Infrastructures

Here is a long-lost interview that was conducted via email between Artivistic and I in August of 2011:

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Artivistic: One impetus for this conversation, between a member of Artivistic and a former editor of AREA Chicago, is our mutual attraction to the term infrastructure as an organizing logic for our work. I want to see if it’s possible, first of all, to clarify what we mean by this term.

How did your involvement in radical left politics inform your desire to develop AREA as an infrastructural project? Can you describe how you came to think of your work with AREA as infrastructure building?

DT: My publishing experience right before AREA started was that I was on the advisory group of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest and in 2004 we released an essay by Nato Thompson entitled “Contributions to a Resistant Visual Culture Glossary” where he discussed “Infrastructures of Resonance” which was essentially his conception of the networked web of relationships, media, etc that underlies something that is perceived as being an effective art or activist project. In the same issue Marina Sitrin and Emilio Sparato wrote in “New Languages from New Practices in Argentina” that “Horizontalidad is a social relationship that implies, as it sounds, a flat plane upon which to communicate…[it] requires the use of direct democracy and implies non-hierarchy. This term that emerged initially in the unemployed workers’ movements as a descriptive word for a practice was popularized with the expansion of the Asambleas, particular in urban areas like Buenos Aires, after the popular rebellion of the 19/20 of December 2001.”

Like many people, my conception of what politics is and can be differs from my parents. That said, my parents have worked on and off for the local, state and federal governments and were involved in quite tiny as well as massive non-profit social-service, religious and activist non-profit organizations. These activities made an impression on me even though my teenage and adult years were committed to the creation of micro-scale informal groups and subcultural communities and to experimenting with organizational approaches that involved anonymity, using multiple-names, and anti-hierarchical structures. These informal groupings allowed for really wonderful group learning about ideas,  developing new skills and deep relationships cultivated through practices. But sometimes they also served to obscure who was doing the work and who wasn’t, burnt people out because really hard work was never even considered being compensated and they were difficult to find a point of entry into or exit from because they were organized more like social groups than something recognizable or legible as an organization. These experiences made me question the usefulness of rhetoric about horizontal structures that were just plain hard to work with and made me curious about models that combined horizontalism/open participation/collectivity/volunteerism with recognition of the role of leadership, clearly defined roles, paid positions, or other totally reasonable features of “vertical” organization.

So when the brainstorming for AREA Chicago began, I was pretty intent on doing some new experiments with organizational structure to build on lessons-learned from the days of Counter Productive Industries and other projects. One experiment was that as the initiator I positioned myself as the editor and lead project organizer, which meant that I would be most visible, have the most power, and also have the most responsibilities. I was firmly committed to instigating the project and guiding it, but I also knew that it would be meaningless if it did not have input from other wise voices. So right from the start an advisory group was assembled that made some basic and crucial decisions that guided the project’s development: that it would focus on the local context, on practices, and that it would attempt to mix literacy levels and writing styles to illustrate a value of different backgrounds, aesthetics and learning styles.

While we were laying out the first issue in 2005 Hurricane Katrina happened and it became clear that there was going to be a struggle for infrastructure-justice as climate change coupled with urban disinvestment, in a state-side manifestation of what Naomi Klein had first dubbed “Disaster Capitalism” earlier that spring in the Nation magazine. The confluence of this with the popular interest in structures for participatory democracy and the role of media as an “infrastructure of resonance” inspired me to launch a lecture-series alongside AREA entitled the “Infrastructure Series.” The series would be launched with a lecture by Nato Thompson on his research and thinking about cultural infrastructure and would continue irregularly under my tenure at AREA until the release of our 10th issue that ultimately focused on this theme in a more concentrated manner within the framework “AREA #10: Institutions and Infrastructures- A Local Reader on Building (Relationships, Ideas, Strategies, & Structures) for Change.”

For the first two years this advisory group was more-or-less a brainstorming session that guided my work and the rotating cast of volunteer editors and contributors I convened. This dynamic would then change and begin a process where I would slowly step back while new leaders gradually stepped up and drew from models provided to me personally by low-key leaders like Josh MacPhee of Justseeds and historic figures like Ella Baker who conceived of her leadership as facilitating the conditions for other leaders to emerge.

Artivistic: What features or characteristics make a project or a space function as infrastructure?

DT: In my experience, a consideration of infrastructure is on three levels – relational (how we are with one another), virtual or representational (how we communicate and circulate), and material (how we physically provide for people, movement, etc). An example of each might be a discussion series or reading group (relational), an email events listing or database of contacts for cultural spaces (virtual), and a community-oriented building and event venue (material).

There is an intentionality behind setting up an infrastructure that exceeds merely making a project. The intention is to make something which exceeds the limits of your own needs, capacities and desires and fulfills some perceived or known need. As society rapidly changes the needs people and communities have will change as well and it is quite possible that the institutions and infrastructures of previous eras will either need to be retooled or scrapped all together for something new and more appropriate. Typically people look to business and government to provide the necessary infrastructures in which daily life can operate and thrive. It is up to people critically engaged in culture to perceive those needs and changes too.

Artivistic: In your text for Whirlwinds, you identify many of the structures we create as artists as being the potential infrastructure of a Left social movement: magazines, collectives, websites, &c. Can you draw on your experience with AREA to elaborate on the connection between projects initiated in an art context and infrastructure that can also be useful strategically for radical politics? 

DT: Well the challenge is that much of what is developed under the auspices of art today remains in proposal, sketch or symbolic development and cannot often be implemented in broader or ongoing directions. Think about all of the gatherings, publications, tools, and technologies that are framed as art projects that you know will never see the light of day outside of a university, gallery or a video/photo-shoot. I have a tremendous respect for how much work it takes to make something with lasting effect functionality, having done some of those more symbolic projects but also put work into more longer-term, embedded and intentional efforts at creating infrastructures.

In the case of AREA, it was very important to initiate it without the suggestion that it was an art project about networking social and cultural movements in Chicago. It was intended to be a networking project that served the additional function of documenting ephemeral practices such as interventionist public art, educational events, and the rallies and protests that make up the everyday culture of leftism in Chicago. Through continuous documentation, research and interviews as well as frequent events that brought practioners and engaged citizens together it was producing more mutual recognition and functional networks across the city.

An example that I am not directly connected to would include in this would be the proliferation of the Sunday Soup fundraising concept initiated by InCUBATE here in Chicago. After four years it has spread to over 20 locales throughout the Americas and Europe and has taken on a resonance beyond art. My take was that initially selling a meal that raised money for a grant was as much about drawing attention to the dire situation of arts funding in the US as it was about actually raising funds. It was certainly not a new concept as people have been having meals as fundraisers for a long time and often with significant results – rendering Sunday Soup a symbolic play on an old model of pancake dinners and fish frys (a model that many young people are out of touch with because of the rise of grant-based fundraising and the disengagement with the churches and service organizations that were the social institutions of previous generations). But the format and emphasis on regularly distributing small arts grants that attendees could vote on and become invested in gave it a tangible dimension that ended up really appealing to activist communities tired of forming non-profits, appealing to foundations just to be able to buy materials for their work. I have heard about Sunday Soup from so many people in widely diverse networks that have nothing to do with the contemporary art origins of InCUBATE’s initial project. I think it really translated outside of art and has come to be an updated fundraising approach for the activist toolkit.

Artivistic: In Canada, many of us count on some level of public funding to support our projects. The state funded artist-run infrastructure that has nourished so many centres, projects, and creators over the years is currently being threatened by a conservative federal government that devalues the arts in general and small scale, critical, and unspectacular art in particular. When faced with this type of gradual and inevitable dismantling of public funding, we’re left with the question of Promiscuous Infrastructures: what other options exist for us to acquire the resources we need to make our work?

You mention that there is something of a cross-fertilization between the public funding model in Canada and projects like Phone Book in Chicago, for which you wrote an essay called “Why not call it infrastructure?” in 2007. This, even though there is clearly no comparable public funding available in the US. What do you think is particular to Chicago that so many of you folks are motivated to ask large-scale structuring questions about the arts?

 DT: There is a really rich history in Chicago that us youngsters can build on and that helps a lot in terms of feeling like there is a tradition or precedent to build on in terms of ambitious art-related activities that blend thoroughly with scholarly research, politics and community organizing. I have heard from numerous elders in our art scene that Chicago has historically stood-out in the national landscape for being more political than other art centers.

 

My analysis of why that is has to do with a few factors, including the absence of a commercial art industry. Most people cannot make a living selling work here and so there are fewer distractions from other reasons people make art – to communicate and to commune with others. The other reason is the political history of the city – you cannot live and work in Chicago and not be confronted with the harsh political history and present-day reality that exists here. So I think that if you look around and see other people confronting the structural challenges of our times through their political and community work then that has a big influence on your thinking and also opens up the possibility that art audiences might actually want to think about big-picture questions because that is what they are doing in their daily lives as engaged citizens.

 

It’s hard to walk down the street in Chicago and not think about the dissolution of the welfare state, political corruption, unemployment, or food and environmental challenges faced by post-industrial cities because it just jumps out and hits you, looks you in the face or crosses your path. We don’t have too many bright flashing lights to distract us. It’s not a romantic place in the least, as its primary mythology is built around a harsh conception of realness and hard work and not fame or fortune.

 

Artivistic: The exit strategy you designed for AREA, through which you (the founder) extracted yourself over a number of years in order to ensure a smooth leadership transition, is a move you made to ensure the ability of the organization to survive beyond your tenure—in other words, it cemented a process of institutionalization. The attentiveness and conscientiousness you brought to this process is remarkable, and it seems intimately linked to your appreciation for the infrastructural value of the organization. This process also makes the organizational and power structures of the organization explicit.

 

This (organizational) work is very formal; you might even say material. What relationship does it have to your practice as an artist?

 

The transition I made from founder and informal leader of AREA Chicago was a difficult one with lots of lessons learned. I could not have done it without the help of a very supportive advisory board, and the advice from my friends Gilda Haas who transitioned out of a founder-role she held for over 25 years at Strategic Action for a Just Economy in Los Angeles as well as great tips from Damon Rich and Rosten Woo who both transitioned from running Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn. The advice of these people was invaluable because power and responsibility transfers within small activist and art organizations is not widely discussed and it is more common for such groups to rise and fall with the same leadership. In terms of its relationship to my art practice, I think that the care for relationships over appearances, attention to organizational structure and possibilities for innovation and learning from historical precedents are all concerns that overlap with the kind of artistic work I am involved in. Lots of art these days involves what people call crowd-sourcing where you essentially get other people to fill a container with content and call it finished. But in my practice, while most things I do involve the coordination of lots of people’s ideas and inputs into a common form, I try to give a lot of attention to the meaning of the contributions people make and interpret what their accumulation or collection means as a whole as well as individually. This care for relationships as well as accumulated results is the dance which organizers, whether they are from art or Labor or any other socio-political sector, must consider.

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