Cameron Rowland Confronts Modern Systems of Oppression
By Camille Wong
Currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is Cameron Rowland’s D37, an installation with heavy social commentary about how property is used as leverage to restrict other people’s liberties. Informative and scholastic, the concept and research behind this project drive its visual elements. When experiencing D37, I attempted to decipher the artist’s intention through observation but it was only upon reading the extensive sixteen page pamphlet that I understood how important this exhibition was. Often, we accept the way things are without understanding what it took to get there. By sweeping the history of oppressed peoples and the infrastructures that persecute them under the rug, we are complicit in normalizing oppression as a stepping stone towards development. It’s a passive acceptance that stems from ignorance, however, D37 brings these dormant structures into the forefront of conversation demanding that we confront them.
The present is full of ghosts from previous infrastructures put in place to keep oppressed peoples in a position of lesser or no power. In our country’s dark history, slaves were once considered property which allowed slave-owners to strip away their personhood and impose property taxes. Depreciation (2018) is a piece of paper with text that details a restrictive covenant— a written contract that restricts the use of land ensuring its preservation. This piece is based on the purchase of an old plantation by a non-profits organization in 2018. By purchasing that land, they would have complete control of its development and conservation. They appraised the land at $0, rendering it legally unusable forever. This drives home the point that property is dependent on the value we assign it. Similar to how slave-owners “appraised” black human bodies as less than a person, this organization imposed their own value on the Maxcy Place plantation— land that once instituted and perpetuated slavery.
Another item that touches on the notion of property value is the map on the pamphlet that demarcates the pieces in this exhibition. On the map of the museum, Rowland lists the donor plaque located by the museum entrance as a piece in the installation, 2015 MOCA Real Estate Acquisition (2015). In his pamphlet, he describes how the MOCA Grand was built in 1983 under questionable pretenses. In the 1940’s, the Community Redevelopment Agency for Los Angeles was determined to eliminate “slums” to increase tax revenue for the city. Not surprisingly, these “slums” consisted mostly of colored residents. As a result, all of the residents living in section D37 were evicted and removed to make way for something considered more profitable to the city— the Museum of Contemporary Art. By confronting MOCA’s controversial past, Rowland asserts that our state’s governments and its developments have some skin in the racial game. Furthermore, by titling the exhibition after this event, he criticizes how even seemingly innocent modern infrastructures were built under the foundations of racism and oppression.
On the floor in the gallery are groupings of found objects— used strollers, bikes, and glassblowers, representing property seized under the police law enforcement. Police departments are encouraged to participate in auctions of seized property because 80% to 100% of the proceeds fund the police. Some of the seized properties are sold as low as $1.00. Historically, auctions were used during the triangle trade to distribute goods at the best value, which included slaves and goods produced from slaves. Again, we see this overarching theme of former systems of oppression still intact and very much alive today.
While we praise the abolition of slavery, these oppressive systems have disguised themselves into different forms such as racism whereby the lighter one’s skin is the more power they have; sexism whereby society caters to the patriarchy; and classism whereby money and wealth provide a certain privilege at the expense of the lower class. In a society where the word “privilege” is tossed around casually, we’ve become desensitized and defensive to its true meaning. Privilege doesn’t mean that life is easy for that person, it means that their privilege isn’t making it harder for them. Everyone is profoundly influenced by privilege and prejudice, it’s only a matter of understanding that society has engrained a certain expectation of treatment based on these systems. By internalizing these systems, we have an automatic understanding of how our rights will be recognized and it’s important to understand how these expectations deviate the further you are from what society perceives as superior.
D37 confronts not only the oldest form of oppression but also sheds light on modern internalized systems that pervade our society. Using the support of an informational pamphlet rather than the concise didactic we most often see in exhibitions, viewers are encouraged to read more about the historical context behind his work. Along the bottom of every page are footnotes and citations, as if on the defense ready for a skeptic to walk in and question its legitimacy. Reminiscent of a research paper, the visual components of the exhibition act more as aids to the information than the pièce de résistance. The intention or unifying theme may initially be cryptic as the magnitude of the exhibition relies on understanding its background and context. Even the pamphlet never outright, explicitly states the artist’s intention, instead laying the information out, allowing the viewer to make the connection and come to the conclusion on their own. An important message with supplemental visual pieces, D37 is a controversial exhibition that comments on modern forms of oppression and how prejudice trickles down into our modern art museums, state governments and country.