Common Field – Finding a Form


How do groups of people who come together around a shared purpose organize themselves? The purpose might be to hold an annual community feast and holiday celebration, or to exchange knowledge about how low-income communities can gain more control of their own futures, or to manage a common resource like a cooperatively-owned apartment building. It can seem that only a few organizational structures are available, and, indeed, it often makes sense to fit our activity into commonly-used legal or financial frameworks. But doing so can also seem to require the twists of a contortionist,  take huge amounts of energy, or risk losing the original purpose. Are there more choices?

I recently had a chance to consider this question when the Temporary Art Review invited me to write an essay in response to a gathering that brought together artist-centered spaces, organizations, and organizers from across the country. The meeting I attended was one of three that operated under the name “Hand-in-Glove.” The three together have generated momentum for a new national network called Common Field. 

As I reflected on my experience at the gathering and on the emergence of the network, I was impressed by the struggle and soul searching around what form Common Field should take. This questioning triggered my essay in which I consider whether the ancient form of the Commons might be a useful organizing framework. The essay, “Finding a Form,” was published on November 23, 2015 and can be found at the Temporary Art Review here and also below.


Finding a Form

On site HIG photo


Common Field
is a new network connecting the visual arts organizing field – experimental, noncommercial contemporary arts organizations and independent organizers in the US and beyond. It broadcast its official launch across the internet by email and social media, and invited broad membership on November 5, 2015. The network recognized itself and came to life through three national gatherings, all presented under the name, “Hand-in-Glove” – 2011 in Chicago, 2013 in New Orleans, and 2015 in Minneapolis. Common Field was officially launched at HIG in 2015, and this became both the third HIG and the first annual convening of Common Field.

In mid-2015 I was invited to serve on the Common Field Council, which gave me the chance to attend the event in Minneapolis. Although plans for the network were well underway by the time I got involved, I’ve had the opportunity to witness and participate modestly in its formation.

A caveat before proceeding: My focus here is the organizational form of Common Field because these forms are one of my own obsessions. Much more can be and is being said about Common Field, both the convening and the network – about the art and the people, about the purpose and content that makes the form even worth considering. Of course, purpose and content should resonate with form, each giving rise to and informing the other over time.

-Anne Focke

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Our desire was to support “a process and practice that is decentralized, non-hierarchical, rooted in trust, and committed to the support of new and vulnerable practices.”     

– Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson
Lead organizers, Hand-in-Glove 2015

Like other groups in my life right now, Common Field struggles to find or articulate its form. Is Common Field an organization? A network? A process? An organizing platform? An idea? What form would be most useful? What form does it have already, or even what form did it have before it was “Common Field”?

Before I dig more into its form, I borrow something about who Common Field is from Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson, lead organizers for Hand-in-Glove 2015. With HIG, they said, they wanted to reach a field that encompasses “alternative, experimental, noncommercial, unidentified, under-recognized, radical, tenuous, precarious, resistant, vital, emergent, artist-centric, artist-run, artist-led spaces and organizations, projects and practices, ideas and commitments.”  It’s a field full of commonalities and differences, testing its boundaries, trying out its various relationships, and beginning to see itself in new ways.

However its form is defined – network, platform, organization – Common Field knows, collectively and intuitively, that it encompasses an energetic field of people and organizations that resonate with each other, even while bristling at some of each other’s unspoken assumptions. Everyone who attended HIG in Minneapolis saw, heard, and felt the presence of that field, powerfully. At times, attempts were made to articulate what it is we hold in common and how we want to hold it.

The nature of Common Field’s form is clearly on the minds of the people who have been its main stewards so far, but everyone in attendance at HIG was encouraged to consider what shape it should take, both in a session set aside for this purpose and throughout all three days. In a welcome to the whole group on the first evening, Common Field co-directors Courtney Fink and Stephanie Sherman told us that Common Field aspires to be “a network that suits our times – one that is experimental, includes both the emerging and the established, is held together with common threads, and is easily collaborative and inclusive.” Many discussions and questions about that aspiration were raised during the course of our time together.

What is this field? What do we share? What are our self-definitions? What I heard at HIG was usually full of ambiguity and questions. The “field” is hard to define, which is both a strength and a weakness. How can Common Field reach and include people outside formal nonprofits – collectives, informal groups, artist projects, social ventures, commercial entities? Can the structure we create be fluid rather than institutional? What’s the balance between sufficient management and letting the energy find its own shape? And, how can we balance the value of leadership with the desire for decentralized power?

The need to push back against or move beyond the institutional systems and structures available to us was palpable. I could also hear it in the desire for a light-weight structure that can shift and move easily, one that is more horizontal, inclusive, and collective. Common Field itself is not incorporated at this point, but operates as a fiscally-sponsored project, which for some makes it feel less pinned down, less constrained. “We want simple structures that engender trust.”

All the while, of course, in the world at large, a debate is being waged about whether power should rest with government or with the market. Many are beginning to express the belief that these two don’t offer enough choices and that we need new systems. This search for options is certainly not exclusive to the arts or to artists’ worlds.

The commons as an option

Other systems are available. Lately, I’ve been learning about the commons as another way to manage and govern resources, and, here, “resources” should be understood broadly, as natural resources like water and air or intangible resources like ideas, knowledge, and imagination. Whether the commons works as a pattern or form for Common Field is unclear right now, but the opportunity to try it out is intriguing. And, of course there’s the shared name.

So I offer a short description of the commons, a few of its principles, and some brief examples. I can’t cover the ideas in much detail here; it’s a huge field of study with thousands of functioning examples. Maybe there’ll be just enough here to see whether the idea fits and is worth taking further.

In a search for a succinct description of a commons, I turn to David Bollier – an author and activist who has spent many years exploring the commons as a model for economics, politics, and culture. He has this to say:

In essence, the commons is about reclaiming and sharing resources that belong to everyone, and it is about building new social and institutional systems for managing those resources in equitable, sustainable ways.

Although the commons is also an ancient form, Bollier stresses that it’s “a living reality.” Around the world, “people are managing forests, fisheries, irrigation water, urban spaces, creative works, knowledge, and much else as commons.”

A one-sentence definition of the commons from Bollier is one that I keep going back to: “The commons is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values, and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.” It’s a definition that makes more sense the more I learn.

The commons has many manifestations and definitions. There is no standard model for what a commons looks like. Each one runs in its own particular way, and across the world the commons takes thousands of forms. Though it’s not a cookie-cutter approach, there are a few principles that allow a commons to be effective and reliable.

A key set of principles for the commons was described by Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work on the commons. Her life’s work showed that commons are viable, sustainable social systems for managing collective resources. A few of her principles are:

A commons must have clearly defined boundaries, for both the resource and the membership.

Collectively, the people of a commons must be able to develop their own rules and protocols for managing the resource. 

They must also be able to devise systems to monitor how the resource is used and to identify and punish people who violate the rules.

A few of the places in today’s world where Bollier identifies active commons include: Traditional communities in Africa have developed their own “bio-cultural protocols” to help legally defend their lands and ways of life from neoliberal trade policies. Lobster fishers in Maine work together to ensure that no one over-harvests lobsters in a given bay. Community-Supported Agriculture farms and permaculture communities blend their agricultural practices and social ethics with the imperatives of the land. There are land trusts and community forests, and urban gardens and the Slow Food movement. The much newer digital world has spawned many commons. Examples range from Linux and thousands of free, open-source software programs to the burgeoning world of more than 10,000 open-access scholarly journals, whose articles are freely available in perpetuity and not restricted by paywalls or strict copyright control.

One of my favorite examples is Wikipedia, where information is the resource that’s managed and, as it states on the policy page of its website: “Wikipedia policies and guidelines are developed by the community to describe best practices, clarify principles, resolve conflicts, and otherwise further our goal of creating a free, reliable encyclopedia.” I especially appreciate the spirit of its guidelines in this sentence: “Policies and guidelines should always be applied using reason and common sense.”

Why might Common Field think of itself as a commons?

Common Field already has some of the characteristics of a commons. David Bollier’s one-sentence definition provides helpful starting points.

A commons manages a resource. Common Field has a valuable resource in the knowledge and experience of its members, in their desire to be engaged and to share what they know, and in the imagination they bring to their work. It has a community that feels ownership of it – its members, council, co-directors, and probably its funders and supporters as well, The space that connects us is also a resource. A HIG panelist, Sam Gould, proposed that “we need spaces between ourselves where we can recognize each other and then look outside ourselves.” And at the end of the conference, Satinsky said to Kloecker, “we need to do something with this energy that’s emerging.” So they quickly worked together “to create an open space for small, unpredictable, urgent conversations” on the final day. Continuation of this kind of open space is also a resource that deserves careful management.

A commons has defined boundaries. The most recently circulated (10/5/15) description of Common Field says it connects “the visual arts organizing field,” that is, “organizations and organizers who do this unusual, hybrid, often under-the-radar work.” The community could also be defined by the lively list of adjectives in Kloecker and Matteson’s description early in this essay.

So far, the boundary defining Common Field’s membership is loose. The question of who is included was raised regularly during Hand-in-Glove and in small conversations during, before, and afterward. I repeatedly heard an argument for being inclusive. Steve Dietz, on the opening night said, “Monocultures are death.” And Martha Wilson, a Council member noted, “We need a discourse around difference, we need to navigate with differences.” In a post-conference letter to Common Field’s Council, Kloecker and Matteson wrote, among other things, of an underlying weakness of the field: “the people in this room do not represent the whole” and in many ways are homogenous – majority white, urban, college-educated, and so on. Their strong belief is that the whole is larger than those represented so far. In putting together the HIG program, they wrote, “Our best aspiration was to hold open that emergent space – that non-hierarchical, transparent space, committed to its values, open to changing, vulnerable, and aware of its own power and privilege.” In this, they propose a major challenge, and it’s one that’s all about boundaries.

A commons has protocols and rules. The protocols, rules, and sanctions that the members of a commons develop are sometimes formalized in written documents; other times they’re maintained through trust. But regardless of the form the rules take and how they’re enforced, commons are governed by a system of community-created rules. The importance of rules was suggested when Dietz said, using slightly different language, “Powerful platforms are agnostic, but they are not free-for-alls.”

How are free-for-alls avoided? How do the protocols of any specific commons develop? As I understand it so far, people start by talking with each other. They build relationships and trust. Over time they negotiate rules to protect community interests. They build systems to identify and punish “free riders.” They cultivate cultural values and norms. It takes time.

My sense is that there are already common interests that Common Field holds and eventually might identify and protect through its own protocols, but these haven’t yet developed. As an intentional entity, Common Field is just beginning to recognize itself.

Protocols and rules might develop around answers to questions like these: How are the boundaries of membership drawn to be as diverse and dynamic as the field is, while still being finite? How are they enforced? What are the boundaries? How does the work get done? It takes real work to hold a network or platform together; the work is often invisible, but things fall apart without it. What are the terms of working together? What are rights and responsibilities of members, Council members, co-directors?

How might Common Field move forward as a commons?

An initial step might simply be for Common Field to reinforce and strengthen its commons-like traits, and to not too quickly adopt organizational assumptions from the market. All the questioning of institutions and structure that I heard in Minneapolis seems healthy in this regard. It’s good to remember, though, that there’s no “pure” model of a commons. Common Fields needs some of what the market offers, an income stream, for instance. Like most commons, it would probably evolve as a kind of hybrid. As Dylan Miner, HIG panelist, put it: “We have to push back on the oppressive systems we have now. We have to both address the practical need to live within the systems that exist and also re-imagine new ways to live.”

We can assume that the way forward won’t be clear. Like any other commons, this one would not be the same as others. “It’s OK not to have the answer, to show our vulnerabilities,” as Kloecker and Matteson said. “As a field we’re ready to embrace a lack of clarity.” Complex Movements of Detroit talked of both grounding their work in stories and in relationships and knowing that the narrative of revolutionary movements is complex. In the same discussion, Rosten Woo said that with his work he aims to “make it legible and visible” and “make it complicated.”

Developing as a commons won’t necessarily be any easier than adopting any other form of governance. It will require making new assumptions and will take time to nurture and work to maintain. Once we get the hang of it, though, it may be more familiar than we think.

• • • 

Whether or not the idea of the commons makes sense as a pattern for an emerging “common field,” I find it a useful lens when I look at the disarray of our current economic, social, and governing systems. Using what I know of the commons has been helpful at specific times when I’m trying to figure out which of several actions to take. Some of why the commons does this for me is captured by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč excerpted from a statement for the opening of an installation in The Hague, “The Commons”:

I see The Commons as a new platform for addressing and reinventing what was called ‘public’ in the modernist period, during the postwar efforts to construct the social state. The old ‘public’ paradigm clearly does not work in our current neoliberal times. Public space, for instance, is being extensively privatized. For me, the current interest in The Commons reflects people’s desire and demand for a new social contract, a new citizenship.

A coda and thanks

First, I’m grateful to the Temporary Art Review for giving me the chance to try out ideas of the commons in the context of Common Field, a very real entity in the process of forming itself. And I thank everyone involved in Common Field for giving me the opportunity to play a part in its formation.

As we edited this piece, I was happy to discover that the commons was already much in the minds of both James McAnally, executive editor of Temporary Art Review, and of Common Field’s co-directors, Courtney Fink and Stephanie Sherman. In an email exchange, Stephanie raised many pertinent questions that go beyond what I could cover in this essay, but which should provoke much thought in the future: Can we understand the commons on a deeper conceptual level? How do the values and systems hold everyone in check and ensure that the commons serves the best interests of the field? How is “trust” defined here and what is its role? How do we respond to questions about “the tragedy of the commons”? With Common Field in mind, what are the practicalities of managing a commons? What structures do commons use to survive in our world today?

This isn’t the end of the conversation, and forums to discuss questions like these about the commons and Common Field’s form will continue. In a forthcoming issue of Art Journal, the context and birth of Common Field will be explored from multiple viewpoints, including an essay by James on the idea of “the common” in the life and future of Common Field. As with all commons, ours must be negotiated and defined, which will take time and many different voices to set its boundaries and shape its form.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

A few resources


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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 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, and columns were published every weekday from early August through November, 2015.

I’m happy to have contributed one of these essays, “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” published on November 3, 2015. A slightly revised version of it follows below.

Pacific Standard has archived these columns on its website here, and I highly recommend reading others as well. They give a good feel for the range of discussion and energetic debate this topic is generating these days.

 


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 these columns were work for all of us, and I’m certain they’re 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 probably consider morally 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, perhaps you could say, their “calling” – that is, their paintings or poems or songs. 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 other ways – seems to fall low on the pay scale or outside it altogether. And increasingly, inequality 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?” 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.

Is it possible that we who labor for the common good can find common cause? Can we activate a collective will to be part of finding 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?

We won’t find common cause in the workplace where workers have found it in the past. The fact is, many, if not most, of us are people who work in what’s increasingly called the “gig economy.” We’re scattered across distances as independent contractors, freelancers, volunteers, temporary or part-time workers. We don’t have a shared workplace in the conventional sense, though some of us make our own shared space as when we work in close proximity in coffee shops or co-working spaces or when artists come together to share a studio.

To find common ground we need starting points. The words and music, images and stories of poets and other artists can be our inspiration. We need sources of knowledge to spark ideas and to put words to what we’ve experienced. We also need places to gather and talk, both for the chance to share our experiences and what we’ve learned, and also for the kind of creativity and ideas that, in a conventional workplace, might come up around the water cooler.

As I look around me, I see these places being created. I hear of new conversations and salons, post-event discussions and roundtables more now than I have in all my decades. These conversations don’t emerge from specific workplaces, and they tend to be, like our work, dispersed and unconnected. They have names like Soup Salon, What’s Up?, Geeks Who Drink, Penny University, Civic Cocktails, Poetry Potluck, the World Dance Party, Pecha Kucha, Think and Drink, and lots more in Seattle alone. Many are started by young people who are active in digital and social media but who use the same tools to find each other in physical space

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. For one thing, he suggested we find a way to provide a baseline income to people who do that valuable work. Since then, he’s taken this idea farther and has a new book coming out next month titled, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream. Two years ago, Stern’s message was, “We just don’t have a great set of new ideas!” Beyond his own efforts, though, I think his greatest hope back then still stands – that “a whole group of people will come up with a whole new set of ideas about 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 but often unpaid. Coming together in many configurations, across different industries and interests, asking questions, arguing, sharing what we know, being inspired to learn more, and beginning to connect with other groups doing the same is the way we can start to find the great new ideas.

 


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An eighth layer

 

Eighth layer main graphic blog
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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