For victims of state repression, the invitation into politics can be a death sentence. How can marginalized or oppressed groups bring change to systems that are predicated on their destruction? At every scale—from the neighborhood to the city to the nation—the targets of systemic attack must choose how and with whom to make politics in the midst of systems that threaten them.
This is the beginning of the editor’s introduction to a new essay of mine, “Building a Parallel Polis,” recently published by The Polity of Literature, a project of ArtsEverywhere based in Guelph, Canada. The Polity of Literature was developed, as the project description says, “in response to the widespread failure of nation-states to provide citizenship for those who need it most.”
My essay considers two widely-divergent examples of people who succeeded in their efforts to change the systems that held them down. Both are characterized by two broad concepts, one drawn from each: the “parallel polis,” proposed by Czech dissident Václav Benda in 1977 as a tool for resisting—and ultimately overthrowing—the repressive post-War Communist government in Czechoslovakia; and the “dynamics of difference,” one of an integrated set of community democracy principles seen clearly in the practices of Native American tribes in the Humboldt Bay area of California and in their successful efforts to build a tribal health center and to regain stolen land.
I became interested in the parallel polis when a friend mentioned that Benda’s ideas seemed to describe patterns in my own work and suggested I explore the relationship by writing about it. I accepted the challenge and was intrigued by what I discovered about the parallel polis. Writing teaches me a lot. I decided to further understand the parallel polis by writing about it alongside what I already knew of the dynamics of difference through work I’d done in the Humboldt Bay area. This essay is the result. It’s important to stress that, after all I learned from the two stories and the overall concepts they reveal, I believe the reach and importance of both examples are equal.
I also encourage you to read other essays on The Polity of Literature. You’ll find many terrific authors and good, provocative ideas in the sixteen (so far) other essays. The homepage of The Polity of Literature is here. You can follow The Polity of Literature on Instagram @thepolityofliterature
Click here if you’d like to know more about ArtsEverywhere, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society.”
Back in late May this year, Wier Harman, director of Town Hall Seattle, invited me to participate in a benefit event to support independent artists. Given the physical distancing required by the coronavirus, the event would take place online.
Wier proposed a program format where about a dozen people would each record a short video message in response to a shared question. He kept the overall framework simple: “Tomorrow will be better if…” Given the late May timing, the impact of the pandemic shutdown was on his mind. “What happens next?” he asked, “What should we DO now?” His final question was, “If you had one wish for the world, what would it be?”
I quickly said, “I’m in.” Town Hall wanted 350-600 word responses, addressed directly to the camera, pre-recorded from our respective homes. They’d edit them together with a live host and live musical numbers. The deadline was only about a week away. During that week, the killing of George Floyd turned the world upside down again, giving me a few days to reflect and adjust my response.
About a month after his first invitation, Wier wrote to prospective participants again. “In my 15 years here,” he said, “I can’t recall a month as head-snapping and as emotional, AND as steeped in the possibility of transformational change.” He wrote of his struggle to adapt the program in some way to incorporate the scale and impact of the global activism for justice for Black Americans. He noted that the program goals were still to raise money for economically stressed artists and “to inspire our community to imagine a future transformed by collective will.” I just love Wier for the hope I heard in his words. He also acknowledged that some of us might not feel comfortable proceeding.
Then a few days later, after hearing from invitees, Wier wrote again with apologies. They were canceling the event. In the end, he said, “The community of available participants no longer speaks to the breadth of perspectives we hoped could share in responding to this moment.”
All the same, I continue to hold onto the wish I have for the world, inspired in part by Pablo Neruda. So in early August I asked for and received Wier’s blessing to recycle my video by posting it on this site.
One wish for the world
Even though the benefit event didn’t happened, you can still support one of the funds that Town Hall originally identified: the Seattle Artists Relief Fund Amid COVID-19, managed by Langston. You can also learn more about the essential role Town Hall plays in building community in this region here and you can click here to support its work.
During the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of my artist friends and I were embroiled in the fight for artistic freedom. Faced with battles over censorship, federal funding, and what was deemed obscene, immoral, or offensive, we fought for an individual artist’s right to free expression. We held these as fundamental rights of an individual in the public arena. We understood artistic expression as a form of speech, speech that was protected by the First Amendment. Reflecting back on the fights of thirty years ago also calls to mind today’s debates around what has been dubbed “cancel culture.”
One day in early 1991 in the midst of the Culture Wars, I hunkered down to edit an essay titled “Artistic Freedom” by Bruce Sievers, scholar of civil society and, at the time, director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. I’d just been contracted by an association of arts funders, Grantmakers in the Arts, to be co-editor of its publication. I continued in this role for nearly twenty years, but this was the first article in the first issue I worked on.
Especially coming when it did, the essay engaged me in complicated ideas closely related to my activism. It also presented me with a tangle of ideas that were hard to unravel then and, one notion in particular is a puzzle that, thirty years later, challenges me still. Even though it remains unresolved, I suspect that this intransigent puzzle may among other things offer a response to the cancel culture debates.
In his essay, Sievers reported on a GIA-sponsored symposium held in December 1990 based on controversies surrounding freedom of expression in the arts. A central goal of the gathering was to understand the legal and conceptual foundations of the argument defending artistic freedom. The search for a coherent argument, Sievers said, is filled with ambiguity. “Ambiguities about freedom of expression in the arts mirror deeper ambiguities about the nature of free speech and its historical role in the legal and political life of the United States.”
I’ve come to recognize one of these ambiguities in the often-difficult balance between the right of one person to speak and the right of another not to be targeted by harmful speech. One can damage the rights of the other. Legal scholar (later to become dean of the Yale Law School) and symposium speaker Robert C. Post explained that the modern theory of First Amendment protection for threatening or outrageous speech “only began to be developed in the 1930s and 40s as the Supreme Court grappled with the contradictions between protecting the public arena of free speech and protecting individuals from slander and verbal assault.”
A second complicated idea in all this might be described this way: The existence of a neutral public space for discourse is necessary for the exercise of free speech and also gives the speech meaning by giving it an audience. But the value of holding that space open also has to be defended. And that very defense might suspend someone else’s freedom of speech, someone, for instance, intent on closing down the neutral public space through coercive or irrational means.
Both of these ideas required me to hold two competing values in mind without insisting that only one is true. That’s fine. Life is full of ambiguities. I can handle that.
But then he brought up communities.
Buried in Sievers’ arguments is the thirty-year-old conundrum I’ve wrestled since 1991. It came up for me when he introduced “community” into the picture. My experience in the Culture Wars had established a mental framework for the debate around artistic freedom that consisted essentially of two parts, or two “sides” – the individual artist and the public arena, that is, the rights of individuals within the larger society. References to community complicated my framework. “Community” seemed both larger than an individual and smaller than the whole society.
Community was first mentioned in the essay when Sievers drew from Robert Post’s brief history of Anglo-American law and its control of harmful speech – that is, defamation, blasphemy, sedition, and obscenity. This control, Post said, served specific purposes. For one, “it acknowledged and protected community norms of responsible speech (norms that made a particular community possible), thus supporting a vision of community life.”
“Wait just a minute!” I thought. Particular community? What does that mean? The next passage reinforced my confusion and also triggered my curiosity. (Italicized emphasis is mine.) Post argued that modern First Amendment theory…
“…developed a delicate balance between the principle of preserving public space in which public opinion essential to a democratic society can be freely molded and the opposing principle of defending independent communities in which values also essential to a democratic society (such as respect for the individual) can be cultivated. First Amendment protection of a neutral public space acknowledges the peculiarly U.S. experience of many coexisting communities and allows for the proliferation of ‘multitudes of divergent communities.’ It safeguards a sort of marketplace of ideas among these communities.”
“Multitudes of divergent communities” jostling about in a big neutral public space struck me as a powerful image. I immediately liked the idea of defined clusters of people – that is, communities defined by choice, chance, or coercion – each molding their own particular set of values and practices. And I liked the idea of the public space as one where each community tries to influence or change the opinions and ways of others.
Over the years, I’ve attempted to incorporate “the multitudes of divergent communities” into a mental framework that previously included only individuals and the public. I’ve asked many questions of these notions, most of which I haven’t answered with much satisfaction.
In a neutral public space full of coexisting and divergent communities, what happens to the public space when minds and actions are changed? How is the public space changed? Can, or how can it remain open to all communities? What is “neutrality” anyway, is it even real? What happens when change is coerced or destructive? Do we even have a multitude of divergent communities at this point? And what do we mean today by “community” when we live in a physical world that is dependent on a digital world with a fundamentally changed understanding of public space, in “public” arenas that are owned by large corporations?
Thinking back to the beginning of this train of thought, where is an individual and an individual artist’s expression in this picture? What dynamic goes on among individuals inside a particular community? Does a community allow for a parallel proliferation of the divergent ideas of many different individuals? Does the existence of many different communities offer an individual the chance to move from one community to another? Or to belong to more than one at the same time? What happens to an individual alone in the public arena outside any particular community? Where does that individual belong?
Somewhere in the argument for the value of multitudes of co-existing communities might lie a response to the cancel culture debates, though not a resolution of them (homogeneity is not the goal). Could understanding the value of this multiplicity help us learn to accept the ambiguity and challenge of living among communities with different experiences, different values and practices? Do we need the debates and discomfort to allow minds and hearts to change and to give us the will to create a better-functioning democratic society?
Satisfying answers to these questions still elude me. Simply posing them is about as far as I can go right now. Clearly the conundrum continues, getting both a little more complicated and a little more potent all the time.
The essay, “Artistic Freedom,” is in the GIA Newsletter, Volume 2,1 and can be downloaded here.
My brother Francis George Focke died at home in Rancho Cucamonga, California on April 22 in the early months of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
When he died, I was out walking in the rain in Seattle. Toward the end of my walk I passed a large camellia tree that seemed to have dropped most of its flowers all at once just before I got there—red camellias all over the ground and sidewalk under my feet. Our family’s house in Claremont, the last place that Frank and our whole immediate family—parents, brothers, and grandmother—lived together, was surrounded by camellias.
Frank died of an aggressive lung cancer that seemed to come up quickly. He’d been a smoker most of his life. I first learned of his cancer when he called to tell me of the diagnosis about a week and a half before he died. It wasn’t until four or five days later that I realized just how much pain he was in. He didn’t talk about his feelings easily (health or otherwise) and avoided focusing on himself. He had planned to have an initial chemo treatment on April 22 and even had a port put in. But on April 20, he just couldn’t bear the pain and discomfort any longer. With his wife Barb, he decided to cancel treatment and let the cancer take its course. His last few days were difficult, but Barb, who was with him, told me he died peacefully, for which I’m grateful.
It was hard not to be there. The miles and the virus kept me away. I was so glad to learn that our brother Ross was able to visit on the evening before Frank died. Seeing Ross again had been one of Frank’s last wishes.
Frank didn’t want any kind of memorial to celebrate his life or mark his passing except a plaque with his name at the cemetery. All the same, memories of him have appeared here and there. Making up for the lack of a formal obituary, I’ve cobbled together a few memories.
A bit of a cut-up and clown, “Frank-o” was my “middle-est” brother in a string of brothers, whose names will always roll easily off my tongue in chronological order – Fred, Ted, Frank, Karl, Ross. I came along between Fred and Ted for a total of six. The family moved to San Diego in 1945, and Frank was born there in Mercy Hospital in 1948. A collage of photos from about 1957 that I spotted on Frank’s wall shows Mom and Dad with all us minus Fred, who, ten years older, must have been away. Frank is at the lower right.
All of us, along with our grandmother, lived for about fifteen years in a two-story house on Mount Soledad in San Diego, surrounded on the back by hillsides of sagebrush and a valley with a chicken ranch and a dairy farm at the bottom. In front we were connected by dirt roads to nearby friends, a cactus ranch, and flower farmers. It was a great place to be young, perfect for building hide-outs, bringing baby chicks home, learning how to get lost and found again. The family moved north to Claremont in 1959, and except for Fred we all attended and graduated from Claremont High School.
An “In Memory” entry on Claremont High School’s Alumni Society website includes year-book photos of Frank (class of 1966) and comments from fellow classmates who described him as “such a great guy and so quiet and gentle,” “nice and friendly,” and “one of the good guys.” To inform their mutual friends, Ross posted a notice of Frank’s death on his Facebook page. It included a photo with this caption: “My brother Frank at boot camp in the Marines 1967. He was a helicopter mechanic in the Vietnam War close to the DMZ. He was proud, he was a Marine.” He was nineteen.
A clipping included on the Alumni site and probably published in the Claremont Courier, reported “Marine Lance Cpl. Francis G. Focke, 20, is serving with Heavy Helicopter Unit 462 in the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Vietnam. His unit operates several hundred aircraft including fighters, attack and reconnaissance craft, and helicopters. The Wing last year was awarded a Presidential Citation for combat achievements.”
Lance Corporal in the Marines is equivalent to a Private First Class in the Army. I remember Frank telling me, a few years after he returned, that he was rather proud of not rising to a higher rank during the years he served. He did his job, did it well, and kept his head down.
Before he died, Frank sent a box containing a few items from his Marine days to Heather, his favorite granddaughter, more accurately, a step-granddaughter who came into his life through his second wife, Priscilla. One of the items in the box was a large coin. Research identified it as a Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Challenge Coin.
Ross’s Facebook post attracted comments from family and mutual friends. Some of them knew him from the days, after the Marines, that he spent as a bartender at the Midway Tavern, between Claremont and Upland on Route 66. Michael wrote:
That Marine Mentality would come FLASHING to the surface from time to time. One night a fight broke out at the Midway and I was sitting at the middle table between the front wall and the pool table. One of the fighters spotted me and came RUNNING towards me. I was thinking ‘Oh man, the shit’s ON,’ when I heard this metallic clank right above my head. There was Frank standing right behind me. He had grabbed one of those metal folding chairs and snapped it into the folded position and he was IN THE STANCE, holding inches from the guy’s face.
Frank was always there for me.
Other Facebook posts with brief memories and condolences came from cousins, his first wife Lupe, and other old friends from Claremont, including Ruth, who added this picture of Frank pouring beer at the Midway.
Frank lived with alcoholism and went on the wagon at least 30 years ago. A few years after he quit, he told me the craving never stopped, but whenever the desire got hard to handle, he’d tell himself, “You can have a beer tomorrow.” And, as far as I know, that tomorrow never came..
In 1998 Frank and Priscilla moved to Casa Volante, a 55+ mobile home park in Rancho Cucamonga right off Route 66. At 50, he wasn’t old enough to live there on his own, but Priscilla qualified. Casa Volante is a quiet park with winding streets, about 200 homes (which they call coaches), a clubhouse with a small swimming pool, and many trees and plantings that soften the park’s landscape. Frank had been able to buy a coach with proceeds from our mother’s estate, which helped sustain their quiet, carefully frugal lifestyle.
Priscilla died in 2003, and it wasn’t long before Frank and Priscilla’s good friend Barb found each other. They married in October 2005 at poolside behind the clubhouse, surrounded by friends from the park and beyond.
When they were much younger, Frank and our brother Ross worked together on small construction and maintenance projects for home and garden. Frank carried his skill along with an inborn concern and care for others to Casa Volante, and he was known in the neighborhood for fixing toilets, hanging blinds, patching roofs, and running monthly pancake breakfasts and weekly bingo games. He was hired as the park’s assistant manager in 2012.
On one of my visits, I participated in a bingo game. Frank pulled out the large, rolling mechanical bingo board, set up the long tables and all the folding chairs in the main clubhouse room, and brought out the individual bingo cards and pencils. Without much fuss, he ran the show. The room was jammed, every seat taken. I was embarrassingly lucky that day, winning about 27 dollars. Some of my loot I shared with Frank and Barb, and the rest I contributed back to the bingo pot to start the next week’s game.
In their June 2020 message to park residents, Dan and Lou, resident managers, said, “Frank was a fixture in the Park and I still keep expecting him to walk into the office to fill us in on things he observed while on one of his many daily walks.” A remembrance of him filled the other side of the newsletter: Assistant Manager – All Around Handy Man – Our Friend. “Frank was always there for residents: locked out, call Frank; leaky faucet, call Frank; need groceries, call Frank need your dog walked, call Frank. If he could do it, he would. Rest in Paradise, Frank.”
He clearly played a big role in creating community there. He leaves a huge hole in many lives. In a phone call a few weeks after he died, Barb told me that flowers were filling their home. She described one bouquet that had been carefully crafted to incorporate a dismantled piece of the big bingo board. Maybe there were even camellias.
This morning I woke with a disorienting sense of despair that’s unusual for me. The world seemed wracked with unsolvable problems and going to hell in so many ways at once that it felt impossible to imagine we’d ever be able work our way forward to a better place. I was at a loss to know what part I could play with the time and tools I have.
After stumbling around for a while, I picked up a short essay I’d written in the spring of 2016. I’d been inspired by an opinion piece published in the New York Times a few days earlier. The column’s author, Jon Grinspan, is an historian at the National Museum of American History who describes the focus of his research as, “politics and youth and comedy and food and booze in 19th and early 20th century America.” He likes any subject, he says, “that makes the past feel human and immediate.” And “immediately” is how fast his piece jerked me out of the little stupor I’d fallen into this morning. Reading his column today reminded me why it caught my attention in the first place. I was buoyed again by what he called “history’s most beautiful lesson: The world we know is not our only option.”
His op ed told the forgotten story of the days in the 1800s when young people voted in droves and were the most engaged demographic in U.S. politics. They “speechified” and rioted in wild elections from the 1830s to 1900. “Reading 16-year-olds’ diaries,” he said, “you can see the way they bundled political involvement with their latest romance, their search for work, and the acne on their foreheads. Public participation soothed private anxiety. Youth politics worked because it was so messy, blending ideology with identity, the fate of the country with ‘fun and frolic’.”
He tells the story in his book, The Virgin Voter: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. “Millions of children, youths, and young adults forced their way into the life of their democracy,” he said, “while their democracy forced its way into their personal lives.” What in the 20th century often felt like a weak link in our political system was once the strongest. “Young people did vote,” Grinspan wrote. “They could do so again.”
In our 2018 mid-term elections, young people began to prove Grinspan right. In April 2019, the Washington Post, carried a story with this headline: “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018, new Census Bureau data reports.” The news piece began, “Voter turnout spiked to a 100-year high in last year’s midterm congressional elections.…turnout rates jumped across nearly all groups, but the shift was particularly notable among young adults.” The number of voters aged 18-29 jumped 16 percentage points since 2014. “Last year’s election marked a clear break from the past two decades of anemic turnout among the youngest citizens.”
Knowing that things have changed in the past assures me that they they can change again. Young voters proved that in 2018. What we see today doesn’t have to be what will be tomorrow.
Grinspan’s insight mirrors Rebecca Solnit’s words about hope. “Hope for me,” she has said, “is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act while being clear that terrible things are happening.… One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don’t act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them.… We’re not talking about a future that’s already written.”
The forgotten past and a future that’s unknown both open up possibilities. We just have to be convinced as we face today’s realities that new options are possible and that it’s up to us to imagine them and act on our commitment to make them happen.
“An aging United States reduces the economy’s growth – big time,” claimed Robert J. Samuelson in the opening line of his 2016 news story in the Washington Post. The story referred to an academic study of economic slowdown as we’ve seen it in recent years. Samuelson and the study traced this decline to our aging population. In fact, after presenting many details from the study, he concluded that, “If other economists confirm the study, we’d probably resolve the ferocious debate about what causes economic slowdown. The aging effect would dwarf other alleged causes…” It’s an interesting theory, but I argue with some of the conclusions he draws and offer another conclusion of my own.
By itself, the opening line immediately reminded me of a homegrown theory I’ve tossed around informally for some time. I tend to pull it out in conversation whenever I or someone else in my general age bracket expresses concern about whether or not our money will last as long as our lives will.
As a mathematical equation, my idea might look like this:
There may be a better way to express it mathematically, but here’s how I tell the story:
Using round numbers, I say, imagine that I started earning my own living at age 20. I was actually a little older than that, but it’s close enough, and saying I was 20 makes the equation easy to figure out. Then suppose that I decided to stop working for pay at the societally-accepted “retirement age” of 65. I didn’t, but again I’m not quibbling about details. The kicker comes when we add the final assumption, that I might live to be 90. The average life expectancy for a woman my age has been going up and is currently about 86.5 years – again, the number is close enough for the purpose of my storytelling.
The simple arithmetic of the story suggests a conclusion.
Someone living according to this equation would have an earning life of 45 years, that is, 65 minus 20. And that’s just half of a full 90-year lifetime. Hmmm . . . that seems to imply we’d have 45 years to generate 90 years of living expenses, two years’ worth for every year worked. The equation is all too simple, I know, since it doesn’t account for many things. All the same, applied to real life, the equation sets a crazy expectation.
“Oh, but wait!” you may say. “You haven’t accounted for the fact that your 45 earning years really only have to pay for your extra 25 years after retirement. That’s not quite so bad.” Ah, but I’d counter, consider that my first 20 years were hardly free. Somebodyhad to pay for them. In my case, it was my parents, and anyone who’s a parent knows they’re paying for at least two lives during the first 20 years of their child’s lives. But whether I’m a parent or not, I think my equation has to account for the cost of those years. So, I argue, the equation holds.
Obviously, a certain segment of the population with high earnings (especially if boosted by inherited wealth) can, indeed, pay for 90 years of life with just 45 years of work. For most of us, though, the economic life my equation points to is probably difficult if not impossible, and on the scale of an entire society, it’s hard to believe that the formula could possibly work at all.
My equation, though based on an individual life, has broad implications for an aging society overall. For me, it clarifies why an aging population that depends for its livelihood in our current economic system could be seen as a cause of economic slowdown. Clearly, a steep earnings decline follows retirement for many of us.
In his discussion of aging and economics, Samuelson discusses the study’s explanations for why an increasingly older population might have a dampening effect on economic productivity. For one, the decline is partly based on the proportionally smaller number of workers left to support production. But the study also reports that this accounts for only about a third of the decrease.
One theory for the rest, Samuelson proposes, is that older people may be more cautious with their spending, valuing stability and being more restrained, of being less experimental and optimistic in their views and actions. To this one I say, for myself at least, “Bah, humbug!” My desire to respond to the urgencies of today – climate crisis, justice and inequality, the precarious state of our civil society – has only increased at age 74, especially since I know my time is limited. I may act in different ways than I did in my 20s, but I’m no more cautious or restrained.
Besides, my homemade equation suggests that the “cautious spending” of older populations is not necessarily about our reduced sense of experimentation and adventure but rather about the reduced size of our bank accounts. My simple arithmetic speaks to larger questions about how our economy works, or more accurately, doesn’t work. For one thing, the only work that our current economy values is work exchanged for money.
What do you think older people are doing in their “retirements,” that is, if they’re lucky enough not to be scrabbling for money to pay the rent? Countless numbers of us are contributing in valuable ways to our communities, and more could. Look at the hair color of volunteers at food banks, in legal clinics, in libraries, and at other nonprofit and voluntary organizations. Who’s taking food to shut-ins? Who’s regularly writing their elected officials and participating in other ways in our democracy? And then there are the grandmothers and grandfathers! Yes, we love the time we spend with our grandchildren, but in many cases grandparents play an essential role in helping cover the cost of their grandkids’ first 20 years. It may be loving, but it’s still work.
Are we only able to put our effort to these things if we’ve been lucky enough to have held jobs for 45 years that pay double-time? We need to change the economic arithmetic. We need a different formula.
Note: The Washington Post article, published on August 21, 2016, can be found here.
Every now and then since at least 1985, I’ve given myself the gift of time away. I leave Seattle with a few books, lots of notes, a computer, and plans to rearrange my molecules for a while to focus on the difficult work of writing. These “time aways” also allow for walking, reading, thinking, staring into space, maybe visiting an old friend or meeting someone new or maybe not seeing anyone at all, surrounded by new scenery and a different context. I’ve rented cabins and hotel rooms, stayed in friends’ second homes, shared rentals with another writer friend, traded work for a little house, and a few times, even stayed in actual, official artists’ residencies. With mixed success, I’ve begun trying to recreate that experience without leaving home. I remember one time the strategy worked.
It was late summer 2015 – a perfect time-away day at home.
After spending the first hour of the day with necessary correspondence, I put some notes, my laptop, and an umbrella in a small pack and, with my pack on my back, headed out for a long walk. Despite a weather forecast of clouds and rain with a possible thunderstorm and hail, I planned to be out much of the day on a course I would determine as I went.
I walked just a few blocks before stopping for breakfast at a favorite neighborhood coffee shop. Along with my breakfast, I read through past notes for what had become a gnarly piece I was working on. I’d been invited to write a short essay for publication in Pacific Standardas one of a series of columns on the future of work. My first draft had been returned by the editor with comments that made me know I should just start over. After studying my notes and finishing my coffee, I headed out.
Part-way through the longer next leg of my walk, the sun began to prove the forecast wrong. What a gift! After a couple of miles down steep, winding streets and views of the Cascade mountains, I stopped for coffee at a tiny place where I struggled to find a new path through the ideas in my notes. I didn’t actually pull out my computer to begin a new draft, but with my notes and a pen and paper, I found at least a preliminary place to begin and went outside again. The sun had taken over completely as I headed down the hill attracted by a set of stairs I hadn’t tried before and then turned straight east toward the Washington Park Aboretum.
Just before reaching the park, I stopped at a cafe/coffee shop for lunch. I fiddled with my notes as I ate, but forced myself to sit there until I had begun a revised version. By the time I walked out, clouds had covered the sky and the rain had begun. Umbrella up, I headed into the Arboretum and followed a trail along the west edge that I hadn’t walked before, with tall straight pines at the start and large holly trees toward the end. My wet walk through the woods ended at yet another bakery/cafe just outside the park entrance. Over another cup of coffee and a treat, I made good progress in the writing, at least getting some good thoughts into a document on my computer. Sheets of rain came down while I worked.
A little later, bright sun pulled me outside again, this time to walk an almost straight line home. My earlier straight-line walk to the Arboretum had been level; this one definitely was not. My quick estimate of the elevation gain on just one of many blocks – and a short one, at that – was about 65 feet, though it felt like a 45 degree angle. After I got home, the energy the walk had given me continued, and I worked for another hour or so.
As the day ended, my writing was far from finished, but this new draft gave me the bones of a version that the editor ultimately accepted with only a few suggestions and small revisions. The piece, titled “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” considered the work of artists and other often unpaid workers. It began with a quote from economist Marilyn Waring: “I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.”
It was during one meandering leg of my long walk after a stretch of determined struggle with the essay that Waring’s words occurred to me and helped shape the piece. The day also convinced me that interesting places to walk and let my mind wander are valuable to the way I think and that I can sometimes find the discipline to create a satisfying time away at home.
“Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value” can be found here at Pacific Standard (originally posted 11/3/15) and a slightly revised version on my website here.
The quote from Marilyn Waring comes from the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics.
“Come wade through history with me,” I wrote, hoping to entice students to apply for an internship with me. I’d been appointed to be Alum in Residence at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year and had decided that one way to put this opportunity to use would be to get help organizing and inventorying the many boxes of files and ephemera I’d accumulated over the years. During my residency, five remarkable students worked with me.
Of the many projects that produced the boxes filling my storage unit I chose one and carted nine of the sixteen banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the school. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us during the tumultuous challenges we faced during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, fierce congressional debates about arts funding, and the sometimes contentious rise of “multi-culturalism” (the term of the day).
The students tackled the job with enthusiasm. And they didn’t just inventory the material. As they went through it they also talked about what they found, both among themselves and with me. We considered what the contents meant, whether archives matter, and how what they learned connected with the world we know today. Their interest prompted them to create ancillary projects. Along with two exhibitions, an Instagram feed, and reflective essays, the students decided to produce a podcast series based on interviews with intriguing people they discovered in the files. David Mendoza was on their list.
David is a long-time advocate and activist on behalf of artists and was an important early member of Arts Wire. At about the same time that Arts Wire was gaining momentum, David was leading the charge against censorship as director of the new National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Three of my interns – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – contacted David and conducted the interview. The hour-long conversation – with David in Bali where he now lives and we in Jessica’s apartment near the university – threaded its way through many of his experiences. His creation, in the 1980s, of a button with a message particularly caught the students’ imagination.
DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! Iam the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “Youare the public, and youare the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.
What public funding for the arts did, what the National Endowment for the Arts did, what the New York State Arts Council and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. People who were known for their private philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.”
Everyone who wore that pin was part of the public. I’m telling you, it was amazing. I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle]. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle.
JESSICA: I just want to chime in… Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.
DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it. Just make it!
JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Just helping them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”
KAREN: It’s an affirmation of our own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, it’s only my opinion. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? Even on the scale of the country!
DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.
JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!
DAVID: Yes! I have one in my little treasure storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.
AFTERWORD: At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.
My downstairs neighbor Kim dropped by this morning. He wanted help figuring out how to prepare himself psychologically for a visit later that day with his sister who had recently gone into hospice care. He wondered what he could do for her. What should he say, what could he take, how could he be ready? His questions brought back a powerful memory of my own, which I shared with him.
In the late ’90s a close friend of mine, Anne Gerber, was in the final decade of a long life. She was known for her unflagging support of artists and social causes. She called herself an “artnik” rather than an arts patron. She collected the work of risk-taking artists from across the country and world and was an avid supporter of local artists. She once said, “I like to watch for the art that’s discovering itself.” With her husband she worked to desegregate housing in Seattle and was a dedicated member of the ACLU. For me, she was proof that we don’t have to choose between art that matters and politics that matter or between a love of nature and a life of ideas. Remembering her, eco designer and artist Wendy Brawer wrote: “It was 1984. The phone rings, and the voice on the other end of the wire asks – what are you artists doing about the election? All it took was one nudge from Annie and we were off, running a creative campaign that brought our community into the political arena and sparked deep conversations on our rights and dreams as citizens.”
By the time she reached her early 90s, though, Anne’s eyesight was nearly gone and her mobility restricted. Living in a single room on the health-care wing of a continuing care retirement community, she was far from the friends she hadn’t outlived and didn’t get many visitors. The facility took care of her medical needs, but her social, cultural, and intellectual life suffered. She’d always been fiercely independent which kept her from reaching out when she wanted or needed something, and her failing eyesight kept her from reading and enjoying the art she loved. With very little social contact except for a group of five or six of us who visited whenever we could, her world got smaller. On my visits I began reading to her – sometimes choosing the latest art news and other times articles about contemporary political events or people she knew. She liked feeling connected to worlds that mattered to her. I would watch her come back to life each time we were together.
After one of my visits, it occurred to me that she might enjoy hearing something from her own life. I remembered that, somewhere, I had an interview with her from the early 1980s. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art had wanted her oral history, and I’d agreed to do the interview. Anne and I had talked for at least an hour and a half on two different days. Afterward, I’d received a paper copy of the transcript, so I dug through my files to find it.
Before I visited again, I read through the stories she told – of her parents, her days as an art student, her marriage in Reno to Sydney Gerber, their sailboat summers in Canada’s inland passage where they became friends and supporters of renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carver Willie Seaweed, and many of her contemporary art world adventures, among which was a 1968 trip to New York with a charge from the Seattle Art Museum to find an exhibition that would be “new and fresh,” a search that led her to art critic and activist Lucy Lippard whom she signed up to be exhibition curator and who created for Seattle the first of what would be known as “Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows,” titled in our case 557,087.
The next time I saw Anne, I read aloud from the transcript for ten or fifteen minutes before I paused to look up. When I did, I noticed that she was sitting very still, listening intently, with a pensive, almost tearful look on her face. “I thought it was gone,” she said quietly. “But now it’s all back.” I read from that transcript many times on subsequent visits.
After sharing some of this with my neighbor Kim, I suggested that perhaps he could give his sister something that would trigger memories from her past. So much of our memory relies on recognition and has to be prompted to resurface, even when a memory defines us. Cues can be an object or a letter, a favorite song or the smell of a special meal. Or it might even be a question from a neighbor.
I bumped into Kim at the front door of our apartment building a few hours later. He was in a hurry but was carrying a big basket over his arm.
There is a dense layer of artistic activity all over the country that can be hard to see. At times it’s nearly invisible. With some exceptions, this creative activity lies close to the ground, found in many mostly small but dynamic nodes that are sometimes, but not reliably, linked together in informal, web-like ways. This story is about how a fairly isolated, regional chunk of this artistic layer began to make connections with other regions.
Many adjectives are used to describe the activity in this busy cultural arena: contemporary, experimental, noncommercial, artist-centered, independent, DIY, and grassroots. It’s also frequently referred to as responsive, diverse, focused on equity, and politically committed. Although it generally doesn’t get big flashy headlines, the workings of this domain are often well known by and intertwined closely with the communities where it lives. This creative layer shows up as storefront exhibition spaces, publications, residencies, digital platforms, project spaces, community centers, studios, and occasionally as high-profile institutions. It can be found in garage galleries and living rooms, tucked in buildings with unexpected neighbors, on paper in bookshelves and in piles at public events, in privately-run or governmentally-sponsored spaces, as well as in public places on an often temporary basis. Its inhabitants take many legal forms – as nonprofits, informal and unincorporated networks, collectives, associations, noncommercial for-profits, sometimes as artist support organizations, and, in ever-increasing numbers, as individual and independent organizers, often artists for whom this work is an extension of their art practice.
The key to all this activity is the central role taken by or given to artists, and, in fact, many endeavors that populate this realm are created by or run by artists. Often the organizational form itself is part of the work and includes efforts to bring together artists, art, various publics, communities, and organizations in ways that lead to all parts being integral to the whole. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the terms artist spaces, arts organizers, and artist-centered as stand-ins for the wide variety of forms this energy takes.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s when this arts layer wasn’t as thick as it is today, I helped create and run an early example of this activity in Seattle, an organization named and/or. Over its ten-year life and/or gained a national reputation that decades later, in 2015, led to my becoming a member of the founding board of Common Field, an organization that aims to connect and empower this nationwide, multi-various network, this “field.” Common Field’s largest program is an annual gathering of the network, the Common Field Convening. It welcomes artist spaces and arts organizers from anywhere in the country to attend. The most recent convening, held in Philadelphia this year, attracted over five hundred participants from 32 states.
In Seattle and Washington State today, the world of artist-centered activity is just as dense as it is anywhere else, but until now it has had few connections with its counterparts elsewhere. It has felt like a far-off corner of the country. My direct experience in this world is decades old, and Seattle artist Matthew Offenbacher has been my main guide to what’s happening in our region now. Matt says of himself, “I seek constructive, positive positions at often difficult intersections of individuals, communities, and institutions.” His work ranges from painting, writing, and object making to exhibition making and community organizing.
Matt and I wrote the following story collaboratively in response to an invitation to tell the Common Field network how we began the process of building relationships with others across the country. The piece was posted on Common Field’s website.
Did you wonder why there were so many people from Seattle and Washington State at the Convening in Philly?
In 2017, Courtney Fink, executive director of Common Field, visited Seattle for a community meet-up at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Fifty or so organizers came together in the gallery at the University of Washington’s art school to network, share ideas, and learn about Common Field. However, despite the good conversation and energy generated, the meeting didn’t result in many new members or Convening attendees. In fact, at the Convening in Los Angeles that fall there were just three of us. We three were very excited by our experience and thought: more people from Seattle must go!
Our theory was that travel and time costs were the limiting factor. Like many places, visual art in Seattle relies heavily on grassroots and DIY organizations, often run by artists. This creates a landscape that is culturally rich and dynamic, but also incoherent and perpetually underfunded. High costs of living make it difficult for artist organizers to find time to write grant proposals, raise money, and work on administrative tasks. Also, there’s a pernicious civic attitude that emphasizes entrepreneurial competition over collective effort and mutual support.
To try to get more people to the 2019 Convening we hatched a plan to raise money to award ad-hoc travel scholarships. We asked for help from a group of four to five “strategizers.” These were people from organizations that might be supporting partners of the scholarship and who had fundraising and community organizing experience. Our strategizers encouraged us to think big, suggesting we raise money for three years of scholarships, with 10-20 recipients each year, and expand the range from just Seattle to encompass the entire state. After some back-of-the-envelope figuring, we decided scholarships in the amount of $1,000 each would cover travel, lodging, and expenses.
We made a lot of spreadsheets! There were lists of potential individual and institutional donors and lists of every artist-centered project and independent artist organizer we knew of and ones we didn’t but who were suggested by other people. We wrote information sheets explaining the project to donors. One effective argument came from a survey by one of our partner organizations, Artist Trust. They found that among Washington State artists, one of the highest self-identified needs is making connections outside the area. From the other direction, we learned from Common Field that artist spaces across the country don’t know what’s going on in Seattle and Washington.
Perhaps of less interest to our donors but important to our own sense of the project was trying to expand what is valued in our communities. We think a strong art community is one that values a robust network of artist-centered initiatives. This has seldom been the case. Directing donor resources to these initiatives – often marginal, temporary, peculiar, and community-specific – is an issue of artistic excellence as well as one of racial, cultural, and social class equity. We ended up thinking about how we could use Common Field, beginning with a travel scholarship program, both as a way to connect our locality to a national network and also as a focal point for local organizing that explores our common interests and collective power.
We began pitching possible donors and realized that while the project seemed to us like an obvious win-win for everyone, it was less clearly so to some donors. We hadn’t been clear enough in describing the double-win of local arts organizers meeting national peers and artist spaces elsewhere learning of the vitality of our region’s artist-centered work. We revised our pitches and kept at it. In the end, a private donor gave us funds for five scholarships, our county arts agency (4Culture) put in for another five, another private donor supported two, and four other donors supported one each. We had enough for 16!
A three-person committee selected the recipients using our long list of organizations and organizers as the starting point. There was no application. Awardees first heard from us when we sent them a congratulations letter. In a field where crushing cycles of submission and rejection are the norm, receiving support in this way seemed to make people feel especially buoyantly “seen” and appreciated. At all points in our process, we tried to minimize time and aggravation for the awardees. There was minimal paperwork. We paid in advance. Some scholarships were awarded to individuals and some to groups, and we told the groups to use whatever process they liked to decide which individual(s) to send. There were no strings attached other than that they use the money to get themselves to Philly.
Two groups that were selected decided to split the money between two people in their group. So all in all, the scholarships supported 18 Washington State folks to go. The enthusiasm convinced even more folks to go: Charlie Rathbun (4Culture, King County’s arts agency), Rick Reyes (City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture), Shannon Halberstadt (CEO Artist Trust), Sarah Faulk (curator), Margie Livingston (Soil), Mariella Luz (artist and member of Artist Trust’s board), and Emily Zimmerman (Jacob Lawrence Gallery). And of course the two of us were there, too. No wonder it seemed like Washington folks were everywhere at the Convening!
We’ve held two follow-up get-togethers since then: a small one in a home so that artist-organizers who got scholarships and donors who helped them to go could meet each other; and a second larger public one, a sort of mini-convening, where arts organizers could meet each other and discuss ideas that inspired the people who went to Philly. This meeting was sponsored by the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultureand held at their new facility above the downtown train station.
A huge team of people rallied with us to make the scholarship program possible: the donors to the scholarship program (4Culture, Edie Adams, Sarah Cavanaugh, Marge Levy, the Glen S. and Alison W. Milliman Foundation, Judy Tobin, and Merrill Wright); Artist Trust’s board who made the scholarships an Artist Trust program which meant the donations were tax-deductible; our “strategizers,” and finally, the invaluable Carole Fuller, our fellow-organizer and champion of the project who, in the end, couldn’t go to Philly.
We are now beginning to figure out how to raise the next round of scholarship money for Common Field’s 2020 convening in Houston, and our database of artist spaces and arts organizers in Washington just keeps growing. It now stands at 220. We invite you to check out the full list here and meet Washington State artist spaces and arts organizers!
Shortly after we returned from Philadelphia, we received a thank you email from Christopher Paul Jordan, a Tacoma artist who received one of the travel scholarships.
This weekend was unforgettable. Thank you for galvanizing us to connect with our peers across the country. I am moving forward believing in a level of possibility for arts organizing that I never imagined; particularly inspired by the work happening in Dallas Texas and in Puerto Rico, but also reminded how many unique resources and possibilities are rooted in our region. Reminded that anything is possible. Truly appreciate your support in helping open an new chapter of vision and relation.
The note from Chris affirmed the value of strengthening the web-like nature of connections within the fertile layer of artist-centered activity. In our case, the travel between Washington State and Philadelphia resulted in a three-way exchange: getting to know our peers in other parts of the country, allowing artist-centered spaces and organizers elsewhere to get to know us, and getting to know each other and our own resources better. It’s kind of a win-win-win for all of us.