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 January 8th, 2010 in musings and tagged activism, art, philadelphia, taz, thinktank
Dilemmas—bona fide dilemmas—are tough. They present difficult decisions with less than ideal alternative choices to be made. Thinking about a potential dilemma in the making earlier today, I went back to a text I had written a few years ago for a Think Tank project that addressed another perceived dilemma. “The Insurmountable Dilemma of a Rooted Practice” was written and then read as part of a performance that I did with four other Directors at Artivistic in Montreal in October 2007. I have not previously made the text available, so I’ve decided to publish it here now. Past writings serve as a marker of a specific frame of mind—spatial, temporal, political, intellectual—and that is evident to me in this example. In some ways my thinking has evolved, but in large part the assertions and questions are still relevant for me.
The Insurmountable Dilemma of a Rooted Practice
In early July of 2006, at the invitation of the Director of the Department for the Investigation of the Unmentionable, four individuals gathered at the corner of Coral and Hagert Streets in the Kensington section of Philadelphia—on the sidewalk, with lawn chairs, looking professional. I was there because I was one of them. I am one of them. They, or we—really, I and you—are the Think Tank that has yet to be named. I am the Director of the Department for the Investigation of Meaning. On the sidewalk in lawn chairs looking professional, we held the first Publicly Held Private Meeting.
As a matter of origins and motivations and ontological inquiries—as a provisional history of things that probably are not, nor never will be, historical—we might ask ourselves a few fundamental questions: Where were we? Why were we there? What did we see? What did we do? Or, rather, as a dialectical tactic, we might ask ourselves: Where were we not, and why were we not somewhere else? What did we not see, and what did we not do? We might ask ourselves. Just as likely, though, I might ask you, or you might ask me. (And, to be prudent, let’s not get caught up in the past tense—although we might get caught up in the past, in the memory, and in the remembering.)
Thomas burst out of the Puerto Rican bar across the street sipping on a large bottle of beer that he was carrying in a brown paper bag. We were on the sidewalk in lawn chairs looking professional and he approached us without reservation, curious, amicable. He asked us what we were doing and wanted to know what kind of meeting we were having. We told him about the Think Tank that has yet to be named. We told him about how each of us was the Director of our own departments, and how that allowed us to reveal each of our own biases and positions. We told him about the Publicly Held Private Meeting, how we wanted to be out in the world and talk about the places we occupy and talk with others about these places too. We told him we were artists and that we were concerned about how our presence in the neighborhood might be doing harm to that place. Thomas immediately sat down and stretched out on the sidewalk. Animated, he listened intently and then told us about himself. I don’t remember many details about what he told us, but the exchange was profound, nonetheless. I remember the overwhelming sense of being in the right place at the right time and for the right reason. Thomas had sat down and stretched out on the sidewalk with us (albeit looking somewhat less professional and less peculiar) and he listened to us and looked us in the eye and we looked him back in the eye and listened to him.
Thomas got it. We were close to getting it ourselves.
“You had to be there.” None of this is new or particularly interesting. “You had to be there.” Lest my account devolve into mystification: “You had to be there.” You weren’t there, so you don’t know. She [point to Meredith] and he [point to Jethro] were there—they know. As for you, you just weren’t there. None of you are from there. Where are you from? How do you decide where “from” is?
How do we decide where “from” is? As travelers, we ask and are asked: “where are you from”? I answer: I’m from the United States. I’m from Philadelphia. I’m from Fishtown. I’m from Palmer Street. I name a place. But it’s also about identity. Before we travel, we pack our bags: socks, shirts, pants, toothbrush, nail clippers… and identity. Our identity is in part localized in a place (places), in being “from” somewhere. This is turf, the ‘hood, the ‘burbs, the streets, ownership and agency, boundaries, roots, nomadism, isolationism, colonialism, cosmopolitanism, provincialism, us versus them, outsider/insider, trespassers and interlopers, homeboys and homegirls, hicks and city-slickers.
As an aside: Does my arrival in Montreal herald a sort of homecoming? My ancestors came through French Canada—one in particular, a minister name Beaudry, perhaps passed through this city in the early 19th century. Did you notice the Rue Beaudry, or the Beaudry metro stop?
Regardless of where we’re from, we’re all here now.
“Ich bin ein Berliner!” I am a pancake! I am a jelly donut! Well, not exactly. On June 23, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech in West Berlin to an anxious yet enthusiastic crowd of West Berliners. Two years after the Wall was completed, they are still reeling from the fact that the waters of Soviet-style communism have risen up around them. Expressing solidarity with the West Berliners, Kennedy descends on the island, stakes the ideological flag of western democracy, and proudly declares himself a citizen of West Berlin: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Funny thing, though: in other parts of West Germany, a Berliner is a kind of fruit-filled pancake, a jelly doughnut. No big deal—Berlin, the world, knew what he meant. Still, it might not ever be enough to simply say for oneself: “I am from this or that place”—even if it’s only meant as a rhetorical gesture. There’s a whole host of other people who have a stake in where you’re from as well. So often, being from somewhere depends upon the consensual acceptance of a larger group of people who also claim to be from there.
The place where I now live: the neighborhood of Fishtown, in Philadelphia, on Palmer Street. I’m not really from there. I mean, I’m from there in that I was there before I was here and I’ll go back to there when I leave here—but I am not from there. You know what I mean? It’s not that I misspoke earlier when I said I was from Fishtown, but it’s complicated. Many of the families in my neighborhood have lived there for generations; homes are passed down from grandparents to parents to children; kids grow up on one block and buy houses on the next one over. I am not from there. I’m a newbie, the ones who are from there say. I am a jelly doughnut.
How do we decide where “from” is? Take a longer view, and maybe my neighbors are not really from there either. Previous waves of Europeans settled long before them—English, Scots, German, Polish. Plenty of streets are still named after those forgotten colonials. And, of course, before them were the native peoples, the Lenape, the Delaware, the Shawnee. Down where Shackamaxon Street dead-ends at the Delaware River, you might wonder in vain about how these indigenous tribes answered the question of where “from” is when they signed the treaty with the renegade Quaker, Billy Penn, Pennsylvania’s namesake and Philadelphia’s founder. It is a truism that the native American world view did not share in the European preoccupation with dominion over the land, with a totalizing ow nership per se. Who exactly is from Fishtown anyway?
Being both from and not from my neighborhood is difficult: Although I’ve only lived there a short while, I and many others have expended much energy and time organizing the community in advance of sustainable planning and development. We’ve advocated for open and transparent public processes and responsible and accountable governance. This activism has specifically focused on organizing community opposition to two Las Vegas-sized casinos that are planned to be built across the street from residential homes along the waterfront. It has been highlighted that many of us organizers are new to the neighborhood, new to Philadelphia in general—that is, not from Philadelphia—which is noted as a source of our irreverence for political authority and our “naive” belief in citizens’ rights to self-determination. Our allies are quick to embrace us, to laud our efforts. Our opponents, on the other hand, are quick to point out that we newbies are not from the neighborhood and have little stake in its future. From-ness is measured in longevity, and I’m holding on to the shortest straw.
How do you decide where “from” is? Furthermore, who, besides you, decides where your “from” is?
Regardless of where we’re from, we’re all here now. Gathered together in this place we are a kind of occupying force, an assembly of emissaries—although, perhaps positioned at the more benign end of the spectrum of all possible connotations of the idea of occupation. It’s occupying nonetheless. It’s temporary, provisional, flexible, with purpose. At this moment, most of us are occupying the space between “from” and “not from”, between this collective “here” and our respective “there’s”. You and I—we—the Think Tank that has yet to be named—draw upon the places where we are from in order to interrogate, understand, engage, and activate the places where we are not from: this space right here, for example.
In the space between “from” and “not from”, we have these questions: What does it mean to export the local and site-specific? How can a practice rooted in a rich, nuanced interrogation of an intimately known place be relocated effectively to another, unfamiliar place? To what extent does such a localized art / activist practice rely on internalized assumptions about the valorization of indigenousness and the privileging of “authentic” spatial occupation? And what is “authentic” spatial occupation anyway? How can we even precisely locate indigenous? We worry over these problems, these difficulties. We have described this nagging feeling of failure in our work as the Insurmountable Dilemma of a Rooted Practice.
We go on anyway. Or not. Maybe we stop and start over somewhere else, or just stop altogether, leaving the traces of a question, a thought, a practice, for others to take up. If there is an intellectual—hell, even spiritual—model of praxis that we Directors embrace and perhaps ultimately corrupt, then it might the TAZ, the Temporary Autonomous Zone. The mystical theorist Hakim Bey cobbled together an account of the TAZ from stolen fragments: pirate utopias, Nietzche’s last mad musings, pagan carnivales, cybernetics, repurposed sufism, Situationism, etc etc etc. The TAZ is both singular and multifarious. It exists as a particular instance, but also describes a network of relations, an “occupation”, a rift, the tearing of space and its mending. The Temporary Autonomous Zone: Throw a party. Come together provisionally. Eke out a space of your own. Appear and then disappear. Embody radical, perpetual becoming. Terrorize the world with poetry. Transgress everything. Know that it will not last. Negate. Destroy to create. Escape to Croatan. Go away and never come back.
Hakim Bey tells us that the TAZ is like an uprising. It is a festival, a revelry that has been unloosed or forced to vanish from its traditional moment in time and space. The TAZ may appear freely and then dissolve itself to reform elsewhere and elsewhen. It possesses “a nose for the ripeness of events, and an affinity for the genius loci.” Attuned to the psychotopology of a place—the “flows of forces” and “spots of power”—the TAZ is rooted spatio-temporally, if only for a moment.
So let’s call this a minor uprising, stop for now, and see you again in the next place.