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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A baby shower and a death brunch

Gnarly old cherry trees can dance and bloom with the best of them
Gnarly old cherry trees can dance and bloom with the best of them

“I’m going to a baby shower and a death brunch,” Aviva told a neighbor in response to a question about her weekend. It was a Saturday morning in February in my dining room when she reported this with a grin to a tableful of some of my closest friends. We were gathered around a scrumptious meal Edie had made for us that started with a pureed parsnip soup topped with toasted walnuts, followed by a build-your-own Niçoise salad, and finished with homemade macaroons. Aviva, my stepdaughter, was one month from the due date for her second child. The baby shower the next day was for her; the “death brunch” was for me.

A quick caveat may be in order. As far as I know, though of course these things can’t be predicted, I’m not about to die. For now, I appear to be just about as healthy, energetic, and alert as a woman just beyond her 70th birthday can expect to be. To be sure, medical “issues” have accumulated over the years, but I’ve made peace with most of them.

 Winter sun, mushroom death suits, and satin sheets

As we talked and laughed and told stories over brunch, the sun periodically broke through, lighting up my living and dining rooms with the special light that can only come from a low late-winter sun. Our talk was alternatively light and serious. We talked about how they’d get into my apartment in case of an emergency. My current home was fairly new to me, and I hadn’t made a very good plan for this yet. We took a close look at my power of attorney for health care, realizing we didn’t understand some of the language and discussed the differences between a health directive and a POLST (Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment). I have the first but not the second. Retired attorney friend Bob, who drew up the papers, couldn’t be with us, so plans were made to visit him in the next few weeks.

We talked, as we had in the past, about what funeral arrangements I want. This is a task I simply haven’t thought through very well yet. Earlier I had said that I don’t want my body to take up space, so cremation seemed right, and I had researched what Washington State law says about where ashes can be scattered legally. New ideas were also put on the table. I could, for instance, give my body to science. I was already listed as an organ donor on my driver’s license, so this would definitely make sense. A decision would still have to be made, though, about the disposition of the ashes after science was finished with my body.

Of course I could also, Tommer suggested, direct my body to be dressed in a Mushroom Death Suit and participate in artist Jae Rhim Lee’s “Infinity Burial Project.” Not only would the mushrooms in the suit aid in my body’s decomposition and decay (dust to dust, and all that), but the fungi would also neutralize chemicals and toxins that our bodies absorb over a lifetime. The introduction to the artist’s 2011 TED Talk called it a “special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms;” it would be a very green way to go. The suit, which Lee wore as she talked, looked quite stylish: black with branch-like patterns of embedded spores waiting to be brought to life by a liquid culture after death.

Jae Rhim Lee wearing the Mushroom Death Suit. photo: Mikey Siegel
Jae Rhim Lee wearing the Mushroom Death Suit. photo: Mikey Siegel

Our topic included not only my eventual death but also emergencies I might not be able to handle alone. So we talked about some of my health and medical conditions, especially ones that had emerged recently. Earlier in the year, for example, I learned that I have Barrett’s esophagus, sort of an extreme version of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), where the tissue lining the esophagus begins to resemble the lining of the intestine . . . not what you’d want if you had a choice. For one thing, Barrett’s increases the risk of esophageal cancer. Treatment aimed at preventing or slowing the syndrome’s progression includes instructions to allow 2-3 hours between eating and sleeping, and to raise the head of my bed by 3-4 inches. “Ah,” said Tommer, thinking I’m sure of a sloping bed, “I guess this means you’ll be giving up those fancy satin sheets!”

Endings were its beginning

Our Saturday brunch was the fifth of these gatherings. They got their start six years ago, about seven years after the end of a marriage. I’d finally made time to update my will to omit reference to a husband. When drawing up a will with a spouse it can seem easy to answer questions like who’s first in line to be executor, who has responsibilities in the event of health incapacities, or who knows where your accounts and all your stuff are stored. So without a spouse and with brothers spread far and wide, I turned to Aviva and some special friends who agreed to assume one responsibility or another.

It felt good to complete the revision, but I was also advised that it’s wise to review a will and health directive regularly, adjusting when necessary. “Fat chance,” I said to myself. If it took seven years to revise my will after a divorce, what on earth would get me to review it without an external kick?

Besides the divorce, another ending that led to these gatherings was the death of a close friend who had been an inspiration to me for 35 years. Along with five or six of her other close friends, I had visited Anne during the last eight or nine of her 94 years. She was fiercely independent and would not have been happy to know that “watching out” for her was on my mind when I visited. As these friends of Anne’s came and went in her daily life, we learned of each other. It occurred to me that we should share names, get ways to reach each other, and understand what roles we each played. And we should know how to contact the people who provided her key services – medical, financial, residential. So I put an annotated list together with what I knew and filled it out with help from all the others. I know the list was helpful to me, and I think it also was to others. After Anne died, I began to imagine a similar team and document of my own.

A party!

A file folder labeled, “My team,” sat nearly empty in a file cabinet for several years after Anne died until I realized that this team might also answer my need for a regular review of vital documents. The team included seven or eight people: some who had been given responsibilities in my will or my health directive and others who were close friends, next door neighbor, attorney, or bookkeeper.

Equinox folders 6 copy crop

How could I bring these pieces together? A party, of course!

A few facts provide context. First, it’s much easier to keep commitments to others than it is to keep commitments to myself. Second, I enjoy bringing people together – for conversation, celebration, parties. So I imagined convening my “team” periodically to thank them and celebrate their willingness to be there for me. We’d also review documents, discuss this last phase of life, and have a good time doing it.

An annual event seemed easier to remember than letting several years pass in between. And the date couldn’t be random but had to be tied to something I didn’t control. Putting it off would otherwise be way too easy. A solstice or an equinox would be perfect. I eliminated the solstices: summer comes when everyone’s trying to get away, and winter solstice falls too much in the midst of December holidays. Autumn equinox also comes at a busy time: school begins, work starts up again in earnest after the summer break, and civic and cultural programs kick into gear for a new season. So spring equinox became the date, and I refer to the friends who come together as my “Spring Equinox Team.”

Naw-Ruz, Hilaria, Festival of Isis, Higan no Chu-Nichi, Passover, Easter

After settling on the spring equinox, I discovered many reasons that the choice is even better than I’d imagined. On spring walks I tend to look for old fruit trees that show their age with knobby twists and turns in bark and branches but with blossoms as bright as on any other tree. Spring isn’t just for young trees or young people.

Old trees can bloom in the most surprising ways.
Old trees can bloom in the most surprising ways.

 The spring equinox has been celebrated for millennia and by many cultures as a time of death and rebirth, of regeneration. I began to research the mythology and traditions of spring through time. Most mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions mark spring with festivals, celebrations, and high holy days. On the spring equinox Persephone returns to the earth after her six months in the underworld, bringing new life and vegetation. Hilaria, ancient Roman festivals, celebrated the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele on the spring equinox. Especially in the first few years of these get togethers, we talked of what spring means in our own lives. For our meal, we’ve often chosen foods traditional to spring celebrations – eggs, seeds, grains, fish, spring vegetables like asparagus and young greens.

In motion

Gatherings of my Spring Equinox Team take a lightly-structured form that keeps evolving over time. The first year, dinner was the main meal. For the second, we switched and made brunch the centerpiece to adapt to the sleep-nap-meal patterns of my then-one-year old granddaughter, Livia. I’ve not been very strict about hitting the equinox exactly; the date has ranged from early June, in a year when our schedules just didn’t synchronize, to early February this year, in anticipation of a second grandchild. And we missed a year when I moved to a new home at spring equinox time.

Each year, I update two documents: one with contact information for key people (brothers and other family, neighbors, doctors, close friends), and another full of other information that team members might need to know – about my will and health directive, overall health updates, financial files, thoughts about funeral instructions, storage locations, and so on.

What started as a way to make sure I review my will regularly has become much more than that. In fact, though we spent time reviewing my health directive this year, I haven’t looked closely at my will for a few years. More important has been the broad-ranging conversations we have together. We learn something one year that clears up a question from the previous year and takes it off next year’s list. Sources of information to answer specific late-life, end-of-life questions are much more readily available now than when we started, so some topics have fallen away.

We’ve talked about actions to take because I live “solo” and about what it means personally and societally that so many will live 20-30 years longer than people did just 100 years ago. The group helped me test my ideas about moving after 25 years living in one place. Over time, our conversations have become both deeper and lighter. We don’t feel as squeamish talking about what had initially been difficult.

During the first equinox party, Aviva was quite pregnant; about a month later, Livia Rose was born. After that Livia then came to all the equinox parties until this year. Everyone has had a chance to watch her grow, a year at a time. One of my favorite memories is of her standing out on my small garden deck, just bouncing up and down with apparent glee. This year, Aviva was again pregnant, and a few weeks later Henry Ellsworth David was born. With luck, he’ll be joining us next year.

Spring equinox has become a time to celebrate these cycles – baby showers and death brunches, circles of friends, and regeneration!

Aviva, Henry & Livia. Holding still at the same time isn't easy.
Aviva, Henry & Livia – holding still at the same time isn’t easy.

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and/or — enough structure and enough openness

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

About itself,  the Review says:

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

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


LOGO


and/or, enough structure and enough openness

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                             and/or

                            AND/OR

                                                 and/or

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Good Night and/or A Wake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

This essay is an excerpt from the chapbook, “A pragmatic response to real circumstances,” available from Publication Studio, 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.

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A few resources


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