Reader: Derrick Velasquez Should Not Be Neutral on Gentrification

Derrick Velasquez, Black Cube artist fellow, before the debut of New Brutal.
Derrick Velasquez, Black Cube artist fellow, before the debut of New Brutal.
Black Cube

Derrick Velasquez's new piece for Black Cube, New Brutal 2, will debut today at La Alma Park at a Doors Open Denver event. The original New Brutal was shown last fall at the future Stanley Marketplace, and inspired this response from reader Laura Conway:

Derrick Velasquez’s piece New Brutal is set to have a second installation presented by Black Cube today. New Brutal is a conceptual art and architectural piece that aims to depoliticize gentrification. I attended the opening of his first installation and was shocked to find that Velasquez’ piece took no stance on the issue and was, by Velasquez’ words, “neutral.”  His views were further elaborated in a Westword article, "Taking on Gentrification and Urban Aesthetics at The New Denver + New Brutal," which reported that Velasquez hopes The New Denver + New Brutal would "focus on the aesthetics of gentrification rather than the politics of the issue.”

It is obscene to make a piece of art about such a real social and political issue as gentrification, and then define oneself as politically neutral — or worse, only interested in how social issues look. Gentrification by definition is the process whereby because of increased land value, poor and working class peoples are displaced from their homes. Gentrification is a social issue whose underbelly is homelessness, misery and continued oppression of Denver’s poor.

As Denver’s cityscape becomes wealthier, with boutiques and coffee shops filling what were once corner stores or empty storefronts, it is easy to overlook the displacement and affect on people who are no longer able to afford climbing rents. It is now more than ever that the effects of gentrification on people’s lives needs to be highlighted, not hidden. Yet Velasquez seeks only to address the aesthetics of gentrification. “I hope we can just break it down and talk about the aesthetics of buildings, from street level to the bird’s eye view. When you think about gentrification, it has an aesthetics component at the base of it,” he told Westword.

It is possible to remain bipartisan and still with one’s work ask meaningful questions, for example How does the aesthetics of gentrification inform and reflect its social meaning? It seems that Velasquez hopes to avoid these more challenging questions. I challenge Velasquez: Would you make an installation piece about the wartorn children of Syria and ask that it be thought of as mere aesthetics? Would you take photos of Denver’s homeless dying on freezing cold nights, and ask that we simply look at the formal composition of their lifeless bodies? The first comparison that comes to mind is that of Leni Riefenstahl, who defended her Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will during the Nuremberg trials as being a film purely about beauty.

Derrick, if you have nothing to say, please, don’t join the conversation.

We're betting that Velasquez will have plenty to say at today's opening of New Brutal 2, which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. today, April 23, as part of  Doors Open Denver; he's slated to offer an artist's talk at 5 p.m. in the La Alma/Lincoln Park amphitheater at West 11th Avenue and Osage Street.  In the meantime, you can hear more from the artist in this recent interview in which he discusses art, displacement and New Brutal 2. Visit blackcubeart.org for more information.

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