A left-leaning independent publisher has canceled a book launch event it had planned at a gallery in Boyle Heights, citing a pledge from anti-gentrification and "art-washing" activists to disrupt it.
"Our event is not going ahead," said Hedi El Kholti, co-editor of Semiotext(e), in a statement he provided to L.A. Weekly.
The publisher had planned to hold a conversation on Oct. 5 between author Chris Kraus and art writer and editor Bruce Hainley at 356 Mission, an arts organization located on the new gallery row in Boyle Heights. Kraus, best-known for her novel I Love Dick (and the 2016 Amazon series by the same name), has been traveling to promote the release of her new biography of writer-performer Kathy Acker, published in August by Semiotext(e).
"In this climate of harassment and online trolling, there'd be no point trying to have a conversation between Bruce Hainley and Chris Kraus about biography, fiction and historiography," El Kholti said. "Defend Boyle Heights has promised to disrupt it."
Defend Boyle Heights, an ad hoc alliance of activists, has waged an aggressive public campaign for more than a year to reverse the recent influx of art galleries, coffee shops and other businesses that member activists say are enabling gentrification in the neighborhood. They are asking artists to cancel events at galleries in the warehouse district, or to move them to "non-gentrifying spaces."
The activists claimed victory when Pssst Gallery closed in February after the nonprofit struggled to cope with what its founders said were "constant attacks" from anti-gentrifcation activists.
Angel Luna, a member of Defend Boyle Heights who was born and raised in the neighborhood, says the art galleries are complicit in the rise in the cost of living in the neighborhood. "We are asking all of the art galleries of the warehouse district of Boyle Heights to relocate somewhere else and not contribute to the gentrification of Boyle Heights," Luna says. "We understand that art galleries are a useful tool to increase financial speculation and drive up profit in gentrifying areas. This is our reality and our reason for the boycott."
Anonymous acts of vandalism have accompanied the call for boycott, though Defend Boyle Heights and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, or BHAAAD, an allied group, have denied involvement. A potato gun reportedly was shot at the attendees of an art show. Someone spray-painted “Fuck white art” on the roll-up gate of Nicodim Gallery late last year. Another person fired a rock with a slingshot and cracked the glass door of Weird Wave Coffee, a shop that opened on César Chavez Avenue in July. Activists reportedly walked into the BBQLA gallery and threw laundry detergent on people gathered there for an opening.
When author Kraus spoke on a panel at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, activists with ties to the anti-gentrification boycott in Boyle Heights intervened. Asked about the boycott of 356 Mission, Kraus said, "We're not going to relocate the event." Others held up a banner that read, “I LOVE DIckSPLACEMENT.”
Semiotext(e) publishes an eclectic catalog of authors ranging from European Marxist theorists to American writers and activists, including former Black Panther Party leaders. It is credited with introducing French theory to the American public. One of its founders, Sylvère Lotringer, a younger contemporary of French thinkers Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault, was formerly married to Kraus.
Kraus and Lotringer co-edited the anthology Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, published in 2001. BHAAAD has criticized comments Kraus made in an interview with The Believer about investing in real estate and managing rental properties.
El Kholti says Semiotext(e) was emailed a "communiqué" on Sept. 20 demanding the publisher apologize and in a public statement "denounce" 356 Mission and the art organization's founders and directors by name. The dispatch also demanded that Semoitext(e) pull its titles from Ooga Booga, a bookseller and design shop that operates out of 356 Mission and at a separate location in Chinatown. Rather than give in to the demands,
Semiotext(e) decided to cancel the event, El Kholti said in the statement.
"This isn't to say we are canceling because we recognize the boycott. We find it naive, making impossible demands for a functioning gallery to immediately vacate, and we think that 356 Mission Road, Pssst, Self-Help Graphics, for example, have been unfairly targeted."
Luna, of Defend Boyle Heights, says it is "distressing" that a radical publisher is siding with the art galleries. He added that the decision to cancel the book launch was only a partial victory, since the publisher has refused to pull its titles from Ooga Booga, whose owner is a co-founder of 356 Mission.
In his statement, El Kholti likened such demands to censorship:
"As a Moroccan immigrant who grew up in a country with no freedom of the press and general censorship of books, I am troubled by the idea of being asked to remove books from any bookshop and to denounce people who are friends and I believe to be easy scapegoats for a much larger issue that we absolutely care about deeply."
It is not the first event canceled at 356 Mission as a result of the boycott. A screening of artist Ambar Navarro's Watch Me Age was canceled in February, and a concert by Japanese noise band Hijokaidan was relocated in June, according to a statement emailed to L.A. Weekly by a representative of 356 Mission.
Before the latest cancellation, BHAAAD issued a statement on Facebook impugning the directors of the gallery:
They have abandoned dialogue in favor of hoping this working-class community of Latinx folks disappear, so the “creative class” can dictate what art & culture looks like and for whom, build mega-galleries for millionaires, and enjoy $5 cold brews with cops while relishing the convenience of their racist neoliberal politics in a freshly sanitized enclave.
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The gallery's representative — who did not provide a name and claimed to be speaking on behalf of the entire staff — responded:
We have never said anything like this and this is not how we feel. We met with them once. We came with several ideas ... all of which they refused to hear until we agreed that 356 Mission would cease to exist immediately, the keys would be handed over to them, and we would sign a statement of their design. An ultimatum is not dialogue. They would only agree to further meetings if we agreed to these conditions.
BHAAD's recent attempt at pressuring another cultural event to relocate from the neighborhood was unsuccessful. Despite the group's issuing a statement on Facebook censuring organizer Paul Pescador and the artists in the "Facing" exhibition at the BBQLA gallery, the show opened without incident on Sept. 22 and remains on view.