Archive for the ‘musings’ Category
Posted on March 2nd, 2013 in musings, project news and tagged research, thinktank
The Think Tank that has yet to be named has just publicly unveiled the first phase of a project exploring how people’s support structures are created and maintained, and how we might then work to build more resilient and robust support structures in the future. As a way to push the project outward and forward, we have developed a survey which invites others to reflect on their support structures—both personal and institutional. This survey will provide us with a baseline of data and stories; and we imagine this information laying the groundwork for future workshops, visualizations, and conversations that probe our structures of support. If you are interested in completing the survey, jump over to the Think Tank site and have a look.
We’ve been thinking about and discussing this project for several months now, and I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly the genesis of our interest in structures of support. From a very personal point of view, my partner and I are keenly aware of our reliance on those around us for support, and that we and our children would not have the life we live without their generosity. Reciprocally, we try to be deliberate in how we support others, and how we model that for our kids. The way in which we build and sustain a network of support among our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens radiates outward, cascading from the daily choices we make in our lives. Increasingly, I am striving to design an intentional life for myself and my family, one that acknowledges the interconnectedness of our every action with the world and that blurs the false apart-ness we are made to feel toward ourselves, each other, and our environment.
At the heart of my wondering about the structures of support is a need to fold what we learn back into the support structures of others, in effect amplifying and transmitting resources to others in order to strengthen ways of being communally in the world. For me, the urgency around humanity’s need to both unearth existing support structures and build new ones appropriate to our time has been propelled by the writing of Ivan Illich. While the richness and subtlety of his thinking and critique unfolds for me daily, the premise of much of his work is rather straightforward and singular: Our industrial-scaled institutions and tools have overpowered us to such a totalizing degree that we are no longer able to disentangle ourselves from their colonizing effects. That is, schools and universities, governments and public agencies, and corporations and organizations of all kinds have demolished our individual and collective capacity to provide for ourselves and each other.
With scholarly acumen and sensitivity, Illich’s oeuvre charts a trajectory toward a renewed sense of autonomy from industrial institutions and values toward the deschooling (de-institutionalization) of society, embracing convivial tools, and reclaiming vernacular values. For me, the trajectory of the Structures of Support work aligns precisely with these goals. It describes the life I want to create for myself, for the people I love, and for all those I do not know but yet wish to live fully with support from and in support of others. It is a ridiculously ambitious project, and one that can never be complete, but we go on.
Posted on December 31st, 2012 in musings and tagged memory, nature, sketch
In winter of 1506 the cold winds came down from the north with a fury, bringing with them a polar frost…
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There was no rain that year. The old adage about April showers proved false…
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As the spring thaw cracked the frozen ground into a million tiny fragments, the first shards of green…
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Centuries passed, slow behemoths pushing into the wind. Color had drained from the world, leaving only outlines of shapes and forms. Or rather, there remained memories of colors long gone which were overlaid on gray tones filled between the lines…
Posted on November 23rd, 2012 in musings and tagged mapping, memory, philadelphia, spatial_practice
I am not alone in my longtime fascination with maps. My earliest map memories originate during boyhood family road trips across the southwestern United States while diligently following our route with my finger on the many free gas station roadmaps I collected from the various states we traversed. Also during my boyhood, I collected an array of maps brought to me via our family’s subscription to National Geographic, these all with quite different programs than the pragmatic roadmaps I consulted on our journeys. Over time, my interest in maps evolved as I began to travel on my own and by different modes of transportation. Maps became much more a necessity for augmenting my less than reliable sense of direction as I explored foreign lands. They also became a mnemonic device I used to piece together fragments of spatial experiences collected during my travels.
Increasingly, as I matured as an artist, my aesthetic and conceptual interest in landscape, cities, and architectural space meant looking to maps as a way to orient and represent my relationship to the world around me. Soon, the social and political dimension of maps and mapmaking and its attendant discourse (particularly from the field of human/cultural geography) greatly impacted my work, and I identified myself with critical spatial practices, a theoretical designation corralling a diverse group of contemporary and historical artists, designers, architects, geographers, and urbanists. In the more recent past, maps again became much more pragmatic tools for me in the context of my work as an activist and organizer promoting community interests in large-scale urban planning and development issues in Philadelphia. As such, land use and zoning maps overlayed upon plat maps overlayed upon political district maps overlayed upon environmental impact maps revealed narratives of competing interests vying for control of the space of the city.
The above is a grossly abridged account of some key moments from my life with maps. (It occurs to me that a longer, more detailed history might be quite helpful to chart a major thematic concern of my life and inform my future work!) The impetus for this reflection stems from a map experience I had earlier this week at the newly renovated Philadelphia History Museum (formerly known as the Atwater Kent Museum) where the ground floor features a room-sized map of Philadelphia. Stepping into a map of that scale places you on the outer edge of the smaller, conventional map’s quality of abstraction — the map ceases to be a singular, digestible whole taken in all at once and instead must be physically navigated in order to piece together the territory. (In this way, it takes on the quality of the map described by Borges in “On Exactitude in Science” where the pursuit of the perfect map yields one that is overlayed onto the earth at a scale of 1:1; the map begins to become — and ultimately supersede — the terrain.) So, I spent a long time exploring the map, checking my sense of the spatial relationships between various districts in Philadelphia and piecing together visual fragments and memories of the city according to my movement through this map. The experience was engrossing and strangely satisfying, as each point on the map led to the next location to discover, and then to double back to a previous one so that I might triangulate my spatial awareness.
I relate this map experience to two other exemplary ones I’ve had. First, one of my favorite spatial points in Philadelphia is in the exact center of the City Hall courtyard where on the ground is painted an image of William Penn’s original grid plan for the city — and this point, of course, is the exact center of the original land area of Philadelphia. To stand on this central point is to experience a strange correspondence between the two centers: that of the map overlayed upon that of the city itself. My second reference is the Mapparium at The Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, which is a 35-foot reverse globe that one walks into. The cognitive dissonance of being inside a globe looking at the map of the world as if you were on the outside of the globe is so disorienting to the point of being irreconcilable.
Posted on November 8th, 2012 in musings and tagged germantown, philadelphia, public sphere, walking
We’ve lived in the Germantown section of Philadelphia for over two years, and there is still so much we do not know about this place. We do not know the extent of its outer edges, its urban nooks, its quiet side streets, its vacant lots and abandoned buildings. We do know our block, and those blocks surrounding ours. We know the various paths we routinely walk during the course of our regular and rhythmic movements within the neighborhood. These include: to and from the train station, to and from the library, to and from the drugstore, to and from the park, to and from the community garden. We walk often in the evenings with our kids, in a final push to drain their endless energy. We walk “our loop”, as it is known to us, and we anticipate the things that we’ll meet along the way — the houses of people we know, the long wall the kids walk on, the empty parking lot they run screaming circles in, the front porch with the old, tired cats, the cactus in the sidewalk where more than once they’ve caught stickers in their tiny fingers. Some evenings, our loop is detoured by a stroll along the secret alley, so called because it is an overgrown, infrequently travelled street that runs along the backside of large urban residential lots filled with formative old houses topped by rusty weathervanes and patchworks of slate and asphalt roofs.
Less frequently, we venture further outside of this radius — a range established by the maximum capacity of little legs with limited patience — to explore unfamiliar territory, much of it dotted by the string of colonial-era historic sites and houses that give Germantown its distinct character: the Wyck, Grumblethorpe, Germantown Friends, Johnson House and others. But this is a living city, and so along the way we find the spaces that give a place texture: commercial corridors, neat brick rowhouses, grand stone twins, churches of all denominations and sizes, ancient graveyards, well-used and disused parks, faded storefronts, crumbling warehouses, vacant lots. This is a living neighborhood, a working neighborhood, a struggling neighborhood filled with people doing all of the things that people do. Waiting for buses, waving hellos to friends and neighbors, buying lottery tickets and newspapers at the kiosks, smoking, idling on corners, visiting libraries, worshipping in churches, sleeping on park benches, hustling passersby, waiting in lines, drinking coffee, yelling and laughing, getting by and not getting by.
On election day, we voted at Mt. Zion and then commenced with our own idling along Germantown Ave, one of the main arteries of Germantown (of Philadelphia, actually) and zone of convergence of so many forces and histories that give Germantown its flavor. Childless on this day, we walked and talked, responding to the vicissitudes of the space and following, like so many ramblers before us, the psychogeographic contours of the streets. We stopped and started, peeked into windows and down baker’s alleys, remarked on curiosities, snapped photos of idiosyncratic moments. We saw patterns and made connections. We made plans. We marveled. At one point, we entered a vacant corner lot, carpeted in low grass and no doubt owned by the city due to its telltale boundary fence of pressure-treated lumber. A line of young paulownia trees screened the southern edge of the lot and met at the western edge a large expanse of brick wall on the adjacent building. We felt a gravitational pull into this lot, as a space that simply felt good to be in at that moment, but also as a space of possibility in how that feeling might be used to activate the site in some new way. Flea market? Garden? Camp? Meeting place? We’d like to make plans, or plan to make plans. It takes time. It takes being in a place and living next to the people you share that place with.
Posted on August 7th, 2011 in musings and tagged democracy, leadership, politics
Wandering through the archives of this blog, I found a post I wrote just a few days after Obama was elected in November of 2008. I recognized in it the feeling of momentousness with respect to the election of Obama, but what I had forgotten was the sharpness of my skepticism and frustration around American politics. Not surprising, of course, given how spectacularly bitter that 2008 campaign season was—and here we are again at the beginning of the next one. At that time I wrote:
Apparently, I sober up pretty quick, because, while Obama’s achievement is impressive, it must be understood within the context of a demonstrably corrupt and increasingly militarized and corporatized neoliberal political system. Yes, Obama won — and I may take pleasure at that because I support the winning side this time — but he won in no small part because of his superior gamesmanship, by playing the game better than his opponents. The rules of this political and electoral game have absolutely not changed. A more productive “hope” we might have now is that under this new leadership there might arise the possibility to change the nature of the American political system. Will Obama work to change the rules of the game now that he has been elected? Will the Clintonites with whom he is apparently surrounding himself change the rules? Will they change the rules (as Bush did) to consolidate and secure power, or to distribute power? Emerging from the hazy warmth of the election, I ask: With this incredibly significant democratic event, how do we leverage this slight shift towards the Center-Left to do the work that needs to be done in order to (re)build a civil society where economic and social justice extend to all of our fellow citizens? How can we work to open up authentic spaces for participation, discourse, and difference?
2 plus years on, in the putrid wake of the recent debt-ceiling debacle, there’s not much to feel optimistic about when it comes to government and its so-called leadership around the really pressing, urgent problems we face. The dysfunction is structural, embedded in the fabric of our political culture and possibly in the very strain of “representative” democracy that is our system of governance. The current political paradigm is one of extreme polemics and banal partisanship, a context that prohibits politicians (with few exceptions) from creatively addressing any of these systematic problems. Understanding our current political situation in terms of paradigms is useful because, as Thomas Kuhn has so aptly pointed out in the history of science, the dominant paradigm constitutes the frame through which we view (and subsequently make) the world. It is only through a profound shift in the dominant paradigm that truly new approaches and methods can be developed—that is, entirely new worldviews which might completely recalibrate our relationship to the world and each other.
We heard much in last few weeks about the “leadership” of the respective parties within congress, and Obama and his administration count among that “leadership” cadre as well. Sometimes the term was used descriptively to refer to the senior members of the Senate or the House; sometimes it was used pejoratively as jibe to force the other side live up to what is implied by the designation. Regardless, the more I heard about—and from—the “leadership,” the more hollow it sounded. Not only are these political actors constrained by the current, death-embracing political paradigm, but they are also lacking so many qualities that might lead to innovative approaches to our most urgent problems: empathy, humility, an understanding of genuine collaboration, ecosystem awareness, critical consciousness, a willingness to fail productively (and on and on perhaps). In a recent interview, Otto Scharmer of Theory U fame (I borrow “ecosystem awareness” from him) has this to say about leadership:
Today, if you talk with leadership practitioners, everyone gives you the same thing—which is change and institutional transformation. Everyone. What is that? If you unpack that, what is the nature of change? Well, it is transforming consciousness. Because change essentially is helping people to see the bigger picture, to see that they are part of a bigger picture. You level people up from a more narrow, egocentric perspective to a perspective where you take into account the views of other stakeholders, and maybe even of the larger ecosystem that you are a part of. So, real change practitioners, institutional leaders today all deal with consciousness. You deal with the transformation of who man is in consciousness. That’s what change work is about.
It’s possible that government may yet have a role to play in such transformation—but it’s so hard to see on the macro level, within the monolith that is the American national political system where brute force and gamesmanship (theatrical or not) make up the modus operandi. The change work that Scharmer describes, if it is to be meaningful, will have a profound practical impact on people’s lives, but it will also dwell in the realm of consciousness where the first steps toward a paradigm shift must occur.