goodnight and/or a wake

What becomes history is to some degree determined by what is archived.

These words by artist, curator, and editor Julie Ault are quoted in a description of Field Histories, a series of essays highlighting the value of archives that begins publication this fall. Common Field, a national network of artist-centered spaces and organizers, is commissioning Field Histories to encourage its members to become aware of the value of their archives and to think creatively about the preservation of the materials.

The series has been championed by Martha Wilson – Common Field board member, artist, and founder of Franklin Furnace, a 42-year-old example of an artist-centered space…and a sterling example at that. In her description of Field Histories, Martha observes that, especially when arts spaces blur the lines between disciplines – as in performance art, video, and installation art – the preservation of archival materials can be especially challenging, and when the spaces themselves represent a rebellion against institutionalization, preservation of archives is often a low priority. While acknowledging that “the critical value of archives to historians’ original research is well established,” in the end she says, “We fear that the archives of some art spaces have wound up in dumpsters and are lost forever to art history.” She and Common Field hope these essays can help prevent filling more dumpsters this way in the future.

I’m pleased to be commissioned to write a piece about the archives of and/or, an artist space that operated in Seattle from 1974-1984. Because and/or lived and died in a far off corner of the country before the internet came of age and few Common Field members are likely to know of it, I feel obliged to share a bit of and/or‘s  history along with stories of its archives. The resulting essay follows here and is being published simultaneously on Common Field’s website as the inaugural essay in the Field Histories series.

–  Anne Focke

goodnight and/or a wake

An incomplete story of one organization’s archives

 

Once upon a time we thought we’d put it safely to bed and that we’d freed it to fly into legend. But, then, 30 years later it started stirring . . . awake.

On Halloween 1984, and/or, a ten-year-old artist space, hosted a costume party in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle – “GOODNIGHT and/or A WAKE.” With this party, the organization whose name begged to be completed with another word (some tried and/or “gallery,” others added “studio” or “workshop”), completed its run and closed down. The time had come to make space for other things and to let and/or move into memory.

As part of closing, plans were made to allow and/or’s major programs to spin off as separate entities. Its central spaces were cleaned and vacated, and its files were all boxed up. An artist friend of and/or, Buster Simpson, agreed to let us store all those boxes – about 50 of them – in his studio at the Pike Place Market. In a matter of months, however, he had to relocate and had no room in his new studio for our boxes. Norie Sato, an artist and and/or staff member, and I managed to find space in an empty ballroom a few blocks away, though it, too, was a temporary solution, as the building was destined for demolition.

Norie and I couldn’t imagine continuing to drag 50 boxes of mostly paper from one location to another, but we also couldn’t face the idea of just throwing them away (and in 1985 recycling wasn’t an option). I can’t remember how we got the idea of donating them to a library or how we made the connection with Special Collections at the University of Washington Libraries. But we offered the boxes to them, and they took them all, as is. All, that is, except a few that I held back, thinking they might be handy to have easily available. I could manage to store about ten.

From what I know now, I suspect a transaction like this would be handled very differently today. Special Collections would probably be much fussier about what they accept, and I would certainly be a more knowledgeable donor.

But . . . what the heck was and/or? And why worry about finding a home for its many boxes of files? Rather than write a new summary of its history, I defer to a report written by a 34-year-younger me a few months before and/or closed. It is presented here in a font rather like the one on my typewriter back then, and I underlined the name because my typewriter didn’t come with an italic font.

This history doesn’t give a picture of the actual art that swirled around and through the place – of what it looked or sounded like. One way to fill out the story is to glance through an accompanying list of the individuals and groups whose work was presented by and/or – visual artists, composers, videomakers, performers, writers, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, curators, musicians, playwrights, performance artists, poets, among others. Even with 807 names, the list is incomplete. After it was distributed, we heard from people we’d missed.

Here are just the “A’s” – Keith Abbott, Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, Acme Composer Performers, Paul Ackerman, Ibby Acosta, John Luther Adams, Cathy Aldworth, Jody Aliesan, Jo Harvey Allen, Penny Allen, Terry Allen, Jerri Allyn, Jim Allyn, Max Almy, Renate Altenrath, Beth Anderson, Denise Anderson, Eric Anderson, John Anderson, Mark Anderson, Laurie Anderson, Rob Angus, Ant Farm, Sharon Anthony, David Antin, Eleanor Antin, Jacki Apple, Evan Aresvir, Trisha Arlin, Ed Armstrong, Christoper Arpin, Mary Ashley, Robert Ashley, Sam Ashley, Asian Exclusion Act, Dana Atchley, Daina Augaitis, Natalie Auger, Diana Aurigemma, John Aylward, Alice Aycock, Mary Avery, and A2Z.

from the opening announcement, 1974

It’s not trash . . . yet

So what about all those boxes in the UW Libraries Special Collections and my storage unit?

In recent years, interest has been growing in and/or and in the history of the art, artist spaces, and political/social dynamics of its times, perhaps partly because of parallels that can be drawn with our times today. Interested curators, artists, historians, and others looking for photographs and other material from and/or have come up short. Although the materials at the UW are technically accessible, they’re hard to find and time-consuming to use. In addition, access to information about and/or is hampered by the fact that the organization came and went before the internet came of age, so there’s not much about it online. (A few news stories and other history websites are included in the “References” below.)

University of Washington. In fact, I’m grateful that the UW Libraries accepted and have protected and/or’s boxes all these years, but Norie and I were a little naive when we donated the material. The boxes included multiple copies of documents that we’d love to have now, and, most heartbreakingly, we gave not only prints but the negatives of Norie’s installation photographs. Copies, even of duplicates, come prominently rubber-stamped with University of Washington ownership terms, and prints from the negatives are expensive. (See references below for links to an inventory and Finding Aid for the and/or material at the UW Libraries.)

At the same time, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the materials have sometimes felt locked up and out of reach. After all, it’s the job of archivists to be concerned about preservation, not use. I’ve been advised that if I plan to actively keep using the files I still hold, I should hang on to them.

My storage unit. Until very recently, the and/or boxes I have in storage had been just as difficult to use, though for different reasons. While the boxes were labeled, they hadn’t been inventoried beyond simple box lists I’d created when I first put them in storage. Even with those lists, I couldn’t remember what was actually in them. and/or’s boxes were piled up with other boxes and ephemera from other years and other projects, in no particular order. My pack rat tendencies, perhaps exacerbated by an undergrad art history degree, compelled me to save much more paper than a reasonable person might. Besides stashing it away (and paying to store it), I haven’t paid much attention to it. In general, my focus has not been on my past. I’ve always been drawn to what’s in front of me and what might come next.

Maybe it was breaking through the 70-year-old age barrier that did it, but in the past several years I’ve begun trying to bring some order to the stored files. With help from a handful of UW art and library students, all of my approximately 150 stored boxes that may have historical relevance have been inventoried “to the folder level,” which means the inventory includes the headings on every folder in each box.

I’ve added a page to my website titled, ”It’s not trash . . . yet,” that gives background on how the inventories were created and what they include. The collection is divided into series, and I’m in the process of briefly describing each series and providing a download link to its inventory. (See references below.) The page is public but incomplete, and I’m currently seeking interns for the coming school year to work with both the files I have in storage and also with the and/or material at the UW.

Records and archives of and/or offshoots

The state of the records of and/or’s several offshoots vary considerably, from unknown and “they probably got tossed” to an expertly-organized archive with a classy website. Here are some of the main ones.

CoCA, Center on Contemporary Art was founded in part to fill the gap left when and/or closed its exhibition program in 1981, and it operated with and/or’s fiscal sponsorship until it got on its feet. During its nearly 40 years, CoCA has operated galleries and produced exhibitions, events, artist residencies, publications, and discussions. The CoCA Archives Project is evidence of what can be done with archives, both physically and digitally. The archive was created and directed by arts organizer and planner Anna R Hurwitz. Launched in 2013, the CoCA Archives collection includes printed materials, slides, video, and other materials. Anna, aided by archivists, historians, volunteers, and the support of 4Culture grants, has assessed the collection, begun preserving the material, written a Finding Aid, and digitized posters, videos, and slides. The physical archive is housed and managed by CoCA itself. Anna stepped into my life last fall after she enrolled in the two-year UW Master of Library and Information Science degree program. She has brought an invaluable, archivist’s eye to organizing my collection and remains my go-to person for counsel on my archives project.

Artech, the for-profit company that and/or launched in 1978, was recently purchased by an Australian fine arts handling firm, though Artech’s name and personnel remain the same. The one founding member still on staff, artist Mike Hascall, was commissioned by the new owner to write a history of the company. Not a Straight Line: The first 40 years of Artech Fine Arts Services is scheduled for publication in December 2018 for “in house” use, but with luck it will also be available online. Over the years, Mike has also been “squirreling boxes away,” not letting the records be destroyed. Because he used and organized the records as he wrote the history, Artech’s archive will be in good order when he leaves. Annual reports, which were produced for most years, form the backbone of the history. The archive is still held by the company and hasn’t been donated to an institution.

Artist Trust began as and/or’s program of small grants that spun-off when and/or closed. After much planning and development, it launched independently in 1986. Now, it is a robust state-wide nonprofit in Washington state that supports artists in all disciplines and in many ways. Like Artech, it still holds the organization’s records. Of its archives, Artist Trust’s current director, Shannon Halberstadt, says:

Artist Trust has a treasure of archives, including documents, contracts, publications, and marketing collateral from over thirty years of supporting artists. It’s amazing to dig in the archives and find articles from decades-old Artist Trust publications to share with artists, grant panelists, funders, and stakeholders, underscoring the impact of our work over time. There’s the newsletter with a photo of a young Kyle MacLachlan in his native town of Yakima, or the one with an announcement of Gary Hill receiving an Artist Trust Fellowship award. These archives not only give us a sense of organizational history, they also allow us to reflect and learn about different stages of our organizational growth – lessons we can use and share to further the field of artist support. Seriously good stuff in these archives.

911 Media Arts Center was created from the merger of Focal Point Media Center and the Nine One One resource center, two entities created at and/or’s dissolution. After about 25 years, 911 Media Arts Center closed quietly on August 8, 2014. Former board members, Carole Fuller and Kurt Kiefer, pulled together all the 911 files they could find, sorted through them, returned artists’ media when they could, and put the rest in the hands of a curator at UW Libraries Special Collections. They don’t know the current status of 911’s files within the UW’s collections.

Why go to all this trouble?  What good are archives anyway?

The value of archives to art and cultural historians is undisputed. But the material also has great value as living history, as part of an active, contemporary culture. My recent experience with student interns demonstrates this.

In 2016 I helped create a year-long “Alum in Residence” position for myself at the UW School of Art + Art History + Design. While there I turned a handful of undergrad art and art history interns loose on the records of one of the bigger projects from my past, Arts Wire, an early national online network for the arts, started in 1989. The students began by working on an inventory of what was in the 16 Arts Wire boxes, but quickly began actually reading the documents. This unleashed an interest in a historical time (late ‘80s and ‘90s) that seemed to them relevant today and also raised questions such as, how does something like Arts Wire get started? how did your generation deal with the culture wars? what was the world like before the internet? is making something like this art? when does history begin? The questions came along with a realization that “This is history . . . and you’re still alive!”

Over the course of the year, not only did the students continue plugging away at the inventory, they created two exhibitions, one in the school’s coffee shop and one in its gallery, as well as a 14-episode podcast. For the podcast they interviewed people who’d been involved in Arts Wire from places such as New York, Ann Arbor (MI), San Francisco, St. Paul (MN), Seattle, and from as far away as Bali. It was clear to me that the students wanted to share the history and ideas they discovered, to take what they found in the boxes and move it out into a continuing dialog with their contemporaries and others in physical and digital spaces.

The history they encountered in the archives gave them a tangible point of departure for conversation and shared understanding. Each of the interns wrote a piece at the end of the year. Short excerpts from essays by two students provide insights into the value of the archive experience to them.

This internship turned out to be much more than simple archiving…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. Because of our podcasts, I learned about the problems that were occurring at the time and what they felt about it.  Jessica Capó

At the heart of the experience was building a connection across generations that allowed me to stretch academically and personally… Within the files we found many tantalizing concepts and issues which were (and are) relevant to the present moment. Rather than simply become aware of such continuities, we wanted to work with them and explore the possibilities they offered; the intent was to pull the files into the present and to use them as a starting point for contemporary engagement and understanding.  ­ Karen Beech

This archive, like that of and/or, remains open-ended and incomplete. There’s still work to do to make the material useful and “discoverable,” to use a library term. The archive can still be refined and added to. And through the direct engagement of people like Jess and Karen, 30 or 40 years later, the history in the boxes is coming back to life… the bones are dancing again. It is as if they were awake.

References

About the Arts Wire archive project

  • Archaic Social Media – Arts Wire uncovered,” Anne Focke, Carrying On, February 11, 2017.
  • This is history and you’re still alive!” Anne Focke, Carrying On, July 29, 2017.
  • AND_NOW? a podcast produced by Jessica Capó, Karen Beech, and Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon, February-June, 2017. Choose “Extras” on the menu for brief information about each podcast, including topic and interviewee. Choose “Podcast” on the menu for a simple list of links to each one. They’re each about an hour long.

This essay was possible because of a commission from Common Field and support from the Jini Dellaccio Project, a fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust.

The wise-ager is in

THE WISE-AGER IS IN
(a.k.a. “office hours”)

You’re invited to make a date for a conversation with a wise-ager. That’s me. I’m one of them.

With partners Artist Trust and the Jini Dellaccio Project, I reserve two Wednesday afternoons a month for conversations with anyone who wants to sign up to talk about whatever’s on your mind. We usually meet in person, but I’ve also had great conversations with people in other parts of the country by phone.

All “wise-agers” (accent on the first syllable) stand on at least seven decades of experience. They exhibit traits of both teenager and wiseacre, with splashes of wisdom and wizardry. Wise-agers love to listen and talk about and puzzle over almost anything. You can check the “about me” page on this website to learn more about what I’ve done with my seven plus decades.

Signing up.  I reserve two afternoons a month for these conversations. The times and dates are listed on the “Wise-ager is in” page on this site, here. Once you find a date and time, just send me an email with “wise-ager” in the subject line and note when you’d like to meet. If you’d like, add a phone number and quick note about what’s on your mind. I’d love to talk with you!

Connecting.  We usually meet at Artist Trust, though sometimes we’ve met by phone. We often walk down the street to a nearby coffee shop, or we simply walk and talk. Occasionally, I’ve met at someone’s home on Capitol Hill, and I’ve had conversations with groups of two or more and, a couple of times, with groups of students.

A little background. The idea Is based on memorable conversations I’ve had in recent years with people who wanted advice or just wanted to talk. Artist Trust and I started this experiment a year or so ago without knowing exactly where it would go. Since then I’ve learned that it gives me the opportunity both to meet extraordinary people I hadn’t known before and also to spend time with old friends. The conversations seem to matter to each of us. It allows for the kind of focused time that feels luxurious but that we seldom give ourselves. Each one takes its own course, and the form remains as open-ended as it started.

So, come use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, catch up on our lives, or try out new ideas. These chats are open to anyone.  Let’s talk!

These conversations are possible because of support from the Jini Dellaccio Project, a fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust.


Alice, Alzheimer’s, and special powers

“Alice Anne”

I was named after my two grandmothers, Alice Ross Crawford and Anne Bosworth Focke. My parents liked the sound of Alice Anne much better than Anne Alice, but Alice lived with us for most of my life through high school and having two Alices in the house would be confusing. Whenever my parents felt I needed a strong talking-to, they called out both names. And these were almost the only times I heard them together. So, except as warning or reprimand, I was Anne.

I developed strong attachments to literary and historical figures with each of these names, girls who led colorful, exciting lives. I was called Annie as a kid, and two Annies especially fascinated and influenced me. One was Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and featured in Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which I heard as a girl at San Diego’s Starlight Opera. (Recalling this, Annie’s song, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” is now stuck in my head.) A second seminal Annie was Little Orphan Annie of the long-standing comic strip, who in the background had a protector, Daddy Warbucks, and who foiled evildoers by herself with her dog Sandy.

The most influential of my heroines, though, was probably Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She never seemed afraid and instead was simply curious. She followed the White Rabbit in a hurry and fell down a rabbit hole. She landed in a strange and magical place where she got larger and smaller, swam in a pool of tears, shook hands with a dodo bird, watched Father William balance an eel on his nose, conversed with a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a large mushroom, watched the smiling Cheshire Cat in a tree disappear, had tea with the Mad Hatter and Hare, tried to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and had to testify before the court of the fearsome Queen of Hearts.

I went on those adventures with her while my dad read the stories aloud. Her story and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations provided beginning points for imaginations of my own Although Tenniel’s drawings are the source for my strongest visual memories of the story, I’m sure the characters in Walt Disney’s movie have a role in my memories as well.

Alice, Annie, and Annie taught me the special powers of imagination, believing in myself, and the thrill and adventure of catching evildoers.

My grandmother Alice died after I left for college. From my youngest brother Ross’s brief descriptions of her last years, I now assume she died with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Years later, my mother did also. Looking back on it all now, I’m saddened by how distant I was from gran’s death and in many respects from mom’s death as well. She died in 1997. My brothers Frank and Ross – especially Ross – were the true caretakers of my mom in her last years. They’ve become bright stars for me as I remember their caregiving role.

The few times I was with mom by myself toward the end of her life, I remember wondering how to enter her world of dementia. I felt I had to be carefully present-tense, consider things that were right in front of us, that we could see and touch, not things that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. Being unable to remember yesterday or think about tomorrow made her feel bad or angry and just increased her confusion. I didn’t understand the disease well enough to know that if we’d jumped much further back in time, we might have opened up older, more enjoyable memories for her and for us both.

Perhaps influenced by my Alice-in-Wonderland past, I’ve always found it easy to jump beyond present circumstances, imagining ways of being that might be but aren’t yet. I wondered how I could see my mom’s and her mom’s dementia – perhaps my own in the future – as interesting or useful, or simply as another acceptable way of being. I thought about historical tales of the wise fool, the wisdom of the village idiot, the ancient oracles, or the mystic seer.

Today dementia is an evildoer. At a 2010 symposium of designers and developers of senior housing, a speaker referred to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as the biggest fear of aging boomers, a fear he urged his colleagues to acknowledge.1

What are we losing by not including in our lives – personally and societally – relationships with and insights from people who seem to exist in other realities? Are we losing their special powers in our super-rational world? How do we understand the edges dividing dementia and wisdom?

A year or two ago, I discovered a book by Dana Walrath, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass.2

In Aliceheimer’s, Walrath, a medical anthropologist, graphic artist, and writer, tells the story of her mother Alice’s journey with Alzheimer’s, especially during the two years when Alice lived with Dana and her husband in their Vermont home. In the introduction, Walrath says that the biomedical story of dementia “is in desperate need of revision.”

The dominant narrative is a horror story. People with Alzheimer’s are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer’s was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers – useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good, instead of scary zombies.

Wow, I thought. I’ve been waiting for this. Perhaps this begins to show how to slay the evildoer.

Alice in Wonderland seems to be as important to Walrath as it was to me. She uses Lewis Carroll’s book as an emotional frame for her book. “I found the story’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the page fragments to make her bathrobe, Alice’s favorite garment.” Alice falls slowly down the rabbit hole of her memory loss and disappears gradually like the Cheshire Cat.

Walrath’s book is part of the Graphic Medicine series.3 She chose the graphic narrative form in the belief that it could reach someone with dementia. She writes, “Graphic storytelling captures the complexity of life and death, of sickness and health. Going back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between the visual and the verbal, lets us tap into our collective memory, an essential element of storytelling.” It allows us to “better understand those who are hurting, to feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate social boundaries.” She made her Alice drawings in part “to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence…. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter of that time.”

With a community of help that included pirates, good neighbors, a cast of characters from space-time travel, and my dead father hovering in the branches of the maple trees that surround our Vermont farmhouse, Aliceheimer’s let us write our own story daily – a story that, in turn, helps rewrite the dominant narrative of aging.

Most of the book alternates between graphic and written pages, each two-page spread telling of a day in Alice and Dana’s world.

“Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles, wouldn’t you?”

I’ve heard these questions many times. Repetition. Anyone who lives with Alzheimer’s knows from repetition. As her rudder, I always supplied Alice with the same steady answers. “No, you’re not crazy. You have Alzheimer’s disease so you can’t remember what just happened.”

“Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.”

One story, early in the book, tells of Alice losing her home. The accompanying drawings count Dana’s days with Alice. “Alice is disappearing. Soon there will be none.”

Often the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears; they say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance lets new things appear. Alice found parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. Her years of pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last.”

One of the reasons Walrath moved Alice into her home was “our unfinished business of finding a good close.” They had never been close. In gentle, surprisingly direct ways, they found resolution, “at last.”  After one quiet but deeply felt exchange of apology and forgiveness, Walrath writes, “I knew that if I wanted it, Alzheimer’s would let us have this conversation every single day.”

Alice remembers all the songs from The Music Man and countless others from her youth. The present is more elusive. These days she doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s. But she used to. And she always sings.

One May morning, she stood by my dining room windows, looking out over the rolling field, and she sang this bit from Babes in Arms:

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when.

She stopped and she smiled and said, “That should be the Alzheimer’s theme song.”

Aliceheimer’s.

As a medical anthropologist, Walrath’s broad, cultural and historical understanding of sickness and health reaches beyond the medical system that so dominates the understanding of health in the U.S. today. She writes in her introduction:

Biomedicine locates sickness in a specific place in an individual body: a headache, a stomachache, a torn knee, lung cancer. Medical anthropologists instead locate sickness and health in three interconnected bodies: the political, the social, and the physical.4  The prevailing political economy impacts the distribution of sickness and health in a society and the means available to heal those who are sick. …The social body constructs the meanings and experiences surrounding certain physical states.

Some cultures locate sickness not in individuals but instead in families or communities. As any caregiver knows, we live the sickness too. And while biomedicine can cure diseases, it flounders with permanent hurts, troubles of the mind, states present from birth or that are incurable or progressive. In biomedicine, these states are stigmatized and feared. We medical anthropologists have a term for this: social death.

The role of “social bodies” – that is, communities – in the health of individuals is being discovered and described more and more often. Alzheimer’s is one kind of “social death,” and British writer George Monbiot identifies another. Loneliness and isolation constitute a “disease of epidemic scale today,” he writes in Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis.5 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.” Monbiot is constantly on the lookout for ways to combat this disease. He begins a recent column for The Guardian, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” this way: “It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a new-fangled intervention called community, as results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome [England] show.6

Although Monbiot warned that the findings are based on what he termed “provisional data” – that is, not yet published by the academic press – he also wrote that “this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications.” Results of the Compassionate Frome project, begun five years ago, appears to show that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls dramatically. Sometimes the help took the form of handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs, lunch clubs, exercise groups, or writing workshops. The point was, he said, “to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialize, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.”

When [Alice] was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room and talking with her, she would say, “You see her, don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her, but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her that was enough.

 

What Walrath offered her mother was a way to break the familiar cycle of Alzheimer’s misery. And it’s telling, I think, that Dana and Alice’s “wonderland” – the community they made together – offered gifts to them both.

Notes

1  Robert Kramer, founder and president, National Investment Center for the Senior Housing and Care Industry, speaking at the Senior Housing Design and Development Symposium at the University of Maryland, 2010.

2  Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass, Dana Walrath, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

3  Graphic Medicine book series, from the Pennsylvania State University Press. “Books in the series are curated by an editorial collective with scholarly, creative, and clinical expertise, and attest to a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical’.”

4  From Walrath’s introduction: For more on this see Nancy Scheper-Hughes and M. Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 6-41.

5  George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, Verso Books, 2017.

6  George Monbiot, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” The Guardian, February 21, 2018.

 


Introducing . . . the wise-ager

How do we refer to ourselves, we who are beyond the traditional age of retirement?

For years now, I’ve puzzled and searched for a word or a phrase that seems right – one that’s true enough, easy to say, spirited and with a splash of irreverence. Most terms don’t fit my image of us. If the terms aren’t boring (senior citizen, mature), they’re generally male (codger, geezer) or derogatory (hag, battle-axe). Others feel pretentious if referring to oneself (sage, wisdom-keeper) or are just too sweet (golden-ager).

In a 2011 talk at Town Hall, Mary Catherine Bateson gave me some of my first solid insights into how to think about this phase of life. Almost everyone after age 50 has some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I can name at least one in my life, more if I count near misses. On average we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. The U.S. instituted its retirement plan in 1935 and set the age at 65 when average life expectancy in the United States was 61.7 years. Today, for a woman my age (I’m 72), life expectancy is 86.5 years – not quite 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years yet either. In addition, many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson stressed, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”

If we do live into these extra years, the big question is, what are we going to do with the time? Society isn’t organized to know what to do with us. We hardly know how to refer to this phase or what it’s for. I’m eager to help figure out what this age means, but we need a new word. For now, I’m calling us “wise-agers,” accent on the first syllable.

I mused on the question of terminology in “Gee, you look great!” – a short piece that was prompted by memories of a friend, Helen Gurvich. There I made a short list of nouns, adjectives, and phrases that have been used to describe us, and I included a comment from a friend: “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves recycled teenagers.”

Exactly!

Wise-agers have many decades of experience to stand on. The time we have now gives us a chance to reflect on what we’ve learned, to share it, to mix it up with what we learn from younger people, and to act with the stamina and energy our relative health gives us. Especially given the times we live in, our world needs every source of human energy, knowledge, and action it can get.

Jini Dellaccio, Helen Gurvich, Anne Gerber (photo credits below)

Many remarkable people provide inspiration for how these wise-ager years can be lived. One is Jini Dellaccio, a remarkable woman and photographer whose life and work frame a project aimed to enhance the ability of wise-agers to continue as engaged, contributing members of the community – the Jini Dellaccio Project. There are others. One among them is Helen Gurvich, mentioned earlier. And another, Anne Gerber – a hero and close friend of mine until she died in 2005 – showed me how a wise-ager life could be lived. She was proof, for instance, 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. From her too I learned the simple joy of walking on the beach in the rain.

Thinking back to the wise-ager definition, my favorite root of the word may be wiseacre. I like the edge of sassiness or eccentricity it adds. Defined as “one who pretends to knowledge or cleverness, an “upstart,” or “smarty pants,” wiseacre was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day on August 5, 2012.  Merriam-Webster says,

Given the spelling and definition of “wiseacre,” you might guess that the word derives from the sense of wise as in “insolent” or “fresh” – the sense that gives us “wisecrack” and “wisenheimer.” But, in fact, “wiseacre” came to English in the 16th century by a different route. It derived from the Middle Dutch “wijssegger,” meaning “soothsayer,” “prophet,” or “seer.”

And “wijssegger,” according to the Oxford Dictionaries, probably came from the Germanic base “wit,” that is, knowledge or to know.

Together, soothsayer, smarty-pants, wit, and knowledge – especially when combined with wisdom and wizard – capture something of the spirit that I admire in all three wise-agers I’ve named. If enough of us start using it, perhaps one day “wise-ager” will make a proper appearance in a legitimate dictionary. Perhaps it can at least sneak in as a footnote.

Photo credits
•  Jini Dellaccio, 2012 photo by ML Sutton, with a self-portrait of Jini from the 1960s.
•  A still from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, 2009.
•  Anne Gerber in a travel photo by an unnamed photographer.


The Jini Dellaccio Project – The story of a wise-ager

A fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust to honor photographer Jini Dellaccio

 

A wise-ager is like a teenager, just at the other end of life, apt to cause trouble and give hope. Etymologically, “wise-ager” is related to wiseacre, wisdom, and wizard.                                                                                                    

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project participates in redefining life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. Its aim is to call attention to the real potential of the wise-ager stage of life and to demonstrate the value of using and sharing experience gained over many decades. It believes wise-agers have the imagination and power to be part of making the world a better place while living fully and finding joy in it at the same time. It’s about investigating the potential of the years many of us are given after the traditional age of “retirement,” years many or most people in our parents’ generation didn’t have.

The project is named for photographer Jini Dellaccio who died at age 97 in 2014. She was an exemplary wise-ager. She set her own course and lived a spirited and meaningful life that spanned playing saxophone in a girl band in her 20s during the Great Depression to learning to use a digital camera in her late 80s. Her story grounds the project in the inspiring life of a real person. My peerless co-conspirator in the project’s creation is Sarah Cavanaugh, who knew Jini and stood by her through the final phase of her life.

Years before the Jini Dellaccio Project began, I could imagine the potential of the “wise-ager” life. As these years came closer, though, my high aspirations for how I’d spend them ran smack dab into a practical, financial wall. I couldn’t afford to give myself over to the work I wanted and felt I had the potential to do. Like many others my age, I needed to find a way to keep making a living at the same time. Until then, I’d managed to make up a life that allowed me to be paid for work that mattered to me. That work got harder and harder to find. I know that other wise-agers and I are not alone in this challenge, and I also know that there is a huge amount of work in the world that needs to be done but that isn’t attached to jobs that pay anyone to do it. So, rather than squeeze my “real” work around a patchwork of small jobs, I chose to make up another way to gain enough financial flexibility to do the work that matters to me now. Helping to create the Jini Dellaccio Project is a result.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange rather than a market exchange. It is fueled by gifts that individuals make to Artist Trust, the project’s fiscal sponsor. With the funds collected, Artist Trust pays me through a contract to help define and manage the project and to exemplify a wise-ager life. I treat this as a gift that carries a strong sense of obligation to give back to the community. This gift also offers me a sense of freedom from specific expectations for what the return will be, a flexibility to learn and adapt as I go, with the possibility of giving back something unexpected.

For years I’ve been musing on the history and meaning of gifts and their place in our lives and in our economy today. In the abstract, giving and receiving gifts seems as honorable an exchange as buying and selling a product or service. But in real life, gifts are emotionally charged.

From Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift,I came to understand that gift exchange establishes emotional bonds (it’s a relationship, it’s messy), while market exchange leaves no connections behind (it’s a transaction, it’s clean). One is associated with community and obligation, the other with freedom and alienation. From James Allen Smith, a historian of philanthropy, I learned that “the substantial power of a gift coexists with great potential for harm.” The old Germanic words gift and gif convey both gift and poison.

I believe in the power of gift exchange, in our societal need for gifts as a balance to the marketplace, and in gifts as characteristic of a commons and of civil society. As I took on this project I had to deal with the queasiness I felt being on the receiving end of gifts. But I want to use the language of gifts and not that of investments. With all its messiness, the language of gifts is closer to the values that Sarah and I want the project to stand for.

The whole story of the project and the way it came into the world is much larger and more complex than what’s here. My part of the story began in the middle of anxious nights of financial worry, of shame at not having put together a financial plan for my “retirement,” of losing my familiar cheery self, the one always able to see the sunny side of a setback. I began to get out of this hole when I found the courage to share my anxiety with Jini’s friend, Sarah, the other half of my writing group. In fact, none of this would have happened without her, the project’s co-creator. Her story is different from mine, but our two stories cross and intersect in ways that have changed us both. Another part of the story is the role played by Artist Trust and its director, Shannon Halberstadt. The role of fiscal sponsor isn’t one Artist Trust has played before: legal and fiscal responsibilities had to be clear, mechanics had to be developed, Shannon and the board had to believe in the value of the project. After deliberation and due diligence, though, they did what artists themselves often do, they took the risk.

So, here we are, with one year of the project behind us. When the year started, I wanted to tell people what would come of it. “I don’t know yet” never felt sufficient, even though I knew it was the right answer at the time. So, it feels good now to look back and see what actually happened. A summary of some of the activities in the first year and a few thoughts about what’s next is available online here.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a grand experiment, an exercise in imagination, collaboration, and many tiny details. I’m eager to see what the next two years bring.

September 1, 2017

Note
Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property, 1983. Re-published as The Gift: Creativity and the artist in the modern world , 2007.

 


What can happen in a year?

The Jini Dellaccio Project’s first year

The Jini Dellaccio Project encourages a redefinition of life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. It calls attention to the potential of this phase of life and to the value of using and sharing experience gained by wise-agers over many decades. The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange. I have a contract with Artist Trust to help define and manage the project and to provide an example of a wise-ager life. We are in the midst of the project’s second year. What follows is a report on some of what happened during the first year.

September 1, 2017

 

July 2016 to June 2017

A year of living with this gift had a big impact on the way I used my time. I loved having the open-ended flexibility to learn and adapt as I went without needing to be sure I was paid for what I did. It opened up the possibility that what happened might surprise me, and others too. It freed me up to do much of the work I’m doing now.

Office Hours  Last fall I began offering a twice-monthly schedule of “office hours.” This started as a way to try out my new role, and it continues as an open invitation to anyone who wants to talk with me about anything. Both Artist Trust and I periodically announce the program, and the slots fill up. Anyone interested contacts me or makes a date using an online scheduling app that Artist Trust set up. I wanted the lightest structure possible; the schedule and the name “office hours” are as formal as it gets. Better terms for these conversations might be coffee breaks, happy hours, tea time, or chit chat for trying out someone’s own new ideas or discussing whatever’s on their mind. The stories, ideas, and sometimes dilemmas that people bring range widely. I feel privileged to be brought into their lives this way and never know at the outset what I might have to contribute. I’m often surprised to discover what it is that turns out to be useful. What started as an experiment has settled down to be something I love having in my life.

Like the other activities that have come from the Jini Dellaccio Project, the office hours are not designed to make money. In fact, part of what makes them work is that they aren’t part of a market exchange. No one who schedules an office-hours slot has to start by figuring out if they can afford to pay me, and I can show up with an open mind and no pre-planned materials, ready to discover what’s on their mind and to share whatever seems valuable from my own experience. And the learning is always two-way. We both take a risk and then trust that it will be a good conversation. This allows us a freedom to respond in the moment and take our talk wherever it leads. The spontaneity and our ability to change course would not come as naturally if a meter were ticking.

Alum in Residence  Last summer (2016), Jamie Walker (director, UW School of Art + Art History + Design) and I created a new, year-long Alum in Residence position at the school. I was given an office (a major gift since “real estate” in the art building is dear) and many other privileges of being an official part of the school’s program. Through the academic year, I kept fairly regular hours, visited classes when invited by a faculty member, and organized a conversation with David Mendoza about his life since graduating with a UW art history degree 50 years ago. The largest project I undertook involved working with a small team of interns who sorted through the records of Arts Wire, an early online network I started in 1989. Not only did we inventory the contents of many banker boxes, but the intern team helped bring the material to life and relate it to our world today through two exhibitions – one in the coffee shop, one in the gallery – an Instagram account, essays posted on the web, and a podcast series about what they learned, for which they interviewed people around the country who had been involved.

Jamie went through all the institutional hoops necessary to establish the position, but, given the constraints of the school’s budget, one hoop he couldn’t leap through was finding money for it. The Jini Dellaccio Project gave me the flexibility not to require it. Being unpaid is its own kind of benefit: the position is an experiment, and I was given a lot of latitude to figure out what it could be. I’m also happy that plans are underway to continue the experiment with another graduate. I’m sure the next Alum in Residence will bring to the role their own ingenuity, life circumstances, and past experience.

“Carrying on”  Writing is a thread that winds through all the messiness and many directions of my past and present life and work. As part of the Jini Dellaccio Project, I made a commitment to write – specifically, to regularly add pieces to this website, Carrying on. I consider it to be “writing in public,” meant to be read by others. Like many people, a long string of half- and almost-completed pieces fill paper and digital folders, and I have many little books and odd pieces of paper full of ideas I want to explore in writing. I finally decided that, if not now, when? This project and the challenge to figure out how best to use this phase of life gave me the shove I needed to keep it going. And writing is real work. The truth of Thomas Mann’s words becomes clearer every day: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Grandma Anne  Recently I realized that the Jini Dellaccio Project also made it easier for me to step in and spend time with my grandkids Livia and Henry, relieving pressure on their parents while giving me the chance to be “Grandma Anne.” I’ve often made the case, on behalf of other parents, grandparents, and friends with aging parents, that, paid or not, caretaking is real work. I’ve never believed that work has to be onerous to qualify as real. My time with Livia and Henry is most often full of joy, it’s sometimes invisible, sometimes demanding, but always essential. Having time this last year was especially meaningful because in late August they moved from Seattle to Kansas City.

What’s next?

The coming year’s work is beginning to take tangible shape, but it’s still very much in motion and alive. Among other things, it will play out against the backdrop of the times we’re living in. Our political, economic, and social systems are racked, and I still struggle to find my role in it. I’ll keep writing, I’ll maintain my office hours, I’ll continue hosting and participating in conversations both with others and on my own. I also want to explore whether and how this project might continue after me to benefit others. I plan to keep living as one example of the difference the role and support of a project like this can make, and I’ll approach its next phase with an open-ended attitude similar to the one I started with . . . making it up, alone and with others, as I go.

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project is fiscally-sponsored by Artist Trust in honor of photographer Jini Dellaccio.


“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. Although 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.