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’.