Question 5. These conversations come out of a nation-wide concern about the fate of democracy. How do you see your projects tying into a larger national structure? Is organizing nationally productive? What are its limitations?
AMY PARTRIDGE: In our [Cheap Art For Freedom Collective or Collective Anarchist Freedom Fuckers (CAFF)] conversations, we really were unsatisfied with this question, because we felt that democracy isn’t best understood in nationalist terms. We decided that populism was a better frame for thinking about democracy, and distinguished between populism and nationalism by defining populism as always imagining the local to be universal in a utopian way. We want to think about ourselves as a collective, and the kinds of collaborative work we do with other collectives or other individuals as distinct local nodes within a larger fabric. The other claim that we would like to make around democracy is that we believe that radical democracy is nothing more or less than the people mediating themselves to themselves at the local level. That means those local levels need to hook up into larger circuits of exchange where that mediation gets exchanged between local sites on a global scale as well.
This really does relate, and I’ll say this very briefly, to our understanding of social movements, in the sense that there are all these numerous social justice organizations, each and every one beautiful, but that these haven’t congealed into a progressive social movement in the present moment. The way we define a social movement is as a movement that exists on a scale large enough to impact the dominant social order; has consequences, either on a national or international scale; and is somehow able to transform the psyche of the nation or of a larger community of struggle. We really do think that the artist has an enormous amount of work to do in this process of fomenting radical democracy [and] fomenting an existing or a progressive social movement. Because, of course, there are social movements that are very active in the US, such as the religious right, that are very successful. As artists and as cultural workers and as educators, we need to try to come up with the designs, the iconic images, the slogans, and the quotidian practices that change the ideological landscape in such a way that we begin to understand our attempts to abolish prisons, to eradicate poverty, and to end the Israeli land grab in Palestine. These are just three examples of a million as interdependent, as part of a movement.
The last thing I want to say is we also want to make this Shout Out to Crime thing, because they circulate the rumor of an already existing, vibrant, anarchist social movement. The rumor here exists as first permission; it’s already here, come and join us. Get on board, right? We want to suggest that we need to build these social movements in these collaborative processes. We have a number of projects that we think of as building social movements between locals, which I haven’t really had a chance to discuss, but maybe later. But we really do want to suggest that the rumor of the social movement is itself a really effective mode of simply creating and fomenting a social movement.
CRAIG HARSHAW: When I first read this thing about the fate of democracy I thought, “It would be nice if we established a democracy in North America, because we’ve never done that” [LAUGHTER]. But the fate of the idea that we could establish [a democracy] one day is something that makes your heart sink when you see the direction that this country has been going under [the Bush] administration. One of the things that I would say that’s really important about having a national, and actually an internationalist perspective, is how it can inspire local struggles. We [Insight Arts] do a lot of work in the Bay Area of California. And we also do an ongoing project in a small, rural community in Texas. The exchanges between our youth from Chicago and those places—we haven’t done as much with Texas, but with the Bay Area we have. When young people go out to the Bay Area, they see a totally different political climate, even though I know if we had a circle of Bay Area people they would tell us it’s not that great. But when you just drop in and visit, the rooms don’t look like this [people sitting in a circle], it’s going to be majority people of color, and somebody’s going to take an ass-whooping [LAUGHTER]. That’s just the truth, if you’re talking about community and democracy and stuff like that. People aren’t using homophobic slurs everywhere or all the time; it’s just a really different environment. And young people see that, and they realize, “They’re human.” We can go back, and we can enact that. We can enact that at Insight Arts, or we can enact that in our communities; we can say that.
I’ll tell you one thing about national organizing: we went to this big national conference, and we took some grade school and high school students from Rogers Park. In order to prepare for the conference, which had a lot to do with gender justice issues, we talked about the appropriate way to not identify a person’s gender unless you know. You say, “That’s a person, that’s a person.” Well, these kids went back to their elementary school, and they went to the principal, and they demanded that their teachers be trained not to say, “That girl over there in the orange,” but to say “That person over there in the orange.” They demanded sensitivity training. The administration and the local school council said, “Okay.” They went ahead and did it. So I think it’s really important to have those inspirations from the way different things are.
I’ll close by saying I always feel like the skunk at the party when people are talking about how great Chicago is, because I also have some critiques in Chicago about the larger social justice movement. For instance, the fact that it can feel like a closed club and that there’s not always enough space to let people in. While we’re thinking about this, I want to put out that a lot of the social activism art is happening in peoples’ living rooms, primarily women’s living rooms with African-American and Asian women and poor white women. “They’re doing that after-school program in there.” It’s not going to have a name, it’s not going to have a logo, it’s not going to have all that stuff. But that’s what’s really keeping the potential that we could establish a democracy alive.
DAN PETERMAN: I have a hard time translating appropriate, local, small models into national models. I don’t consider how that transition occurs as an easy or assumed kind of evolution of ideas that have to get bigger without leaping into whole different frameworks. I’m really attracted to the idea of rumor, like the rumor that some localized model is happening all over the country. Even if that’s happening in one place, the rumor seems as good as anything. If that rumor floats around, eventually somebody can step into that model, actualize that rumor, and make a new model that actually does operate at a different plane. But, as I’m often very aware of, being the janitor of small models, I have a hard time suddenly saying, “Now this is part of a movement, part of a national network.” I have a hard time making that translation, because there’s so much you leave behind every time you leave town. There’s so much to do, especially so much within the small model. Somewhere within that chemistry is an evolution of ideas from the local to the national, or however you want change. And however you want to trace that art, I think it’s dangerous to assume that one thing just moves into that without a radical reinvention. It’s not an argument for not doing it or not thinking that those ideas happen, but just a recognition that it’s awkward to think of it as a continuum of ideas.
SONJA MOORE: I want to answer the part of the question about whether organizing is nationally productive. I think that it is and it can be, specifically for Kuumba Lynx, but I can’t say nationally or prove what effect we’ve had on hip-hop in New York, because I’m not there on a day-to-day basis. But it’s effective for us within Chicago and with the youth that we work with, because that makes things real for them. They know that war is happening. They know that the state of hip-hop is kind of crazy. They know that there are immigration issues. But when we leave Chicago and they go somewhere else and they’re performing before an audience of people that actually validates them and wants to know more, wants to talk to them after the show and wants them to lead workshops with peers in the week that we’re there—that is very productive, because that gives them the sense of energy that we, as adults just talking to them, can’t do or haven’t been able to do. They’re that much more motivated when we come back to move towards action, and they push us towards action in a fast-paced way.
The ways that we’ve tied into larger national or international issues around the antiwar movement and militarist campaigns is through our work with School of the Americas Watch. Annually, for probably the last seven or eight years, we have performed at their big weekend thing that they do outside of School of the Americas in Columbus. We always take students with us to do that. Through our relationship with them, we’ve been asked and invited to do presentations, workshops, and performances at—I can’t think of the name of it, it was like a three page long title—but basically it was a conference on race, racism, and democracy at San Francisco State University a few years back. Angela Davis was there; the kids got to meet her, got to talk to her, got to really just be inspired by her. We were also able to do an artist exchange in the Bay Area by doing a tour of their alley art murals. In exchange, we did a similar project in Uptown a couple of years ago. So that was a way to connect on a national scale. Internationally, we’ve done an artist exchange with a collective in Alamar, which is outside of Havana, Cuba. Unfortunately, due to our wonderful democratic system and although we’d raised all the money, when the kids filled out all their paperwork a week before we were scheduled to get on the plane, no one under 18 was allowed to go. That was a big blow to them. But they said, “Fine, we can just go to this other thing we turned down in Arizona.” We were disappointed, but they just said, “That’s fine, we can go to Cuba again, but we’ve got this other thing that we turned down anyway, so we’ll just do that” [LAUGHTER]. They said, “But you got to represent, since only the adults can go, you got to do it the way we would have done it.” And we did it the way they would have done it, hopefully.
Finally, we were able to send youth representatives to Venezuela, to the International Youth Conference that took place, I think it was about two or three years ago now. So they got to have the opportunity to exchange with youth from around the world, and then come back and tell the students who weren’t able to go, infusing [them with] this new excitement. That made them say, “Okay, well, you know what? You guys are old. We know you know how to do e-mail, and you’re really basic with the computer stuff. But we need to get on MySpace, and we need YouTube, and we need this. So can we take over the media aspect of Kuumba Lynx?” And we said, “Feel free!” [LAUGHTER] Thanks to them, we are now on YouTube and Facebook, and we have blogs. We have MySpace and all these kinds of things that as adults we hadn’t even thought about doing. That’s our way to make ourselves international in a way that we hadn’t even considered.
NICOLE GARNEAU: At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m trying to practice getting over my fear of being corny. I just wanted to put out there that what I’m really going for is a whole world in which justice prevails. We have love and respect for humanity, and we live in harmony with the earth. If democracy is a means to that end, then by all means let’s go for it. Otherwise, we don’t need it. I really think of myself as participating in world transformation in a different way, through energy. I’m working the energy. I’m working the energy of my body. I’m working the energy of this room. I’m working the energy of the earth. I’m trying to let the earth work through me. I’m going all the way there. I’m just straight up going all the way there. I’m calling on my ancestors. I’m calling on my guides. All of your ancestors, all of your guides [LAUGHTER]. The guides of whoever is in the room. I’m asking for everybody’s help. I’m inviting all the spirits to check right in to the work and help us transform this whole earth. It’s a spiritual choice and a spiritual practice, but it is not separated from me, from what I’m doing out when I’m doing these things in public. Because it’s creating neural pathways. Practicing being in public space. Practicing being out on the street. Practicing engaging with people in a loving and respectful way. People who you don’t know. People who are different from you. Just going ahead and practicing that and getting good at it. Because it’s a skill that we can learn and that we can get good at. I think it’s a revolutionary skill.
JENNIFER KARMIN: Our [Anti Gravity Surprise] response to this question was connected to the idea that collaborative group work is a political form of making art and a political form of activism; we’re creating this model so we can take it back into our everyday lives. It seems very important to us. Overall, we do not believe that top-down organizing on a national level is the most productive way to start efforts for change. There are obstacles related to distance that make it very difficult to maintain the same sense of community that we see as a major necessity in this kind of organizing. On the other hand, bottom-up organizing seems to be a more successful form of change, because you can do it one person at a time. We feel that’s part of what we’ve seen, both in our activist work and in our artwork, and in the place in between that Anti Gravity Surprise lives in.
DAN S. WANG: To me, the question is, “What is a local? When do you become a local?” And perhaps, a more personal or more profound way to ask the question is, “Where and when are you at home?” I know for myself, I am at home in a number of different places. Let’s hope that the people in Tamms Supermax never have that be their home. There are places you can live that are not home, too. That seems to be a question that we should be asking when we’re thinking of this problem of a political agency and concrete organizing. Now, in the question there seems to be this issue of how to proceed on a concrete, organizational level. I would say that in national organizing that’s not such a big problem, especially if you’re talking about city to city. Linking up cities. The differences between cities are comparatively small. The real walls are between people who live in cities, travel between cities, and people who never go into cities. That’s a big divide there. That would take more of a deliberate effort to overcome or bridge. Also, I would say that international coordination is a place where efforts should be put.
MARY PATTEN: I agree with those who’ve pointed out the bifurcated nature of democracy in the United States, where there’s democracy for some, namely the wealthy. The privileged classes. But I think it’s cynical reasoning to dismiss democracy as simply an illusion or a farce. This precludes the possibility, the necessity of pushing US society to adhere to its stated principles in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Perhaps we can agree here that the received common sense that equates democracy with capitalism is a big lie. Democracy isn’t necessarily attached to any economic system. Secondly, that the electoral arena is the only place where people in this country get to practice democracy on a national scale. And we are blamed for being apathetic when we’re alienated or disengaged from the process on whatever level. Look at what our democracy has become since the Clinton years: We get 500 square feet for one hour to protest behind a cordon with police surrounding us at every turn, often a mile away from the thing we’re protesting. There are other ways to think critically about democracy, including the undemocratic uses of consensus, something that we tend to elevate as an undifferentiated good. Jacques Ranciere, a political theorist and philosopher, writes about how consensus is produced through polls, the media, etc., where by definition any kind of minority voice is squashed in a zero sum game. I think that we need to be talking about creating democratic spaces that not only allow for differences, but that appreciate and encourage debate and conflict, uncomfortable as that may be.
SARA BLACK: I think the national question is a really hard one but a really important one. Partially because, in large part, our ideas have been framed by this two-party system. On one side—that being the conservative side—there is something that looks a lot like a national social movement. It’s got an overarching, principled rally cry that a lot of people can get on board with, while the progressive side has something that looks like a large house with many different rooms, in which many different people want to exist. By nature of that mix there is a division, or people don’t feel like they want to get under a large principled umbrella that has a rally cry. In some ways, we’re at a crucial moment where we have the opportunity to do some myth-making to develop a language that is about a morality or to take back words from the other side about what it means to be moral. There is a way to put that over the top of everything that we’re talking about in a way that wouldn’t necessarily flatten it completely. In some cases, I wonder whether or not we don’t need or really need a national myth, something to move people [LAUGHTER]. Possibly we’re afraid of that because it looks too monolithic or something. I don’t really know how to deal with it, because I’ve been local, local, local, local. But in some cases, it’s really tricky to be just local.
BRAD THOMSON: From my experience, the attempt to connect localized work to a national structure exemplifies part of the difference between “art” and “activist” approaches. Contemporary art practices tend to avoid any attempt at creating a platform or defining characteristics. However, explicitly political social movements have a tendency to try to articulate demands, goals, tactics, etc. and in trying to build collective power, they often work toward nationalizing their initiatives regardless of regional interests. My work as an “activist/artist” has often struck this tension between the national/local and the collective/individual. To be honest, this tension is what I find most exciting, confusing, frustrating and inspiring about locating a practice that engages both a more conventional “art” scene and a more conventional “political” scene.
SHANNON STRATMAN: threewalls is a project intended to make exhibition or presentation opportunities transparent, and provide support for artist’s ideas and work through an open application process. Obviously we can’t support everything, so an increased number of programs in our region that offer opportunities and funding for projects is beneficial – there is strength in numbers, and the more opportunities exist the more culture is served by offering a number of outlets and means for support.
When we collaborated with Green Lantern Press on publishing PHONEBOOK [a guide to artist-run centers,small not-for-profits,fringe galleries, and other exhibition and presentation projects], we did so to start bridging these projects and build a network of cultural workers in small visual culture administration. This project tied our projects with others and aimed to do a few things: archive the work of cultural workers that might be lost without some means to record its activity and produce a document that demonstrated the desire for these programs, their missions and interconnectness.
Although PHONEBOOK is, as of now, an archive and resource, its initial publication has inspired thought about devising new strategies to support these projects who support artists. Right now these spaces are “organized” only on paper, but as the document is used, cultural workers become knowledgeable of each other and their work and a network is created. Without enforcing or designating any specific end to this network, there is some aspiration that this network will inspire new thinking about funding strategies, including shared strategies that might help support regions who may not have the benefit of a robust local economy or ones which are historically invested in local visual arts as culturally valuable.
(Outside of these questions, I hope that threewalls can help motivate other artists to start other exhibition projects, short or long term, with different missions or parameters. But ultimately, I always look forward to a multiplicity of projects emerging and providing increased opportunities or alternatives.)
WAFAA BILAL: Artists are always on the front lines of the issues. But with a lack of democracy or freedom of speech, in oppressed cultures, artists become a muted voice that cannot deliver any social change. Through my work, I always have democracy and freedom of speech in mind. My latest work, Virtual Jihadi, was censored twice in Troy, NY, by RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] University and by city officials [More information available on the RPI Free Culture Wiki]. During the controversy I actually heard someone say, “Freedom has gone too far.” So that brings up the point, freedom for who?
When a society represses freedom of speech like this, it is on its way to becoming a totalitarian system. My work and responses to it like the censorship at RPI show the limits of democracy and free speech here in the US, and help mobilize people to challenge these limits and power structures.
ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: As a media activist, I’ve been writing about despair over democracy and using those terms since 1996. So I’ve been tracking those concerns, journalistically, but at the same time I’m attempting to work out solutions to them artistically. And that journalism, or I should say “that non-fiction writing that contains some elements of journalism” has a good strong following, so I have been fortunate enough to influence that dialogue in a direct manner a little bit. So my work on Punk Planet, my characterization of its demise, my tracking of the corporate infiltration of underground culture in “Unmarketable” [Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (New Press 2007)] and other writing, my work within the advertising community with the [Anti-Advertising Agency] Foundation For Freedom, where we convinced advertisers to leave their jobs for a chance at not very much money and a giant novelty check: these are all discussed in those local communities and in national media, and therefore influence the discussions that are possible. You can’t say the advertising community is a healthy and happy one, for example, if you also have to explain that people rushed to quit for a shot at $700.
And generally, because I work on a national and international scale, I’ve felt especially lucky in this past year to be slightly more connected to the national ethos than the local Chicago ethos, which I think is going through some changes at the moment, even outside of the economic trouble. By “national,” I mean both that I’ve been able to participate in a national dialogue with people from all over the country, for example at the RNC and by working with Codepink, but also that I’ve been able to work locally on a small scale with individuals and groups of people in several places: most recently, San Antonio TX, Providence RI, and Geneva NY. And of course, NYC.
So I’m a little bit more in the camp that believes that organizing nationally maybe isn’t the best application of my time—that’s what my writing is for, communication on that national level, directly—but that organizing cross-locally is a little bit more useful. If I can find specific groups of people in all these cities that I’m working in tandem with, supporting, and being inspired by, that’s what I find more helpful than a national organizational structure, which to some degree always must be hierarchical. And I don’t believe that change can come from emulating the system we already have, even if we switch up who’s in what roles.