Mess Hall at Seven Years

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

In 2003, developer Al Goldberg made an investment in the form of a gift to Temporary Services—proprietorship of a storefront at 6932 North Glenwood Avenue rent free, provided that it would be used to promote the arts in Rogers Park and participate in neighborhood events. As regards this original investment, the “success” of Mess Hall could be calculated by considering its role in the gradual production of what’s now known locally as “The Glenwood Avenue Arts District”—several blocks of Rogers Park which now host a Farmer’s Market, an annual “arts festival” and which are currently being fitted out with new street lamps and wider sidewalks by the city.

For more than seven years, Mess Hall key holders have framed our collective work in terms of a “generosity economy.” The phrase imagines ourselves as part of a collective response to scenarios globalization presents; and most of the key holders would at any given time more or less agree that the Mess Hall assumes both an exploratory and oppositional stance to the phenomena of global life.1

Our continual effort to “build community” and the mandate that “no money ever changes hands at Mess Hall” speak to our effort to create a communal event which escapes capitalist processes of accumulation. But what exactly constitutes an uncapitalized-upon excess of feeling part of a creative community? How do we feel it in our bodies? What is life like on the shop floor of the affective labor factory? There can be no single answer to these questions. The uncaptured value remains free in part because of its grounding in bodies which act as immediate and temporary sites of communal feeling.

Mess Hall events have atmosphere which may linger but are seldom adequately recorded. And they can be sites of momentary pleasure and unexpected messiness that makes it difficult to say exactly what happened. More importantly, any finality of the meaning of common life is suspended because we are bodies that remain engaged in the process of labor. We continue to care for, with and alongside each other, continue to attempt to dwell together in the space by means of the love we have for it and our desire to see it remain a living thing. We accomplish this generosity by committing ourselves to this new confusion of work and life.

We scramble to keep the space open, juggling two, three or four jobs, even as we are swept along in migrations across the nation and the globe. As laboring bodies, we must continue to articulate the conditions in which we find ourselves. We resist by learning how to recognize the cadences of the new economy, its modes of surveillance and its assumptions about what Gertrude Stein used to call “human nature and the human mind.” We must describe our new conditions of life to each other in ways that do not absent our bodies from the picture.

When the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1973, the text represented and helped to popularize a mode of collective feminist activity, “consciousness raising.” At Mess Hall on a good night there is the same atmosphere of generosity. A communal sense of belonging emerges through acts of attention to the common ways of dwelling in which participants find themselves as themselves. A such moments a new structure of feeling is born out of exhausted and distracted bodies by sustaining an open-ended attention to the possibility that we constitute a larger body—the powers and pleasures of which we have only begun to explore. ◊



1.  See Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002), which argues that “a strong desire for organizations and environments that let them be creative” exists among the upwardly mobile professionals of the day, and that art galleries, cultural centers and similarly marked sites of creativity might be used as an assertive that would allow these laborers to accept the kind of contracts available to them in a newly feminized labor market.


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