Nato Thompson: I said to you, ‘Rick, what are you going to do? Because now there are all these social practice programs where a lot of white kids are graduating and they’re going to go into communities of color and try to help everybody.’ And then you said, ‘Well, it sounds like they’re finally going to get an education.’
Rick Lowe: When you think about the field of social practice, I’m kind of in-between. I come out somewhat of the community arts era and now straddling into the social practice side. It was really funny to me today, I was thinking, ‘Man, is social practice gentrifying community arts out?’
This exchange between Rick Lowe, the founder and director of Project Row Houses in Houston and brand-new appointee to the National Council on the Arts (see Third Ward TX, my friend Andrew Garrison’s wonderful 2007 film on this work if you can) and Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time, was part of the Creative Time Summit, a much-livestreamed late October 2013 New York conference on “Art, Place & Dislocation in The 21st Century City.”
(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Creative Commons)
I’m not a sports fan. in fact, I’m so not a sports fan that I can seldom match the team names with the sports they play. But friends have been sharing so many stories and clips about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair – racism and bullying in the Miami Dolphins – that I felt compelled to investigate.
For my fellow Martians, here’s the nutshell: Incognito and Martin are two 320-pound football players who work for the Miami Dolphins. Martin is 24, a Stanford graduate, an offensive tackle and African American. He is the child of a corporate lawyer and a professor, with a stellar sports career and a reputation for intelligence. Incognito is 30, a guard, white, from humbler origins, who trails a stream of suspensions and expulsions, mostly for fighting; he turned pro without completing college. In 2009, National Football League players voted Incognito the “dirtiest” player in the league. After obscene and racist text and email messages, countless locker-room incidents, and a dining-hall prank masterminded by Incognito that evidently felt like the last straw, Martin resigned from the Dolphins and headed into a silence he has not yet broken, although he has met with an NFL attorney and reportedly declared his desire to return to football. Incognito has been suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team,” and has made many public protestations that he and Martin were friends, that the aforementioned messages and texts were merely business as usual in the NFL.
In the emergent world – the one I call The Republic of Stories – we don’t have to shrink ourselves to the scale of widgets to interact with corporations and institutions, modeling our own ways of being on the machine logic of our inventions. At any moment, we can open the gates of perception and understanding. We can treat each other as whole beings. We can assess and consider the full price of our actions, then act accordingly.
That world already exists; it’s just that the way is sometimes blocked by those so loyal to Datastan’s values that they can’t imagine an alternative. It’s a matter of time before enough people bring the new reality into focus, and I am determined to put my energy on the fulcrum of paradigm shift. It’s amazing how much even a single exercise – allowing a piece of music to enter us fully – can help engage the tipping-point.
In Vancouver recently, I spoke at the Zero Waste Conference, a gathering of scientists, officials, academics, and activists devoted to eliminating waste. I was deeply impressed to encounter Michael Braungart for the first time. His talk was frank and amusing, calling into question many of the aims implicit in zero waste and other action focusing on environmental impact reduction. Braungart’s points sounded obvious once you heard them, generating mind-changing implications. For instance, he compared the goal of “zero emissions” to the reality of a tree, which emits helpful substances into the atmosphere and earth. He questioned sustainability as a value, suggesting that it sets the bar pretty low: “Would you want to answer a question about the quality of your marriage by saying, ‘It’s sustainable’?”
I’m on my way home from New York.At Bowery Poetry, I gave my first Culture of Possibility workshop, aimed at actualizing the ideas in my new books. As so often happens, everyone resonated with my critique of Datastan, the realm in which human being in all their delightful particularity are asked to adapt to the machinelike linearity of our own creations. Large and small, social systems seem to be designed by and for robots, and often, the choice to evade them seems foreclosed by circumstance. As I say in The Culture of Possibility: to the degree Datastan’s…
…project succeeds, it makes us miserable. Machines have often been a boon to pleasure and freedom: if my home were on fire, I’m certain I’d save my computer, iPod, iPad, and iPhone before anything else. But I want to make use of them, not be controlled by them. If it were a pleasure to be treated like a cog in a machine, people would volunteer for it. Instead, those whose economic circumstances enable them to avoid interacting with public and private bureaucracies, customer service departments, and the type of assessment that allows a number to stand for one’s worth invariably employ a cushy buffer zone of specialists and factotums to insulate themselves from such diminishment. Everyone who can evade Datastan does. That doesn’t stop them from prescribing it for the rest of us, though.
As often happens, life throws up a handy example of whatever has seized one’s attention.
I’m going through one of those bumpy passages on the journey to belonging.I moved a couple of months ago, and while the reason was love and I feel the opposite of regret, the adjustment to a new community is pushing some ancient buttons. As with many children of immigrants, I know what it’s like to feel in it but not of it. By now, the catalog of my own complaints is intensely boring to me: I don’t know how to meet the people who might belong to my own quirky tribe if only I knew who they were; I’m always getting a little lost; the relatively short distance to my old neighborhood and old friends seems much longer now that I’m on the other side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
I imagine that this too shall pass, and probably pretty quickly. I’ve moved more than 25 times in my life, so I know the dance. I’ve been doing some online research. I even wrote a couple of the messages I tend to generate in such circumstances: e-introductions to fellow artists and activists with whom I have some vague virtual connection (who so far have not replied, but never mind). So I’m not worried, but I am noticing the tenderness that gathers up memories of alienation and stacks them in my forebrain. I am noticing how the little story – the little, highly personal kvetch – connects to the slightly larger and eventually the big stories of our world, adding an extra charge.