Archive for the ‘Revision Street: America’ Category
I was interviewed for Chicago Independent Television about the Whittier struggle shortly after the initial battle for a library was won. Hm. The link’s not working but you can click through right here.
“The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which she also imprisons reality. On the contrary, the more radical she is, the more fully she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, she can better transform it. She is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. She is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. She does not consider herself the proprietor of history or of people or the liberator of the oppressed; but she does commit herself, within history, to fight at their side.”
—Paulo Freire’s preface to the 1988 Continuum edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (regendered from the original)
I recently started a new series for 127 Prince, an online journal on the application and impact of socially engaged art-making. The series has yet to gel, entirely, but I intend it to address the labor, intellectual property, and gender issues embedded in this noncommercial creative practice that I’ve been dabbling in since the mid-1990s.
It’s a mode of art-making that’s become quite popular lately, re-branded for the academy and, as I will draw out more in the essays to come, stripped of any coherent politics whatsoever. A bit like getting arts funding to make beer for artists to drink while they talk about art. Which by the way happened.
The central problem, as I explain in the first essay “TV Dinners for All” is this:
Some of the most intelligent, well-meaning, creative problem-solvers in the world, when put to the artistic task of thinking through the inequities of society, can still rigidly adhere to the exclusionary practices they’ve come to accept as normal within the art world. [This allows] the very capitalist ideals that social practices aims to uproot [to] become re-inscribed, usually by accident.
Now, the TV Dinner project idea for which the piece is named wasn’t mine. It was brilliant, so of course I stole it from someone else. Gabriela Fitz, another intern for Conversations at the Castle, pretty much came up with every good joke of that whole summer, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
Gabi was also kind enough to sit down with me for a Revision Street: America interview, where she recalled her own experiences:
It was an intensely alienating experience, given that it was all about community and connecting and that. The hypocrisy of it was really, really difficult for me to stomach. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to articulate at that point that we were working with people in prison and sort of using them as art objects more than as participants. . . . I felt incredible discomfort. I remember distinctly that we were given access to the federal penitentiary which was highly unusual, and we’d go in there, it’d be this very elaborate process to get in there, and we brought these boxes, these cardboard boxes, and we would put different liquids on the inside and there was a hole on the top and we asked the participants who were prisoners to be blindfolded and to put their hand inside of the box. It kind of makes me breathless to think about it right now, because they were prisoners, and we were blindfolding them. It was such raw ignorance on our part about what risk could have been involved in that for them.
There was this one guy who stuck his hand into what was chocolate pudding, and he kind of yanked his hand out and told us this story about having had a job cleaning out porta-potties and falling into this big vat of the waste. He was sort of tearing up as he was telling us this. It was really only years later that it struck me how incredibly irresponsible an act it was to go in there, in an environment that’s stripped of texture, and stripped of smell, and stripped of human contact, and to give him something like that. And then there’s no space for him to have his feelings, you know it was just like we left.
At that moment, I had this sort of undeveloped feeling of like, Wow, I’m an asshole.
(Read the rest of the interview here, and don’t skip the two follow-ups, here and here. They’re really some of the best stories I’ve had the honor to run on Revision Street, and Gabi’s presentation of them is dead-on.)
In the interest of due diligence, and as a means of gaining some historical perspective on this work that occasionally vexes me in the immediate term, I Google-stalked some of the artists Gabi and I refer to in our discussions—and worked with at the Castle.
I’ve only come across IRWIN organically in the last decade and a half, but as I say, I’m only a dabbler here. I’ll continue dabbling for a little while, though. And in the mean time, you may want to read a previous dabble.
Stopped by Whittier on Saturday just to check in, see how everyone was holding up. The ladies are doing fine. “Solis supports us now,” they told me with a wide smile that let on how much they believed it. “He bought a t-shirt.”
“And then he expected us to thank him for it,” one protestor added.
Consider the massive media attention given to the sit-in by employees at Republic Windows and Doors in 2008 (for example: the New York Times, the NY Daily News, TIME, and The Rachel Maddow Show, to name just a few). While that sit-in had an undeniably sexy built-in news hook — workers fed up and taking rebellious action in the face of massive recession-era job loss — it is still fair to ask why that one-week-long sit-in would have made local, regional and national print and broadcast headlines, while the Whittier moms’ sit-in, which has already tripled the length of the Republic workers’ protest, has been so under- and mis-reported. After all, families fighting for their children, education stories, and B-roll of adorable kiddies are evergreen journalistic catnip… usually. But perhaps not so much, when those families are not wealthy, those kids are not white, and those education stories aren’t about the oh-so-in-vogue private charter school movement. Cynical? Perhaps. But, my guess is, accurate.
I’ll add to this—and it’s a point Jennifer Pozner points to in the above post but doesn’t underscore here—that a couple key differences offset the Whittier occupation from the Republic Windows and Doors sit-in: that as a women-led fight that involves elementary education issues, this occupation is very easy to write off as a women’s issue. Most journalists have. And more significant, that the struggle at Republic Windows and Doors was with an identifiable, big-brand monster: Bank of America. TIF funds, CPS corruption, and aldermanic abuse of power just don’t have the same ring.
Still, I’m thrilled that headway is being made, and that the women down at Whittier, and their kids, continue to feel pretty happy that they’re taking a stand for what they believe in.
I’ll also take this moment to highlight this really sweet piece by Cinnamon Cooper, who went down and interviewed the kids about their fight a few weeks ago for Gaper’s Block. It’s a charming piece, and if you’re not able to get down there yourself, you should spend some time with it.
My special Revision Street: America series on the Whittier Bilingual Elementary School field house occupation continues through Friday, but I have yet to incorporate all the images I’ve taken while down there. Here’s a few, with descrips, and please refrain from making comments about needing a new camera. I know! But also, most of the time, I was holding a microphone in the other hand.
Above, sleeping quarters, stacked in the day so the room can be used as a media command center. And below, bedding. So nobody gets cold.
Repolish don’t Demolish.
Kids. They’re not in danger, they’re not protesting. They’re just drawing. Although they might be drawing floor plans for a library.
Here are the plans the Pilsen Alliance (I believe) had drawn up, a proposal for the $1.4 mil renovation to the Whittier Bilingual Elementary School.
Here’s a kid who was trying to keep his sign upright for a press conference Tuesday but kept getting distracted by the big, fat box of donated kids books the moms had set out to demonstrate their support.
It’s hard to know where to start this story. Seven years ago some parents in Pilsen started using an abandoned field house on the grounds of their kids’ elementary school, Whittier Elementary, as run-off space for activities that weren’t able to be housed inside the school building. Which was in drastic need of repair anyway. So they agitated for, demanded, and won a $1.4 million requisition to renovate the school.
The Chicago Public Schools system decided, though, to tear down the building these moms were using for sewing classes and after-school programs—turn it into a sports field. The kicker? For a totally different school. (Background here.)
The moms wanted a library. The kids want a library. The public library in the neighborhood has been closed for the summer. It was slated to reopen in the fall, but it hasn’t. Anyway, a school should have a library, a place for students to study. Isn’t this one of the primary functions of a school? To offer educational resources?
But CPS doesn’t seem to agree, and continued with its plan to spend $354,000 on the demolition, claiming the structure was unsafe. These moms had it inspected. Besides roof repairs, the building is in “good working condition.” (I have copies of the documents on hand.)
So one day earlier this week, Araceli Gonzalez and a few other moms, after getting blown off at yet another press conference, decided to occupy the field house.
“It was not planned out. It was a decision we just made. I mean, this, all of this is new for me. As I said, I’m 46 years old, I’ve never done anything like this,” Gonzalez told me yesterday.
Meanwhile, food deliveries came. Support. More books, for the growing radical library, in the occupied field house.
And these women? They’re just staying put. Until they get some questions answered. Like: What happened to that $1.4 mil? Why are the parent’s demands for a library, at great savings to CPS, being considered? And why are a bunch of moms defending their daughter’s rights to be total nerds being treated like criminals?
I’ll be running my interviews with these amazing women and their daughters on Revision Street all week. Stay tuned.
I have one Alana Bailey Brand poster left, and I’m going to give it away to the person who leaves the best Studs Terkel quote below (or on Facebook, or Tweets it to me, or leaves a note on my door; whatever).
To get things started, I’ll note my two favoritest ever Studs Terkel lines: “Let’s talk about dogs for a minnit here,” upon which he launched into a series of tales about the dogs of famous people, when I believe he was supposed to be addressing, I don’t know, his literary work, contemporary politics, or some such. And: “If things get bad enough, I might have the distinction of being the only person to jump off a bridge bearing my own name.”
I’ve been in Leipzig now for a little over two weeks, swore to god I wouldn’t bring my audio equipment and start up another magilla of an oral history project, but here it is: today, and I’ve just interviewed Host Dietzel, a retired former electrical engineer that still comes in, two days a week, to his former haunt, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei.
He started working at the Spinnerei in 1963, and describes it as a beautiful, wonderful place he was lucky to find. “Dancing, music—there was no jealousy,” he explains. (A jowly man now, with an easy laugh, one gets the sense he may have been a bit of a cad back in the day.)
“It was wonderful,” he explains, and waxes poetic for several minutes about the fun they had. (The Spinnerei, being largely populated by women, wasn’t subject to the same restrictions the rest of East Germany was, and they had bananas and exotic fruits all year long.) “But,” he adds, “you did have to ignore the politics. This was just people, together, trying to make the best of what they had.”
Do you think it would ever be possible again, I ask him, for one location to have people that enjoy each other, play together, work together, and have everything they need? “No,” he says without hesitation. “We have lost our humanity.”
I explain this all here because it doesn’t contradict what Tom Shepherd had to say in the far-off South Side of Chicago, nor really what Carmella expressed in Roscoe Village, either. So even within the West, this sense of a lost human connection pervades, this struggle to find a way to counteract a culture that strips away our humanity.
My amazing assistant Rebecca J. Lederman has been helping me transcribe the Revision Street: America interviews for the last month. In secret, she’s been making drawings—caricatures, sort of, or one-panel cartoons more than accurate visual depictions—of each of the interviewees. She’s never met these people: she’s only listened, very carefully, to each and every word they have to say. She’s publishing them here, and will be adding drawings of each of the subjects as I post them to WBEZ.
Alana Bailey has just completed the Revision Street: America poster, set to appear in your home or office soon! OK, actually that is not true! But it may appear in a retail store, sometime within the next couple of weeks. Alana and I have worked together on stuff before, and this isn’t likely to be the last time. Fair warning.