"It's essential to be a shitkicker," said Martha Rosler to the SRO crowd Saturday night at the Seattle Central Library.
Rosler is an artist, but her appearance in Seattle, sponsored by The New Foundation, is not intended to generate art. It's intended to generate action against rising housing costs, gentrification, and homelessness in Seattle and the surrounding county. (Interview with Rosler.)
Rosler, social justice worker Mary Flowers, and housing advocate Alison Eisinger spoke out Saturday.
Rosler urged artists to organize in their neighborhoods. She disputed that artists are self-interested loners. "Artists have a deeply held messianic streak... They just need to be reminded that the time is now," she said.
People who live in the northern Seattle neighborhoods where incredibly awful NIMBYs are making noise should organize their own counter-groups and make their own noise.
Repeat: If you live in the north and are mortified by the NIMBYs, form your own group.
Taking a chapter from Rosler's art, you might create a poster campaign and plaster up your peace. You might show up to City Hall and neighborhood meetings. You might march outside your neighborhood's homeless encampment with unforgettable signs. You might shitkick in all directions.
Flowers works at the city. Has done for 25 years. She also raised several kids. At the city, she advocates for social justice, and she is grateful to have a job, she told the crowd.
But she works outside her job. The work that needs to be done to stop the madness happening in Seattle—which is becoming richer and whiter by the day, pushing more and more people out to the margins and onto the streets—will not be paid work, Flowers said.
Repeat: Do not expect to be paid to do this work.
"The fixing of the system is not the work they're gonna pay you to do," she said. "That's the work we're gonna do at home, in the streets."
Rosler warned artists: "Don't let yourself become a pearl" in the process of gentrification. "It's really important to join together into local or tenant or neighborhood groups and ... to show up and be consistent."
Eisinger is head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which reported last week in its one-night count a jump of 19 percent in the number of people sleeping on the street over last year's count.
On Saturday, Eisinger added that this year's 19-percent jump follows a 21-percent jump measured last year. Even more stunning: King County's count is up 48 percent, she said.
Because Rosler's art—at The New Foundation and Seattle Art Museum now—is a prompt for a year-long series of events across the city called Housing Is A Human Right, Seattle has "an incredibly fun, exciting, powerful opportunity to have true dialogue" about "the inconvenient and unphotogenic realities of what homelessness looks like in the richest country in the history of the world," Eisinger said.
Several people approached the microphone with questions during the Q&A at the end. The last question came from artist and theorist micha cárdenas, a professor at UW Bothell. She asked the panelists to stop using generalizing terms like "the system" and start calling out that system's specific traits to make clear that "the system" doesn't target all people equally—people of color and trans people are specially targeted for poverty and displacement. Then, she asked, "So what is happening during the one-year project... how is it housing people?"
We all have to answer that.