Cardboard Castles and Other Amenities...

I am really interested in using different forms of cultural action to help build better communities. Communities are a vital social model, allowing us to tackle problems beyond the ability of individuals with the focus of a defined (usually relatively small) group of people. How do the arts and cultural work in general help communities grow more sustainable futures? If you have a cool website or project or your own ideas on these subjects please let me know.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two Talks Worth Listening to: Ownership and Cultural Gentrification

I’ve been listening to two talks (1, 2) from City From Below through Groundswell.

The first talk is the problems of architecture in late-capitalist society through an anarchistic analysis (I think.) The first presenter, Shiri Pasternak, offers a short historicized analysis of property in a colonial setting (focused on the US.) She makes an interesting comment about the difference of capitalist notions of land ownership, in which decision-making is based on the needs/desires of the landowners, versus the more indigenous (northwest Canadian) notion of the people belonging to the land.

Now I have no idea what this means to those people (don’t really know which indigenous people she works with exactly) but it reminds me of the Land Group (ask me about it if you don’t know.) It makes me think about how “ownership” is an inaccurate description and ineffective mental paradigm in which to understand our relationship to the land. Our relationship to the land (at it’s ideal) has been based on a historic understanding that that ecosystem has evolved around human intervention for centuries. That for better or worse humans are intimately intertwined into the healthy operation of the natural systems in that area and as “owners” we have responsibility to continue providing the “services” (god damn this language) we humans have provided for centuries. I wonder what this would look like in an urban context? What would it look like if people felt responsibility to there homes? What about to the buses/trains or to the parks or the sidewalk?

This also connects to a conversation I was having with Sherry Wolf (of the Socialist Worker [I know scary]) about the use of “queer” in the LGBTQ liberation movement. Within a discussion about the effectiveness of reclaiming the epithet “queer,” Sherry mentioned being done with the “language war” between “gay,” “LGBT,” and “queer,” that there is a point where if you are not doing things it does not really matter what you call it. This is very true, however the property discussion reminded me of the importance of understanding where our language falls short. In both personal-spatial relations (“ownership” being one form) and LGBT liberation the real point is that there are not words that concisely express those ideas. It took me 66 words to briefly explain the Land Group’s beliefs about its relationship to the environment. Imagine if there was a one word that got even close to what I’m talking about and this is why it remains important to continue to analyze our language and how it impacts our ability to talk about the work we do.

The second talk is about gentrification, pointing out how as artists our job in capitalism has become to brand places as “cool” and then sacrifice them to gentrification. The talk also discuses means of creative resistance. Using the community determined zoning struggles in Williamsburg as a point of departure, a woman from Not an Alternative (I can’t tell who she is [from Dave at Groudsweel, the speaker is Beka Economopoulos]) began by discussing the popular story of Williamsburg as hipster-fucked gentrifying neighborhood devoid of any other population, which is inaccurate. She then broke down the traditional narrative of hipsters as a perpetually displaced people moving from one neighborhood to another acting as the protagonists in the story of gentrification. Not that pleasant if you ask me.

Using the cult classic The Warriors, Not an Alternative and the Williamsburg Warriors designed posters that cast hipsters (and other community groups) in a new narrative of “rebel outcasts.” Through this they provided a vision of the community the hipsters could not only identify with, but could also lead to transformation of the hipster identity. I think this is a great example of the ways cultural production can be leveraged to build coalitions between people who in the popular understanding are advisories, gentrifying hipsters and longstanding community members of color.

One great nugget from the talk was the line “It was our sense that any narrative has the potential to be misread in a useful way.” She talked about the computer mockup that developers created to present the “new” Williamsburg, she pointed out that the faceless “anybody” quality of these marketing campaigns present an opportunity for us to engage and rewrite the narrative of these advertising in ways that highlight the alienation of the community inherent and leverage them to activate the community. In the end all this work points Not an Alternative to move outside of the identity of counter culture or “not mainstream”, and instead step into the role of cultural producers and stand with the communities against gentrification and other forms of oppression.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Some Thoughts on This the National Day of Silence

This is a letter I wrote to co-workers which I thought I would share with you all:

Dear co-workers, friends, and allies,

Yesterday a friend sent me a Facebook link about an 11-year old boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who hung himself on April 9th, after enduring bullying at school, including daily taunts of being gay. Needless to say this really hit me. As someone who has suffered LGBT-based violence and harassment, it pains me to hear our children continue to be threatened by this hatred and bigotry. Since today is the National Day of Silence, which tries to raise awareness about LGBT-bullying and harassment, I thought I would send out this invitation for further dialogue.
As K pointed out in our staff meeting, our lives continue to be affected by wide spread injustice and oppression. I have had a similar struggles to celebrate with a good friend who is engaging in growing the love between her and her male partner through marriage, while being barred from expressing my love through that same institution. There is amazing courage to be found in publicly committing one’s love to another person as there is in admitting to oneself and one’s loved one’s that in this society some of us don’t have that opportunity (at least not in the same way.)
This is an invitation to dialogue, so what do you think? What is your history of violence and oppression? How do you think we continue to struggle against this and all other forms of bigotry? How do we redouble and refine our efforts to help our young people find new ways, ways of love and compassion, understanding and opportunity for all people? These are a couple of the questions on mind this day of a heavy heart; and questions the Hegada teaches us are good things. I invite anyone to share with me any questions or ideas you might be having about LGBT issues (or anything else for that matter.)

If love, compassion, and hard work are the answers it is heartening to be daily in such inspiring company.

Thank you,

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Social Change Cause it Makes Me Happy, Well-Being and Social Networking

An interesting article from Seed Magazine, in it Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler discuss networks, and how understanding them is changing everything from evolutionary theories to political campaigns. There’s a lot in the article I didn’t really get. For example scale-free networks, which as I understand it has something to do with networks being built around “nodes” or “hubs” which are units (whether people or cells etc.) which are connected to high numbers of other units. That is to say that in a network, say Facebook, there is not an equal distribution of “friend” connections. Instead there are people who have vastly more “friend” connections than others, in fact there are several “levels” of connectivity, and that some highly connected people tend to have connection in multiple different “communities.” These people are the “nodes” and “hubs” (the only difference I can see is the quantity of different connections, with hubs having significantly more.) One of the interesting things about scale-free networks is that they have found the same structure in a variety of seemingly very different network systems, for example, social networks and cellular networks.

For me, the meet of article was a reference to a study by Fowler and his colleague Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, which found that both behaviors like smoking and obesity and emotions like happiness and loneliness spread through social networks. What this means is that if your friend or family member starts loosing weight or is happy, you are more likely to loose weight or be happy. The really cool thing is that this is not only true for your friends/family but also for their friends/family. Meaning, if your friend’s mom is loosing weight you are more likely to loose weight whether or not you’ve ever met her.

This makes an empirical argument for all sorts of things like social welfare programs, civil rights, economic justice, etc. This is because these are all factors which affect people’s happiness and since our personal happiness is affected by the happiness of people in our social network, it seems fair to assume that as the happiness of our community rises so shall ours.

Of course, the other option is to attempt to keep those who are likely to be unhappy, the poor and oppressed for example, out of our social networks all together. This has, in fact, been the historic practice of the ruling classes and points to the need for connection between classes and communities as a strategy for social change. For example, one of the long standing traditions of the queer/lgbt liberation movements has been “coming out” to friends and family. This then demonstrates to people that they are being negatively affected by homophobia through their social network. Now, of course people didn’t use the language of personal happiness and its connection to social networks. Instead they thought of it as creating visibility and evoking empathy and understanding. However, I would hypothesize that these are based on instinctual understandings of the impact others have on us. Ie. We care about others because we know that they affect our lives (understanding that this is probably a huge oversimplification of why we care about others, but you get my point.)

Image: Wikipedia: Scale-Free Networks

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