and/or — enough structure and enough openness

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

About itself,  the Review says:

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

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


LOGO


and/or, enough structure and enough openness

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                             and/or

                            AND/OR

                                                 and/or

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

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

*****

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

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

I’m often involved in finding a very tricky, delicate balance between giving enough structure, stability/credibility to assure a continued existence, and giving enough openness, flexibility, free-ness to allow for real growth, surprise, significant work and change.

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

*****

Good Night and/or A Wake

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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


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What do you do with a floor of color?

Last month, my granddaughter Livia and I visited the Suyama Space, an amazing, one-of-a-kind space for artist installations, located in the heart of an architecture firm in downtown Seattle. The installation in the space was “Seattle Floor,” by Viet Stratmann, currently living in Paris. What would you do if you walked in?

This?

Livia, Suyama km 1

Or maybe . . .

Livia Suyama Space e

Or . . .

Livia Suyama Space 2 left rotate

Or maybe you’d inspire one of the architects to join you.

Livia, Suyama km 3

Happy holidays!

Livia Suyama Space b

 

With many thanks to Viet Stratmann and the folks at Suyama Space!


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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

05_Edwinbw

03_Josebw

04_Chutbw

00_Thulibw


•  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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Private Resources for Public Good: An annual forecast from Lucy Bernholz

“How do we carry the core purpose of civil society into the digital age?”

“As we return to an era in which more than half of full time workers may be freelancing, the systems of social supports are going to have to change.”

“Perhaps more people’s working lives will begin to look like those of independent artists and less like life-term nonprofit corporate climbing.”

“If the economy is undergoing fundamental shifts, what role do we want nonprofits, foundations, and other social economy actors to play?”

Excerpts, Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2016
Lucy Bernholz

photo of Lucy

These are all quotes from Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2016, by Lucy Bernholz. I offer them to suggest the range of topics covered in her latest annual forecast for people working in and interested in philanthropy and the social economy.

Every December for the past seven years, Lucy, a self-professed philanthropy wonk*, has written a forecast for philanthropy and the social economy – that is, the economy that uses private resources for public good. She provides insight into big ideas that will matter in the coming year, makes specific predictions for 2016, identifies buzzwords that will likely come into prominence, and offers glimpses into deeper concerns she sees coming over the horizon. She packs a lot into the forecast’s 24 pages. I’ve had the good fortune to work with her since the publication was just an idea. In general terms, my role is as sounding board, clarifier, and editor.

The latest installment, Blueprint 2016: Philanthropy and the Social Economy (link below), was published just last week by GrantCraft, a service of the Foundation Center. For the past six years, Lucy has been pushing her readers to expand their understanding of the social economy beyond just nonprofits and charitable giving to include a wider world that includes social enterprises (B Corporations, L3Cs), online alliances, social impact investing, informal networks, and political activism. She has also been a consistent voice urging greater awareness of our “digital civil society,” in other words, the ways we use our private resources for public benefit in the digital age.

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Last year’s Blueprint 2015 contained sections that provide a great summary of both the social economy and digital civil society. Especially if you’re not familiar with Lucy’s thinking or with these concepts, I highly recommend it. The Blueprints may be annual forecasts, but their value extends considerably beyond a single year.

The structure of work

Working with Lucy always teaches me a lot, and this year I was especially excited because one of the two big ideas she urges us to watch next year has also been on my mind: the structure of work. She considers how work is changing and how these changes apply to philanthropy and the social economy. She says:

The coming year is shaping up to see the issues of workers’ rights, wages, and income inequality raised to the level of national and regional political topics. It’s time to consider how the changing workplace and its impact on lives and communities influences nonprofits, foundations, and civil society.

She considers research on the impact of advances in robotics and automation. She mentions scholars and activists focused on inequality and on increasing wages for the lowest-paid workers. She provides statistics that support the conclusion that “almost half of us – with or without smartphone apps and the rhetoric of the ‘gig’ economy – are working by the project or one-off opportunity whether we recognize it or not.” We’re freelancers and part-time or temporary workers.

She emphasizes that, as we enter an era in which more than half of full-time workers may be freelancers, the systems of social supports (from social security to health care, taxes, childcare, and retirement funds) are going to have to change. Having spent almost all my working life as this kind of worker, I wholeheartedly agree.

One approach to revising – or reforming – our system of social supports was the topic of discussion in a different setting, a recent conversation at Seattle’s Town Hall, organized by Edward Wolcher and me under the series title, Penny U. The discussion revolved around the establishment of a minimum basic income – an idea championed by Martin Luther King, conservative economist F.A. Hayek, and Robert Reich.

Artists’ work

In Lucy’s Blueprint 2016, I especially appreciate that she includes artists in her thinking. The following two passages among others, appear in this issue:

Some of civil society has operated as a ‘gig economy’ for a long time. In particular, artists and activists have often spent their entire lives weaving in and out of ‘regular jobs,’ doing their work independently and as part of institutions.

Even if only a handful of the predictions being made about the future of work are accurate, many more of us, not just artists, are likely to need the skills of designing our own work lives as hybrid part-time workers and self-employed entrepreneurs rather than just taking full-time jobs defined by others.

And more

The 2016 Blueprint investigates and provokes questions about many other related topics. The short quotes I use to start this piece only begin to suggest the range of compelling topics and themes covered. Rather than spend any more time summarizing them, I simply suggest that you go to GrantCraft’s site (links below), download your own copy, and read the original.

Here are a few more quotes to tempt you:

“Given all the changes in the nature of employment, the spread of automation, and the fluctuating value of data, we’re bound to see new enterprise forms.”

“We need to develop governance models, organizational norms, and new policies for digital civil society.”

“We need to understand and adapt the ways data and algorithms are used to shape public policy.”

“In today’s online environment, the less data collected, the safer the individual.”

“What does a social sector characterized by networks, distributed governance, and greater rates of spending look like compared to what we know now?”

 


* Lucy Bernholz has worked in, consulted to, and written about philanthropy and the social economy since 1990. Now she is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and works at the Digital Civil Society Lab, which is part of Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS). Her blog is titled “Philanthropy 2173, on Twitter she’s known as @p2173, and she posts most of her articles, speeches, and presentations online at www.lucybernholz.com.

References

•   Read the press release for Blueprint 2016 here.
•   Download Blueprint 2016 here.
•   Download Blueprint 2015 here.
•   Connect with Lucy’s blog, Philanthropy 2173 here.
•   Find more about the Digital Civil Society Lab here.


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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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A minimum basic income?

A discussion at Penny U

7:00 pm, Friday, December 4, 2015
Town Hall Seattle, downstairs cafe

Late last year (11/30/14), a video was posted on Penny U’s blog telling of a Swiss proposal to guarantee every citizen a minimum yearly income, regardless of other wealth or employment. A similar idea came up again at the end of Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall earlier this fall. A short piece posted here earlier, “Guaranteed Income and Unrigging the System,” highlighted this aspect of Reich’s talk.

Reich proposes it as a way to counteract the widening gap between those with extreme wealth and power and those without, a condition that threatens, he says, not only our economy but our democracy. He suggests that this minimum might be funded through a “citizen’s bequest,” that would, in his words, “distribute the gains from technological advances in such a way that nearly everyone would have the means to benefit from them.”

Variations on this idea are not new. In the final chapters of his book, Reich mentions both Thomas Paine in Agrarian Justice, 1797 and conservative economist F.A. Hayek in 1979 as precedents. The last question posed to Reich at Town Hall quoted Martin Luther King, who, in the last years of his life, advocated for a guaranteed income as the solution to poverty. But the debate is far from settled.

We will discuss aspects of this debate at Penny U beginning with these questions:

  • Assuming that rules could be changed and funding found, is a guaranteed minimum income even a good idea?

It would support the leisure and “freedom from pressing economic cares,” that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1928 that we would achieve by 2028. It could provide a decent living for the workers with a “calling” who are now unpaid, mentioned in my essay, “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value.” It could allow today’s overworked workers to live fuller lives. But would people use their time well or are we inherently lazy, with tendencies toward free-loading?

  • If it’s a good idea, how would such a mechanism be put in place?

Reich contends that, first, the existing system would have to be unrigged, and, to do that, a knowledgeable “countervailing power” would have to emerge among the “vast majority.” Is that possible? What would it look like? Is it beginning to exist already? How would it gain momentum?

  • If it’s a good idea and the rules could be changed, how would it be funded?

Robert Reich proposes a citizen’s bequest. Jaron Lanier has proposed that big companies using your data – Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. – should pay a tiny royalty whenever they use it; it’s valuable data, it’s yours, and the small amounts would add up. We could learn from Alaska’s experiment with the oil dividend that it gives all its citizens. And others propose that funds for this purpose could be freed up by eliminating our whole welfare system. Which of these idea are most useful or likely? What other good ideas are out there?

On Friday, after short opening introductions and a little background, we’ll break into small groups around cafe tables for individual conversations that will allow everyone to participate.

If you’re in the area, please join us!

(And, if you can come, you can RSVP here.)


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A basic income and unrigging the system, Robert Reich, fall 2015

Robert Reich at Town Hall Seattle, October 2015

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The very last questioner in the Q & A following Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall Seattle this past October, challenged him with the words of Martin Luther King in a 1966 Leadership retreat, which were essentially these: “There is something wrong with capitalism. It is time for America to move toward a democratic socialism. I believe in the right of a guaranteed minimum income.”

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.*
– Martin Luther King

In response, Reich handed the questioner a copy of his book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few. Then he said, “The last two chapters in that book make the case for a universal basic income.” While he argued that “isms” are not helpful, he went on to say, “We need to ask the fundamental question, which is: Is this system working for all of us, giving us all a fair shot? Or is the system biased in some very important structural ways. And if it’s biased, how exactly do we unrig that system?”

Reich believes our current system is rigged. Earlier, in his more formal talk, Reich maintained that to “unrig” it, the system’s rules must change. “You can’t have a market without government,” he said, because the market needs rules. It needs rules around property, contracts, monopoly, bankruptcy, enforcement, and more. The market can’t function without these mechanisms. The rules change over time, and, right now, the rules are being changed to serve the few not the many. The changes are a major cause of inequality and of the declining income of the poor and middle-class. “Wide-spread prosperity isn’t just a moral good, it’s an economic good as well.” The low and middle-classes don’t have enough purchasing power to generate a healthy economy. And he added, “Wall Street isn’t the job generator; the middle class is.”

Other forces have picked up steam over the past 35 years and also work against a system for the many. Reich outlined some of them briefly at Town Hall and discusses them in his new book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few: globalism and the outsourcing of labor that accompanies it for one, and labor-replacing technologies for another. But both his talk and his book focus on the increasing failure of the rules, on what in the rules needs to change, and on how the changes could be made.

The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.    – Robert Reich

Over the same 35 years, large corporations and banks, along with wealthy individuals, have been able to get changes in the rules to benefit themselves. And this feeds on itself, he added. “As income and wealth have concentrated at the top, political power has moved there as well.” We need to “lift the curtain” on how the rules of the “free market” are being set and learn how government rules are allowing money to flow upward, from the bottom to the top. One of Reich’s reasons for optimism today is a belief that “if the smaller players understood this dynamic,” they could ally themselves and form a new countervailing power. “The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.”

In addition to understanding how the rules are being changed, the vast majority comprising this countervailing force will need some good new ideas. His book describes a range ideas for policies that need to change, including reform of our campaign finance system to get money out of politics, ways corporations could be reinvented, and possible additions and revisions to the tax code. And he proposes what he calls a “citizen’s bequest,” a way to “redistribute the profits from [new and] marvelous labor-saving inventions so we’ll have the money to buy the free time they provide,” to quote from his blog post on Labor Day this year, “Labor Day 2028.” That is, as he envisions it, this citizen’s bequest could be a way to fund the provision of a basic minimum income.

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In the end, his final questioner at Town Hall gave Reich what he’d hoped for, “an opportunity to summarize with great exhortation.” He closed with this:

We believe in a system that works for all of us. We don’t believe in an aristocracy. We don’t believe there should be people called ‘the working poor,’ who are working full time and are still poor. We don’t believe there should be non-working rich. We don’t believe in pure equality – that’s silly – but we believe in a system where everyone has a chance, a real chance, to make it, and everyone moves upward as the economy improves. We believe there is a moral core to this system, whatever you want to call it.

And then he read the final paragraph in his book:

The vast majority of the nation’s citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs. But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again.

_______________________

*    Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967).

You can watch the video of Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall 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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get up, get up!
Let’s get going.

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