Occupy Yr SoPra
Sam Gould shared a provocative Red76 project called Occupy Yr Home at the Central Time Centric Symposium in Fargo in early September. Its premise was to ask contributors to meet with others over food and discuss ways in which pervasive, invisible power structures infiltrate our homes and personal relationships.
After returning from a full four days at the conference, I was ready to call for an honest inventory of the way that the same systemic structures have permeated the forms and practitioners that were the focus of our gathering. Social Practice (SoPra) is a dodgy term, rife with misunderstandings, and is often used interchangeably (frequently problematically) with the terms socially engaged or community engaged art. In this essay I will use an umbrella term “critical art”, reflecting a belief that productive criticality and deeper social engagement walk hand-in-hand.
The Plains Art Museum, its Director and personnel, and Fargo itself extended an earnest and generous welcome. In the model of most conferences, an array of individuals were invited to share their work, respond to topical questions and participate in public discourse. There was also a clear underlying intention throughout the schedule to strengthen regional connections.
It was not unprecedented that frustration and shame were the emotions that gradually accumulated like flotsam on the surface of our pool. Arts and cultural workers who engage in critical practices are directly or indirectly confronting a social system that is not just broken but in crisis. There is passion, resentment, anger and tenuous hope flowing through this space, and it is by its nature a territory of dispute.
But, in order for antagonism to be productive, to shift difficult discourse beyond blame and paralyzing polarization, there must be some level of mutually acknowledged solidarity or shared meta-narrative among the participants. This could be an understanding that we are all complicit in dysfunction in some way, or more simply that we come to the conversation with goodwill and a desire to work towards greater justice. It appears, however, that the level of cohesion around such commonalities is spotty–or even factional–among cultural practitioners at this time.
Underlying the pressing global issues of racial, economic and environmental injustice we can recognize the divisive strategies of hierarchical power structures, and seductive invitations to VIP membership: money, social privilege and ideological validation for example. It was surprisingly easy to see parallels between our hegemonic social condition and the critical art community that gathered at Central Time Centric.
At various times during our conversations we touched on: arts careerism (showing your slides one more time instead of working to answer the question at hand, or taking gigs that pay or are good career moves even though you are not aligned with the topic and not inclined to fully engage); biased granting structures and the corrosiveness of money-envy; the colonial arrogance of ‘helping’ communities that have not asked for it on their own terms; the persistent whiteness of the field; the privileged position of the podium; the exclusiveness of art cliques; ‘who counts?’ in matters of environmental justice; and whether work by women is (still) not given equal attention and validity relative to work by male colleagues.
For the most part the forum flowed to accommodate these revelations and protests. But the pressure continued to mount, and eventually the discourse was shut down by a failure of collective consciousness. We squirmed at but did not question a presenter who appeared to be working in exactly the colonial model that had been identified in our earlier conversation (and who had not been present for that discussion). The burden consequently fell to people of color in the room to object, and quite reasonably they resented this. We were all tired: anger popped, compassion withered, handshakes were refused.
The eerie thing for me is that I was present in an almost identical set of circumstances two years ago, when a gathering exploded in its final moments over simmering gender issues. In both sets of circumstances I found a common thread – that as a group of critical thinkers we have assimilated the dis-empowerment of alienation rather than the strength of imperfect union. Discernment can reveal whether failure results from willfully ignorant, deliberate strategies to exclude and dominate, or from the imperfection of human beings who are struggling to be better people and participants. Human kindness and forgiveness seem to be essential components of the solidarity that underlies and supports productive antagonism. Without it, anger against a broken system gets turned on those who are essentially people of goodwill, in effect replicating and perpetuating the brutality of prevailing power.
When individuals who disagree are dismissed in shame rather than respected for their humanity and unexamined ideas, something enormously valuable is lost. People embody systems, but they are not the system itself – they are flesh and electricity, vulnerability and growth. Personal dis-empowerment is passed on hand to hand, and our collective capacity to imagine and implement change is diminished. It’s clear that we need to be in discourse about these issues, but how much time do we have to dwell in reviling imperfection rather than pragmatically moving forward to invent alternative futures?
What might a blueprint for a new kind of convening look like? Might a public forum become an invitation to conversation that more closely resembles a shared meal in domestic space, in the model of Occupy Yr Home? In each others’ homes, among company that shares a desire to learn and grow, we find an opportunity to speak honestly and fearlessly and not be ashamed. We are made bold by the promise of forgiveness, or the sense that mutual disagreement in the context of intimate friendship allows for expansive, surprising shifts and convergences that develop over time.
Here is an initial proposal for ways we might build deeper connection: There are no presentations of completed work; instead, each participant is given the opportunity to imagine forward and invite discussion. We focus on the variety of inventive thought processes that participants bring to the table. We directly address topics that prevent our own community from modeling progressive, functional methodologies for social coherence. Everyone who attends commits to stay for the entire length of the discussion and to honor practices that build trust and equity among all in attendance. No one sits in a chair for more than two hours at a time. We make and eat food together. In sum, we build a platform for productive antagonism based on the tender aspirations and limitations of the human mind and body, reclaiming the power we have obediently yielded to an oppressive paradigm that we openly challenge.
Image courtesy of the author.