Rozalinda Borcilă interviewed in June 2013 at her home by Rebecca Zorach for Never The Same.
Rozalinda Borcilă is a Romanian organizer, writer and artist currently based in Chicago. She is interested in power and space-making, and the ways in which the aesthetic is mobilized within the circuits of capital. She is engaged in no border movements and self-organized learning communities, and has been part of several collective projects including Institute for Getting Ugly, 6Plus, Compass, BLW and No Name Collective. She is currently working on a research project on Foreign Trade Zones, and has many years experience as a grass roots organizer in migrant justice and abolitionist communities.
Rebecca Zorach (RZ): I’d like to ask about your work in Chicago and how you first came here. In general I’m wondering how you think about your activist work in relation to your work as an artist and whether there are tensions that leave you feeling pulled in different directions and that kind of thing so. But maybe I can start by asking you to talk about when you first came to Chicago, either to visit or to live.
Rozalinda Borcila (RB): I came here when BLW first formed; we formed in Chicago at Pilot TV: Experimental Media for Experimental Feminist Trespass. It was Sarah Lewison and Julie Wyman and myself that found each other somehow, two at a time, and we knew that we had a real need to work with media, to work with the radical political promise of media and also our disappointment over its limitations. We all had a media background and we’d all in some way struggled with that, so instead of pulling away from using media we wanted to engage with it in a different way. And I think we also wanted to do a lot of bodywork, we were really into bodywork but in very different ways.
RZ: Bodywork meaning like yoga and things like that?
RB: No, like performance pedagogy and movement and improvisational methods. I used it in my teaching. In my sculpture classes in addition to drawing or maquette exercises there would always be some kind of physical manipulation of bodies and environments as a way to conceptualize or brainstorm, and it was similar for Julie and Sarah. So Pilot was about what is TV, can we reclaim, reimagine a grassroots, radical liberated TV sphere, and it was also very much about queering everything, right? Engaging with something by just assuming that it is other than itself, you know? So that allowed us to be like: OK, so we can engage with media because we don’t have to be trapped by what we perceive are the limitations of media. We can work with that inheritance but we don’t have to be stuck in it. And we arrived with one idea under one proposal and everything changed once we got here. I think that was our first time spending a lot of time together and doing a project together, and our method of working evolved from there in a way that was very specific to Pilot as a space. It was very specific to what happened over the first few days, to our encounter with Dara Greenwald, to Dara’s presentation of some of the Videofreex material, which at the time hadn’t even been reconditioned, so it was very, very rough and none of us had seen it before, and then to our conversations with people in that space about radical politics in media. None of us lived in Chicago, but somehow BLW was a very Chicago-infused or Chicago-influenced practice.
RZ: And had the three of you been together before?
RB: No, I had collaborated closely with Sarah Lewison and Sarah Lewison had collaborated closely with Julie Wyman, and I had met Julie Wyman. We hadn’t worked together but we knew each other from video festival circuits and film festivals … and then it was Pilot, right? We had talked a lot about wanting to do something together and this was the perfect prompt at the perfect time, and we all flew in and stayed at Ava Bromberg’s apartment.
RZ: And how did the project change?
RB: Well, the project was going to be a little more cynical, it was going to be a remake of Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People, we didn’t quite know how but we were just thinking about the scrolling text and the music and we were going to start from there… and then actually see, collaborate with other people at Pilot. What we liked about Pilot was the idea that everyone would be in a mosh pit work situation, developing television together, so we had a bit of an idea for what the show would be, that it would be commercial interruptions between other shows, I think. I think we had some kind scrolling announcements about a hostile corporate takeover… I don’t know, it wasn’t very clear. So we knew that it was going to change and evolve, we didn’t know that it was going to turn into something completely different that really took on questions of activism and propositionality in a more complicated way than cynicism or depression or critical distance or the failure of something, so that was all because of how Pilot evolved.
RZ: And so how did it take on propositionality and…?
RB: At Pilot we heard these videos, right? We saw this archival footage, we spoke with Dara, we spoke to all kinds of people. The footage that was shown were these speeches that were a call, a Queen Mother Moore speech at Green Haven Prison, which is very much about the imperative to call to others and the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not that call would incite others to something. Queen Mother Moore speaks of herself as having been called out or incited by someone else and so she is now doing the same. There’s this history or process by which speaking and moving into being and acting politically is a process that’s shared and it’s cumulative and it’s relational. And so we somehow felt like—I mean, she wasn’t speaking to us; we weren’t black men in prison in the late sixties—but there was something very clear about how we were being called to a different position than being viewers of the TV.
We didn’t know. I mean, we loved seeing it, it was totally euphoric, and then we got back to Ava’s place and we were crying because we didn’t know what that call meant, and we felt like we weren’t equipped to respond to it. And we also felt like Pilot was a call, like all these people had come based on a question or a proposition. Watching it on TV was not sufficient but what was this new position or this new place that we were being called to? We didn’t know, so we thought that we would memorize it. We only had the tape for a short period, it had not yet been processed by the Video Data Bank and it couldn’t be screened again, so we decided to try and memorize it and insert it back into Pilot at the end of the festival so that what began it also would end it, but this time with us instead of Queen Mother Moore. And we didn’t have any idea what that would mean and it was really emotional and uncomfortable, trying to enunciate the speech and being seen by others in your full inadequacy and so forth. But it also felt like the right environment to be trying to create a space… it’s very cheesy to talk about not knowing, but a space where you really deal with uncertainty together and sustain it somehow, open it and keep it sustained.
So that was what we decided to do, and I think the ideas about re-speaking or whatever else we used as tools were just ways to act upon our dissatisfaction with our given positions and also our lack of understanding. And so sometimes you move sideways—I think Sarah Lewison did talk about yoga, about how sometimes in yoga you can’t go somewhere so you have to move in the opposite direction or sideways and open up a little space, and that allows you to then move deeper, so that you stretch something or you create some pause or some distance that allows you to move to a different place or to create a different place… and then not really fit in it. But at least then you have something to deal with. You have something to deal with. Because we felt like where we were there was nothing we could work with, there was some kind of a wall. And so then we continued that in other places and we came back to Chicago for Pathogeographies and Other People’s Baggage.
RZ: So that was the beginning, that was the first re-speaking you did, the Queen Mother Moore?
RB: Queen Mother Moore, the first one we spoke at Pilot, and then we did a film or a video of it in California and then we re-spoke Fred Hampton in a very theatrical performance and also worked with Fred Hampton in more workshop kinds of situations and different contexts. We did a few text-based pieces based on those two materials. And then by the time Pathogeographies rolled around, we felt that we wanted to work in a different way, still with a place of not knowing what something was and how to relate to it, still not accepting the position that one is given, or the relationship to media. So we thought of Millennium Park as a mediated space, or mediating space; like that was media. And so instead of watching it and hitting play on it, that we would somehow re-speak it back to itself. I’m not quite sure—we weren’t quite sure—but Pathogegraphies offered this other set of prompts, right?
And this other time frame and this other context…We arrived with the idea of Millennium Park as media and we arrived with the commitment to do a series of five temporal things there, and to work on it day and night, before and after to process it more thoroughly, we thought that that was enough, and then we would arrive to do more research and also just engage with the space a lot more and allow that to inform what we could try to do.
RZ: You also did the re-speaking of the San Francisco State protest?
RB: I forgot about that, the San Francisco State University strike. That was a lot of archival research because it was hundreds of records and it was two or three different performative re-readings, and a bunch of re-scripting, like sifting through transcribing a lot and then creating packets of moments that seem to reveal uncertain and conflicting ideas about solidarity or about the project of liberation. We had three key themes that we followed from meeting notes to press conferences to speeches. So that was a real mix, that was a really heterogeneous kind of video archive, and most of it was unedited so there were meetings and before and after press conferences and guy on the street—hundreds of hours of that, and speeches. So yeah, we sifted through that, and also spoke with some people who had been participants.
RZ: And in that re-speaking you included other people who are not part of BLW—is that something that you usually did?
RB: Yeah, that’s something we did with Fred, where even the camera person, one of the video collective that recorded it, we tried to re-enact or re-stage the act of recording, and the camera person was not really a camera person and was trying to actually reframe things in a particular way, and we talked about the conditions of the production of that footage. And then for the San Francisco State strike there were a bunch of other people, whoever came on that day, and there were a lot of voices. Some were labeled in the transcripts just as “blonde girl” or “Asian guy” and some had names, it just depended on what we could learn from the archive, but there were probably a dozen different people speaking, and so depending on who came, we distributed the packets and people chose what they wanted to.
RZ: This could fall under the rubric of participatory art practices where you’re involving people in a performance, but I’m imagining what’s going on when you’re speaking the lines of someone whose subject position is so different and there’s this temporal divide and the political situation is so different. What does it take to project oneself into those different positions and then how does that affect what your sense of your political self is in the present and?
RB: We didn’t want to, can I say, do a Mark Tribe thing of producing a new spectacle that then one could just watch and not really bring one’s own self or daily life into question, right? So that’s why we didn’t have actors and that’s why all the re-speakings were not great, you know? If you watch them on video they’re really not compelling performances and they’re not really meant to be watched on video. Part of it is that we did do a lot of research, it’s not like having some sort of anti-intellectual fear of discourse, but part of it was that we were searching for an additional kind of critical method to work with, I think because of our question of what “media” is. The physical body as a medium for, a repository for, information, a kind of medium in terms of vibration, in terms of storage and recall, or a space like Millennium Park as media.
So not assuming that we know what media is, how do you then play it back. It’s not as simple as “what’s the opposite of hitting play on a machine” as a way to engage with the archival material, it means you need to really bring your own position into question in a way that’s really acute, that you can’t…there’s nothing, there’s no way you’re gonna forget about that. So all of those differences and gaps were precisely the experience of the speakers and also the listeners. There were always people there listening and people speaking, and we tried to hear from them what were some of the contradictory affective responses. The hardest thing seemed to be what to do with that information, in other words, how to go from just registering “oh, that was uncomfortable,” or “that was this weird combination of thrilling and tragic”, to then actually reframe that as a question. Always. And to also re-hinge the affective back into the political, to go beyond “I have this thing about failure and apprehension and I can’t speak in this powerful way,” you know, a lot of what we experience as failure is not our failure, it is the structural situation we are in that disallows certain ways of speaking or relating, or a kind of searching, or that positions failure in a particular way and makes it treacherous to try something, right? Often, this is about whose history is this; it’s not my history, because they’re black and I’m white and what do I do with that? And then we don’t know what to do with that because appropriation doesn’t help, but a kind of reductivist identity politics doesn’t help either, neither of them have seemed to allow us to engage with radical histories and think about where we are in the present. So, yeah, we were hoping that people would be ok with breaking some of the taboos around placing oneself in this odd way that doesn’t fit at all into what’s supposed to be somebody else’s history, and then actually talking about whether or not this is capitalizing upon, or erasing, or appropriating … or not. Or is there any other way for us to engage with this outside of that kind of relationship. So, we were never really successful with this practice.
RZ: Did you think about the scale of it? Did you think, “oh gosh, there are only ten people here,” or did you think, “this is just the right size to have this kind of experience.” or is that something that was an issue at all in your thinking as a group—how many people are we going to get to think about this stuff?
RB: No, I don’t think so, I don’t think so, maybe because Pilot was simultaneously huge and tiny, it was just a huge thing and it felt like it would be a moment of reference for a lot of practices and people. But at the same time, most of the sessions were tiny; most of what was happening was a small group of people in a room or out on a sidewalk somewhere so that seemed perfectly appropriate. I think most of what BLW did was small; except for the Hartford piece which was actually in the Athenaeum, in a big auditorium, and there were maybe 80 people or as set up for that more proscenium situation. But right now, BLW has been invited to the Flaherty Seminar in New York, a prestigious international forum on independent and documentary film, and that’s very odd because we’ve never had a legitimate gig that anybody cares about in terms of established institutions, and it’s 150 people and so it’s just this question of scale, not just what to do with all those people, but also what to do with this level of institutional pomp and circumstance, not just around our work, but around the work of everyone there. It’s really competitive, it’s really expensive, it’s really professionalized and it’s really highly regarded for good reason; it’s a fantastic program, but it’s also in this sphere that we have not collectively worked before. Julie certainly has had a lot of professional success in her work, maybe individually people had access to certain levels of the global art circuits, but the collective was so far away from that, you know, it was always this incredibly marginal thing. And so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think this is very odd. I think about why are we doing this and how would it be relevant to people there who are documentary filmmakers, I don’t know. So that’s a different thing. Everything we’ve done we would create, autonomously create, like we did some things at some corporate plazas, the Bechtel plaza in San Francisco, instead of re-speakings we would do public meeting-style interventions just because we were interested in the space, and then we would see some kind of project that seemed really great and that we would want to go to and most of those were not going to be big audiences and big institutions, ‘cause that’s just not where the work belonged somehow.
RZ: So, going back to Pilot, when you got here and the work changed. I’m curious about whether it seems to you now or whether it seemed to you then to be representative of something “Chicago,” or was it just a confluence of a certain group of people and a certain set of conversations?
RB: Well, that’s sort of Chicago to me. I don’t know, I’ve only lived here for two and a half years, but I’m…
RZ: But you’ve been engaged with people in Chicago…
RB: I’ve been engaged with people in Chicago, and certainly by now I’m engaged with different conversations and different communities of people, but for a long time, that particular community and that particular ethos around activist art, that seemed kind of Chicago to me, that seemed to stand in for something I could identify. And actually, I remember when we went to Continental Drift in New York at 16 Beaver, and there were a bunch of people from Chicago there, some of the same people, by day two there was a discussion in the room that it seems like the Chicago contingent is somehow having a different relationship to the question of activism and culture and research. And I’m not sure if that was accurate, but there are these perceptions, right? About what a certain moment in a certain city comes to represent, and it’s based on these constellations that one seems always to move around. So I definitely found myself in a certain set of conversations and projects for a long time and that came to be kind of Chicago to me, and now that I’ve been working a lot more in activist work, that has shifted my perception of what Chicago is somehow.
RZ: So how did that shift things?
RB: Well, in the last few years I haven’t been very active in art and cultural circles, I think partially because when I started being involved with immigrant and migrant justice organizing—I was interested in working with people who were grassroots organizers— there were very few bridges or overlapping spaces, structurally available, where one could bridge different communities and different kinds of practices. This city, and this world, are just so segregated that academic activists really don’t work very much with grassroots activists and Anglos don’t work very much within Spanish-speaking communities. So I ended up spending a lot more time, and surrounding myself more and more with scrappy, modest migrant justice projects and spending my time within immigrant communities, and being farther and farther away from going to museums or universities or art projects of any kind. And I think part of that had to do also with having a kid, because when I did go to art exhibits with Liana I would frequently either get kicked out or just be very unwelcome in many subtle ways at some of what used to be my dearest art spaces, and in one of my own exhibits, I was asked to leave because she’s, you know, loud. In organizing meetings, she had her own chair and it wasn’t even like child care, like with a billion grown ups, everybody can lend a hand, and being loud was fine and running around taking your clothes off as a toddler was fine and also deciding that you wanted to participate was fine. So I was always okay being attached to a toddler in organizing circles, but I was never okay being attached to a toddler at a lecture, at an art exhibit, at a whatever. Culture? Not so cool with toddlers. Organizing? Pretty cool with toddlers. So I think that’s the other thing. I just ended up being where we could both be welcome. You know, I was getting divorced. She’s my partner, right? Where my partner and I can actually hang out together, that’s where I go! Where my partner is made to feel like they are the only one of a certain category, some social category? Where there were never any kids and their particular needs and desires are counter to the habitus, then I just don’t feel welcome, so I just don’t go much. So now I have a different set of concerns and publics and places and institutions that I know…
RZ: You still do have things going on in terms of art practice, but have they shifted to be more virtual or more like collaborations that are long distance? So that it’s not about being in spaces in Chicago with Liana?
RB: Part of the thing about where you spend your time and what world you belong isn’t even where you do your work, it’s just like where you are on Friday night. So how many art shows have I wanted to see in the last three years, not what’s on the CV right? But where I actually spend my energy and what I’m absorbing and who I’m interacting with, you know? So if I’m no longer going to concerts, forget about live music, right? No more concerts, not a whole lot of art shows or performances, not a lot of lectures on campuses but instead I fill my needs and my curiosities and stretch myself in other ways, then that’s gonna affect what kind of work I want to do. Some of the projects I work on take a long time, and some of it is this women’s collective that we’re doing work in and around Palestine and we were involved in that for five, six years but a lot of the projects that we’ve developed are just now getting finished and being shown, or the book has finally gotten more circulation, and there’s still a bit of media work here and there that I do, but it’s not as much as it was and I don’t identify with it in the same way I used to. So, I start doing more research now, like Foreign Trade Zones, and sometimes I take people on trips and things like that.. I do actually do local things, even in my art I do a lot of local things, but I’m not productive in a certain way; I don’t circulate as much. You have to circulate a lot, to see, like my friends would tell me, oh, so and so has put out this great video, and I used to just go and see everything. You can’t see anything if you’re not going to the archive or the museum and you’re not travelling to this show and this show and this show, so I think a lot of where I spend my energies has shifted and that’s having an impact on how I work.I don’t need to change how I work and then it changes how I live, I think I just change how I live and that’s changing how I work.
RZ: So, research has always been a big part of your art practice, and it’s also part of your activist practice, right? I mean, is that a continuity or does it feel the same to do research for an art project versus to do research for a migrant justice organization?
RB: Well, I think that now what I’m doing is research that doesn’t maybe connect the two but doesn’t sit very well in either. So for instance, my research on jurisdictions and foreign trade zones, it’s not terribly useful to immigrant rights folks; I mean, they’re kind of interested marginally, but it’s not part of some major thing that we work on. And I do work collectively and am part of migrant justice collectives now and that’s kind of like BLW in the desire to make another body, another author or another entity. It’s not like I do something in activism, but it’s still me authoring something, I can step back from that and have everything be collaborative. The research I do by myself, and then I bring it to share with people, that’s kind of mildly interesting and useful and intersects with organizing, but it’s never really been at the heart of the organizing, and it’s the same thing with art. I do these tours and people are interested and engage, and I’m trying to figure out how an art project is related to that research.
So I’ve been doing more writing, and I think that ends up being a place where I can bridge things. I don’t really bridge the art and organizing very well, these seem to be in some kind of conflict—not conflict, but some kind of incommensurability that I’m registering there, and maybe I used to think that given enough translation, if you can just process and process you would get to some sort of common place and then be able to jump over or something. And then now I’m thinking, in the conditions that we’re living in, maybe there are some fundamental incommensurabilities that have to do with the different structures of power and how cultural capital operates and who can participate. Who can participate in culture. Whenever our migrant justice collective does something, we joke and we’re like, “ok, so now we’re gonna instrumentalize it,” you know; “now we want people to access it,” in what way? Well, we can instrumentalize one collective member because they’re undocumented and highly visible to the media for fighting their case and so they’re the one who gets then instrumentalized to access mainstream media, or I get instrumentalized because I’ve got cultural capital and I can access scholars and institutional support. So we recognize that once we are engaged in something together knee deep, in order for it to find a place in the world, we’re going to have to instrumentalize these individuals who are operating on different planets, and so that is a bit of a difficult thing because then you start to be really more fully aware of how different you are from the people you’re working with and how you just don’t get each other’s worlds at all. But at the same time by doing that we forge a kind of shared understanding that at the very least, it’s a tactical adaptation, we’re not pretending that those differences don’t exist. And dealing with them in a way that’s survivable, we can endure it; putting them on the table in this way because it’s actually as part of a shared desire to do something with the work.
RZ: Is part of the implication that that kind of open discourse about accommodation to the structural situation is not happening on the art side?
RB: I don’t know that it’s happening, I wonder if it’s happening; I’m not participating in it fully, I wouldn’t know that much. But who is there to have that conversation on the art side, right? It’s really hard to have a conversation on difference when there’s very little difference, when difference has been kind of, not eliminated, but managed out in some way. Anytime you walk into an art situation, it’s a very constructed situation, so constructed that whatever conversations we have in it really can’t reach outside of that in a certain way, or they try and they don’t, or they fail or maybe I’m just dissatisfied sometimes with what’s possible to talk about there. And my dear friends are artists and I still want to make art and I just went on an all day tour of super fund sites that was an art project and I just want to do another tour of the zones. But it’s just so insufficient as a life, I think, it’s really intellectually important but it’s insufficient as a life, and I even think I’ve learned to think and to practice theory very differently though organizing than I did through grad school and teaching and the academy and the art market. I’ve learned about collectivising and I’ve learned about group think and I’ve learned about other ways, other languages and other frames, theoretical, frames for theorizing. It’s been an education for me.
RZ: There’s a kind of discourse that is familiar to me from a lot of things that people said in the late sixties and early seventies about political urgency: about, you know, “I can’t make art right now because other things are so urgent.” This is sounding really different from that. It sounds like what you’re saying is it’s actually about the experience of organizing being more fruitful, more intellectually compelling…
RB: Well, or just as, but I’ve never had it before, right? And so maybe it’s not more, but it’s something that I’ve never had to this extent and so I value it a lot,. And maybe it challenges precisely those things that I was having trouble with. I was thinking recently with Julie and Sarah precisely about BLW being a kind of training for me to identify ways of moving into organizing communities that I don’t fit in, and just going there meeting after meeting and being this white lady who don’t speak Spanish and who doesn’t say anything and is always watching and waiting to figure out in what way participation can happen and where things will go. I think that many of the things I was trying really hard to explore in BLW are continued in another form. I guess in many ways there are continuities for me, but as far as the social spheres, it’s just like you get into a space ship and go to one planet and then you get a spaceship and you go to another planet, and it’s difficult to know where to bring your whole self, you know? So I don’t think there’s any problem with art, I think that art markets and institutions are what they are and I think that organizing is what it is, which is very professionalized in many ways and the autonomous organizing spheres are very small, and in a city like Chicago, very isolated from each other and they’ve got some deep security culture issues. They’ve got deep identity politics issues and they’ve got deep security culture issues, so it takes a long time to learn how to even just talk to people, much less think together.
RZ: And when you say “security culture issues” you mean like distrust of you…
RB: Distrust of anybody, infiltration issues… serious trauma around infiltration and police spying, police brutality and so forth, and there’s a little bit of circling of the wagons that is happening. So someone who is not exactly an insider then may not find a way to participate. So now, we’re happy that in the last couple of years, the groups, the constellations that have formed are not very homogeneous; they’re pretty heterogeneous, they don’t fit in anywhere, so that’s great. They’re also not established in any monolithic community so there’s nobody that we’re going to insult or piss off. There are no cultural taboos or hierarchies; it’s not a faith-based group so we’re not worried about the church. It’s not really a Latino group, so we’re not worried about the cultural taboos around that. It’s not really an anarchist collective, and we also do not have legit political friends, so we’re not worried about that. And then the practice resembles a reading group situation where a long time is spent trying to learn about something and trying to figure out the parameters of what that learning is going to mean. Are we going to read and if so, how are we going to read, and how are we going to discuss the readings given the different relationships people have with text? Or are we going to do creative things or spoken word. Are we going to take a trip, what’s the investigative process, and then, as people come to it over time, we wait to see if there is a shift from investigating something to the forging of a collective desire for action. So now we move very quickly in the last, I would say, three to four weeks.
RZ: And who is “we”?
RB: It’s a kind of a newish configuration for the group. We had been a pretty steady group; we’ve lost some members but we’ve been a pretty steady group for the last three, four years, and as events or campaigns or struggles intensify and then subside or get won or lost or whatever happens, we work with more people and then we work with fewer people. So the “we” is two ongoing entities: one is a small collective, the No Name Collective that is a particular set of people, and the other is the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign, which just becomes the public face of that collective that welcomes anyone to come to the meetings or that can extend to any configuration of people working together.
So the work we’ve been doing around immigration reform, and it was similar with DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] or the proposed Crete Detention Center; we would start by investigating it, meeting individuals or doing tiny little workshops In this case we’re reading this 1,100-page bill and we’re kind of really into Claire Pentecost’s idea of the public amateur as organizers, without having read it, but people with no legal training whatsoever and at various relationships to formal education reading a really complicated bill together, and producing a critique of it, identifying not just key points but a metacritique of the political moment around the bill. So we watch mainstream media accounts of it, we put out feelers to what other organizations in the movement are saying and try to analyze why, how is it being promoted, advertised, framed. And it moved very, very quickly from that to the need to produce public dissent, as we recognized that an important aspect of this reform moment is not just the bill, it’s the production of a kind of spectacle of public support for the bill, of grassroots support for the bill and a total silencing of critical questioning. We started testing a bit and feeling how much hostility there actually was to opposition, how quickly it manifested, and we kept saying “well, someone has to do something,” and then we looked around and we thought, “well it has to be a group with no political friends to lose, no budget to jeopardize, right?” So then it became sort of obvious that we had analysis, we’d identified a lack and we felt ready to move, and it happened so quickly and now it’s a bit overwhelming; it’s actions and workshops and we’re thinking about more creative things and some interventions and some educational materials and it’s sort of a cacophony. After spending a lot of time doing things by consensus and by listening to each other and trying to find a common language and understanding, now it’s people individually throwing things into the pot, “I can do translations and I can do summary of this part and I can do a flier!” So now it’s kind of a test to see if that sense of group think really exists as people bring their own articulations into it, so I think it’s going to be exciting to hear whether we get something that is a shared understanding in different voices or in different languages, or is it really going to be like this weird multiplicity of unrelated perspectives or something? I don’t know.
RZ: So you said you had learned a lot about like working in a collective and group think and those kinds of things from this experience, and I wonder how you compare that to working in an art collective? Do you think there are specific things to take from that experience that could then be like reapplied to an art context?
RB: Well, I’ve worked in different art collectives, and I think they’re quite different from each other, and I also think at one point the art collective thing became really cool, and became not just really cool but became a smart market strategy, an economic tactic, and so that’s definitely not something I know much about or have ever been involved in. I have a great distance from that form of neo-liberal, non anti-capitalist, non-radicalized collectivism, so I think because I’ve been lucky and only worked with artists who had a shared political reason why they wanted to work collectively, not just the pleasure of being with others and the solidarity of that and the sense of becoming other than you were before, but also confronting ourselves with big political questions about what an artist is and what art is and where it belongs and pushing back against certain limited definitions of that. So with BLW and with Compass now, I’m definitely lucky to be involved with these projects and I think that they are in many ways not similar, but there are some analogies in those kinds of collective situations and in the organizing situations. There are also big differences because in Compass, we all really identify as artists and intellectuals. And in BLW we identified and there’s something about that identification that’s maybe why I’m conflicted. I still have times when it’s important to me and I have times when I feel I have to work very hard against it, like I have to make art so that I can get rid of identifying as an artist, you know? And so the organizing takes me far away from that conundrum. It’s something I’m not totally equipped to respond to; I just struggle with it. But when it’s organizing I don’t have to worry about that, I worry about it in as much as we make it a group issue, like now we have to engage with highly separate and segregated audiences or publics or spheres, who can throw some resource in? So now we’re bringing in the ways in which we identify in the world and we are identified and placed in the world—and we bring it in as a resource.
RZ: Into the organizing.
RB: Into the organizing circle, but it’s a lot more of a huddle, like we try to huddle and make like we have our own world and the outside world can temporarily be suspended, which of course it never is but it’s a little bit of a game intentionally played together. You know, it’s pretend play: let’s pretend that for this next period of I don’t know how much when we’re really invested into something together, we’re gonna make believe that we don’t have these differences between us, we make believe that we all live in the same space, and then you kind of make it happen in a way that is real and not real at the same time. And then, like kids who can pretend play and say, “let’s say this is a spaceship,” it is and it isn’t.
RZ: It seems like artists who are also activists are more conflicted about their identities as artists when they’re among other artists. And when they’re working as activists it is a skill that can add…
RB: Yeah, well, I never make the art; if there’s any art to be made in the collective, I never make it. If there’s a flyer to be made I never make it. If there’s a creative “teatro” thing I don’t make it. So I’m actually not the artist in the group at all. I’m like the logistics, I’m the one who follows up on the phone and then when meetings are at my place I cook; like I have a different sort of personality in the group and a different set of roles that I can play. I do a lot of facilitation and note taking and follow up.
RZ: But those are also skills that you use in your art practice.
RB: They are, but I mean we have people who always do the posters, or who like to do the posters or create the website or this one particular woman who’s always instigating the “teatro” elements. And I think that was very intentional on my part that I did not want to participate in something from the position of “I’m the artist of the group” or “I’m the one who went to grad school in the group.” There’s a bill here, I have to show you this thing, it’s like this big. And so to my relief, people just said well we should all read it! Because the presumption is that we cannot read it, that only certain people can read it. There wasn’t the sense of like, “who in this group can do the research and simplify it for everybody else and bring it in?” So we struggle to read this thing and there are a lot of things that I don’t understand that other people do, and vice versa. So I try really hard to detach internally and also in my presentation to other people from identification as the artist in the group or the scholar in the group or the academic in the group. There are other people who are undergraduate students who are much more the scholar in the group who do more of the research than I do. And maybe to them that identity is really important. So to me it’s less important, and it would be damaging to my abilities to participate and to listen because of the asymmetrical kinds of privilege of certain kinds of academic knowledge and discourse. It’s really easy to debate someone to death and not even listen to them when you assume you know what knowledge means, or that a topic should be discussed in a certain way.
I do think that I have more conflicts around my identity as an artist when I’m with artists cause when I’m organizing I can step away from that and I feel like I do need to step away from that. I wrote that piece on foreign trade zones and that was about some of the things I learned by organizing and had the names of my collaborators and I gave them each a book and we had some drinks and it was a little like, everyone was a little intimidated. Like, “Oh you’re in a book and now I’m in a book,” and for a while we weren’t just like friends anymore and then we got over it. But that’s a big deal; I think it really creates big differences between people right away, just like the fact that some of the people in the group are media celebrities. Like really, anytime we do something collectively, they are the ones who are in front of the camera. And it kind of erases everyone else; nobody counts! Nobody but these two people count! No matter what we all did. So then we talk about that.
RZ: Is there anything else you want to add, based on what we’ve talked about to this point?
RB: I guess there are ways that in the artwork that I’m doing now, because it’s starting to overlap more with the organizing work, like working on foreign trade zones and conceptually the rejigging of national boundaries, or how it changes what we understand the state to be, right? And things like immigration reform rejiggers what citizens are, and they both, you know, in analogous ways create new kinds of jurisdictions, new kinds of territories, and so the more I’ve worked with these two things in parallel, the more it seems like they need to overlap and the more it seems that the only way to really overlap them is through some kind of artifice of an art project somehow. That that can be a way. And there’s a show at ThreeWalls in April and collaboration with Brian Holmes and his idea for a project in Mexico. It’s starting to seem plausible to use the exhibition or publication form to create just enough space for these dynamics to actually be looked at together that otherwise concern very different people or sit in different places, very separate from each other. So I think to me that’s the next question, how to think about art in that way? Not as something that belongs in a place or that I’m comfortable with but that because of the artifice and the constructedness of it, is maybe the only place where I can try, after a long time of having these tracks be separate, to try to actually see them together. But how to do that without instrumentalizing things, people, relationships, right—other people’s work.
So when we did a foreign trade zone trip, and I invited my friends who are organizers on it and so there were labor organizers, migrant justice organizers, artists and researchers together, it was more taxing for the organizers. They work two jobs, they’re single parents; it’s different and it’s unusual for them to take an 8-hour day to travel around and do experimental territorial research. So if there’s a book or an exhibition or both, that brings in questions of migration and resistance to oppression and brings in the knowledges of people who have been really looking at this very closely and have an analysis, how does that happen in a way that doesn’t just use them as free labor? Since I’ve been doing this work I’ve seen it happen all the time, and we as a collective have been instrumentalized by a series of art projects and activist artists and social practice people who are having their exhibition and we’ve worked for free and been interviewed by and photographed and organized things for them. So if the project is to bring different things together and to create the space that maybe allows them to be seen together, that also might mean bringing in people and their knowledges and work. So how to do that in a way that doesn’t really alter those relationships and my place in them. I think that’s going to be a question to think about in the next year, because ultimately when it becomes a project and when it becomes seen as such, there’s a lot of things about capital and power that have to be negotiated, and I think they will need to be negotiated collectively somehow. I’m going to try not to make the decisions but to just talk through them with people—who have no experience in those spheres, but who I think will have a lot to say at least in terms of the discussion and analysis. So maybe that will be a kind of an interesting test of whether these things are in tension, are they really reconcilable.
What does it mean trying to bring them together? Especially since, in the last few months, we have collectively experienced being totally exploited and used by a scholar and an artist for their projects, and talked about it and being able to analyze it and understand how those different spheres need and capitalize upon the autonomous energies of organizers, and how they historically always have. We wrote a little piece about it. I’ve never done an art project that involved, in any direct way, the access that I have to the materials or the people or the relationships that I’ve been part of through organizing. Never. And so if I do that, are we in a place where that’s something that’s doable without being a catastrophe? I don’t know.
RZ: I wonder if, I mean this is sort of to play devil’s advocate a little bit, but I also wonder if there is some value to having your work communicated by people who are exploiting you?
RB: Oh, I mean yes. So the first way we’ve understood it in this particular group was in our dealings with media. You need the media and you know that they are going to use you—or not, right? That they’re going to come to what you’re doing if it’s useful to them; they’re all competing against each other, they each need to have a sort of leg up on everyone else. And then, if you want to engage with them, you work in that way, I mean, the tactic is: what can we give them? What are we gonna throw under the bus? Who’s gonna play well? And then who do you call first to get the other person pissed off—I mean, really getting into the professional kind of bickerings between the different media people that we know. And it’s this kind of a soap opera that we play as a scenario and then we engage with media, and sometimes it goes that way and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the relationship with mainstream media, and that’s been the relationship with the scholars or artists that we’ve met through this work. Really well meaning, people whose work is great, but who did so many interviews and used people as subjects, although they weren’t subjects, they were at the very least consultants, and they were not recognized or paid as such. It was, you know, I need that kind of people to interview for X. There are reasons why you don’t know them! And there are reasons why this person can introduce you into that situation based on a lifetime of work and activism and trust relations, which you are now accessing in about ten seconds, and that you are then leaving with and producing and publishing research out of, right? And to a certain extent, maybe that research will benefit the movement or it won’t, but there’s this sort of lack of recognition that that was actually part of the research. That being able to develop those relationships is part of the research. Not to mention interviewing people about the conditions of detention. That’s primary research! And you don’t have it cause you’re not inside and people don’t recognize that, they don’t cite it in their freaking bibliography. I think you should cite that twenty interviews you’ve taken with people who have no name to claim in your discipline. Because they’re seen as subjects and that’s a really problematic distinction in a lot of this research, academic research work, it’s really reliant on accessing primary data through interviews. So that would be one problem. I don’t think any of the scholars that I’ve met doing this work really, when sitting down and speaking to people and starting to say “what can you do for me?” would have remotely considered that this could be a collaboration. I mean, that could never have crossed their minds. They needed people to interview and they interviewed people but, what they were actually extracting was research and knowledge and was in many cases theorizing, but it wasn’t seen as such, you know? We needed to be in that bibliography as legitimate academic knowledge. But folks weren’t published and so then you can’t quote them in certain ways, or you don’t have to quote them in certain ways, which is the same problem with media; the media doesn’t quote you unless you count. They will use your words all the time, and they will not quote you unless you have a name because it looks bad for them to quote someone who’s nobody. They need to quote someone who’s famous, otherwise they need to appear like they came up with the analysis. And you just say “fine”—with media it’s like, “fine, at least it’s getting out, the idea’s getting out, the discourse is getting out, it’s interrupting something else, it’s reframing, great.”
And it’s the same, but I mean “social practice” can be very perverse. When an artist receives a residency to do an art project on the Crete Detention Center struggle and after months and months of getting nowhere with it, basically used myself and one of my collaborators to access all the organizations, to arrange meetings for her, to take her to everything, to get everybody together so she can take pictures of people.. It’s framed as social practice which means that she’s somehow facilitated and organized all these relationships as opposed to many, many people having to take time out of their busy lives to help make her art project happen… And then it was like she “organized” these meetings! No, man, she called me like 50 times so I can ask other people to take time out of their busy lives to all meet. And, you know, I have to give people rides, it’s like even practical things, the amount of resources that were spent on folks being there for her photography project! I even asked her: “but you have to give people rides, they don’t have driver’s licenses.” “Oh, I’m so busy!” And then it’s framed as social practice, as something that is activist. At least frame it as something that is gallery art. And pay people to be your models.
It’s a real, yeah, it’s a real problem, and that the trade-off is seen as, “well, at least someone will hear about our work.” That shouldn’t be the trade-off, you know? People should be properly valued for their work and folks who do work like stopping a detention center from being built should be valued for that work, they shouldn’t have to work extra for the gatekeepers to publication X or Y. And that’s where the problem is, that it needs that extra step in order to gain legitimacy. You have to stop the detention center and then you have to do all this work to court the scholar or the journalist for anyone to hear about that and be inspired by it, or for people to think that they could do it themselves. It’s no good doing that if you can’t get the word out that it’s doable. So that’s the tension. A lot of times, to make what people are doing legitimate, it means inserting it into certain circuits and that means having to work with people who are often not there with you for the long haul. It’s a career for them. The other thing was professional organizers always wanting to meet with people between 9 and 5 and having to say, because you are on the clock does not mean that you can ask people who are volunteers to take off from their job and meet with you. You’re on the clock and that’s why you can only do 9 to 5, so how do you appreciate the fact that you’re collaborating with people who are not getting paid? So anyway, it’s very, very complex and actually quite exploitative and even within NGOs it’s like that, where undocumented folks get used as free labor. Of course, cause nobody wants to pay them.
RZ: So back to the project that you’re working on where you’re wanting not to instrumentalize or exploit in that way, do you have any models for work that successfully doesn’t exploit and doesn’t instrumentalize?
RB: The person I can think about right now is Ashley Hunt. A lot, I’ve been thinking about his work a lot and I’d like to talk to him some more. We did get to speak briefly in Detroit at the US Social Forum, we were staying all of us in the same house. I’d like the speak with him a little bit more about that. My worry is that it will alter the relationships I have in the group. It would be the first time that we’re involved in something together where I have a totally different and separate relationship to it than the group does and I don’t know what that means, I don’t know if that means that it’s probably not a good idea or if it’s something we could talk about, but there’s no way that that’s going to be a group project. And so what does it mean that it would be my project with the support or the help or using elements of the work of the group and how does that then create not just the difference but the clear unequal relationship that we have to that sphere or event or project? I don’t know. So I’m not sure that I’ll go ahead with it, I just keep the zones as a separate thing and then write a little thing, but my ideal would be to create a situation where we’re finally looking at these things together. That’s what conceptually needs to happen, but whether politically and socially it can happen in the way that I’d like, I don’t know.
RZ: And conceptually looking at these things together, these things meaning…
RB: These things meaning the way that the state is articulating into global markets through these territorial inventions that are not quite nationalized, they’re not quite denationalized, and through these juridical status inventions; they’re not quite authorized, they’re not quite unauthorized, I mean, what’s happening with new forms of status that are legal and illegal at the same time is really parallel to what’s happening with the territories that are within the nation and outside the nation at the same time in ways that I don’t quite understand but I think they need to be looked at together. And their scales are really similar in that they all manifest in the granular way but they’re actually cumulative, they create stratas and geographies of difference and they are remaking the state as extraterritorial to itself. And that whether or not these reform bills pass, they have managed to normalize these ideas about status that is and isn’t legal at the same time. You’re registered as not being illegal and people have accepted it, by now so much has been done in immigration and in through globalization at every level that we can understand that form of personhood now, just like we can understand this form of territory now, of something that is and isn’t, It’s this offshore in here, all right, makes sense. So I see them very as being connected, but they’re not connected in activism and they’re not connected in the research. And maybe I guess if I were a different kind of theorist I could do it just through analysis. I’m not that good with theory, you know?
RZ: I wonder if the estrangement of your activism into the art sphere is also another parallel for those kinds of new formations.
RB: Possibly, I don’t know. Possibly I shouldn’t think of it as the activism and the art sphere. I don’t want to take the new understandings and articulations I’ve developed with other people as my own. That’s the other problem. We’ve managed after a few years to actually create an analysis and a perspective and a vision and a way of acting that isn’t just the sum of all the people, it is the sum of other things. And so I don’t want to just use that and individualize it. So we’ll see. But then again, it would be really awkward to insert the collective into the gallery situation. They might not even want to. So we’ll see. In specific situations like that, things may be in conflict, you know? But I don’t know if it’s just a difference or if it’s a conflict. In some situations it’s real conflict, I experience really hostile things and unresolvable things—and other situations it’s just parallel universes that probably meet each other, that need to coexist but at a distance somehow.