ESSAYS Mousse 68

The (Anti-)Social Life of Things: Cameron Rowland

by Michael Eby


Post-1960s attempts to exit the white cube landed us squarely back in it. What’s left is a culture in which artists produce works littered with anti-consumerist gestures, all the while presupposing a profound faith in the existing apparatuses that support their work. When Karl Marx talked about commodity fetishism, he was referring to things whose status obscures the fact that they are produced—that is, that they require labor power and large-scale infrastructures of exploitation. Rather than symbolic position-taking statements of antagonism toward art’s political economy of circulation and speculation, Cameron Rowland concretizes this directive within the social life of his artworks themselves. For Rowland, both the object and its material conditions of production and exchange collectively instantiate the work, demystifying its dependencies. 


Cameron Rowland

Group of 11 Used Bikes – Item: 0281-007089, 2018

Group of 11 Used Bikes sold for $287

45 x 130 x 54 inches (114.30 × 330.20 × 137.16 cm)

Rental at cost

In the United States, property seized by the police is sold at police auction.
Auction proceeds are used to fund the police. 

Civil asset forfeiture originated in the English Navigation Act of 1660.1 The Navigation Acts were established to maintain the English monopoly on the triangular trade between England, West Africa, and the English colonies.2 As Eric Williams writes, “Negroes, the most important export of Africa, and sugar, the most important export of the West Indies, were the principal commodities enumerated by the Navigation Laws.”3 During the seventeenth century, the auction was standardized as a primary component of the triangle trade to sell slaves, goods produced by slaves, and eventually luxury goods. The auction remains widely used as a means to efficiently distribute goods for the best price.4 

Police, ICE, and CBP may retain from 80% to 100% of the revenue generated from the auction of seized property. 

Rental at cost: Artworks indicated as “Rental at cost” are not sold. Each
of these artworks may be rented for 5 years for the total price realized
at police auction. 

Courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York

1 Caleb Nelson, “The Constitutionality of Civil Forfeiture,” The Yale Law Journal 125, no. 8 (June 2016), https://
2 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), 56–57.
3 Williams, 57.
4 Brian Learmount, A History of the Auction (London: Barnard &
Learmount, 1985), 30–31. 


The persistent self-reflection on material and institutional dynamics of display as well as the artist’s wider social role is central to Rowland’s methodology. For the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Rowland persuaded the museum to invest 25,000 U.S. dollars in a questionable social impact bond— an independent fund designed to shift the financial risk of issuing social services from government bodies onto private intermediaries—demonstrating the ways in which myopic monetary incentives corrupt organizations tasked with administering the public welfare. Rowland compelled the Whitney to allocate the sum to the Ventura County Project, an organization nominally combating recidivism. Titled Public Money, the project focuses museum-goers’ attention on the passages by which public money is funneled into private enterprise, resulting in the gamification of social programs and the commodification of incarcerated people.

Since 2013 Rowland has been engaged in a critical examination of property relations—their histories, their effects—to uncover the social and legal mechanics governing racial dispossession. This interest culminates in his current installation on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Titled D37, the name refers to the plot of land upon which the museum’s Grand Avenue location is built. In 1939, D37 was designated a “slum” and a “social peril” in a notoriously racist map drawn by the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. This cleared the way for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency to seize and demolish 7,310 residential properties in the area, a “slum clearance” that led to the development of California Plaza, and to MOCA’s Grand Avenue construction on a property it leased at a ninetynine-year no-rent contract. In 2015, MOCA acquired the same property for a nominal 100,000 U.S. dollars.


Cameron Rowland

Jim Crow, 2017

Jim Crow rail bender

91.4 × 20 × 44 cm (36 × 7 ⅞ × 17 ⅜ inches)


Jim Crow is a racial slur, derived from the name of the minstrel character played by Thomas D. Rice in the 1830s. A Jim Crow is also a type of manual railroad rail bender. It has been referred to by this name in publications from 1870 to the present. The lease of ex-slave prisoners to private industry immediately following the Civil War is known as the convict lease system. Many of the first convict lease contracts were signed by railroad companies. Plessy v. Ferguson contested an 1890 Louisiana law segregating black railroad passengers. The Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional. This created a precedent for laws mandating racial segregation, later to be known as Jim Crow laws.

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne / New York


This dubious history is recounted by Rowland in an extended caption placed alongside the donor panel at the museum’s entrance. On the rightmost panel, he added another name to the list of benefactors: the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles. Etched above the entity’s name in capital letters is the label “2015 MOCA REAL ESTATE ACQUISITION.” The caption and etching defile the traditionally sacrosanct surface of philanthropists’ names, revealing the material history upon which it depends.

Captions and descriptive text, rather than mere administrative provisions, form an integral part of Rowland’s work. Inside MOCA, the artist arranged what at first appears to be a display of unremarkable thrift-store purchases: bicycles, leaf blowers, a stroller. But an accompanying pamphlet dispels our bemusement at this seemingly disconnected assortment: each item was purchased at a police auction where property seized through civil asset forfeiture is sold to finance local departments.

Civil asset forfeiture is the practice of confiscating the property of suspected criminals in the absence of sufficient evidence for prosecution. Rowland traces the practice back to the seventeenth-century British Navigation Acts, when the auction of requisitioned items was formalized by the English to maintain control over transcontinental trade’s most valuable commodity: slaves. The works’ titles, which include object provenance, inventory numbers, and purchase prices, implicate the practice in the continued privation of minorities. The inclusion of recent yields of this policing tactic reminds us that racial capitalism’s sophisticated modes of social reproduction are genealogical descendants of the transatlantic slave trade. 



Cameron Rowland


Donor plaque

The redlining map of Los Angeles drawn by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1939 gave Bunker Hill, block D37, the lowest possible rating. D37 extended from West 4th Street to West Temple Street, and from Figueroa Street to South Hill Street. The report indicated that residents were “low-income level” and were predominantly “Mexicans and Orientals.” The HOLC’s Residential Security Map report for Bunker Hill states:

It has been through all the phases of decline and is now thoroughly blighted. Subversive racial elements predominate; dilapidation and squalor are everywhere in evidence. It is a slum area and one of the city’s melting pots. There is a slum clearance project under consideration but no definite steps have as yet been taken. It is assigned the lowest of “low red” grade.

The Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles was formed in 1948 under the California Community Redevelopment Act of 1945, in conjunction with the 1937 and 1949 federal Housing Acts, which authorized its “slum removal.” The CRA was granted powers of eminent domain to be used in the redevelopment of “blighted” areas. A primary purpose for the CRA’s redevelopment projects was to increase tax revenue for the city. One of the first redevelopment projects proposed by the CRA was in Bunker Hill, on the basis that the neighborhood spent more tax dollars on police, firefighting, and healthcare than it generated. A CRA pamphlet promoting the project stated, “Blight is a liability, Blight is malignant, Blight is a social peril.” The CRA’s “slum clearance” project in Bunker Hill was adopted in 1959. Through seizure and through sales under the threat of eminent domain, all 7,310 residential units were demolished and their residents were forcibly removed. The CRA’s slum clearance in Bunker Hill was one of the first redevelopment projects to rely on tax increment financing.

In 1980, the CRA issued a request for proposals for a project called California Plaza. Proposals were required to include an outdoor pedestrian plaza, a parking structure, and a modern art museum. The winning group of architects called themselves Bunker Hill Associates. The museum outlined in this proposal became The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 1983, the CRA offered MOCA a lease on the land located at 250 South Grand Avenue for a ninety-nine- year term at no rent.

In October 2015, the CRA sold the land at 250 South Grand Avenue to MOCA for $100,000. One month later, in November 2015, a tax assessment triggered by the sale recorded the value of the land at $8,500,000.

Courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York


Rather than resigning them to begrudging complicity in nefarious systems of exchange, Rowland removes these works from circulation entirely, offering them to collectors not for sale but for fixed-term rental. The works, whose prices are the exact same price for which the artist purchased them, are leased according to the stipulations of five-year contracts. Since 2015, about half of Rowland’s works have been made available in this way, with variation in the terms, duration and pricing. 

The New York gallery Essex Street’s booth at Art Basel 2019 will be the first presentation of the artists’ works offered solely for rent. Many are new, while others have been leased and returned following contract termination. The booth constitutes the first overview of Rowland’s work to date.



Cameron Rowland was born in Philadelphia, and currently lives and works in Queens, New York. He has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Établissement d’en Face, Brussels; Galerie Buchholz, Cologne; Fri Art, Fribourg; Artists Space, New York; and Essex Street, New York. He has participated in group exhibitions at Secession, Vienna; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Bienal de São Paulo, and elsewhere. Rowland’s next exhibition will be held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 2020.

Michael Eby is a writer and researcher on contemporary art and digital culture. He currently lives in London.



Originally published in Mousse 68 

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