and lofts. And local government, while pretending to care about artists and young people, will actively help displace them.

On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly women, mostly Jewish and Italian, mostly immigrants, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The clothing factory—full of cloth particles in the air and scraps on the floor—caught fire quickly. The exits were locked to prevent the workers from taking unauthorized breaks—to squeeze every last cent from their labor.  In the aftermath, workers organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. They fought back.

The Ghost Ship is our Triangle Fire. At least it should be.

Art in a schizoid society

“We live in a schizoid society,” Danielle Thys writes in an article titled “America Has Abandoned Its Artists,” “that denigrates process and deifies product… We bleed money for the goods creative individuals produce once they’re established. But we do next to nothing—and I mean seriously…nothing—to support those individuals in the interim. No education, no training, no grants, no subsidies, no rental assistance, no significant tax breaks, no safe space to work or live or perform. Yes, there are struggling, anemic programs here or there. But there is ostensibly no safety net and the cuts keep coming to the thin thread that masquerades as one.”

Even USA Today acknowledged the problem:

“[T]he second tech boom in the past six years prompted warehouse spaces and lofts in San Francisco’s formerly industrial areas—once home to artists—to rapidly give way to high-end condos and live-work spaces that only start-ups with venture capital funding can afford.”

This pattern is repeated in city after city. As the urban core is gentrified, working-class people, people of color and artists (groups that overlap significantly), are being displaced.

While most economically developed countries provide more substantial support to the arts (although gentrification and abuse of artists occurs everywhere) there is almost no public support for the arts in the United States.

As Thys observes, Germany spends $20 per taxpayer in annual art funding compared to forty-three cents in the U.S. The British government spends $728 million annually on museums, “nearly five times the entire $146 million budget of the U.S. National Endowment of the Arts.” Thys continues:

“The budget of the French Ministry of Culture is more than $10 Billion —yes—with a ‘B’. Northern Ireland, with its population of less than two million people, awards over $21 million annually for arts, literature and theatre projects. In South Korea, the Culture Ministry committed over $50 Billion (!) toward the development (and often training and housing) of Korean musicians, performers and artists with a goal of proudly promoting Korean arts and culture abroad. That amount represents a lowball of the initial investment South Korea made in the Korean Wave. But their budget for 2017 is around $7 Billion, just behind France.

“Mexican artists can pay their taxes with artwork in an ‘art for amnesty’ type of exchange. The Mexican government then displays the work in museums and government offices. Among other sizable benefits for artists, Finland allocates $45 million toward the arts for its 5.3 million citizens. We are bested by Uzbekistan and the Balkans.”

There is no (human) reason for artists to be pushed to the edge. In 2014 the art market was worth about $66 billion globally. But in the U.S. only about 5,000 artists were able to make a living through their art. The global art market shrank by about seven percent in 2016—but the blue chip artworks at auction continued to make record sales—meaning the decline was in large part in compensation to living working artists.

In the music industry, the past year has seen revenue bounce back to record levels after years of slump. The reason? Primarily the dominance of streaming services, whose profits have overtaken physical record sales for the first time. Not by coincidence, most of these services pay musicians mere pennies each time their song is played. A similar dynamic plays out in the other American culture industries. From film to theater to publishing. Billions made, scraps doled out.

Young workers—and young artists are mostly also young workers—face little social support and dimming economic prospects. There is precariousness across the post-industrial world—shorter job tenure, lower wages, fewer unions, higher unemployment, and worsening racism—but the lack of free education and a genuine welfare system in the U.S. makes things particularly bleak. While college education is nearly free or subsidized in much of Europe, it shackles U.S. students in decades-long indentured servitude.

An unmeasured number of artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers and performers—particularly those with an experimental framework or “minority” identity—find themselves either shut out of the mainstream of their industries or have, understandably, turned their back on its cutthroat competition and aesthetic formulae. Without social support for artists or education—with skyrocketing rents and stagnant incomes, burgeoning bigotry against people of color, trans, queer and gender-non-conforming people, and rising xenophobia against immigrants—underground spaces like the Ghost Ship are a life-raft, however insufficient and potentially dangerous, for an apparently despised generation.

In between the big galleries and the artists, the big music labels and musicians, are a host of middlemen and gallerists. Many are well-intentioned art lovers who want to see artists and musicians succeed. But many are also hustlers and parasites. According to Autostraddle the “master tenant” of the Ghost Ship was one of these latter. It is possible, of course, that the mainstream media is exaggerating some of these details in order to create a villain seemingly removed from the overall structural problems responsible for this tragedy. Some have rallied around the master tenant/commune leader of the Ghost Ship.

Stealing the cities from us

The overarching problem, however, is the corporate theft of the Bay Area—the gentrification of San Francisco and now Oakland. They are taking away our right to the city.

As Rolling Stone explains in “Victims of Gentrification:” “Residents of these ‘live-work’ artistic communes often live in fear of losing these spaces, further keeping them from reporting unsafe living conditions to the city which could potentially shut down the space if not up to code.”

Our editors have a long history with DIY art and music spaces. We can attest to the veracity of Rolling Stone’s assertion.

Commentators and officials rushed to blame “ravers’ and ‘event-goers’” supposed reckless behavior. They have traded in stereotypes about irresponsible and immature outsiders too hopped up on drugs to apply for a permit. Oakland artists, DJs and activists have been quick to step up in the alternative and mainstream media, explaining in detail why the Bay Area’s housing crisis is to blame. Performance venues and galleries that have in the past been able to stay up to code, to provide a physically safe space, are being priced out, pushing creatives to marginal fringe spaces. In recent days, a coalition of Bay Area artists have come together to insist that governments find a sustainable solution for the arts community—one that doesn’t include callous eviction notices.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff was booed and jeered at a vigil for the Ghost Ship. Rightfully so. People resent the Mayor for two major reasons—her relationship to gentrification and the assumption that this fire would be used as a pretext to evict more artists and young people. Her antagonized relationship to social struggles like Black Lives Matter contributed to this (correct) distrust.

“When people hear ‘safety’ coming out of her mouth, they interpret it as cracking down on these warehouse spaces, which is really what people want to avoid,” [Marke] Bieschke told BuzzFeed News. “I think ‘safety’ is going to quickly become a buzzword for evicting and cracking down on these marginalized communities.”

Cynthia, who asked to only be identified by her first name, added that community members were frustrated by Schaaf’s focus on the fact that Ghost Ship was zoned as a warehouse, not as a live/work space, rather than on finding ways to “use Oakland’s resources to help creative spaces get up to code and help protect people’s lives.”

Since the vigil Shaff has promised to marshal $1.7 million to “grant affordable spaces for the city’s arts organizations.” There are few reasons to believe this promise is sincere. First, the funds are all private. No city funds are being allocated. Second, the sum is, in actuality, very small. And much of it could be eaten up in administrative costs for established art organizations with few direct ties to the underground milieu. 

This small allocation will not stem the tide of Bay Area gentrification. The fire is already being used a pretext for evictions—and not just in Oakland. Already, police in Denver have used the Ghost Ship fire as a pretext to shut down indie venue Rhinoceropolis and its sister space the Glob. Both spaces were previously up to code, but were nonetheless deemed unsafe by city fire officials after a surprise inspection.

Neoliberal city-planners and real estate developers are trying to implement a European urban model—concentrating wealth in the city center and pushing working-class and poor people to the periphery. Nowhere has this model gone further than in Paris. In the run-down, poverty-stricken but centrally located Marais, entire streets were evicted in the 1960s and 1970s. “The last thing that would have occurred to those with the power to do something about it,” Luc Sante wrote, “would have been to repair the houses for the benefit of those who lived in them.”

The art of working class and poor people is used to add aesthetic value to a neighborhood, to burnish it as “up and coming.” “unique” or “trendy,” then leverage out these very artists. What is left is an echo of the working-class, ethnic and artistic value that made a neighborhood beautiful and interesting. But it is gutted and emptied of its soul. Not unlike what became of Marais: “retaining the facades of the buildings along a street while gutting their interiors, presumably salvaging any Louis XVI mantelpieces that might come along.”

They steal everything from us. Winning it back will require real, substantive struggle and victories for artists, working-class people, poor people, queer and trans folk, people of color. It will require a fighting Left that, despite some signs of life, is sorely lacking right now. If this is our Triangle Fire, then artists stand everything to gain from rallying round such a project. The same way their shirtwaist counterparts did in 1911.

DIY Spaces and Artists, Queers, Weirdos + Punks

Any among us who have tried their hand at music, art, or literature can likely see a bit of ourselves in some of those who died on the night of the fire. Many of them created stunning work that resonated far beyond the Bay Area.

Electro-punk artist Joey Casio, Cash Askew from the dream-pop group Them Are Us Too, trans poet and social justice activist Em B, filmmaker Alex Ghassan, DJ and recording artist Cherushii, visual artist Jonathan Bernbaum, UC Berkeley graduate David Cline, sound engineer Barrett Clark, musician and producer Billy Dixon, artist and illustrator David McCarty, art school student Draven McGill, doctoral candidate Jennifer Mendiola, industrial techno artist Nex Iugulo, MIT graduate Nicholas Walrath, Harvard graduate Peter Wadsworth, underground rap scene booker Alex Vega, nail artist Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, Benjamin Runnels and Denalda Nicole Renae of Introflirt, jewelry designer and stylist Hanna Ruax, musicians Wolfgang Renner and his partner Michele Sylvan, UC Berkeley student Vanessa Plotkin, queer artist and musician Feral Pines, UC Berkeley student Jennifer Morris, university arts organization member Griffin Madden, former indie label intern Edmond Lapine, arts community member Donna Kellogg, professional photographer Amanda Kershaw, zine artist Ara Jo, Ghost of Lightning musician Travis Hough, teacher Sara Hoda, San Francisco State University student Michela Gregory, musician Nick Gomez-Hall, DJ Johnny Igaz (who was performing when the fire started), show organizer Micah Danemayer.

These are all people who found identity and community in their art, which is to say nothing of what they contributed as teachers, students, mothers, fathers, friends.

The archetype of the artist as “outcast” is very easy to romanticize, but it doesn’t come out of the ether. Any world of profound inequality is bound to produce any number of expressions seeking to mediate it, to find like-thinkers and kindred in society’s liminal spaces. Art in the midst of exploitation is bound to traverse this alienation, and cross over with the fault-lines of oppression.

As Autostraddle noted, many of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire were queer, trans, people of color. They quote Gabe Meline (“It Could Have Been Any One Of Us,”

“…for many of us, these spaces are what have kept us alive. In a world that demands its inhabitants to be a certain way, think a certain way, or live a certain way, we gravitate to the spaces that say: Welcome. Be yourself. For the tormented queer, the bullied punk, the beaten trans, the spat-upon white trash, the disenfranchised immigrants and young people of color, these spaces are a haven of understanding in a world that doesn’t understand—or can’t, or doesn’t seem to want to try…”

If the Ghost Ship fire is an example of neoliberalism’s not-so-benign neglect exploding in profound violence, then the lack of an alternative to it has also produced a far more deliberate, sinister manifestation. Donald Trump aims to shred what little social welfare remains—while whipping up racism and bigotry against dozens of groups. Even worse, he has emboldened the neo-fascist “alt-right” minority who were his most loyal supporters.

Even in the case of this tragedy some of these “people” have taken aim at us. Nazis on 4chan have posited the notion of gathering names and information on DIY spaces in Oakland and shutting them down:

“These places are open hotbeds of liberal radicalism and degeneracy and now YOU can stop them by reporting all such places you may be or may become aware of to the authorities, specifically the local fire marshel [sic].

“Watch them and follow them to their hives. Infiltrate social circles, go to parties/events, record evidence, and report it. We’ve got them on the run but now we must crush their nests before they can regroup! 

“MAGA [Make America Great Again] my brothers and happy hunting!”

It’s an undeniably terrible note to end on. But it highlights the jagged edges of American life that are colliding right now—with very little safety net to catch those who fall—and the position of artists in the midst of it all. There is no negotiating with those who have drawn targets on our backs. Likewise, there is no negotiating with a system that wants to bury our intellectual and creative selves under high rents, low wages, and vigilante terror.

Alexander Billet is a writer, poet and cultural critic. His articles have appeared in Jacobin, The Nation, Z Magazine, In These Times,, New Politics, International Socialist Review, Electronic Intifada and Marx & Philosophy Review of Books. He is an alumnus of Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts and has been involved in several anti-racist, anti-war and labor solidarity campaigns. He is a founding editor at Red Wedge and blogs on matters of music, poetry and performance at “Atonal Notes.”

Adam Turl is an artist and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). He is currently in residency at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris, France. Turl is also an art critic for the West End Word and an editor at Red Wedge Magazine. 

Red Wedge Magazine, December 12, 2016