THIRTY-FOURTH ANNUAL E. F. SCHUMACHER LECTURES
November 2014 Judson Memorial Church, New York, NY
Introduction by Severine von Tscharner Fleming
FOUNDER & DIRECTOR, GREENHORNS;
MEMBER, BOARD OF DIRECTORS, SCHUMACHER CENTER FOR A NEW ECONOMICS
It is my greatest pleasure to introduce Caroline Woolard. She’s a city mouse working on land reform in the way that I’m a country mouse working on land reform. Caroline is like a swan: she glides with principles, trusting in her community with a philosophy of emancipation and of trust. It’s a true credit to her work and her spirit that so much has bubbled up around her in the solidarity economy.
What is it we are looking for when we talk about institution-making and the skills that takes? How empowered are we as individuals to do that work? That’s what I think Caroline has been working on. I don’t know the art terms very well, but I think it’s called art practice.
I’m thinking about the new institutions we are trying to build in order to meet the tide of change. What shape will they take? What values will they encompass? As a farming girl, I’m obsessed right now with the Grange, an organization founded in 1867 to promote community and agriculture. Representing kinship, fraternity, and reciprocity, it was the nexus of community connection from which could grow cooperative enterprise, from which could grow cooperative legislation, from which could grow anti-monopoly legislation. No Grange organization could start without three women at the core: Pomona, Flora, Ceres—the agricultural goddesses of fruit, of flowers, and of grain. The Grange resembles a Victorian Occupy movement to a certain extent—direct democracy that is awkward but with velvet sashes and ceremonial phraseology.
Exploring the history of the Grange in this country takes us across different cultures to the deep history of community enterprise and community format. We are looking into the deep future as well. You know this church is cold! We anticipate that a lot of churches will be cold as we young people enter upon a major project of retrofit, trying to make sense of our intuition and accommodating ourselves to what’s left, cherishing one another’s virtue and accurately calculating the value of our labor and land. We’re engaged in the project of reconstituting a regional economy we can work with, and it is active work.
We’re accustomed to thinking of value in terms of cash dollars; what if we thought of it instead in terms of territory? Let’s consider, for instance, the territory known as the Louisiana Purchase. The value of that land is equivalent to the value of my generation’s debt of $1.3 trillion. If we took that debt and made a Jubilee, a forgiveness of the debt, and we were given coupons in return, we could buy the equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase’s 530,000,000 acres of land. Over the past 210 years, from the time when the founders of our country wanted to empower new settlers to build a democracy, to build a nation, and to build the value that is now held in the banks, it all was made possible through the value of a million slaves picking cotton, the value of hundreds of mountains that have been blown up to get at their coal, the value of stolen labor and of stolen land. This adds up to the value of the Louisiana Purchase. The amount of land that will change hands in the next twenty years—400 million acres in play because of the plethora of aging people—approaches that of the Purchase. The value of that land is the amount we now owe as we begin our careers. Who will own all that land, and how will it be used by those who own it? These are questions of access, of transition, of stewardship, of power, and of democracy that we need to face right now.
Thomas Jefferson talked about providing posterity with the blessings of freedom. And now, as that posterity, how do we cope with the lack of freedom? Across our relative spectrum of privilege we need to be able to hold ourselves to a higher standard and create a system that shares wealth more fairly. Jesse Jackson is famous for saying, “We didn’t all come here on the same boat, but we’re all on the same boat now.” Our generation must confront the legacy of injustice and recognize the need for a more durable and equitable approach.
I went to see Wendell Berry recently. It’s a huge honor and privilege just to be near him. I was all full of gumption and spirit, and he said, “Young lady, there is no big solution.” That means we can each devote our lives to the many small solutions, and we’ll start with yours, Caroline.
Thank you, Severine, and thank you, Susan, for inviting me to speak. It’s a huge honor and responsibility to follow in the footsteps of such a legacy. I thought I would begin by reflecting on the question, What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees? I will be talking about the creative entrepreneur, what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls “this endless [auto]biography” that’s constantly being rewritten and performed and what philosopher Michel Foucault calls “the entrepreneur of the self.” This concept is explained by Leigh Claire LaBerge in her article about me, “Wages Against Artwork: The Social Practice of Decommodification,” which will appear in Entrepreneurship, a special issue of the SouthAtlantic Quarterly to be published in 2015.
I think we have to be very critical in this era of creative enterprise of the ways in which creative people become entrepreneurs of the self to the point where extraction in the form of wage theft might seem inevitable and where value is produced for corporate rather than social interest. I too traffic in an autobiography about an entrepreneur of the self, but it’s one that tries to use the vernacular jargon of today so that the creative entrepreneur is someone who has a praxis of cooperation and mutual aid, and that praxis cannot be separated from what it means to be a creative person. I think it must have been incredibly frightening during the Cold War, not only in the Soviet Union but also in the United States, to try to pursue life as a creative person while living in fear of the state politically. Even today with a debt burden that necessitates a certain kind of work and imagination, the censorship that I live with and that my peers also experience is one of a political economy that makes outspoken radicalism almost impossible.
As I tell my story, I hope you will see that it ends in a space of coalition building rather than as one single initiative. I want to help you imagine a kind of creative entrepreneurship that is necessarily responsible for a praxis of cooperation. I like to remind people that I work in groups. There are many artists whom I love and am responsible to. I collaborate with them often through volunteer networks or non-profits—sometimes funded, sometimes not. I’d like to take a moment to honor Jen Abrams, Lousie Ma, Rich Watts, Carl Taschen, Or Zubalsky, Rachel Vera Steinberg, Cheyenna Weber, Annie McShiras, Michael Johnson, Blair Murphy, Susan Jahoda, Vicky Virgin, Julien Boylen, Ben Lairchen, Lika Vulkova, Steven Korns, Maureen Conner, Laurel Ptak, Shane Selzer, Robert Sember, Mark Reed, Lizzy Hurst, Claire Beaumont, Christine Wang, Colin McMullan, Brendan McMullan, Huong Ngo, Leigh Claire La Berge, Roger Hughes, and Christhian Diaz.
Because I’m part of groups, I like to make agendas. I’ll start with a story as I think through where we are in this beautiful place, the Judson Memorial Church, and think through what I’m doing here speaking to you, trying to tie together the solidarity economy, the sharing economy, web 2.0, social-practice art, and a vision for community land trusts. This story takes place in 2011 when I wanted to go to the Museum of Modern Art without paying. The price tag for admission to this important public institution has risen to $25, but I thought there must be a way to enter and not have to pay. I’d been bartering as an artist to meet many of my needs, so I went up to the cashier and told her I might repair something or offer childcare, listen, sing, make jam from foraged berries, tell forgotten histories, take risks, facilitate a meeting, speak truth, communicate without words, or appreciate art. And she said, “It’s $25.” I reminded her of the inspiring work of the Community Economies Collective and the way it describes the unjust dominance of wage labor in a capitalist firm. I mentioned the many ways we meet our needs together: on the street, among friends, in church or temple, within families, under the table, through informal lending, raising children. She said: “Listen, lady, I’m not in charge. This is just my job. You should come back on Friday. It’s free then.”
I left and went to a nearby park that some of you might know. I looked at the trees and wondered how old they were and what they’ve seen. I kept thinking about those honey locusts, their beauty and their presence, and felt glad that there are still some public spaces in this city—public culture, you might call it. I realized that in order to barter, as I had tried to do in the museum, both parties need agency. You can’t be working for someone else and engage in negotiation, because that’s not up to you. It’s just a job. But I don’t want to live in a world where I just work a job and don’t have agency to decide whether someone can enter a space or not.
This is a talk about my search for places where voluntary reciprocal exchange is both possible and necessary. It’s not just about barter; it’s about community land trusts and solidarity economies as well.
Where are we right now? What is this cold church with its broken furnace? For me it is a place from which my heroes and heroines, my grandmothers and inspirations, emerged. If you haven’t been here before, I can tell you it’s an incredible place to come to. For those who went to Cooper Union, which has been tuition free for 154 years, this was where we learned about Yvonne Rainer, dancer/choreographer and filmmaker, who performed a minimalist dance piece called “The Mind is a Muscle” here. We learned about Yoko Ono and Fluxus—the worldwide network of artists, composers, and designers that merged different artistic media and disciplines; she had us imagine putting our shadows together until they become one. There was also a time in the 1960s when John Hendricks, who is now the Fluxus curator at MoMA, was able to serve as a conscientious objector because this church was a place where you could do your service. There was an Art Ministry here, something I’d like to see in many convents and churches throughout the city. This was a place where Claus Oldenburg experimented with complementary currency, albeit only for the night of a performance with Ray Gun Spex. It was a place where artists like Deborah Hay met with many other artists and tried to blur art and life, performing on rooftops and turning the seating that you typically see inside dance and theater spaces toward the windows so that you could look out and see dancers on those rooftops. It was a place where the Bread and Puppet Theater performed and where its Cheap Art Manifesto of 1984 made sense. As it says:
People have been thinking too long that art is a privilege of the museums and the rich. Art is not business! It does not belong to banks and fancy investors. Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you. Art has to be cheap and available to everybody. It needs to be everywhere because it is the inside of the world. Art soothes pain! Art wakes up sleepers! Art fights against war and stupidity! Art sings hallelujah! Art is for kitchens! Art is like good bread! Art is like green trees! Art is like white clouds in the blue sky! Art is cheap! Hurrah!
I want to remind all of us here in the cold that today marks the third anniversary of Occupy’s eviction from Zuccotti Park. This is what it felt like three years ago when so many people were unexpectedly removed from a cold space that was important then and still is. Honey locusts were there too. I keep wondering if trees remember.
What am I doing here, speaking to you without a deep connection to land reform and agriculture? I’m not an economist, but I do believe small is beautiful. As we see a movement—variously called social-practice art, the new economy, Web 2.0, and creative place-making—swirling around us in this contemporary landscape of discourse, I hope we are all backing community land trusts for agriculture and are bringing the “rural mouse” to the “city mouse.” There’s a place for artists to join a movement like this.
Maybe you invited me because I’m young, so I thought I’d take you through some of what has happened in my biography—and excuse me if this is the “entrepreneur of the self” that you fear. I was only 15 when all computers were expected to fail as December 31, 1999, turned into January 1, 2000, also known as Y2K; I was in high school when the dot-com bubble burst; in 2002 I entered college, Cooper Union, one year after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, not knowing fully what Manhattan really was like, and I graduated the year before the foreclosure crisis. I remember working for an artist, Katrin Sigurdardottir, whose parents told her on the phone while I was with her that their bank accounts in Iceland were evaporating. All of that is the world I graduated into. My friends were saying, “It’s hard to take risks when you have loads of debt”; “I can’t risk starting a family”; “I wish I could afford a home and had a job I really want”; “Because of my debt I’m a different person from the one I want to be.” I’m reminded by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, author of Can the Subaltern Speak?, that education is the non-coercive reordering of desire. I’d say debt is the coercive part of that reordering.
I honestly considered robbing a bank. In fact, it runs in the family. My dad eventually told me that my grandfather was actually a bank robber during the Great Depression. He was working on a tobacco farm—that’s what Woolards did—and he decided the only way he could feed himself and his family was to steal a car, drive to Florida, and try to rob a bank. It’s unclear in our family lore whether he succeeded or not, but likely it didn’t work out well, because he changed his name and joined the military. So my dad was born with a fake last name and didn’t come back to his real family—the Woolards on the tobacco farm—until he was in his teens. That was when his father decided that he was tired of hiding and that he needed to see his family. Luckily for my father, when he was drafted he became a conscientious objector. He later was able to benefit by the GI bill, becoming the first Woolard ever to go to college. He was even able to send me to a private high school, where I learned class etiquette and gained the cultural capital to be here today
I didn’t graduate in a time when the GI bill was available or we had the kind of daring to rob a bank and change our last name. Not as easy in the Facebook era, so when I graduated, I decided I would do something much smaller: I would not put any money toward paying rent but would try to put every dollar I made into artwork that I put in a public place. I would sleep on rooftops, I would sleep in cars, I would sleep anywhere except in a house with a landlord, because to me that meant getting on a treadmill where almost every dollar I made went into rent. Most people I know live to pay their landlord. I knew I didn’t want to be transformed by a workplace that told me I was expendable and the only decision I could make was not to make decisions because I was being told by someone else what to do.
I tried this for a while. I finally found a shed and sheet-rocked it, but it didn’t work for many reasons. Christine Wang, someone whom I didn’t know that well but who was becoming a friend, let me use her shower. She said, “Why don’t we start a space together?” And I said, “That’s hilarious because I have no money, so I don’t know how we could ever do that.” Christine said, “I can get my parents to write us a check if we say we’ll pay them back in two years.” We wouldn’t have been eligible for a commercial loan—and it turns out that I’m still not—but we were able to get $30,000 dollars together and agreed to pay $8,000 a month for five years for the 8,000-square-foot space we would share. This was considered cheap for New York City.
We spent an entire summer building out a space with friends. What we thought we were getting was low rent, but what we got in the end was a family of forty. While I was in school, my parents were divorcing, which wasn’t something I talked about, but I now needed the social and intellectual and emotional community that comes with mutual aid. Even though I thought I was doing it for cheap rent to help out my practice as an artist, I also found the cooperation aspect incredibly inspiring. As Christine Wang and I talked about what it meant to work together, we had to think through the history of oppression that came up in our relationship, the way many people were excluded from neighborhoods in New York City through the practice of redlining, the way the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation made it impossible to refinance or get mortgages if you were not white, the way the creation of a white identity came about in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s through loan practices and bank practices that suddenly were putting groups that previously saw one another as Italian, Irish, or Eastern European under the umbrella of whiteness.
Christine and I had many conversations about how race played out interpersonally and how we wanted to change the way we ran our space. Now I know that solidarity economies are possible. We experienced them in that space. I wanted more places like our studio and more experiences like those we had there. I knew that there are many other creatives. More Americans identify their primary occupation as artist than as lawyer, doctor, or police officer.
As we know, funding for the arts has been declining as a result of the financial crisis. Since 2009, 80% of arts organizations in New York City have reduced their budgets and more than 50% have reduced staff and canceled programs. We wanted to find a way for artists to get support. We thought that our networked information age might enable us to put the growing number of creative people in touch with one another. We started a site where people list what they have and what they need. Currently, some of the skills, spaces, and objects offered on the site have to do with urban farms, urban gardening, intuitive readings, writing and editing, vegan baking, herbal medicine. This moves beyond art design or activism into all kinds of creative practices. You help people because of their projects, because you’re interested in what they do. And we found more and more that they end up gifting or collaborating as often as they barter. It starts with a conversation, and you take it from there.
We realized at some point that you don’t necessarily need to trade one-on-one, that many people want to teach a group, so we started something called Trade School, where you bring services or objects to your teacher. Then we made an open-source platform, where you agree to the principles of Trade School and then share skills with your community, and it spread to fifty cities.
In this networked information era with many such people sitting in classrooms that look like a hierarchy, we wondered if they actually know one another. Are they already texting and tweeting to one another right now? We wanted to ask them why they go to class in person at all in an information revolution. And then we remembered that it’s to meet, to touch, to have that tactile poetry. It’s a composition workshop that connects people across class and gives them opportunities they might not otherwise have to debate in real life. The debt students incur for higher education teaches far more about the lack of state support for public goods than any political science course would. When you learn in a space that’s collectively organized and runs on barter, you also learn about additional ways of meeting needs together.
At some point I thought, “Enough with new initiatives.” I felt that many people thought the barter group was in competition with TimeBank, which was in competition with the community currency, and that all these small initiatives were not cooperating but instead were antagonistic because they saw one another as competitors rather than as allies in a movement for social and economic justice.
I made a networked website to show to people who are often invisible even though they collaborate with their labor or advise projects but don’t get much credit for either. I came to realize that if collaboration means shared decision-making, shared labor, and shared benefit—not just shared work—we would move from a product that informs people they can participate to a product we consult them about, following Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. We would ask what they prefer, then involve them and eventually collaborate, which would lead to alternative paths, moving from a discrete object to a process that we design in the hope of building strong social ties.
When I discovered something called the solidarity economy movement, I found it beautiful and an image of the world I want to be in. One where community currencies and barter clubs are seen as two of many options for exchange and transfer and where consumption and use happen in collective houses or cooperatives. One where the allocation of surplus happens through community reinvestment, cooperative banks, community financing. One where creation comes about through the commons and community land trusts and where production is do-it-yourself or by a producer cooperative or a worker cooperative. There are many options.
During this time I had a night-shift job where I was able to steal time from my boss because no one else was awake. I would sew clothes while monitoring a studio, and all I was supposed to do was walk through the building once every two hours. In between I did research and would sew, listen to lectures, and learn about the Schumacher Center. Then a person named Ethan Miller responded to an email I wrote. He said: “Our burden is not to develop a new abstract blueprint or scheme that we must then convince or force everyone to follow. It is rather to identify the spaces of hope and creation that surround us, to name them, celebrate them, organize to strengthen and connect them. And in so doing, create new relationships and possibilities.”
Ethan connected me to a group called Solidarity NYC, which needed a media coordinator and someone to create their first website and then make it look beautiful. I brought together people whom I had met through Trade School and ArtGoods, and together we made a map showing that although New York City might seem like the center of cutthroat competition, there are actually numerous groups practicing direct democracy, cooperation, social justice, and ecological sustainability. I made a poster that many people, including bosses, were excited by or threatened by, depending on their management structure. It says:
I don’t have a boss. I don’t have a landlord. I don’t pay for school. I don’t horde my stuff. I don’t buy food that kills. I don’t let my bank profit off me, because I’m a worker owner in a cooperative business. I am a member of a community land trust, coop, or intentional community. I participate in self-organized schools and demand free education. I take part in tool shares, barter clubs, and clothing swaps. I’m a member of a food coop, CSA, or community garden. And I joined a credit union, so my money stays in the community.
At this time I was asked to teach a class at the New School, which to me was quite funny in terms of impostor syndrome because I don’t have a Master’s Degree, and that has somehow become a professional requirement for artists. I thought, “I’d love to teach a class on barter and solidarity economies.” I proposed to the students that we each give $5 to a common emergency fund so that any one who needs money can draw from the fund in class. The students’ response was: “It’s not our responsibility. If someone has an emergency, it’s up to him or her to figure out how to handle it.” And so the ongoing questions of the class—and what I think we are still grappling with today in this talk and in Matt Stinchcomb’s this morning—are: Who is responsible? Who gets to traffic in narratives of choice and luck and freedom? The idea that people can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” does not take into account structural violence and the ways in which systemic discrimination has made “luck” impossible. We need to learn how to heal together and support one another and then imagine systems and policies and structures that actually support everyone.
Luckily, during the second week of class Occupy became too big to ignore. I got the students to go down to Zuccotti Park, and we had many conversations about taking responsibility. Soon after, in November, three years ago today, many Occupiers were evicted. But as we all know, you cannot evict an idea whose time has come. Since then, many of my students, who at the time didn’t understand about responsibility or political economy, have written to me and said that they are now involved in struggles around income inequality and that slowly, first through relationships and affection and then through awareness, they have come to find it necessary to address these issues.
My friend Candace Williams says: “I want my students to redefine cultures of power. I want to help create a world where all people see themselves reflected in institutions of power.” I hope that through social-practice art and creative place-making in the best sense of these words we will see this start to happen. If you don’t know who Rick Lowe is, you will soon; he just got a MacArthur Genius Award. He says, “Central to the vision of Project Row Houses is the social role of art as seen in neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation, community service, and youth education.” Or maybe you’ve heard of Theaster Gates, director of arts and public life at the University of Chicago, who made his reputation as a socially engaged artist. Rick also says, “The imaginary is so important, having vision beyond just practical responses. I think artists can grapple with problems in that way.”
As I link Richard Florida, urbanist and founder of the Creative Class Group, to creative place-making and social-practice art, I want to think through again what it means to be an entrepreneur of the self and what it means to see a proliferation of artists with so much debt. Richard Florida says, “The key to economic growth lies not just in the ability to attract the creative class but to translate that underlying advantage into creative economic outcomes in the form of new ideas, new high-tech business, and regional growth.” Let’s consider what those high-tech businesses might be. The famous white paper on creative place-making written for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa says, “Creative place-making animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local businesses, viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” Now, many of the projects that call themselves creative place-making actually rebrand places already known to communities, so I think we have to be cautious about how we want creative place-making and social-practice art to be used, for whom, and why.
I keep thinking about the place I know through Jen Abrams at OurGoods called WOW Café Theatre, the oldest all-women and trans theater in the country. Maria Bauman, an amazing artist, performs there. It is able to have this space because many artists organized to get a building for one dollar. They actually got eight buildings for eight dollars from New York City because they had been abandoned, and in 2001, and after decades of organizing, formed Fourth Arts Block (FAB) to promote the East 4th Street Cultural District between 2nd Avenue and Bowery. This is what a group called the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York, or NOCD, calls a place. Built from the grassroots to serve its member organizations, FAB has its own character and does not need to be branded from elsewhere to suddenly be revitalized. I’ve succeeded in making creative places of my own on a small scale.
How might I stay put? I want to commit to one neighborhood for life, but I don’t know how. I want to see and feel change taking shape, but how can you see change when you are always on the move? Grace Lee Boggs, co-author at age 95 of The Next Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, tells us, “The most radical thing I ever did was to stay put”—like the trees. But we don’t know if they remember.
I want my livelihood taken care of so that I can do the work I’m called to do, regardless of the paycheck. That’s why I started talking to my friends, those around me whom I love, about living together and owning a place together. But soon we realized that houses accommodating eight people cost two million dollars in New York City. This means that everyone in our would-be intentional community would need W-2 income and/or family money, which very few in our group have. And so we don’t know what to do. We don’t want to be an intentional community only of and for people with wealth. And we don’t want to replicate a lot of the systems and structures of violence that have contributed to this situation.
Seven of the top ten most expensive schools in the United States, including scholarships and aid, are art schools. A group of artists called BFA-MFA-PhD got together to prove the reports are wrong that say arts graduates working in their field will be able to pay back their loans. We created our own report because we were told that our stories were just anecdotal, that until the skeptics saw the big data the skeptics wouldn’t be convinced. So we prepared a report in their own vernacular, and now policy makers as well as administrators are calling us. We showed that although there are 2 million arts graduates in the country, only 200,000 are both arts graduates and make their primary income in the field of art. In fact, 40% of those who make their primary income in the arts do not have a bachelor’s degree at all. They may have an associate’s degree or a high-school diploma, but they do not have a four-year degree.
What do arts graduates do for work? The relevant percentages: 23% are professionals such as managers, accountants, and chief executives; 17% are sales and office workers; 17% are educators; and 14% are not in the labor force at all. Although our national population is 63% white non-Hispanic, 81% of art school graduates are white non-Hispanic and 77% of working artists are white non-Hispanic. In addition, although our national population is 51% female, 60% of art school graduates are female, but only 46% of working artists are female.
We have a lot of work to do. I’m reminded of this because I realize that over the eight-year lease of our space, which was made possible by so much mutual aid, our landlord will have walked away with $960,000, and we’ll have nowhere to work. Although we did create a community, in the end it’s quite short-term. It’s precarious, and we count as being privileged, so what does that mean for everyone else?
My friend Lizzy and I tried to get a commercial loan, and I’ll continue to try to do that. We were told we had to have profits at a certain level to show that our business wouldn’t fail. I said: “The business hasn’t failed. It’s been around for more than five years. We have an entire group of artists who have worked with us, and we have never once been late on our rent.” The response: “That may be, but you have to show profit.” If it’s that hard for low-income artists with cultural capital, it must be even harder for other people with low income. How might we artists create and encourage truly affordable space in New York City?
Again I was thinking of WOW Café Theatre because it’s a space that in many ways inspired OurGoods, a barter network for the creative community. If you want to have a one-woman show for one night and not move anything, you just need to bring some toilet paper, and that’s the deal. If you want to have a show that runs for, say, two weeks and you do need to move the lights and anything else around, then you have to be trained first by other members. It’s a collective that allows anyone who identifies as a woman to enter on a Tuesday night and be welcomed into the community. I kept wondering how this was possible. And why is it not possible for us? Then I remembered that WOW Café Theatre within Fourth Arts Block came out of a movement led by literary agent and activist Frances Goldin and many others on the Cooper Square Committee who resisted Robert Moses and his destruction of traditional neighborhoods by building expressways through them, displacing its residents. Through their ongoing organizing, they were able to create a community land trust on Fourth Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue, where you see truly affordable housing, food coops, worker coops, and a thriving neighborhood that is very unlike the other streets around the Lower East side and what’s now called the East Village.
In case anyone here doesn’t know what a community land trust is: it’s a way to maintain truly affordable housing because the land belongs to the community. Called a community land trust to distinguish it from just a land trust, the land is held in trust by the community, either through a non-profit or a community based organization, such as Limited Equity Cooperatives or Mutual Housing Associations. This insures that the leases held by those buildings validate the mission of serving the community.
Where can I go to keep learning, to keep being transformed? For me, the New York City Community Land Initiative serves as a community land trust school that helps me believe in a world worth fighting for. It’s made up of academics and people in the solidarity economy as well as members of Picture the Homeless and the New Economy Project. I am hoping that the solidarity economy—not the so-called sharing economy—will join up with Web 2.0 to advocate for community land trusts in New York City.
You may have heard of “the sharing economy.” The reason I put this in quotation marks is that from 2010 to 2012, because of books by Rachel Botsman and Lisa Gansky, sharing became conflated with renting. This is not what we had in mind at Solidarity NYC when we referred to sharing or solidarity or new economy. What we meant was values of democracy, sustainability, and social justice. With the sharing economy there is peer-to-peer rental so that, for example, your car is not available to your neighbor but is instead for rent. It’s the same with a room or anything else. Your excess is available, but only for rent. At the worst end of the spectrum we see CityShares, which is a way to invest in and profit from the growth of specific New York City neighborhoods that you understand, love, and believe are poised to appreciate. This is much like a real-estate investment trust for someone with $50,000 or $100,000 to spare. It’s a method that computer engineers and venture capitalists are trying in order to make the idea of sharing mean rent, appreciation, and liquidity. With a 12% annual return on rent, you have to wonder what kinds of neighbors you’re investing in and who can possibly afford to stay in this city, where not only global capital but now the local CityShares version of investing makes living difficult.
We should be supporting creators of culture in their search for affordable long-term space, just as we should support the protection of green spaces. And even more than that, we need to support all low-income people—whether teachers or social workers, faith-based leaders or community organizers or mothers—who cannot afford to live in a city with 12% return on housing or commercial space.
I was commissioned to do a project with the Museum of Modern Art. This project became Exchange Café, dedicated to exchange practices from swaps to encounters. I hoped that a “commercial” space like a café in the museum would allow visitors to encounter thinking that might be as radical as any artwork you see on the wall, getting to the root of issues that concern me and many others today. To do this, I invited people to work as staff in the Café who were not only educators or artists but were directly working on building a solidarity economy in New York City—such as Tychist Baker, who is part of Milk Not Jails, a dairy cooperative that employs mainly formerly incarcerated people and who can speak directly about the solidarity economy with visitors. Tychist and Lauren Melodia, also on the staff, often say, “We’d rather drink milk than go to jail.”
I also made furniture for the Exchange Café by turning police barricades on their sides and making them into benches. The Café was lined with books, pamphlets, and reproductions of art and highlighted activist exchange practices, making it into a space to teach about small encounters in artworks. This history of exchange in art is usually overlooked by museums because the scale of exchange is so small, often meant for an audience of only two or three.
Louise Ma and I designed a currency called Resources, to be used at the Exchange Café. I wondered why money in our networked information age doesn’t circulate more information than its monetary value. Why doesn’t money circulate information about the people who use it, information they want to share with one another? Our Resources is a currency meant to validate café customers’ demands, desires, and creations, so I filled in a Resource to say “I create furniture,” and “I desire that all museums are open after work or 24/7.” In order to get tea, milk, or honey in the Café, you use three Resources. The change that is given shows the hands of Kenneth Edusei, who works on participatory budgeting, and Forest Purnell, a videographer and performance artist.
The way that I sourced goods for the Café was based on exchange practices in art as well. For example, the artist Kate Rich has decided to stop traveling to reduce her carbon footprint and oppose the wasteful economy of airfare and lodging so common in this information age; she ships goods along the travel routes as her colleagues continue to travel. The tea that came from Rich’s Feral Trade Network—not fair trade but feral trade, as in willfully wild—moved along the existing travel routes of artists who agreed to pass along the tea to one another as they flew around the world, their airfare paid for by art institutions although their labor was rarely compensated for by museums. And you could see on your receipts at the Exchange Café that the shipping had been paid for by all of the museums and institutions that shipped artists (and shipped tea without knowing it). Going from one artist’s travel destination to another, being passed from hand to hand, the tea eventually made it to MoMA via the Feral Trade Network. Rich asks us, “What is the load-bearing capacity of our social networks?”
The artwork shown and talked about in the Exchange Cafe had four characteristics: 1) It connected two people in a reciprocal encounter (not as static object to be encountered alone by a viewer); 2) the meaning of the work was derived from the value chain from the labor invested to the materials used; 3) the work moved among fine art, high art, and non-art spaces; 4) the work was meant to be able to be replicated or modified. Works by Franz Erhard Walther and Dave McKenzie, for example, have these characteristics. So does a Dream Machine: you call in and leave a dream, and you will get a call back with someone else’s dream. There is soap made by Antonio Vega Macotela; every hour that he works for someone who’s incarcerated, that person dedicates to a work of art for him from prison. And there’s a famous open-access piece by Adrian Piper that can be modified as it circulates in art and non-art spaces. She handed it out after racist comments were made:
Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made or laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do. “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”
I’ve been thinking about clocks and about the way trees can be seen as clocks. I asked my friend Gary Lincoff, who’s a mycologist, what a tree my age would look like, and he said, “Go for a honey locust about 30 feet tall, 8 inches in diameter.” I did find one, and I thought to myself, this tree knew Y2K in 2000, and let’s hope that in 2015 the tree will know that Mayor De Blasio has announced that the city will create a housing trust fund supported by a dedicated revenue stream generated by increasing the property taxes on vacant and luxury properties. Funds from the housing trust fund would be used to develop and preserve truly affordable living for those with low and extremely low incomes; these funds could also contribute to the development of community land trusts with their 99-year timeframes—the longest our legal system can understand—which allow them to function.
I hope that in the next decade or two we’ll see, as Pope Francis says, that empty convents and monasteries can be used to house those in need. These empty spaces, he said, “are not for the church to transform into hotels and make money from. Empty convents are not ours. They are for the flesh of Christ—refugees.” And by 2045 someone born today, November 15th, 2014, will be thirty-one, my age. She’ll be standing here, just as Yvonne Rainer was when she performed “A Mind is a Muscle” sixty years ago. Let’s hope that having grown up in a majority minority country with a black, gay, female president, that young woman will be so strong and so wise. She will speak about the open-sourced software she created and shared with public libraries for participatory budgeting that allocates funds to municipal and commons-based projects for those most in need. She will know that her university doesn’t charge $120,000 for a degree, that its endowment is invested in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) for affordable housing, and that housing is a human right. And by 2060, with the memory of Occupy in people’s hearts, East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust will be 46 years old.
Imagine 2060. Whisper something to yourself about what you hope will be true. As I often find in the studio, you might tell yourself something you didn’t know you already knew. And watch the trees grow. By 2075 your wish will come true, and if you’re lucky, you might even see a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom. As renowned champion for racial justice Professor Cornel West tells us, and this makes me happy every day, justice is what love looks like in public.
Let’s celebrate the churches and the art ministries and other places that respect our desire to speak truth to power, to share stories, to hone crafts, to make beauty, to build community, to retell histories, take risks, be our whole selves, and communicate without words. I’ve done this in small ways by co-organizing infrastructure in the service of short-term artworks and long-term community, and I know we can continue to do this. For there are no new ideas; there are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean on Sunday morning at 7 a.m. or after brunch, during wild love-making, war, or giving birth. We suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone while tasting our new possibilities and strengths. Let us hope that creative entrepreneurs are not just entrepreneurs of the self but also people who can demonstrate a praxis of cooperation and mutual aid.
Question & Answer Period
(Questions were inaudible; only the answers follow.)
We used to have money for OurGoods as a non-profit; now we don’t. That’s a big challenge for solidarity economy initiatives. If you live in cooperative housing as I do, working for livelihood is a little easier, and if you come out of a tuition-free school it’s also a little easier, but if you want to be in a transformative organization where you can heal and be productive, there’s still a high amount of burnout and difficulty involved in being the change you want to see.
I think part of why Severine wanted me to come here and why she made her introduction was to make a connection between the city and the country. She and I see ourselves as working together on community control of land for food and cultural security as well as on an exchange between city cultural producers and country agricultural producers (and vice versa: city agricultural producers and country cultural producers). When I say I want to stay put, I am often told that I should go to Detroit because it’s “so cheap.” But I am interested in self-determination, in organizing with my neighbors where I already am.
Diana Rainer, Deputy for the Brooklyn Borough Presidents, said, “Gentrification is also sometimes the ability to move.” As an art educator it is important to me that I don’t educate artists to be itinerant. I say that in case anyone is thinking, “Why don’t you all move to Detroit?” I’m from Jamestown, Rhode Island, and came to New York because I was dislocated from my hometown. I could be dislocated again for a job, but I’d like to be as place-based as possible. I think what’s powerful about me saying that I’ll stay here is that I face the same contradictions and violence as those who don’t have any amount of capital to buy property elsewhere. And so together we have to solve the mess we’re in.
My hope is that artists in many places will think through their long-term stewardship of their neighborhood so that it’s not necessarily a vision of a large studio but instead one of pooling money for community land trusts that make living affordable for the next generation, not just for your own children. We have a problem in New York City because although many artists benefit from the Loft Law or have space that they really fought for, these benefits aren’t available for others who need affordable space. There are stories having to do with the Cooper Square Community Land Trust about artists making classist remarks and wanting more than average space. Unfortunately, many people do not want to work with artists because artists and developers both make classist remarks about the role of the artist in land reform. I share a vision of the artist that comes from the “Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts” work in New York City (NOCD-NY) and at WOW Café Theatre, where we are already in community and we already are neighbors. These two organizations favor artists who are residents of communities first—people who are rooted and engaged in place-based organizing, not autonomous and unaffiliated jet setters.
Relationships are as valuable as any land that we might purchase, and we want to deepen those relationships because mutual aid does not come about quickly. You come to trust one another over time. I want to put my responsibility in terms of relationships ahead of my ability to move. That said, we need the rural-urban connection. I often fantasize with Severine about having a “Shaker” hub in the city, where lots of people are encouraged to think about community land trusts, and those students who have come here for school but are not moved to remain in urban centers can go to the rural areas and produce food and related things. I think there should be an ongoing exchange.
The Shakers had a very good attitude toward agriculture, culture, and land use. This communitarian sect came to the United States in the 1770s and set up outposts in cities to attract urban dwellers to their country communities as well as to sell them their goods in order to sustain themselves financially. Despite many dogmatic faults, the Shakers were progressive innovators, welcoming orphans, sex workers, and gays and making a space for innovations by all members of society—including the invention of the circular saw by a woman in the Shaker community. If the Shakers were active today (there are only a few living members left), I believe they would be making the best open-source software projects and producing ecologically sustainable agriculture and culture.
I sometimes sound like an aggressive, moralizing champion for Limited Equity Cooperatives when I try to convince someone that modest appreciation on a property is acceptable. Some will say, “But your parents owned property, and it’s through the sale of that property that you were able to go to private school, where you learned the class etiquette and acquired cultural capital.” Others will say, “There’s been so much disinvestment (such as redlining) and marginalization, why can’t I too sell whatever property I want to and at whatever price I can get?” Or “I can’t assume I’ll have a decent education or health care. My house or land is the only way I can create some form of security that is not provided by a social democracy.”
My only answer is that as an artist I’m someone who can create narratives about plausible alternatives to greed and speculation, but we also need policymakers and administrators to act, so that policy can follow perception. That’s why I want to caution us in this entrepreneur-of-the-self moment, where individual choice and the fantasy of self-styling as politics can overshadow the need to work collectively to change the structural conditions (not the personal lifestyles) that make equity impossible today. I think the legacy of the Schumacher Lectures series points toward that. I hope, as a board member, that as we plan future lectures, we can think about placing a creative-enterprise figure together with a policymaker who actually does ask for reform, who doesn’t see freedom just in terms of choice and reinvention as separate from those structures that have been violent to people who don’t have the luck or the freedom to reinvent the world. My hope is that we can raise consciousness and educate through the arts, then form alliances with groups that really do make structural change. I’m trying to educate myself in that way too.
We need to remember that MoMA is free on Fridays because of the Art Workers’ Coalition. Even though this may appear to be a gift on the Museum’s part, it actually has to be open because of the struggle initiated by the Coalition. Then there is what the Responsible Endowments Coalition does because of students and alumni who organize and advocate for endowments to be invested in initiatives aligned with a school’s values. For example, at Fordham the Coalition actually succeeded in getting endowment money invested in Community Development Financial Institutions for affordable housing. I think there are good results coming out of the Responsible Endowments Coalition asking questions such as “Where are you investing?” and “Why don’t you consider a community bond or a CDFI as a lower return but one that makes the world you want to see?”
Yes, I am frightened by the social-practice programs that put artists in debt and use the money they pay in fees to buy up real estate that displaces the very communities those programs are trying to work with. As we see in the struggle with Cooper Union, a lot of people are questioning whether artists need to be professionalized if it comes with a debt burden that means you’ll have to use your skills to work in a field like advertising. It’s a hypocritical world I am moving in as an adjunct. Changing endowment holdings is one way to improve the situation; so is donating money to smaller institutions that are community based rather than to large cultural institutions.
I recall that at one point I was going to be hired by Cooper Union again, and I was talking to the dean at the time when they were about to start charging tuition. I said: “I’ll teach here if you agree to bundle student loans with mortgages, because I can go into debt for $120,000 for a Master’s Degree and generate all that money for Cooper Union, but I cannot get a commercial mortgage to build a structure for the community on land that will be held in trust forever. Would you consider the bundling I suggest?” The dean was interested, and as we talked it through, it became clear that schools do buy buildings on our behalf with money we have paid in student fees. We generate money for the school, but we don’t own those buildings.
I think we’ll see more and more debtors organizing. We’ve already had a violent foreclosure crisis, and now with over a trillion dollars in student debt it’s quite clear that the next bubble crisis is going to be one where banks are bailed out yet again, and our minds and futures will be foreclosed upon. Considering the critical housing situation in our communities right now that keeps so many people from sleeping at night or starting a family, when they are also hit in their ability to even go to work, then we’ll have another Occupy. I think we have to band together as a union of debtors and prepare for the next bailout and crisis. If someone else has a hopeful vision relating to debt resistance, please say what it is.
Artists are still taught to crave the attention that comes with our representations; often our future and our livelihood are tied to how visible those representations are. Very few will want to commit to community unless they’re visible. So while we may be highly productive as we participate in direct action, we need to follow up with real policy change through our long-term organizing work. We can be transformed by what we learn, but we must cultivate the endurance to commit to groups and to the messy, non-charismatic daily practice that goes with it. I think the professionalization of something like social practice or direct action is dangerous if it doesn’t connect to the ongoing endurance work.
I think the arts in general might be a separate question from the specific one of student debt. Many of those student loans are private loans; until 2009 many of them were backed by the government, but that’s no longer the case for a lot of the private loans. NYU, for example, had to settle a lawsuit because it was getting kickbacks for recommending private loans to students instead of federal loans. You can tell where these loans are actually coming from and whether or not they are supported by the government.
I talk to people, including artists, in other countries who think that education is a human right. In Mexico City, in Copenhagen, in Montreal education is free or very low cost because the idea is that it’s not just for a vocational future; it’s for a way of understanding history and what is possible. That’s why we go to school. There are all kinds of burdens we take on when we assume that there has to be a monetary incentive for both going to school and for educating the public. Many of you probably remember public education at community colleges and state universities as very low cost. During the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, I think tuition was approximately a hundred dollars. There are people who remember a very different public image around education, and luckily they are still here to remind us of it. We also know from our friends in other countries that it’s not necessary to pay such large tuition fees.
Why is it so expensive in this country? Take a look at administrative bloat and the fact that at many institutions ten bureaucrats have been added for every tenured faculty member, or at the rising cost of new buildings. The latest New School building, for example, is the “condo of one’s dreams,” with glass and steel and treadmills that I would want if I were climbing the ladder of wealth and consumption and the building mirrored my future—not like Cooper Union, which used to have only two buildings that were somewhat rundown, expressing the commitment to faculty rather than representation. Rising costs are also often tied to billboard architecture, which incorporates advertising into design. On many levels we can see a bankruptcy of intellectual thought caused by student debt. I think the idea of supply and demand is not appropriate for an educational community—for citizens, people with rights of citizenship.
According to Mark McGurl, author of The Program Era, after the GI Bill funded education for so many, there was a proliferation of Master’s Degrees for artists. Whether it was an abstract expressionist painter or a creative writer starting a program, all of a sudden there were funds for them, and these programs proliferated. At the same time, in reaction to the Cold War and Soviet censorship of and constraints on artists, there was a desire for cultivation of self-conscious production in the arts. Rather than having a teacher who corrects your line and helps you to learn and perfect a drawing craft, you could make something like an abstract expressionist painting about self-consciousness and your own identity. There began to be a retraining of artists for this inward look and a kind of “excess of speech,” as Howard Singerman calls it. The critique and the psychologized expression come to overshadow the craft and the humility of tradition.
Yes, you need to go to school if you want to participate in the community of discourse that was fabricated through this system because that’s where you learn what names to care about, what words to use, how to move through these circles of elite art. But it doesn’t have to be very expensive. A lot is changing: the stories of the self-conscious artist and the romantic genius in the attic are often being questioned. But you can still see a direct line from the GI Bill to a proliferation of art schools and also of the liberal arts, often providing an excuse for the corporate-funded university, which can show that it actually is a non-profit even though the sciences are patenting seeds and making a great deal of money.
If we think through what the role of the arts is in the university, I’d say it doesn’t need to be tied to debt. The education of an artist is itself under question, and many artists are being seen as community members and cooperators. You do need both to be an educated person and— unfortunately, if you want to be shown in museums—to have the connections and the discourse that are produced in lecture halls and classrooms. I’m not saying I condone it; I’m just being honest.
I’m looking forward to artists and policy-makers coming together to think differently about what it means to have a creative enterprise as well as to be an artist and also to foreground the importance of community building through place-based organizing. So while we have spent many dollars on and worked unpaid for many hours on OurGoods and Trade School, I’ve returned to the idea of the community land trust because I find that the strong bonds it brings into being are so powerful. If I have a theory of change that’s interpersonal, it comes through the slow and long and messy work of being in places together. Even if you don’t fear a digital dark age that many people see coming, I’d say let’s look at the ways we can connect creative technologists and computer engineers to financial advisers, faith-based communities, and artists to make possible the opposite of CityShares, which invests in neighborhood real estate in the expectation of appreciation. You might want to invest in Bedford-Stuyvesant to create a community land trust or invest in a community bond in spite of a low return. There’s an entire networked platform that makes this possible with an internet that functions more or less for those on the privileged side of the digital divide.
I’d love to see people here think through how partnering with computer engineers might encourage that kind of investment, with those of us who have excess wealth investing in what we really believe in. We can remember to look to our neighbors and ask them what they need and what’s going on in their own building. Filmmaker Spike Lee and artist Matthew Barney both live on my block as well as people who are on rent strike and are being evicted. For those of us who say we come to New York City for diversity, we need to look at the wealth inequality right here and educate ourselves about our becoming a “majority minority” country so that we understand these decades and centuries of disempowerment. If you haven’t read about redlining and if you don’t know what the Homeowner Loan Corporation is and the ways in which it created a sense of white identity, you should really learn about that because it’s our job, for those of us who have white privilege, to change this culture, and that often means ceding power. I think change can happen through investment and social enterprise, but it also needs to come about through consciousness-raising and an awareness that what we accomplish is not always a matter of choice or freedom or luck; it’s often entrenched systems and policies that we need to change and also interpersonally transition away from, since they’re not just structural, they are also embedded in the society and in our thinking.
Caroline Woolard is a New York-based artist and organizer born in Rhode Island. She speaks internationally about art, design, technology, and economic justice. Woolard is an Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the University of Hartford, a mentor at the School of Visual Arts, and the inaugural Walentas Endowed Fellow at Moore College of Art and … Continued