Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The City From Below: “Hello”

Baltimore is a charming city. It is of a type deemed obsolete during the modernist era -- a European style walking city. Yet because the city’s been depressed for so long, they haven’t had the money to destroy that charm.
The City From Below conference was held in an old Methodist church, a grand basilica with stained glass and a light-filled community room behind. The church was crumbling, its congregation unable to support the place. Two years ago they invited in the crowd of radicals around Red Emma’s bookstore who have helped maintain the building in exchange for using it for special events. Now they run the front, and installed a bar and kitchen. The diminished congregation meets every Sunday in the back. That the Methodist ruling body (synod?) would go along with this rather than seek to sell off the handsome old building is good, but I found it surprising. Perhaps they had no other options. I saw another old church in town that had been converted into an office complex, yet was still entirely vacant. (On perusing the church’s history page, I see that it is in itself a radical congregation with a transgendered minister, so maybe the Methodist bigwigs don’t have so much to say about it!) Red Emma’s crew doesn’t own the place. Cash poor, but rich in energy, labor, faith and vision -- Baltimore’s radicals are the best contemporary users of this great religious assembly hall. They have and will accomplish much there. It seems like a model arrangement. It’s also a libertarian’s dream, the return of social and cultural services to “faith-based” hands.
The conference was very exciting, and filled with interesting and unusual presentations. It had the substance of an academic symposium without its stultifying rituals, constraints, and necessary uselessness. It had the networking intensity of a neighborhood organizing conference, as indeed it was, hosted as well by Baltimore’s United Workers Association, which is building their April campaign behind t-shirts and posters with the stern and striking visage of Harriet Tubman, the slave-freeing heroine of the 19th century Underground Railroad.
One could follow any of a number of threads in the sessions, and when the videos are mounted to the web, we’ll be able to follow up on the others. (Some are on the UWA site already.) I followed my friends, through the egghead theory and cultural work panels. In the opening plenary and a later speakout session, I caught a good invigorating dose of the community organizing strain. The keynote speech was a recording by Mumia Abu Jamal, the long-jailed black journalist. Several of the sessions were animated by the prospect of direct action squatting by the recently dispossessed on foreclosed properties and vacant lands. A strong thread of permaculture and urban farming packed in the clear-eyed crusties and would-be hayseeds, like one gal wearing a vintage fox pelt as a hat.
It was the braiding together of these strains that made the conference so exciting. If there is in fact a grassroots revolution in the making, a true insurrectionary urban development, this is what it might look like. This was its planning meeting.
[The image is by Icky, of Justseeds.org, which did posters for the City From Below.]

The Dirty South

Baltimore -- I am training out of the city now, past block after block of boarded up row houses without a soul on the streets. The “City From Below” conference has folded its tents. (A detailed account of relevant sessions will be posted here soon...) It was a titanic effort of grassroots organization undertaken by a bunch of freedom-loving anarchistas clustered around a bookstore called Red Emma’s. Baltimore is one of this country’s shrinking cities. Since deindustrialization, the city on the Chesapeake Bay has lost a third of its inhabitants. (Now, 15 minutes out of town, the train passes high-tech factories and a military air base, signs of the “rimming” of business -- moving out to the suburbs – that has affected many U.S. cities.) The eminent geographer David Harvey gave a talk on Friday from the top of Federal Hill. This unique promontory overlooks downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor. From this hill Lincoln’s zouave army trained cannon on the city below to keep the state of Maryland from seceding from the Union during the Civil War.
This day Harvey pointed with his fingers and fired only his analysis. A score of undistinguished or plain ugly high rises and office towers litter the landscape, the results of decades of “public-private partnerships.” While these heavily subsidized and now doubtless largely vacant buildings were constructed, the city’s neighborhoods, especially its schools, were systematically starved of funds.
So where, I asked my hosts, was the bronze statue of John Waters, the filmmaker whose early work celebrates the quirky denizens of Baltimore in the 1970s? Or better yet Divine, his earthy drag queen hero(ine)? Those movies made Baltimore seem like an east coast New Orleans, brimming with fun craziness. I’m afraid Divine, should she appear, would be hustled out of the “new” Amtrak station -- a beautifully preserved turn of the last century Beaux Arts building now marked by signs, loud regular announcements, and roving squads of police with dogs. They’re on the lookout for Arab terrorists, of course. It's plainly absurd. We should better be protected from rogue ice blocks and polar bears. But repression makes jobs. On these streets large black signs with white letters proclaim: “BELIEVE.” Blue flashing lights mark surveillance cameras, and across from the tiny nightclub and bar strip a large set of klieg lights prepares to blast nighttime crowds with a military daytime. Closing time fun. Inner Baltimore, the depopulated city of the bourgeois, is like much of the urban United States clearly a police state. Running it seems to be the only growth industry in town. This is George W. Bush’s lasting legacy, the production (for both domestic and foreign consumption) of an overwhelming paranoiac fear in his constituency.
The last day of the conference was a sorry one for me. Through an hour’s inattention, my coat with my camera in it was taken. This happened in an adjunct building of the conference, a beautifully restored public library run by community volunteers. (The city defunded many neighborhood libraries years ago – to educate the workforce in the futility of aspiring, one supposes.) During the session, the library was of course open, and local people were coming in and out. It was a reminder of the desperation of many Baltimoreans. Thieves haunt open situations, where people are relaxed and trusting. When we started work at ABC No Rio in 1980, we had to warn every woman who entered not to let her purse out of her sight. The charming children who ran about the place were thieves. Teaching two hour classes in the Bronx in 1998, I had to tell my students to take their textbooks with them when they took their break. A ring of thieves was picking up the expensive books while their owners went to the bathroom, later to resell them. Places where people come to learn – art centers, schools, libraries – are places where people let their guard down. Those people are easy prey.
The incident was profoundly upsetting to me -- not for the camera, which was aging, nor the jacket, although it was a good one and I’m wearing three shirts in the springtime chill air. I lost dozens of photos I had made of European social centers -- made and not yet downloaded. Plain stupidity… I paid for it with a sleepless night of remorse. Lessons learned: in the field, tech stays on your body. Data gets duplicated immediately, as soon as it is practical to do so. (Think of it as corroding the recording device.) And always know where is the nearest used clothing store!
But back to Amtrak: What is this loony social model costing us? What is it preventinig us from doing? In the clean, overly-patrolled security zones of the under-used Amtrak rail station is the potential for small scale enterprise -- mobile food and beverage carts, which can go where the customers are and don’t require as high a level of patronage as a fixed establishment. I paid $5 for a roll and coffee, a very unsatisfying breakfast at a silly price. So I’ll never do that again, and they lost a customer. That place can only sell to the unwary. This kind of retail strategy in the station runs counter to any professed ideology of market competition – you funnel customers into a zone where there are no other options, then overcharge them for shoddy goods. Amtrak in Baltimore does what airports used to do (and many still do). The egregiously overplayed security scenario -- (only in Baltimore, not in New York, where there is certainly more risk) might be some kind of way to make air travelers feel more comfortable. It’s not a grungy old antiquated rail station, really, it’s just like an airport! The “tarting up” of this lovely rail station in airport drag is carried forward by a gleaming white plastic bench with a luggage measuring guide, just like the airport, and two plastic plants placed atop this glaringly ugly piece of furniture, like bangles on a brassiere....

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Last night the Visual Arts Collective of ABC No Rio met to update on exhibition plans and proposals. My scheme for “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence” got taken apart and put back together. The show will be sharper and more focused. The new format is going for graphic and punchy – “eye candy” for the casual viewer. Accumulations of information relevant to the different centers will be held on clipboards next to the stenciled images of social center logos on the walls. The focus of the exhibition will be on the events, the screenings and discussions. Each member of the group is going to take a different social center, and try to gather information from them over the next few weeks when the show opens. Whatever the result is will be put onto a clipboard, even if it’s nothing.
This was a strenuous meeting for me – actually a series of them, since I’ve been working at ABC, and the storm has been gathering. But it was increasingly clear to me what was probably obvious to everyone else long ago, that I could not do even half of what I’d planned, and the public presentation was at risk of looking shitty. I don’t feel proprietary about my concepts. One thing I’ve learned is that my own ideas for situations recur over and over. I do what I do; I’ve done it before, and if I don’t do it now, I’ll do it later. The big outcome of collectivization is relief – I can relax, as the whole load comes off my shoulders…
A very significant development to come out of this meeting was Michael Cataldi’s offer to include “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence” in the “University of Trash” exhibition he is making with Nils Norman at the Sculpture Center in Queens over the summer. So, once the show concludes at ABC No Rio, the correspondence desk and show walls will be carted over to Queens. We will be able then to welcome visitors until early August. So this show at ABC in April is really only the beginning, only just the start…
In other news, Franco Berardi, aka Bifo, is coming to New York. He will talk to Mackenzie Wark at the space run by Change You Want to See/Not An Alternative in Brooklyn next week. I took a peek at Bifo’s list-serve, Rekombinant. It announces a new SC in Bolognia, called “Bartleby” (he of “I prefer not to,” Herman Melville’s Wall Street office worker character). The squatters are streaming radio from the place…

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Picture the Homeless Getting Busy

I'm prepping like mad for this show April 17, and far behind -- but I must mention this action. Last week an organized group of homeless activists took over a building in East Harlem, aka "Spanish Harlem." (It was covered in the Spanish language press.) These guys learned their chops from people in Miami, at Take Back the Land. One of the key groups involved is called Picture the Homeless, which for ten years has been very active and inventive in their activist work. It's about housing, not social center style occupation. I am looking forward to conversations in Baltimore this weekend, to learn more about it!

Photo: A homeless man, with his cup for change, sleeps on the street in downtown Vancouver (Steve Bosch/Vancouver Sun) -- it's not New York, but I loved the handmade quilt.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Free Schools, Free Minds

An exciting session tonight at 16 Beaver, lasting some three hours, with Anna Curcio and others from the Edu-Factory project. They run a website, and have a book coming out from Autonomedia soon. The subject – or the problem is the corporatization of the university worldwide, stimulated definitely by the Bologna Process in Europe. This has motivated many self-education initiatives. The conversation was wide ranging, with many of the people present involved with autonomous education projects, as well as working as teachers in colleges. 16 Beaver is a group of “self-educators,” primarily artists and media makers, who have been meeting in lower Manhattan for several years. Anna it turns out was involved in the ESC social center in Rome, along with Paolo, who I had spoken with in London. ESC is part of the second wave of social centers which arose after the Genoa G8 protests were so brutally repressed, Anna said. There are also centers in Rome, Milan, Bologna and Turin. This social center was set up across the street from a large university, and its members engaged the students directly, providing study space, counseling and other services in an autonomist atmosphere. Now, she said, the task of the Edu-Factory group was to “stay within and against” the educational system. They are starting a journal, which will feature texts in different languages.
This morning on the way to Tribes I stopped in at the "Broadcast" exhibition at Pratt Manhattan gallery. It's coming from the ICI in Baltimore, which I'll be in two weeks for the City from Below conference. (That website is really shaping up!) The picture above is Gregory Green's mobile radio station project, " Radio Caroline, The Voice of the New Free State of Caroline." He set it up in the gallery, and it's just as chaotic and intentional as any real radio station -- only 1 watt, though. Radio Caroline was a famous pirate radio station off the coast of England in the 1960s and ‘70s. The artist duo neuroTransmitter memorialized this broadcast adventure in their sculpture “12 Miles Out,” which was also in the "Broadcast" show. Like many of the social center places I’ve “visited,” the Radio Caroline it seems was a virtual location, a free state which could not be visited, only heard.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crossing the Desert

It’s now called “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence.” And I’ve been working on the show this week at Tribes office. Steve Cannon is great, an irascible hipster saint. The response from my European friends and comrades to the call for materials has been – well, silence! Last night I asked my friend who lives in a commune in New York and runs a café for them if he would speak at the show about collective living. Earlier, another member of the same group had declined, saying they didn’t want to be identified with squatters. My friend more or less repeated the line, critiquing the show plan in its parts and in concept. He said it would be a “fuck you!” in the face of any general audience. This made me sad. I believe this group has a great method and lots of experience which they could share with progressive people. But it is not getting out. (In general, for more information on the network of this group, see the website run by the Federation for Intentional Communities.) Well, they have their reasons, which I respect. But there is such profound fear of other ways, even among those who are living alternatives! We are really now sadly ungathered tribes.
“House Magic” and “Monster Institutions.” Magic and monsters, the realm of fantasy that is not reality. Reality is regulated. We are regulated first by our poverty, our lack of wealth. That is lack of the means to accomplish big things, to be enterprising, to make changes in our world. Then we are regulated by laws, by customs and usages – all of which run in the interests of wealth. So then, if the light never turns green for us, how are we to cross the street? We must just go, go across. Sooner or later the officer comes to write us a ticket, which we must answer. But we are over there. We are on our way…

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Draft Press Release for April '09 Show

We have a draft press release… “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE”: "House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence," part one of a project exhibition at ABC No Rio, New York City, April 17 to May 10, 2009
The social center movement in Europe will be the focus of a project exhibition at the Lower East Side cultural center ABC No Rio during the month of April. Images and information, videos and discussion will engage the realities of this vital urban movement.
The social center phenomenon arose in the late 20th century. An outgrowth of political squatting, the social center in occupied vacant buildings was a key feature of the Italian Autonomist movement of the 1970s and '80s. Squats on the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1990s borrowed elements of the English and German social center models, including cafes, infoshops (library/bookstores), performance spaces and art galleries. Across Europe, the often short-lived social centers became important organizing foci of the global justice movement during the first decade of the new century.
The "House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence" exhibition will be an open structure, a newsroom and a channel for a continuous flow of information from the social centers themselves. Bulletins will be posted, banners will be painted, soup will be served. Video documentaries will be screened, radio podcasts will be played, and guests will discuss their experiences with social centers.
The social centers arose out of direct action squatting. In the new century, however, these actions have been less about housing, and more intended to create social, cultural and political space for action in the city.
In many cases, social center squatting is a response to gentrifying development in the city, an instance of "bottom up planning and architecture." The social centers are usually well integrated into the neighborhoods in which they are set up, and provide free space for cultural activities to take place. Many social centers work closely with immigrant groups, organizing, supporting and demonstrating to protect their rights.
Throughout the month of April we will be working the theme at ABC No Rio, processing and presenting information about the social center movement. A key node in global justice organizing, squatted social centers have sprung up in cities throughout Europe. They represent a new wave of activism, often highly theorized, with participation by both radical intellectuals and grassroots activists.Increasingly architects, urban planners and artists are joining political activists in this movement.
"House Magic" is the first step in an ongoing project which invites public participation as we share the stories and synthesize the lessons of the vivid life and often spectacular deaths of these temporary autonomous zones.
Among the centers and agencies past and present considered in the show are Bowl Court, Ramparts, CoolTan, ASS and 56a in London, El Patio Maravillas, Seco, Laboratorio, Caracole and SinAtena (Madrid), La Casa Invisible (Málaga), Krax City Mine(d), (Barcelona), ESC (Rome), ROG (Ljubljana), and many others.
references: "Social Center" on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_center
blog of the show, called "Occupations and Properties" -- Photo: "Fingers of an extreme nail-biter" from Wikipedia entry on "nail biting."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Back to the Books

I'm back in NYC, after a week in LA for the CAA conference. I bounced there straight after Amsterdam, and talked about mapping projects I did with classes in Atlanta and Tampa. Re. occuprop, Atlanta is home to the long-lived group Mad Housers, centered around Georgia Tech, which builds shanty-style houses for homeless people where they are encamped. I also talked at the Public School, a very cool place for meeting and discussion. It is in a basement in Chinatown, off Chung King Road, where many art galleries are located. You reach it by going down an alley off a closed street, with restaurant staff at the back doors blowing reefer on their breaks -- very mysterious. The circle of politically engaged artists in California has greatly enlarged since the days of the “Cool School” of Pop artists. There was a party for Dara and Josh, who curated the great poster show "Signs of Change," which is now on tour. (Here it is in Pittsburgh, likely an ephemeral link.) There I ran into Ava Bromberg, who put together the swell “Just Spaces” show in LA in ‘07. The network of participants and bibliography of readings on that website remain an inspiration for anyone trying to work through cultural institutions to address these kinds of social justice issues.
Now begins the process of going over notes, and sorting through the materials brought back from Europe. Gradually the shape of the ABC show will emerge... now it is only something in mind, although it is already taking place in my dreams. (I bought a book on Belgian Surrealism at CAA, and find interesting Paul Nouge's theorization of absences -- that is exactly what this project is about, the absences or aporias of contemporary activism, the things not being done.) As I do this I will add those materials and reflections to this blog. But I am moving out of the realm of direct, on-site observation and conversation into a zone of more mediated considerations.
[image: Andrew Becraft's "Lego revolutionaries" series, Marx & Engels; it should be Hegel, for his "Philosophy of Right," but hey, they're just so cute!]