How To Do Now
by Alan W. Moore
“A permanent IV drip of absolutely pure bullshit is progressively suppressing the immune system of the American state.”
– William Gibson (@GreatDismal, May 11, 2017)
In the face of government rot and citizen despair, we’re talking city-building. . . in the sense of building organizational possibility, sites of assembling and production of political imagination. This has been done, time and again, and today it exists already, albeit fragmented and in-cognizant of its fellows. This is the kind of world Chris Carlsson described as coming into being in his 2008 book, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today.
“What is to be done?”—the classic question of revolutionary politics, of oppressed majorities everywhere when faced with the machinery of power. We don’t have to build the revolutionary party with a steely cold-blooded vanguard as Lenin commanded. Artists are great do-ers. We need to make the little molehills, the tiny initiatives that can grow together as they are to make the new society. We need to network them so that they reinforce each other. And we need to put them at the disposal of political movements to sustain, grow, and inspire them.
A key political question for cities in the USA is how to synergize the forces for change. African-Americans who require racial justice confront not only systemic police violence and incarceration but also historic exclusion from housing, which is ramping up again with the new cycles of gentrification. Young people of all colors face precarious employment, massive loads of debt from education which should have been free, new debt from health care costs, and similar exclusion from affordable housing. All of us are looking at a reversal of the already-minimal efforts to preserve the habitable natural environment. A black-green-red political alliance could rule our cities for the century to come. The question for us all is how to forge it.
The question of taking power, of organizing resistance, and making changes happen is always a conversation. How do we do it? What should we do? “A politics that works begins by listening / A politics that works never stops listening,” says Marc Allen Herbst.
While it is as yet an emerging movement, municipalist ideology has many strains. The deepest is a belief in the efficacy and power of citizens’ assembly. That is at the heart of Murray Bookchin’s conception of libertarian municipalism. It is behind the remarkable electoral success of the Spanish municipalist platforms which came out of the 15M movement. General assembly became the guiding form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Zapatistas rely on it in Chiapas. This is a politics based on listening and discussion that can cut across political party lines.
More than an ideology, the citizens’ assembly is a practice. This isn’t some bogus-assed town meeting shit where you see people on stage. Fred Dewey, an artist who worked on neighborhood councils in Los Angeles, holds that assemblies should be preeminent in all governance. He traces this philosophical political tenet in US history—our real exceptionalism—inflected by the thought of Hannah Arendt. His is a strong voice for face-to-face governance and constructing the “space of appearance.”
I talked with Fred Dewey in Berlin in June. Fred is an absolutist of popular assemblies, as he explains in The School of Public Life. That is, he believes in the right not only to meet, but to govern: direct face-to-face democracy. Citizens’ assemblies are the spine of municipalism as Bookchin conceived it. Pull them out and you have invertebrate politics. Yet this is something municipalists who adapt their program to the electoral systems of western democracies simply will not insist upon. But we citizens can. It’s something that really scares power.
Municipalist platforms are also deeply informed by ecology, made urgent by the global climate crisis. Feminism, expressed through an overall governing ethic of care and stewardship for all. Open borders, “no one is illegal,” protection of refugees. Care for the socially excluded and marginalized people. “Historic memory”—redress of old and continuing wrongs inflicted on parts of society.
This ideological mix varies from time to time and place to place. The injustices of historic and present-day white supremacist policing and discrimination in jobs and housing are urgent concerns for African Americans in the USA. Protection of migrants and refugees looms large in Germany and Greece, where the neo-fascists use prejudice to build their movements. Similarly, aggressive deportations of Americans from the USA is a burning issue for Latino/a people there.
Chaia Heller on Libertarian Municipalism, excerpted directly from a transcription of a video by Oliver Ressler, recorded in Leverett, Massachusetts (2005) ( Watch Libertarian Municipalism from Oliver Ressler on Vimeo.)
…There is a tremendous concern among leftists about what is democracy, what ought it to look like, and what ought it to become. As a social ecologist for me there is the sense that we have the potential to have a direct democracy, which means, that people in cities, towns and villages would gather as citizens in a local town meeting, which you could call a general assembly, or public assembly, or citizens assembly, and it is that body that would be the driving force for policy making in society in general.
The idea is that the rule would be by the general populace, on behalf of the general populace, and they would be making policy for the general populace. Libertarian Municipalism is an attempt to formalize that vision of a directly democratic society without turning it into a recipe or blueprint or how do manual, which is I think a very dangerous thing and would drain all the poetry from the vision.
The vision of Libertarian Municipalism is intentionally vague in general, because it believes that people themselves in movements have to struggle how to particularize their general principles of non-hierarchy, cooperation, direct democracy, social justice, and ecology. Those are some general principles, and I could add more, or I could take some away.
The question is: how do you create a politics, how do you draw out a politics from these general principles? The idea of Libertarian Municipalism is that through the principle of direct participation or the principle of self-determination, we have this notion of people govern themselves, direct democracy, and how this is different than a representative democracy that you find in a republican democracy that dominates much of the modern world. There you have the idea that the masses are really not capable of managing themselves. What they do is they try to get together and figure out the best person to represent and articulate their hopes and dreams in a way that will come closer to the way in which they like that to happen. We do this through elections that can be at a municipal level or on the state level, and people elect officials who have policy-making power.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance that in a representative democracy the representative, who is supposedly acting on behalf of a disempowered constituency, has policy-making power. In a libertarian municipalist vision there would be no representatives. There would be citizens who gather together in the popular assemblies, who speak directly on behalf of themselves. And it is this citizen’s assembly that has policy-making power.
For administrative purposes, for particular local municipalities to coordinate with other municipalities or part of the confederation, the various groups would empower a delegate, which is very different than a representative. A delegate is very similar to a messenger, the delegate is basically giving the will of the group, the mandate of a group and goes to the confederate council and delivers that mandate. The delegate is always recallable, the delegate has always a limited term or limited engagement, and that role of a delegate is never professionalized. Within a direct democracy of Libertarian Municipalism you would never have professional politicians. You would have again an active general citizenry. This would have revolutionary implications for the way democracy would work. There would not be lobbying to politicians and representatives to present us more accurately. We as citizens would be speaking on behalf of ourselves and would bring our own hopes and dreams and our own understandings of the way things ought to be to the popular assemblies directly ourselves….
From care, from life – Toward a feminized politics
One of the most prominent ideological strains in municipalism in Spain now is feminist. Both mayors of Barcelona and Madrid are women, as are many if not most of their teams. How the feminist line—the “feminization of politics”—plays out in practice is perhaps not so well understood.
The feminization of politics is not, as many (male) US pundits see it, a matter of personal style (the slogan “the personal is political” being here misapplied), nor a new set of virtues to stand in for the decrepit “republican virtues” derived from pre-Caesarian Rome. Rather, the feminization of politics means gender equality in representation and participation, challenging gender roles that structure patriarchy, and finally, a different way of doing politics which centers care and community. As we heard at the “Fearless Cities” conference in Barcelona in May 2017, the Women’s March is a movement.
Feminists have long pointed out that the massive amount of labor that sustains human life is unpaid and hidden from the view of economic analysis, just as the common resources extracted from the earth are unreimbursed by corporate capitalism. A key theorist here is Silvia Federici of Wages for Housework and the Zero Work group.
A report from a years-long project called “The Grand Domestic Revolution” (GDR) clearly lays out the program of valorizing the labors of care, maintenance of community, and upholding of the Ur-democratic principles of the commons, which lie behind a total re-imagining of political life. As a reviewer notes, this is a data-rich, theoretically informed and practically grounded reference book that is encyclopaedic in its approach to its subject.
The GDR was a commission for a biennial of social design undertaken by an art institution. It was a sequential combination of investigative techniques interrogating conditions of daily life, domestic labor, and the economy of reproduction (aka living). The team posited the politicization of everyday life against the post-war capitalist project of commoditizing daily life. The GDR included long-term living in an apartment, action research, reading groups, discussion, and policy groups. And of course they undertook video and photographic projects linking artists and domestic workers, squatters and organizers. Through their work on the “domestic apparatus,” and a “revolutionary home,” the GDR constructed micro-societies for creative research.
The GDR derives from a 100-year-old practice of “material feminism” committed to the quotidien conditions of women, seeking to communalize their daily domestic labor. They critique the “individualized and commodified home” as a new site of extraction for capitalism. Guiding ideas were drawn variously, especially from Bachelard, de Certeau, Lefebvre, Russian Constructivist domestic design, and feminist economics. After a year of work, activity was returned to the gallery with a series of installations and meetings, including a town assembly. Next phases of the project investigated cottage industry, co-housing and communes, personal dynamics of squatted houses, gardens, and plants, again punctuated by town meetings. Also on the menu: feminist political economy, gentrification, radio and public speaking, daycare, bicycling, history of activism for the homeless, housing on the commons (shantytowns), philosophy, and legality of the commons. Thereafter the GDR travelled, performing variously in London and Amsterdam. The book ends in 2014. Is it over?
Building an effective political platform based on local self-government is a long and complex project. Nothing can beat the effectiveness, the deep political and educational affect of face-to-face assembly. How that can happen in cities around the USA is a burning open tire-fire of a question. Fortunately this generation has social media. The existing forms have been used effectively by political movements around the world and are the subject of intensive research and development. Face-to-face assemblies are considered basic necessities in the development of municipal movements. In Spain they were accomplished through the nationwide 15M movement of encampments. (Occupy Wall Street did not succeed to generate concrete political results from its equally extensive encampments.) The assembly, post-Facetime and in between, has become easier to continue, to permanentize outside of meat time, with the many new digital platforms for organizing which citizen hacklabs have been building.
There are many lessons to learn from movements in other lands, in other political cultures. And lessons to be remembered from our own country, examples which have been willfully forgotten, erased from official US (school-taught) histories, and the daily public news stream: the “first draft of history”.
Municipalism is dangerous to the powers-that-be
The pigs have their snouts in the public trough so deep they will be very hard to dislodge. Ever fight a pig for its dinner? Their first thought is how they can add you to the menu. . . The US political structure is designed to undermine, negate, and finally destroy the kinds of popular power municipalist politics depend upon. Their main tool is preemption. “A local council or municipal government gets its power to pass laws through a law of the national or regional government which specifies what things the town or city may regulate through bylaws. It is therefore a form of delegated legislation” (Wikipedia). Republican-controlled state and federal legislatures are pulling out all the stops to keep cities from governing themselves. The legal and legislative struggles over the sanctuary cities movement are a case in point. That means citizens have to resist. The law will be used against them by a corrupted political regime—as the quote ascribed to many an autocrat has it, “for my friends everything, for my enemies the law.”
This is the challenge that has led many past left movements in Europe to understand themselves as “extra-parliamentary oppositions,” opposed to the grand coalitions that sustain a planet-depleting oppressive system. These are the politics – anarchist and autonomous communist – which support the movement of occupied social centers.
The recent assembly-based US Occupy movement, meeting and camping in common public space, was shut down across the country by coordinated federal action in 2012. This new political phenomenon—in essence an ad hoc extra-parliamentary opposition—was deemed too dangerous to continue. To date, they have not re-Occupyed.
Artists have a particular edge in conceiving provocative symbolic defiances of law. Russians are especially adept—from nailing their scrotums to Red Square and sewing shut their lips, to the Voina group nailing shut bureaucratic offices, holding orgies in museums, and publically hanging excluded persons in shopping centers.
American artists have been somewhat more practical. In New York, Not An Alternative built tools for the Occupy movement, and Rueben Kincaid did the same for squatters in Chicago. They have also been effectively symbolic, as in 2005 with Allison Smith’s “The Muster.” (This event also served the sure function of all assemblies and campings – networking artists and civic activists.)
Collectively artists can certainly demand more of the cultural institutions they support with their work and patronage. They can demand that they serve democratic functions. This is no radical point of view. As a voice of bureaucratic Europe wrote wheezily: “The artistic community must foster endeavors that contribute to restoring the standing of the public sphere.”
Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.
NOTES: I have not found many handbooks on doing assemblies. There is “The People’s Assembly Toolkit” published by altotrump.com, an immigrant rights group, just after the election. Outside the intro sheet, the guts of it is in Spanish. There is one on occupation, which the student assembly of Zagreb dared to make in 2011 (“The Occupation Cookbook, or the Model of the Occupation of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb” (PDF online)), in consultation with Russian and Austrian comrades. Which is a great start on making a site for parochial assemblies. But for the neighborhood assembly – “People’s Assembly” on wiki.p2pfoundation.net starts from OWS; and on Wikipedia there is “Popular assembly,” “Not to be confused with citizens’ assembly” — well, good luck on disambiguating that! A U.S. handbook would be golden.
Tapas de “Municipalismo”—Some Direct Democracy-flavored Ideas
These are some examples of the kinds of things that build popular movements: ways to go, things you can do.
Get a place to meet. . . regularly. Be welcoming and polite, and keep it clean. This is really important. The self-organized occupied social centers of Europe (CSOAs) have been key to the growth and sustainability of local popular movements. Wherever it is—squatted abandoned public building, public library, bookstore, ratty-assed senior center, or grassy knoll—it’s crucial to have a place where people can go to overcome social isolation, conceive and do projects, talk, listen, and make politics. (Most bars are poor places for this. You can’t hear with the music. However, they may be good places to organize a riot.)
An Anti-university / Un Ateneo Libertario
Teachers and professors in state- and private schools can mostly only teach what they are allowed to. “The government does not owe the people education for the simple reason that one does not owe the people what it can take for itself. And education is like liberty: it is not given, it is taken.” – Jacques Ranciere quoted at: freeuniversityoflondon.wordpress.com
There’s one of these initiatives met in London this summer – http://www.antiuniversity.org/
They’ve all got a long (anti) history, as related by artist Jakob Jakobsen at http://antihistory.org/
From the days when the Catholic Church controlled education, Spanish unions established workers’ education centers, called ateneos libertarios. There’s dozens in Spain today, listed at:
Emma Goldman set up one in New York in 1911 called the Ferrer Center, or Modern School, named for a Spanish anarchist educator executed by the government. Start one today in your local bookstore or coffee shop. Rope in your local eggheads. Talking, reading, talking, deciding. Who knows what comes next?
A fair of the solidarity economy / La Feria de la economía solidaria
Freegan? Barter? Local currency? Labor credits? Sustainable power vendors? Whatever you have so far, so big or so small, show it and build it. In Madrid, they have their own in-fair money, called boniatos. Build socialism like they build capitalism—quarter by quarter, annum por annum.
There’s a new way of doing them—as online platforms, or what Trebor Scholz calls “platform cooperativism.” And lots of places help out with setting them up. You can also start with an existing private business and convert it.
A key plank of the Jackson Rising People’s Platform to build economic equality in Mississippi holds that city governments should support worker-run co-ops. Read a German foundation’s report on Jackson at: http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/wp-content/files_mf/kaliakuno_jackson_web.pdf
Have a soli-party (solidarity fundraiser for a cause, for prisoners). A Trump Roast. Fiestas and popular celebrations have long been ways of expressing and organizing politically. Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of “popular laughter” and the “carnivalesque” is based on these festive operations since medieval times, and activists have been using this method for a long time. Culture—it’s not just for money anymore. Many games, like Paul Ryan’s “triolectics,” the “yoga of collaboration,” teach collaboration and social solidarity. JoAAP co-founder Robby Herbst is working on this in California—see newnewgames.org.
Direct Political Work – Citizens’ Assemblies
“I said it once before but it bears repeating”—face to face, NOT on Facebook! Sounds better than griping and fuming, pissing and moaning, and sitting still to be “farmed” by corporations and political psy-ops? Use online tools to build your local neighborhood assembly after the meetings and BBQs are over. This, as any municipalist or Bookchinite will tell you, is the first indispensable step to serious political power on the municipal level. (Also makes big trouble for state and federal as well.) Once you’ve got folks on the line face-to-face and door-to-door, try out this e-stuff, designed where they care more about voter cultivation than suppression.
“Technologies for 21st Century democracy: A Europe-wide project developing the next generation of open source, distributed, and privacy-aware tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment.”
D-CENT – Decentralised Citizens ENgagement Technologies
Finally, everything that works is going to be very local.
We’ve already done it. We just forgot about it. To start, you don’t need to innovate. Just replicate, replicate, replicate. Nothing new is really new; it’s just re-tooled so it can cut again. Chicago is especially rich: Dil Pickle Club, Experimental Station, Mess Hall, and so much more. Fight amnesia. . . learn about your own pasts. Remember what worked before. It can work again. It’s not imitation, it’s emulation.
As, for example – “Organize Your Own”
A substantial resource for artists’ organizing comes from the recent show in Philadelphia, “Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements” organized by Daniel Tucker, formerly of AREA: Chicago, and Rebecca Zorach. (That publication, both online and in print, is in itself a goldmine of ideas and histories.) New work by contemporary artists and poets responded to archival materials related to the history of white people organizing their own working-class white neighborhoods in Philadelphia (the October 4th Organization) and Chicago (the Young Patriots Organization), in keeping with the mandate from the Black Power movement to “organize your own” community against racism.
Fifty years ago, the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made a historic call. Stoakley Carmichael wrote that “one of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters of the movement has been that they are afraid to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it. They want to run from Berkeley to tell us what to do in Mississippi; let them look instead at Berkeley. . . Let them go to the suburbs and open up freedom schools for whites.”
Raciones—Bigger Plates to Share for the Municipalist Table
I recently wrote to Noah Fischer, the NYC Occupy Museums activist. He was in Venice for “Dark Matter Games,” a sidebar event to the Venice Biennale, held at the S.a.L.E. Docks, an art space coming out of a wave of 2012 occupations in Italy. I asked Noah what political role he thought was 1) realistic and 2) idealistic/rhetorical/platformistic to demand of US cultural institutions? I asked because in Spain, cultural institutions have played significant roles in support of social movements—opening to them at key moments, enlarging and enlightening them continually.
Cultural institutions in the US are largely private—or at best, “public-private partnerships.” The political interests of the governing class, as embodied in their boards of directors, do not allow their curatorial staffs to support and augment popular movements. This is in fact quite normal for European cultural institutions, most of which are state-supported.
Noah wrote: “Museums—at least the big NYC ones—seem to be schizo these days – the Trumpian days of inequity on steroids—the pure bullshit IV—with one part of the museum representing the 1% and its interests (exclusivity, property, privatization) and other part(s) trying in small ways to ally themselves with social justice movements. I saw this at the Whitney, where it was clear there was some kind of internal war within the institution. Certainly there are people in major institutions who see the need to build democratic culture/space, but I guess that museums in the US, with their interest in criticality but reliance on oligarchy, are sort of set up to permanently house this kind of stalemate. I think it’s important to understand these dynamics before asking things of institutions as if they are unified platforms. Part of the dynamic is that museums play good cop/bad cop with progressive politics—inviting it in, but then denying it and its horizon from the top—we saw that with the Gulf Labor campaign. So maybe the tactical question is: how does one go about asking things from institutions that have multiple intentions?
“Museums are definitely unique as contemporary public institution. Even if they cost twenty-five to get in and are privately funded, they still have that mission of public enrichment—sometimes they still are a little bit out of the pure consumption vortex, which is why I’ve done six years of work to try to light up that spark in them. At the same time, I am not totally sold on a horizon where museums are simply public forums of some kind. Read about the new “Shed” art institution opening with the Hudson Yards in New York – in some ways a flexible public space is the ultimate late capitalist bare art world museum type. Many existing museums have that library-like mission to catalog and preserve their collection, even though that is where they turn conservative and freak out about actions in spaces where multi-million dollar works are hung, I’ve found that most political leverage for activists comes from the fact that museums must honor the logic of ideas inside of art – often radical ideas – to an extent.”
By “enlightening” I mean supporting through their exhibitions and ancillary events that bear directly on themes political, eg the “Perder la forma” exhibition at MACBA at MNCARS, curations by What How & For Whom; “Playground,” also at the two M’s in Spain, and the “Rapto de Europa” conference produced with a political institution, Fundación de los Comunes. All of this generates thought and discussion, and shows wide varieties of tactics useful for movements. Victoria & Albert in London did “Disobedient Objects,” although maybe an exception. In the early ‘00s, “The Potosi Principle,” or “Principio Potosi,” which started in Germany, was pedagogical in seven-league boots. This is just a scattershot sample.
The Ribs of Municipalism—City Cultural Agencies
In Madrid, two institutions I know have been especially active in this regard. They are models for the kind of institutions we need all over the States.
The phrase “hacking the city” appeared some years ago. Activists used it to describe urban actions that moved along with and against the codes that guide capitalist urban development. Perhaps this was a response to the “smart city” discourse among urban planners and architects around the turn of the century, predicting total digital control in the city of the future. In any case, Medialab Prado in Madrid is indeed hacking the city. In a curious evolution of a ’70s era media center, this place is now a center of digital culture turned to the ends of participatory governance—the ideal being a transparent direct democracy based in an ideology of the commons.
Medialab does things in their handsome renovated building which other makerspaces and hacklabs do, but the agency also functions as the hub for a varied series of collaborative projects called “labs” and “mesas” that develop ideas, proposals, and plans for projects in the city with citizens themselves.
Funded by the city government, Medialab has been doing this kind of work for many years. With the election of the Ahora Madrid municipalist government they have greatly expanded their labs based in participation. Funded by the new city agency for participation, open government, and transparency, the array of new labs (some old) is dizzying—AvLab, CiCiLab, ParticipaLab, PrototipaLab, DataLab, InCiLab, Lab Lab—with little colored booklets describing each one.
In the new ParticipaLab citizens are invited in to work with technical experts to make collaborative prototypes of citizen institutions. This process “gives autonomy to the people to make their own process. We give the resources to build what they are really going to use for their purposes.” These new projects work on a local level, in the neighborhoods, such as Experimenta Distrito, that works “territorialize Medialab.” The center’s community, however, is global. “The neighborhood is not our audience. It’s difficult to make an activity for the diversity of the neighborhood to come.” So it’s best to let the neighbors, the citizens themselves, do it.
All this line of work has a lineage in a rather informal project of 2013-14 called Mesa de Ciudadanes—the table of citizens—convened at the Matadero cultural center. A shifting group of people, including activists and architectural collectives, met to discuss new initiatives and several ended up working with Intermediae on neighborhood development projects. Today, Medialab even has a lab around political participation and engagement tailored for kids called “Si te sientes gato” (“if you feel like a cat” – a gato is a third generation Madrileñx). It is part of Decide.Madrid, the city’s online direct democracy initiative.
Medialab is a complex and dynamic institution. It may be best to think of it as a think tank for progressive municipalism, bubbling with ideas and teeming with genially subversive thinkers. It is the institution in Madrid that has perhaps the closest imbrication with the extra-legal social center movement. It has hosted some of the leading personalities from the long history of Madrid occupations. In this it resembles similar agencies in Amsterdam, like the Urban Resort consultancy. But that is another story. What Medialab is all about is ideas.
People working at Medialab now look to Naples, now under a new municipalist government that has been, as the Peer to Peer (P2P) Foundation blog has it, “the first Italian city to establish a ‘Department of the Commons’ and the first to change the municipal statute by inserting the ‘commons’ as one of the interests to be protected and recognised as the functional exercise of fundamental rights of the person.” American readers may be familiar with Peter Linebaugh’s rousing historical excurses on the history of the commons, starting from Magna Carta. Less known is the broadening strain of legal philosophy and activism around the concept. In an American variant, this might include recent victories by Native American water protectors, and the recent acceptance of a nature-as-self-defense plea by environmental activists charged with obstruction.
Intermediae began as a city-funded public art commissioning agency, but of a special kind, more open: “a space for the production of artistic projects based on shared experimentation and learning.” Rather than working on a back-office proposal-or-nomination-only basis like most of their kin, Intermediae was already open to professionals. They also opened their doors to the Legazpi community around the then still-building Matadero cultural complex in 2007, working projects with their neighbors (like a movie-making factory called Cine Sin Autores, and literary-minded walks: Insurgencias Poeticas).
The program has fluidly adapted to the job of producing spaces of citizen activation throughout Madrid. In 2013 the agency glommed culture money for areas outside the center, and began work on projects of “expanded culture.” They concentrated on barrios in Madrid Sur, Tetuan, and Vallekas, producing civic activation projects with architects’ collectives.
The barrios outside the touristic city center have been historically neglected. They are called the peripheries, and they are “full of voids, and stigmatized places.” In poor neighborhoods it is common that people say “nobody takes care of this.” Working with groups of architects, Intermediae underwrites projects on these disused or neglected pieces of land, like hand-built assembly architecure, popular festivals, skate parks, and community gardens. The projects are organized together with community organizations afterwards take over maintaining the sites afterwards. The intention is for the people to discover that they are the owners of their own public space. They have the right to the city, and to decide how they want to work and live in their surroundings, and to be proud of them. The idea is to “build up the DNA of the civil society.”
Two years ago Intermediae prepared a map—“Los Madriles,” an atlas of neighborhood initiatives. It includes over 100 autonomous projects throughout the city (online at losmadriles.org). They worked with the group Paisaje Transversal, preparing the map through extensive consultations, and open meetings on active citizenship. They understood the cartographic process as an “open conversation,” and the map as “the excuse and work tool to invite participation.”
The name Intermediae evokes Fluxus artist Dick Higgins’ concept of intermedia. And the agency does have a root concern with a continuous mixture of all kinds of art work and cultural enterprise. But they are also ‘intermediate’ in the sense that they continually act between their activist and artist clients and a wide range of government agencies which control cultural activity in the city—state, federal, and city—and the civil servants policing urban space to try to make projects happen, and achieve results which are not in the traditional playbook of a nice concert on a weekend evening.
Like Medialab, Intermediae’s portfolio has expanded considerably since the election of Ahora Madrid. (Under the last right-wing mayoralty, they, like Medialab, were threatened with closure.) They have launched the initiatives Imagina Madrid, Miradores, and Ciudad Distrito. “They are not projects, but programs. We have grown like a monster.”
Thanks to Alejandra Irene De Diego Baciero of Medialab, and Gloria G. Durán of Intermediae for last-minute interviews on the work of their agencies.
These Spanish firms are in themselves extraordinary, practitioners of “ephemeral architecture” around the world. They include Todo por la Praxis, Basurama, and the Spanish/German Zuloark. Many others like them are active internationally: Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman, Torolab and Raumlabor come to mind. A Goethe Institut project called “We Traders” recently networked a number of these groups in Europe.
I am talking from Madrid. There are many more European initiatives and projects I have not touched upon—cultural agencies like Casco in Utrecht (referenced above), Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and many more. They don’t just valorize high-priced art commodities, instead they continually generate ideas and experiment.
There are also effective baseline initiatives like the German Mietshäuser Syndikat network of mutual financial support for housing cooperative buildings, sustainable energy networks, the evolving long-established urban garden allotments, farm-to-city cooperative food networks, co-op ownership and regional associations, and much more. The key thing is to find out about these things, to implement them, and to demand that governments support them.
Non-Institutional Institutions in Spain
Both Intermediae and Medialab were preceded and paralleled by self-organized groups of motivated citizens, including many activists, artists, and intellectuals. Together with the extra-legal occupied social centers, which often provided place for their work, these groups were at one time called “monster institutions”—or, as their activities have become more normalized, citizen institutions.
The two institutions I described above were preceded by a number of “freelance” groupings, networks of activists, artists, and intellectuals coming from the Global Justice movement of the turn of the century. These include the Observatorio Metropolitano (metropolitan observatory), the Fundación de los Comunes (foundation for the commons), and La Universidad Nómada (the nomad university). Here are rough descriptions of their work, drawn from their websites:
Whoever lives in this city can experience a sensation almost universally shared by all his paisanos: Madrid changes too fast to get its pulse. To its traditional lack of memory (perhaps there are few cities less “traditional”) has been joined a speed of change many judge excessive. A group of militants and investigators gathered around some questions difficult to answer: what kind of city do we inhabit? Why is it so difficult to understand? What policy is possible in a space that is so complex? In the absence of simple conclusions, it was decided to specify these questions in a research program. The Metropolitan Observatory brings together diverse multidisciplinary groups in a space of reflection on the phenomena of this transformation of Madrid, to elaborate militant investigations that provide the knowledge and the political tools to deal with these processes of change. Building a space for communication between militants, technicians, and stakeholders, and among small projects (or project embryos) of militant research that are already happening in the city and in social movements.
The Observatorio has published several books, most with the bookstore/publisher Traficantes de Sueños.
Fundación de los Comunes
This is a project of political/critical self-formation for those who want to collectively construct ways of thinking/acting aimed at transforming reality. We propose discourses and ways of doing capable of democratizing our societies.
It operates as a network with work teams in Madrid, Pamplona, Malaga, Zaragoza, Terrassa, and Barcelona. We are presently organizing courses—open spaces for generating knowledge and opportunities for debate that overflow the classic channels of university discussion, and that value subaltern knowledge. It is about generating proto-institutions, hybrids between university and non-university, which translate in theory the practices of resistance and popular creation.
The Fundación is closely identified with the Malaga social center Casa Invisible.
La Universidad Nómada
The Nomad University arises from the confluence of a series of enormously heterogeneous groups and people without too much passion for unifying. It was born with the idea of becoming a small political laboratory for the collective production of new theoretical paradigms.
Our work methodology involves the creation of forums, spaces, public, and open environments for study, research, discussion and proposal. [We enface] challenges and impasses of new movements, resistances, collective anti-capitalist subjectivities.
Today much less active, this grouping included many who were in institutional positions.
Useful Agencies for US Municipalists
The Democracy at Work Institute was created by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) to ensure that worker cooperative development in economically and socially marginalized communities is adequately supported, effective, and strategically directed. It is the only national organization dedicated to building the field of worker cooperative development. Based in Oakland, California. (institute.coop)
Fellowship for Intentional Community
Our mission is to support and promote the development of intentional communities and the evolution of cooperative culture. Maintains online and printed guide, the Intentional Communities Directory. (ic.org)
Technologies for 21st Century democracy: a Europe-wide project developing the next generation of open source, distributed, and privacy-aware tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment. American developers are also involved. (dcentproject.eu)
A nonprofit news, action and connection hub for the sharing transformation. That is a movement of movements emerging from the grassroots up to solve today’s biggest challenges, which old, top-down institutions are failing to address. Behind these failing industrial-age institutions are outmoded beliefs about how the world works—that ordinary people can’t govern themselves directly, that nonstop economic growth leads to widespread prosperity, and that more stuff leads to more happiness. (shareable.net)
Creative Time Reports
…strives to be a global leader in publishing the unflinching and provocative perspectives of artists on the most challenging issues of our times. (New content discontinued; site remains online.) (creativetimereports.org)
Journal of Aesthetics & Protest
The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest is a Los Angeles-based artist collective whose magazine sits at the discursive juncture of fine art, media theory, and anti-authoritarian activism. Democracy is a good idea. (joaap.org)
Good Old Stuff Online:
Democracy in America: The National Campaign (2008)
Creative Time produced this week-long exhibition and convergence center at the Park Avenue Armory in NYC. (Print materials only.) Ongoing: Since this event Creative Time produces a Summit meeting every year. All the brief presentations are archived online. The most recent was produced in Washington, D.C., just before the US election and entitled “Occupy the Future.” Let’s get on that. (http://creativetime.org/summit/)
Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor, and Economics
Art Work is a newspaper made in 2009 that consists of writings and images from artists, activists, writers, critics, and others on the topic of working within depressed economies and how that impacts artistic process, compensation and artistic property. (http://www.artandwork.us/)
Planet Drum Foundation (San Francisco)
A voice for bioregional sustainability, education and culture. Bioregionalism is a grassroots approach to ecology that emphasizes sustainability, community self-determination and regional self-reliance. A lifelong project of ex-Digger the late Peter Berg. Ecology with politics. (planetdrum.org)
The Wayback Machine
Group Material: Democracy (1988)
A four-month exhibition produced by the Group Material collective. (Print materials only.) (http://www.leftmatrix.com/democracygroupmaterial.html)
If You Lived Here (1989; 2010-12)
Martha Rosler’s multi-part exhibition project at the Dia Art Foundation, New York, February 11, 1989–June 17, 1989. An influential type of artist-activist collaboration realized in installation form. There is a catalogue of sorts: If You Lived Here . . . The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism (1991). Rosler and e-flux continued with “If You Lived Here Still…,” an archive project (2010-12), circulating the late 1980s materials in Europe. E-flux also published her series of essays on artist-led genrification: “Culture Class—Art, Creativity, Urbanism” gathered into the book Culture Class (e-flux & Sternberg Press, 2013). Parts of the original show were included in “Not Yet/Aun No” on workers’ photograph at Reina Sofia museum. (Online the best is a picture search to gather the strands of writing on this project.)
Art Workers Coalition (1969-70)
Art Works Coalition (AWC) was an open coalition of artists, filmmakers, writers, critics, and museum staff formed in New York City during the Vietnam War to pressure museums for radical reforms.
+ Open Hearing: a collection of statements from the first public meeting of the Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969
+ Documents 1: a collection of correspondence, press, and ephemera surrounding the foundation and rise of the Art Worker’s Coalition. (http://www.primaryinformation.org/)
Activist art – making trouble
Beautiful Trouble is a book, web toolbox and international network of artist-activist trainers whose mission is to make grassroots movements more creative and more effective. (http://beautifultrouble.org/)
Center for Artistic Activism is a place to explore, analyze, and strengthen connections between social activism and artistic practice. Our goal is to make more creative activists and more effective artists. We aim to win. (artisticactivism.org)
The Yes Lab is devoted to helping progressive organizations and activists carry out media-getting creative actions around well-considered goals. (http://yeslab.org/)
Yates McKee’s recent book, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (Verso, 2016) traces the histories of post-Occupy projects in NYC. As with the AWC, 1969-70, this creative activism was by no means restricted to NYC, but reverberated throughout the country. (See also the ensuing discussion of McKee’s book on e-flux conversations.)
Briefly to conclude. . . there is in Spain a developed ideology and intention, and a well-articulated implementation of ideas common to the left in Europe, which we in the USA are really lacking. We’ve been asleep for far too long, and only now are awakening to the danger. As the pillow is pressed firmly to our faces, we kick and scream and pitch fitfully about. Much as I wish them well, I do not see that the new generation of progressive political operatives can deliver much more than amelioration of rapidly escalating conditions of oppression. It is up to us as “citizen protagonists” to make the revolution.
Or, to back off the cant: A key question is what can be the active citizen’s relation to the emerging political movements proliferating in all directions designed to reclaim more grassroots-based power in the Democratic party? These formations have definite ideas about how citizens can participate—donate money, knock on doors, etc.—which are not creative, and do not move outside the electoral system.
“Municipalism” for these operatives may be simply a box of strategies they will use in the ways they are accustomed to do. At the Barcelona Fearless Cities meeting, I didn’t see interest among US attendees in citizens’ assemblies, listening, “governing by obeying,” or any of that.
A report on the People’s Summit in Chicago in early June, same time as Barcelona, gave a good sense of what the electioneers are up to. But still, as reporter Ethan Young noted of the Chicago meet, “the mobilizing of the thousands of summiteers was based on connections made at the last summit, and from various social media lists of supporters. This really just scraped the surface of potential participants. Many, many more political and social movement projects have been sparked by the election than were represented at the summit. They each barely know the others exist.” This is a good argument for peoples’ assemblies, and “committees of correspondence”—if only to get acquainted with ourselves.
I’m revealing my anarchist bias here when I say that I think it’s more effective to do something that engages your neighbors and fellow citizens directly—something that speaks to the condition of their lives and their pleasures, than it is to become a soldier for a political party in the system-as-it-is.
I don’t want to pick a fight with hard-working under-funded political organizers who now are coming most effectively from communities of color, from the ranks of the most oppressed. I understand that they don’t have time for artists’ weird dreamy ideas. What this must be about is making sure that the new political movements leave generous space for “citizen protagonism,” even if they cannot bring themselves to base their work in it. This conflict is already an issue in the municipalist governments in Spain. The relation between government and social movements becomes vexed as some of the most effective activists “disappear” inside the halls of power. A ground of understanding, and a (relatively) smooth interface between politicals and creatives is going to be one of the big challenges for us going forward.
Any and all constructions of popular power—assertions of a right to govern, as Fred would have it—acquire gravity and micro-power just by coming into being and continuing. They influence votes and consequently politicians and policy. If constructed outside of party politics, even more so. And in the course of doing this work, artists and activists must perforce be inventive, and not constrained to any pre-given political routine for its vaunted “effectiveness.” They do politics from interest, from desire, and from curiosity—from the seat of the same passions that inform their art (or informe it). In this they enroll in the “school of public life,” learning as much as they give. They increase their store of knowledge about how people think and feel and work together. I am arguing for artists and “cultural workers” to do politics directly—to take on political roles. Not in electoral campaigns so much (although I do not condemn it, I am realistic), but among themselves and their neighbors, along the lines of direct democracy.
Good night and good luck.
If you would like a copy of Lumpen Magazine #130, You can download a PDF copy here.