i love to we
Borrowing from Luce Irigaray’s essay, I Love to You,1 the title for this section comes out of my understanding for the need of new languages to express formations of collective work which have arisen in the Americas (and beyond) during the past decade. It occurred to me during a train colloquium from Los Angeles to the US/México border,2 where Teddy Cruz addressed current cultural resistant practices as “interventions, strategies and tactics in the territory,” that we may need to establish new terminologies to describe the multitude of activities and approaches that individuals and collectives have taken up in direct response to the war on terror and the global order. I’m asking in particular, how could we better talk about projects that build infrastructures over time? Projects that are deeply involved with grassroots organizing? That insert themselves in little but persistent ways, by creating space where random encounters can occur? And what kind of formations of “We” need to happen?
With these questions in mind, I formulated a call for articles. The response to the call was overwhelming. We couldn’t include all submissions. This forward is by no means an in-depth analysis of each article, but an attempt to briefly channel, identify and critically reflect their different take-ons of what constitutes collective practice today.
Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom discuss What we Know of Out Past, What we Demand of Our Future, an event held at Mess Hall in Chicago, January
of 2008. 3 Looking at various past art and activist practices as background to reflect on current practices during the course of three days, Brett and Bonnie conclude with the question of how to create larger resistances:
What could we do with the energy that is generated by coming together? We would like to see new formations happen beyond individualized (and this includes individual collectives) projects and careers. For us this is at the heart of the problem, and we do not have good ways of addressing it…. We have in part been forced to exist on this level—as consumer-citizens divided into our own sets of personal preferences for the lives we consume. We also have internalized this individuation of our resistant practices and this is holding us back from making larger, stronger resistance and for thinking new possibilities for our existences. 4
I agree with Brett and Bonnie’s analysis that individual collaborations or group identities don’t necessarily open up space for a larger movement. Collective spaces that incorporate different groups are often experienced as messy, arduous and difficult: As part of Bonnie and Brett’s submission, the Radical Midwest Culture Corridor included a proposal for a collaborative text written by all members.5 This text was never finished:
In part because the strategy of acting under a branded group-identity in order to parody corporations was often used to critique neo-libereralism through over-identification, not to work collectively.
Over a few years, many discussions, and a lot of ground the Radical Midwest Culture Corridor (RMCC) has evolved from a loose affiliation of people with a desire to construct and maintain infrastructures of support. As artists and activists, we have been involved in projects that have grown to fruition over time and across space. Some of us have been involved in cultural spaces like Chicago’s Mess Hall, others in justice movements--prison, environmental, and spatial, and most have seen friendships grow closer over years. We see long term commitment as creating change beyond spectacle, wearing away the dam blocking positive cultural shift in the United States. We work within and throughout our geographical region, the Midwest, because it offers more opportunities to connect to local sources for food, energy, shelter, and health. Currently, the RMCC is organizing a Continental Drift, as articulated by Brian Holmes and the 16 Beaver group, through the region, to occur June 4-14, 2008. It is an attempt to visualize and perform the anti-campaign trail, a grassroots meeting around a kitchen table that extends for miles. We are campaigning in whistle-stops throughout the Midwest to bring together people hungry for direct change, not the kind offered by representational democracy. For the Journal, the RMCC group will collectively write an article about what this regional network of support looks like and means to us, and to include a call for folks to come out to the Continental Drift.
In March 2008 Nato Thompson of Creative Time and Daniel Tucker of AREA Chicago toured 5 cities in the US to document artists’ and activists’ resistant practices and infrastructures. Introduced as “Town Hall Meetings” and conceptualized as a part of Creative Time’s larger Democracy in America 6 project, the gatherings were, as Daniel Tucker writes, “closer to a Town Hall Focus Group than a Town Hall Meeting. There were no fliers posted on busy street corners or even emails calling for open participation – there were no broadsides nailed to the outer doors of the town hall. These meetings were closed and participation was invitation only.” 7
The stated reasons for controlling these meetings by involving only invited participants reveal distrust of truly broad publics. As if an open call, or a public gathering of interested participants, would not produce something worth documenting. As Daniel says:
This was motivated primarily by the goal of having a publication-worthy transcript that would extend the life of the conversation beyond the initial gathering. This was informed by past experiences with large gatherings that were difficult to moderate and easily dominated by a few loud individuals.
Our Journal helped organize the Los Angeles gathering that was hosted by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions by compiling a list of possible participants. I enjoyed listening to the invited folks’ answers to Nato and Daniel’s questions and I appreciated being in a room with a diverse artist/activist crowd, people I deeply respect, but only rarely have an opportunity to engage with. I also thought that is was a moment given away.
Equating a town hall meeting with a market research tool normalizes the notion of consumer/citizen that is already so deeply engrained in our culture. Talking to Nato afterwards, he clarified for me that the project was more an act of preservation and documentation then it was an act of democracy in action. To be able to look at transcripts and to say—“these structures of resistance exist, let’s learn from them.”
It seems clear that in order to make larger and stronger resistances, we need to get out of our preferred settings and build common space that allows for the negotiation of difference. As part of the Interrupt! Intervene! Rethinking Art as Social Practice conference that happened at the University of Santa Cruz in May of 2008, Veronica Wiman initiated a talking circle to connect and listen to strangers. Writing of that experience Wiman reflected: “As the ritual goes, each person who speaks is given the talking stick, which might be a feather or a piece of wood, and full attention. In comparison to other types of communication, here listening is the mode rather than delivering. This seems to be quite a radical act today.” 8
Private-public spaces: enclosures & emancipations
The articles grouped under this heading are examples of individual artist’s initiatives to create and maintain participatory space. For six years now, Julianna Parr hosts a craft table in a Los Angeles bar as “self-imposed community service.” 9 In making a place for non-judgmental artistic creation and the celebration of the act of playing with stuff, Julianna Parr’s CraftNight 10 maintains a playful and generative space for community in Silver Lake. Between googly-eyes and felt is the possibility for all sorts of social experimentation.
From 2001 to 2007 Fritz Haeg ran several participatory projects out of his home on Sundown Drive in Glassell Park, Los Angeles. The Sundown Salon channeled many self-institutions and counter-cultural activities that were forming at the time in LA. Fritz says:
…one way of dealing with the world grows out of really creating a community of like minds who inspire you and who reinforce your own sense of what it is you want to do with your work. And then you use the momentum from that to go out into the world and extend yourself beyond your comfort zone. 11
His desire for a discursive communal space and the cooptation of his own house as a public encounter space in Los Angeles was a cultural engine that helped to solidify politicized subcultures beyond his stated interest of creating a “community of the like minds.” However there are some issues with this model of giving up on public “public space.” 12 Leaving the maintenance of such spaces up to an individual is precarious.
When Fritz left Los Angeles, Sundown Schoolhouse and the Schoolhouse Book Club locally died off. Groups of like-minded people don’t produce public space, but they do clarify constituencies and build group interests. Since the activities were documented under fritzhaeg.com, collective participation in these and other projects has been understood by those outside of Los Angeles as function of Fritz’s individual artwork rather than snapshots of a collectively constituted scene.
“Haeg takes a collective approach to his work, viewing its outcomes as organic culminations of multiple individual inputs rather than the result of directorial cues.”13
While Trinie Dalton’s interpretation of Fritz’s work is the textbook definition of crowd-sourcing, I believe that the relations between him and his collab-orators weren’t as asymmetrical as she makes it out to be. When Fritz submitted an article proposal to us, he welcomed my suggestion very much to generate a list of all collaborators and participants of his projects.
Another approach of an artist’s effort to maintain discursive common space is Bruce Tomb’s (de)Appropriation Project. Aimee Le Duc is reflecting Tomb’s role as custodian and steward of communal discourse that happens in the form of wheat pasting on the Valencia Street wall of his private home (itself a former police station) in SF’s Mission district. Aimee describes Bruce’s distance from this publicly used space as a core characteristic of the walls vitality. “If Tomb did in fact claim ownership over the content on the wall, or the evolution of that content – the entire framework would fall under him and his intentions. It would be a personal conceptual project and not an intersection of infinite lines of people’s thoughts and actions converging.” 14 And “many others see his involvement more as the guardian of a treasured spot of freedom and expression.” 15
Publicly I wonder what does it say about the state of democracy in the US that freedom of expression has to privately be guarded like a treasure?
Engaging the political:
grassroots campaigns & the enactment of civic space
Emily Forman here, writing from Chicago, finally having escaped from the police-state vortex of the Denver and St Paul presidential conventions. I traveled to Denver and St Paul to work as a member of the amazing I-Witness video collective:
In both cities I-Witness was met with intense surveillance and police intimidation. Our work was almost completely derailed in St. Paul by a series of raids and false arrests. We were forced to leave our homes and office multiple times due to these police intimidation tactics. Below follows video footage and a short account of some the context of the St Paul RNC convention, a Patriot Act-enabled environment of preemptive arrests of activists, journalists, medics, and legal observers. People were not only kept from exercising their first amendment rights here, but they were additionally charged with various kinds of thought crimes such as felony ‘conspiracy to riot’. A federal hand has guided operations in both cities, with homeland security, national guard, and police details having been shipped in from states as far away as Arizona.
I will update you all after i catch my breath for a moment. Please be in touch, as these stories need to be getting out!
emily forman 16
While working on this forward, media activist and former contributing editor Emily Forman sent us this email. This recent crackdown on press during the 2008 Republican National Convention and the Bush administration’s continued encroachment upon civil liberties since 9/11 and coupled with their politics of fear have created an anti-democratic climate in this country. In the past years there have been numerous artistic and cultural projects attempting to restore some of the fundamental civic spaces, projects that engage with grassroots movements and insert themselves into municipal space. Amy Franceschini conceptualized Victory Gardens 2007+ as a municipal campaign to increase local food production. It was meant to be part city program, part artwork. “The project is both, artwork and democracy in action. It is another reminder that grassroots efforts engage and mobilize communities and tune government to create change. This city IS ours!” 17
Mark Chamberlain writes about his and Jerry Burchfield’s long-term effort to ave and preserve Laguna Canyon in Orange County. Their photographic documentation of the canyon over several decades became a performative tool to mobilize and rally regional support for its preservation. Their Laguna Canyon endeavor is remarkable for successfully fighting the suburban development of the canyon, its double-nature as artwork and environmental campaign and also for its longevity.
Wondering about the double nature of these projects, I would argue that in the US, there are few effective outlets for dissent, spaces for engaging with power; to stop the war and the occupation in Iraq for example. This is partially due to the lack of a strong institutionally organized 18 opposition that is not married to the two-party system. And it has been radically furthered by the Bush administration’s repressive measures, so that art and culture have become important spaces to critique reality, instill resistance and to model alternative models of being.
Autonomous space, protected space—
growing radical cultures
Facing fascism, Walter Benjamin postulated a politicization of culture. 19 Since the first issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest we have called for a link between radical aesthetics and political activisms. Being anchored in a political movement or grassroots organizing creates accountability and we need to hold on to the idea of autonomy in projects that build long-term infrastructures. Aviv Kruglanski uses seed balls as metaphor to theorize activists turn to micro-methodologies and infrastructure building. Seed balls are autonomous, in that they have everything they need to germinate in a hostile environment: “throwing a seed ball into a vacant lot is political because it infiltrates the dominant culture and has the potential to transform it and grow from its center and grow and grow."Tracing activist technology across different disciplines he is attempting to theorize the integration of sustainable living infrastructures into the daily practice of politics.
i find myself trying to understand how come so many punk activists I know have spent the last couple of years seriously studying Chinese medicine…the question is not how to avoid this brain-drain, lamenting the “recession” in activism, but how to integrate this shift, accepting it as serious criticism, while taking-on these practices as tools for the construction of more grounded and more consequential action.20
Acts of solidarity, unlearning &
It is through acts of solidarity that the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest exists. Artists Sam Durant, Katie Grinnan, Olga Koumoundouros and Rodney McMillian are the most recent individuals whose artwork donations raise money for this publication. Solidarity is a key element in the building of larger heterogeneous structures, because it allows for difference. The kind of reciprocal solidarity Charlotte Sáenz is seeking, “is evidenced on May Day 2008, when members of the Port Workers Union of Iraq shutdown the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor Alzubair in solidarity with the shutdown of all West Coast ports by members of ILWU in opposition to the occupation of Iraq.” 21 She is leading us through her personal journey of unlearning and re-learning of how to come together, “in the formation of a We with You.” Kate Rich’s feral trade network enacts ways that social networks could have real economic and environmental impacts outside of the art world and new-media conver-sations. Lisa Anne Auerbach’s battle cry D.D.I.Y. – Don’t do it yourself, do it together, 22 is calling for “barter-based and un-commoditized, community crazed” skill sharing practices.
On the search for more horizontal and cooperatively-run funding structures to support cultural production Ben Schaafsma of Other Options in Chicago,
is exploring FOOD as a way of “organizing support structures via participation and inner-connectedness.” 23 Kelly Marie Martin gives insight into the nitty-gritty of how to sustain an all-volunteer run Bicycle Kitchen, a nonprofit bicycle repair workshop in central Los Angeles that has evolved from being “a cozy group” to an institution over the course of six years. 24
The cultivation of collective infrastructures takes time and is unspectacular. Yet this is where resistance can find power, in the creation of permanent spaces that insert themselves into cityscapes.
Riding down to San Diego on the train, Lex Bhagat and I had several random and notable encounters with fellow passengers. The train conductor talked about how his upcoming high school reunion was going to take place in prison, because most of his classmates are incarcerated. When passing the town of Oceanside a man, sharing our compartment, ensured us that even in the case of a tsunami, we would be safe in this train, the designers and the railroad had planned for that contingency. And then there was Peter, arguing with his friend over the cell phone, who wanted to borrow money for his mother’s hospital bill. Peter kept on yelling that he had no money, because his million dollars stocks were now worthless. His friend didn’t want to hear it.