Performance Artist Kunst Calls Out Miami Gentrification and Inequality With “Town Crier” Series
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Kunst before if you’ve interacted the Miami queer scene. If you haven’t, you may find yourself hearing their politically charged shouts on the street of any one of Miami’s gentrified spaces this year.
“Consume! Consume! Consume!” Kunst yelled at shoppers in the Miami Design District in May. Accompanied by a loud bell and an even louder costume and facepaint, they also protested Wynwood Pride last month and handed out pamphlets to passersby.
This is Kunst’s latest performance art series, “Town Crier,” which they perform throughout South Florida on a monthly basis. In the aftermath of their Wynwood Pride protest, as well as their upcoming performance at Brickell City Center on July 27th, we spoke with the artist about the series and the monopolization and exploitation of Miami’s queer scene.
New Times: What is the “Town Crier” series?
Kunst: The “Town Crier” is a series of site-specific performances done every month for as long as I can keep it up wherein I perform the role of a town crier. Historically, the role of the crier was to deliver proclamations in a market or square on behalf of the royal court. They were elaborately dressed and utilized a handbell to underscore their deliverances. In my work, rather than delivering assertions on behalf of a royal court, I deliver my proclamations on behalf of the working class in the places where such proclamations function as interventions into space that are focused on disrupting the minutiae of capitalist ideologies that articulate our understandings of space and context.
Where did the inspiration for it come from?
The work was primarily inspired by my desire to push my work outside of the constrained space of a nightclub or a gallery and back into the public sphere. I’ve become very dissatisfied with producing work for clandestine spaces. Miami is a city whose public landscape is ripe for performance commentary. It’s time we as performance artists in this city utilize those spaces.
Was there any particular event that pushed you over the edge into executing it the concept?
The work first was inspired by my compulsion to find a way to disrupt the rhetoric of the David Grutman billboard in the Design District that proclaims “What is Miami Right Now? This is.” Seemingly signaling that a high-end luxury retail neighborhood built atop a working-class community represents the complex historicized cultural communities that comprise the city of Miami. I knew the traditional vandalism of a spray can or bucket of paint would be met with either an arrest, a citation, or probably both. So I developed a performance series that would be able to be implemented in that space as well as fleshed out to encompass others, thereby producing a series of evolving works rather than just one reactionary piece.
And so the first installation involved walking around Miami’s Design District. Can you walk us through the piece?
So it started right at high noon. I walked from my home in Buena Vista to the intersection of 39th and NE First Avenue and began the performance. The spoken dimension of the performance is done entirely spontaneously. The critiques within the proclamations emerge alongside the context I’m situated in as I moved through the Design District. Almost immediately Design District security and Miami-Dade Police showed up to monitor what I was doing. Having been a community organizer for many years and this not being my first direct action I knew to keep moving and remain on the sidewalk. Here, the site necessitated an absurd occupation of the area to match the sheer absurdity of the phantasmic luxury space created in the district. I wanted to be bad for business.
As consumers passed by I praised them for their adherence to the capitalist maxim, one I shouted back quite loudly: “Consume! Consume! Consume!” And “Buy! Buy! Buy!” Similarly, I goaded consumers to comment on their dollar amount spent at places like Swan and Dior, asking how much money they’ve donated to the Puerto Rico relief funds or to Flint, Michigan. When I walked through Michael’s Genuine, [that] was when the police started to try and intervene and stop the performance. I was told that if I approached another business I’d be arrested on the spot. So, naturally, I moved to the area outside Estefan Kitchen and occupied the Buckminster Fuller sculpture before having to swiftly run from the police to avoid arrest or an altercation. The work was meant to be disruptive and affronting. I think I achieved that.
What were the general reactions to it, both in the moment and after the fact?
Most people I think were confused. Design District security seemed heavily interested in what I was doing. I caught many of them recording me, laughing along with my more absurd statements and proclamations, and even agreeing with me when commenting on the disparity between how much workers in that neighborhood are paid by their places of employment and the overall profit made by these companies in sales. Almost every single business I walked past was met with door security blocking any possible way for me to enter.
Passersby asked for photos, which I allowed, but not without mocking them for their disregard of the critical substance of the work in favor of an interesting photo for a social media post. However, I did manage to [gather] a crowd of around 20 to 30 people at one point that did follow me around the neighborhood and worked together as a buffer zone to keep police and security at a distance from me. The general response after the work was one of overwhelming interest and support. I’ve been asked many times to expand the work to include more performers and criers, which may just happen for my Art Basel Town Crier performance.
You were one of the primary voices speaking out against Wynwood Pride, and I believe the first to come out against it. What were your reasons for pushing back against them, and how did they differ from other types of pride events?
Right from the beginning, I was vehemently against what was afoot amongst SWARM and the Wynwood Pride organizers. Firstly, I take issue with a for-profit company producing what is meant to be a community organized and supported celebration of our history. Pride festivals reflect back the history of working-class trans women of color spearheading the work necessary to pursue a true sense of liberation for the LGBTQ+ community. This kind of work isn’t up to the purview of an event agency; it’s up to us. Secondly, I take issue with the location of the event.
Within the broader context of land and labor here in the city of Miami, Wynwood has come to represent the ideal business frame for gentrification and erasure. No longer is Wynwood a working-class community constituted by a diverse group of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Haitian peoples. It has been flattened and hegemonized into a model for the gentrification of working-class communities of color vanguarded by “art and culture” to line the pockets of big money developers in this city. If Pride is by a community and for a community, what community is Wynwood Pride for? The wealthy white bourgeois class of the gay and lesbian community.
And thirdly, I take issue with the pay and format of the bookings. With the coalescing of what was to be a “new pride festival” here in the city, the opportunity ought to have represented a chance to put together a lineup of all local, primarily queer, brown and black performers, artists, and DJs that deserve the chance at competitive contracts and equitable pay. What did we get instead? A lineup of underpaid local performers and white/white-passing pop stars whose pay for an act soars into the thousands.
How did this second installation during Wynwood Pride differ from the one in Miami Design District?
Not by much. With the Town Crier series the overtones of the work centers around class struggle and liberation as pursued and visualized through intervention performance work. Even though the site choices differ, the underlying focus still remains; approaching the specific issues relevant to each site in a deconstructive way and then identify and respond to the various spatial aspects to each site I’d want to highlight and criticize. With “Town Crier II” the specific focuses were gentrification, the hidden transcripts of the history of the LGBTQ+ liberation movement, homonormativity, and the emergent gay and lesbian petite bourgeois class. All issues that congeal as intersections relevant to class struggle and liberation.
A number of local performers dropped out of Wynwood Pride prior to the event. Did these individuals join you in protest, or for the performance itself, in any capacity?
While many people entering and leaving the festival ended up joining me and at one point yelling for me when I lost my voice from screaming my proclamations and critiques, none were performers that dropped out. However, with the “Town Crier” series there does exist the possibility of being arrested, so I haven’t been keen yet to open up the work to collaboration. I am fully prepared to accept the consequences of my actions and go into each performance knowingly. Each performance is spontaneous and I can’t tell you what I might do or say or where I may try to go or enter during each work. If I have collaborators with me, there becomes then an ethical constraint that could delimit the potentiality if others aren’t prepared to operate on a similar level of commitment. But I do want to expand the work with collaborators someday down the line of the work.
Your Instagram features a number of stories and posts that are critical of the local gay and queer communities and the corporations that have seized control to an extent. Can you get into your thoughts on the monopolization that has been going on within the scene?
Here in Miami, I think we need to make a delineation. There exists the historic gay scene that has long existed on the surface of the city, and then within the last few years, the underground queer community began to congeal through parties like Counter Corner into the scene we see today. I don’t think this group of people that we are talking about in this context has arrived at the point of being a community yet. We don’t have infrastructure that extends beyond nightlife yet, we don’t have a strong sense of mutual care between each other that transcends our social cliques, and we aren’t yet starting to organize in ways that can build a sense of us as a whole… outside of the weekly or monthly gatherings we all see each other at.
This scene is so very young — only around four to five years old, really — but what we have managed to achieve and put forth here in the city is unparalleled by anything I think any of us individually could have imagined. Our queer scene now is putting itself on the map alongside other cities that have longstanding historic reputations like New York City, San Francisco, or Chicago, and because of that, corporations have started to take notice. From Redbull to This Free Life, corporate interests have recognized our collective potentiality and begun to translate that into a labor exchange to capitalize on our identities and spaces and build commodities out of the experiences that we create for ourselves in order to give each other a simple sense of livability in this world. It saddens me that when most reflect back on the last few years of the queer scene here in the city, when asked about events or happenings they may remember fondly, the things that emerge are parties like “Sweatboxxx” or “Femmebot.”
And while at those events queer locals may have constituted the lineups or the crowd, queers in this city still remain alienated from our own potential. With the incessant monopolization of our scene by corporate sponsorships and cash flows, the development of the infrastructure necessary to pull off these things becomes concurrent with their power — not ours. We aren’t able to find ways to do things for each other and by each other. Because we don’t have to. And that breeds complacency. We shouldn’t be okay with fliers having corporate names on them. All that does is take up space that could be given to a community organization or collective.
TOWN CRIER II
Do you believe there is any way that an entity can provide support to the community without exploiting it, and do you feel there are any positive examples of that?
I absolutely think that entities can contribute in ethical ways. It’s when the entity moves from community-based to corporate-oriented that [conditions become problematic]. If the bottom line of the organization is concerned with profits, margins, and dividends, and its operation is predicated on underpaid and alienated labor, then no contribution made by that organization, I believe, can occur on ethical high ground. I think the only way I can envision an entity provide support in a way that doesn’t infringe on the necessary need for the outstripping of influential wealth would be for there to be no-strings-attached donations or a working-class seizure of wealth and property. Sure, spatially within the realm of contemporary discourse that sounds radical. But if we continue to work concurrently or alongside major corporate interests or entities with significant capital accumulation, then we do nothing to recognize the problem and rectify it.
Published at Mon, 22 Jul 2019 13:16:00 +0000