Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Arts of Living in Common

This talk by El Kilombo was given as part of an event at El Kilombo social center in Durham, NC, titled "Art and Revolution," held on Februrary 19, 2009 with guest speakers Fred Moten and Robin D.G. Kelley. The event was part of El Kilombo's spring 2009 speaker series: "Things Unseen: Building Autonomy in a Time of Crisis."

The Arts of Living in Common
by El Kilombo Intergaláctico

I want to expand on the presentation that was given by Kilombo at our last event by briefly proposing an additional four points which we feel directly relate to tonight’s topic and which we hope will resonate with what Robyn Kelly and Fred Moten have already said. I will make sure to be brief so that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the Q&A that will immediately follow:

1) The Way of Viewing Change From Above: Exceptionality and Appear(ing) in the Given Field of the Visible.

I wanted to start giving some context to the points below by mentioning that Kilombo lives in this neighborhood that you find yourself in tonight, a neighborhood that in Spanish is known as “El Hoyo,” which I think we can translate as “the hole in the ground.” In the process of starting to learn to live in this hole in the ground Kilombo has begun to see things upside down. That is from the bottom up. But in order to better explain this I will start from the top down. Given our starting point we have begun to delineate that in the world out there, in the world up there, there is a way of viewing the issue of change, even of revolution, that we feel expresses itself simultaneously in art and politics. This vision begins with a simple premise; all movements for change should be directed outward and upward—the goal of movements for change should be to grow beyond themselves so as to eventually have the strength to “take power” and occupy the existing political and cultural institutions of our society. Power is up there and we must somehow get at it. As a consequence of this obsession with that which exists above, this vision of change has two defining characteristics; the first is that an overwhelming amount of energy is placed on appearing in the given field of the visible. Thus, the activist, the artist, the academic, and the politician all share a thirst for the various mediums of appearance; the bright lights of the media, the walls of the hip gallery, the pages of that sexy journal publication, and the microphones of the next electoral process. The goal is to organize that one protest, that one opening, to write that one article or that one special speech, that will allow you to be seen and heard by those who have not seen and heard you, believing that through the expression of opposition to existing policy there can be a change in the correlations of forces that will eventually allow you entry into those institutions up above. As a correlate, this vision of change has a second characteristic; in order to believe that it is you or your group that should be seen and heard, you must also believe that you have something to show and say that others do not. In other words, the desire to appear is always accompanied by an implicit belief that you are exceptional; unlike everyone else whose words, semblance, or images might appear, the appearance of your words, semblance or images is “different.” Your appearance, unlike all the other appearances that have come before and that will follow you in those very mediums, will produce change. In sum, for this vision from above, power is up there, and only by being led by those with the exceptional skills to appear, what we used to call the vanguard or the avant-garde, can we get there, can we get to power and use it for change.

2) The Creative Class, As Our Local Vanguard

From this hole in the ground we see our neighborhood under assault. An assault that takes various forms; one obvious form is the constant harassment of Black, Latino and poor white residents by all types of police forces, a second more subtle but yet equally effective form of assault on the life of Durham's neighborhoods has been the deployment of the discourse of art and creativity to relegate the poor residents of our neighborhood and of the city of Durham as a whole to the realm of the unproductive, to the living dead. That is, before we were sold the idea that Durham was being "revitalized" (that it was being given an injection of life) it was necessary to convince us all that somewhere along the way it had died. Part and parcel of this project has been the discourse of the "creative class" as a vanguard of sorts, a discourse that insists that our neighborhoods become interesting only when an exceptional class of artists, students, academics, and high-tech knowledge workers more generally move into the area and place their images and semblances up for display. Of course these neighborhoods weren't suffering from a lack of creativity but from the processes of white flight and suburbanization that led to an enormous disinvestment from urban neighborhoods across the country. In order to further obscure this fact, the "revitalization" of Durham has been intimately tied not only to attempts to attract "the creative class," but also to portray Durham as a city friendly to the arts more generally. Our neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods have in particular been selected as the site for an "arts corridor," a series of arts galleries, and a newly constructed Center for the arts, all sponsored by the very people who through their investment practices force the removal of Durham's Black, Latino, and poor white populations. A fact that in itself makes one wonder whether this influx of the “creative class,” wasn’t in fact the influx of a “new middle class” intended to make Durham safe, not for creativity, but for real estate speculation.

3) The Way of Viewing Change from Below: Life in Common and The Reorganization of the Sensible.

This narrative from above that has been built around the “creative class” as the agent of change in Durham has to be seen as a rather obvious attempt to invert reality. Composed primarily of a population running from those cemeteries known as suburbs, the new residents of the city are attracted to the neighborhoods that they settle in exactly because of the forms of life nurtured by their poor Black, Latino and White neighbors. The very people portrayed in the narrative of the “creative class” as unproductive. That is, anyone who has spent time in this neighborhood knows that it is teaming with life. On any given day one can walk through this hole in the ground and find: a daily pick up soccer game in the park, a tamales sale, merchandise day on Trinity Ave. with the accompanying food and music, parking lot festivals, enormous block wide barbecues, what seems to be an infinite number of apartment complex wide quinceañeras and baptisms, outdoor movie nights, neighbors planting their own stock of corn and beans in their front yard, full fledged impromptu parades up and down Geer St., and of course the endless circulation of chisme (gossip) that takes place around the Paleta cart. The point I want to emphasize here is not that these neighborhoods are entertaining, but rather, that these outward signs of conviviality are under-girded by an invisible and yet immense network of social cooperation that is simply unimaginable in other parts of the city. The very condition of exclusion from the benefits—the property and the income, although not the process, of socialized production, forces these communities into a struggle for survival. In this struggle, and having limited access to outside goods and services, these neighborhoods begin to collectively produce goods and services for themselves, and to establish rules that guarantee the equitable distribution of those items (Sudhir Venkatesh and Mike Davis). That is, in sharp contrast to the vision of change up above that places such value on exceptionality, here below it is understood that an improvement in social conditions can take place only to the extent that one accepts that one’s condition is common. Quoting Eduardo, who played for us earlier tonight, the situation down here forces us to acknowledge that in order for conditions to change in this neighborhood “we have to build a life in common and understand that within that life each of us is common.” Thus, these invisible practices of cooperation become seeds that grow inward and downward, the very seeds that today comprise Kilombo. That is, they do not seek some future point where they might appear in the given field of the visible. Rather, the logic of these seeds, of these practices, of these exercises of power, is to reinforce themselves, to intensify the experience of the new social relations that are built within them so as to enact a reorganization of the senses, so as to produce new subjects with a radically different field of vision. That is, these seeds are not content to act merely in the given, rather they tend to reach beyond and directly work on the parameters of possibility. Yet, if one has doubts of the extent or capacity of these invisible forces to intervene in the real, ask yourself, who up above was not caught by total surprise at the enormity of the events of May 1, 2006? (The day that Kilombo first opened its doors)

4) The Art of Revolution Today

Today, in the world up above, there is endless chatter about a “financial crisis,” a crisis that has no doubt bruised the new middle class, and devastated poor Black and Latino communities. Up there we’re bombarded with questions of whether we should bailout the financial sector, nationalize the banks, or reconstruct “the real economy?” In short, in the world up above, the discussion remains limited to asking what forms of knowledge will help us to rebuild the corporate and institutional ladders that have just crumbled out from underneath our feet; to rebuild the system in which artists, academics, politicians...etc. can continue aspiring to heights of visibility and exceptionality. Down here where capitalism has never been experienced as anything but a crisis, talk of the “crisis of capitalism” hardly helps to clarify the situation. Rather, down here the persistence of things unseen demands a rather different discussion, one that directly raises the question of belief. Do we believe in this world? Do we believe that this world is always and forever giving birth to another? Do we still believe in the power of the invisible? If so, and if we’re ready to act on our belief then another option begins to take shape…we must turn the world upside down, and make those invisible forms of cooperation already in motion down here the very basis for a new life, a life where there will no longer be a down here and an up there. From our perspective, from this hole in the ground, it is only these practices that open to that which is beyond the given that will allow us as artists, activists, and academics to introduce collective action and innovation back into the very heart of art and politics. In other words, for Kilombo this inversion is the art of revolution today. Anything else will be more of the same.

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