Josh MacPhee and Emily Forman were two organizers of The Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR), along with Nato Thompson, which was described as “a weekend campaign of April 27, 28, and 29th, in 2001 that attempted to reclaim all the space, land and visual culture of Chicago back to the people who work for it, live in it and create it”. This interview was conducted in Brooklyn, NY on April 11th, 2011.
Daniel Tucker (DT): What were important pre-histories or inspirations for DSLR?
Josh MacPhee (JM): I guess there’s pre-history and pre-pre-history. The immediate pre-history that led to the Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR) was Nato Thompson and I working on a project that he organized called Counter Productive Industries (CPI), which was an early attempt by Nato to try to merge what he thought were interesting aspects of political and artistic activity in some sort of new way. He was coming at things from being in graduate school for Arts Administration.
As for the pre-pre-history, Nato had a series of experiences running do-it-yourself art spaces in California. He was interested in the political and social implications of that kind of activity, of taking art out of more rarified gallery settings and putting it into other ways of being in the world. I was coming from a parallel but very different perspective, which was having been directly involved in a lot of political activities that weren’t necessarily cultural by nature: organizing around prisons, gentrification, and different kinds of grassroots struggles. I was also involved in the creation of anarchist subcultural spaces: info shops, community spaces, things like that. I was embedded in this political stuff, but I perceived myself as an artist. I would often be the one who created the graphic material for these different projects or campaigns. I was trying to infuse art into politics and Nato was trying to infuse politics into art.
We decided to try to work on something together in—partly because of a lot of the limitations that became obvious in the Counter Productive Industries project. Although he was trying to break out, CPI was very much locked within an arts context and didn’t engage very much with people outside of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was were he was going to school, where most of the artists that were involved in CPI were also in school, and where most of the audience for the project came from.
DT: Do you want to say anything about the background that you had Emily?
Emily Forman (EF): I was really young at the time we organized DSLR. I think I had just turned eighteen. But I was raring to go. Up until that point I had been a queer, feminist activist and a visual artist, and I was really obsessed with trying to figure out how to combine art and activism effectively.
One of the things that really inspired me when I was, I think, sixteen was this project called Structural Adjustments. It was a collaboration between Ultra Red and Valerie Tevere along with L.A.’s Union de Vecinos, a group of public housing residents who were fighting against the destruction of their housing development. They were doing a combination of traditional community organizing and audiovisual documentary work – but they were doing it in a way that really engaged and utilized this contested public space in innovative and creative ways.
As a celebration and moment of reflection, they would throw these parties where they’d occupy the courtyards of these housing developments and do massive projections on the building walls. Simultaneously all of the neighbors would go and take out their boom boxes, set them on their windowsills, and everybody would tune into the same pirate radio station, also broadcasting the community’s documentary about its struggle against displacement. That combination of public space, technology, and activism totally captured my imagination when I was growing up in L.A.
I met Nato when I moved to Chicago to go to the Art Institute. We had been doing student activism together. It was the cresting, high point of the counter-globalization movement then. It was a very electrified, politicized moment, both within the Art Institute and in Chicago-at-large. I was in the right place at the right time and I was really lucky to meet Nato and Josh and have the opportunity to be a co-organizer, officially, of DSLR.
In terms of the organization of DSLR, Josh was the reason that the organizing was actually able to work outside of the art worlds of Chicago. Because Josh had a social knowledge of community organizations, street artists and other activists in the city, he was really able to reach out into the rest of the city. Josh and Nato had some notable differences, and my identity as an artist and a political being was very much forged from those practical and ideological debates, and from those new forms of synthesis that we were able to find in organizing DSLR together.
JM: Part of what made what it was is a set of specificities; experiences and historical moments. I had, before meeting Nato and Emily, been involved in a number of self-organized projects, starting in high school with being involved in DIY punk, and I think that the knowledge developed in learning how to create and put out your own magazine through zine networks, to press and distribute records by friends’ bands, to start booking shows at venues, and eventually setting up, renting, and starting your own venues, which then in part expanded to the development of the infoshop movement and setting up of specific bookstores/libraries/community spaces that were used by the young and developing anarchist movement. All of that, the collective knowledge cultivated by being involved in those things was necessary for DSLR to happen, I think.
In addition, in 1999 there had been a huge protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, which expanded into what became the counter- or alter-globalization movement. And although very different in form, DSLR was very much a manifestation of the ideas and struggle that was happening in that movement. We didn’t articulate it as a political struggle in the way that the protests against the WTO or the IMF or the World Bank were happening, in which there would be a huge gathering of protestors that would attempt to shut down some sort of meeting that was being held by the bad guys. What we did was we took the momentum and energy that was being developed by those movements that we were participating in. We decided that rather than going and traveling to some far away place to protest some bad guys, that there was plenty of things going on in Chicago that needed to be intervened in. And DSLR was an attempt to do that. To take this idea that we should be able to control our own economy, to have a real say in the world that we live in. There shouldn’t be a small cabal of leaders and business people (both globally, and locally in Chicago) that make decisions that dictate the terms of life for the rest of the population, the 99.9% of us. We decided to take that spirit of opposition to global capitalism and turn it loose on our very specific existence in Chicago.
And that’s where the idea of creating this false, or alter, or parallel city department came from: The Department of Space and Land Reclamation. The motto for the DSLR project was to reclaim all the space and land of Chicago for the people that lived, worked, and played in it. So we set up both a physical and a metaphorical city department which would act as a very local antidote to the very international World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD), or the World Economic Forum (all of which we organized against at one point of time or another over the next 5 years. We were awash in bad acronyms and DSLR was an attempt to create an acronym from below [laughter] rather than being continually suppressed by acronyms from above.
EF: Well there was this four-day event. There were hundreds of people who came and participated over the course of a four-day weekend. People who were coming as individuals, artists, activists, community organizations and families. People from many diverse walks of life in Chicago, many different subcultures that generally didn’t share the same space or share the same goals. And I think one of the things that was really genius about DSLR was the way that it was framed explicitly around the politics of public space – that public space was this thing that could be a shared zone of transformation for everybody in Chicago, because everybody’s ability to self-determine their lives and their neighborhoods, was dependent upon the control of public space. And so all of the things that were articulated by different people about public space, whether they were coming from a hip-hop or graffiti background or coming from a neighborhood struggle against coal-burning power plants—whatever background people were coming from, this became this zone of communication and sharing that created a really amazing dialogue.
So over the course of these four days there was a “hub space” that was set up at a warehouse called the Butcher Shop, on the near west side, and in this hub space there were workshops, lectures and community meals. There were people getting to know each other and collaborating. There was a map of the city of Chicago. People would meet each other, they would go out into the city, they would do different kinds of spatial reclamations, which really ranged in variety and scope. The bulk of the spatial reclamations were sort of artistic interventions. People doing strange performances in public space, but there were also reclamations that were more long-standing, reoccurring, or that were actually contestational; and then all these people would come back to the command center-hub space and they would flag their reclaimed zone of the city onto the giant map of the city.
JM: In the hub representatives of these 60+ projects were mingling, many of them sleeping, eating, and living in this space. Then there were hundreds of other people coming in and out who weren’t directly engaged in a specific project, but who came for a party, a panel, a meal, or just to say hi to people. There was all of the dialogue and relationships that developed in that space and then there was the external, which was the unfolding of all these projects in their specific locations in the city of Chicago—and being marked on the map as Emily said.
At the time—I mean people would be videotaping the projects that were unfolding in the street and then bicycling those tapes back to the hub and editing them onto VHS so they get popped into this giant wall of VCRs and televisions we had built into the space. It’s funny because ten years isn’t that long ago, but our access to technology has changed so much. Everything is so integrated now, with cell phones and cameras in laptops, but back then we had to spend weeks finding enough people that had TVs and VCRs to hobble together this giant wall of televisions piled up on top of each other with VHS decks squeezed in behind them or to the side of them. It was so basic that every once in a while one of us would go and try to restart all of the tapes—the idea was to recreate the sense of a control room with all of us being able to see what was happening all over the city simultaneously.
JM: I’m sure that the motivation for this came out of our understanding of and experience with Indymedia, which had developed out of WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Some of the first ideas for the creation of Indymedia actually originated out of a group of people who been involved with media center planning at the Active Resistance gathering and protests that happened simultaneously with the 1996 Democratic National Convention meetings in Chicago. While none of us were super tech people, we were trying to capture that sense of real time that we now take for granted.
DT: Can you all say a little bit more about how DSLR engaged or responded to the local context of Chicago. You said a little bit about the larger international social movements, but what was it about this place at that time?
EF: I would say the conversation that was actually happening on the ground at DSLR, even more than the conversation about geopolitics and global capitalism, was a conversation about spatial transformation happening in the neighborhoods of Chicago. This was primarily a conversation about gentrification; about how it was ravaging Chicago’s communities; about Daley’s incessant neoliberal urban policies; about how they were affecting people; how public services were being privatized; how neighborhoods were being transformed for the ends of upper-class folks. That was a high point for gentrification in Chicago, at the beginning of the 2000s. It was before the housing market hit it’s bubble and burst and speculative capital investment in urban space was just out of control.
So there were entire blocks being bulldozed and condominiums being built without any notion that anyone would ever actually move into them. And in fact they are still sitting there, no one has ever moved into them. So at that point there was this kind of intense urban renewal, this primitive accumulation that was happening where the city was being ripped apart and re-imagined. I think what was happening in Chicago was also happening in every other ‘global city’ or city that wanted to have the credibility of being a ‘global city’, making themselves sexy for transnational corporate investment. And that was the incessant, repetitive pattern of development, which prioritized tourists over residents.
So that felt really brutal and really palpable to us. I know I was definitely getting kicked out every six months to make way for new condo developments. It was another thing that connected everybody there, although people’s agency, accountability and positionality in terms of the gentrification cycle were, of course, fraught with difference. There were people there like Lavie Raven who I remember gave this incredible speech during DLSR where he said, ‘you know, some of you might be fighting against having a Wal-Mart in your neighborhood. But in our part of Southside Chicago, we’re just fighting to have a fucking grocery store! We don’t even have One. You know? ’. So all the structural inequalities of the way that needs were being met in space were reflected by folks coming together from all over the city.
The conversations during the weekend at DSLR felt really exciting because people were sharing strategies. And that is one of the things that DSLR actually did catalyze; new social and collaborative relationships between people who were really excited about articulating and attacking the problems of gentrification in Chicago as a local, urban manifestation of the generalized spatial injustice of neoliberal policy.
On the final day of DSLR there was a final roundtable discussion that turned into a brainstorming conversation about things that were happening in different Chicago neighborhoods. People were bringing creative ideas to the table that they had come up with during the weekend for different kinds of interventions and different visions of how the city might run and might be self-organized. And that was truly phenomenal. I mean the feeling of possibility was phenomenal.
DT: Do you have anything else to add to that Josh?
JM: It was a heady time, none of us had had a full night’s sleep in weeks, so the specifics of it are actually kind of fuzzy, for me at least. That said, there was something very specifically Chicago about the event and even the ability to have the conversations we had. In Chicago there was always a level of grassroots awareness about the political mechanisms and operations of the city that is very different than almost anywhere else that I’ve lived. When I moved to Chicago a number of people that I knew began schooling me in the aldermanic system and a whole bunch of history about redlining, the Daley dynasty, and the blip in between with the Harold Washington mayoralship and the coalition that was built around that. All of that is a much more ingrained part of daily life in Chicago, where in many other cities the political system floats to the side of people’s daily lives, and almost exists in a parallel but very separate universe. Daley et al. certainly felt like they floated above us, but were very much in our orbit in a way that was different. I guess CUP (Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn, NY) does some of that here, but few of the people I know in New York that consider themselves political know who represents them within the electoral sphere. I might not have liked or cared who represented me, I might not have thought it mattered, but I knew who it was and how they operated when I was living in Chicago. The machine was visible.
EF: While I was politicized by the fervor of the counter-globalization movement and the DSLR, I thought it was particularly helpful to be in Chicago of all places, because the hierarchies, the way that machine politics worked; the intentions of the Daley regime and his school chums who got all of the no-bid real estate contracts; it was sort of this microcosm of how power actually operates everywhere. But it was also just so blatant, so brutal and blatantly antagonistic to everyday people in Chicago that it was very easy to paint a picture of it. And it required you to take positions, outside of or against power in this specific way, whereas maybe if you were in Los Angeles, maybe if you were in a different city where power had dissembled itself with more spectacle, it might have been easier to identify with it.
And then of course, for all of the people who were coming from an art background or creative subculture in Chicago – there was the wonderful fact that there was just not a lot of capital. There wasn’t an art world to speak of. And so there wasn’t the siren call to participate in the art market. There weren’t really any galleries that were of any interest and so the art community in Chicago at that time was really putting the bulk of its efforts into self-organized spaces. I think that’s continued to be the hallmark of interesting, critical Chicago art practices – this artistic emphasis on self-organization with it’s own intentions, it’s own goals for creating community and for making art with it’s own feedback loops that don’t have anything to do with the big institutions in the city and don’t have to do with the ‘Art Market.’ That makes Chicago really special and more similar to smaller cities which have a similar dynamic of rich community and a social fabric that uses culture for it’s own needs. It’s a place where you can use culture to reproduce a loving community, as opposed to individuals using culture to create career paths.
JM: DSLR happened in 2001—instead of 2011—not just because of Chicago, but because of the upswing in the larger social movement. There was an antagonism embedded in DSLR that I don’t see in much of the “social practice” art currently coming out of Chicago, which is not a criticism of that social practice, it’s just that we were very antagonistic. It was at the core of the project: to poke as hard as we could poke, or at least as hard as we knew how to and in as many places as possible to see what would happen.
EF: I have to say, in terms of DSLR, it was the first time in my life that I had felt that unique affect, the collective emotion of being a part of something that felt revolutionary. I became addicted to it – all of my organizing efforts have since then aimed to reproduce that feeling of revolutionary possibility. Whether or not it was actually a revolution—obviously it wasn’t a revolution per se, but there was a revolutionary ‘feeling’ in the sense that an enormous group of people suddenly came to know each other and to know themselves as having a very different collective agency then they had felt before they walked into that space, before they met each other and took those actions. That feeling of collective potency, power , agency, creativity, friendship, solidarity and collective imagination was phenomenal. And I’ve only experienced it a few other times in my life.
I also had a feeling at DSLR that I didn’t have at any of the counter-globalization movement protests of the following years, the years when they started to get incredibly repressed. I realized at that time that the convergence spaces themselves were in many ways much more empowering spaces than being in the streets. And so we started to try to articulate what was it about these convergence spaces – this notion of proactive convergence as opposed to the reactive activity of people going out to protest power in front of corporate office buildings.
What was the different affective take-away between being in a protest outside of a corporate office building, where you are pointing at power, versus the more prefigurative experience of being in a convergence space that you have set up; where you are practicing direct democracy and you’re practicing self-organization and you’re building new social relationships that will actually give you more power and make you feel more creative and more loved. Where you begin to learn things. As opposed to the fleeting high of being in the streets and getting in a rumble with power which then completely dissipates. And I’m not saying the streets are dead, just that there is an important difference between the experience of organizing one’s own collective political project, versus the experience performing protest. That was a realization that became very important to me.
JM: But at the time we didn’t see them as separate spheres.
EF: No, we didn’t.
JM: In part DSLR was purposefully organized to be the weekend after the protests in Quebec City against the Free Trade of the Americas Act. People we knew had gone to Quebec and came back to DSLR and showed pictures and told stories. We weren’t posing what we were doing as against or outside the movement that was developing, but as a different manifestation of that movement. Shit, I was in an anarchist political organization at the time, I was in no way post more traditional political activism. For us it was the act of taking the questions being asked in these large-scale protests and bringing those home; saying, “what happens when we ask those questions of the place that we are?” What if we ask those questions of Chicago? Of Daley? How do we make this critique of what we were beginning to call neoliberalism part of ourselves, of our daily lives, rather than an extracurricular activity where we take the weekend off and fly to D.C. and get beat up by the cops?
EF: Or to point at the ills of neoliberalism taking place in the other parts of the world as opposed to at home, which is also very common. As if structural adjustment was something that only happened in ‘Third-World’ Countries, like that’s not –-
JM: Or austerity, or. . . I don’t know what language we used at the time. Maybe we didn’t use either, or maybe we used the language of gentrification, but that’s not exactly what we were talking about. We were talking about the larger effects of certain advancements within capitalist logic and how they didn’t just affect housing, but. . .
EF: I think one of the things that developed from DSLR was a deeper engagement with trying to actually identify what was going on in and around what was formerly described of as gentrification, where people actually started to have to break that down – because it is a sort of oversimplified – it’s an umbrella term that’s become less and less descriptive, really.
DT: You brought all of these diverse kinds of people, issues, questions and challenges together, but what do you think were the kinds of social change or politics being advocated through DSLR? Through how you organized it or who was participating?
EF: On a basic level the format of DSLR was formally, and in terms of content, about self-organization. It was a self-organized project that was very consciously horizontalist in the sense that at least at the time there was very little authorship or ownership coming from the people who organized it. I mean, Nato and Josh’s role was made to just sort of blend into the ownership and the activity and the investment of everybody else who participated. And everybody who participated came away with some degree of feeling of ownership over this event and this – and I think there’s a politics to that – and what grew out of it was this sense of ownership of this idea of this shadow department and the actions that had taken place. This could easily not have happened if it had been structured in a different way.
JM: As an addendum to the comments about Chicago, I think that the character of the city also played a large role in how it was organized. At the time Chicago was from the top down to close to the bottom an extremely authoritarian city. The “Democratic Machine” was top-down, but also the way that communities were organized was top-down using the Alinskyite community-organizing model, which was the dominant form of community organizing in Chicago, although I think it’s opened up a little since then. It usually involved a small number of paid organizers who would—through some sort of magical formula—decide what the community thought was the most important thing to do. It was always unclear what the community was or how it was defined, and then this cadre of organizers would go about trying to mobilize a base to accomplish those things, which could be something very sort of bread and butter, like a certain percentage of low-income housing being set aside for a development, or it could be more police on the street. I mean, we know that some of these organizations participated in writing anti-gang loitering laws and basically made a political decision at some point that the value of their property was more important than the youth that lived in their neighborhoods. They were going to toss them out the window in a trade for their own sense of safety. And that was not a politics that any of us could even remotely identify with. And it was not a politics that seemed to be coming from most of the people we knew on the ground.
And so DSLR was posing a social organizational form that was antagonistic to both the larger city structure, but also to—we didn’t really have that language at the time, but the non-profit industrial complex or the civil infrastructure of the city, which had traded in whatever teeth it had at some point in order to be able to haggle and siphon off small gains from the larger system. It allowed itself to become, very obviously from the outside, a part of that system. And we were like, “Enough. That’s not what we want and that’s not what we represent.” So we attempted to create a lightning rod to rally together the people that thought there were problems with their city in almost every aspect being organized from above and imposed on them.
But bringing together all these people is not an easy thing, they are very disparate. If the only thing you have in common is a frustration with this uni-directional flow of power, that is a powerful thing, but it is not an easy bridge for everyone to meet on. It was definitely rocky—it wasn’t like we all had a giant party and were all like, “fuck all that, and now we’re going to do this.” It was a rudimentary feeling-out of new ground, and in hindsight we can see that it was much more comfortable for people that were okay with that new ground being totally fucking weird. Because we had this totally strange space, with totally bizarre people in it, making very slap-dash, bohemian food. I think a lot of people actually left their comfort zones to participate in that space. And that says something about our ability to organize, but it actually says a lot more to the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo. That people were like, “I’m going to actually leave the comfort of my neighborhood and the way that I understand how things work to go to this totally fucking weirdo art event that seems to be talking about things that I’m interested in even though I’m having a hard time navigating the language and aesthetics”. . . it was a moment.
DT: Okay. So please talk a little bit about how DSLR transformed your thinking or your life or you approach to art and politics.
JM: I think it’s hard to answer that with anything really discreet. It did A, or it did B. The thing that keeps happening, I feel like, is I will be in a situation where I’ll end up talking about DSLR or some of the projects we did in Chicago post-DSLR and it will just dawn on me: “Wait a second, that has a lot to do with why I do something the way I do it now.” Maybe at the time it was conscious and I had forgotten the immediate influence, but I think that we imbedded an immense amount of diverse ideas into those projects, and a large number of them are still very fertile. They’re still being negotiated and processed and thought through.
Emily brought it up a little bit earlier, but I certainly in no way feel like the question of authorship is settled in my life or in my relationship to cultural production or political engagement. One of the things that was always a sticking point between us and other people involved in all of these projects was some people’s desire to have a fixed group or fixed name or fixed identity. And then others wanting to continually destabilize that idea. I always argued for the destabilization. I think part of my desire for that was naïve. It was an idea that somehow if we didn’t have a fixed name we couldn’t be recuperated. I think that that is absolutely naïve politically, but it doesn’t change the fact that I still believe that the problems that arise when you refuse to have a fixed name are actually pretty interesting problems. And I find it fruitful to engage with those problems as opposed to circumventing all of that by just doing the more acceptable thing of settling on a name and then getting down to the real business of whatever it is you’re doing. I actually think that naming an identity, and the boundaries of who is and who isn’t part of that identity—I think that all of that is the real stuff of anything that we do.
JM: Lots of times we choose to push that aside or ignore that because it’s complicated or thorny. And maybe this is a huge political jump. Actually, not maybe, it is a huge political jump, but I don’t think it’s totally divorced from the fact that we live in a world in which boundaries and borders are becoming more and more malleable and flexible in places where there aren’t “strong states.” The distinction between living in one nation in central Africa and another is becoming increasingly blurry if ultimately you are living under a warlord that exists in both of those territories. Or in the U.S. increasingly larger percentages of the population that we know, work with, and organize with come from all these different parts of the world and yet simultaneously as a nation we’re building giant physical walls around the geographic territory that’s supposedly ours, whoever ‘ours’ is. And to take all of that large-scale, meta-political thing and put that aside in your every day-to-day organizing is probably a mistake. One of the things that we did that was very cool was try to engage with that on a practical day-to-day level.
EF: And that’s what I like to call “Queering the We.’ [laughter]
. . .Actually, ‘Queering the We’ was something that I used to say, and that I’ve sort of censored my use of in public lately. But I have found it really helpful in jettisoning, when you’re organizing – in blowing open this whole notion of ‘What is our collective subjectivity here?’, How rigid are the potential boundaries and borders of who ‘We’ are when we do something? What could ‘We’ become?
On a certain level DSLR changed my life in the sense that it set into motion a handful of preoccupations which have been motivating my research ever since. Over the last ten years I’ve been experimenting with, challenging and/or modifying so many of the same sorts of concepts that were at the heart of DSLR. My career as an anti-capitalist cultural activist has on every level been really framed by that experience. And so it will be interesting to check-in in another ten years and see where we’re all at then.
I know I’ve continued to do work that engages with public space, with trespassing, with spatial reclamation, occupation, with what it means to liberate a territory, with collective direct-action; And with this concept that we share of ‘social movement culture’. I do think that that’s maybe where me and Josh and Nato have gone in slightly different directions.
I feel like Josh and Dara [Greenwald] have been building a lot of ground, particularly with Signs of Change, in terms of putting historical research behind this notion of social movement culture or of a cultural production that is by and for social movements. Not only is it fascinating but it’s also the missing link between everything that we do and everything that we are interested in. It connects us to history even if it has to break with traditional art historiography to do so. I believe this approach actually transcends the ‘catch 22 of political art’ that we pointed at during DSLR. And since I don’t have a vested interest in reproducing the institutional self-justification of Art, or it’s industry, I’ve just come to prefer using the bridge-building word ‘Culture’ over the border-policing term ‘Art.’ I really trust curiosity and I trust people with broad interests in how culture is produced and how new cultural communities are themselves formed by political movements or historical transformation.
I guess one obvious thing that transformed my life, which also, in part, grew out of DSLR, a few years later, was Pilot TV. Pilot was an attempt to recreate that self-organized convergence space, but this time as a queer “Temporary Autonomous TV Studio” It was a socially catalytic and culturally fertile shared moment between hundreds of people. And like DSLR, Pilot produced it’s own set of problems, questions and vocabulary and it catalyzed its own community. Pilot was also an attempt to think about the trajectory of Indymedia, about the possibility of collective media production and distribution at the moment before Youtube was really being used by everybody. More importantly, Pilot was also raising a lot of questions around transfeminism, queer politics and gender self-determination, which are all conversations and practices that have only continued to expand in the years since Pilot happened in 2004.
I’ve been doing this talk recently where I’ve been trying to think about the tension in my work between the prefigurative model on one hand, which is this attempt to build a new world, an attempt to imagine a new world and to give flesh to it, often through these social projects; and on the other hand the more interventionist projects, which often engage critical speech acts, performances which intervene into the discursive fabric of everyday life, activist hijinks, all these things that don’t last very long but that critique culture as it is, rarely producing a new imaginary.
I think those two models of practice were coexistent at DSLR. I mean, DSLR produced both a dialogue around prefiguration and also a new set of tools around urban interventionism. And a lot of the projects that grew out of DSLR were all of these projects that we did, all of these interventions around housing and public space and public policy. We experimented with interventions for many years and eventually I think we reached some sort of limitations about how far they would take us or how thoroughly social change could actually be gained from those momentary interventions.
I ended up gravitating back to the prefigurative side with Pilot at the precisely the same time that Nato was curating The Interventionists exhibit as MassMOCA, which.. I don’t know if it was his intention but it had the effect of creating a condoned art world canonized genre of interventionism. It changed the field in terms of how we talk about a whole set of art practices and cultural practices that are now recognizable and legitimated by the art world as discreet fields of practice, whereas before when we were doing DSLR it was just kind of a wild zone of – you know, we could just as easily understand our practices as coming from social movements as coming from the history from performance art.
JM: Maybe I’m overly antagonistic towards the art world or the art market. On some level I have to give a shit whether what I do is condoned by the art world or not, but I don’t think I’m that aware of it on a conscious level. It’s not a big factor in how I make decisions about what I do or why. The art world provides an opportunity like any other opportunity to be in this show or that show. The majority of my art engagement at this point is via Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, which exists in the art world as much as any cultural production does, but also exists very much outside of it in that most of what we produce is for everyday people and everyday use. It’s who we engage with and how the work engages that matters to us.
EF: But there is a different kind of intention with your cultural production than somebody who’s engagement, whose public interventionist practice, or their poster-making practice has an intentionality of feeding back in—I mean they’re different economies and they have different goals.
I think actually what we haven’t talked about was one of the other failures of DSLR, that I think we’ve all been trying to work out in our own practices ever since. Which was that there was a lop-sidedness to DSLR; it was more of an art project in the sense that there were more artists who came into it with an intention of making discreet art projects than anything else. And so it still had many of the trappings of being very much like a curated art show. It sort of exploded out of those confines in it’s own way.
I know that I came out of it thinking, ‘hey, this is a really fertile mixture when you put these different elements together, these social elements, these pointed questions and you create this space where people are not only bringing in projects but they’re producing them live together in this cultural space.’ It seemed like a really interesting thing that was fundamentally not controllable by its organizers. But, yes, DSLR was way more art-driven than it needed to be. And I remember that being one of the things that we analyzed as a weakness when it was over.
DT: Do you think that DSLR transformed social relations and if so, what are some examples of how it did and did it have other effects beyond that?
JM: I don’t want to be annoying and over problematize, but I think that ‘transformation’ and ‘social relationships’ are things that need further defining in order to answer this—I mean, on one level this interview transforms social relationships. So I guess I don’t know exactly what the question means?
DT: Does it mean anything to you?
JM: It changed social relationships on a micro-scale. I don’t think it changed social relationships on a macro-scale. If you want to look at it through the lens of political economy, social relationships are these large-form arrangements of how all of us interrelated to each other that are dictated both by capital, from above, and the ways that we organize, from below. Did DSLR have a substantive impact in that sort of epic battle? I’m not sure, but probably not. Did it have lots of ripples that went in lots of places that we don’t know? This is the strange thing about cultural production, it’s ultimately qualitative rather than quantitative, so it’s very hard to say “we did A and it led to B, which then opened up into C.”
Instead it changed the quality of the relationships between a lot of the people that were in those rooms and in those activities in the city at the time. It had a major impact to the extent that for a lot of us it largely dictated who we spent most of our time with for the next five years of our lives, and who we spent most of our time with dictated the kinds of things that we were thinking about, talking about, and doing. And as such it had a huge effect on a small number on people and then those conversations that we had had effects on the other people in our lives. I just don’t know how to quantify that in any way that seems meaningful to be described.
DT: So my last question is: at this point, ten years later as you reflect on the project, are there other important lessons learned for you or that you think are sort of relevant to other practitioners, other organizers or activists or artists?
EF: One thing is that DSLR was not the only experiment of its kind that was happening at that moment. Now that I can look back, I’m aware of all sorts of similar experiments that were happening in terms of people using collective cultural organization in and around that high-point of the counter-globalization movement, all over the world. And I can read all of those experiments as a part of a larger cultural moment. I do think it’s important not to remember DSLR as this exceptional thing that happened in Chicago, but as just another aspect of the much larger whirlwind that we participated in for a brief moment in history. And of course that brings up to the question of – What happened to those international, anti-capitalist social movements? Where are they now, ten years later, and where could they reemerge? While I don’t have the answers, I’m always looking for signs of people reconvening around new trajectories of movement. I do think that that is bound to happen. And it’s what we’re constantly searching for.
JM: I think the exceptional part was actually the engagement with art. Within the context of art production, DSLR was a social practice which was historically and geographically specific and consciously tethered to a set of political and economic circumstances, our geography and placement within the larger global economy. For someone organizing a political campaign, those are things you often take for granted. From the get-go that’s the basis of where you start. I think it is the fact that we brought that into an art context that was exceptional in some way. You look at parallel political projects and they almost all do that, but when you look at parallel art projects, very few of them do. They may have some of the aesthetic trappings of ‘interventions’ and the language of politics, but a lot of our peers at that time—and a lot of the work produced—was, consciously or not, structured so that it could be transported to any number of locations and speak to any number of audiences. This assumes that the locational specifics are secondary to some universalist concern, an idea we rejected.
EF: Tactical media tool kits. . .
JM: We weren’t really interested in making those. We weren’t really interested in taking DSLR and installing it somewhere else. It wasn’t an installation in that sense. It was of and from the ground that it was on and it was going to feed back into that ground. There was nowhere else to go.
EF: And the thing that came out of it was, on some level, a myth. Not a myth that one could, say, create a career out of as an artist or a curator or a political organizer or a community-based organizer. The mythology of it was based on an authorship that was more than the sum of it’s individual parts. Everybody’s participation was necessary. And that’s just one aspect of it that differentiates it from similar art practices that were going on at that moment, and some that ultimately came out of it.
My experience participating in Barcelona in the incredibly creative social movement practices that are going on there, particularly around the squatted social centers and my collective Miles de Viviendas was similar, in that despite the fact that we were using all of these sort of aesthetic tools and critical tools that come out of art history, the sum goal of the cultural production that was happening at the base of these social movements was to feed right back into the social movements and it indeed fed back into the reproduction of a new culture, a new sense of community and collective subjectivity. And that was really the goal of it. And so the reproduction of the social movement itself and of the community and of it’s expanded liberatory horizons was the goal, for me, when I was making maps and textiles and walking tours and sculptures, and special reclamations and occupying buildings in Barcelona. Nobody in their right mind could claim their cultural practices or their interventions or their creative direct-actions or their critical cartographies or their tactical textile projects as branded career practices, because that was not the goal, nor was it necessary for our survival.
The fact that those collaborations actually transformed the horizons of my daily life – that was so much more fruitful than me having something to add to my CV. And so it gave me the full intention of continuing to build a cultural practice that can use the best tools of art and art history, of activism, of craft traditions, to continue to change my everyday life conditions and the life conditions of people around me, directly. Not just as an individual survival strategy based on artistic authorship. What we need are collective survival strategies.
JM: Given our specific situation of existing in the United States, where there is a very over-determined art world and art market—never mind living in New York—there is something exciting about the fact that we always existed in the tension between a practice that could be seen as fully engaged in life and a practice that was trying to navigate, individually and collectively, the notion of cultural capital and career and value as produced by what is important within the art world. That tension was actually quite fruitful, and maybe in hindsight pretty interesting. Rather than being fully immersed in and getting lost in a political struggle, which is amazing in its own right, that space we were occupying had no claim to being outside of what we needed to do as cultural producers to survive in this world. Ultimately this messy mix of politics and career survival needs is much more familiar to our peers. And by navigating that space we all had to make conscious decisions about when we did or didn’t put more weight on the political or the career side of it. That forced awareness and made visible a certain level of the mechanisms of ideology that do exist within the art world and within the larger realms of culturalized capital. I think that’s useful for understanding why we do the things we do, and how we make choices.
EF: I think what happened at DSLR and after, and maybe also during Pilot and after, were these fleeting utopian moments where through collectivity we were able to create the potential of having anonymous cultural action be fertile, meaningful and also sustainable in a way that didn’t just disappear into the survival needs of each of us as individuals. And so what that actually meant is that we created punctures in the fabric of neoliberal subjectivity for a moment, where there was the possibility of having a notion of being – that was not just about the individual, where there was something more that mattered, something more at stake.
I know that in the last ten years I’ve learned a lot more about how this thread runs throughout history, the degree to which art and cultural workers, craftsman and laborers of all kinds, have been working on this tension between individual and collective survival – and creating infrastructures for collective survival all the way back, often in incredibly creative and interesting ways. That’s not the stuff that generally gets canonized, but it is certainly worth remembering and digging up.
For further information on DSLR come visit the Never The Same archives. See the online DSLR archive here.