What’s in a name? The Common Field Convening in Little Haiti
The first panel session at the 2016 Common Field Convening in Miami (Art Making Under Accelerated Capitalism) swelled and spit out a gigantic, glassy wave. Surprisingly, this elegant form did not then crash and disintegrate, flooding the Little Haiti Cultural Center with its salty waters, but instead congealed into a sinuous, glittering geometry suspended among the rafters of the Caribbean Market. Perhaps not everyone could see it, but for me the frozen roller hovered there throughout the rest of the gathering, winking at the audience below like a slippery question mark. Every now and then, however – if you looked at it from just the right angle – it revealed quite a different profile: dumb, crystalline and fantastic as a Swarovski elephant in the room.
The panel’s topic – art practices that simultaneously feed into and off the voracious appetites of a global Capitalist economy – was a provocative and difficult one. Faced with dire consequences like rampant gentrification and sea level rise, artists such as Annika Kuhlmann and the cultural producers who make up the DIS Collective choose resilient strategies that infiltrate the system, rather than ones that mount direct resistance or explore radical alternatives. Their work suggests merit in the notion that progressive change might – or must – grow out of our existing system, but ironic mimicry of this kind can end up looking a lot like the internalization of oppression. In particular, Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ proposition to develop frictionless, nomadic living through building collective, global property portfolios drew unflattering comparisons from an audience member to mass migrations and refugee camps.
Noting the rapidly closing gap between the ‘connoisseurial consumerism’ of contemporary art and that of neoliberalism, moderator and Convening co-organizer Naomi Fisher drew together bodies of work that walk a precarious knife-edge. One step, leaning just a little this way, and infiltration looks like subversive sniping from a position well inside enemy lines; a wobble in the other direction and it resembles a complete and troubling surrender to the glossy tropes of Capitalism. The complexity of the terrain, the ethics of choosing between conforming strategies and oppositional ones, the difference between wakeful dreaming and ‘woke’ dreaming, and the questionable efficacy of seducing privilege and power – all these are huge, juicy, critical subtopics that could have easily driven lively discourse for days on end.
So, what transformed such a potentially dynamic conversation about the tension between means and ends into an elephantine mass that weighed uncomfortably on the rest of the gathering? From my perspective our discursive structures were simply inadequate for criticality: the collective conversation ended prematurely without allowing enough opportunities for diverse, thoughtful input, and consequently just skated across its surface. Panelists ran over time and sessions started late. Overall it seemed that there were too many presenters and topics for two days of convening, resulting in a frustrating overlap among clusters of themed breakout sessions, and there was a sense of striving earnestly for ‘productivity’. By now we have a sense that information overloads shut down complex processing, that overwhelming choice diminishes focus, and that rapidly achieved conclusions undermine difference. All of these are patterns characteristic of the pervasive spectacle we inhabit…
These structural limitations were never directly addressed in the panels and breakout sessions I was able to attend, contributing to a sense of uneasy complacency. With a few notable exceptions (thank you in particular to Gean Moreno and Imani Jacqueline Brown) the conversations returned over and again to the ways we, as artists and arts organizations, remain resilient in the face of precarious circumstances and how we can adopt strategies to play off or within the Capitalist system: How do you muster investors so you can turn a profit with the best of them? How do you transform meager pickings into a feast? Or how do we just suck it up and keep going, accepting that when the system rewards us it is usually because we are acting on its behalf? These may be reflexive survival strategies that buy our practices and organizations some time, but mostly they do little to propel changes in the conditions that make them necessary.
I began to wonder, was the adaptive motif that I was noticing simply a result of curtailed discussion or did it reflect a shift in the structure and function of Common Field – at least as I had come to understand it?
Here we were in this beautiful space – a testament to the ways in which dogged activism, inventive strategizing and inclusive community engagement can build a powerful cultural resource – in a location that has already resisted two major attempts at developer-driven erasure. In an effort to deflect the kind of transformation that occurred in nearby Buena Vista (now the shiny Design District) and Little San Juan (now ‘artsy’ Wynwood), Little Haiti is currently fighting to keep its name. It’s a multi-sided struggle between historians who want to memorialize the founding Black community known as Lemon City, the Haitian-American community that lives there now, and ‘centimillionaire’ developers such as Peter Ehrlich who is quoted as saying “We know from 20 years’ experience that people prefer more generic names or truly historically accurate names, … Yes, there are some negative connotations with ‘Little Haiti.'”
Even if the community manages to retain its chosen name and to assert the argument that history is best honored in relationship to a meaningful, present identity, the processes of succession towards a mostly unwelcome future are already well under way. Art and film studios and purveyors of luxury goods are making inroads into the neighborhood with a speed that confounds activists.
In Miami generally there seems to be a prevailing sense of inevitability and powerlessness. One Uber driver admitted to knowing several people who had been displaced by neighborhood gentrification in Wynwood, but shrugged his shoulders and said “Well, but what can you do?” He thinks the makeover of the district has mostly provided lots of entertaining things to see and do. An artist/gallery owner in the Design District told me that he was at his third location since local developer Craig Robbins bought up many buildings in an 18-block area of Buena Vista and invited high-end designers to move into the rebuilt space. The artist was flattered that the developer cared enough to keep relocating him to areas that had not yet received the creative touch.
Our convening was similarly permeated by a sense of resignation, ranging from reluctant acceptance of received norms to an entrepreneurial zeal that would have warmed the hearts of industry’s captains. Surrounded as we were by manifestations of development-driven displacement, even the provocative and generous panel on Gentrification and Sustaining Neighborhoods was, in the words of moderator Rosie Gordon Wallace, intended to ‘not put flames to gasoline’.
As Dream Defenders asserted in their welcome to Little Haiti “the measure of a civilization is its treatment of the weak,” and they urged the privileged among us to put ourselves at risk and stand in solidarity with the dispossessed. What risk and solidarity both require is a courageous step beyond compliance, and the definition of what that means for each of us will never stand still. Constructing a sense of self that can constantly be reevaluated and revised is hard enough, but finding ways to explore fluid collective structures is exquisitely challenging. Somehow we need to reclaim the time required to connect more slowly, deeply, and with greater vulnerability – even while recognizing the speed with which the prevailing master narrative is working to smooth out any resistance to the status quo.
How does a forum such as Common Field compromise its capacity to be a critical body by not insisting on holding the space for open-ended struggle? It is clear from recent examples of artist gatherings gone awry that unstructured or unanticipated critique can collapse constructive discourse. But how could revised models of engagement channel the fire of anger into powerful alternatives, and grow resistance to normative structures into opportunities for unlearning internalized habits of oppression?
What does our name ‘Common Field’ mean, what is our function, who do we serve? These are questions we keep asking but don’t yet seem compelled to explore at the organizational level. We know we define the field by belonging, by occupying this territory together, but what is the relationship between this singular space and the values we hold in common? Will it nourish those of us who seek survival, or change, or both? Without deliberate systems designed to encourage and facilitate reciprocity, social structures tend towards what cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson called schismogenesis – a splitting of factions into independent entities. Do we want to avoid that, and if so what should we do?
While acknowledging all the visionary work that has already been done, what if we convened around the question of structure itself – with the understanding that foundations always determine what further building is possible? What if we asked what forms would favor listening relationships rather than declarative ones, so that we could discover the commonalities around which to build solidarity? What if we designed spaces for deeper connection? What if we asked what conditions foster emergent leadership with the capacity to envision forms that are not yet known? If we care about achieving ends by consistently ethical means, how do we modify our organizations to facilitate struggle instead of working so hard to smooth out its fissures and bumps?
The following are some initial questions I have, both broad and specific, that might help envision structures that could better function to bridge between service and critique:
- How does dependency breed conformity? Does leanness spark invention?
- In what ways do arts organizations reflexively mimic and extend oppressive structures?
- How do art structures that ‘spin off’ the system provide critical opportunities, and which audiences do they serve?
- What agreements keep dissenting voices in generous commitment to engage?
- How could more imaginative strategies bridge the gap between academic criticism and collective thinking?
- Can critique be more about asking questions than delivering answers?
- Can there be more thoughtful, curatorial ways of facilitating audience engagement?
- Can presenters be obliged by structural means to respect dialogue space, through curation of their materials to fit the prescribed format?
- Can the larger organizational structure encourage more risky dialogue and participation by abandoning ‘founder’ structures and embracing a more open-ended concept of membership, ownership and growth?
- Could we consider the possibility of creating multiple streams within Common Field – for example one stream that supports more conforming structures, and another that provides space for radical alternatives?
- Could we create a digital forum to gather ideas about innovative structural designs, with a goal of purposefully accommodating shifting intentions and constituencies, and more closely matching the experimental nature of our work?
A thousand thank yous to all those who worked so hard to be welcoming in Miami. The food was amazing, the music brought us closer, and the sea of beautiful faces reminded me that we come together in this way because we love.