Democracy in America | The National Camgaign
New Orleans, LA

Question #1:
Who is your audience and how does your work mobilize them towards strategic local concerns?

PRERANA REDDY: Currently I work for Alwan for the Arts, an organization that’s been around for ten years, although I haven’t been there the whole time so I can’t speak for the origins of it. It was very important to find a place in New York City where people from North Africa, the Middle East, and so forth had a space in which to, A: be able to process political events in a safe space, and B: to be able to have a home for people who are coming to or traveling through New York from other parts of the world. It’s important to have a space to be able to share that kind of information and knowledge because it isn’t coming across in mainstream media nor is it even safe to put it across in public forums sometimes. It’s very important to be able to hear from people who are on the ground in different places, to hear about what exactly is happening in the Middle East or North Africa, and to be able to do it in a space where you’re not necessarily concerned about having to be defensive, worrying about who the plant in the audience might be, or who’s going to try to move the discussion one way or the other. So I think Alwan has really been very successful in creating that safe space, both for performers and for cultural producers.
      It’s also provided a literal space; it has a physical home, which I think is very important. I’ve worked in a lot of collectives without a physical home and I think there’s something great about not having the stress of raising money for that purpose. Having a physical home that can be a platform for people, [it can serve as] a multipurpose space, that can host conferences, and can be very nimble, as it were, to respond to things.
      I can give you an example. In 2006, when the Israeli bombing of southern Lebanon occurred there was a time when people were shell-shocked, and [somewhat unsure about] who was organizing around the events. Because we had a space we quickly put together a group of 30 to 40 organizations that Alwan had worked with before and then we were able to have meetings, create working groups, and begin mobilizing actions and events that came out of the meetings within 48 hours. Having a space allows that kind of organizing and trust to be built over time so that you can have that quick response to things. I think it’s also important to have a space in between those kinds of big events for discussions and feedback to happen.
      At the same time I think [this kind of space] maintains an important spiritual role in some ways, such as providing a home place for the expression of culture, poetry, and visual art, and also to do exhibitions that no other art space would want to touch, to show films that no other film organization would want to touch. That’s been really important in terms of our audience. Sometimes it’s important that we expand on that, and having a film festival that’s out in the public does that, but sometimes it’s also important to have a smaller space that allows us to control who is a part of it.

AYREEN ANASTAS: To problematize the question of audience (LAUGHTER)—not too much, just to answer it in a different way: It’s better to think of the public in a way that’s in relation to something. Audience is not like broadcasting radio or television program with the people sitting there watching. It’s an active involvement and it’s based on openness and a basic relation between people who arrive at something. A lot of institutions are always bothered about planning ahead of time, wondering what should we plan and what content should we have, and so on. At 16Beaver we try to have this kind of privilege that we create content ourselves, to create the time and spontaneity and also allow chance and whoever is interested to determine what happens in the space. Of course, there are probably several desires going on in relation to political, social, and cultural questions we are interested in. And maybe there are different approaches sometimes, and those enrich the kind of content that happens [at 16Beaver]. So in a way, the idea of a public is more about creating community. Of course, community is also a problematic word because many people understand community in different ways. But 16Beaver has been thinking about this topic early on by asking what it means to be a community and what is [community] constituted of? It’s more in this direction of public, rather than audience. It has to do with thinking long-term, and also thinking in relation to time and in relation to the everyday. It’s not whenever something happens there; it’s not something that is a spectacle of some kind that an audience is expecting. Hopefully it is more of whoever is coming or is participating, and it’s more part of the everyday in the same way we cook, eat, meet friends, breathe. 16Beaver in the best way has that connection to the everyday life and is a space for our projection of what we want to think about together in whichever form it comes, such as “mobilizing of the concerns.” They come up in many different ways and forms.

CHRISTINA RAY: I’m speaking about the Conflux Festival audience in particular, and there are two ways that really describe how we identify with our audience: We share an appreciation for everyday life in cities, and we attempt to maintain a sense of spontaneity about what we can do when we’re walking around. When we first started out with the Conflux Festival we didn’t actually anticipate an audience. [The Festival] was a group of people who had mostly met online and through mailing lists and we decided to come together and see what would happen if people hung out for a weekend and worked on projects. We were lucky enough to have ABC No Rio as our first venue, which was great—very informal, very casual. Essentially, the people who participated and presented projects were the audience for each other.
      But there was one thing that we found interesting in relation to this idea of audience. One of our artists, Sharilyn Neidhardt, created a human-scale chess game that took place throughout the grid of the Lower East Side and a lot of artists were participating as human chess pieces. As we played we found that we actually did have an unintended audience, which consisted of the passersby on the streets that afternoon. We found that we were mobilizing, to use the term mobilize to mean something almost like osmosis. We got people out on the streets, got them doing projects. Some of [the projects] were more of spectacle-type events with costumes, and some were very quiet installations or interventions. But by doing that in a concentrated area over a period of days you discover that you do have an audience, and that’s how our audience has grown. We’ve become a little bit bigger each year but still find that the core group includes many of the original people who were involved. Now we tend to have an audience that’s composed of a lot of students, academics, people who are interested in green initiatives, from the bike communities, street art communities, that kind of thing; they have come to be an audience.
      In regards to [the last part of the question] the term strategic, at the festival we find out what’s “strategic” by the artists who participate; they come to us and say, “I want to do this because it’s important.” For example, over the past couple of years artists have been interested in these green topics that we didn’t have the first couple of years. They’ve come in through submissions and now we can see, OK, that’s strategic and important. It’s not by actively saying, “These are the questions we want you to answer,” but rather just allowing people to bring us their questions and then the audience can help feed itself and grow.

STEVEN ENGLANDER: Once in a while we talk about an audience but we tend just to think about the community of artists and activists that No Rio serves. I only really think about an audience if I’m prompted to by a foundation director who wants to talk about audience development. (LAUGHTER) But we can still translate the term to the development of our community of artists and activists. When we talk about it among ourselves we think of ourselves as a community of people who share some broad values. At No Rio, the community’s really broad, which is a plus, but it’s also really balkanized, which might be a negative and is a challenge we face. [The community] ranges from some borough kid who comes to the punk show every Saturday, to a retired New York City public school teacher who goes to the poetry readings, to young artists in their twenties who are taking part in the exhibitions, to activists who meet with their projects at No Rio or utilize the resources we make available. One of the goals of our place is to get past that balkanization so that the artists will connect with the activists who are involved in direct action and somehow share what they’re doing and inform one another about how they work. So hopefully there’s some cross-pollination going on between the in-the-streets activists and artists, whether they do explicitly political or polemical work or not. It’s fairly broad and it’s hard to get people out of their self-contained boxes, but it’s something we do try to do.
      I’ve actually got a fairly low threshold for what I consider success, and if I see three young kids who come to the punk show once a year get involved in any other project, or I see them at an activist meeting somewhere, I consider that successful. If I see that happen three times I feel good about it. [As for] “strategic local concerns”—we don’t really think in that term. But we do see that the goal is to create the potential for some future sort of mobilization, and the strategy is to create an environment within this building where people share resources and meet one another and potentially collaborate and get together and inform one another. That’s the strategy for some amorphous mobilization that would happen elsewhere, and it does happen. People meet at No Rio and they go on to do projects that happen outside of our place, and again, that’s part of what we’re about and we’re happy to see that. I’m especially happy to see it when it’s young people, teenagers, and people in their early twenties.
      Finally, one real example is a place that opened in Bushwick, called the 123 Community Center: About half a dozen of the kids [that started it] had been coming to No Rio since they were 13, 14, 15 years old, and went on to set up this place similar to us. We like to think of ourselves as something that can be emulated—not should be emulated, but can be emulated. That’s actually a frequent query I get from kids in other cities: “How can we do what you have done?”

JASON JONES: I’m going to speak about Not An Alternative, the production company. We’ve operated in a few different ways. The space is organized largely as an open platform and we’re open to a lot of things [happening there]. Our collective and production company grew with an intent to answer a problem or sense of dissatisfaction that I had with meeting spaces where I felt like frequently I was in meetings and there was no sense of urgency for something to happen or there wasn’t a specific place we were trying to go.
      The production company formed specifically to mobilize towards particular things and not to necessarily just be an open space, but be an open space to produce something specifically or to be something that produces open spaces. We work with community groups: They come to us and we operate exactly like a production company in that we seek to speak the language of the group that we want to address. In the Williamsburg rezoning, for example, the most immediate community that we were working with was the white hipster culture people who identified as gentrifiers. For us it was very important that while there were these other communities mobilizing we wanted to get the hipster culture beyond their own narrative that limited them to only understand themselves as gentrifiers. We thought about how to use the language that they spoke and they understood to communicate something so that they could reorient themselves within that trajectory of always necessarily being someone who was inevitably going to be a gentrifier.

ANN MESSNER: Initially, each specific project has an audience that passes through the particular public space [of the project]. So there is the initial identification with that particular place as it relates to the site-specificity of each project in relationship to the further content put forward through the work. I’ll just quickly give examples of two projects. I’m picking my favorites, but there are many, many more [examples] from these three collectives.
      In the winter of 2003 the New York City Council was considering passing a bill refuting the Patriot Act; there was much hesitation and delay in bringing this to the floor. Artists Against the War requested a permit to use the free speech zone at Grand Central Station. We set up an apparatus within the confines we were allowed—a device with a ladder and a shredding machine. And for three days we publicly shredded the Bill of Rights, handed out bags filled with the shredded Rights and made literature on the issue of the Patriot Act and its relationship to civil liberties available. Somebody stood on the ladder broadcasting which specific aspects and articles in the Bill of Rights the Patriot Act was affecting, even curtailing. The audience was eclectically mixed, including suburban commuters. Many were very happy about what we were doing, sparking random conversations; there was some contention, some ignoring the theatrical presence. In terms of mobilizing towards strategic local concerns, most people weren’t even aware that the New York City Council was negotiating passing that bill.
      The second example, which is very different from the previous, is a postcard project: Five postcards each, in an edition of 20,000—so 100,000 postcards—with very carefully selected images addressing the topic of the occupation of Iraq. These were images that had very quickly disappeared from the public realm, contested images such as detainees shipped in shackles, coffins draped with American flags in the aircraft hull, the pulling down of Saddam’s statue. Each image was accompanied by a text relating to different aspects of the war: the economy, the destruction of the infrastructure, etcetera. The text served as the message of the card and distinctly resonated in some way with the image on the other side. We handed out these postcards in the subway system with the idea that for many people subway time is used as reading time and potentially a time for reflection. We just walked through the train and then got on another train and another. We did this for a couple of weeks until all of the postcards were handed out. This was my favorite project of all, I think, because after we distributed the postcards through the space of the subway car we could turn around and see people reading the cards and talking with each other about the text and the images. So again, this had to do with being inventive, with using a particular type of public space within which to engage an activity that would provoke a public conversation that would under normal circumstances not be happening. In the city, any city, there is less and less public space or incentive for that type of open dialogue or connection to take place, and often with some form of restraining consequence when it does take place.

Question #2:
Given that the ways we make money impacts the type of culture we produce, how does the local economy affect your art practice? Or another way to look at it is, how do you work to obtain and share resources?

JOSH MACPHEE: I have an idea and an example and I’ll try to keep it brief.  The idea is that unique to New York is the fact that art is hyper-capitalized.  New York is one of the few cities in the country and maybe even one of the few cities in the world in which there’s so much capital and investment in art that it actually has a real power. There are a lot of people and institutions with fairly large budgets looking at investing in and concerned with art.  There are a lot of massive problems that come with that, but I don’t really want to talk about the problems.  I just want to pose this idea as something that has a lot of potential. Having lived in a lot of different places, I can say that one of the things that’s interesting about New York is that there’s a broader audience that thinks that art matters on some level than a lot of other places I’ve been and I think there’s an immense amount of potential in that.  
      The example that I want to bring up is very simple. I would call it the artist equivalent of the bake sale: art auctions to raise money for social justice causes.  I’ve been involved in a number of them in different places, and the ones in New York City have been immensely successful because there’s so many people invested in art.  I worked very loosely with Visual Resistance on one of these art auctions, which was at ABC No Rio around raising money for Daniel McGowan, who is now in prison as a political prisoner around Earth Liberation issues.  The amount of money that was raised was pretty amazing considering what you usually expect to get out of a D.I.Y. auction.  This is possible in New York City because so many people are invested in art: You can have art from $5 to $5,000 and there are people who collect art as a commodity object who are willing to throw $5,000 to $10,000 down for an art object but would never, ever invest that money in the Earth Liberation Front or anyone involved in radical activities around any number of issues.  When that becomes a commodity they’re willing to throw the money down. It’s a way to extract some of the capital that exists around art in New York and pull it into social justice causes.  The art auction is a lowest common denominator way to do that, but it opens up the possibility for artists helping with social justice and community organizations, raising funds for types of projects or agendas they have that are really difficult to do, or get money for from private or state-based financial granting foundations without massive strings attached.  Whether that’s money or in kind, such as building relationships with institutions that have all kinds of resources, I think that there are many options and a great deal of potential there that is unique to New York.

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: I’m representing Not An Alternative as a production company, and in answer to how we deal with the local economy affecting our art practice: When we work with community groups around campaigns we source cardboard from the garbage; a lot of people pay into this space and that’s where our rent comes from. We try to diversify our income streams as much as possible. We don’t consider any money dirtier than others; basically, resources are what you do with them.
      But I want to tease out the difference between money in terms of capitalism and just suggesting that we don’t celebrate the alternative form. We’re interested in anti-capitalism, but we are pro-institution. I would articulate my threshold for success as not being low; I think it has to be high. We have to set our ambitions to a point where we’re not constantly celebrating the alternative form and marginalizing ourselves from mainstream culture but instead imagining ourselves to be the engine of culture. In particular, we’re interested in affecting popular understandings of symbols so that we can transform what they represent and their power. When we engage in a campaign we make a deliberate choice to use cardboard in particular instances, but in other instances we’re going to use the symbols and the language that resonate in the institution we aim to intervene upon. Largely, this is to allow for a transformative possibility around popular understanding using theatrical intervention as a means to bypass the binary between independent and mainstream and go beyond single-issue politics to identify them as a common battlefield.

GREGORY SHOLETTE: The idea that there’s all this capital that’s being circulated in New York is really important because artists are also producers. We need to begin to think about ways that artists could organize as they have in the past many, many times before. Even at the height of the WPA program in the 1930s when you would think, “Oh, the state provided artists with an income,” artists were actually organizing autonomously to get even better deals from the WPA and to maintain a certain kind of politics or representation, like the Harlem’s Artist Guild, which demanded better representation for black artists on Federal relief programs. We really need to think in terms of mobilizing the production side of the equation as well as the tactical and semiotic struggle through direct action. Finding a way to bring these two aspects together –the productive and the representational or symbolic–– is really important.
      Quickly, my second point is that I think in the past we really lacked a good analysis of what was taking place in the ‘70s and ‘80s with regards to the privatization and deregulation that was going on, which now we are really suffering from in cities from New York to Baltimore to Budapest. Now, today, we have an analysis of neo-liberalism by, among others, David Harvey and autonomous Marxists. We need to bring that critical thinking together with practice and use it to “de-enclose” the ongoing privatization of pubic space and public resources.

MALAV KANUGA: I feel obliged to answer this because we are a retail space on the Lower East Side [in New York City], which is at a premium these days.  Our rent—including property tax, which goes up unpredictably as the neighborhood gets gentrified—is almost $8,000 a month.  That’s necessary overhead just for rent.  How do we accomplish that?  We sell books and that’s basically it.  We sell coffee for a dollar and we host events, such as the series that Jeff Stark created and hosts every month (“Where Have You Been?”); we often pass a hat and are able to raise a little money for overhead through donations.  But basically, we just have to sling an immense volume of books.  Luckily, we find these books important and useful beyond their retail price.  But we haven’t really problematized the issue beyond that, because thankfully—and I really do think that this is somewhat miraculous—we sell enough books at the moment.  Future thinking will be required when this becomes a problem, but it’s not been yet.  That said, funding and sustainability has become an interesting point of debate for a lot of social justice groups and artist groups in relation to the art world and nonprofits in general.  On this topic there’s one book I would like to plug.  Hopefully you can find it at any local bookstore: it’s called The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.  It’s a collective effort by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.  I’ve got to admit I haven’t finished reading it yet but it has been generating a lot of really interesting conversations.  One of the things I’ve heard in response to it is, “Well, sure, the revolution won’t be funded, but it still requires money.  So then what?”  I don’t have many answers for that, but I’ll say this: At a network planning conference that I participated in a couple of years ago with several other radical bookstores and infoshops across the country, we discussed the question of how to keep these spaces going in a state where every year we’ll see five more spring up but four or six collapse. The balance sheet gets a little devastating.  One thing we came up with—and this is somewhat beyond our capability right now—is creating an insurance fund for these kinds of things. 
      There are other examples, and other people can draw them out, of how cooperative funds might work in our different local economies.  But the other thing I was reminded of is flash-mobs, a technique that we’ve all seen or experienced in recent years, and secret dinners, which to me seem like flash-foods, in a certain sense. (LAUGHTER)  Perhaps we could organize flash-money, so when we really need [financial support] it would be available.  Although many of our economies can operate on very little to nothing depending on the scale and the context of the project, we all need money sometimes.  If there is a community effort that’s larger and overarching that can and does respond to that flash mentality that might be one idea for a solution.

AYREEN ANASTAS: One thing that makes 16Beaver light [i.e. malleable to organizers’ needs] is that it is really poor in a way that we don’t need money. We don’t apply for money and we don’t want to be an institution or an NGO because all of that is attached to work, to applications, and most of all, which we find problematic, a hierarchy in the form of a board of directors that will tell you what to do and what not to do, thus eventually influencing the content. We are thinking long-term in relation to other artist set-up spaces in New York, how they end up becoming heavier institutions and hardly different than others, in a way, even though they’re called differently. We would like to be able to maintain a certain continuity and a certain content. It’s better to be as light as possible in terms of money and to be resourceful whenever there is a need for money. Some events need money for basic things, such as food, and then we ask people [to bring food]. But then it’s not about earning money, it’s more about creating the dinner or something like that.

JEFF STARK: New York has a very unusual problem in that it’s one of the richest cities in the world.  While we are talking about gentrification and the concern that comes from having too much money wrapped up in real estate, what I think is interesting is that you can play around with that so much, with that amazing wealth that is in New York. On one side, it’s very difficult to make money as an institution and I respect all of you who are working on these spaces in these institutions.  It’s so great.  But it can be so easy as an individual; you can be fast and light and you can make work and respond to the lack of space in a really interesting way.  It’s why so many of us have been to one-off events or have gone to places that happen in a one-time warehouse or things that happen in the streets.  All of our street actions are not just about creating or interacting with the public; we’re meeting in the street because we have no other place to meet a lot of times. Our response to our lack of space shows up in a lot of our work and our activism in New York. 
      On a personal level, I totally separate the culture side of me and the money side of me, which I think can be really easy to do, and I’m proud to do for now. I can create that division; I’m sure many others do the same. They don’t necessarily like each other, and they can go and make money doing other stuff because there are so many other things in New York to make money at, and I can come and have my own time in my own work to fund it.  I basically let New York fund me by doing certain work. I’m not hustling to write grants because I’m letting my job pay for my work. 

Question #3:
Describe a local cultural event that productively expanded the social networks that your practice operates in. That is to say that the event produced a nuisance of community that had political potential.

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: I’m going to talk about the rezoning campaign that happened [in New York City]. A group of us had been helping to organize the protest around the Republican National Convention and there was a lot of energy. This was via Arts in Action clearinghouse, where people were meeting on a weekly basis, sharing projects, and plugging into new ones and so on. After the RNC that energy sort of dissipated. There wasn’t any container that would allow it to go beyond D-day so we were bummed that there had been all this energy and excitement and collaborations and just the stuff that we really wanted to be doing, and it wasn’t there in front of us anymore. We happened to have this space here in Williamsburg at the same time as New York City’s most aggressive rezoning was proposed with a 25 percent population increase in less than ten years—40,000 new people. We called all the folks we worked with on the RNC and said, “Hey, all the stuff that we were examining around that mobilization are the exact same issues that are coming up now in terms of this going beyond gentrification, but really linking global and local. This is the local manifestation of globalization.” We’re interested in campaigns that have site specificity, but allow us to sort of transcend it. In this particular context, the way that we heard about it was that there was this huge public hearing at a high school around the corner, with hundreds of people chanting and a big walkout and television cameras; and I was really emotionally moved by the event. I looked around and I thought, How come there’s nobody that looks like me here? The Latino community is mobilized, and there are seniors here, but the hipsters have their heads in the sand. But that narrative is one that ultimately doesn’t serve anybody; identifying as an apolitical community or a particularly guilty community isn’t going to be how we fight back against globalization’s impact locally. So, we organized a campaign with a particular emphasis on not creating a space where people involved would think, “Well, how come the Puerto Ricans aren’t here? We really need to do a better job of outreach.” Instead, we were much more interested in mobilizing our own community by using symbols and a language that’s going to resonate with that particular community, in order to transform an understanding of ourselves and our role. In this case, we took a look at things that were popular amongst our friends or peers in the neighborhood, including street art and stencils and those ironic and devoid-of-meaning T-shirts that say “Defend Brooklyn” with a rifle, and we produced graphics that said the same thing but we used the symbol of our campaign, which was the shovel. All of the props and tools that we produced were those of road signs and construction, so that we could show that the tools and symbols of development are in the hands of the community, which ended up being something that allowed us to bypass the single-issue fault lines our community was fractured around—parks and open space versus affordable housing versus jobs—and add major mobilizations and press conferences and rallies. Everybody—Latinos, seniors, and hipsters alike—were united around these props and symbols that pitted the community [against rezoning] and reframed action as self-determination.

STEPHEN DUNCOMBE: I’m going to go back about ten or twelve years ago to this moment of organizing on the Lower East Side in which the sole purpose was to break out of the lefty ghetto that had really solidified in that particular neighborhood. When Reclaim the Streets started and we did our first actions, we were able to politicize people who didn’t think of themselves as political via these massive parties in the streets. The key organizers were a party planner, a club manager, several DJs and many, many artists, many of whom really hadn’t thought of themselves as political but because the form of our protest was very much imbued with this party atmosphere they started to think politically. And us organizers started to think a little bit more culturally or party-oriented. When we started to link ourselves with social organizations, like the gardens movement, then we would also bring in gardeners and garden activists and have this great cross-pollination. The scene in the Lower East Side got much more vibrant because it got much more diverse, although not in terms of class-diverse or ethnicity-diverse, but subject position-diverse. The problem with that was this: At a certain point, a number of the organizers felt it was a little too homogenous in terms of class, and even in terms of what our political issues were. Some of us had been working with the Mexican-American Workers Association and UNITE 169, which was a local union that was quite radical at that time because there was a Chilean organizer there who had been part of the socialist Allende government back in the 1970s. We approached them and talked to them about this campaign to unionize the workers of the city’s greengrocers they were working on—they were having a hard time getting some traction—and so we said, “Well, look, we’ll stage some spectacles for you in the Lower East Side where you’re trying to organize. We’ll actually get you some media publicity, and we’ll try to publicize this to the hipster audience of the neighborhood.” They were fantastic and they loved the idea. We staged huge Mexican wrestling matches in the streets: We had Super Barrio Man fight the “union busters great and small.” It turned out that the lead organizer for the Mexican-American Workers Association was an ex-circus performer so he would do back flips into the ring. It was this great, wonderful spectacle and so on and so forth. We were really excited about this, we publicized it in our usual channels, but about a quarter of the people showed up that usually did. It’s complicated to explain why that happened; it was partly because the police had really cracked down on us heavily. They had infiltrated RTS: We had four police with us at one time in our meetings. But it was also because we, for the first time, crossed a line into what was directly political, and we hadn’t done the work with these other publics we brought in to actually politicize them as deeply as we thought. They were happy to come with us when it looked like a party; when we took over subway trains and organized mobile parties on them we’d get the old crowd and it was fantastic, woo-hoo! But when it actually moved into the politics we lost a lot of those people and that’s one of the problems with mixing culture and politics. We didn’t do the necessary training to keep that politicization.

PRERANA REDDY: Personally, and in relationship to Alwan and the South Asian organizations that I’ve worked with, I’d have to say it was post-9/11 detentions and deportations that were the issues that really expanded how we thought of ourselves and who the community that was affected by that was. Before that the South Asian community was internally divided between Muslims and Hindus and others. [This was complicated by] the languages they speak, etcetera, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with the Arab community at all. Suddenly this event [9/11] happened and we saw how it impacted our community, not everybody in exactly the same way but it definitely demonized a lot of members of our communities. That became a mobilizing point for a lot of people, including people who were artists and cultural producers in the community. People ask us, “Why is it New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival?” I said, “Because we’re putting it on and we happen to be Arab and South Asian.” We noticed, over time, that a lot of the issues that were impacting our communities here have to do within a more global perspective of how our cultures and the political situation has put us together. Whether it has to do with migrations of workers from South Asia to the Gulf, or whether it has to do with poetry and music and traders that have moved from across the Indian Ocean for a millennia. Being able to reclaim that potentially negative frame and turn it into something positive as a learning experience for our communities is something that brought people who wouldn’t normally work together or hang out together. It actually ended up being something positive for us.

KEVIN CAPLICKI: I actually used to go to the matinee shows at ABC No Rio in the mid-Nineties. I could probably say that for most of the folks in Visual Resistance they became politicized at some point in their youth through reading flyers about demonstrations and other things when they were at punk shows. So ABC, as a cultural institution, definitely played a role in my politicization, as well as for most people in the group. It went on to be RTS actions in the street, the Critical Mass in New York, More Gardens!, and becoming aware of a lot of the different movements happening in New York City. The RNC led to galvanizing these students at NYU that were doing a newspaper to work on this poster project, the NoRNC poster project, which eventually turned to Visual Resistance. While that kind of momentum wasn’t sustained at that high level, the RNC definitely helped start a lot of activity in the city that wasn’t happening before. It also helped coalesce a lot of different smaller projects that were really incredible. I’m not particularly interested in going to every RNC, but I think that as those conventions travel around the country they will galvanize that momentum in the left this summer in St. Paul, and wherever else the other one is, Denver.
      The other event that was always really fun and led to the Ghost Bike project was Critical Mass, which was an incredible place to network. It was in New York City and it was such an incredible cross-section of people. There were people from all different communities—the cycling community is incredible, it’s so diverse. It was the one time a month that I would see friends I didn’t see for weeks; I’d see them at Union Square. We’d do this incredibly celebratory thing that was so much fun, so wonderful, and was also an opportunity for direct action, an opportunity to speak to the public about alternative transportation. It was a great time to write graffiti, because when you’re with that many people nobody else is paying attention because there are a thousand cyclists in the street. After the Republican National Convention, the police oppression started to get stronger and the Critical Mass movement started to dissipate and became more the die-hards. That was when I started to “re-question” that tactic as well. That, coupled with noticing the amount of cyclist deaths in the city—including riding to work one day and seeing a cyclist’s body still in the street—led to us to thinking of other ways to interact with the public on such issues. The result is the Ghost Bike memorials.

JEFF STARK: For me, the RNC [Republican National Convention] was this giant failure that as activists, cultural people, artists, and citizens of this city we just simply lost.  We totally got beaten down, and all of the things that people had organized for months and months and months were over before they started.  There were almost 2,000 people in jail instantly.  They were so much better prepared that to me they totally, totally won. I remember being completely crestfallen after that thing, thinking, what are we going to do?  We’re still talking about symbols and posters and discussions and conversations, and so we end up with these projects like graphic designers against the war with all these stickers.  I said, “What the hell are we going to do?”  And a friend of mine said, “What we’re going to do is we’re going to follow the model of the global South, and we are going to start producing our own institutions.  And we’re going to start doing things that directly affect peoples’ daily lives.  That’s the important work to be doing right now.”  That sounded so great; she was talking directly about medicine and communication, and providing Internet services for people and all these things.  I tried to think of ways that we could do that personally, and one of the issues that I got really interested in after that was food, which is where the Grub project [] came out of. While it’s not necessarily feeding people on a regular basis, it’s not feeding people every week or every day, symbolically it was a way that we could come together as a community and feed each other a couple of times a month, have those conversations and talk, and then allow that to become a whole new organizing space.  [It’s a] small, insular community, not talking to the rest of the world but rather talking to each other. Out of that came boat projects, and out of that come relationships, and out of that come roommates and out of that come very small projects.  To me, the RNC was huge and big and a failure, but out of that we were able to create small, successful interpersonal relationships.

Question #4:
As a politically engaged artist or organization, how does your practice relate to existing social movements? Also feel free to shout out kind of like historical stuff, I guess, as well.

ANN MESSNER: There is a historically a rich cultural tradition for artists to align themselves with resistant movements, sometimes more successfully or structurally integrated than others. I am reminded by this conversation on the RNC and the subsequent election of Bush again, how incredibly humiliating an experience I found that to be. This grief served as the impetus behind a very involved and longer-term project that took a reflective position, an inquiry of the anti-war movement post-9/11 leading up to the November election. The result was disarming images, a project that was produced by Artists Against the War, for which I was the creative director. There was the initiation of a national open call for artists, activists, people, anybody—there was no clear delineation—to submit visual material that had taken place within the public realm and took an anti-war stance. There were hundreds of submissions. These were formatted within the framework of a one-hour, three-screen video presentation. An overall structure was assisted by an accompanying timeline of events on the third screen—a dry, factually explicit dissertation of the unfolding of events of events. I felt that by looking back and reevaluating what we had just been through that it could serve as a reflection on how to move forward. The project inevitably remains elegiac. It was screened across the country and has been shown in maybe 80 or 90 different locations, predominantly, although not exclusively, within university environments. It has been used as a platform upon which to begin discussions. It was work collected from across the country that was compiled into a usable format that then went back out across the country.
      As an individual artist, historically with a rich studio practice, I increasingly have the feeling that the personal is out of place or even inappropriate at this time. And this is not without conflict, or even, I would say sadness. [disarming images] was a way that I could participate with what I’m good at—a strong visual sense and an ability to compile or put things together to draw together associations in a unique way visually—so that I as an individual could give back to what I thought was an incredibly inspiring anti-war movement that had met with daunting opposition. I think that’s “where we are now,” what we’re attempting to do here, to look back, to identify and formulate, to consider how we move forward.

CHRISTINA RAY: In terms of political engagement, I’m pretty interested in this idea of a low threshold. There are really interesting possibilities when your expectation is to do something subtle, on the level of everyday gesture; when you’re thinking about how can you affect people every day, just the person walking down the street. This idea that if you take three people and they become curious about what you’re doing, and that leads even one of them to take action, that can be just as political a statement as doing something on a large scale. As the Conflux Festival becomes more of an organization it will have more structure, but at the same time, the goal is to keep it really lightweight, flexible, adaptable—to simply create a platform or an open stage for people to bring us their political engagement that might range from funny to very serious. Each year ideas can change, but the goal will remain to do one small thing in the city, on the sidewalk, and affect a couple of people. If you can do that year after year then I think that’s success.

MALAV KANUGA: Bluestockings starts from the understanding that social movements are not discrete activities with a starting point and an ending point, but that there are peaks and there are also moments of dissolution.  In a certain sense, we have to look through social struggles and understand what their compositions signify and also how they’re decomposed, whether through repressive techniques or through our own active defeats.  We see ourselves as an infrastructure or a space that can survive through heroic periods of social movements, moments of both decomposition but also recomposition.  The lows can feel pretty crappy and the moments of recomposition can be equally disorienting.   But ultimately, we want to reinvent a sense of purpose around what our social movements are really doing.  To be a bit historical, we come out of a spirit that became tangible most recently in the global justice movement.  In the U.S. context, that anti-globalization spirit lost itself in the anti-war movement.  I’m speaking broadly here, but the global justice movement was really all about creating alternatives and issuing the question of possibility and potential in daily practice.  We saw a series of moments that instead of that, started to shutdown and close off possibility.  Facets of the movement were perhaps too attuned to negation: No globalization, no war, but also no real alternatives either.  Throughout all this, and into more recent cycles of struggle, we’re still trying to pose the question: Can we at least offer a space where people can inquire about other possibilities?

JOSH MACPHEE: Many of the groups I work with have three different ways we relate to social movements, or at least that I relate to social movements.  One, in some ways primarily as an art producer, being an aesthetic development person and creating logos, images for campaigns, T-shirt designs, protest placards, and the kind of graphics that are usually used in a formal social movement activity.  Some examples of that are producing a logo for a student group working around sweatshop issues, to curating a series of posters called the Celebrate Peoples’ History posters, which I’ve been doing for about ten years. They’re small, inexpensive posters that promote events, people, and activities that are important to the history of social justice but have been generally bulldozed out of mainstream history; I’m publicizing them in poster form.  Those have been picked up and used in particular by public school teachers organizing around social justice issues in classrooms.  Another example is a show I organized last year called Graphic Work, which focused on getting artists to develop images of the contemporary labor movement, because I think the labor movement graphically is stuck in sort of this 1920s heyday of burly men with hardhats, and that’s not what the labor force of the United States looks like anymore.  I worked with SEIU 1199 and tried to get artists to represent a more current representation of what labor looks like.  The second way [I relate to social movements] is financial support, which goes back to the art auctions, and also trying to connect organizations to people that have skills, resources, and money.  An example of that is the benefit for Daniel McGowan. Also, every year for maybe the past four or five years, I send down a giant packet of People’s History posters to the Immokalee Farm Workers, which they use to sell to raise money for their campaigns. In a nice twist back into the first relationship, I’m working with them now to develop a Peoples’ History poster about their campaign.  
      The third way, and this is the one I increasingly spend more and more time on, is in the strange role of independent aesthetic researcher and theorist. I’m doing intellectual work to try to understand the relationships between art and politics, but doing it in a way that’s responsive to social movements, because I think a lot of academic work is done in a way that’s primarily for the continual motivation of other academic work and it’s not responsive to the needs of people that are organizing on the ground.  An example of that will be this Signs of Change exhibition, which, if all goes well, is going to be this massive exposé of examples of activity, historically and globally, that hopefully will open up new frames of understanding for lots of people—I know that I had no idea about a lot of the stuff before I started doing research. Also, I just finished a book with a co-editor, Favianna Rodriguez, who’s a printmaker in Oakland, called Reproduce & Revolt, which is a bilingual English and Spanish collection of over 500 political graphics by artists from around the world that are all copy left, creative commons licensed, so they’re tools.  It’s a tool for activists groups to use.  

NATO THOMPSON: Something that we’ve observed in the cities that has been inspirational in terms of social movements is an attempt to look at what’s happened to cultural aesthetic practice during the dissolution of the anti-globalization movement on the ground in the United States. Clearly, it hasn’t dissolved so dramatically in other parts of the world, and in fact, the movement has been successful at changing policy in many countries. But the United States had 9/11 and various other factors that have affected how people frame their politics. An inward turn seems evident, which is what has to some degree inspired [these Townhall Talks], but what hasn’t happened is a dissolution of activity. What we’ve found in every place we’ve gone is that people are doing stuff everywhere, but there is a big turn towards infrastructures, towards longevity, and retooling towards the restructuring of cities particularly around gentrification, prison issues, and immigration, all very much on a local basis. I keep seeing reluctance, almost, to think in terms of social movements. How do we reframe this kind of move towards the local in terms of strategy? This is just something I keep thinking about and I don’t have an answer for. This newly formulated Where We Are Now group in New York City is focusing on the question of how do we think structurally of so many resources, so that sometimes it feels like every city is reinventing the wheel. We all feel it; we’re all huge cultural producers. It’s good that we’re all having discussions and meetings, but don’t we all start feeling like we’re doing this a lot? So how can we mobilize our energy more efficiently, without becoming hierarchical or structured in a problematic way? I don’t have any answers, but they’re questions that are motivating not just these talks, but also, as a curator, my work at Creative Time. I do think of [that work] as a part of the project, but I’m also thinking as an individual activist trying to expand our community and trying to mobilize our efforts strategically across the country.

Question #5:
These conversations come out of a nationwide concern about the fate of democracy. How do you see your projects tying into a larger national structure? Is organizing nationally productive? What are its limitations?

MARIA JULIANA BYCK: It’s really interesting to be a part of Paper Tiger now because so much of what Paper Tiger was started for 25 years ago was media reform and advocacy for a more democratic, do-it-yourself media. Media reform is really in the forefront now for a lot of people; there’s a growing movement. I also know that the D.I.Y. media movement is growing and becoming more prolific, but I’m not sure the content is following the productions. I think that Paper Tiger can play a national leadership role in helping people think more creatively about how to use the media now that distribution is much more accessible. It’s setting a model for what community media looks like, what politically conscious media looks like, what smart media looks like. I don’t know if we’re going to organize nationally, we’re just a volunteer video collective, but I think that doing our own thing, doing it well, and making it accessible is what we can do realistically.

CARIN KUONI: At this point, I see more of an inward trend in how people deal with politics. They take it to a very personal, local level. I don’t see this as a negative reaction or a sign of skepticism towards ideas of social movement or progress. It’s more reflective of the need to reassess the tools by which we achieve those goals. The transferal of these local concerns to a larger national context, whereby isolated incidents become emblematic of larger concerns, is essential. This task of translation and of rephrasing and repeating is very important. If I look at the Vera List Center, there are so many incidences of potential activism lost because of an inundation of information that doesn’t go further. Organizing strategically and in large numbers around specific concerns is very productive, but it’s got to be issue-specific. I’ve also really started to value the in-person, local, and very small physical gathering again. It was one of the reasons we’ve brought together people from about 60 organizations last November, for a group called Where We Are Now: Locating Art and Politics in New York City.

ANN MESSNER: Not to problematize the question (LAUGHTER) but I have the opportunity to sit at many working meetings, that go on for hours, sometimes several times a week, where the topic of social justice, with a focus on the war and issues around this so-called war on terror, is mulled over. One of the concerns that I am faced with—and I don’t know how to work out of it, but I’m aware of it as problematic—is the issue of reacting. That within the loosely structured group we’re perennially starting at the beginning again, another project and another at the beginning. I have questions around the effectiveness of structures we have built up over the last five years, which is the platform from which we continue to extend ourselves. In terms of the ad hoc coalitions I work with I’m not getting that sense that we’ve learned something. I must insist that these are personal questions that I have at the moment and are not necessarily a reflection of the group.
      With disarming images there came the opportunity to participate in a dozen or so panels that were meant to provoke a “public” discussion after the showing of the project, with the hope that the audience would become engaged and then carry that through in some form of social action for themselves, again specifically against the war. What I found to be problematic was the abruptness of these encounters nationally—arriving at a city, most often the destination being a university, participating in a panel, usually with people who I would meet for the first time, interesting almost always from interdisciplinary fields. We’d have the discussion, good discussion, sometimes with a bigger, sometimes with a smaller audience, the evening would end and the next day I would get back on the plane or the train, and that would be the end of the encounter with no sense of a continuity, of a continuing conversation and actions to be taken. I’m sensing now, several years later, that either an opportunity was missed or that type of abrupt encounter cannot really lead to an ongoing, integrated process.

BEKA ECONOMPOULOS: I’m going to answer this in three ways. In terms of how our projects tie into a larger national structure: On a very practical and material level, we’re working to produce an online platform that’s a project and events-driven social networking site that will serve local, national, and international causes, and connect artists, activists, and academics. Secondly, we had plans to produce a television show that will be aired online and nationally through cable and satellite, and that will function as a D.I.Y. document, a stage for the production of culture and activism. For instance, to put the backstage on-stage, like a cooking show. The third thing is that for the campaigns that we choose as a production company we don’t celebrate the local over the national or the international, but rather see the particular as a way to relate to the universal. The particular place is a limit that we seek to overcome, and the two examples of that I’ll offer are: We had the rezoning campaign, focused on gentrification. It’s something that gets people really fired up and inspired to engage in, if an issue is happening in their backyard or it has personal relevance. But as much as you can use that as an opportunity to connect self-interest to other campaigns and causes ultimately, we want to produce a campaign here that can serve as a model for others fighting gentrification in other cities.
      The second example is the Picture New York campaign, which happened last summer when the city aimed to regulate film and photography and essentially criminalized it in New York City. We helped to facilitate a pretty rapid mobilization over the course of two to three weeks. But recognizing that form of privatization of public space and infringement on our civil liberties is something that isn’t just endemic to New York City; it’s happening elsewhere, too. At that very same time there were other cities that were also dealing with film and photography regulations. So it was a no-brainer to think in terms of going beyond the particular, and not just the geographic particular, but also using that moment as an opportunity to connect to something larger. It was easy to oppose the regulations; the media was on our side. We aimed to also go beyond that particular, to connect it to other civil liberties issues, like Critical Mass, by staging a rally there against the cabaret law and other First Amendment laws that the city was aiming to foist upon the public.

STEPHEN DUNCOMBE: Recently, Greg [Sholette] asked me, “How’s your latest book doing?” And I said, “It’s doing great. Everybody I know is reading it.” And that’s kind of the problem (LAUGHTER). Needless to say, it’s not a best seller (LAUGHTER). I think that this is where we need to do some work. I mean, the converted need something to read, too, and they have my book and probably a lot of your artwork and a lot of your books, too. Cultivating our culture is important, but I think we’re at a moment now where there’s something bigger called for.
      I know you all have seen and Jesse Dylan’s “Yes We Can” video about Barack Obama. And I’m not a big Obama fan, but when I saw that, I realized something had fundamentally changed in the culture of the mainstream. Hope and change are in the air. Now, how that’s being articulated is either absent or it’s not in a way that we like, but there’s a moment right now and we really have to jump on it and speak to a national audience. We have to step out of the cultivation of our own gardens even if we’re not ready. So, here’s my fantasy in regards to the Democratic national party convention coming up. Usually we go to the host cities and relive ’68 by demonstrating against the convention. Well, here’s the fantasy: we actually don’t do that—we actually demonstrate for the convention, but we demonstrate for the Democratic Party that we’d actually really want to lead the country. That is, create these huge spectacles of “It’s Morning in America,” but the Left Morning in America. We use all the lingua franca that we’ve forgotten how to speak or we’ve rejected in speaking by creating our own languages; we’ll learn how to speak those mainstream languages again and hijack these symbols in order to articulate our dreams in a way that people can actually understand and gravitate towards. Big, big fantasy spectacles. Again, this is just a fantasy. But I think that we have to start thinking about the question of how do we speak to a national audience, how do we speak to the biggest audience? Because this is a moment, and regardless of whether Barack Obama gets elected or Hillary Clinton gets elected or John McCain gets elected, there’s something there. And if we can capitalize on it I think we can move it someplace, but if we don’t capitalize on it, all this political hope and idealism and passion is just going to lead to another bout of disenchantment or get siphoned off by some corporation and made into a Swatch Watch or something (LAUGHTER).

JOSH MACPHEE: At the risk of stating the obvious: Capitalism, statecraft, and power all operate on national and international scales, and therefore, our attempts at developing alternatives to them, building resistance, opposition, or something new have to operate on those levels, as well.  Because there’s been such a concentration of energy towards looking at how those things operate on the national/international level, there’s been this turn towards an almost uncritical celebration of the local, particularly amongst the Left or even the soft Left liberal; there’s this idea that the local is somehow inherently good.  It’s important to remember that capitalism, statecraft, and power all operate on the local, as well, and that there’s a whole set of problems that come with the local.  To turn the question around, in a way—I lived in Chicago for almost ten years prior to coming to New York and I saw neighborhood community organizations fight for constituents on the same block.  The level of local provisionalism and dissonance was massive and caused huge problems in the city and the ability for people to organize in the city. 
      But I tend, sometimes to a fault, to have a kind of classical anarchist position on organization, and that is that organization should develop out of need.  There’s been a tendency since the ‘60s to develop organizations in order to maintain the energy that was developed in the social movements in the late ‘60s and in the early ‘70s, so that largely I think we have a massive graveyard of organizations that just self-perpetuate themselves but claim to be part of social movements.  They work really well to pay a handful of activists or artists to survive and I think that this is a revenue stream for a certain number of people; as such, that’s good, but the problem is that they’ve gotten in the way of building actual potentials for social movements.  I don’t want to just build organizations for the sake of building organizations, because I think that there’s such a massive tendency towards bureaucratization, sectarianism, and a whole set of problems. We need to be a little bit more careful and critical in how we do that, and maybe find out a way to sweep some of the tombstones out of the way before we even think about doing that.

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