Monday, September 3, 2012

Land of the Home

Report back from Rebecca Conroy, on the Bill+George tour of the North America. Working backwards..... 

I have been on the road for four months travelling across the North American continent – visiting 13 cities in total: LA, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Greensboro, (North Carolina), New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (Maine), Boston, Toronto, and Montreal.

I’m pretty tired.

In these final few days before arriving ‘home’, I have had a little bit of time to decompress all that has occurred into this here little summary blog post. In the next few weeks I will be writing profiles of each of the cities visited, gradually digesting and reassembling some key moments and threads. (I actually tried to do this on the road, but the pace and scenery defied me).

Using the artist run space as the vessel of inquiry, this DIY rogue tour set out to index the survival strategies of artists, particularly those who were running spaces and self-organising. I wanted to learn about models for sustainable urban living across various cities in North America; how they are doing things differently, and to discover the parts of us that are the same. As artists running an independent space in Sydney, Australia, this trip intended to put what we do into a specifically North American kind of perspective. How could we benefit from sharing and exchanging ideas around our ‘busy-ness models’? Was there something to be gained, given the glaring lack of knowledge about each other beyond Hollywood and Steve Irwin? Could the sum of our parts equal more than the economic system and the free market under Capital C Capitalism?

Partly this tour was about an intimate art on art experience, but it was framed by some fairly vexing questions coupled with my growing fetish for economic theory. Yes, economics – hardly the poetry for the masses that my Brechtian self self idiolises. I have been recently exploring ideas, concepts, and frameworks for   imagining how the practice of economics as ‘art’ or the practice of art as ‘economics’ might yield some interesting forms and start some interesting conversations. The trip to America was about going to the breeding ground for entrepreneurs and to examine how this culture might be put to other uses.

 These were my tool belt of ice breakers:

1.     What are the existing funding arrangements, finance and trade available to artists, and their community activated spaces?
2.     How do artists understand their position in relation to the culture industry, place-making and tourism sector?
3.     How does the value of art attach itself to people and how is it consumed outside of the proverbial box office?
4.     What role does the city play in activating or regulating arts and culture activity?
5.     What does the artist in the city tell us about the class position of the artist?
6.     What are the ideas around alternative radical economics?
7.     What are the roles of the artist and the behaviour of cities?

The trip in the direction of the Atlantic was in part motivated by a trip I had done 10 years earlier, when I was involved in the Reclaim the Streets Movement. It was further motivated by a desire to see what comes of an exchange of ideas between people that do not typically call on one another for serious discussion or look to one another for inspiration. (New York City does NOT count).  The lack of any Australian American peer to peer models for artist led exchange made me curious. Our heads ‘down under’ still crane towards Europe, or if our fingers are really on the pulse, China, and then diplomatically, the Asia Pacific. What about our North American cousins?

To demonstrate this lack of familiarity, I recall the frequent and not very flattering reference to Australia being ‘just like America but with funny sounding accents’. (Hahahaha. Not funny.) More hilarious exchanges involved incredulous wait staff commending me on my ‘very excellent English’. But equally I was struggling to understand the basics of American etiquette, the tipping system, riding my bike on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and the incessant talk of success and materialism alongside suffocating religionists. And remembering not to talk too much about fecal matter, or expletives that referred to women’s private parts.

I don’t think it’s an unfair generalization to say that most Americans are quite comfortable with their fairly inward looking gaze; and it is true a lot of them really do believe they are the greatest country on earth (Which I find at best weird and at worst, just plain adorable). I had someone proudly declare to me that they have lived everywhere. And then qualify it by saying – ‘in at least 49 of the 51 states’. Oh, I see, everywhere to you, IS the United States of America. And in a sense America is everywhere. It currently has more than 1,000 military bases around the globe.  And although the DNA of capitalism was seeded through many different kinds of imperialism, it is the American Free Market evangelism that seems to trumpet the loudest.  It is to this phenomenon I turned. If free market fundamentalism is everything, then surely in this creative innovative century, the artist represents the ultimate poster girl-boy for the economy. At the very least a willing worker who can be guaranteed to work for 60 hours for no pay at all, and with just the slightest hint of a carrot dangling overhead.

The interests of the ‘artist’ the ‘art worker’ or the ‘creative’ frame this investigation, because that’s where I situate myself. But whilst its concerns are mapped largely by these experiences, like all good things in this world it is inextricably connected to a multiplicity of experiences; it is certainly not the exclusive domain of the ‘artist’ to re-engineer the world, or laugh at its folly. It hopefully resonates across dimensions, and can be adapted and shared. In fact, this journey was about making exactly these kinds of linkages, as my interest shifted further and further away from the gallery and the theatre space, and I found myself in farms, breweries, libraries, and housing projects.

It also largely mapped by the discursive terrain of the ‘creative economy’, the ‘creative city’, and the ‘creative industries’. All of these terms are flagged with inverted commas to signal their contested emergence. Their emergence in part reflects the Orwellian origin of their strategies, their principal aim being to expand the logic of the capitalist machine to other surfaces, and to promote its insatiable desire to accumulate more capital. The irony being that by doing so, by expanding the surface to area ratio of capital, it inevitably stagnates our imaginations, and distorts our capacity for fiction and make-believe.

This tour was not about the rules but rather the exceptions; it was about seeking out how we already do things differently and how else we could be doing things. It was about reinterpreting the model and picking up tips on how to make it work for us. By travelling and conversing with many along the way, I hoped to expand my thinking around how far we could fuck with conventional definitions around trade, exchange, ‘the business model’, and value systems. But just as Zoolander properly queried ‘but why male models?’  I came to America to penetrate the heartlands of economic thinking, to seek the dark lining under the cloud pumped synthetically with the Botox of free market fundamentalisms. For all intents and purposes, I came to sleep with the enemy. (Cue Alicia Keys and Jay Zee ‘Empire State Building’)

Doing a permaculture thing of companion planting, I did some companion reading. On one side of my brain I planted Lewis Hyde’s Gift Economies, and on the other side of my brain I planted Anthony Robbins Unlimited Power. The first text represented my aspirational tendency for horizontal and equitable exchange while the other text represented the entrepreneurial boot strapping American dream, which I was about to plunge deep into, and which to be honest, I find terribly nauseating.  My intention was to ride the contradictions, to trace the overlapping seams and to genetically map the neural pathways of each text so I could understand how each of them used similar code to arrive at very different results, and conversely how each adopted the logic of virtue and intrinsic values to harness the ebb and flow of resources in order to redirect and rewire their destinations.

In the following weeks I hope I can untangle the messy weave of these thoughts along with ideas around Economics as Practice in another blog to be untangled soon. Suffice to say, this tour has been about many things: trade and exchange, in ideas, in bodies, in feelings, food and histories both common and uncommon. Of ways of doing things and thinking things in light of everything that has happened.

I have met some pretty amazing people, been in some pretty interesting situations, and been welcomed by some pretty amazing communities. I am grateful for every single one of them.

I am tired now. I am glad that I am ‘home’.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Feeling Minnesota


Our adventures begin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, kindly hosted by the directors of Works Progress, the artist led public design studio of Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson. We fell in love with Colin and Shanai and the whole damn city of Minneapolis.

Photo: Zoe Prinds-Flash

First night in Minneapolis was Salon Saloon – a lively talk show format produced by Works Progress in an intimate space at the back of the Lakes Bryant bowling club. It’s a no-brainer format of live story telling with music and the performative – enjoyed by an intimate crowd of diverse age group of 20s 30s and 40s. Genuinely funny and local, each show is co-produced and lovingly MC-ed by the intelligent and comedic Andy Sturdevant.

This evening’s show was all about Oakland, bringing together a good-looking selection of local personalities talking about their relationship to Oakland and its famed friendly antagonism with the West Bank of San Francisco. It was a compelling show, revealing much that you wouldn’t ever find out about a city making your own way through it. Like discovering writer/editor Emily Saer Cook has a grandfather who lives in Oakland and has a Librarium! He is officially the only person we know who 1) uses the word Librarium and 2) actually has one. (Note to self: visit Oakland)

Photo: Zoe Prinds-Flash

Salon Saloon is approaching its fourth year, and Works Progress have just released a ‘best of’ CD, along with a successful kickstarter to raise additional funds for their myriad of other projects - all of which seem to be an excellent combination of good design, conceptual punch and actual community engagement. 

Works Progress have fashioned themselves a diverse passionate base, neither identifying themselves strictly with the art crowd not the community or non-profit sector, but well-respected from both sides. We tagged along with Shanai and Colin to a workshop with Kulture Klub, a young person’s hang out space at a centre downtown, which is the amalgam of 21 different youth services. The Kulture Klub is headed up by the dynamic Jeff, who is also part Madam, a queer artist run space in another part of town. At this workshop, Shanai and Colin were facilitating the beginning of a project which takes well known New Orleans' Artist, Candy Chang’s project “Things to do before I die…..” to the young peeps at Youth Link Up. (While in Chicago I also saw the below image below on West 18th St in the Pilsen neighbourhood) 

Photo: Rebecca Conroy

As Andrea Jenkins notes, despite the apparently progressive and liberal arts funding and abundance of community engagement initiatives in the state of Minnesota, the disparity between rich and poor along colour lines still ranks Minneapolis’ inequality as unusually high in comparison to other US cities/states. Andrea is a community artist and activist and works with the urban planning division of the city – she describes herself as poet, writer and multimedia visual and performance artist. We met Andrea on the sidewalk at the shop front exhibition that Works Progress opened on Friday, where she was also participating in the project. 

Photo: Tessa Zettel

The exhibition entitled A Mile in Our Shoes asked for people to submit a pair of shoes with a story about public transport. These shoes were then displayed in the store front - a shoe repair shop no less - within the building where Works Progress have been occupying a studio for the past few years.

Photo: Tessa Zettel

The gallery is aptly named the shoebox gallery and has been running for 10 years and is curated by local artist Sean Smuda.

Fittingly, this would also be their farewell show to the building, as they get ready to shift their operation closer to downtown. As of next week, Works Progress will operate from a live/work space in the North East of Minneapolis, a decidedly more arty area, with street signs proclaiming it as the arts precinct. 

Saturday brought us to North Minneapolis and “This is Disappearing” - a project after our own heart. This site-specific project was in a foreclosed house bought by the city, and scheduled for demo, and was occupied by several artists at the behest of artist-curator Lauren Herzak Bauman

Photo: Tessa Zettel

Over dinner afterwards with Lauren, Angela Sprunger (one of the participating artists) and the delightful Andy Sturdevant, we discussed many things - from artist led gentrification, to a curated list of tragic iconic films with which to reference our respective cities, as well as the design of cities and "social practice". We also talked about sport under the ruse of architecture and fiscal governance.

Photo: Tessa Zettel

Photo: Tessa Zettel

Our last night in Minneapolis brought us to the soft closing of Chicago artists' Joe Madrigal and Amber Ginsburg and their work FLO(WE) {U} R at the Soap FactoryThis is in the more arty section of town, and as the name indicates, this large and beautiful building was once a soap factory.  In close proximity to this precinct, are key institutes the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center looming large on an urban scape of Minneapolis metropolis made for giants. These institutes are well known, and it’s weird to admit that I didn’t actually realise they were located in Minneapolis.

Our trip here is primarily about scoping out the idiosyncratic ways in which artists survive and the ways there economies are affected and being reinvented. How much consciousness and ingenuity is there in artist communities for surviving both within and without the economy? How do you define economy?

By chance, we discovered the 24/7 car service – a private (and very affordable) car service which is run much like a co-op with commercial intentions; it was started a few years back by a bunch of musicians, artists and bar service people who wanted to supplement their flexible incomes. Their fleet of cars is small, but they are sleek and unmarked, and operate with a limousine license which means that are not obligated to pick up everyone. With no advertising, instead their number gets passed on from friend to friend, and they seem to sustain enough business in this way. And as well as being prompt, our driver was both handsome and happy to regale us with the background to the car service.

It felt premature to leave Minneapolis, and the great people we met. Still more amazing makers and doers, and places we didn't get a chance to explore as time ran out. Stay tuned Minneapolis!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Elsewhere we are headed

In May until August two Bill+George artists (Rebecca Conroy and Tessa Zettel) are heading to the United States of the Amerikkka. We will be attending the Open Engagement Conference at Portland State University and then heading onto to check out artist run spaces in Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, North Carolina, Philadelphia, NYC, and Washington, and back to LA. We are on the hunt for fertile exchange points, with the view to cultivating some links for a possible exchange event between our spaces in Sydney and the US of A in late 2013.

Here is an interview with local Redfern artist Jordana Maisie who recently did a residency at Elsewhere, in North Carolina, one of the spaces we intend to visit.


Elsewhere is a total trip. It was definitely the most unique, hands on, community oriented residency experience I have had to date. I loved it.

It was interesting for me primarily for these reasons:

1) It is a site specific residency. You make with the "collection" (almost anything in the building). The idea is to not bring any new materials in.  This ensures the maintenance of the museum's collection and the ongoing regeneration of the space. I love this intention.  Especially in the context of site analysis, systems design and cycles of re-use. 

2) Group discussion and sharing of ideas are encouraged. It is a very social space. There is a food co-op: so we cooked and ate together.  In fact, there was a lot of group activity. 

3) Development of work can easily become collaborative. I collaborated with another artist in residence when I was there. Made a 'Hot Chocolate Sauce Distribution Machine' for the final course of his travelling sensory dinner... (pretty fun) There are shared work spaces and a notion of 'play' always running through the space.

In some ways it is a fairly structured process with a strong public / community engagement program. As a resident you have to present a project proposal to the board within the first few days. The doco team, production team, building team, education team all check in to see how your work is developing, but there is no pressure to produce finished work if that's not where you're at. A lot of the staff / interns return to the Museum across multiple years / seasons so there's an organisational coherence / lineage.  The space is obscure and mind blowing (a 60 year collection of goods), like walking into a time warp of consumer history.

The project I began there is called 'Sipping the Air': Designed for spaces with high levels of humidity (like North Carolina), Sipping the Air, is an multidisciplinary project, utilising design thinking to bridge the gap between art, education, science, technology, architecture and sustainability.  The project takes greywater extracted by a custom-built dehumidifier and channels it through a large-scale DNA styled steel water sculpture, into a filtration system. The filtration system cleans it, makes it potable and redistributes it to the public for drinking.   

The dehumidifier and filtration systems utilised in the work are powered by PV solar panels, which generate electricity for the systems to run. The artwork itself provides fresh clean drinking water for the museum community whilst offering an alternative to conventional wastewater management.  Infusing a sense of wonder at scientific innovation and art and allowing us to begin shifting the way we engage with materials.

So that's what I'm up to. 

Enjoying the challenge of creating art projects that push the boundaries of the imagination and the way we approach systems design, art and science, working in support of, and harmony with, the other elements existing in any given environment. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Let's not grow the economy any more

The idea of growth belongs in the soil. 

Not in spreadsheets.

If we are going to grow anything - let us grow culture (among people and in cities, and in the soil and in our stomachs); Culture that helps things to grow through a feedback loop that is negative (and thus positive). 

Lets not grow economy anymore. 

Economic growth is the destruction of our biodiversity and hence the systems that give support to all life

So much of our language (and hence our lives) is poisoned by this confusion and contradiction in meaning; Words have become so far detached from their actual meaning, like civil war, and intelligent missiles, and collateral damage.. 

Engagement is also becoming contaminated. So rapidly. In the most spurious use of the word it is used to mean the "engagement" of more people in mass consumption. Diversity is the answer to sustainability. There we go again: sustainability. In the increasingly common scenario the word "sustainability"  is used to promote and maintain a system that is based on scarcity - locking up resources from those who need it by those who sole interest is to increase profit margins. And in general it promotes a pollution - by hoarding surplus and disposing of waste in the most unnatural and idiotic way. All because it aids and abets this insane notion of "3% annual economic growth".

Other words like public, community and politics, have all been contaminated. Currently, the largest education industry globally is - MARKETING. The art of manipulating people into working jobs they hate so they can keep buying shit that don't need.

This is an intolerable situation. 

War over resources - oil and gas -  is destined to shift into a war over water. The war is NOT over scarcity (locking up resources so one group can generate exclusive private wealth from it)  - the War is over one tiny group of people who declare war on everyone else in order to maintain their hegemony over extracting the maximum amount of wealth out of our collectively owned resources. Extracting and industrialising resources in the stupidest way ONLY SO THEY CAN SELL MORE SHIT AT THE MAXIMUM PROFIT. 

Well the joke is on us. As Michael Reynolds pointed out last weekend in Sydney as his earthship presentation - WE - the western world - represent only 17% of the world. So our interests are in the minority. Our consumption (or overconsumption) many times over trumps the consumption in the third world. 

We are living the dream in the worst kind of nightmare possible.

What goes around, well….it comes around.

Time to take action. 

Stop living the dream, and start making the reality. 

From Milkwood this weekend I was emphatically and passionately reminded to: Start by questioning where everything comes from, and work out an alternative so you can circumvent the system. This means not just your food, but your news feed as well. And bring people with you. Tell stories, and learn the stories about where things come from. Share. Don't shop at major supermarket chains. Don't shop for the sake of shopping. Stop shopping. Live off less. Live better off less. Give things away (objects, energy, food, attention, care, concern). And take on more responsibility for your immediate communities, through action, stories and building infrastructures for communities to flourish in.