The District Arts Palace: Artist-activists negotiating space, politics, and action in the age of Trump
Siobhan McGuirk (Goldsmiths University of London)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explains how artist-activists use public and private spaces in Washington, D.C. to foster debate, develop political ideas, build community, and create new visual cultures. Tensions arising in the context of capitalism and gentrification pose challenges but also generate new possibilities.
Paper long abstract:
Following the election of President Trump in November 2016, Washington D.C. has become a focal point for high-profile rallies. While important, these large-scale actions often obscure the long-standing and ongoing work of activists and artists within the D.C. metro area. In this paper, I address the quotidian activities and internal debates of local groups that maintain and create space for art-based social justice action within the challenging context of rapid gentrification. Across D.C., posters, stickers, banners, and projections interrupt the visual horizon, transforming the built environment into a canvas of dissent. These protest objects are designed, made, and distributed through networks of local activists—many of whom help run private meeting and organizing spaces wherein the production of visual materials overlaps with in-person debates over political aims and strategies. The District Arts Palace (DAP) is one such space—an unused commercial building first leased by large NGOs to build floats for a major rally before being relinquished to local artist-activists. Drawing on ethnographic data collected over the past year, I address tensions that have arisen within artist-activist circles in D.C., including how anti-capitalist groups negotiate reliance on foundation-funded NGOs and well-connected individuals for access to resources—from printers, paints, and canvasses to space rental fees. This tension is exacerbated by existing divides between long-term residents and area newcomers, and by the rapidly increasing cost of living that is pushing low-income individuals out of the city. While challenging, I argue that these frictions are generating new political and creative possibilities.
Conflict and Activism