A form beyond legal structures – Common Field becomes independent

What is the power of a form?

Is it possible to create an organizational form that fosters and embodies values of rigor, experimentation, responsiveness, difference in all its forms, difficult ideas, ground-level work, open communication, listening, collective action, transparency in governance and decision-making, and new forms of equity and power?

These are only a few words and phrases pulled from a longer statement of the core values of Common Field,1 an organizing network that connects experimental, artist-run and artist-centered spaces, organizers, and initiatives nationally.

Common Field began about two years ago, but its roots go back at least as far as the early 2000s. The Warhol Initiative (1999-2012) not only funded small arts organizations but convened them every three years. Sparked at those convenings, the desire for a network coalesced further in 2011 with a conference in Chicago – “Hand in Glove.” This was followed in 2013 by a retreat organized by the network’s five founders and attended by its first founding members. Public membership in Common Field was announced at a Hand in Glove convening in Minneapolis in late 2015.

Until now, Common Field has operated as a program of one of its members. More recently though, it became clear that it was time to be independent, especially in light of the growth of its membership, annual convening, programs, and budget. I’m a member of Common Field’s Council and of the governance team charged with overseeing this process.

Creating a legal structure may not sound sexy or contentious, but Common Field was guided by deeply principled founding members who wanted an organizational structure grounded in the values they believe in, values that the current Council continues to share. I wasn’t a founder and didn’t participate in early discussions, but, as I understand it, there was a justifiable fear that in adopting an institutional form Common Field would also adopt the power dynamics, inequities, and closed hierarchical structure that we see too often in the world around us, whether in for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental institutions. The governance team took this charge head on.

Common Field’s 2017 summer “Field Notes,” put one of our conclusions this way: We are in agreement that, while becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization is imperative, it is just as imperative to model a healthy and evolving example of this organizational form to our network. Martha Wilson – artist, founder/director of Franklin Furnace, and a fellow Council and governance team member with me – gave us wise counsel that we kept repeating in our discussions:

We can’t change the structure of a nonprofit, but we can change how we operate within this legal framework.

The work of the governance team was done with great support from legal consultants and Common Field’s staff and by using such tools as conference calls, shared online documents, and email. At one point in the governance team’s work, we were debating some of the fine points in the proposed bylaws. Perhaps buffered by distance, I took a philosophical side trip in my email response, citing artists Wendell Berry, Martha Graham, and Pauline Oliveros. My email message follows.

Note: My 20-year-old friends find it hard to believe that I actually write this way in an email message. In truth, the original didn’t include footnotes.


A form beyond legal structures
An email message

From: Anne Focke
Re: 501: Updated Bylaws
July 3, 2017 at 11:11 pm

Hi fellow governance folks,

I really appreciate the level of attention that you, Nat and Courtney, are giving this. Common Field will be stronger for your clear thinking. However, I want to take a little side trip before weighing in on the specifics here.  (Apologies…I realize, now that I’m done, that this isn’t exactly a “little” side trip. It’s actually kinda long.)

It strikes me that, as important as they are, the legalities are only one way we might define or express the form we want Common Field to take. A second, complementary, maybe even necessary, way to express its form would take advantage of the power of imagination that we bring to it as artists. The words of artists helped me come to this suggestion.

Some of the words come from a book of essays2 by Wendell Berry that, coincidentally, I began reading while attending a NAAO3 conference years ago (mid-1980s, I think, at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago). In one essay, “People, Land, and Community,” Berry describes the faulty assumption that we can ever become smart enough to control the “demons at large.” He wrote:

The evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve the “human problem.”  

For our purposes here, I’d replace “knowledge” with facts or rules or legalities. A little later Berry says, “It is simply true that we do not and cannot know enough to make any important decision.” He applies this to marriage, farming, and community. I suspect that, for Common Field, it’s also true that, to clumsily paraphrase him, “No legal form can ever solve our human problem.” What I take from this is that, as hard as it is to make a decision the first time, the real work of making it a good decision comes after that, in continuing to understand and adapt it and to make the decision work in the real world.

Then, in another essay, “Poetry and Marriage,” which is more explicitly about form, Berry wrote this:

Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties…are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect…Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it.

Maybe that’s what we’re doing now, writing the first line of Common Field’s pattern (a little corny, but…oh well). And we have to trust that life and our actions together are abundant enough to fill out the pattern that we begin.

This same essay includes other memorable sentences: “It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course.” And another…“The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

A living form, like an organizational structure, will constantly need tending, will constantly find new obstacles in its way. An insight from Martha Graham picks up this thought in an exchange recorded by Agnes de Mille in her memoir, Dance to the Piper. De Mille wrote:

The greatest thing [Martha] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy….

I said, “When I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.” 

“But then is there no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and more alive than the others.”

All this is meant to offer an expanded context for our struggle to write these bylaws, while maybe removing some of the pressure to get them exactly right, right now. And it sets up a question:  In addition to putting in place the legal framework that Common Field needs simply to work in the world today, can we approach Common Field as a creative form? Can we create a larger form — that is, beyond the legal structure — a form begun and continually renewed by a restless desire for something always alive and always better, a container for imagination and aspirations held together by commitment and trust that can take us past the obstructions that baffle us now and through the many obstacles that will undoubtedly baffle us in the future?

The kind of form I’m imagining needs more than legal bonds to hold it together and to release all the possibility inherent in this field. To my mind, the legalities are secondary to the real form we need. This larger form may, of course, partly be expressed in the “non-governing documents” we’ll be drafting next. And these will certainly be important. But perhaps we can also create an image or an action or a text that Common Field could re-stage or renew at its annual convening every year, a kind of ritual maybe. Or it might be something completely different. Perhaps it could begin at the convening this year, maybe something simple that could be adapted over time.

One example, though I’m not suggesting it for Common Field, comes from a 1980s conference about “creative support for creative artists” that closed with a piece by composer/performer Pauline Oliveros. In a bright dining room at lunch time (that is, no soft lights, no candles), Pauline directed us in humming together in an easy-to-follow pattern. That simple act, in unison, seemed to set us up to leave the conference with a larger sense of ourselves as a whole. The experience stays with me still.

The culture we live in today, even more than in Graham and de Mille’s or even Berry’s time, is caught up in, or to my mind trapped by, “metrics,” measurements, and the rational. It’s easy to forget that that’s only one aspect of being human, only one side of what defines our relationships with each other. It would be amazing if, over time, Common Field could find a way to express its non-rational form. It would go a long way to helping it be the singing stream in Berry’s essay.

Whew!  I promise to be concise and rational in my next email.

A big hug to you all!

Anne


About the image

I was happy to find this image . . . it’s layered, both simple and complex, conveying a clear sense of structure that’s natural and pliable, but guided by clear underlying principles – bubbles, that look as though they’re in the process of shifting slowly.

Notes

  1. The full statement of “Core Values” can be found on Common Field’s “About” page on its website: <commonfield.org/about>.
  2. Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry, published by North Point Press,1983.
  3. NAAO, or the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, was founded in 1982 and held its last conference, I think, in 2000 in Brooklyn, New York. It served many of the same purposes that Common Field has been formed to meet.

What is this “Carrying on”?

 

Roget’s Thesaurus offers these synonyms…

 

Q  Why is this website called “Carrying on”? 

Carrying on is what storytellers do when they get going and can’t stop. Carrying on is what grandkids do that creates a din in the living room. Carrying on is what people do when they’re mad or when they have a powerful sense of purpose or when they pick themselves up and keep going. Carrying on is what people lucky enough to live into the upper atmospheres of their lives get to do.

Q  But how does a website have anything to do with carrying on?

“Carrying on” is a prompt to keep me writing, to help me get down to it. Writing is a thread that winds through all the messiness and many directions of the work I’m doing now and have done in the past. Writing has been a way to plan, reflect, report, ruminate, try to understand myself and the world, and make my thoughts hold still before they meander off.

“Carrying on” is a gentle but clear commitment to write. There’s nothing easier than procrastinating when a tough writing puzzle awaits – there are always dishes to do, doctor’s appointments to make (more, it seems, as the years go by), correspondence from friends to answer, errands to run, bills to pay, someone else’s deadline to meet. The truth of Thomas Mann’s words become clearer every day. “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

“Carrying on” is meant to take advantage of what might otherwise be an unfortunate personal trait: I’m much more likely to keep a commitment made to others than one made only to myself. It’s partly out of a desire to strengthen this commitment that I maintain a list of friends, family, and colleagues to whom I report when I’ve added three or four new pieces about once a month. Unwittingly, they – that is, you – are holding me accountable. I’m grateful for your help, whether you know you’re giving it or not.

“Carrying on” gives me deadlines. The end of every month comes with a little shove, becomes a kind of deadline. I feel pressure from my writing-soul when a whole month goes by without my having added anything new. If you’ve been getting these updates, you might notice how often they arrive on the last day of the month. (If you’re not getting them, but would like to, let me know at annefocke@gmail.com.)

“Carrying on” is a place to put writing that’s meant to be read by others. I’m writing in public.

“Carrying on” is a place to put some of what’s on my mind right now. And it’s also a place to put pieces I’ve written in the past that didn’t quite get finished, or need revision, or didn’t have a way into the world. A long trail of half- and almost-completed pieces fill paper and digital folders, and I have many little books full of ideas I want to explore by writing about them.

“Carrying on” may become something of an anthology.

“Carrying on” reminds me that for years I’ve said, “I’ll write about that some day.” I remember my mother saying the same thing. But she never had the chance.

With “Carrying on,” I ask myself, If not now, when?

and continues with these.

 

Postscript:  I’m thinking I should aspire to all of Mr. Roget’s synonyms as I keep on carrying on.


“Carrying on” is part of the Jini Dellaccio Project,
a fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust.

“This is history…and you’re still alive!” – Student reflections on an internship year

An introduction

In which I provide context and describe how the internship came to be.

Wade through history with me.

Since leaving the University of Washington in 1967 as one of its first art history undergraduates, I’ve lived through a lot of history. During this time, I’ve accumulated many boxes of files and ephemera, some of it already in the UW Libraries Special Collections, much of it in my own storage. And all of it in need of culling, sorting, and indexing. You will help me make sense of it. Not only will we learn about archival procedures and working with primary source materials, but we’ll pause as we go through the material to consider what it means, whether it matters, and how it connects with the world we know today. We may also write and host conversations about what we find.

Excerpts from my description of an internship position offered to students at the UW School of Art + Art History + Design for the academic year, 2016-2017

Clearing out my storage unit was part of my plan to make the most of my year as Alum in Residence at the School. The opportunity to work with a student intern would make it possible, and the student would receive course credit for the work. When I began to work through the details with Liz Copeland in the School’s advising office, she asked me, “Well, how many interns would you like?” Whoa! I thought. I’d imagined just one, so I cautiously said, “OK, how about two.”

I interviewed five remarkable applicants that first quarter, and with difficulty selected two … Karen Beech, an art history student, and Jessica Capó, an art student. They continued with me through the entire year and helped me decide that we could handle two more. After another difficult selection process, Zach Heinemeyer (art) and Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon (art history) joined our team in January. Zach graduated at the end of winter quarter, but Lizzie stayed with us. And at the start of spring quarter, Abigail Cloutier (art history) signed on. What a grand gift I’d received with such a team!

The family at Arts Wire, by Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

Rather than tackle my entire storage unit, I chose one project and carted 9 or 10 of the 16 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 on the often tumultuous issues in the arts community during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, congressional debates about arts funding, and the increasing role of “multiculturalism” (the term of the day). Though Arts Wire continued after I left, my involvement, and hence the materials I have, continued until about 1995.

The intern team took up the challenge of inventorying the contents of the boxes with a ferocious enthusiasm and commitment. Even though we didn’t even get through  half the boxes that year, both they and I learned a lot about archives. I now have a better foundation for future work on both Arts Wire’s files and all the other boxes still in storage. We also engaged in many conversations about the material. Among the things we discussed were: How does something like Arts Wire get started? What is an artist? What was life like in the early days of the internet? How has it changed our lives? What is archiving, what’s permanent and what deteriorates? How are our times different from and the same as times 25 years ago, especially for the arts and artists? What is history, when does it start? “This is history, and yet you’re still alive!” Indeed, for this archive project, most of the primary participants are still living and available to answer questions and tell stories that weren’t captured in the files.

The team came to believe that what they were learning is important beyond just the development of an inventory for archives that would go back into storage. As a result, they created ways to share what they’ve learned:

  • They took over the School’s Instagram account and shared their Arts Wire work.
  • They organized an exhibition about the material at Parnassus (the coffee shop in the basement of the UW Art Building).
  • They produced a podcast with 14 episodes consisting of conversations among themselves and interviews with people from around the country (and Bali) who were involved with Arts Wire.
  • They organized, with me, an event in late June at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in the Art Building. It included an exhibition of papers and other artifacts found in the files, accompanied by a well-attended conversation about Arts Wire.
  • And, they wrote the papers that are posted here.

AND_NOW?

All of these Arts Wire programs were presented under the name, “AND_NOW?” The intern team had clear reasons for choosing this rubric for their projects. They discovered the phrase first when they saw it being used as the opening prompt on Arts Wire’s main screen, the Hub. But it came to mean more than that. In a podcast interview with David Mendoza, Karen explained:

We’ve titled our podcast AND_NOW?

“What comes next?” is essentially the question we’re asking ourselves now. We’re trying to draw that link, from Arts Wire and the culture wars and all the things you’re talking about, to the present moment. And you’ve made that really, really clear in this conversation, of how these things do relate to one another and that we are seeing history repeat itself and that we need to be doing something. Right!  Things were done before that had really positive impacts. They helped to waylay some of the damage that might have been done by the political climate of the time, and we’re needing to take some of those same steps now.

Four of the people who worked with me over the past year wrote essays based on some aspect of their experience as interns. They’ve all agreed to be guest authors and to let me post their pieces on this site:

They follow as separate “guest author” posts, and they all demonstrate the value of mixing history and the present.

Other posts about Arts Wire and the Alum in Residence program include:


 

“Time in a Carpet Bag,” Karen Beech

Arts Wire:  Time in a Carpet Bag

Karen Beech

 

 

 

 

Let’s suppose that the universe is a carpet bag. If you’re not already thinking Mary Poppins, it might help. Our carpet bag technically is a limited space but it possesses unlimited potential. Now let’s suppose that Mary has become an avid knitter and has, at some point, started work on a sweater. A rather frumpy sweater that doesn’t have any shape and whose neck hole is a little too small after the first time you washed it (in warm water because you didn’t know any better) and it doesn’t have any pockets. Not that any of these things matter. It’s just to give a sense of the general sweater-ness of the situation being created here.

We’re talking about the universe, in a carpet bag, in order to talk about time (which is our ultimate goal), since the two inevitably go together in our contemporary concept of reality. The pertinent point is that there is a decent amount of yarn in this bag, enough for several attempted knitting projects that never made it to the second line of the instructions because the project just seemed too daunting. The yarn is a crucial component of this discussion; the string is serving as our physical construction of time.

This is less unusual than it may first appear, for we, as a modern society (and indeed for quite some time), have defined time as linear, progressing one minute after another like little soldiers, marching one behind another towards the future, the moving line an arrow through space. Forward the minutes march, onward, onward, onward.

Our string is exactly that—directional, singular—and yet gives us something to hold on to.

The yarn meanders its way around the carpet bag, twisting over itself, looping back, knotting, tangling, and, on rare occasion, existing in untouched skeins. This string, filling the carpet bag of space, is our perception of time (or real time, depending on how you think of these things). The entire purpose of this trip down the Mary-Poppins’-handbag-hole (deeply related to the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland) is to have a sense of time overlapping. We are hypothetically folding time, something that we do relatively frequently. We can, in fact, draw our present moment towards a past moment and touch the points together; one point on the string of time crossing another somewhere in the carpet bag. In order to fold time, one must adhere to a linear progression of time—one must be able to pull two points on a line together, leaving a loop of unwanted (or rather unexperienced) time that hangs useless in between like a bit of unwanted string.

We can, in fact, draw our present moment towards a past moment and touch the points together.

So let’s review our rather unconventional and impractical concept of time, one that has more in common with a toaster oven than a scientific theory. In summary, we have ourselves a carpet bag that represents the universe and a massive quantity of string that represents time. Now, because there are multiple knitting projects that have been riding around in the carpet bag for several skeins of yarn (sticking with the constructed metaphor here), the string has become a bit of a mess. A rather large, colorful, disorganized, tangled mess. For the most part this isn’t a problem (those knitting projects were not being worked on anyway) until we decide that we are going to work on making a sweater.

It is important to note that I am not the one who started knitting the sweater in question. I just happened to rummage around in the carpet bag and get my hand stuck in a project that was already well underway; Anne Focke, and many others, had already been knitting away. Anne & Friends had been knitting a string of time into an Arts Wire sweater long before I arrived. For the fun of it, let’s go ahead and say they were using red string (Anne loves red), and that the present moment is a white string, able to be dyed any color when we have a better sense of what in the world we’re doing.

Anne & Friends had been knitting a string of time into an Arts Wire sweater long before I arrived.

The Arts Wire sweater had continued to ride around in the carpet bag, becoming wrapped up and looped through other strings and other projects, until it found itself subjected to the present moment. Organic confusion and linear folding become one in this conception. Two strings have overlapped, two points in time have come together and, to my great pleasure, since I rather like the Arts Wire sweater, the red and white yarn have been tied together through the Arts Wire files.

What’s the point, you may ask? It’s this: two different points of time, one being our present lived experience (Miss White String), and one somewhere between 1989 and 1995 (Miss Red String, aka Arts Wire), have been stitched together in the interest of a useful object (a sweater, podcast, conversation, personal exploration…).

What is being done now can be understood perhaps as a continuation of the original sweater but is not necessarily in keeping with the original pattern; it is a variation, a shift in the fabric of the sweater itself. The change in temporal moments is clear, with red giving way to white, and yet there is a sense of continuity. A deliberate seeking out of the stitches and an adding on that is intended to highlight, draw-out, and utilize the work that has come before.

The Arts Wire of the past is being knit into the present moment.

Karen Beech received her undergraduate degree in Art History in June 2017 and was a speaker at the graduation celebration for the School of Art + Art History + Design.  With Jessica Capó she worked with me for the entire 2016-2017 academic year. Among other things, she assumed the role of our “on-air” host for the AND_NOW? podcast series.


“A Secret Symphony?” Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

Arts Wire: A Secret Symphony?

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

 

 

 

 


“A Secret Symphony.”
It certainly has a ring to it. Yet, let us step back from the poetry of the statement and ask ourselves a few questions. What did Barbara Earl Thomas, artist/writer/thinker, mean by this, and was Arts Wire really like this at all?

Her vision of the internet and its possibilities is romantic. Her metaphor of music and poetry appears appropriate for an organization such as Arts Wire. The notion of many people chiming together as a united force fits well. Yet, the symphony is secret, perhaps because it is behind closed doors. Barbara implies you might not even know that someone was playing on the instruments next door – after all, the computer was silent.

Nevertheless, her vision for Arts Wire is somewhat contradictory. It proposes a world that is very connected, with “people coming together.” Yet at the same time, they are in “solitary rooms filled with god knows who.” What kind of world is this? Is a secret symphony some sort of anti-social social network?

There was certainly a kind of symphony within Arts Wire. Being “online” meant conversations could happen instantaneously across international and national borders, whatever the distance. Suddenly the world could spin faster; it could actually get on with things quicker. Response time dropped, and people could chime in time, creating a symphony of text voices. In the files we go through as interns, we commonly come across an outburst from an excited user that they “just got online!” – a crash of cymbals, perhaps, in our orchestra theme. Moreover, the connections that Arts Wire managed to create continually added people to the orchestra. For once, everyone was in the same hall, albeit a virtual hall, and could post, edit, and comment to make themselves heard within the orchestra.

There was a conductor at the front, Anne, with her first violins, the Technical Working Group, along with the core staff and a mass of artists, organizations, and other folks taking up the other instruments. As with any orchestra, the instruments varied a lot. In Judy Malloy’s chapter on Arts Wire in Social Media Archaeology and Poetics, she tells how Arts Wire held the “vitality, diversity, and cultural significance” of its individual artists and nonprofit organization members at the core of its collective vision1 (p. 333). There were artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and theater artists chiming in together. Alongside these were the drum beats of critics, arts administrators, and arts funders, such as the NEA.

Arts Wire aimed to “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users”

Arts Wire, according to its mission statement, would “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users” in order, Arts Wire hoped, to “develop for artists a more integral place in society as a whole” (p. 335). At its height, Arts Wire hosted more than 100 websites for artists and arts organizations with links to more than 400 more (p.334). The mission of this collective body was to stand against the tides of the era’s culture wars that were pulling arts communities apart through censorship and restricted funding. The need for arts advocacy, as the founder Anne Focke explains, was great at the time. From our podcast interviews with various members of Arts Wire’s team and through examining the files, it seems that the relationships established through Arts Wire were not always harmonious.

Each person had their own personal interests. One big collision we came across was between artists and funders. We found posts that worried about what material was appropriate for Arts Wire with a concern that funders might see what they were doing and restrict their funding. Put into the context of the culture wars at the time, censorship was a fraught issue. In a discussion of privacy during a recent podcast interview, we interns had to question whether it is even right for us to examine all the Arts Wire material when it was never intended for our audience at the time it was created. So, if we’re part of a symphony, who are we performing for?

Furthermore, being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort. Today it is simple to log on and have access, but in Arts Wire days, one first needed equipment: a computer, a connection (such as Sprintnet), then a modem, which was not always standard with computers then. You needed to pay to be online. You had to able to navigate the system using text-based commands, such as AND_NOW? And you had to have enormous patience for “the *very* slow connection” that Judy Malloy recalls. It was enormously confusing, the equivalent of a cellist picking up a tuba.

When I asked Anne what she found most challenging about it, she told me that, “It was really just getting my head around where I was, what was I actually doing, what’s happening, how was it all working, where is my message going? At the time there was no concept of the virtual world, and that’s really hard to explain to people today when internet use is so second-nature.” Not to mention, there was the difficulty of typing and navigating on a black-and-yellow or black-and-white screen. Clearly, you needed specific skills and imagination to operate in this virtual world.

Being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort.

Immediately one must then think, who had these skills, and how did that affect their presence on Arts Wire? In the files, Arts Wire users complained of “not being able to type fast enough,” or feeling they needed to “read through everything before they even knew where they were or could even contribute to the conversation.” On top of that, people were concerned about their “persona” online: How formal should they be? Who was listening in? Was it even safe? It was at this time that “spam” came into being. (Spam was also present on fax machines, another new technology at the time. On one of our podcasts, former Arts Wire staff member Barry Lasky reported that spam could literally print itself out of your fax machine.)

For all the good the internet does, it’s important to recall that its history, and Arts Wire’s history along with it, is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money to master the tools and the material. Who could play these instruments and meet together in these rooms? And was everyone following the conductor?

Arts Wire was not-for-profit, but one had to pay to be online. For Barbara Earl Thomas to have sent the message above, she first needed a computer. In 1991, a midrange computer with 4MB of RAM, a 200MB hard disk, and 14″ display would cost about $4,300. Cheaper computers were available but none less than $2,000. A considerable expense, would it be worth the money and effort just for a volunteer effort? Then, it cost money to be online. In 1991, a subscription to HandsNet (another early public interest online network) cost $270 annually, not including other connection costs. The costs of using Arts Wire included “choose-your-own” subscription fees of $5-15 dollars a month for an individual or $2,500 annually for partner organizations, plus a monthly fee from MetaNet, whose platform Arts Wire used, and whatever your own local internet service charged, which was usually a charge by the minute. Did the users have to pay these fees? Well, for the majority of users, the answer was yes. This all meant an individual would need to be fairly well off to afford to be online, and it would be more expensive if you were not a fast reader or typist. In fact, we know from Anne’s boxes, that her tactic was to print out posts from online, sign off, draft a reply, and then cut-and-paste it as quickly as possible when back online.

It’s important to recall that the internet’s history is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money.

The fact was that Arts Wire’s user and partnership fees were an important part of its budget, even though it also received foundation support and both in-kind and financial support from its home base, the New York Foundation for the Arts. All of which meant, though, that our Arts Wire community was narrowed to something that, in another context, was dubbed an “elite-internet-culture.” The mission of Arts Wire may have been for artists to have “a more integral place in society as a whole,” but to be an “integral person” on Arts Wire you needed the necessary money and knowledge. Arts Wire’s conversation, its “orchestra,” seems not only to be made up of a special few with access to funds and online knowledge, but each participant could only chime sporadically, not together. They were not in sync, they didn’t keep time. The notion of the instantaneous ‘”chat,” like the emoji we discovered in the files, was truly in its infancy.

Another problem this orchestra faced, as it headed boldly into the computer world, was focus and cohesion. With much enthusiasm, many groups created their own spaces for conversations about their specific interests and to find audiences. Over 80 interest groups were created, according to Judy Malloy. (p. 339). As she notes, this weakened the central place of Arts Wire. The burning fire at the heart of the house was no longer so easy to find. Conversation threads also died out, and their occupants moved away to websites of their own. It was therefore hard to keep up with Arts Wire itself.

This sense of losing track is related to an issue that we interns and Anne spoke about, together and in our podcasts. Today, we face threads from twitter, facebook, tumblr and reddit. It is easy to loose track, to not feel integrated. At the same time, we do not want to feel told that we must live in the virtual world – the anti-social social network.

We do not want to feel we must live in the virtual world
– the anti-social social network.

Sometimes this sense of losing control is not felt just in conversations online but also in the technology itself. Just as today an iPhone 6 is replaced the next year with the iPhone 7, in Arts Wire’s day the technology was also rapidly adapting, and by 1994 the World Wide Web changed Arts Wire’s audience, interface, and outlook. The development of technology, one could argue, even controlled the character, motivation, and drive of Arts Wire. By extension, helping its users continue adapting to the changes would be its greatest challenge. Making sure that if the violin went out of tune, the problem could be fixed without the utter breakdown of the song.

So why did they do it? Why did they bother to exhaust their emotional and intellectual energy learning to use these computers? And what were they getting from it?

Let us set the context. The culture wars under the Reagan administration threatened the funding for the NEA, and the national government did not recognize the full value of artists. The role of the artist in society seemed to be changing, becoming more activist. While Barbara wrote of “solitary rooms,” I think what the artists involved in Arts Wire got was a sense of the wider community and kinship with each other. From our podcast interviews I have picked up on the fact there was a real “family” behind Arts Wire. The reviewer Kenny Greenberg in Internet World observed that, “It is the human spirit that makes Arts Wire special.” For Judy, it was this budding community that made Arts Wire “a lively place” (Judy Malloy, p. 337).

Furthermore, they had to use computers. The pioneers on Arts Wire knew that their world was changing. They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today and indeed continue to. Ted Berger, Joe Matuzak, Tommer Peterson, Judy Malloy, Anna Couey, Sarah Lutman, Barry Lasky, David Mendoza, and many others we weren’t able to interview have not lost contact with each other, and many are still invested in the art and computer world. By 1991, when Barbara was writing, Anne had already established a national steering committee and linked prospective artists and funders together from all over the country. After Anne left, during Joe Matuzak’s time as director, Arts Wire’s reach became international. Overseas communication was now a reality. These connections really were the crux.

So why did they do it? They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today.

In comparison to what had come before, this was astonishing. Here was an online group where people from all over the country and all walks of life were commenting in one place, at a time “when the national arts support was in crisis.” (Judy Malloy, p. 336) In theory, the kinship Anne orchestrated was remarkable. As the conductor, Anne recruited a wonderful team of musicians, even if they did sometimes have trouble with the instruments and keeping time.

What about in my own experience as an intern? I believe that this “symphony” metaphor has played out in our lifetimes. As Arts Wire wrote the manual, reached out to non-users, and helped artists on the way, they were “tuning” the instruments that my generation plays today without thinking about it. Despite its virtual presence, what I have been struck by is the memory of Arts Wire among people today. As an intern, it has been my role with my team to do the work of Arts Wire again, bringing its artists and organizers together, in a kind of reunion (albeit easier to do now) to ask them what happened and how they felt. In doing so, I have made my own connections, with Anne, Zach, Karen, Abby, Jessica, and everyone we interviewed.

In a funny way, we have come full circle, with a desire to create an artistic community all over again. We have joined Anne in conducting the symphony.

Today, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever.

The people we have interviewed have such a strong willingness and enthusiasm that they’ve taught me an important lesson. The art world and the UW art department in particular have a vibe of kinship. I do not believe there is anything “secret” about it. From the start, there was nothing “solitary” about the artists or Arts Wire as an organization. Today with the recent threat to the NEA under the Trump administration, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever. If the NEA were to end, it would not be the end of arts. Creativity is grass-roots and it will find a way. Continuing with the orchestra metaphor, I do believe that the show will go on…instruments in tune, or not.

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon is an undergraduate Art History student who spent a year-abroad program with us this past year and is now traveling the western U.S. on her way home to the University of Edinburgh.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, MIT Press 2016.

“Arts Wire in the Age of Twitter,” Abigail Cloutier

Understanding Arts Wire in the Age of Twitter

Abigail Cloutier

 

 

 

 

If Arts Wire was ahead of its time, nevertheless participation on Arts Wire provided confidence and experience in working online that greatly contributed to the rich and diverse presence of the arts in contemporary Internet.

– Judy Malloy

 

I received an email from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design describing an opening intern position with pioneering alum, Anne Focke. The main purpose of the internship was to create an archive for Arts Wire, a national computer-based bulletin system formed in 1989 for artists, arts groups, funders, and many more to connect online prior to public awareness of the Internet. Meeting with Anne, I was eager to inquire about specifics and learn what it was all about. However, I discovered that my questions could not be fully answered quickly as it would take multiple sit downs with Anne and fellow interns to really begin to digest the work that has been done and, conversely, the work we are doing (or attempting to do) now.

Disclosure: I am still not exactly certain of what it all means. As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire: what it was, what it is, who used it, and what we should do with its findings today. But by doing some research, I gain more clarity bit by bit. Judy Malloy, an early and consistent member of the Arts Wire team, described the platform in her book Social Media Archeology and Poetics: “Before Internet usage was ubiquitous, in an era when every time the technology was mastered, it changed, Arts Wire’s strong presence on the Internet, its emphasis on bringing the nonprofit arts community online, greatly contributed to the early presence of the arts on the Internet.” 1

As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire.

Arts Wire came into being following the 1988 Orcas Conference: Creative Support for the Creative Artist, a gathering of 200 artists, artists’ organizations, and private and public funders all aiming to find fresh ways of supporting artists both locally and nationally. At the time, “logging on” involved a computer, which not everyone had, a modem, and patience with the technological limitations of the time. Arts Wire created a user manual and found itself at the center of the online arts community, connecting artists, funders, and arts groups from very distant points, geographically and culturally.

While I am beginning to grasp what Arts Wire is, I am just beginning the journey of what it means for us today. Joe Matuzak is quoted in Malloy’s book as saying, “In many ways Arts Wire led the way. That meant we made the mistakes, but it also meant there were a lot of times we mapped out new terrain.” The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking. Seasoned artists like Anne, Judy, and countless others lived through this time of exploration. They cultivated a new field and were determined to find solutions to connect and empower artists and nonprofit communities.

The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking.

Contemplating these accomplishments, I cannot help but consider the ease of our own interactions on the Internet today. In some ways, it is a fulfillment of Arts Wire’s vision to bring about instant communication for varying artistic communities. However, if it weren’t for my seeing the internship advertised by UW, I would never have known of the pivotal influence of Arts Wire and other early online networks on websites like Tumblr, or even Facebook. It may take some time to understand all of it, but exploring what Arts Wire was created to be and what it accomplished has given me a broader appreciation for what it means to work for your right to express your opinions, to share critical information, and to remain engaged in a community you care deeply about.

Arts Wire is living history and this is a lesson that we in the age of instant WIFI, simple URLs, and access at the click of a cursor or touch of a screen would do well to read, study, and acknowledge.

Abby Cloutier is a undergraduate student in Art History who will be returning to the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in fall 2017. She was with us just for spring quarter and wrote this piece after being part of the team for only a few weeks. For the rest of us, it was both interesting and useful to remember what it was like to confront this material for the first time.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, the MIT Press, 2016.

“Interning with Anne,” Jessica Capó

Interning with Anne

Jessica Capó

 

 

 

 

This internship started with a conversation with Anne where she asked me what it is that I study. When I told her that I studied art, she asked if I was an artist. I replied that I study and practice art, but I do not consider myself an artist. She mentioned that she felt the same way about her writing. This was my first time interacting with Anne, but I already understood so much about the way that she thought.

When I asked what her medium is, she told me this was it. Creating organizations, projects, etc. This was her medium. At first, this was hard to wrap my head around. I am so used to studying artists whose media are plaster, clay, metal, and oil on canvas, but not organizations. How many organizations and projects could she really have created? It turns out, there have been several, and getting to know Anne is the only way to find this out because of how humble she is about her creations.

Anne’s attitude toward creating new projects and tackling anything head on is inspiring to say the least, and I feel it is a reason why this internship has been able to go so far. It has given me, for instance, several opportunities, such as being able to curate my own show, learning how to run a podcast, and even writing and editing a piece like this one to be posted online. She has taught us interns so much about being an artist that we would not otherwise have gained from our classes at the University of Washington.

I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around.

This internship turned out to be much more than simple archiving, which the initial description of the position implied. I have had the opportunity to learn skills, such as podcasting, that I have been curious about for quite some time. I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around. I have been able to talk to them about the files I have been going through for months on end. Because of our podcasts, I have talked to them about the problems that were occurring at the time and what they felt about it. This is probably one of the most important pieces of the internship to me, because we’re able to create a verbal history of the era.

For many people, the 1980s and 1990s might seem as though they just lived them, but we’re getting to a point where there will be no recollection of the technology they had in those days, like big breathing boxes of computers, dial-up connections, and floppy disks. Being able to talk to individuals who were online so early on and were a part of systems like MetaNet where Arts Wire began is incredibly important. These were some of the pioneers of what arts organizations could have done and built for the community.

It is important to create an oral history, or spoken archive, of such moments in time, especially because of the way this history was built. Almost everything was online or by telephone, and the internet was not yet easily available. It only makes sense to have these memories and moments uploaded for the current internet community to enjoy. It’s hard to imagine a world without these online systems, but that’s just what our interviewees helped us to imagine. What was it like before we were able to type in a simple Google search?

It’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds.

Going through the archives, it’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds. However, that’s why it’s so important to talk to the people who were there at the time and can recall what was happening then. What was it like to live in these moments where the technology was changing so drastically?

This internship may have turned out to be a lifelong project, since I haven’t had enough time to realize just how I have benefitted from it and what exactly I have learned. The exploration with my fellow interns is still occurring, and I don’t know that there is an ending to it quite yet.

Jessica Capó received an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in June 2017. She was one of two interns who spent the entire year with me. Among other things, she became our “techie,” taking responsibility, for instance, for figuring out how to set up a podcast and then being in charge of setting up the equipment each time and hosting us around her dining table because my office at the School was too echoey.


A birthday, simple joys, and a close call

“You celebrated your birthday by telling your friends about a close call with death decades ago? Really?”

This was what I heard when I told a friend about an email message I wrote six years ago. Actually, the message is one I’ve saved and occasionally send to someone new when it seems helpful. It’s not my birthday today, but I’m reminded of  the message because I’ve just sent it out again.


From:
Anne Focke
Date: 
May 6, 2011 12:09:03 PM PDT
Subject: Birthday musing

Birthdays have a way of reminding us of all the people we want to fold in and hold close. I know it’s a little unusual to send greetings to other people on one’s own birthday, but I thought I’d break tradition this time. Since you’re all scattered hither and thither, I’m grateful for electronic tools that allow me to at least throw a virtual loop around you all. I’m so lucky you’re all in my life. A few lines from Denise Levertov’s poem, “Complaint and Rejoinder,” say it well:

…you want to place all of it—
people, places, their tones, atmospheres,
everything shared uniquely with each—
into a single bowl, like petals, like sand
in a pail.…

Today I’m taking time to celebrate the simple joy of being alive, visiting gardens and seeing friends. It’s a cool, overcast Seattle day, crisp and gorgeous in its own way . . . and getting brighter at this point.

My celebration was given perspective by an email I opened this morning. It reminded me how close I came, at one point, to not being here for my day today. The video, “Dear 16-year-old-me,” is all about a cancer I had almost 40 years ago.

The melanoma (superficial, spreading, malignant) appeared on my back and looked like a mole gone a little crazy. There wasn’t chemotherapy back then; they just cut it out. Somewhere I have a little artist book I made about it. I called it “Healing.” The big scar that remains on my back and the pale stripes on my right thigh remind me how lucky I am to be here now. The video suggests sending the link to every 16-year-old I know, and I realized I don’t know many, but I could send it to family and friends who might have kids or grandkids who would. So I send it to you.

It’s an odd birthday greeting, I know, but it’s really about being alive!

Love to you all,

Anne


“We must find a way to stay in the same room.”

January 7, 2011

Can we stay in the same room?

The commons. Public trust. Civil society. 

These words describe big ideas that matter. Once you start paying attention to them, they seem to show up everywhere. But sometimes the ideas they encompass are so big or so complicated, or are used in so many ways by people with such wildly divergent views that they lose their meaning or make it hard to tell where they hit the ground in our real, every-day world.

In a group conversation about where the concept of the commons can be found in our daily lives, Wier Harman, a hero of mine who has managed to keep Town Hall Seattle hopping each year with between 350 and 400 events across a wide spectrum of ideas and culture, first thought of groups that form around pre-schools.

But then he focused on what, given the general direction of his politics, he called the “unlikely,” emotional impact of standing at a Rotary meeting with a roomful of Rotarians wholeheartedly singing patriotic songs together at the start of their meeting. He noted that at work he puts a lot of time and energy into arguing for Town Hall as a space that allows for profound differences.

With his Rotary singing as a backdrop, he added, “We must find a way to stay in the same room.”

• • • 

These words retain the quiet power today that they had for me in 2011. I hang on to the aspiration they express at least as tightly now as I did then. I keep my notes from that conversation handy and find I’m pulling them out more and more often.

The question of how we do it continues to haunt and provoke me.

 


Who is the “public”?

“Wait a minute!” I said. “I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said, “You are the public, and you are the public!”

 

In an interview earlier this year, David Mendoza recalled making this comment. He was referring to a moment in the late 1980s when he was in the midst of a debate about public funding for the arts. Three students – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design – conducted the interview as part of an internship with me, Alum in Residence. We were delving into the history and files of Arts Wire, an online network that started at about the same time as the incident in David’s story. The students decided to produce a podcast series including interviews with intriguing people they found in the files. David was definitely on their list. The hour-long interview, with David in Bali and we in an apartment near the university, covered many of David’s experiences.1 The following exchange took place at the end of the interview.

DAVID: I want to put in one last pitch for public funding for the arts.  Anne, do you remember my pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC”?

ANNE: Oh, I still have a couple, David. I should start wearing one.

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! I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “You are the public, and you are 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 got it immediately, because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.

What public funding for the arts did, what the NEA did, what NYSCA 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. That theater would never have been supported by a Koch/Trump type of philanthropy, though I don’t actually want to include Trump because he’s really not a philanthropist. But people who were known for their 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 it was part of the public.

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! Just make it!

VOICES ON TOP OF EACH OTHER: Just make some!  Yeah!  And… create some. Definitely!

DAVID: I’m telling you, it was amazing. Actually the message is quite, I don’t want to say deep, but profound in a way…patting myself on the back a little, I guess. But I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle], which used to be on Broadway in those days. 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. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce 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. Yeah… it’s just amazing. It doesn’t have to be in the art context, but just in general…what that actually means to people. Just making 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 a reaffirmation of your 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, my opinion is this. 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.

ANNE: When you come back in June or July, David, we’ll give you a new pin.

JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!

DAVID: Yes!  I have one in my little treasured storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.

KAREN: If you had the opportunity to share some advice or to provide some guidance to people who are wanting to be involved now and wanting to be active now, in the current moment, what might you say?

DAVID: I was so devastated after the election that when I left the U.S. last December, people here would ask, “What’s wrong with you?” I really had thought, with the election of Obama, that all the work we’d done had slowly progressed, one step forward, one step back, and onward. I thought we finally had arrived where we’d been trying to get all these years, though of course, there was still a long way to go. And then this sudden turn… I just felt like it had been a waste in a way.

But I’ll tell you what heartens me right now, where I find solace and hope is seeing all these people who are turning up at the town hall meetings of Congresspeople around, in Nebraska and Kansas, that I’ve been reading about, and in Texas. Republicans in Congress are having meetings with 800, 1000, 1500 people showing up who are well-informed, who are angry, who are speaking out. My god, we never had anything like that in those days. We would only have dreamed we could have orchestrated something like that. What’s truly important now is showing up first and secondly opening your mouth. That would be the advice I’d have. Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.

“That would be the advice I’d have.
Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.”

 


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.

• • • • •

NOTE

1 Jessica Capó created a website for posting the series of podcasts produced by the interns from their work with Arts Wire files. There will be about 15 episodes in the final series. They’re posted weekly on Fridays. The site is here., and the interview with David is titled, “Golden Horseshoe.” You’ll find a list of all the podcasts with live links to the audio at the “podcast” tab, and a brief description and additional notes at “extras.”

The podcast production is definitely low-tech, just the make-it-up-ourselves style I love. We gather at Jess’s apartment a few blocks from campus (my office reverberates too much) around a dining table with a small microphone and a cell phone on the speakerphone setting. You might need to adjust your ears a bit.

Final note: You can also read a memoir David wrote about his life since graduating from the UW, here.