Plaque & tangles and burdens that matter

“You work too hard. You should take time to have fun, to relax and enjoy life!”

This advice from caring friends has been a kind of refrain through much of my life. Especially after turning 70 and venturing into my “eighth layer,” I find that the culture we live in assumes we will, even urges us to, slow down, stop working, or at least stop working so hard. There are many good reasons to do all these things, by choice or necessity and at various times in our lives. And I do slow down … sometimes. While over time my pace actually has changed from time to time, I can assure you that I do have fun and enjoy life. It just might not always look like it.

Over breakfast one morning I was reinforced in my apparently aberrant ways by a New York Times article I’d set aside to read weeks before.1  “Jonas Mekas Refuses to Fade,” it declared. The piece by John Leland is part of a series that looks at the lives of six New Yorkers over age 85 and how they “navigate their life at the upper end of old age in this city.”

I’d known of Mekas since the late 60s, early 70s. From afar, I learned of his life as a filmmaker, poet, organizer of avant garde film showings, and a founder of Film Anthology Archives. His life seemed tantalizing, exciting. Stories from his world fueled my own late-60s interest in the Northwest Filmmakers Co-op, the Seattle chapter of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), and exhibitions of art using new technologies at the Henry Art Gallery.

“Mekas Refuses to Fade” showed that, even now at age 93, Mekas is still going strong. Check out his website, especially his Diary with his short video “Welcome!” at the top.2 In the New York Times article, author Leland writes:

This year [2015] alone, besides the Biennale installation, he is completing work on two books, sorting through several unfinished films, compiling his materials on Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground for an exhibition in Paris, continuing to post video diaries on his website, and trying to raise $6 million to build a cafe and library at Anthology Film Archives, the financially struggling nonprofit institution he helped start in 1970. In between, there have been readings to give, openings and screenings to attend, new friends to meet, old ones to revisit, preferably over wine.

What motivates him to keep moving and working like this? Where does his energy come from? Leland quotes Mekas:

Something is in you that propels you. It’s part of your very essence, what you are. Like, go back to Greeks and muses. How they explained that, the muse enters you at birth or later, and you have no choice. It becomes part of you. You just have to do it.

And a little later:

I don’t feel like I’m working. It’s fun. I’m just doing what has to be done.

From Mekas's welcome to his online Diary
From Mekas’s welcome to his online Diary

The science

So is there any science that might explain why Mekas is more engaged and seems more resilient than we might expect of people at the “upper end of old age”?

Leland wanted to know. So he spoke with Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Like others in her field had, she and her research team “observed that people who felt their life had a goal or purpose showed lower rates of memory loss and other diseases associated with age.” Doyle wanted to know why.

Their long-term study of 1,400 people, started in 1997, was designed to quantify the actual neurobiological conditions in the brain that link a sense of purpose with a lower risk of cognitive impairment like memory loss.3 They examined the brain tissues of 246 people who died during the study. The results surprised them.

alzheimerscasestudy.weebly.com3

Two of the most important markers of Alzheimer’s disease in brain tissue are an accumulation of plaque and what neurologists call “tangles” in the pathways of the brain. The researchers didn’t find any difference in the level of plaque or tangles in the brains of people who had a strong sense of purpose and those who did not. As Lane Wallace in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, put it, “A strong sense of purpose does not, in other words, prevent the accumulation of potentially harmful material in the brain.”4

What the results of the researchers at Rush indicate, Wallace writes, is that having a strong sense of purpose in life, especially beyond the age of 80, can give a person’s brain the ability to sustain the harmful damage of plaque and tangles, and to continue functioning at a much higher level. I like to think of this as our brains’ ability to develop work-arounds; the researchers call it, “neural reserve.” As we learn more and more about our brains, my sense of their amazingness just continues to grow.

Wallace’s piece for The Atlantic opens with a prayer from The Egyptian Book of the Dead: “May I be given a god’s duty: a burden that matters.” Toward the end of her article, she refers to other research (specifically, work by Dr. Carol Ryff, published in the Institute of Aging):

The kind of protective effect that purposeful living offers does not accrue from mere happiness, or what researchers call “hedonistic well-being.” It would appear that humans are hard-wired a bit like working dogs – we may dream about a life of ease aboard luxury yachts, but we are at our best when we are gainfully engaged in meaningful work.

Jonas Mekas told John Leland:

My time is limited, I choose art and beauty, vague as those terms are, against ugliness and horrors in which we live today. I feel my duty not to betray those poets, scientists, saints, singers, troubadours of the past centuries who did everything so humanity would become more beautiful. I have to continue their work in my own small way.

A few more prayers from the same passage in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, are apt:

May I create words of beauty, houses of wonder. May I dance in the gyre and draw down heaven’s blessing. May I be given a god’s duty, a burden that matters. May I make of my days a thing wholly.5

from Dancing with Water

 

 And as a mission statement that Mekas wrote for a friend and that hangs on a wall in his loft says:

Keep dancing. Keep singing. Have a good drink and do not get too serious.

 

««««««•»»»»»»

References:

1.  “Jonas Mekas Refuses to Fade,” John Leland, New York Times, October 16, 2015.

2.  “Diary,” from <jonasmekas.com>.

3.  “Can a Sense of Purpose Slow Alzheimer’s?” Lane Wallace, The Atlantic, May 9, 2012.

4. “Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease and Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age,” Patricia A. Boyle, Aron S. Buchman, Robert S. Wilson, Lei Yu, Julie A. Schneider, David A. Bennett, Archives of General Psychiatry, May 2012.

5.  Egyptian Book of the Dead, a new translation by Normandi Ellis, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2009


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Am I an artist?

Am I an artist?  My inner jury has not reached a decision.

Though I left high school being very clear in my identity as an artist, my certainty got buried over time – not dismissed, just ignored. That identity and many questions triggered by it were tugged to the surface in late 2012, over 40 years later, by Scott Lawrimore’s invitation to create a piece for an exhibition at the Frye Art Museum the following spring. The decision was not an easy one. But many long walks and internal debates later, I agreed.

About the exhibition, Chamber Music, the museum said this:

Each artist created a newly commissioned artwork in response to musical compositions based on James Joyce’s volume of poetry entitled Chamber Music. The artists included in Chamber Music span generations and reflect a broad aesthetic spectrum. What unites them is a shared dedication to artist-generated activities that strengthen Seattle’s arts community beyond their own admirable art practices. Chamber Music is both a celebration of individual mark-making and a cooperative composition about love for the City of Seattle and how artists choose to leave their mark on it.

As a supplement to the thirty-six new works on view, the exhibition includes a living library archiving the artists’ contributions as curators, critics, academics, theoreticians, writers, civic organizers, and founders or members of important artist cooperatives and independent exhibition spaces.

I decided that my contribution – Get up! – would be an investigation in several parts: a wall piece made to fit within the prescribed dimensions, historical documents from and/or for my cubby in the “living library,” and a series of conversations and new writings as further extensions of the work.

Chamber Music, exhibition at the Frye Art Museum
Chamber Music, exhibition at the Frye Art Museum

One of those writings follows below. I was prompted to include it here by recent comments from Martha Wilson, an artist, friend, and unstoppable spirit who influenced me and many others during and long after and/or’s years. (Take a look at Franklin Furnace Archives Inc. to see why). In this essay, I wonder what happened to my artist self over the years. I mention my 1978 disappointment to discover that my artist/organizer peers, unlike me with my internal dialog, did not seem to ask whether their organizational work was an extension of their artmaking. Martha’s recent comments let me know I wasn’t alone after all. Back then my questions had, she said, reinforced her own view of her work. In a recent email, in fact, she lamented that not much has happened since the ‘70s to encourage seeing . . . “artists’ administrative work as an artistic practice – this idea still needs to be shouted from the rafters!” Though a blog post is hardly shouting from the rafters, here’s the piece I wrote for Chamber Music.

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Am I still doing the work I was actually doing then?

The last time I was included in a museum show was in 1975. The Moore College of Art (Philadelphia) invited me to participate in a national traveling exhibition of drawings. They asked me to submit two recent drawings of my own and to invite four other artists from the Northwest to do the same. I chose Cheryl Cone, Bill Hoppe, Chris Jonic, and Ken Leback, who were pleased to be asked and comfortable with the deadline. My response was procrastination. This might have grown from a general insecurity about my drawing, but more important, I was well into a process of shifting my understanding of what my artwork was, from objects to something much less definable, something that involved, I thought, putting situations together – projects, organizations, focused activities. On top of that, and/or (a nonprofit place for artists that I helped found) was barely a year old, and finding time to produce two drawings was not a high priority. So I contacted the exhibition’s curator and told her that while the other four artists were prepared, I was not. I apologized, but told her there would be just eight pieces from the Northwest.

Not so quick, I found. Without my submissions, the other Northwest pieces could not be included; the premise of the show was “artists choosing artists,” and the work of the artist chooser was required. I couldn’t disappoint the other four. So, instead of pretending an interest in working with charcoal or video again, I took the tools I used most at the time, a ballpoint pen and a typewriter (no personal computers then), and attempted to “draw,” somehow, the work I was actually doing. Here are fragments of the result:

PATTERNS

a making possible
the patterns-I-make/work-I-do is functional like a container is functional
but I know that the patterns I make are not neutral – not simply a container for something else
“patterns” is somehow a useful word…designs, forms, scores

PATTERNS I make are not abstract – are patterns of people/artists, work, concerns, activities, energies
They are structures for people/energies/work to use, to happen in, to be supported by­ – encouraged by
It’s important for me to find ways to make sure the people/art/work/energy that moves through, that happens in “my” patterns, retains its own integrity – doesn’t become “mine”

BUT the patterns I make have their own characteristics, are distinctly mine and not anyone else’s
the forms are large, moving, alive, they are between but include people/events/ideas
the visual sense (feel) of forms/patterns: soft edges, slow motion (though containers of rapid, even frantic, activity), porous
I fear the pattern becoming rigid, clearly defined, brittle-sharp
the forms are multiple, diverse…balanced multiple-y, a balance not simply between two
I wish that the form of this “drawing” could resemble the form of the work it refers to

… from “and/or sketch/drawing,”
produced for North, East, West, South and Middle,
an exhibition of contemporary American drawings

I have only vague memories of the actual “drawings” themselves, and I never saw the exhibition. It didn’t come to Seattle and travel wasn’t really an option then. The pieces were lost or damaged somewhere along the tour, and I never got them back. I recently found a folder with drafts of individual pages, bits of text, and old copies of bad photos of one of the pieces. A xerox of my page in the exhibition catalog includes an image of the other drawing, but gives no indication of the text inside the six hanging booklets. At least it had a kind of graphic grace on the wall. Most of the pieces in the show used drawing materials you might expect – ink, charcoal, pencil, crayon – and the catalog essay referred to a “recentering” of drawing. I imagined the disappearance of my pieces as some kind of retribution, not directed by anyone in particular, more by fate or the gods of “real art.”

Bad photo of catalog page, "AND/OR SKETCH/DRAWING," North, East, West, South, and Middle
Bad photo of catalog page, “AND/OR SKETCH/DRAWING,” North, East, West, South, and Middle

In 1978, the first national gathering of “alternative visual arts organizations” took place in Santa Monica, California, attended by fifty-seven organizations, including and/or and the Portland Center for the Visual Arts from the northwest. I was asked to contribute an essay for an accompanying publication. As research, I spoke in advance with many of the artist organizers of other spaces. I wanted to find out what organizational patterns we had developed as “new arts spaces” – how we functioned and what shapes we had taken. I was also interested in the ways our organizations had changed.

An overriding memory from the conversations was of disappointment. I took on writing the essay because I thought it would give me a chance to talk with other artists who were thinking about the patterns of their organizational work. I was surprised that I didn’t find anyone who thought about making the organization as an extension of their artmaking. Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions. They often knew that being artists themselves was important to the work, but in most cases they also seemed to feel that the organizational work took them away from their art, and many of them longed to get back to it. Many worried about their spaces becoming institutions (though some explicitly sought that), while it seemed to me that their organizations followed existing organizational models without thinking much about it. Now, I find it curious that I didn’t write about my dismay. Perhaps I didn’t quite know how to bring it up or, as likely, was insecure about being so alone in my interest.

Especially when I found in my fellow artist-organizers no resonance with my curiosity about our work as artmaking, I just buried the question of my status as an artist. Determining whether the work was art, and by extension whether I was an artist, interested me much less than getting on with the work itself. I’ve never really liked “Is it art?” or “Is that art?” questions. Not only do they tend to be dismissive at least in popular parlance (My five-year-old could do that!), they have always seemed to beg the real question of whether the work (whatever it’s called) has value and if so what that value is. In a fairly conscious way, I decided then that my identity wouldn’t change simply by letting the words drop away. And besides, not making “art” meant I could stop spending time making objects to prove it.

The Frye’s invitation to participate in Chamber Music brings this inquiry to the surface again. It has caused me to dig up and look through old papers and records. It’s been fun reading and even learning from my nearly-40-year-younger self. What changes if I do something as an artist? What lines are crossed? In general I don’t draw lines very well, thinking here especially of lines between my work and the rest of my life.

Perhaps, though, the shift isn’t as linear as that. Perhaps instead it’s more like the apparently simple shift of attitude that can change everything. I’m reminded of David Mas Masumoto in his book Epitaph for a Peach who tells of the day he got rid in an instant of all the crazy-making weeds in his peach orchard. He redefined what was a “weed.”

• • • • •

Adapted from A Pragmatic Response to Real Circumstances, 2006, originally published by the Back Room, Portland, Oregon, now published as a Jank Edition by Publication Studio, also in Portland, and available in the Frye Art Museum Store during Chamber Music.

Part of Get up! for Chamber Music and the Frye Art Museum, 2013.


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and/or — enough structure and enough openness

Last November, Temporary Art Review published an excerpt from a longer essay of mine, “A Pragmatic Response to Real Circumstances,” originally published in 2006. The focus of the piece is and/or, an artist space that I helped found and then directed during its ten-year lifespan, 1974-1984. The publication has a specific focus on “self-organized and artist-centered spaces and critical exchange across the United States and beyond.”

About itself,  the Review says:

Temporary Art Review is a platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities. Temporary is an international network, highlighting both practical and theoretical discourse through reviews, interviews, essays and profiles on artist-centered spaces and projects.

The publication was founded in St. Louis in 2011 by Sarrita Hunn and James McAnally, has a national network of contributors, and aims to decentralize the conversation about contemporary practice by emphasizing the breadth of projects taking place outside of traditional art centers. In fall 2015 it profiled spaces in the Northwest, several each from Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Their interest in the history of artist spaces led them to and/or. I’m grateful for their interest. You can find my piece below and on Temporary Art Review’s site here.


LOGO


and/or, enough structure and enough openness

Space Needle Collection installed at and/or, 1976
Space Needle Collection installed at and/or, 1976

In the early ‘70s a group of artist friends took the name “Seattle Souvenir Service” and attached it to various art projects: actions at art festivals, little books, a growing accumulation of Space Needle memorabilia — plates, ashtrays, pennants, records. It was a very unstructured and convenient alias, which we used sometimes individually, more often as a group.

At some point, for reasons that escape me at the moment, I wanted a more formal structure and my mind was set on a nonprofit organization. I imagined and outlined the cluster of activities the new organization might encompass. First, we’d have a space — for videotape and film showings, performances (experimental music, dance, and theater; electronic music, video performances, poetry readings), exhibitions (work not being shown elsewhere, conceptual and correspondence work, “environmental” or what we’d now call “installations,” the Space Needle collection), special events for women, and workshops, discussions, and parties. Second, we’d have an art services business including production and exhibition services, management advice for organizations (think of it!), and a workshop space that I already had under lease (electronic music, carpentry, storage). And we’d have equipment — video, music, film, chairs.

After laying out the big picture, I was told by Bob Kaplan, an attorney who has given advice to many artists over the years, that all this wouldn’t fit into one legal container; some activities could function under a nonprofit umbrella, but others, he said — the art services in particular — were commercial, profit-making activities. I couldn’t have both. He played a good devil’s advocate role on behalf of a profit-making structure, but I went with the nonprofit anyway. Setting up a legal entity felt much like a game, at least at the beginning. We were playing at being “directors.”

After finding a space, I convinced my dad (who with mom had promised a loan, of equal size no doubt, to each of their children) that starting this place was as good a use of a loan as buying a home (something I didn’t own then, indeed only came to own at age 53). He gave me about $1,500-2,000 up front for labor and materials to remodel the space, and then a monthly amount of $200 for the first year, an amount he cut back incrementally each month after that, to zero at the end of the second year — probably a total of $5,000. Knowing I had that support, I then convinced the city to let me quit half of my full-time job with the two-year-old arts commission, giving me time for the new venture.

Although pretty much the same people were involved, we decided that the “Seattle Souvenir Service” should remain loose, unconstrained by any legal structure. So the new place needed a name. Wanting it to stay open to possibilities, I settled on and/or. A typewritten doodle at the time put it like this:

                                             and/or

                            AND/OR

                                                 and/or

and/or        VIDEOTAPES
and/or        SPACE NEEDLES
and/or       NEW DIMENSIONS IN MUSIC
and/or       ARTISTS’ BOOKS

and/or opened on April 21, 1974, the Space Needle’s birthday.

*****

Two years later, we held a staff show (there were five or six of us at that point) to let our audience see more about who made decisions and ran the place. I contributed Making a Habit, a daily public writing project, posting one new page every day. Since I continued to think about the patterns I made through and/or, one day I wrote:

Somehow it’s fairly easy to see the initial setting up of and/or as an artwork — creating, making the space, making an organization where there wasn’t one before, pulling ideas together that eventually became the programs, the general definition. It’s more difficult to describe the ongoing of it as an artwork… One of the greatest challenges is working with an ongoing form; the “trick” is not to simply have an organization that perpetuates itself, but to have one with life, challenges, risks, and new ideas — that also manages to have a life span.

I’m often involved in finding a very tricky, delicate balance 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.

One concern was how to make a situation, a pattern, that didn’t predetermine the results any more than necessary — giving the participants (artists) the greatest possible chance to develop their own ideas… At the same time I realized that no matter what I did I wouldn’t create a neutral or totally “objective” pattern even if I wanted to (which I often thought I did).

*****

and/or entrance, photo: Alan Lande
and/or entrance, photo: Alan Lande

In 1978, the first gathering of “alternative visual arts organizations” took place in Santa Monica, California, attended by fifty-seven organizations, including and/or and the Portland Center for the Visual Arts. I was asked to contribute an essay for an accompanying publication and spoke in advance with many of the artist organizers of other spaces. I wanted to find out what organizational patterns we had developed as “new arts spaces” — how we functioned and what shapes we had taken. I was also interested in the ways our organizations had changed.

An overriding memory from the conversations, one that didn’t get into my essay, was of terrific disappointment. I took on writing the essay because I thought it would give me a chance to talk with other artists who were thinking about the patterns of their organizational work. I was surprised that I didn’t find anyone who thought about making the organization as an extension of their artmaking. Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions. They often knew that being artists themselves was important to the work, but in most cases they also seemed to feel that the organizational work took them away from their art, and many of them longed to get back to it. Many worried about their spaces becoming institutions (though some explicitly sought that), while it seemed to me that their organizations followed existing organizational models without thinking much about it. Now, I find it curious that I didn’t write about my dismay. Perhaps I didn’t quite know how to bring it up or, as likely, was insecure about being so alone in my interest. Here is part of what I wrote to my colleagues:

As our prestige and reputations increase, as we increasingly have something to lose, it could become harder to take risks, to risk failure, to risk not living up to our own standards. Risks were not difficult when we were fairly invisible. I cannot believe that we’ve learned enough that risks are no longer necessary. We also need to remain fluid and flexible, to anticipate and be ready for change in ourselves, in the questions we answer, in the artists and work we support.

An ability to change seems a crucial part of any organizational pattern, especially a “new” one. It also seems important to find out how our structures have changed over their three- to six-year lives. We should ask what we face now that we did not face initially, how each of our organizations deals with becoming an institution itself, and how we can retain the kind of energy and vitality that got us started.

*****

Good Night and/or A Wake

In 1983, and/or received one of the biggest grants that the National Endowment for the Arts offered to smaller organizations, an Advancement Grant. This program aimed to help organizations with strong artistic programs become stronger organizationally (management, finance, fundraising, etc.). These days it would be called a “capacity-building” grant (look that up on the Jargon Files). The award involved a year’s work with a consultant, the development of a multiyear plan, and then a sizable grant (approx. $25,000) in each of the following three years.

After a failed effort to buy the building that housed and/or, I had one of those all-of-a-sudden moments when a new option opens up. Usually my course of action moves along incrementally, listening, making small changes, being persistent, bringing a good idea back, learning from someone else, helping the direction shift — a little like following a winding path. But once in a while a whole picture comes to mind in a flash, and then the challenge becomes understanding its implications and finding ways to act on it. I decided to close and/or — something flipped over, and closing down became the way to advance.

The idea came in summer 1984, and we celebrated with a big party in October that same year — “Good Night and/or A Wake.” I managed to convince the NEA that we should keep the Advancement Grant and use it to support our existing program divisions so they could develop as independent organizations.

In one of the many pages of notes I wrote to myself and others to understand why this was a good idea and what it meant, I gave a quick historical view: “and/or started as an artistic entity, initiating programs and seeing itself as a unified whole. Then some of its programs began to develop stronger identities and a distinction began to be made between ‘and/or core’ and program divisions (exhibitions, music, library, media arts, a small grants program).” The decision to “end and/or” meant closing down the core, not the divisions. I recommended to the board that this be done very publicly because that would:

  • allow and/or to end, to exist in a particular time period, and to not continue in the vague, unclear way it does now;
  • free divisions to separate themselves from the history;
  • be a good excuse for a party.

Reading those documents makes me conscious of how differently people can view the same events. I respect what’s in all those notes as a slice of the history, though the history is bigger than that. Much tension ran through and/or at the time; it was loaded with internal power dynamics. As an organization, its time had run out; contention and power plays seemed stronger than vision and commitment. “In many ways,” I wrote at one point, “it feels much healthier to put energy into the offshoots, the activities with more focused definition, than to spend a lot of energy trying to preserve or to breathe new energy into the original shell.”

A couple of years ago there was a little burst of local interest in the death of organizations. I was invited to participate in several public conversations — “When Things Die” and “Life and Death.” I became the celebrant of dying. An announcement at one such discussion outlined the three stages of death: “denial, anger, acceptance.” For my part, I amended it to add “chaos, release, rejuvenation.” About and/or I observed:

and/or was not built to last, profoundly not.
Its energy went to doing, not to building a lasting structure.
In the end, it seeded, divided, dissolved its center.
It was allowed to become “myth,” to have a beginning and an end.

*****

This essay is an excerpt from the chapbook, “A pragmatic response to real circumstances,” available from Publication Studio Hudson, originally commissioned and published by the Back Room, Matthew Stadler, editor.
© Anne Focke 2006


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A creative form to match the spirit of Common Field

Anne Focke, August 18, 2017

Is it possible to find a creative form for Common Field – one that is continually renewed by a restless desire for something always alive and always better?

Common Field has a brand-new, very practical legal form. It is now a 501(c)(3) organization. This and other practical structures being created by Common Field’s council, board, and staff will allow the network to operate in the world as it is today. I’m a proud member of Common Field’s council and of the governance team charged with overseeing the process of creating this legal form.

At some point, though, it struck me that legal forms are only one kind of structure that a group of people might create to work together. A second, complementary, and probably necessary, form would take advantage of the imagination that we bring to it as artists.

The words of artists helped me come to this conclusion. One source is a book of essays by Wendell Berry that, coincidentally, I began reading while attending a NAAOconference years ago (mid-1980s, I think, at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago). In one essay, “People, Land, and Community,” Berry describes the faulty assumption that we can ever become smart enough to control the “demons at large.” He wrote:

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

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

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

Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect… 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 begin.

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

A nice follow-on to Berry comes from Martha Graham in an exchange that Agnes de Mille recorded in her memoir, Dance to the Piper. De Mille wrote:

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

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

“No artist is pleased.” 

“But then is there no satisfaction?”

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

 All this is meant to offer an expanded context for developing the legal documents, while maybe removing some of the pressure to get them exactly right. And it sets up a question:  In addition to putting in place the legal framework that Common Field needs simply to work in the world today, can we approach Common Field as a creative form? Can we create a larger form — that is, beyond the legal structure — a form begun and 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, perhaps with something really simple that could be continually adapted over time.

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

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

Notes

1. The full statement of Common Field’s “Core Values” can be found here.
2. Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry, North Point Press,1983.
3. NAAO, or the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, was founded in 1982 and held its last conference in 2000 in Brooklyn, NY. It served many of the same purposes that Common Field has been formed to meet.


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Lost Defenders of the Environment


TheLostDefenders_3-1200x780The Lost Defenders of the Environment calls attention to the 991 documented environmental activists who were killed or the victims of enforced disappearances from 2002 to 2014 in thirty-nine countries. It was created by Mika Yamaguchi, Orion Cruz, and Sarah Jornsay-Silverberg for ARTCOP21, the global cultural festival on climate change that ran concurrently with the Global Climate Change talks in Paris in late 2015. Cruz also participated in the Rising Waters Confab at the Rauschenberg Residency.

While nationally sanctioned monuments traditionally commemorate those who perished in battle, Yamaguchi and Cruz’s Non-memorial recognizes marginalized victims of often secret persecutions, revealing the staggering number of known deaths and disappearances resulting from systemic oppression; traumatic killings that are, in many cases, not recognized as crimes. The Non-memorial is a digital film projection of names.

It is mobile and fleeting so it derives its significance from what it is not. It is not a memorial; it is not permanent; it does not provide closure, nor is it indicative of justice. It can be anywhere because it is nowhere, and it is nothing until leaders/governments make the changes necessary to prevent more deaths of environmental activists.


From the streets of Paris

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•  Mika Yamaguchi is an architectural designer and artist.  She received an undergraduate degree in Psychology from Queens University and completed her Master in Architecture from the University of Toronto, Canada. Aside from designing buildings, she is particularly interested in looking critically at the use of architectural devices and the efficacy of memorials in representing traumatic events.

 Orion Cruz is a lawyer who focuses on environmental law and policy, human rights, climate change, and Latin American affairs.  He has worked on legal cases and campaigns related to human rights and the environment throughout Latin America, attended multiple global climate change conferences, and published articles about environmental issues and Latin American politics.  He is currently based in Hawaii.

•  Sarah Jornsay-Silverberg is an international environmental lawyer who graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School in the United States in 2012.  Since graduating, she has worked on human rights issues related to extractive industries at the international level. She has also participated in local fossil fuel divestment actions near her home in the San Francisco Bay area of California.  She is in Paris this month to fight for justice for the communities that are most impacted by climate change.


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A global cultural festival on climate change


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Most of you who read this are probably following the Climate Talks in Paris – officially named the 21st Conference of the Partners to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 – that started on Monday, November 30 and lasts until December 11.

But you may not yet be following ARTCOP21, the global cultural festival on climate change that began in September and runs through the end of the year, with a focus in Paris. Today its website says that 513 events have been scheduled in 52 countries, 114 of them in Paris. The website has images and information about all of them, included under the tab, “What’s On.” It’s impressive!

On the website, the two organizing groups – Cape Farewell based in London and COAL, the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development, based in Paris – stated their vision for the climate festival. (Check out the Banksy photo on their vision page.)

Climate is everyone’s business. Join the cultural movement towards a carbon neutral, clean future. We need the negotiations taking place during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) to succeed and build a sustainable global culture. Climate change is often seen through a policy or scientific lens, and solutions are discussed only in political offices, boardrooms and negotiating halls. ARTCOP21 launched ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris, aims to challenge those tropes. Climate is culture. What is required is the active engagement of citizens worldwide in the urgency, value and opportunities of a transition away from fossil fuels and the embracing of a greener, sustainable future economy.

ARTCOP21 will connect hundreds of thousands of people to the climate challenge through an extensive global programme of over 290 major events;  art installations, plays, exhibitions, concerts, performances, talks, conferences, workshops, family events and screenings – plus a whole range of people power gatherings and demonstrations – taking place right across Paris and worldwide. We already have events in 34 countries, and momentum grows by the day. All these events will highlight the need for governments meeting in Paris to support strong climate action and signal the end of the fossil fuel era – making climate change a people issue, not one to be left solely to the politicians. We will #FightForTheFuture.

You’ll notice that the number of events and countries has increased since the statement was posted.

This past May, I participated in the Rising Waters Confab at the Rauschenberg Residency, organized by artist Buster Simpson with assistance from artist Laura Sindell and me.

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David Buckland, founder and director of Cape Farewell, joined us for the last of our five weeks there. Several other Rising Waters participants are in Paris right now as well, working on projects designed for the festival – Gretel Ehrlich, Mel Chin, Orion Cruz, and Edward Morris and Susannah Sayler of the Canary Project.

Shortly after the attacks in Paris, David Buckland sent an email to all of us who participated in Rising Waters.

November 18, 2015
Dear Buster and all the Rauschenberg workshop team,

Cape Farewell, with our French partners COAL, built ARTCOP21 as an umbrella organisation to champion all the climate-cultural events happening in Paris and now worldwide. To date over 400 cultural/climate events have been registered in over 46 countries, numbers that way exceeded our hopes. We are the ‘official’ cultural partners to COP21, and we have confirmed with them that all our events in Paris will go ahead as scheduled. This is sadly not the case with some of the government-led events, and the climate march planned for the 29th November is in doubt. Please look at our website www.artcop21.com for all the events listed and for current new items.

Cape Farewell and COAL are determined that we will keep a strong global focus on climate through culture, and that the totally horrible and cowardly murders that happened in Paris last weekend must not be allowed to dominate the climate challenge and the building of a better, more connected, healthier world culture.

We have been giving assistance and continue to do so to Mel Chin and Gretel Ehrlich’s L’Arctique est Paris, plus I have been working with Orion Cruz and Mika Yamaguchi in their great Lost Defenders of the Environment artwork. Staging both in Paris at the moment is difficult, but we are all determined that the presence of both artworks is felt.

Please, in addition, if anyone is staging a climate/cultural art event before the 12th December, sign it up on our web site. It is very important that the powers that be register that the creative sector has a very important place at the climate ‘table’ and that this is now a global movement for positive change.

Forward
David

On November 19, Cape Farewell and COAL posted a statement expressing similar sentiments. “In Response and Moving Ahead” responds to the Paris attacks and states their conviction that a cultural exchange around climate change is more important now than ever.

Here are ARTCOP21 projects produced by Rising Waters participants.


L’Arctique est Paris, The Arctic is Paris

A project created and produced by Gretel Ehrlich, Mel Chin, and the Canary Project.

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A message from Edward Morris of the Canary Project provides an introduction:

Inspired by the activism around the COP21 talks, The Canary Project has been working with Mel Chin and Gretel Ehrlich on a multifaceted project called The Arctic Is.  This project will ultimately result in a website with information on both climate change impacts and actions specific to any location you enter.  Not run of the mill actions like changing a light bulb or buying this or that green product, but rather specific marches, politicians to vote for, groups to join, real culture that you can make etc.

 The main theme of the project is that climate change is not some remote phenomenon. It is everywhere and is happening now.  The Arctic is Paris.  The Arctic is Des Moines. The Arctic is Lagos.  The Arctic is Lima.  The Arctic is Beirut.  The Arctic is your hometown.  The project launches with two events in Paris organized by Gretel Ehrlich featuring in an amazing in-progress film by Mel Chin.

The ARTCop21 website offered this about the second event:

A rare event with elite hunters from the top of the world – a talk on December 6 with Jens Danielsen, Gretel Ehrlich and Mel Chin: putting a human face onto climate change.

The second in a two-part presentation by Gretel Ehrlich and Mel Chin, will be moderated by Neal Conan, and will include a film by Mel Chin, stills and videos by Gretel Ehrlich, talks by featured speakers from Greenland and the Pacific Islands with traditional artifacts from the Arctic and the Pacific Islands. This continues the presentation at La Generale on December 2nd.
This continuing conversation will feature speakers Jens Danielsen and Mamarut Kristiansen from the northernmost town in Greenland, elite hunters from the top of the world. Jens traveled by dogsled from Greenland to Point Hope, Alaska, duplicating the Fifth Thule Expedition, a journey made by Knud Rasmussen in the 1920’s. He is the mayor of Qaanaaq, and a delegate to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Mamarut is one of the great hunters from Qaanaaq and is Jen’s brother-in-law, part of the extended family group that lives and hunts together. He is married to the great granddaughter of American explorer Robert Peary. Jens and Mamarut represent indigenous Arctic people who co-evolved with ice and migrated across the polar north from Siberia thousands of years ago. They will talk about how the demise of sea ice has affected their intact culture, their hunting traditions, their ability to survive, and where they go from here.

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The Lost Defenders of the Environment
An installation and a website, an ArtCOP21 event created by Orion Cruz (Rising Waters Confab participant), Mika Yamaguchi, and Anne van Koeverden. The project website says:

The defenders of the environment are people who are on the frontlines of the struggle to protect what is left of our planet. They are not willing to stand idly by as the environment we all depend upon continues to be ravaged. Some refuse to sacrifice their drinking water and ways of life for the sake of extracting gold from the ground. Others protect what remains of the Amazon from settlers and illegal logging.

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Among other things, the project and website recognizes the names of 991 Environmental Activists killed or disappeared
between the years of 2002 and 2014.

The Lost Defenders project examines the lack of progressive action in response to the global struggle of a harrowing number of individuals, a great number whose perpetrators go unpunished. We attempt to portray that their deaths may just be forgotten if the names of the victims do not become known during the COP21.

Without these defenders business as usual will continue – far too unrestrained to provide us hope that future generations will inherit a healthier and more beautiful planet. For this reason their actions and examples are critical. They remind us of our humanity and our connection to all living things. They remind us that we’re all one. Their struggle was not, and is not, for nothing; it’s for everything. Their actions won’t be forgotten, they will be celebrated.

More information about The Lost Defenders can be found here.


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Unpaid, in spite of their value


What worries you most, and/or excites you most, about the future of work and workers?  Put another way: What will be the most consequential changes in the world of work and workers, and what anxieties and possibilities will they produce?

I was invited to respond to this question with a short essay for a column, “The Future of Work and Workers,” in Pacific Standard, a print and online magazine with a U.S. western perspective and a national readership. The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford asked the same question of business and union leaders, social scientists, technology thinkers, activists, and journalists from around the world. The columns were published every weekday from early August through November, 2015.1  My essay,  “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” appeared on November 3, 2015. An updated and slightly revised version of it follows here.  — Anne Focke, February 7, 2020


Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value

“I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.” Marilyn Waring wrote this in the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. The contributors to this column could have written it now, in 2015.

I’m sure all of the contributors labored over their essays, and I’m certain the columns are of value. They raise questions that matter, offer a wide range of perspectives, identify problems, and suggest directions we might take to find answers, maybe even inspiring us to action. Yet payment was not part of the bargain.

The work of writers and journalists and poets is an essential public good and a fundamental part of civil society. In most cases we work for something more than a financial return. You might say it’s a “calling,” or a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, one we likely consider a moral good.

When Marilyn Waring wrote her book, I was an artist and moved primarily in artists’ worlds. Observing us as a group, I wondered why we didn’t seem to fit into the economy, despite hard and persistent work and the value the art gave to so many. The artists around me made a distinction between the “jobs” that paid their bills and the “work” they felt compelled to do. Although some artists find a niche for their work that pays well, the percentage of income that most artists earn from their art work – that is, not from their jobs of teaching, waitressing, data entry, or bus driving – is nominal.

The distinction between jobs and work serves me still. Although I first saw this scenario among artists, many people do work that’s valuable to others but that goes unpaid or is paid poorly. It’s valuable work, but it’s a terrible job. Work that strengthens the common good – caring for the young and the old, teaching and sharing knowledge, making songs and poems, improving the environment, or engaging civically in our democracy – seems to fall low on the pay scale or outside it altogether. And the increasing inequality of our economic system is making this worse. I’m reminded of another column in this series in which Lydia DePillis asks: “Why should a fast-food cook or a home health aide make less than a machine operator anyway?” To which I’d add, is the work somehow inherently less valuable?

Many of us who work in public service or for the common good care about our work. We often actually like working, especially when it matters in the lives of others. The problem is it’s hard to make a living this way.

Can this ever change? Can we who labor for the common good can find common cause? Can we activate a collective will to be part of finding and fighting for solutions that would let us and others dedicate ourselves to work with purpose and meaning, while also making a decent living – with health care, time off, and savings for when we can’t work?

To find common ground we need starting points. The words and music, images and stories of poets and song writers, visual artists and theater workers can inspire us. Our common ground can draw on knowledge gained in many different lines of work to spark ideas and help put words to what we’ve experienced.

We won’t find common cause in the workplace where workers have found it in the past. The fact is, many of us work in what has been called the “gig economy.” All of us are scattered across distances as independent contractors, freelancers, temporary or part-time workers, and volunteers. How will we find common cause when we don’t have a shared workplace in the conventional sense? Where can we gather and talk, share our anger and frustration as well as our creativity and new ideas? What spaces serve as today’s office water cooler?

As I look around me, I see gatherings already happening in many different kinds of spaces. I hear of more conversations and salons, roundtables and house meetings now than I have in decades. For the most part they don’t emerge from specific workplaces, and they tend to be, like our work, dispersed and unconnected. Some have names, like Soup Salon, Geeks Who Drink, Civic Cocktails, Poetry Potluck, the World Dance Party, Pecha Kucha, Think and Drink, and many more just in my town, Seattle. Others are unnamed and take place in small shared work spaces that we make ourselves in coffee shops, in artists’ shared studios, or in co-working spaces. And yet more take place after work in parking lots and bars and at meetings in living rooms or on weekends in churches and at our kids’ soccer games.

Speaking in Seattle in 2014 about the future of work, Andy Stern – former president of the Service Employees International Union – stressed the importance of aligning our economy with work that’s valuable and needed in society. As one idea, he suggested we find a way to provide a baseline income to people who do this valuable work.2  His closing message was, “We just don’t have a great set of new ideas!” What we need now, he stressed, “is a whole group of people who will come up with a whole new set of ideas for how to do this.”

So where will the ideas come from?

As artists have learned through time, we will just have to do it ourselves, that is, all of us, laboring purposefully and often unpaid. If we come together in many configurations, across different industries and interests, asking questions, arguing, sharing what we know, being inspired to learn more and if we then begin to connect and share with other groups doing the same, we just may find not only the great new ideas but also a revitalized sense of the common good.


Notes

  1. Pacific Standard has archived many these columns on its website here, and I highly recommend reading others as well.
  2. In 2016 Andy Stern published a book on this idea titled, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream.


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An eighth layer

 

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Shortly after I left one of my few “real” jobs, I was invited to be a kind of case study. Yikes! I thought. How do I prepare for that?

It was 2009. Renny Pritikin, museum curator and poet, had asked me to speak to a class in curatorial practice that he teaches at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco…no preparation necessary. He would just ask me questions – poking and prodding. He wanted to get students thinking about the real-life ramifications of their job choice. He wanted them to see another way to live a life in the arts. I would be an example, he wrote, of “someone with the courage to reinvent yourself, to make jobs for yourself rather than passively wait for someone else to hire you for their job.”

It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d reflected on the life I’ve made up for myself, but doing so in the context of a class more clearly raised questions I continue to ask, in evolving variations. What do I have to share and how can I share it? What does it mean to have gotten a living without having a job, and how do I live with some of the consequences? How are lives sustained when devoted to work that is not supported by market or government? Does my arts life affect my work, even when it doesn’t look like art? What are the practical implications of a life in the commons? What does it mean to be 70 and still kicking? How’s the best way to spend these “extra” years, years most people didn’t have 100 years ago and many don’t have now?

In a speech at a dinner celebrating his 70th birthday, Mark Twain spoke of standing unafraid and unabashed on his “seven-terraced summit.” I see it a little differently. It’s not just that I hope not to have reached the summit quite yet. I see my past as a seven-layered substructure that gives me something a little more solid to stand on than I had when I was twenty, a platform for building connections, having conversations, provoking questions, thinking deeply – a foundation for writing, learning, living, loving, and figuring out what to do with all my questions.

While I like thinking of myself as an aging commoner… deep down I aspire to cause a bit of a ruckus, to be une ancienne terrible. I take to heart my own words excerpted from a piece done for the Frye Art Museum in 2013:

Let’s raise up a music of sighs, the pale dew, the veils,
the things that are hard to see, invisible and elusive.
We’ll move in between, connecting as switches acting on genes.
We’ll make shared spaces, soup pots and cauldrons, chambers and rooms.

Get up, get up!
Let’s get going.

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