In Memoriam: Benjamin J. Schaafsma 1982 – 2008

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

Ben believed that if a desirable resource didn’t exist, there was no reason to wait for someone else to wait for someone else to put it in place.  Leading by example, he taught us that a good idea need not remain only an idea.  He believed that people could produce meaningful and lasting change with little more than their own goodwill and enthusiasm.  His deep emotional commitment to challenging the role of arts organizations in our society has inspired the realization of many ‘other options’.  With Ben, we at InCUBATE learned how to approach the relationship between art and everyday life in an entirely new way.
The week after Ben’s death, we held an open house at our space in order for those people who knew him to come together and reflect.  Our space was packed, the event was standing room only, people spilled out of the door and onto the sidewalk.  Knowing Ben, he would have eventually found away for all those present to rub shoulders with one another.  His unique personality had touched everyone, but instrumentalization was never the goal.  He was a relentless networker with an uncanny type of rolodex in his head; one which could only have been generated by taking a genuine interest in people.  If Ben put you into conversation with someone, it was because he recognized something special about both of you – something that could only be produced through mutual collaboration.
At InCUBATE, our collaborations with Ben began spontaneously, but before we knew it, the four of us were soon spending nearly all of our time together.  Be it in class, on the train, at a party, or even over gmail chat, we were soon experts at the art of rapid fire brainstorming sessions.  As InCUBATE began to expand we became insanely excited and insanely busy, yet somehow along the way we also learned to think as a team and trust one another’s judgments.  Ben was constantly working things out, always questioning, always critical, and always dedicated to helping InCUBATE grow.  In turn, he expected nothing less from each of us.  His vision kept us on track and his generosity kept us humble. We are all better off for having known him.  He will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.
We will fondly remember how Ben was constantly introducing us to his home town of Grand Rapids, MI.  It was there that he helped found the innovative community blogging platform  Yet despite his great enthusiasm for blogging and for the internet, we will remember how Ben always stressed that fact that these things could only serve as annotations of everyday life.  With Ben, we learned that forging real connections and developing flexible infrastructure would require something more.
We will remember our adventures in Eastern Europe, how Ben led the way in seeking out radical art collectives on the fringes of Budapest and Riga.  We will remember negotiating cheap rent for the storefront at 2129 N. Rockwell.  How we made plans and blueprints for the space.  How we would meet after class to go build furniture and paint the walls.  How nasty the place was in March, but how awesome it was by May.  We will remember how Ben curated and initiated various public programs, lectures and symposia both from within and without the support of larger cultural institutions.  We will remember working with so many different people, spaces, groups, residents, chefs, artists, institutions, collectives, etc.  With Ben in mind, we will remember what we demand of our future.
For two years now, we at InCUBATE have undertaken a number of projects, including the operation of our storefront space and residency program, organizing traveling exhibitions, selling homebrewed beer and kombucha, facilitating the exchange of mail art, and administering the Sunday Soup Granting Program. Our projects have been exhibited at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands and at Creative Time’s Democracy in America exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory.  To date, our Sunday Soup granting program has managed to raise and re-distribute over $3000.  Our self-organized exhibition entitled Other Options has involved over a dozen different projects, and has traveled from Chicago to Grand Rapids, MI; Pittsburgh, PA; Syracuse, NY; and New York City.
Over the course of the past year Ben had begun to publish extensively, writing on the history of artist-initiated programs to self fund culture and to create their own economic and organizational sustainability outside of traditional means. His writings have appeared in Phonebook, AREA Chicago, Proximity Magazine and the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. Ben’s singular vision, intelligence and emotional dedication will continue to drive us forward everyday.
Obviously our practice will never be the same without Ben Schaafsma, yet nevertheless InCUBATE will keep going.  We have touched upon something much bigger than ourselves.  Ben’s concept of Other Options stretches far beyond the specific context and implications of InCUBATE as a storefront space, as a series of traveling exhibitions, as a revolving door of residents, as a bowl of soup or bottle of homebrewed kombucha; Other Options is a way of seeing, a unique approach to art & life, the challenge to do-it-yourself, to make something from nothing, and the knowledge that we can do it together.

– Abby Satinsky, Bryce Dwyer and Roman Petruniak (InCUBATE)

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