[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]
5 Questions originated out of the Chicago portion of the Town Hall Talks organized by Daniel Tucker and Nato Thompson as part of Creative Time’s Democracy In America project, in which 20 artists from a selected city were asked 5 questions about their work in a group interview. After that project was completed AREA Chicago took the transcripts and invited 20 more Chicago-based artists and cultural organizers to contribute to the interview project presented online at ?http://5questions.areachicago.org
Thanks to the participants, to Abby Satinsky for her administrative and editorial help, to Mairead Case for copy-editing help, to Jerome Grand and Eric Triantafillou for help recording and documenting, and to Daniel Tucker for working with the contributors. Excerpts from this transcript will be published in Proximity Magazine #3 and AREA Chicago #8, if you would like to publish an excerpt please get in touch. If you have any questions about this project please direct them to email@example.com
This excerpt, with responses from: ?Ed and Rachael Marszewski; Amanda Guiterrez; Mike Bancroft; Nance Klehm; Anne Elizabeth Moore; Coya Paz; Shannon Stratton; Edra Soto; Deborah Stratman; Dan Peterman; Marianne Fairbanks; Nicole Garneau; Amy Partridge; Sara Black; Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa; Salome Chasnoff
Given that the ways we make money impacts the type of culture we produce, how does the local economy effect your art practice? How do you work to obtain and share resources?
SALOME CHASNOFF We [Beyondmedia Education] partner with community-based groups and social change initiatives that lack media capacity. They lack the tools and the skills to make media on their issue, as well as find a forum for the media work. Part of our concern, then, is very practical; one of the key questions w
e ask when we’re collaborating on what to make is how we’re going to use what we make. So our primary audience is the affected community of the project that we’re putting together. We share resources by collaborating on a piece; we each bring different skills and resources to the project. One of the things that we’ve found is that the media representation, or the media frame, gives tremendous authority to the message. So not only is having a documentary sometimes a more forceful way of communicating in certain settings than just face-to-face, but also, when we’re working with groups and they do street interviews, standing there with a camera and a microphone could allow somebody to engage in a conversation in a way that just walking up to them on a street or on the bus wouldn’t.
A couple of years ago, we worked with a group of women in street-level sex work organization called Prostitution Alternatives Roundtable for about a year. We made a documentary because they were trying to get several bills through the legislature in Springfield. After the making of the documentary, they showed it to legislators and all kinds of other influential audiences and managed to get three bills passed through Springfield with the help of these screenings and discussions. They have also been able to educate public audiences who, in many cases, didn’t even know to have an interest in this issue because the people had no idea about the conditions and the various issues surrounding the lives of people involved. So this group of women was really successful in educating diverse audiences with their documentary as well as with face-to-face dialogue.
ELVIA RODRIGUEZ-OCHOA This really strikes at the core of where we’re from culturally, economically, politically. The three founders of Polvo—Miguel Cortez, Jesus Macarena, and I—are all from working class, immigrant Mexican households. If you wanted to get something done, you’d get your ass out there and work. So yes, we work like Mexicans. One of the groups that completely kicked our asses and inspired us to do this kind of work was the Zapatista movement coming out of Chiapasin the early ‘90s. We looked at what these are people out in the middle of the Lacandon Junglewere doing. They didn’t have running water. There was no electricity for every household or anything like that. Yet, they could hook up and send their communiqués out to the world, which kept them from being destroyed. And so we asked ourselves, “What the hell are we doing here, in the middle of the most industrial nation in the world, and people don’t know what we’re up to?” We had to get out there and do it ourselves.
We also come from an activist, self-help type of background, inspired by Black Panthers and the Young Lords. We said, “Well, we’re not going to sit around and wait for somebody else to do this stuff for us.” If nobody else wants to pay attention, that’s not on us. But we have to be out there, and we have to do something. Because the last thing that we should do is just be another group of people who sit around and bitch and moan about how things are without getting out and actually doing something about it. Some of the ways that we’ve been able to affect and help other people are when people want to come and show in our space, we say, “That’s fine, do whatever you want to do with this space, just return it to its condition once you leave.” And we don’t charge the person anything for doing that. If somebody wants to give us a little bit of change to help us out, or if they make a sale from having a show there and they want to share from that, that’s cool. But, you know, we don’t force that gallery system of 50 percent or anything like that; it’s what people want to share with us. And people have been really positive and helpful in sharing resources. If they don’t have money, some people will donate projectors and televisions and things like that. People are really about coming in and bartering and giving back because they’ve seen that we’ll open up and let them do what they feel they need to do in the space.
SARA BLACK This question is obviously important to us as the group Material Exchange, because [we] include both resources and economies within [our] name. Conceptually, the local—sometimes makeshift or informal—economies and the dominant economies are practically the stuff of our work; they’re our material. We began by observing and tapping into the material rejects of these economies, in the art world specifically. We have discovered numerous conditions that enable these rejects to exist. Of course, these conditions are complicated and deep. Interestingly, we’ve recognized in some significant ways that a principled rejection of the broader market-based economy can easily make for an auto-exploitation by artists, or else it is completely impossible in situations where artists have families and a bottom line that is not such that they can do a lot of work for free. Having those conditions in front of us has made for some really interesting investigations. We’ve been trying to maximize and extend other types of economies while consistently and creatively leveraging the dominant ones or getting inside of them. For instance, we are trying ot develop projects that bring the art typical externalization of labor costs to the table in a very conscious way. Trying to find alternative means to raise money to make work for, to use Jamie Kalvin’s phrase, lean and agile small businesses that don’t get burdened down in the not-for-profit industrial complex. You can spend a lot of time and labor on very little return. So I’ve been experimenting with some interesting for-profit experiments in that way. Creating alliances and relationships with individuals of varying skills and resources is huge, such as material resources, space, and information, which communities like this provide. Specifically, the community at the Experimental Station has an incubator for projects of ours, like Backstory Cafe, a kind of small business incubator. Or the willing host of events, like the Putt-Putt that took place last year, which was a fundraiser-game-meeting-space-design-thing. Places like this are a resource where at some moments the relationships there seem invisible in some ways. But at other times, it takes relaxing and allowing these resources to become visible over time, and trusting that they’ll be there, because they’re already in place.
AMY PARTRIDGE As a group [Cheap Art For Freedom Collective or Collective Anarchist Freedom Fuckers (CAFF)] we’re hysterical about the local and national economy, so this is the one question we absolutely wanted to answer. Also, because we’re really serious about the collaborative work, we collaboratively wrote an answer. Okay: We find ourselves in broken institutions, in a state of constant precarity and temporary jobs that require us to amass cultural capital and marketable skills and marketable skill sets on our own dime. The neo-liberal order requires the individual to become the capitalist, to create the cultural capital, to navigate the marketplace as an independent contractor. We want to argue that this is a local economy that affects our cultural art practice. Because for us, space is a freedom, because we find ourselves in this economy, there must be those practices in which the amassing of capital, monetary or cultural, does not factor for us. That’s why we make cheap art, in the spirit of Bread and Puppet, from found or recycled materials that are ready to hand out and that we give away for free. That’s why we call ourselves the Cheap Art for Freedom Collective. We also believe that art must not be a commodity, so we produce all of our art collectively and we do not seek individual or collective credit for our art. Our project can be described as an effort to practice our freedom to decorate the labyrinth. There’s something to say about how we share resources within our collective and our decision to assign a Minister of Money… We can talk about that at another time.
The other thing I do want to say is that the CAFF really does seek to form loose chains of interdependence with other collectives and groups. Chains that enable us all to circulate what resources we have or can secure through economies based on mutual aid and not capital accumulation. This is our final statement in response to this question: If we’re going to build a viable countercultural social movement, we have to overcome or bypass the current economies that bring us together as competitors for monetary and cultural capital. We must instead approach each other as brothers and sisters in solidarity. We believe this is the only way to slip through the neoconservative and neoliberal discourses of freedom that plague us as individuals and as a nation. The model of personal freedoms is wrongheaded. Freedom is a condition of interdependence and that’s why we call ourselves the Collective Anarchist Freedom Fuckers, as well. This is what we’re after.
NICOLE GARNEAU One of the ways that I am currently supporting my work is by a full-time job. I see that as a resource. I have a full-time job in which having a public persona as an artist is an asset to my work. Also, it doesn’t really seem to get in the way of my work if I do things that are illegal or perverted. That’s a really important resource. That cannot be said of most of the jobs that I’ve ever had or most of the jobs that I know of. So I really look at it as a very, very significant resource. Also, it’s not that hard; I have energy at the end of the day to do anything, and I have health insurance. When I think about how to live, that’s one of the ways I think about it. Currently, my project, Uprising andEvidence, is being presented by Links Hall. They’re providing administrative support. They don’t give me money, but they help me in a lot of ways with the whole administration of this project. That’s also a way of sharing resources. They already have an administrative structure; they’re trying to share it with me. I have a lot of networks that I’m trying to share with them.
Currently, when I’m looking for support and applying for things, I feel I look more for time and space than grant money. Well, I have more luck getting time and space than grant money. I find that I can make use of time and space in terms of residencies and stuff like that; it works for me. In terms of grant money, I recently applied for a large grant where you can sit in on your panel discussion, which I really recommend to anyone. What I realized was that I was looking for support for these highly conceptual performance projects that are durational, that are outside, that involve audience participation, and public engagement, and all of that kind of stuff. First of all, the panel said it was more activism than art. Second, I realized that the panel really could not understand the aesthetic choices that I was making. So as a performer, I realized that funders are looking for virtuosity in performance. That’s what they want to see you give. It’s hard for people to understand as an aesthetic choice the lack of artifice and the charm and social engagement that’s required to get twenty people on the street to do what you want them to do. To participate in something. I look at that as a performance skill, but generally that’s not looked at as [one]. And then Evidence is an attempt to have a revenue stream. And it’s also an attempt to have a revenue stream that does not affect the performances, so the performances can be free on the street, radical, and unaffected by the revenue stream. The revenue stream just takes pictures of it and writes a paragraph about it and sells that part. It doesn’t matter what I do on the street, because I can still always take a picture of it and write a paragraph about it, and hopefully sell that. That’s what I’m going for.
MARIANNE FAIRBANKS This is really important to us at Mess Hall. One thing is that we’re not a non-profit and we’re not a business; we’re neither of those things. That’s a very specific decision that we made at the beginning. We’re always trying to figure out what that means for us, and it’s something that I don’t know whether audiences or participants who come [to events] question or not, but because it’s undefined there’s something different there. As a model, something really different about us is that we get our space for free. I very rarely hear about such a situation; our landlord has extended this space to us for free. It’s radical generosity and it’s something that we’re trying to continue to extend through what we do within the space. There’s so much surplus; it goes so far beyond materials. The material is just one way to access and to get people interested and to redistribute what we have. Also, with skill shares there’s a great surplus of information and knowledge. If we can bring that into a space and share it and create these learning networks, that’s something that we’re really excited about. That’s how we obtain our resources, just by asking others to come and participate in that.
DAN PETERMAN There are a lot of economic issues that have been very relevant for me and others involved at the Experimental Station. The way I would talk about it, briefly, is by exploring micro-economies. Being involved frequently in clusters of ideas, clusters of constellations of different projects: there’s always an active economy of what are the things that pay, what are the things that carry their own weight, and what are the things that are using energy and consuming energy, more energy than they’re providing? Those kinds of economies are really interesting to me. They relate to questions of diversity and how something can be sustained. The last thing I would add is the importance within these kinds of economies of looking for the little economic engines, the things that can flip something into a net positive within that kind of economy, and asking, “What are those economic engines?” That’s where the breadth of an approach to culture defined by this group is such an incredible resource, because there are so many little interfaces that can become potential little economic engines that can be highly aesthetic, deeply thoughtful, and connect in society in so many different ways. How those things are strategically aligned is that ones that are very successful offset ones that are never going to break even. It’s about identifying those economies that might operate in one space, in a place like Mess Hall or Experimental Station, but also in an individual’s practice. For example, in the teaching and the public service and the activism. Then that question of managing micro-economies becomes very relevant.
DEBORAH STRATMAN I’m for trading. The real “free trade.” 99% of the art I get is from trades with other artists or writers or musicians. If you have something you’d like to trade for some of my work, let’s make a deal!
EDRA SOTO I never counted on my artwork as a way of making a living. I have always seen art as a way of communicating ideas intricately linked with social concerns. I work as an educator, so that means that I have a stable income which allows me to work and sometimes invest in projects that I believe in. I do have to admit that the economy has influenced somewhat my practice. I tend to be a bit more concerned about things like waste and producing work that potentially will become garbage. That said, I wouldn’t limit my actions to make the kind of work I want to make happen, but a very practical side of me tends to find solutions and adaptations that helps me justify that action.
SHANNON STRATTON In answering this question, I’m going to answer how the local economy affects the practice of starting and operating a particular kind of arts organization in lieu of a studio practice. threewalls is a project that was started to help invigorate the local arts community by bringing young, emerging professional artists to Chicago to live and make work and network with the community. After a few years, SOLO, intended to provide exhibition opportunities and a stipend to local artists emerged. Both these programs were meant to support artists with space, exhibition support and stipends—redistributing funds to artists and their projects—but the funding required to do so had to be raised externally. Essentially, we had to prove to the greater Chicago community, the arts community, and granting organizations that this program was valuable.
What has become apparent about running a program like this in Chicago is that accessing private funding is difficult and requires a certain focus, skill and dedication to fundraising, but at the same time, [it needs] an audience willing to fund a project like this with private funds. This work looking for and raising these funds is continually complicated and requires creative strategies for invigorating our “base”—the audience that directly benefits from our program—as well as Chicagoans interested in investing in our local visual arts community. It is a challenge, and requires constant energy focused on maintaining a very meager budget to keep the project afloat. Without a city culture that readily understands and supports the value of small non-profits or fringe exhibition venues, it often comes down to creating a program that is sustained through a variety of small fundraising initiatives (application fees, holiday parties, multiples, small donations etc.) aimed at our users, who wish to contribute to benefit all.
In the end, the local economy, which isn’t necessarily robust in terms of ready large funders for the visual arts means that programs like ours exist if the user community needs or wants them. That’s who will start these programs, maintain them, and donate to them, whether through volunteer hours or small donation. That work gets “redistributed” by creating a resource for the community, that hopefully remains relevant and responsive to the community’s needs.
COYA PAZ The local economy has a direct impact on Teatro Luna’s work. About 40% of our operating budget comes from ticket sales, and another 30% comes from touring our shows to presenting organizations and educational institutions. Such reliance on direct sales can be anxiety producing—we never know in advance if we are going to be able to meet our budget—but it is also an important part of our artistic practice. It comes down to this: We absolutely have to make a show that people are going to like, relate to, and return to. We work hard to create personal relationships with our audience so that we are in touch with what our audience wants to see, and so that our audiences have an ongoing investment in our work. For years, we’ve been seeing the same people over and over again at our shows. These are people who know our work and support our work, and we feel a responsibility to be accountable to their expectations, not just because they’re paying our bills, but because they are the very community at the heart of our work. Teatro Luna has always been invested in creating work by, for, and about Latina women, plays that speak to a wide variety of Latina experiences. Relying on direct sales means we never lose sight of this goal.
ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE Yeah, and this becomes extra tricky when you’re one of the people who points this out, right? So with Unmarketable [Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (New Press 2007)], in charging that personal economic decisions impact final product messaging, I was held to very high scrutiny on this very issue. But you know, I’ve been doing this for a long, long time, and when I publish, I publish with independent and/or not-for-profit facilities that avoid making use of corporate distribution structures and have a grounding in a political understanding of how our media operates, The New Press being the most prominent and best of these. But this doesn’t pay very well, which I also acknowledged in Unmarketable, so you have to structure your life around the ability to make those decisions in the first place. Eat low on the food chain and cook all the time. Bike. Etc. I mean, it is tricky: my whole practice is about creating vast quantities of things to share with other people, whether in terms of objects or information, and then distributing it all for free whenever possible, and it gets a little self-defeating if you can no longer afford to do that work.
NANCE KLEHM I work a variety of economies—cash, exchange (skills or goods), and gift. In addition, I actively identify and resource waste streams and unvalued resources. Both my economization and resourcefulness allow for flexibility and strength in the general flow of my production.
MIKE BANCROFT It is a complete symbiosis, for me, as a community artist in Chicago and an organizer/administrator for Co-op Image, between the objectives of the work and the local economy (for better or worse). Oftentimes shortfalls in the local economy establish the need for the work that I do, such as: the lack of expressive arts programming in neighborhood schools, questions around food security, or the lack of employment opportunities for youth. These needs prompt next steps and possible collaborations in response. On the other hand, the social entrepreneurship and contracted service ventures that I oversee rely entirely on the success of local economy, and aim to contribute to that success.
Partnerships and resource sharing is the only way that I could do what I do, like the Piñata Factory, which is a mass production of piñatas scripted for installation in the fenced off area of a highway underpass. The piñatas are the output but are far less important than the community and awareness surrounding the hierarchy of the manufacturing. Youth from the Co-op Image Art Center, community members, a Bowen High School art class (with their teacher Bert Stabler), and volunteer artists activate the piece by increasing the scale while giving it a context.
AMANDA GUITERREZ With my work En Memoria, I tried to collaborate with non-profit organizations working around gentrification in Pilsen—but I didn’t get a good response to it. The video took a critical position on gentrification as a class rather than a race-based issue, without doing so in an overly emotional or strident way; it didn’t attempt to identify with the “local community.” [The video] has been shown in art festivals dealing with the history of immigrant mobility (the Pilsen to Pilsenfestival) or gentrification and the art market in Pilsen (The Podmajersky Show)—but the audience has mainly been artists. I think that there are audiences outside of this sphere who would be able to engage a more complex perspective on the issue, but I guess these particular non-profit organizations are afraid to complicate their point with other perspectives. I have participated with them in other activities, but I don’t think they were interested in the point of view that the documentary took. In that respect, I wonder how your work can really have an impact when the so-called “community” is not open to receive it.
ED & RACHAEL MARSZEWSKI I am not sure what this question means. Our “art practice” has multiple components and different functions and purposes. We will will make some general statements regarding how we are funded and operate. We believe that if there is not a community of individuals, businesses, and other supporters willing to help fund our projects, then [the projects] should not exist. For seventeen years we have published Lumpen magazine based on this premise. Obviously there are people that believe in the services we provide to wider communities. And the people that actually spend their money on sponsoring the magazines or attending events are the main reason we are able to accomplish our projects. This model has influenced our other practices.
In general we like to believe that, even without proper funding, anything we would like to do is possible. We have demonstrated time and time again that indeed anything is possible, but it sometimes it comes with a hefty price tag. Stress is one thing that comes to mind. And sometimes we make mistakes and spend too many resources on projects that simply fail. We also make personal financial commitments while working other jobs to support and fund our facility, the publishing projects, the festivals, and a myriad of other activities. We rely on volunteers and ad hoc membership in the organization to staff, plan, and produce events. This sometimes makes it hard to be professional or committed to details in the management of day-to-day activities. It’s also hard to coordinate an all-volunteer group of individuals who also have other lives and commitments.
Poor transportation and services keeps some people from reaching our main hub and space, the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Since most of our projects are produced and funded by small donations made by people who attend an event, it makes it difficult to build and improve the scope and breadth of our projects, festivals, and exhibitions when we cannot exponentially increase the number of attendees. We try to be realistic and plan our budgets without knowing if we can attain the final budgets needed until after an event, festival, or project has concluded. This is a very risky economic shell game. If we succeed in raising enough money to cover or exceed costs, we breath easy. If we don’t, then we are fucked.
We find that it’s increasingly harder to get state and private funding for our non-profit organization, Public Media Institute, despite our exemplary track record of producing projects and providing services to numerous communities and individuals. But then again, we do not rely on this fiscal relationship for anything but helping us attain funding for other people’s projects. In general, we encourage people to take advantage of us. We offer open platforms for cultural production that individuals or groups can plug into or utilize at any time. That can mean our spaces, our publications, or our connections to various nodes in a network that we are part of. We don’t have any ground rules. Hard work, self direction and collaboration are encouraged. ◊