Cameron Rowland uses the language of conceptual art to critique the art world’s imbrication in histories of slavery, redlining, and policing. In particular, Rowland’s work draws from a 1993 article by law professor Cheryl L. Harris titled “Whiteness as Property,” where she examines how whiteness, initially constructed as a form of racial identity, ratified itself into American law through a system of property rights based in the exclusion and subjugation of Black and Native American peoples. Basically, if the modern idea of property was formed when people like Rowland were themselves considered property, what does it mean that the art world (in its systems of commerce, acquisition and display) perpetuates that regime? Rowland takes a granular approach to this critique, insisting that these histories (and their politics) are embedded in the minutiae of exchange – the way an artwork is sold, funded, or acquired. But Rowland’s critique is part of something larger and especially timely. Recent museum protests invite us to scrutinize the way artists and artworks are also implicated in veins of economic and political corruption. Consider the Tear Gas protest against Whitney board chair Warren Kanders, Dismantle NOMA’s calls for a rehauling of the New Orlean’s museum’s leadership, or #StrikeMoMA’s calls for the museum to divest from plutocratic money. Are the ethics of an institution distinguishable from the ethics of its board members’ investment portfolios? Are the ethics of an artwork the ethics of its exchange?
And, considering the lessons of Rowland’s – and recent protestors’ – critique of property, and what they’ve made visible, how do we continue to make art?
The “property relations” of Cameron Rowland’s work are messy. By “property relations” I mean the contracts, funding, and ownership models that they deploy around their artwork. For example, in Attica Desk Series (2016), from Rowland’s now-famed Artists Space show, the line between participating in a system and critiquing, are indistinguishable. The desks were acquired by registering Artists Space as a user of a company called Corcraft. They were made by prisoners at Attica Correctional facility, contracted by Corcraft through a system called “convict leasing,” at rates between $0.10 and $1.14 an hour. By implicating Artists Space, and Rowland’s own practice, in this social relation, Attica Desk Series essentially made both exhibition venue and artist complicit in a contemporary continuation of slavery. It is not a particularly hopeful or utopic proposition for how one should go about renovating the art world’s production or transaction models. Rather, Rowland keeps themself enmeshed within these sticky social relations – and the alternatives they propose are just as, if not more, icky.
Rowland’s critique of property relations also extends to the critique of literal property, i.e., land as capital. In Depreciation (2018), Rowland displays the paperwork they went through to purchase and render a one-acre plot of land legally unusable in Edisto Island, South Carolina. It is part of the land given to, but then revoked from, formerly enslaved people under General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “Forty Acres and a Mule” field order in 1865. The paperwork operates essentially like performance documentation, a contemporary retooling of a longstanding conceptual art technique. Rowland didn’t purchase the land and use it, say, to build an incubator for Black artists and curators. Rather, their restrictive covenant specifies that “no development or use shall take place on the Property,” effectively bringing the appraisal value of the land to $0. Part of this gesture is to create an opportunity to reimagine the relationship between property, value, and capital. For Rowland, rerouting the flow of capital is not as important as rethinking our property relations wholesale, even if it means rendering an entire plot of land unusable.
Rowland also manipulates the contracts that dictate how their artworks are exchanged, purchased, or owned, destabilizing the notion of ownership. “Exchange is a material,” Rowland said in a 2015 published email correspondence with a potential collector, “and it is often taken for granted in artworks.” Since 2014, Rowland has implemented a rental contract modeled after one used by US company Rent-A-Center (RAC), explored in detail in an October article by critic Eric Golo Stone. With over 3,000 stores nationwide, mostly centered in areas of concentrated poverty, RAC employs a business model that preys on low-income communities, profiting from its customers by adding fees to the rental transaction so that the total cost over the rental period is three to six times the amount for the same product at any typical retailer. Rowland’s contract transposes a version of RAC’s exploitative business model onto the transaction between artist and collector. It allows a collector to rent an artwork for a fixed period of time for a predetermined fee, but forecloses outright ownership. The contract, like RAC’s, includes a boilerplate equipment rental form and a background-check form, which requires a Social Security Number, information on monthly income, and at least two references. It also stipulates that over the course of the rental period, the payments will amount to slightly more than what the artist has determined a similar work would be sold for. Sometimes, if the work is listed as “rental at cost,” that fee will correspond to the amount required to procure that object from its respective origin. Rowland employs this contract for approximately one-third of their works available for transfer.
In their most recent exhibition at Essex St, Deputies, for example, Rowland presented two cotton scales, both titled Price Per Pound (2021). While one work was for sale in a more conventional way (the collector owning it fully, the gallery taking a cut), the other was listed as a “rental,” exchanged only via Rowland’s aforementioned contract. The rental structure of Price per pound is similar to that of the 2 artworks in their exhibition Bait, Inc from 2014, titled Pass-thru; as well as the 2 artworks in Birmingham in 2017, titled Norfolk Southern (Alabama) and Norfolk Southern (Tennessee). For Rowland, it is important that the possibility of outright ownership remain on the table in order to heighten the feeling of withholding that the rental contract enacts on the other collector. In that same email correspondence with a potential collector, Rowland explains that this contract is to be understood as a “parasite” work that destabilizes the otherwise “normal” exchange of the artwork. “The rental isn’t meant as a moralistic solution to contradictions of the market,” Rowland says, “but as a work that offers a number of additional problems.” The rental limits the ability of the artwork to be “propertized,” and also forecloses the ability of the work to accrue capital gains. Rowland is also careful to note the difference between the power relations that result from RAC’s use of the contract and their artist redeployment of it. Rowland’s intention, by directing this exploitation towards someone who would rather buy than rent, is to “materialize this normalization.” All of this was articulated much to the agitation of the collector, who ultimately decided not to rent the work in question (Pass-Thru, 2014), citing, among other reasons, the loss of the potential appreciation of the work to be too high.
I often get the comment, after talking about Rowland’s work – so what? Did the prisoners get any of that remuneration? Aren’t the Rent-A-Center stores still running? Isn’t Rowland still benefiting from prison labor? Does Rowland’s work do a lot as art, but not enough as activism?
The fact that we’re asking those questions – questions of social impact – indicate the promises of social renovation that are misplaced on Rowland’s work. Rowland pursues a horizon beyond the regime of property, but first, they want to us to see that regime as clearly as possible. And that may entail things getting messier before they get better.
The sentiment also has to do with the fact that interpretations of Rowland’s work straddle various art historical discourses. So far, we’ve discussed their work in relation to conceptual art – performance documentation, contracts, art-as-idea. But their manipulation of lived relations also warrants the language and aims of social practice – treating human engagement and interaction as a medium. In this way, Rowland’s practice crafts mini social-dramas: relations, situations, and interactions that in some way challenge the existing relations upholding capitalism. And maybe the “messy” and “sinister” relations engendered in these situations are a version of what art historian Claire Bishop called antagonism: a vein of social practice work that doesn’t shy away from conflict, and thus, she argues (borrowing from political theorist Chantal Mouffe), more accurately fosters the kind of friendly discord necessary for a healthy democracy. Rowland’s work favors these discordant property relations over those that might be ameliorative, or even directly helpful to ailing communities.
This stance becomes more apparent when we compare Rowland’s practice to that of someone like Theaster Gates, who works more squarely within the accepted parameters of social practice. Gates is part of cadre of Black male artists, like Rick Lowe, Mark Bradford, and Titus Kaphar, to name a few, who seek to redistribute the capital they have accrued from their commercial artworld success by buying property and building Black-owned and Black-centered institutions in communities suffering from disinvestment. A familiar example is a deal Gates struck with the city of Chicago, in 2012, to purchase an abandoned former bank from the city for $1, on the conditions that he raise money for its restoration himself. To fund the project, he took marble slabs that had once been part of the building and imprinted them with the motto ‘‘IN ART WE TRUST.’’ He then sold some of them for $50,000 each as ‘‘bonds’’ to fund the renovation of the building. Signed by Gates, they became “artworks” and but also bonds, increasing in value over time.
Rowland and Gates are both tricksters, but while Gates redirects the systems of capital as they exist, Rowland makes a playground of its most arcane and pernicious manifestations. Applying the strictest of Rowland’s critiques on property relations, then, Gates’s work participates too readily in a system of property. Some have taken issue with the way Gates capitulates to or works within capitalistic systems; the gentrifying effects of social-practice art are something that Gates has to contend with. But Gates also provides direct goods and services to an underinvested community, perhaps tempering the potentially gentrifying effects. And who does Rowland’s practice help? Compared to Gates’s work, Rowland’s critique begins to look too astringent, or even insular.
Perhaps all this makes Rowland an Afropessimist: less concerned with constructing an immediate social future than with mapping the extent to which anti-Blackness structures our legal and economic systems. Rowland’s work slows our understanding of the progress that work like Gates’s might lead us to believe we have made. They give us the clearest sense of the picture, and we can’t move on until we have the best sense of our current circumstances.
I think of Rowland’s property relations as a lens, or a thinking tool, by which to consider the politics of other artworks. Rowland launches a critique of property that is so scathing, so all-encompassing, that it sometimes feels paralyzing: so long as we live under capitalism, social relations that are complicit in the regime of property are unavoidable. But good critique can be liberatory as well, and sometimes it needs to be “pulverized by the demands of daily life,” as James Baldwin said, before it can be deployed on a day-to-day basis.
To make art after Rowland (and recent protestors’) critique of property is to treat the details of an artwork’s exchange as an extension of its politics. Not everyone can or needs to give that level of thought to their contracts, but everyone can try, in some way. It’s not yet a common practice for artworks to utilize a rental system, but Rowland’s practice is an invitation to innovate on those terms. This is not to discredit the magic of any artwork, or to flatten its political potential to the terms of its circulation, but to address the conditions of making art within capitalism, now. In some ways this is already happening – from NFT’s to websites like Masterworks.io, that divide an artwork into fractional shares, like a stock: ideas of property, ownership, and value are being rethought. But it will require more self-scrutinizing practices like Rowland’s, and many other, different ways of re-thinking property relations, to get closer to replacing – and not just shoring up – the regime of property.