April 12, 2009

City from Below

One reason I don’t blog more here is because I keep up two other blogs, one for I-Powered, a group of students, staff and faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and another for the Race, Space and Law Reading Group at UIUC. This report on our most recent meeting has so many great links in it, I will duplicate it here.

Abby Harmon and Ryan Griffis reported on the conference, The City from Below. Abby started off talking about presentations by Picture the Homeless. This is a self-organized group based in NYC, founded in 1998. They work to do away with the shelter system and to fill vacant units. They did one on-the-ground data collection and found enough vacancies to theoretically house the 35,000 people filling the spots in shelters in NYC. NYC has a “right to shelter” law that means in fact that the shelter system is a $750 million industry. PHC has successfully joined the continuum of care groups in NYC so that they now have 33% of the votes, which really helps take charge of how services are delivered. Abby reported that the US Interagency Council on Homelessness has a ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness, which sounds good, but in fact limits options. There are three “official” levels of homelessness–episodic, transitional, chronic. The chronic label stigmatizes people by labeling them as having a personal disability–substance abuse and/or mental illness. “Permanent supportive housing,” which also sounds good, assumes the person needs support, when really they need housing. This seems to be summed up by the statement: IT’S A HOUSING CRISIS, NOT A HOMELESS CRISIS! PHC also questions “whose quality of life?” in the legislation intended to enhance urban “quality of life.” Abby also made the point that “low-income” categories also damage people by pigeon-holing them into boxes that cut out opportunities.

There were also presentations by Anarchitecture, Abandonment Issues, Max Rameau of Take Back the Land in Miami. The latter group limits their takeovers to municipally-owned property, although Umoja Village, a shantytown built in 2006 on public land in Liberty City, resulted in a lot of arrests and harassment. Abandonment Issues in Toronto has posted on their blog a policy brief outlining the city’s need for the Use It or Lose It bylaw and issuing recommendations for how this bylaw would best be implemented. Other presentations mentioned include the Baltimore Algebra Project, a group of students in Baltimore who organized for better schools; Shiri Pasternak; Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) and United Workers. These groups are all inspiring!

The Baltimore Algebra Project students held a die-in at the state capitol to stress the connection between lack of education and high mortality rates. They tried to make a citizen’s arrest of the Maryland governor.  They started peer-to-peer tutoring in a network where they leveraged each others’ strengths. The Baltimore United Workers all maintain working-class jobs and use storytelling as a way of making demands. These stories are spatial and lived, effective ways to get the powers-that-be involved in the stories these workers are making. For example, they created a Human Rights Zone at the Baltimore harbor. They developed a list of the Five Big Worst Employers. They always have a part of their events that is a surprise to catch power off-guard.

One useful distinction for me was “we are organized” vs the passive “being organized” by, say, a community organizer. No matter how much trust, there is a significant difference between self-organized groups and those working “with” an organizer. Organizers can provide tactical support and be allies.

A rich and challenging discussion!

February 19, 2009

Long Live Activist Art!

Holland Cotter, an art critic at The New York Times, recently wrote an article called “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” I read the article with interest and several of us on the activist art education listserv exchanged reactions. I felt a little silly coming to Cotter’s defense because he hardly needs my defense and I don’t usually defend the New York Times. Still, I think Cotter is an ally, so here’s what I said:

“I don’t think Holland Cotter was addressing those of us on this list as much as those who never knew or chose to ignore all the other threads in the art world beyond the gallery/star system. While his comments–‘It’s day-job time again in America’ (when has it ever been otherwise for most of us?) and ‘I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with’ (so general as to be meaningless)–are certainly open to challenge, I was heartened by the breadth of the artists he did name, and the sketch of (not-so-new) approaches that he articulates and appreciates: ‘Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experiences, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life?’ Why not, indeed? Easier said than done even for those of us in the academy.
He then remarks that ‘Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art….  I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality [or resistance, methinks] can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable…is the primary enterprise.’
While folks have been doing this for years, it’s good to have Cotter shout it out from the NY art world. I wonder, though, how to sustain these conditions of abnormality and resistance across social divisions, within global capitalism, with justice. Going forward is unknowable, so recentering art to support different people means that we are always experimenting, never getting it quite right. But I think our own work-places can be places of hope and art now; if we have to have ‘day jobs,’ let’s appoint ourselves arts-based workers in those jobs, as many have already done, and infuse the normal with the ‘abnormal.’  Cotter has consistently written about ‘marginalized’ art groups for years: Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre, the various feminist exhibitions, Asian art, and street artists. I don’t know him, but I have appreciated his rather singular voice in the NY Times, probably not an easy thing in his context. Of course we want activist art and its concerns to be front and center, whether in the NY Times or the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and The Everyday, Cabinet, n.paradoxa, etc.

And here’s what Richard Kamler of the University of San Francisco said:

I do think Cotter's article was fine, simply dated. Worn down by the
weight of the NY market and not really open to what has been bubbling up
and emerging and transforming culture these past 20 or more years. He
does mention, in passing, work with communities such as prisons,
hospitals, etc where many of us have been working, or worked, 30 years
or so ago. The idea of an engaged art, of community-based art, (social
practice, hate that phrase) is just not something that Cotter, or the NY
market really knows what to do with....I subscribe to Vaclav Havel's model
of "bringing the artist to the model!"
December 3, 2008


I learned this cool word–gallimaufry–from a recent interview with Germaine Greer. She said it meant “a thing of threads and patches” and my dictionary says, “hodge podge.” In any case, it is an apt word for the meanderings I post here and my daily life, for that matter.

Mobile Pieces on exhibit

Mobile Pieces on exhibit

The artist Sarah Ross had an exhibit at Northwestern University that opened in October, InAction. She created mobile pieces that people can remove from the gallery and take with them to a public place that needs some “InAction.” These pieces include pads, pillows, and other lounging “equipment” that folks can use to lie down in a plaza, or otherwise “do nothing” in public.

drawing of mobile pieces in use

drawing of mobile pieces in use

July 16, 2008

Active History

There’s a conference coming up in the Fall of 2008 in Toronto called “Active History.” I have been having email “conversations” with several colleagues about the roles that history plays in contemporary art practice, in design studios, and in community settings. Nick Brown reminded me of a couple of efforts in Pittsburgh and in Toronto that engage in what Greg Sholette and his group called REPOhistory

: The Missing Plaque Project in Toronto and the Howling Mob Society. The Toronto-based group (really one artist, Tim Groves) creates posters on overlooked historical events.
The Howling Mob Society focuses on the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and makes markers telling about the events related to that strike, one of which is on the left here. When markers like this, or posters, or actions in public occur on the streets it is a kind of informal education, with layers of a site uncovered that many don’t know about. The Active History conference will include sessions on community research, archeology, labor history (or as they say in Canada, labour history), and grassroots activism.

March 23, 2008

The Elusive Urbana Public Arts Commission, Part Two

This morning I wrote another letter to the members of the Urbana City Council. They are to discuss the proposal to create a Public Arts Commission on Monday night, after tabling it two weeks ago. Money is the sticking point. I am always concerned that I sound like an academic (which, of course, I am) so I tried to keep it short:

Toby Miller in his most recent book _Cultural Citizenship_ (2008) states that we are in a “crisis of belonging.” He uses the phrase “cultural citizenship” to discuss the “seemingly indirect processes [including arts policies] by which members of society” are engaged with their governments and local civic organizations. Other authors like anthropologist Renato Rosaldo have used the phrase to describe how communities use culture to come together—-in neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, and activist groups. To distill these authors’ arguments rather crudely: pluralistic groups need cultural endeavors to bring them together and begin or continue the difficult job of thriving together. This urgent need to work toward common civic goals is the main reason why I support the public arts commission. The arts provide ways to build relationships across diverse groups that build trust, bring joy, and sometimes provide “neutral” ground for dialogues around challenging and divisive issues.

Miller’s recent book focuses on television, expanding on material he discussed in his book, Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media (Minnesota, 1998). Renato Rosaldo has published a lot I am sure, being as he is a full professor at Stanford, NYU, and other similar institutions. But the article that I mentioned above is over ten years old: (1994)”Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” Cultural Anthropology, 9(3): 402-411.

February 19, 2008

NYC scenes, 2008

On a brick wall by the New Museum on the Bowery. It says “Bring Me Back,” in case you can’t read it.

The Silence=Death Project was able to display their activist graphics in the window of the (old) New Museum courtesy of curator Bill Olander. Associated with ACT Up, the graphic has appeared on T-shirts, buttons, and in now in this stair hall of the new New Museum since the late eighties.

And then there’s the graphic on the exterior of the New Museum “Hell Yes!” in bright rainbow colors, ala child’s playroom by Ugo Rondinone

December 5, 2007

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Andrea Smith, an organizer of INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, did a post-doc at UIUC a couple of years ago. Someone introduced her as a scholar-activist and she began by discounting that label. She said, we don’t say florist-activist or dentist-activist, why do we say scholar-activist? What about scholarship necessitates adding the noun activist if one is engaged in social justice work, for example? What was clear is that activism among scholars is rare enough that people find it remarkable.

INCITE! has a relatively new compilation, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, about the US non-profit sector, the “non-profit industrial complex.” Andrea Smith has an essay in it as does Ruth Gilmore.

November 25, 2007

The Inspired Disturbance of All Status Quos

One issue that came up several times during the Political Equator 2 tour was the tiresome question, “Why is this art?” I think Roberta Smith nailed a definition of art in her November 16, 2007, review of Lawrence Weiner ‘s show at the Whitney (“The Well-Shaped Phrase as Art,” New York Times , p. B33):

“Mr. Weiner’s ebullient work…reminds us that while art and money may have been inextricably entwined throughout most of history, art’s real value is not measured in strings of zeros, high-priced materials or bravura skill, but in communication, experience, economy of means (the true beauty) and, yes, the inspired disturbance of all status quos.
It also affirms that art ultimately triggers some kind of transcendence that can only be completed by the viewer.”

November 12, 2007

Social Justice Activism and Technology

Prompted by an email from Karen Medina, I have been thinking about ways that people younger than I (today I turned 55) use mobile technology for social justice organizing. One activist older than I noted that young people don’t seem to come to monthly meetings anymore. Probably older people don’t either.) I know I am reluctant to head out the door to evening meetings unless it is really compelling as a topic or a group of folks.

I started a Facebook profile, just to dip my big toe into that universe. Then I discovered that Facebook is mostly white. And that there are other social networking sites that I was only vaguely aware of! An article called “Whose Space? Differences among Users and Non-users of Social Network Sites” notes that Facebook, MySpace, Xanga and Friendster are used or avoided depending on a person’s gender, racial identification, parental educational background, etc. The full citation, for those of you who care, is: Hargittai, E. (2007). Whose space? Differences among users and non-users of social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 14.

Our local paper had a nice profile of my friend Bill Taylor and his Primary Communications Project, a long-term commitment on his part to help construct radio communication in a hilly area of southern Honduras. This reminded me of the Congolese organization, Interactive Radio for Justice
The regions where people have adopted mobile phones are using them in dynamic and powerful ways, as noted by Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckeman notes that “the anonymity of mobile phones is one of the key reasons they’ve been so useful to activists.” This allows people to send messages inquiring about an issue or reporting an abuse without fear of retribution (unless they have to register their phone, which apparently is not usually the case.)