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Chicagoans: interactive print show opening on Friday!

March 26, 2009 at 6:04 pm

I have some work in a print show in Chicago, IL. There’s an opening party tomorrow, Friday March 27th, from 6-9 pm, at the Green Lantern Gallery.

One of my pieces looks something like this: cut-out-able kitchen plans. I think you will be able to cut my prints up yourself & mess with them at the show… I hope!

kitchen kit

The show is called Without You I Am Nothing, has been curated by Anne Elizabeth Moore, and features a number of other weirdos and hotshots from Providence & Chicago, including my colleagues & friends Andrew Oesch & Meg Turner.

Here’s the one-sentence blurb:

Without You I am Nothing: Cultural Democracy from Providence and Chicago is an exhibition of works on paper that are not intended for public consumption but to create small venues for public participation.

and here’s how to get there.

Check it out, or forward to your Chicago friends! I won’t be there, I’m getting work done here in Providence… but the show might travel here, to the 5 Traverse Gallery, in the summer. Cross your fingers!

cleanups with benefits

March 24, 2009 at 1:21 am

… such as finding cool old drawings in the flat-file. Here’s a detail of one that I was psyched to come across a couple of days ago, complete with tea-stains. Clicking will take you to the full image.

community barge detail

I made this, as far as I can remember, at the request of artist, animator, and friend Dave Fischer for inclusion in his “soulless publication of the arts” Providence Machines. PM was a PDF zine, which means that it had no paper distribution, nor was it intended to be read on-screen: you download it, print it out, staple it, then read it. Dave did the layout by hand-coding PostScript (a language that computers use to describe pages to their printers, which humans are never really supposed to lay eyes or hands on…).

The issue that my drawing appeared in (download here) was about cities and the future. Dave had asked me to draw a vision of a future city (to go along with the Italian Futurists’ manifesto which he was planning to reproduce in the zine), a little while after the 2004 Oak & Troy mill-space evictions.

Nadav Benjamin, one of my then-housemates, put together this slideshow of his photos from fall-winter 2003-2004. The photos are mostly of people in their rooms/studios/spaces, as well as some pictures of shows, and one of snow seen from our fire escape. I’m in there, once with an awkward haircut, and once behind a mouse mask (identifiable by my trademark habit of grabbing the edge of my shirt at shows, to stop myself from nervously picking at my hangnails…).

After being evicted, we all were really scattered and thrown to the winds. This poster also comes from the months after the evictions: it felt like we were all just eking out our existences with corners and scraps of spaces. People were definitely dreaming about having a giant building/city where you could live with all your friends, and which you could take anywhere in order to avoid zoning laws, fire codes, and any kind of municipal control… so this drawing definitely comes as a product of that collective dream.

Also, Jacqui had just given me a box of hard colored pencils, which I think is where this red/pink one came from, and I was way psyched on perspective. Obviously.

This post is also an apology for erroneously posting my to-do list to this public page… then retracting it in a fluster 7 or so hours later when I realized what I had done.

My to-do lists are absurdly extended & ongoing, and as Jacob commented, every one of them could well begin with:

  • make to-do list

which would then be crossed off. (and, uh, I actually do do that on some of my lists. sometimes it seems like just sitting down to make the list is an accomplishment in itself.)

Making them on this ‘updates’ page, then putting a bookmark to their category in the bookmark toolbar, is mostly a trick to get myself to a) look at the list when I am sitting at the computer, then b) remember that I need to get stuff done, and c) get up and walk away from the computer! Working well so far (one week in).

The lists I make are a pretty informal and unprocessed look at my life, and would probably actually be more interesting, in some sense, than what I do write about here, which is relatively filtered… But if I’m going to write lists that have any kind of usefulness, they need to be private. whoops!

Edit: a sample to-do list is now posted as its own page. Yes I am thinking about all of that stuff, or the same amount or more of different stuff. Yikes.

“we are not frightened by ruins”

March 15, 2009 at 10:39 pm

The deadline was here, so I paused on other work and wrote this short essay about my Buenaventura Durruti poster, Providence, and the 2002-2003 mill demolitions in Eagle Square. The print is being included in a book of/about anarchist art, which will be published by the UK Anarchist Federation. They asked for some writing to go along with it: specifically looking for artists to articulate their visions for a post-revolutionary society, and the connections that they see between art and anarchism… in this case, between building (or architecture, though not formal “architecture”) and anarchism.

I wrote & re-wrote and, finally, in a last-ditch attempt to get it all to make sense, wrangled everything I was trying to say through an actual outline. Writing outlines has always been extremely difficult from me — this one was no different, but it proved essential to organizing my ideas and presenting them logically.

Here it is! I posted an edited & improved version March 26th. If you have thoughts, please comment below, or email me, if you prefer: secretdoor.projects (at) gmail.com. Thank you!

durruti poster

We Are Not Frightened By Ruins

an essay for a half-demolished textile mill, a quote from Buenaventura Durruti, and a world that is constantly changing.

Jean G. Cozzens

I made the drawing for this print in 2002, in response to the demolition of old factory buildings that I loved. The Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, to which I had recently moved, was dense with massive brick structures that had once housed the operations of the textile industry. The buildings had been crowded and active from the early 1800s to the 1940s, during the time when Providence was a center of industrial production and innovation. In the 1960s and 70s, that era sputtered to an end as fabric manufacturers fled the Northeast, first to the Southern states, then overseas.

The mills that the textile companies left behind, built huge and super-sturdy to hold vast arrays of weaving, spinning, and knitting machines, offered flexible spaces that could serve almost any purpose. Though no longer featured on the letterheads of the companies whose names they still bore, they remained heavily utilized, since their rough and un-precious state meant that anything could happen within them. Their interiors were divided up to provide an inexpensive, versatile home for local businesses and workshops, the few light industries and production facilities that still remained in the city, and the creative studios – and cheap, illegal residences – of artists and musicians.

In order to inhabit this space, the tenants had built lofts, ceilings, kitchens, bed-nooks, studio corners and work tables, practice rooms, recording enclosures, skate ramps, bathrooms, libraries. Some areas had been left open and spacious, in order to host the crowd that would attend a rock show, or just to let light flood in through the high windows. Even in the adaptations that were purely utilitarian, built by the secondary industries that had replaced the departed textile companies, self-construction and customization had accumulated, sub-dividing the spaces and providing creatively for storage, offices, work areas, and break rooms.

The buildings had been transformed from a scale meant for the mass-production of a commodity to a variety of scales that were uniquely human. They had been customized to the users’ individual needs by a purposeful combination of construction and sculpture, guided by whimsy as well as by necessity.

 *  *  *

In 2001, I was living in an old mill that was being painstakingly renovated by a group of artist-developers, across the street from a 14-acre tract of factories that were slated to be torn down to make way for a shopping plaza. Around the city, many other factory buildings were being demolished as well, due to neglect, arson, or the desire to make space for new buildings, parking lots, or highways.

I had always been fascinated by old buildings. At the time, in my third year of architecture school, I was becoming more and more frustrated with contemporary attitudes towards construction, and more and more interested in old ways of building. To me, the demolition of the mills was senseless and wasteful: it seemed that it would never again be possible to create buildings that had the quality, aesthetics, and strength of the old factories. I knew of no new buildings that were designed with such conscious care, or constructed with materials that were as simple and well-crafted. The mills were a valuable and severely limited resource. Why would you destroy something that could never be built again, something that was locally relevant and specific to our city – in favor of making a cheap cookie-cutter replication of a shopping center that could be found anywhere across the country?

I started getting involved in the activist struggle to try to save the buildings that were slated for demolition – the first ‘activist’ project I had felt strongly enough about to really jump into. I got to know some of the artists who were living in the buildings, and little by little became a part of the communities that had grown up there. Fostered by the cheap rent and endless possibilities offered by the giant, rough spaces, a shared life was flourishing, vibrant and creative, and as I began to participate in it my outrage and anger only grew stronger. Not only were the shopping plaza’s developers destroying the physical structures, they were displacing my friends and dismantling the culture and the structure of our community, as well as other communities that were supported, in different ways, by the small businesses and workshops harbored in the mill buildings.

 *  *  *

A fellow activist pointed me in the direction of some reading that was new to me, and I began to find global parallels for the dynamics at work in my neighborhood. I became aware that the issue went far beyond this group of mill buildings and their tenants, and that we were yet another iteration of the way that global capital tended to deal with local uniqueness and variation. Slick-looking, centrally-controlled chain stores being promoted over less-polished, homegrown businesses and projects; the replacement of the ‘light industries’ and production-based businesses with ‘service industries’ and consumer-based shopping; the destruction of complicated historic landscapes to create flattened, simplified new ground; the privileging of the marketable over the un-marketable, the new over the old, the safe over the quirky, the branded over the local… it had all happened before, was still happening everywhere.

The campaign to ‘save the mills’ progressed, with setbacks, accomplishments, and frustrations. After much heated debate, a certain amount of political art, and many impassioned City Council meetings, the company conceded to re-designing their development with ‘mill-style’ brick facades, creating a bike path, and preserving four of the fourteen original buildings. The rest would be demolished, and all the existing tenants would be, of course, evicted. Our high-profile protest had raised awareness of the contribution of arts and industry to the city, and had probably pushed the developers to do a little bit better than their banal norm. The group I had worked with claimed at least a partial victory.

As the weeks passed and work on the site began, however, what we had achieved seemed more and more symbolic and hollow. A feeling crept over me that the most crucial element had been left out: we had not been able to protect any of the messy, useful, inexpensive possibilities that the mills had offered. I began to wonder about the love I had initially felt for the old mills – by focusing on their physical structures, had I been missing what was really important about them?

 *  *  *

Even if the mills were saved and restored, even if the rebuilding was carried out by well-intentioned developers, there would still be limits on who could rent there, on what could happen inside. If the renovations were done with care, skilled labor, and quality materials, a certain amount of preciousness would result: the desire to protect the newly pristine structure from inadvertent abuse by working artists or production facilities. Even if the buildings could find owners who were excited to harbor a creative mess, the financial and legal demands that would be placed on them – to keep the investors, the lender banks, the city inspectors and code officials all satisfied – would inevitably tamp down much of the possibilities that the owners might have originally envisioned. In any case, the freedom that comes directly from living or working in a somewhat neglected rough-and-tumble structure would vanish. Whether demolished or converted, the mills would cease to provide space for industry, productive businesses, small entrepreneurship, and creative work. Renovation would cast the buildings in amber, preserving them while also freezing their ability to transform, to harbor activity, life, innovation, production, to be messy and changeable.

In one of the books I was reading, I had come across this quotation:

We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts, and that world is growing this minute.

It was printed in a large ‘inspiring’ typeface, and was attributed to Buenaventura Durruti. Who? There was little explanation or context in that book, and the only further research I did at that time was to figure out that he had been in an anarchist militia in Spain, fighting against the fascists in the 1930s. Durruti’s words seemed to speak directly to me, comforting and encouraging me in the face of the piles of ruins that, by that point, were indeed growing at a steady clip across the street from my living space. He reminded me that buildings aren’t relics, they are not irreplaceable, they don’t need to be regarded as precious. They had been built, after all, by people like us, creative and inventive and hard-working. They were useful, yes – but we will be able to build useful things again, if we decide that that’s what we want to do. The quotation also reinforced my growing awareness that what was important wasn’t the physical structure, as much as the life that happened within it; and that that life could carry on in the hearts of humans even if the world was destroyed around them.

These sentences from Durruti offered me hope for the re-creation of possibilities, the re-opening of the world of action even after this destruction of space for freedom. I had been wanting to make a poster about the mill demolitions, to share my sadness about their loss, and it became clear that the Durruti quote – and the hope it spoke of – belonged on that poster. In February of 2002, on a sunny-but-still-cold day, I found myself sitting outside on a pile of rubble to draw one of the mills in the middle of its destruction… and a couple of days later, realized that I had made the drawing that would go along with Durruti’s words.

 *  *  *

It took me a long time to make that poster. I had other commitments, to school and to work; and I wanted the print to be really coherent, not just hastily dashed off. I decided that I wanted to dig up more of what Durruti had said to include on the poster, because I felt that the quote as I had first read it wasn’t connected clearly enough to history and labor struggles, and that “building a new world” might be able to be interpreted as justification or encouragement for renovating the old mills into fancy new apartments. Finally, in the fall of 2006, during a break between other projects, I started researching a little bit more about the Spanish Civil War, and found a couple of versions, in Spanish, of an extended excerpt of Pierre Van Passen’s interview with Durruti, from which the quote I had found had been taken. Using my basic Spanish and recruiting the help of some friends, I was able to make a more accurate translation of the passage.

I worked on the poster off and on through 2007, then printed it in January of 2008 – six years after I had begun it. My thoughts have continued to develop and change, but I find that the quote still speaks to me very strongly in March 2009, as I print a second run of the posters, a little more than a year later. I continued to live in Providence after I finished architecture school, and watched my city continue along the same paths that had led to the demolition of the mills. The city’s marketing team focused its ‘re-birth’ efforts on promoting what a great hub it was for creative people – at the same time as it had its workers shut down independent show spaces, kick artists out of their studios, and scrape screenprinted posters off of walls and streetlight poles. Destruction was not only carried out by bulldozers: I saw ‘upscale’ mill renovations continue to push industries and workshops out of their buildings, watched the housing market become absurdly inflated by investors’ speculation, then witnessed the bubble burst, my neighborhood hit hard by foreclosures in a flurry of board-ups. All the supposedly constructive strategies of modern capitalism – actions based on the logic of profit – seemed intent on ‘blasting and ruining’ the world that we live in.

 *  *  *

In the years since making the original drawing for this poster, up to the present moment, I have thought constantly about buildings and spaces, measuring them and drawing them, observing (formally as well as informally) how people live in them, and of course, experiencing built spaces myself every day. All of the places I’ve lived were shared with groups of people: sometimes under headings such as “collective” or “cooperative”, sometimes taking on no title, but just living together, respecting and supporting each other, giving each other time and space to be alone while sharing other aspects of our lives.

I’ve also been part of various group projects, among them a community garden, a shared shop for sculpture and woodworking, a horizontally-organized afterschool arts program, and the collaborative designing and construction of a collective-house kitchen. In each of these situations, I’ve seen different models of interaction play out. People choose different ways to use, share, or refuse power; give each other freedom to experiment, take risks, and fail; challenge each other to learn new skills; figure out ways of communicating their needs, sharing space, re-thinking their expectations, building new alliances… all to be able to accomplish more than they could have on their own.

Over time, these spaces – the project spaces as well as the living spaces – have changed, and changed, and changed again, to fit the lives of the people who are using them. Some of the changes are repeated or adjusted on an hourly or daily basis, such as moving chairs into the right arrangement for a conversation, or setting up a big table to work on a project. Less frequently, there’s an opportunity to nail together shelves, re-organize a room, or re-position office dividers, in order to store tools better, change up the space, or get some privacy. Once in a long while, it’s possible to tear down some of the walls and re-think how the whole place could be organized, starting from an open floor plan.

Even in apartments or commercial offices that were originally intended for humans, the inhabitants actively modify them as much as they are able to, just as the artists and other tenants modified their spaces in the giant mills. Very few of these modifications have any input from professional architects – yet these are the crucial actions that make our spaces inhabitable and useful for our daily lives. The ‘architecture’ I had learned about in school – in which buildings were designed by architects, built by construction crews, and then lived in, passively, by ordinary people – was very different from this model of ongoing, incremental change.

Just as we practice new ways of relating to each other, trying to create new models for non-hierarchical interaction, we are also testing out our relationships with the space around us. Sometimes we slip into habits, getting stuck in patterns of social interaction that we find hard to change. Sometimes our space hems us in, restricts us from doing what we’d like with it, doesn’t allow the kind of interactions that we want to have. Occasionally, however, we are able to actually create a space that fits us; we are able to succeed in changing our frustrating ways of interacting. Just as we modify the way the spaces we inhabit are set up, we are able to build new networks of exchange, learning, and mutual support.

 *  *  *

This understanding offers me new insight on the quotation from Durruti. I wonder if the new structures that we carry in our hearts are not just physical spaces, but are the relationships we build and practice among ourselves.

Implicit in Durruti’s thought is the conviction that we are building this new structure now, already, at this very moment, as we creatively practice living together every day. We are not waiting for society to collapse or for centralized power to wither away before we begin living the lives we want to live. Risking, learning, and growing can happen at any moment, before the ‘revolution’ as well as after the disaster. These attempts, our continual practices of listening to and understanding each other, working and living together in co-operation, are already becoming the the materials from which we are building our new world.

The former textile mills remain an inspiration to me, for the flexibility of their spaces and the way that they can harbor a growing creative and productive life within them. I have also been inspired by the communities that we continue to create in the rest of our city, in small apartments and in garages and basements, in garden plots and backyards, in mill spaces where we still have them, in kitchens, on sidewalks, and in the streets. All of these places, constructed by the profit-focused mechanisms of our current society, are problematic and barely functioning: they have already been left to us in ruins. However ill-suited or restrictive they might be, they are our raw material, and they have a lot to teach us.

Instead of nostalgically re-creating old building types, though, we will need to imagine new spaces and develop new methods of construction that will fit us better, that will help foster our changing lives. The right forms for buildings, and the right structures for society, cannot come from the drafting table of a single, radically enlightened architect or anarchist. We will figure them out together, beginning with how we are living together now, starting from the skills and materials we already know.

The vitality of our lives together, and of whatever new society we build, will depend on the fact that our structures and relationships will not ever be fixed into a ‘perfect’ form, will never be completely known or fully understood. We will always be making new experiments, trying, failing often, succeeding occasionally, learning from our experience, and trying again. At times, we will have to ruin even the structures we create ourselves, whether they are societal or physical, so they do not become petrified and immovable. What I ultimately take from Buenaventura Durruti’s words is that we cannot be afraid to dismantle our lives – we must continually un-build and re-build the various frameworks of our own existence – to keep them flexible, to allow us and our communities to continue to change and grow.

Pierre Van Passen (a journalist):

And even if you win – you do know, don’t you, that you’re going to inherit piles of ruins?

Buenaventura Durruti:

…We have always lived in misery, and we will accommodate ourselves to it for some time yet. Don’t forget, though, that the workers are the only producers of wealth – we, the workers, run the machines in the factories, we extract coal and minerals from the mines, we built the cities… Why shouldn’t we rebuild them – new and better – to replace that which is destroyed?

Ruins do not scare us. We know that we will inherit nothing more than ruins, because the bourgeoisie will try to destroy the world in the last phase of their history. But, I repeat, we are not frightened by ruins, because we carry a new world in our hearts, murmuring forcefully – a world which is growing this very instant.



brief note of some influences / further reading ::

  • Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia
  • Stewart Brand: How Buildings Learn
  • New Urban Arts‘ philosophy, practice, and existence
  • Nabeel Hamdi: Housing Without Houses
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper
  • John McPhee: The Control of Nature
  • Ursula K. LeGuin: The Dispossessed
  • CrimethInc Collective: the Harbinger newsletter, and other writings
  • Christopher Alexander and others: A Pattern Language
  • plus lots of ongoing conversations with awesome folks…

1869 tiny holes

March 6, 2009 at 4:03 pm

…or so.

tiny holes in formica-covered plywood

as of now I have 1110 done.

I am making a vacuum table which will (crosses fingers) make all printing much easier, and make large areas of transparent colors more reliably print smooth and evenly. However, it is taking me a very long time to drill all these holes.

I have never been sure if I accurately understand the word “boring”: even in situations like waiting in line at the DMV, etc, there is always something to be fascinated or at least intrigued by. Sometimes I get frustrated and angry — which is very different from being bored. However, with this project I think am getting the sense of what people mean when they say they are bored. The telling effect is that I just can’t keep doing it for longer than 80 or so holes at a time, I keep getting up and going off to do something…

So, the way I am thinking about it (to keep myself from getting “bored”?) is this: I am gaining a new understanding of the physical & temporal reality of large numbers.

seen in downtown providence, a couple of days ago:

the good news
(the headline on the single copy of the nominally Christian paper inside this box was a diatribe against the evils of homosexuals, gay marriage, and the liberal left…)

I made an etsy page as an experiment (and because Caroline Paquita convinced me to!), it has one thing on it, the little coffee maker print:

link to secret door etsy store

okay — back to drilling holes!

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