“Gee, you look great!”

Helen G + me, by cv cropAbout a decade ago, not long after she turned 80 and I turned 60, Helen Gurvich and I made a lunch date, something we enjoyed doing whenever we could get our calendars lined up (hers was often as busy as mine). When she walked into the room that day she looked especially beautiful, just glowing with energy. My immediate reaction was, “Gee, you look great!”

My exclamation was followed by what seemed like a very long silence as she looked directly at me. “You know,” she eventually said, in that slyly smart-ass voice only she had.

911 screen shot 07.01 crop

“There are three ages in life – youth, middle age, and, ‘Gee, you look great!’”

911 screen shot 08.32 crop

Increasingly, I find myself on the receiving end of that phrase, and, understanding the intent, I take it as a compliment whenever it comes. But with a mental nod to Helen1, who died in 2013, I try not to use it myself.

Evidence of the struggle to find ways to name the gee-you-look-great age is all around us. Around the country, some senior centers are “rebranding” themselves by dropping the word “senior” and taking names like “the 50+ Center,” “The Heritage Center,” and “The Center for Balanced Living.” As long ago as 2003, the Hartford Courant suggested that names like “Center for Healthy Aging” or “The Wisdom Center” might be more appealing to “aging baby boomers.” And the national trade group for senior housing, once known as the Assisted Living Federation of America, is changing its name to “Argentum,” Latin for “silver.”

People of ‘a certain age’

Here’s a far-from-complete list of descriptors from a variety of sources. Let me know if you’ve got any good ones of your own.

  • Old timer, oldster, crone, hag, codger, coffin dodgers
  • Golden-agers, silver surfers, wrinklies
  • Oldie but goodie
  • Elder, mentor, sage, wisdom-keeper
  • Grumpies, old fogies
  • The living dead
  • Time-worn, decrepit, out-of-date, fusty, wizened, senile
  • Well-preserved, seasoned, weathered, antique, tried and true
  • Wise, wise hag, venerable, vintage, classical, enduring, traditional
  • Time-honored, well-established, mature, immemorial
  • Ancient, old-fashioned, over the hill, timeless, archaic, venerable
  • Gray-haired, practiced, skilled, veteran, centenarian, long-lived, gettin’ on
  • “You may refer to me as well-seasoned or experienced.”
  • “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves ‘recycled teenagers’.”
  • “Young at heart and still kicking a**”
  • “One-foot in the grave!”
  • “In London they’re ‘Twirlies.’ This is because when they try to get on a bus before their free pass allows they are told, ‘It’s too early.’ (twirlie)”

“Baba Yaga – the Arch-Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death, the Bone Mother. Wild and untamable, she is a nature spirit bringing wisdom and death of ego, and through death, rebirth.”2

“Old”

Then, there’s the simple word, “old,” claimed by Carol Miller3 in an article, “Looking Old Age in the Eye,” published by Real Change, Seattle’s weekly street paper. A woman of “80-some years,” Miller wrote: “In America, I have found being old
 and admitting it a challenge.” In a longer excerpt she says:

This is the face I grew into, the face that I earned, a 
face of character and feeling, the face of time — my
 time. Of course, it is not the face I had at 18. I didn’t much care for my face then. We didn’t seem well acquainted. No matter how I felt, I looked fine. I remember suffering from a splitting headache and finding no change in the bathroom mirror. I realized no one would believe my complaint and decided I would have to go to work. Sometimes I would cry in frustration and my tears, when dry, would leave no trace. I had the classic poker face: Emotionless, unresponsive and unrevealing. I suspect it cloaked an equally under-developed heart.

 Now I have the face of felt experience. My face and feelings mesh; I look the way I feel. I am pleased with my looks and wish others were as well. I would like to be accepted wearing this face without having others express remorse or pity or being metaphorically patted on the head. I particularly want to be acknowledged as a person of value and, at the same time, as old.4

I want to earn a face that’s clearly as old as I am with a spirit that can give a comeback as lively as Helen’s to “Gee, you look great!”

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1 Helen Gurvich, Seattle Times, 4/21/13

2 Ivan Bilibin, “Baba Yaga,” OldRussia.net

3 “For 30 years, Carol Miller, an anthropologist, studied a Romany (Gypsy) tribe, initially in Seattle and subsequently in California. She wrote a memoir of her experiences, Lola’s Luck: My Life among the California Gypsies. Real Change byline, 12/23/14

Carol Miller, “Looking Old Age in the Eye,” Real Change, 12/23/14 

Photograph credits:

Helen Gurvich and Anne Focke, by Cathryn Vandenbrink

Two stills from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, 10/1/09


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What is the commons?

What is the commons? (1) copy

A friend wrote recently wondering if I’d written any articles or notes on my ideas about the “commons.” His question made me realize that, despite how central the concept has become to my thinking, I haven’t written much about it in a way that’s easy to share. To offer a timely reply, I put something together for him made up of excerpts from longer pieces that touched on the commons, along with a “short and sweet” description by an admired commons thinker, David Bollier.1

Despite the fact that, reflecting back on it now, I may actually have misunderstood my friend’s question, what follows here is the piece I put together quickly that day.

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Green Cuttings: Ideas to cultivate as waters rise2

This is the first part of an essay I wrote in April 2015 in anticipation of participating in a month-long residency with artists, scientists, an attorney or two, and others around the critical theme of climate change. I had the opportunity to be one of the organizers, with artists Buster Simpson and Laura Sindell, of the first Rising Waters Confab at the Rauschenberg Residency in May that year.3 (A second Rising Waters Confab is planned for May 2016.) Each of the three of us wrote an introduction to some of the questions we expected to pursue during the month. This began my contribution. – Anne

“The good appears not by proclamation but by conversation.” Lewis Hyde’s words from Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership capture something of my hope for the Rising Waters Confab.4  His book tells the story of the commons with a focus on the cultural commons. What I’m learning about the commons, both from him and others, gives me a framework that both guides how I imagine a healthy environmental future and, for me, provides a missing piece of the puzzle for how we’ll get there.

The commons is both an ancient and contemporary way of managing shared resources, such as water and air, creative and intellectual ideas, and scientific discoveries. I suspect that we won’t get far toward creating a more sustainable future unless we develop a stronger commitment to the commons and find ways to operate beyond just market and government spheres.

Hyde-Bollier descrip (2)

In reaching for that future, the commons “cannot be achieved by individual decision making alone; rather, it is created and sustained by common action,” says Bruce Sievers, another commons thinker I admire. Our Rising Waters Confab – and the meals, offsite adventures, play, and work we do together – may be a way to create our own commons and find “the good.” In addition to whatever else we do collectively, the conversation can itself be a valuable kind of common action.

The Commons

Lately I’ve been reading Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons by David Bollier.5  With Hyde’s Common as Air; Sievers’s Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the Fate of the Commons;and my work with Peter Pennekamp on the Community Democracy Workshop,7 Bollier’s writing has inspired me to find ways to bring the commons into my thinking, writing, conversations, and daily life. More recently I’ve discovered a relatively new book by Bollier and Burns Weston, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons.8  While I haven’t read the book yet, I like their series of essays based on it, published by CSRwire, the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire.9

Here’s an excerpt from one of the essays.

We believe that one of the most compelling, long-term strategies for dealing with the structural causes of our many ecological crises is to create and recognize legally, alternative systems of provisioning and governance. Fortunately, such an alternative general paradigm already exists.

 It’s called the commons.

 The commons in its broadest sense is a system of stewardship of shared resources. A commons is not run by government or businesses; the goal is not to maximize production or profit. A commons is a defined community of commoners who act as a conscientious trustee of given resources. They ensure that the land or water or fish is shared equitably among those who need it for their everyday needs.

I’m encouraged by my growing mental image of how a commons (and “green governance”) functions, where commons have existed in history, where they’re found now, and how they might interact with the economic and political systems of government and the market (in what Michael Bauwens refers to as a “triarchy”). But how in the world do we get from here to there?

to manage natural systems (19)

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The commons as an option

This is an excerpt from a different essay.10  It was prompted by my involvement with Common Field, a newly-formed network that connects and serves experimental artist-centered organizations and organizers across the country.11  The founding members have engaged in an active discussion of how to think about the organizational form the network itself could take. Much of my essay discusses Common Field fairly specifically. The excerpt here comes toward the beginning. – Anne

Besides the structure of a formal nonprofit institution, other structures 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 certainly 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.”

collectively owned wealth (5)

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.

Some 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.”

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Finally, because I so often refer to his writings, here’s a short description of the commons by David Bollier, from his website. – Anne

The Commons, Short and Sweet12

David Bollier
Fri, 07/15/2011 – 01:26

I am always trying to figure out how to explain the idea of the commons to newcomers who find it hard to grasp.  In preparation for a talk that I gave at the Caux Forum for Human Security, near Montreux, Switzerland, I came up with a fairly short overview, which I have copied below.  I think it gets to the nub of things.

The commons is….

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
  • The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children.  Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
  • A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.

There is no master inventory of commons because a commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.

The commons is not a resource.  It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.  Many resources urgently need to be managed as commons, such as the atmosphere, oceans, genetic knowledge and biodiversity.

There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.  Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied.  And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons.  The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun.  A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

One of the great unacknowledged problems of our time is the enclosure of the commons, the expropriation and commercialization of shared resources, usually for private market gain.  Enclosure can be seen in the patenting of genes and lifeforms, the use of copyrights to lock up creativity and culture, the privatization of water and land, and attempts to transform the open Internet into a closed, proprietary marketplace, among many other enclosures

Enclosure is about dispossession.  It privatizes and commodifies resources that belong to a community or to everyone, and dismantles a commons-based culture (egalitarian co-production and co-governance) with a market order (money-based producer/consumer relationships and hierarchies).  Markets tend to have thin commitments to localities, cultures and ways of life; for any commons, however, these are indispensable.

The classic commons are small-scale and focused on natural resources; an estimated two billion people depend upon commons of forests, fisheries, water, wildlife and other natural resources for their everyday subsistence.  But the contemporary struggle of commoners is to find new structures of law, institutional form and social practice that can enable diverse sorts of commons to work at larger scales and to protect their resources fro m market enclosure.

New commons forms and practices are needed at all levels – local, regional, national and global – and there is a need for new types of federation among commoners and linkages between different tiers of commons.  Trans-national commons are especially needed to help align governance with ecological realities and serve as a force for reconciliation across political boundaries.  Thus to actualize the commons and deter market enclosures, we need innovations in law, public policy, commons-based governance, social practice and culture.  All of these will manifest a very different worldview than now prevails in established governance systems, particularly those of the State and Market.

Bollier, short descrip (4)

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Notes

  1. David Bollier’s blog, “News and perspectives on the commons” can be found here.
  1. Anne Focke, “Green Cuttings: Ideas to Cultivate as Waters Rise,” Rising Waters Confab I blog, April 14, 2015.
  1. Rising Waters Confab I, the report.
  1. Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010
  1. David Bollier, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons, New Society Publishers, 2014
  1. Bruce Sievers, Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the Fate of the Commons, University Press of New England, 2010
  1. Community Democracy Workshop, works to improve the practices of democracy for problem-solving in and by the communities where people live. Its brand-new website is here.
  1. David Bollier and Burns Weston, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  1. A link to all of the essays by Bollier-Weston on CSRwire can be found here.
  1. Common Field – Finding a Form,” commissioned and published by Temporary Art Review, November 23, 201.
  1. Common Field website is here.
  1. David Bollier, “The Commons Short and Sweet,” News and Perspectives on the Commons, July 15, 2011.

Graphics note: The images included here are three in a series of 25 prints that I produced in the studio at the Rauschenberg Residency during the first Rising Waters Confab. Robert Rauschenberg worked in this studio for the last 40 years of his life. The originals are 13×40 inches.


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Time away 1, a gift I give myself

The garden at Tieton Lofts 2/21/16
Tieton, February 21, 2016

Lofts garden

Every now and then, since at least 1985, I’ve given myself the gift of time away. I leave Seattle with a few books, lots of notes, a computer, and plans to rearrange my molecules by walking, reading, writing, thinking, maybe meeting new folks or visiting with old friends and maybe not seeing anyone, surrounded by new scenery and a different context. I’ve rented cabins and hotel rooms, stayed in friends’ second homes, shared rentals with a friend, traded work for a little house, and a few times, even stayed in actual, official artists’ residencies. I always set my expectations way too high for what I’ll get done, but I’ve never been disappointed.

This past week I’ve been in Tieton, Washington, home of Mighty Tieton, in the highlands west of Yakima.

  Mighty Tieton Warehouse

Here’s where I’ve been working.

Loft #13, where I worked

Facing the other direction, in the evening I see a wonderful large wood screen…

Loft #13, at night 3

and in the morning, I throw the doors open to the street, and the light pours in.

Loft #13, daytime 2

 

I’ve chosen to do this. I want to be here, writing/thinking/planning, but the work is difficult and slow, no one’s paying me to do it, and I have no guarantee the result will be any good. But I claim it as real work, work all mixed up with play but work nonetheless. I wish everyone’s work felt like this. Following Jonas Mekas‘s advice in my own way, it keeps me dancing and singing and doing what needs to be done.


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What if everyone, unconditionally, received a basic income?

A REPORT FROM PENNY U1

Image from website, "We Are Anonymous"
Image from website, “We Are Anonymous”

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

–  Martin Luther King, 1967 3 

What would happen if everyone received a basic income, regardless of the work they do or their financial status? Would it be a good idea? If so, how could it become policy? How would it be funded?

About 20 people discussed this in small groups around cafe tables at Town Hall in December last year. Most, but not all, of us felt it is a good idea, though with much elaboration and many caveats and questions. Three tables of participants simultaneously discussed the ramifications of the idea based on questions posed in advance:4

  • Assuming that rules could be changed and funding found, is a guaranteed minimum income a good idea? Would people use their time well? Would it lead to fuller lives and an increase in the common good? Or would it increase laziness and freeloading?
  • If it is a good idea, how would such a mechanism be put in place? How would we build “a countervailing power,” “unrig the system,” and make rules that allow this to happen?
  • If it’s a good idea and the rules are changed, how would it be funded? A citizen’s bequest, a return on the use of personal data, eliminating the current welfare system, some other mechanism?

“A basic income would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it.”

The first group spent their time in a spirited discussion of the many reasons a basic income is a good idea: The policy could decrease income inequality, reduce racism, reduce stress, and improve health. A basic income would give everyone the opportunities that having more time offers, time to spend with and care for their families, to build relationships among neighbors and strengthen the social side of our lives. It would also “liberate people to discover their true professions,” would make room for creativity and provide the freedom to be authentic. It would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it. They didn’t address the practical side of putting such a policy in place or funding it, but they did raise few questions: Would things cost more? Would inequality just emerge in other ways? Could climate change be the catalyst to work together toward solutions like this? Who is against this and why?

Two views: “Without competition there is no freedom.” “Could we rely on cooperation instead?”

Right at the start, people at the second table discovered they were not in agreement about the value of a basic income. Beginning with the assumption that, as the first table also assumed, a basic income would reduce competition, the first speaker at this table said, “People need competition. Without competition there is no freedom. My job gives me money which gives me freedom.” Another believes that a basic income would take away an essential structure: “If I misbehave at work, they don’t pay me. That gives me structure.” Others in this conversation were supportive of the basic income idea. “What about a structure based on cooperation instead of competition? We’re so used to a competitive market it’s hard to see any other options, and other models are available.”

This beginning took the discussion in many directions, quite beyond its initial focus on a basic income to such topics as: alternate economic systems, the need to consider the common good, the availability of the commons as an alternative to marketplace commerce, Adam Smith’s belief that competition and “following your bliss” would have socially desirable results, Gates Foundation philanthropy, the government’s role, and the possibility of requiring work in exchange for basic income.

“A new type of education might be needed to help people find their true calling.”

The third table managed to cover all three questions. They reported being pretty laid back and comfortable with collective organizing and with the idea that a minimum basic income could increase people’s ability to pursue their passions and their creativity. They also thought that a basic income would make volunteer time more highly valued, reduce the status attached to wealth, and perhaps require a new type of education, one that would help people find their true calling. They wondered whether the policy would lead to inflation and how diversity would be expressed. And, quite beyond that, they wondered whether a plan like this that serves the common good could actually be put in place. The challenges include the current state of capitalism, our individualistic culture, and the fact that economic power rests with the ultra rich, lobbyists, and corporations. This economic power, they thought, might be countered by the political power of a much larger and broader base.

Where would the money come from?

bills-1

One person, critical of the basic income concept, was nonetheless eager to offer an idea that could support it: establish a government-run life insurance program where, at death, the proceeds are returned to everyone. The folks at table three came up with quite a long list of possible funding strategies: take from the war defense budget, maybe 5%; create a new national model for income taxation; close tax breaks and loopholes; institute 401Ks or socially responsible investments; tax places that aren’t taxed now, like churches and charities; eliminate the welfare system; address food security through gardens on roofs; save money by recentralizing municipalities and establishing new practices such as water systems that use gray water. They’d really like to see examples of functional economies that could support a system like this. And when each of the three groups came together toward the end, another idea was proposed: “How about a 100% estate tax for everybody?”

Clashes and new questions when we came together 

Strong but differing opinions on the effect of competition on freedom kicked off the exchange when we reconvened as a single group. For a few, freedom requires individualism and competition, which would be undermined by a basic income; and for many others, a basic income would make freedom possible – it would mean reduced competition and compulsory overwork, less stress and inequality, and time for relationships, volunteer work, and creative interests.

A few questions came up as we closed: Does anyone feel uncomfortable with the idea of people getting money without working for it? If education is available more broadly and more people choose it, the economy will grow – should it? And finally, a question about whether there is social and intellectual value to work drew a quick reply: “Yes, when the job is freely chosen.”

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1 Penny U is a conversation series on the nature of work, how it’s changing, and what it might look like in the future. Learn more here.

2  In Switzerland in fall 2013, activists dumped eight million coins outside Parliament, one for each Swiss citizen, in support of a referendum that would institute a universal basic income.

3  Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967.

4 More detail on the questions posed can be found in the introduction to the Penny U session here.


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Shivaji Competition – Islands, Deltas and Rising Seas

 A competition for ideas    shivajiprotrait

As part of the second Rising Waters Confab at the Rauschenberg Residency, artist, arts planner, and organizer Glenn Weiss is organizing a competition of ideas for maintaining human life on the islands and deltas doomed by the minimum predicted sea level rise of one meter in the 21st century. As a participant in the first Confab, I’m including here excerpts from competition materials. More information, inspiration, and details for submitting can be found on the competition website, here. *

The great warrior king of 17th century India, Shivaji Maharaj, established the Maratha Empire against the dominant Mughals and held off the territorial ambitions of the Europeans. Part of his legacy is a group of island forts in the Arabian Sea with stonewalls ringing the edges against the sea and the Europeans. The Shivaji island forts are the starting metaphor and reality for the competition.

The competition asks artists, architects, designers, animators, planners, scientists and playwrights to propose the practical and the impossible to maintain the continued human habitation of these islands throughout the 21st century.

janjira-fort1

Each entry is to be submitted online as an animated GIF demonstrating a proposal for when the sea rises at least one meter. “Humor, drama, paradox, and factual reality in photographs, anime, renderings, and all other visual formats are acceptable. Clarity of idea and message is very important.” One of the finalists will be selected to attend the Rising Waters Confab II in its last week between May 19 – 26, 2016.

Submissions are due March 10, 2016.

The website provides lots of examples from around the world, including this one:

Richard Tipping's sculpture "Watermark" (2000) was not intended to be underwater in Brisbane, Australia. But water does rise.
Richard Tipping’s sculpture “Watermark” (2000) was not intended to be underwater in Brisbane, Australia. But water does rise.

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*Link spelled out:  <https://shivaji2016.wordpress.com>

For information about the first Rising Waters Confab, click here.  Rising Waters also has its own website here, which includes both 2015 and 2016.


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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
Photo 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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Zuckerberg’s billions – politics, investing, and charity

It’s time for us, as a polis, to revisit the mechanisms that distinguish politics, investing, and charity, the values we ascribe to each, and the boundaries that define them.1

Lucy Bernholz, self-described “philanthropy wonk,”2 wrote this in a short piece about the initial way the press covered the announcement of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced the Initiative on December 1 last year in a letter to their newborn daughter, Max.3 In the letter, they pledged to give to this Initiative 99% of their Facebook shares over their lifetime, currently estimated to be worth $45 billion. The mission of the initiative, they said, is “to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation.” Their initial areas of focus, they said, “will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people, and building strong communities.”

Chan & Zuckerberg

The big news – in the philanthropic world, at least – is that the initiative will not be a charity despite its stated intention to do good in the world. It will be a limited liability corporation, or LLC. The Initiative’s Facebook page said, “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s configuration gives it the freedom and funding to take big swings at the causes of humanity’s troubles.”

On Facebook, Zuckerberg discussed the decision to use an LLC: “This enables us to pursue our mission by funding nonprofit organizations, making private investments, and participating in policy debates.” He also stressed that, since the new venture is an LLC, putting their money there does not give them any tax benefits.

At the same time, a piece by Suzanne Wooley on BloombergBusiness makes some of the benefits of an LLC clear and suggests ways that the LLC form determines what the Initiative can do.4  1) There won’t be limits on advocacy and lobbying. 2) The Initiative can turn a profit, though that’s not the aim, Zuckerberg says. 3) It will be easier to do joint ventures with for-profit companies. And 4) it avoids the requirement, placed on a nonprofit foundation, that at least 5% of its value be given away each year. In addition, Zuckerberg is CEO of the new Initiative, meaning, as Kurt Wagner put it on <RE/CODE>, “…Zuckerberg can spend his billions wherever he wants.”5

And, now, I come round again to the quote from Lucy Bernholz that I started with. Right after the quote I used, she goes on to say:

Using all three tools [charity, investing, and politics] may be strategically advantageous to donors. But democracies may have good reason to not allow these activities to become interchangeable even as they may be complementary. If we believe there are differences between political activity and charitable giving – for example, if we think one should be transparent and the other has room for anonymity – we need to protect those distinctions.

The blurring of lines between charity, politics, and investing can have some upsides, but the results brought about by those who’ve been doing it for a long time should give us pause. It’s the systems and rules about these activities that need fixing. And that’s up to us.

In addition to suggesting that we understand the distinctions between the mechanisms of and the boundaries defining these three worlds, Lucy asks us to consider the “values we ascribe to each.” Thinking especially about how the three realms differ from each other in terms of their values calls to mind a framework I’ve carried with me since the mid-1990s. It’s one I adopted from Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, published in 1992.6

In this book, Jacobs first identifies two different ways of getting a living, that is, of ways to survive – trading and guardianship. She calls them “syndromes.” Trading includes the whole commercial, profitmaking world of people who trade or produce for trade. Guardians, on the other hand, traditionally were hunter-gatherers, raiders, and warriors who survived by taking (also meaning, as I understand it, by taxing). Today, guardians are also involved in protecting territory and resources, not just taking them. Among others, the state in its various forms, governmental agencies, legislatures, the police, and many religious organizations are guardians.

Jacobs book crop

In her book, Jacobs contends that each of the syndromes has its own set of morals – manners, customs, mores, and social sanctions that provide systems of informal social regulation. The morals in the commercial syndrome include, among others: be honest, respect contracts, compete, come to voluntary agreements, shun force, use initiative and enterprise, be efficient, promote comfort, collaborate easily with strangers, be thrifty, be optimistic. The guardian syndrome, on the other hand, includes morals such as: shun trading, exert prowess, be obedient and disciplined, adhere to tradition, be loyal, respect hierarchy, show fortitude, take vengeance, make rich use of leisure, be fatalistic, treasure honor.

What really grabbed my attention was that, as Jacobs presented them, the two sets are not interchangeable. Qualities found in one syndrome are not appropriate in the other. Beyond simply their differences, she believed that the two syndromes, while interdependent, must function separately. In fact, she said, “Crazy things happen systematically when either moral syndrome…embraces functions inappropriate to it.” This can lead to “systemic corruption” and to what she called, “monstrous hybrids.”

In notes to myself at the time, I wrote, “The idea that different moral standards apply in different circumstances is powerful. We live, it seems, with an underlying assumption that a single moral standard should apply throughout. It would be so much cleaner and easier that way. But the argument for different moral syndromes rings true.” However, I immediately went on to tell myself, “I’m convinced that two are not enough. Gifts and gift exchange are missing.” After making lists of morals for all three, I wrote, “My guess is that gifts and voluntary efforts may be an invisible but essential partner of trading, and maybe taking, too – both need gifts, just as trading needs guardians and vice versa.”

So many more thoughts race through my mind as I write, but for now, I’ll just go back to Lucy’s call that we revisit the mechanisms that distinguish politics (the guardian), investing (the trader), and charity (the gift giver) and that we consider the values we ascribe to each and the boundaries that define them.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Notes

  1.  Lucy Bernholz, “What if the headline had read . . . ,” Medium, January 12, 2016.
  2. Digital Civil Society Lab: People, “Lucy Bernholz.” 
  3. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, “A Letter to Our Daughter,” December 1, 2015.
  4. Suzanne Wooley, “Four Reasons the Facebook Fortune Is Going Into an LLC” BloombergBusiness, December 2, 2016.
  5. Kurt Wagner, “Mark Zuckerberg Responds to Critics, Explains Where His Money Is Going,” <RE/CODE>, December 3, 2015.
  6. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, Random House, 1992.

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Breaks

In addition to being a prompt for new writing, another way I’ve imagined using this site is to create a kind of anthology – or maybe it’s an archive – of pieces I’ve written over the years.

With this in mind, here’s a piece I wrote two and a half years ago to let friends and family know about a move I was making.

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Breaks

July 31, 2013

Some things benefit from shock.
                      – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In late spring this year I became aware that a mostly unspecified impatience and feeling of antsy-ness or anxiety ran just under the surface of my day-to-day life. I could make a list of specifics, but the feelings touched on or grew from many sources – financial, social, intellectual, sense of purpose and worth in the world.

“I think I need a good crisis,” I told Ted on one of our walk & talks in May. He ran through various options for the crisis I could have – a major health crisis, dramatic accident, financial crash of some sort – and quickly crossed them all off the list as too messy, or painful, or simply unacceptable. Sitting at my dining table a few days later, Edie commented that my home feels really settled. “Right,” I said, “too settled,” thinking more broadly than just the physical place where I live. “I need to shake it up.”

Antifragile

When moving out of my apartment after nearly 25 years became a clear option, I was at first amazed at how easily it presented itself. Then I realized it was preceded by many small signs of the value of a break in the pattern of my life: a talk at Town Hall by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on his concept of anti-fragile – “Some things benefit from shock, they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors;” a determination in January by my writing group partner Sarah and me that 2013 would be a year of “clearing out;” Mary Ann’s observation that this phase of life is all about “editing;” finding thickly-crusted dust on protective pillow cases under the bed when preparing for an overnight visit by out-of-town friends; a comment from Cathryn, on hearing my complaint that it’s really hard to actually start clearing things out, “You won’t do it until you have to move;” visiting Anne and seeing how completely delighted she is with her new, much smaller home. And then there are the first lines of the piece I made for Scott’s Chamber Music exhibition at the Frye, “Get up, get up!/Let’s get going.”

Because of the age I am now, this editing is often called “downsizing,” which seems disheartening or depressing, a little too close to “downer.” I’d rather think of it as lightening up, gaining flexibility, maybe something closer to the “liberation” that author Dr. Gene Cohen attributed to this particular phase of life, a break when things open up, as in breakthrough. Actually, I’ve started referring to my pending move as “repotting.” Pull the plant out. Shake the dirt off. Trim the roots back to encourage new growth. And replant in new soil. Repotting may allow for new opportunities to engage with immediate friends and neighbors, civic affairs, the world of ideas, to be part of re-imagining a new role for older community members.

All this sounds good – positive, upbeat – and is definitely what I feel much of the time. But it’s also daunting and scary. It would be so easy not to. Or to say, golly, next year would be a whole lot easier. When I imagine not being in this apartment, I get wistful … the warm afternoon sun shining low through the summer foliage on my deck or the wonderful times I’ve had here with gatherings of friends. But too many things say now is the time. The next couple of months will be crucial.

Warm afternoon sun at 504

Then, about a week after returning from a lovely weeklong retreat in San Francisco where I cemented the decision for myself, I broke my leg.

Actually the orthopedist’s report called the break a “spiral fracture of the right fibula.” On a very pleasant Monday evening, Edie and I had headed out on the grassy terraced slopes by the Ballard Locks, picnic makings in hand. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention to just how steep the slopes were. I slipped, things went flying, and my ankle did things it simply wasn’t meant to do. We didn’t realize anything was broken because I was able to hobble out. Along with picnic supper in my living room, I learned about RICE – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – all the right things to do for a serious sprain.

Even so, after a sleepless night, I called the doctor. My upstairs neighbor Douglas had seen me hopping around on one leg, and when he learned I’d just made a doctor’s appointment, he (now saintly in my mind) said, “I bet you need a ride!” He proceeded to ferry me around from one doctor to the next, patiently sitting in waiting rooms, until he brought me home with my new pair of crutches and bright red cast. “Red goes with everything,” I’d told cast maker Michelle.

With a cast and crutches, everything takes longer. I learned new ways to do familiar things. Like how on crutches to get a cup of coffee from stove to table, water the plants, and keep a cast dry in the shower with a plastic bag and rubber bands. Carolyn gave me tips on going up and down stairs. I practiced on the eight steps from my building lobby to mail boxes before tackling stairs from the sidewalk to the front door of a friend’s home for a dinner party. Getting help from friends has been a big part of the solution. Gwen took me to get my toes repainted so they could feel happy when propped up, by doctor’s orders, in the middle of the room. Nice, but they longed to head out the door and walk somewhere, anywhere, fast!

New do for toes, for blog

little dance 1 little dance 2 little dance 3

Given current research on the brain, I’m sure all this is creating new neurons. My leg may be broken but my brain is rejuvenating. I also figure the whole thing may just be fate’s gift of lessons for how to slow down and learn to ask for help. Both are hard to do.

Although this break tested my conviction to make the big break in where I live, plans for my move are gaining momentum. With help from family and friends, I’ll clear most of my stuff out of Harbour Heights by the end of August, pack things away in storage, and then live in a temporary home and work in a temporary office for a few months. Apparently, in today’s market it will be easier to sell than to buy. This schedule lets me do one thing at a time and may allow me to have a little patience as I look for the right place to plant myself next. Unless I’m really surprised, this won’t be my last move. It isn’t the one I and others have imagined, but it could certainly make another move easier.

In and around all the necessary tasks of packing and moving, selling and buying, keeping my work-for-pay going, and maintaining some sort of connection with friends, I’ll be pondering the meaning of breaks and shifts, repotting and liberation, editing back and imagining forward. For me, both conversation and writing change the ideas I start with and make them more real. I’ll be looking for chances to do both. Richard recently told me that decades ago I referred to most of the things I did, including my artwork, as “projects.” The word has always carried positive meanings for me. Some things don’t change much I guess. All this is definitely a project.

Everything becomes a project


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Active wisdom

A talk by Mary Catherine Bateson at Town Hall five years ago gave me many ideas I continue to use today and prompted the following essay.


 

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The age of active wisdom

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson spoke at Town Hall recently. Her book, Composing a Life, published a couple of decades earlier, reinforced themes I saw in my own life then – that a life of interruption could be understood positively as “multi-faceted” and that there were advantages in finding ways to adapt to change and new possibilities fluidly. The main title of her 2010 book, Composing a Further Life, seemed flat, but the subtitle, “The Age of Active Wisdom,” was more promising.

Almost everyone at age 50 has had some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I could name at least one in my case, more if I count conditions that would only have given me constant pain or that would have made breathing a moment-to-moment struggle or that would have taken my mind away sooner than later. On average, we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. Most of this can be attributed to medical advances and increased knowledge. Many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson said, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”

We also can’t think of our extra 30 years as just, sort of, tacked on to the end of our lives. Thirty years is much too long for that. She encourages seeing these years as a whole new period in a life cycle. This is a provocative notion, though I don’t much like the name she gave it, “Adulthood II.” Maybe I’m just slow to come to terms with being an “adult.” I use a definition from my step-daughter, an adult herself; what makes you an “adult,” she told me years ago, is knowing when you have to act like one.

Bateson claims that by having this new cycle in our lives we are becoming a different species. In much the way that adding a room changes our entire house, adding an extra 30-year phase should change the way we think about our whole life. This increased longevity requires us, she believes, to imagine a new way to “compose a life.”

Work

Our concept of “retirement” and, even more fundamentally, our concepts of work must change. Otto von Bismarck created the first “retirement” plan in Germany in 1889. Bismarck set retirement age at 70, knowing that the average German worker never reached that age. In 1935, the U.S. instituted its own retirement plan and set the age at 65, when average life expectancy here was 61.7 years. We’re living with the same framework today, even though life expectancy for a woman my age is pegged at 84.8*, not 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years since 1935 yet, either.

Built into the notion of “retirement,” Bateson says, is the assumption that work is a curse, and if we don’t want to work, what we will do with all that time? She (though not I) can imagine spending a year playing golf, but not 30 years. Rethinking the value of work in our lives is the task at hand, finding ways to contribute that mean something. She thinks we need a labor movement committed to adapting the circumstances of work so it’s satisfying, not something to escape. As I often do, I look to artists for ideas. Poets don’t generally retire from writing poems; sculptors may move away from back-breakingly large projects, but they don’t stop imagining and making work in three dimensions.

Liberation

Bateson refers to liberation movements from the past – Black, gay, women’s. The act at the core of liberation movements is claiming the right to define oneself, to see ourselves differently, beyond both societal and internalized prejudices. She wants to change the assumption that age and the wisdom it can bring is sedentary. The new 30-year addition to our lives can, instead, be characterized as the age of “active wisdom,” a time to use what we’ve learned through a life, to take time to reflect on it and act with the stamina and energy that our relative health gives us.

A friend recently caught me in the midst of what no doubt sounded like the start an angry rant. I was sure I’d detected a patronizing shift in a telephone operator’s voice when I mentioned my age. With Bateson’s ideas fresh in my mind, I slid easily into talk about the need for a new liberation movement. Cathryn was tolerant but steady in describing her own comfort with and anticipation of withdrawing from the active work life she has led, especially in the past decade. She seemed to relish in advance the benefits of a slower pace and the opportunity to learn things more thoroughly. Her view pulled me out of the little lather I’d worked up. There are many ways of claiming those extra years, many ways of being “active.” Ultimately her view and mine may not be so much at odds.

January 2011

* As I post this in early 2016, the life expectancy for a woman my age in the U.S. has increased to 86.5 years.


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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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