During the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of my artist friends and I were embroiled in the fight for artistic freedom. Faced with battles over censorship, federal funding, and what was deemed obscene, immoral, or offensive, we fought for an individual artist’s right to free expression. We held these as fundamental rights of an individual in the public arena. We understood artistic expression as a form of speech, speech that was protected by the First Amendment. Reflecting back on the fights of thirty years ago also calls to mind today’s debates around what has been dubbed “cancel culture.”
One day in early 1991 in the midst of the Culture Wars, I hunkered down to edit an essay titled “Artistic Freedom” by Bruce Sievers, scholar of civil society and, at the time, director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. I’d just been contracted by an association of arts funders, Grantmakers in the Arts, to be co-editor of its publication. I continued in this role for nearly twenty years, but this was the first article in the first issue I worked on.
Especially coming when it did, the essay engaged me in complicated ideas closely related to my activism. It also presented me with a tangle of ideas that were hard to unravel then and, one notion in particular is a puzzle that, thirty years later, challenges me still. Even though it remains unresolved, I suspect that this intransigent puzzle may among other things offer a response to the cancel culture debates.
In his essay, Sievers reported on a GIA-sponsored symposium held in December 1990 based on controversies surrounding freedom of expression in the arts. A central goal of the gathering was to understand the legal and conceptual foundations of the argument defending artistic freedom. The search for a coherent argument, Sievers said, is filled with ambiguity. “Ambiguities about freedom of expression in the arts mirror deeper ambiguities about the nature of free speech and its historical role in the legal and political life of the United States.”
I’ve come to recognize one of these ambiguities in the often-difficult balance between the right of one person to speak and the right of another not to be targeted by harmful speech. One can damage the rights of the other. Legal scholar (later to become dean of the Yale Law School) and symposium speaker Robert C. Post explained that the modern theory of First Amendment protection for threatening or outrageous speech “only began to be developed in the 1930s and 40s as the Supreme Court grappled with the contradictions between protecting the public arena of free speech and protecting individuals from slander and verbal assault.”
A second complicated idea in all this might be described this way: The existence of a neutral public space for discourse is necessary for the exercise of free speech and also gives the speech meaning by giving it an audience. But the value of holding that space open also has to be defended. And that very defense might suspend someone else’s freedom of speech, someone, for instance, intent on closing down the neutral public space through coercive or irrational means.
Both of these ideas required me to hold two competing values in mind without insisting that only one is true. That’s fine. Life is full of ambiguities. I can handle that.
But then he brought up communities.
Buried in Sievers’ arguments is the thirty-year-old conundrum I’ve wrestled since 1991. It came up for me when he introduced “community” into the picture. My experience in the Culture Wars had established a mental framework for the debate around artistic freedom that consisted essentially of two parts, or two “sides” – the individual artist and the public arena, that is, the rights of individuals within the larger society. References to community complicated my framework. “Community” seemed both larger than an individual and smaller than the whole society.
Community was first mentioned in the essay when Sievers drew from Robert Post’s brief history of Anglo-American law and its control of harmful speech – that is, defamation, blasphemy, sedition, and obscenity. This control, Post said, served specific purposes. For one, “it acknowledged and protected community norms of responsible speech (norms that made a particular community possible), thus supporting a vision of community life.”
“Wait just a minute!” I thought. Particular community? What does that mean? The next passage reinforced my confusion and also triggered my curiosity. (Italicized emphasis is mine.) Post argued that modern First Amendment theory…
“…developed a delicate balance between the principle of preserving public space in which public opinion essential to a democratic society can be freely molded and the opposing principle of defending independent communities in which values also essential to a democratic society (such as respect for the individual) can be cultivated. First Amendment protection of a neutral public space acknowledges the peculiarly U.S. experience of many coexisting communities and allows for the proliferation of ‘multitudes of divergent communities.’ It safeguards a sort of marketplace of ideas among these communities.”
“Multitudes of divergent communities” jostling about in a big neutral public space struck me as a powerful image. I immediately liked the idea of defined clusters of people – that is, communities defined by choice, chance, or coercion – each molding their own particular set of values and practices. And I liked the idea of the public space as one where each community tries to influence or change the opinions and ways of others.
Over the years, I’ve attempted to incorporate “the multitudes of divergent communities” into a mental framework that previously included only individuals and the public. I’ve asked many questions of these notions, most of which I haven’t answered with much satisfaction.
In a neutral public space full of coexisting and divergent communities, what happens to the public space when minds and actions are changed? How is the public space changed? Can, or how can it remain open to all communities? What is “neutrality” anyway, is it even real? What happens when change is coerced or destructive? Do we even have a multitude of divergent communities at this point? And what do we mean today by “community” when we live in a physical world that is dependent on a digital world with a fundamentally changed understanding of public space, in “public” arenas that are owned by large corporations?
Thinking back to the beginning of this train of thought, where is an individual and an individual artist’s expression in this picture? What dynamic goes on among individuals inside a particular community? Does a community allow for a parallel proliferation of the divergent ideas of many different individuals? Does the existence of many different communities offer an individual the chance to move from one community to another? Or to belong to more than one at the same time? What happens to an individual alone in the public arena outside any particular community? Where does that individual belong?
Somewhere in the argument for the value of multitudes of co-existing communities might lie a response to the cancel culture debates, though not a resolution of them (homogeneity is not the goal). Could understanding the value of this multiplicity help us learn to accept the ambiguity and challenge of living among communities with different experiences, different values and practices? Do we need the debates and discomfort to allow minds and hearts to change and to give us the will to create a better-functioning democratic society?
Satisfying answers to these questions still elude me. Simply posing them is about as far as I can go right now. Clearly the conundrum continues, getting both a little more complicated and a little more potent all the time.
The essay, “Artistic Freedom,” is in the GIA Newsletter, Volume 2,1 and can be downloaded here.
“Come wade through history with me,” I wrote, hoping to entice students to apply for an internship with me. I’d been appointed to be Alum in Residence at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year and had decided that one way to put this opportunity to use would be to get help organizing and inventorying the many boxes of files and ephemera I’d accumulated over the years. During my residency, five remarkable students worked with me.
Of the many projects that produced the boxes filling my storage unit I chose one and carted nine of the sixteen banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the school. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us during the tumultuous challenges we faced during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, fierce congressional debates about arts funding, and the sometimes contentious rise of “multi-culturalism” (the term of the day).
The students tackled the job with enthusiasm. And they didn’t just inventory the material. As they went through it they also talked about what they found, both among themselves and with me. We considered what the contents meant, whether archives matter, and how what they learned connected with the world we know today. Their interest prompted them to create ancillary projects. Along with two exhibitions, an Instagram feed, and reflective essays, the students decided to produce a podcast series based on interviews with intriguing people they discovered in the files. David Mendoza was on their list.
David is a long-time advocate and activist on behalf of artists and was an important early member of Arts Wire. At about the same time that Arts Wire was gaining momentum, David was leading the charge against censorship as director of the new National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Three of my interns – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – contacted David and conducted the interview. The hour-long conversation – with David in Bali where he now lives and we in Jessica’s apartment near the university – threaded its way through many of his experiences. His creation, in the 1980s, of a button with a message particularly caught the students’ imagination.
DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! Iam the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “Youare the public, and youare the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.
What public funding for the arts did, what the National Endowment for the Arts did, what the New York State Arts Council and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. People who were known for their private philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.”
Everyone who wore that pin was part of the public. I’m telling you, it was amazing. I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle]. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle.
JESSICA: I just want to chime in… Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.
DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it. Just make it!
JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Just helping them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”
KAREN: It’s an affirmation of our own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, it’s only my opinion. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? Even on the scale of the country!
DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.
JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!
DAVID: Yes! I have one in my little treasure storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.
AFTERWORD: At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.
There is a dense layer of artistic activity all over the country that can be hard to see. At times it’s nearly invisible. With some exceptions, this creative activity lies close to the ground, found in many mostly small but dynamic nodes that are sometimes, but not reliably, linked together in informal, web-like ways. This story is about how a fairly isolated, regional chunk of this artistic layer began to make connections with other regions.
Many adjectives are used to describe the activity in this busy cultural arena: contemporary, experimental, noncommercial, artist-centered, independent, DIY, and grassroots. It’s also frequently referred to as responsive, diverse, focused on equity, and politically committed. Although it generally doesn’t get big flashy headlines, the workings of this domain are often well known by and intertwined closely with the communities where it lives. This creative layer shows up as storefront exhibition spaces, publications, residencies, digital platforms, project spaces, community centers, studios, and occasionally as high-profile institutions. It can be found in garage galleries and living rooms, tucked in buildings with unexpected neighbors, on paper in bookshelves and in piles at public events, in privately-run or governmentally-sponsored spaces, as well as in public places on an often temporary basis. Its inhabitants take many legal forms – as nonprofits, informal and unincorporated networks, collectives, associations, noncommercial for-profits, sometimes as artist support organizations, and, in ever-increasing numbers, as individual and independent organizers, often artists for whom this work is an extension of their art practice.
The key to all this activity is the central role taken by or given to artists, and, in fact, many endeavors that populate this realm are created by or run by artists. Often the organizational form itself is part of the work and includes efforts to bring together artists, art, various publics, communities, and organizations in ways that lead to all parts being integral to the whole. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the terms artist spaces, arts organizers, and artist-centered as stand-ins for the wide variety of forms this energy takes.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s when this arts layer wasn’t as thick as it is today, I helped create and run an early example of this activity in Seattle, an organization named and/or. Over its ten-year life and/or gained a national reputation that decades later, in 2015, led to my becoming a member of the founding board of Common Field, an organization that aims to connect and empower this nationwide, multi-various network, this “field.” Common Field’s largest program is an annual gathering of the network, the Common Field Convening. It welcomes artist spaces and arts organizers from anywhere in the country to attend. The most recent convening, held in Philadelphia this year, attracted over five hundred participants from 32 states.
In Seattle and Washington State today, the world of artist-centered activity is just as dense as it is anywhere else, but until now it has had few connections with its counterparts elsewhere. It has felt like a far-off corner of the country. My direct experience in this world is decades old, and Seattle artist Matthew Offenbacher has been my main guide to what’s happening in our region now. Matt says of himself, “I seek constructive, positive positions at often difficult intersections of individuals, communities, and institutions.” His work ranges from painting, writing, and object making to exhibition making and community organizing.
Matt and I wrote the following story collaboratively in response to an invitation to tell the Common Field network how we began the process of building relationships with others across the country. The piece was posted on Common Field’s website.
Did you wonder why there were so many people from Seattle and Washington State at the Convening in Philly?
In 2017, Courtney Fink, executive director of Common Field, visited Seattle for a community meet-up at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Fifty or so organizers came together in the gallery at the University of Washington’s art school to network, share ideas, and learn about Common Field. However, despite the good conversation and energy generated, the meeting didn’t result in many new members or Convening attendees. In fact, at the Convening in Los Angeles that fall there were just three of us. We three were very excited by our experience and thought: more people from Seattle must go!
Our theory was that travel and time costs were the limiting factor. Like many places, visual art in Seattle relies heavily on grassroots and DIY organizations, often run by artists. This creates a landscape that is culturally rich and dynamic, but also incoherent and perpetually underfunded. High costs of living make it difficult for artist organizers to find time to write grant proposals, raise money, and work on administrative tasks. Also, there’s a pernicious civic attitude that emphasizes entrepreneurial competition over collective effort and mutual support.
To try to get more people to the 2019 Convening we hatched a plan to raise money to award ad-hoc travel scholarships. We asked for help from a group of four to five “strategizers.” These were people from organizations that might be supporting partners of the scholarship and who had fundraising and community organizing experience. Our strategizers encouraged us to think big, suggesting we raise money for three years of scholarships, with 10-20 recipients each year, and expand the range from just Seattle to encompass the entire state. After some back-of-the-envelope figuring, we decided scholarships in the amount of $1,000 each would cover travel, lodging, and expenses.
We made a lot of spreadsheets! There were lists of potential individual and institutional donors and lists of every artist-centered project and independent artist organizer we knew of and ones we didn’t but who were suggested by other people. We wrote information sheets explaining the project to donors. One effective argument came from a survey by one of our partner organizations, Artist Trust. They found that among Washington State artists, one of the highest self-identified needs is making connections outside the area. From the other direction, we learned from Common Field that artist spaces across the country don’t know what’s going on in Seattle and Washington.
Perhaps of less interest to our donors but important to our own sense of the project was trying to expand what is valued in our communities. We think a strong art community is one that values a robust network of artist-centered initiatives. This has seldom been the case. Directing donor resources to these initiatives – often marginal, temporary, peculiar, and community-specific – is an issue of artistic excellence as well as one of racial, cultural, and social class equity. We ended up thinking about how we could use Common Field, beginning with a travel scholarship program, both as a way to connect our locality to a national network and also as a focal point for local organizing that explores our common interests and collective power.
We began pitching possible donors and realized that while the project seemed to us like an obvious win-win for everyone, it was less clearly so to some donors. We hadn’t been clear enough in describing the double-win of local arts organizers meeting national peers and artist spaces elsewhere learning of the vitality of our region’s artist-centered work. We revised our pitches and kept at it. In the end, a private donor gave us funds for five scholarships, our county arts agency (4Culture) put in for another five, another private donor supported two, and four other donors supported one each. We had enough for 16!
A three-person committee selected the recipients using our long list of organizations and organizers as the starting point. There was no application. Awardees first heard from us when we sent them a congratulations letter. In a field where crushing cycles of submission and rejection are the norm, receiving support in this way seemed to make people feel especially buoyantly “seen” and appreciated. At all points in our process, we tried to minimize time and aggravation for the awardees. There was minimal paperwork. We paid in advance. Some scholarships were awarded to individuals and some to groups, and we told the groups to use whatever process they liked to decide which individual(s) to send. There were no strings attached other than that they use the money to get themselves to Philly.
Two groups that were selected decided to split the money between two people in their group. So all in all, the scholarships supported 18 Washington State folks to go. The enthusiasm convinced even more folks to go: Charlie Rathbun (4Culture, King County’s arts agency), Rick Reyes (City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture), Shannon Halberstadt (CEO Artist Trust), Sarah Faulk (curator), Margie Livingston (Soil), Mariella Luz (artist and member of Artist Trust’s board), and Emily Zimmerman (Jacob Lawrence Gallery). And of course the two of us were there, too. No wonder it seemed like Washington folks were everywhere at the Convening!
We’ve held two follow-up get-togethers since then: a small one in a home so that artist-organizers who got scholarships and donors who helped them to go could meet each other; and a second larger public one, a sort of mini-convening, where arts organizers could meet each other and discuss ideas that inspired the people who went to Philly. This meeting was sponsored by the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultureand held at their new facility above the downtown train station.
A huge team of people rallied with us to make the scholarship program possible: the donors to the scholarship program (4Culture, Edie Adams, Sarah Cavanaugh, Marge Levy, the Glen S. and Alison W. Milliman Foundation, Judy Tobin, and Merrill Wright); Artist Trust’s board who made the scholarships an Artist Trust program which meant the donations were tax-deductible; our “strategizers,” and finally, the invaluable Carole Fuller, our fellow-organizer and champion of the project who, in the end, couldn’t go to Philly.
We are now beginning to figure out how to raise the next round of scholarship money for Common Field’s 2020 convening in Houston, and our database of artist spaces and arts organizers in Washington just keeps growing. It now stands at 220. We invite you to check out the full list here and meet Washington State artist spaces and arts organizers!
Shortly after we returned from Philadelphia, we received a thank you email from Christopher Paul Jordan, a Tacoma artist who received one of the travel scholarships.
This weekend was unforgettable. Thank you for galvanizing us to connect with our peers across the country. I am moving forward believing in a level of possibility for arts organizing that I never imagined; particularly inspired by the work happening in Dallas Texas and in Puerto Rico, but also reminded how many unique resources and possibilities are rooted in our region. Reminded that anything is possible. Truly appreciate your support in helping open an new chapter of vision and relation.
The note from Chris affirmed the value of strengthening the web-like nature of connections within the fertile layer of artist-centered activity. In our case, the travel between Washington State and Philadelphia resulted in a three-way exchange: getting to know our peers in other parts of the country, allowing artist-centered spaces and organizers elsewhere to get to know us, and getting to know each other and our own resources better. It’s kind of a win-win-win for all of us.
Apparently, you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there. — Edit DeAk
In mid-1974, before I knew many people in that city, I made a trip to New York. One of the few New Yorkers I knew beforehand thought I should I meet Edit DeAk and suggested I go to a party in her loft. My friend had been invited but couldn’t go and assured me it would be OK. So I went alone.
DeAk’s loft was on Wooster Street above the Paula Cooper Gallery, up several long flights of stairs. Although I arrived to find the loft crowded with people, I received what struck me as a surprisingly open and friendly welcome. Meeting DeAk in her loft that evening began a periodic bi-coastal friendship and introduced me to a vibrant New York art world I hadn’t known before. Among other things, I became a dedicated subscriber to Art-Rite, a journal DeAk had co-founded a year earlier as an alternative to established art magazines of the day. Though DeAk and I lost track of each other over the years, her 2017 obituary in the New York Times threw me back to those days and reignited my interest in her.
Edit DeAk was born in Budapest in 1948, fled Communist Hungary in 1968 in the trunk of a car, and went almost directly to Manhattan to leap into the art world. And leap she did. William Grimes, who wrote the NYT obituary, called her “the doyenne of a downtown New York art world that was a playground for many a nascent movement and ideology.”
One of the most satisfying finds in my search for stories about her was an engaging essay by David Frankel, “On Art-Rite Magazine,” published by 032c magazine in 2005. Frankel recalled that he met DeAk in 1981 when he was newly on the staff of Artforum. “Edit regularly danced by [to see then-editor Ingrid Sischy]. She would hurry through the office, laughing, vivid, bright-clothed, Hungarian, making herself briefly focal…” He added that while she was “intimidatingly glamorous,” he was “struck by her generosity and by an endearing modesty that runs through her general flamboyance.” No doubt this generosity is what I felt in that loft when I first met her.
DeAk founded Art-Rite with two fellow Columbia University students, Walter Robinson and Joshua Cohn. Its goal was to provide “coverage of the undercovered,” to focus on art at the margins: performance art, video art, conceptual art, and outsider art. The magazine was written, edited, designed, typeset, published, and distributed out of DeAk’s and Robinson’s downtown lofts between 1973 and 1978.
Frankel’s essay began with a 1974 quote from DeAk about the beginnings of Art-Rite:
We were riding on the absurdity of the situation—that we were three nobodies, had no money, had no fame, and didn’t know anybody in the art world. But it was perfect—we were totally free.
The magazine’s design, reported Frankel, was “stylish and plain at the same time.” It was printed on newsprint in the editors’ belief that the low-cost process would help deinstitutionalize and demystify the esoterica it contained. In its time, wrote Frankel, Art-Rite “must have been startling in its colloquial informality.”
“An important aspect of Art-Rite,” said DeAk in her interview with Frankel, “was a whole new tone and attitude. It was unheard of to have a sense of humor at the time, or not to be talking about ‘the problem’ of art – the problem of this, the problem of that.”
Discovering these stories helped me understand why I felt such a kinship with DeAk in a way I didn’t put into words at the time. It wasn’t her glamorous side, and I lived too far away to be part of the downtown New York art scene around her. As I read, I found phrases that helped explain the connection I’d felt – Frankel’s term “colloquial informality,” his description of Art-Rite as open and democratic, her own words describing the journal as “a restless but friendly, constantly evolving entity,” and especially her desire to “deinstitutionalize” the magazine.
Shortly before I met DeAk and about a year after the first issue of Art-Rite was published, I was one of a group of artists who started an artist space in Seattle. We named it and/or. Rather like Art-Rite, and/or “presented the underpresented” – artists whose work included video, installations, performance, new music, conceptual art, and art writing. We hosted artists, curators, composers, and writers from our region and beyond, DeAk among them. Knowing of and/or may have been part of the reason our mutual friend thought DeAk and I should meet.
As and/or developed, I regularly worried about the dangers and impact of becoming an “institution.” It felt sort of like a dirty word. In 1975, I wrote:
One of the greatest challenges is working with an ongoing form; the “trick” is not simply to make an organization that perpetuates itself, but to make one with life, challenges, risks, and new ideas… balanced between giving enough structure, stability/credibility to assure a continued existence, and giving enough openness, flexibility, free-ness to allow for real growth, surprise, significant work and change.
This worry once came up in a conversation with DeAk, perhaps during her visit to Seattle. We talked about our respective organizations, and her words stay with me still. Though she was barely managing to keep Art-Riteafloat, within just three years she was starting to hear people refer to Art-Riteas an institution. “Apparently you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there,” she said.
As it turned out Art-Rite didn’t survive long, if “survival” is understood in conventional terms. It folded after only five years. and/or lasted longer, but we closed its core operations after ten years.
Lately my thinking about the challenge of balancing risk and openness with continuity and stability has gotten more complicated. I know there’s a place for reliable, slow-moving, barely-changing institutions designed for the ages. There’s also a place for organizations that develop lighter-weight, flexible structures but with enough focus on management systems that they can last through many ups and downs, though maybe not forever. But there’s also a vital place for organized collections of people who stay together for a while, who direct all their energy and resources to taking a particular action or accomplishing a specific mission in response to immediate circumstances, and then just go away.
About twenty years after and/or closed, I was invited to talk about it in a discussion of birth and death. To prepare, I wrote these observations:
and/or was not built to last, profoundly not. Its energy went to doing, not to building a lasting structure. In the end, it divided, seeded, dissolved its center. It was allowed to become “myth,” to have a beginning and an end.
In my imagination, closing and/or would release the energy of its community and of the artists involved, allowing the energy to take new forms and pop up elsewhere.
According to the reports I read, Art-Rite went through a similar metamorphosis. After the magazine folded in 1978, DeAk’s spirit and energy did not slow down and, at least for a while, showed up in other places. As an art critic, she contributed to Artforum, Interview, ZG, and other art publications. Trey Speegle, in a WOW Report column announcing her death, noted that she continued to be “a downtown fixture in the 80s NYC art scene that loved and revered her.” Gallerist Massimo Audiello began his own remembrance by writing, “Downtown NYC is in TEARS!!! One of our most shining minds is gone.”
Even though her health sidelined her for the last two decades of her life, her impact and her spirit continued on in people who knew her. Speegle wrapped up his column with this:
She really was one of those vital sorts who introduced, connected, inspired, and informed. She was a creative conduit. I’m still kind of not believing she’s not going to post some poetic comment on Facebook and say, “Hey, I’m not there now, I’m here.”
I think again about DeAk’s words – “Apparently, you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there” – and I want to play with them. How about this: “Apparently, survival isn’t simply about being an institution, it’s about being there.”
What endures doesn’t have to be as tangible as brick and terracotta or metal and steel. Myths and memories of individual and collective activity may seem ephemeral, but they can have a tensile strength that lasts. Even long buried and apparently forgotten, they can pop up again to be rediscovered, to again inspire something new.
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.
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.
My introduction’s epigraph comes from Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985, an anthology edited by Julie Ault and published in 2002 by the University of Minnesota Press.
The “goodnight” poster was designed by Wilkins & Peterson with illustration by Gary Jacobsen and copywriting by John Koval.
“It’s not trash . . . yet” Anne Focke, archive reference page on the website, Carrying On. All the boxes I hold in storage are organized into series. and/or files are found in the “073” series, in boxes numbered 031, 032, 033, 034, 035, 036, and 112. Related files are in these boxes: 103 (Artist Trust), 108 (culture wars, NCFE, etc), 109 (NAAO), and 114 (a few things from CoCA). This inventory can be downloaded by clicking on the 073 series link.
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.
Commissioned for an exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in 2013, “Get up!” was the first artwork of mine to hang on the wall of an arts institution since the 1970s – the Moore College of Art in 1975 and the Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1978. Without it being a conscious plan, “Get up!” gave me or identified for me a theme that runs as a kind of refrain through my life, at least since then and probably for years before that. Get up, get up!
Each of the 36 commissioned artists worked with one of 36 poems in a 1907 collection of poems, Chamber Music, by James Joyce . . . or more correctly, we were asked to make a work on paper (10.5 x 14.5 inches) inspired by a piece of music based on the poem. In the flurry of having to get my piece done in a short time, I ignored or forgot the musical aspect of the assignment and went straight to the poem. There were other layers to the exhibition and to my contribution, but the poem and producing something for the wall had to be my first focus.
Scott Lawrimore, deputy director of the museum at the time and curator of the exhibition, suggested “Chamber Music XIV” for me. The final line in the four stanza poem is, “Arise, arise!” As I read it, a young lover (with Joyce as author, I assume a male narrator), is trying to get his love, his “beautiful one,” to get up. And he’s having a hard time of it. I can almost hear a little irritation as he repeats his request – “arise, arise” – three times in the sixteen short lines. Here’s a stanza from the original:
The odorous winds are weaving
A music of sighs:
My dove, my beautiful one!
Scott’s surprise invitation to participate was a gift, even as it rattled my world for a few days while I tried to decide whether or not to take the project on and if I did how I would. It began a shift in my understanding of who I am and how I want to get things done, an understanding that’s always changing and continues today as I stubbornly keep asking myself what’s my place in the troubled but hopeful world we live in today. As I say in my own Chamber Music text, I regularly make that demand of myself, “Get up, get up!”
Seasonally, I share my apartment with lady bugs. The 1908 building I live in “breathes,” according to a contractor who did some work for us a few years ago. For one thing, he said, this has kept structural elements inside the walls dry and free of rot. For another, I’m sure the “breathing” has provided easy access for my small red visitors. There aren’t many tiny critters I enjoy living with, but having fallen in love with lady bugs as a child, they are welcome in my home now. And occasionally they teach me something, like this busy lady bug who, even in silhouette, reminds me to keep getting up. See her demonstrate here.
The odorous winds are blowing.
Get up, get up!
From the printer, Miss Cline Press (Ana Karina Luna): “Get up!” text was “letterpressed by hand using linseed oil ink from photo polymer plates onto Arches River BFK 100 lb. paper using a 1870 iron manual platen press. Paper torn by hand. Printed in an edition of nine, plus newsprint proofs.”
Karina also printed my calling card, designed by Warren Wilkins, the upper half of which appears below and in the banner of my website, Carrying On. My characteristic “a:” is also imprinted in the lower right-hand corner of “Get Up!” As I’ve told Warren, he gave me the best “a” logo on the internet. Just try to find a better one!
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,1 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
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.
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 AnneRecently 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.
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.
With seven decades under me, I want the chance to reflect back on the past I’ve known and to imagine forward to what might yet be by learning from others – young and old, here and there, alike and different, artists and others.
The years I’ve lived have given me a many-layered foundation, built slowly over 70 years, an aggregate mix of success and acknowledgment, failure and loss, gaps and continuities. The foundation is a strong but supple underpinning that offers something steadier to stand on than I had when I was twenty, a ground for making and strengthening relationships, for continuing to make a living and a difference, for being curious, being mad, being silly, for listening, loving, thinking, writing, acting up, and continuing to dream.
I want to share what I’ve accumulated and see if it’s useful beyond myself. I want to use the past as a springboard for my curiosity and for new connections and ideas. I’d love to inspire others to do the same, to use the foundations we’ve built to make things better.
Get up, I tell myself. Get up! Let’s get going!
On turning 70, I became clearer than ever that my time is limited.
So, if not now…when?
I have so many questions.
What do we, who are 70 and beyond, do with the extra years that modern medicine and knowledge have given us? How do we mix past and present? How do we, as an ever-larger percentage of the population, answer these questions and make a difference today?
How is the nature of work changing? How is the economy around us changing? Can we be part of imagining a different future?
How can we live together with all our differences? What can we do to strengthen the common ground that seems to be getting lost?
What can we learn from artists’ experience of work, or of aging, or of the common good? How are artists adding to wider community conversations? What more can we do?
I want to provoke new attempts to find answers.
In an eighth decade, what patterns can I make? What new ways can I move? I’m still trying to change the world.
I want to use my old-fashioned, old-fogey ways and mix them up with sometimes hard-for-me-to-understand new ways: new technologies, new ideas about the social world, new understandings of the natural world.
I’m eager to bounce ideas around with younger people. I want to be a novice again.
I want to be a spur, a spark, l’ancienne terrible – though this personality type doesn’t really sound like me.
I’d love to figure out how to call myself. It seems we’re often asked for a few words to identify who we are. I’ve never had a good answer. So, at this point, am I . . .
A vintage instigator?
An antique inventor, rabble rouser, catalyst?
An always curious old codger? (Can women be old codgers?)
Or maybe, a seasoned listener and observer who’s been around the block – more than a few times?
I want to keep making it up.
I want time and a charge that asks me to go back to the little piles of notes and ideas left behind at times in my life, notes that are now stacking up in storage, to think about them one more time, to clean them out, pass them along, or at least recycle the paper.
Jonas Mekas, now 93, put it this way: “My own personal work was done in pieces. Now all those pieces are crying out to be completed. I’m obsessed with finishing them.”
The spirit of making it up – of life and work as an experiment – has run through my life from the start, from organizing marching majorettes in high school, to making art, creating an artist workshop at a television station, helping start formal and informal organizations, networks, and conversations, and, just last year, helping to create, fifty years later, a new alumni-in-residence program at my college alma mater.
I want to keep living an experiment, where the results are unknown and possibility is wide open.
Note: The first “Making It Up” was posted on November 28, 2016.
Finding a creative form in the yeasty chaos of people working together to make something new
Suppose you’re part of a group trying to find the right form to structure your work together. You share a vision. You’ve had some success. You have interested followers. Now it seems you need some kind of legal structure so you can operate in the world as it is. But legal forms come with limitations.
How far can you stretch a legal form? Or put another way, can you operate within a legal organizational form in nontraditional ways? Or perhaps even better yet for the purposes here, can you imagine a parallel but equally defining creative form that expresses the spirit and soul of the body of people working together?
To be more specific, suppose the group of people wanted a structure that embodied and fostered 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. What then?
This list of values includes words and phrases pulled from a longer statement of the core values of Common Field, an organizing network that connects experimental, artist-run, and artist-centered spaces, organizers, and initiatives nationally.1 And the questions are ones the network struggled with.
“Common Field” is the name eventually given to an organizing effort with roots stretching back before the name, at least as far as the early 2000s. The organizing began in the interactions among participants in a cohort of small, artist-driven organizations from across the U.S. funded in part and periodically convened by the Warhol Foundation. Sparked by these gatherings and through the vision, struggle, imagination, negotiation, tension, commitment, and lots of plain old hard work by cohort members, a network began to coalesce. Its form became visible through a national conference in Chicago (2011), a retreat in Saugatuck, Michigan (2013), a national convening in New Orleans (2013), and another in Minneapolis (2015) where Common Field as a member network was first announced. I wasn’t part of the founding cohort, but in 2015 I was invited to participate in the organizing.
Throughout these first years the network had an energetic but fairly amorphous form. Legally, it operated under the fiscal sponsorship of one of its member organizations. Having often participated in what can feel like the murky chaos of people working together to make something new, I was comfortable functioning outside a formal structure. I liken times like these to the dynamism of an estuary where, with fresh and salty nutrients, new life emerges.
Toward the end of 2016, it became clear it was time for Common Field to become independent, especially in light of the growth of its membership, its annual convening, programs, and budget. I was a member of the governance team charged with overseeing this process.
Now you might think that creating a legal structure is rather boring, certainly not dicey 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 board continues to share. Not being a founder, I didn’t participate in early discussions, but as I understand it there was a justifiable fear that in adopting an institutional form Common Field could also be adopting the power dynamics, inequities, and closed hierarchical structure that we see too often in the organizational world around us, whether for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental. The governance team took this charge head on.
A summer 2017 newsletter 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 governance team member – 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.
At some point, in the midst of a governance team debate about fine points in our proposed bylaws, I took a mental side trip. Legal forms, it struck me, are only one kind of structure that a group of people might create to inform their work together. A second and complementary form could take advantage of the imagination we bring to it as artists. In fact, the words of artists helped me come to this conclusion.
In his 1983 essay, “People, Land, and Community,” Wendell Berry describes the faulty assumption that we can ever become smart enough to control the “demons at large.”2 He wrote:
The evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve the “human problem.”
For our purposes here, I’ll replace “knowledge” with facts or rules or legalities. A little later in the same essay, 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 about Common Field’s legal framework now, the real work of making it a good decision will come later, in continuing to understand and adapt it and to make the decision actually work in the real world.
Then, in another essay, “Poetry and Marriage,” which is more explicitly about form, Berry wrote:
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… 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. And we have to trust that life and our actions together are abundant enough to fill out the pattern that we’ve begun. This same essay includes these 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…The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
A living form, such as 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:
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 the governance team’s struggle to write 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 or parallel to the legal structure — a form begun and periodically 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, to release all the possibility inherent in this field. To my mind, the legalities are secondary to the real form we need. Perhaps we can 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. Perhaps it could begin at the convening this year, maybe something simple that could be continually adapted over time.
An example, though I’m not suggesting it for Common Field, comes from a late 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 to hum 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 an invaluable gift if over time its members constantly refashioned a creative form that expresses Common Field’s non-rational, unmeasurable spirit and soul. This would go a long way to helping it become the singing stream in Berry’s essay.
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 called Voronoi tessellations in mathematics. I know very little more about them, but this image of bubbles demonstrates Voronoi principles in nature — bubbles, that look as though they’re in the process of shifting slowly, maybe downstream.
Common Field’s website address is: commonfield.org. The full statement of its core values can be found here.
Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry, published by North Point Press, 1983.