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revisiting history

May 7, 2012 at 3:20 am

I got an email this past week from a journalist-type person asking if I would answer some questions about my artistic interest in industrial landscapes & why “creative types” like myself find them inspiring. Despite being in deadline mode, I carved out some time to write back. It’s not a perfectly crafted piece of writing or anything, but I was glad to get to re-think some ideas from earlier writings (2006, 2009) on my relationship with the industrial spaces around me.

I was also excited to write about problems with capitalism for a story about “how industrial cities like Providence are drawing new residents” — which I assume takes as a baseline that development & capitalist progress are good things. (That might be a mistaken assumption — we’ll see when the piece comes out — but I know my work has been used to justify capitalist development projects in the past…)

The questions were about what drew me to Providence, and about my & other artists’ finding artistic inspiration in old industrial sites.

My answers were, again, not perfect, but turned out interesting enough to post here. (At the bottom are some links to mind-blowing interviews I’ve been listening to recently, super necessary, don’t miss them!)

I came to Providence in 1999 to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, after three years in Chicago attending & dropping out of the University of Chicago, waiting tables, & doing theater tech. Re-applying to art schools, my other option was in Manhattan, and I chose Providence after a conversation with an older artist about how not being in a big city gives you time & space to focus & figure out who you are & what kind of work you want to make. Ultimately this was a good instinct, as I feel that my education as an artist and a person has come mainly from Providence & from the communities I’ve become involved in here, rather than from RISD!

In 2001, I got involved in a struggle to save a group of historic industrial buildings from demolition, initially under an inarticulate, historic-preservation-y, “I love these old decrepit buildings, they are so beautiful, it’s so sad to see them get knocked down!” feeling. This emotion quickly developed into standing up for the rich potential engendered by cheap & flexible spaces that provided places for artists to live for little money while making whatever kind of work & noise they needed, as well as places for other project/business initiatives that didn’t necessarily fall under the “art” umbrella, but were equally important to a lively city full of possibility.

Suddenly I found I had a political stance about local initiative from below vs. corporate development imposed from above. My awareness rapidly expanded further to include an understanding of capitalist development & gentrification as affecting more than just “artists” but entire neighborhoods, especially Black & Hispanic populations who were seen as not-worthwhile, un-important residents by the city government, developers, & police. So my initial attraction to the beauty of these old industrial buildings led me to a very intensely humanist and radical political stance about the value of every person’s life & the unjustness of a system that reduces us to what we produce and purchase, that attempts to control us based on nationality, ethnicity, or class.

I love old buildings (not just industrial buildings, but any building made by hand and/or before the onset of mass-manufactured building materials, roughly pre-World War II) for the strangeness of their dimensions, the way every one is different, the ways they’ve been changed over time through being lived in, used, & modified… These slight differences, the visible effects of aging and living, connect them to our bodies and to us, they feel human like us, we give them the metaphorical attributes of our own structure (outer protective skin, windows as eyes, internal intimacy, etc)… Newer buildings, about which the construction decisions are made according to the pre-determined machine dimensions of their materials, are less compelling and have less correspondence to our human lives…

In Western/European society, there’s a extremely long tradition of artists & weirdos being drawn to ruins, decrepit areas, and decay as an inspiration for their work — the Italian Renaissance (which was inspired by digging up Roman-era ruins & scuplture), Dürer’s & Piranesi’s engravings, the European Romantic poets & artists, British landscape architects creating fake picturesque ruins on the estates of rich landowners… (to name the examples that come immediately to mind, I am not really an art-historian…!). I see the artists currently working on imagery of decaying industrial buildings as a continuation of this fascination with ruins, for the same reasons as Western artists since the 1400s — because they bring our humanity and our mortality clearly to mind. For instance… wandering through a decrepit building evokes our imaginations of the lives that have been lived in its now-empty spaces. As the structure is exposed through decay, the craft of the human labor that has gone into it is eloquently revealed. The invasion of moisture, rot, and growing plants make clear the ultimate futility of humans’ bold attempts to create things, and the building’s final collapse shows what will be the inevitable result of our continuing efforts to create right angles and vertical walls.

So all this stuff has a long-standing place in our cultural imagination, our Western/European concepts of human vs. natural, death vs. life, chaos vs. order, etc. Right now, there is especially fertile ground for US artists inspired by these buildings: the scale and hubris of 19th- & 20th-century US industrial development and its subsequent rapid collapse following the multinationalization of corporations, the exploitation of non-unionized workers around the world, and the abandonment of industrial installations here in North America. Buildings built 70 to 140 years ago, which stopped being carefully maintained in the 1960s or 70s, are quickly reaching the end of their structural life, and I appreciate the initiative of skilled photographers and artists who are rushing to document these soon-to-be-lost places!

I think there’s also a growing awareness of the irrelevancy and destructiveness of 20th-century capitalism, and these buildings are a relic of & metaphor for how capitalism’s ideology of progress — and the revelation of the emptiness and disaster behind that ideology — have utterly changed our world in the past 200 years. This is our history, embodied in these structures, so we are working with it & processing it through art. In my own work I find myself turning away from documenting or romanticizing these old buildings. Even though I feel their beauty & emotion, I’m more interested in imagining a future beyond and past and separate from capitalism… what do we build next? If we can use & re-inhabit these old structures, great! But we still have to keep living, whether it’s in the ruins or on the ground where they have crumbled, so how do we deal with their polluted history (literally and figuratively, chemically & emotionally) and work towards reclaiming our lives & supporting our friends & building new families and societies? To echo Durruti, workers built those buildings in the first place, so we can build new & more beautiful things if those are destroyed. That’s what I find myself thinking about these days…

So yeah, this is me remembering that I am a political artist, & feeling more politicized now than ever (mostly thanks to amazing friends / conversation partners / co-conspirators!). Listening (and re-listening, and re-listening) to amazing interviews with Judith Butler and with Dean Spade & Eric A. Stanley while printing Plant Sale posters this last week… Also along similar lines, I got to see some David Wojnarowicz screenprints today! Whoa. Extra super inspired about the possibilities of and necessity for political art… hopefully I can actually accomplish & work on the things I am thinking about…

*finishing* prints, part I.

December 20, 2009 at 9:30 pm

taking you Back In Time!!! … a whole pile of process images from printing the Durruti/Ruins posters. Process work from the Industrial Trust Building prints is coming in the next update, this one got way too long.

Mixing colors. a) they’re not all oranges and blues (!) , b) look at that nice set of blond-beiges, moving right-to-left, getting ever closer to the beige in the sky on the yellow-gold Durruti print.

beige assortment

Green-sky Durruti print, seen through the screen that is about to print the blue shadow. The pink of the QTX emulsion and the yellow of the screen fabric always make such weird and awesome colors. Maybe someday I’ll make a print that is as eye-breaking as this.

looking through the screen, about to print.

Trying out transparent colors for the blue shadow on the green-sky prints. The transparent inks have to be printed through the screen to show their density and hue accurately… At left is the first attempt (too purple). The final color was somewhere between the two on the right. I am excited to do some more experimental stuff with transparent colors; they can be a little bit of a hassle to print, but the way they lie in the paper (instead of on it like the solid colors) is so beautiful.

transparent colors testing…

When you are setting up your transparency on the screen prior to shooting it, remember to think carefully about how the image you are going to print will fit on the paper and how the paper will fit on your table under the screen! Or else you will end up with your screen sticking halfway off your printing table like this. In the background, AO is keeping me company, or rather, checking his email while I grumble & rant about making stupid mistakes like this one.

poor planning

Also here, as Mr. Punch would say, this is *not* the way to do it.

clamped print

Use caution when you open the door to unshaven young men who have moved into thin-walled schoolbuses for the winter; pretty soon they’ll be running up your electric bill in their desperate struggle to stay warm.

personal heating system
[a hairdryer in the studio? yup, for speed-drying color test swatches. They only show their true color when the ink is dry.]

After all that hassle, it actually works!

before & after.

This moment is always pretty magical. In this case, it was extra exciting: I’ve been trying to finish / thinking about / talking about re-printing these Durruti prints since last fall. A stack of paper with just the sky color printed on them has been sittiing around the studio since last December. I’m not sure why it took me so long: there were even a bunch of people who wanted to buy a copy, who I had been emailing back & forth with saying “if you can just wait a couple of weeks! I am about to finish printing them!”, also since last fall.

As I got to the point in the above photos — actually seeing the third and last color on the paper — a large weight lifted from my shoulders, and (not to over-dramatize it) there was a deep feeling of relief. I was antsy to print so I printed, not really thinking about it too much… but in the ensuing days, wondering why it had taken me SO LONG to get back to printing this thing, I realized that I had been completely afraid of it — that it had been pretty much PURE FEAR that was keeping me from working on it.

Fear of what? I am pretty sure it was just fear “that it was going to be really hard”. And in the end, printing it with tricky alignment, mixing the transparent color which I thought was gonna be super difficult… not that hard. Not easy, but interesting, lots of fun, and ultimately successful. I was really scared of color matching to the original prints — and I didn’t get the color totally matched — but the color that I mixed was better than the original color: better contrast, better looking, better overall. Answer: Nothing to be scared of.

Hey, what the heck is going on here? Why is the emulsion two different colors and all patchy-looking?

messing with the screen

When I initially conceived the Durruti print, I wanted the sky to be lighter than the paper. I had bought this yellow-gold paper, and wanted to print white over it for the sky and the bright details in the ruined building. So, I printed the white layer, and then went ahead and printed the blue shadow over it. Then, I began to have doubts: the text in the sky wasn’t readable enough. In the building, where the white areas were separated from the yellow by outlines, it looked great — I liked the way it popped out. But the sky, and thus the message of the poster, were too subtle. What to do?

To get the contrast I wanted in the letters, I needed to somehow print a darker color on the sky, without changing the white in the building or covering up the blue shadows. I didn’t want to cut up or modify the transparency itself, because I knew I would want to use it again to print other versions of the poster. Also, at that moment (over a year ago now), I didn’t have time to re-shoot the screen, or a free screen to shoot… There was a lot of argle bargle-ing… but eventually…

Using the screen through which I had printed the white ink, and placing it over a misprinted copy of the print for ‘tracing’ purposes, I took some of the emulsion and painted in all the white areas on the building that I wanted to keep, or areas of blue shadow that I didn’t want to print over. I re-shot the screen so that emulsion would harden… then a beige color (which can be seen being mixed at the top of this post) was printed through that screen.

yellow/gold Durruti final print

The photo doesn’t quite show the contrast as it is in real life, but I’m pretty psyched about how it came out. And — more color variations & experimentations will happen in the future!

Vibration pattern on the surface of my un-drunk coffee:

coffee frequency

It was sitting on the print table while I was printing. The main axis of the pattern (lower left – upper right in this photo) is parallel to the direction in which the screen moves up & down.

Jori Ketten, a local artist/photographer/teacher/co-conspirator (etc), helped me out immeasurably by taking documentation pictures of my prints — soon to be seen here. She also did photoshop magic on them (which would have taken me many, many hours). They look great, & she deserves a million shout-outs. Hopefully you won’t get sick of them. Thank you Jori!

finished prints. wow.

December 18, 2009 at 7:22 pm

I’ve been struggling for the past couple of days with getting good photo documentation of a bunch of recently finished prints. I wanted to put up really nice photos of what I think are really nice prints — and I think I’m only 1 or 2 days away from a solution — but I’m going to go ahead and put up process/studio photos now. These were done a week and a half ago, and I’m impatient to get them out & seen by the world.

industrial trust building prints on white paper

industrial trust building prints on ivory paper

These are the finished Industrial Trust Building prints! The long ‘tails’ the prints have at their bottom edges (good for avoiding getting inky fingerprints all over) have since been trimmed off, so the final print dimensions are about 7×17 inches. I was taping prints up on the drafting desk in order to make decisions about the colors… these are the final group.

Five different versions on two different kinds of paper: 1) gray/blue/white, 2) orange/purple-brown/white, 3) green/blue/ivory, 4) blue/red-orange/ivory, 5) orange/purple/ivory. As I was working on figuring out these colors, I was thinking a lot about creating different seasons, times of day, or kinds of light… how the color of the shadow creates the color of the light that is casting it… etc.

More finished prints! Here are the new color versions of the Ruins/Buenaventura Durruti print. I’ve been trying to finish printing these for almost (or more than) a year, so to look at a stack of completed ones is an extreme delight plus a giant weight off my shoulders.

three colorways!

There are two variations on the version on yellow-gold paper, on the right: one has blue-purple outlines, and the other (shown in the photo) has brownish-red outlines. When good pictures have been taken, I’ll put up details from both of them.

The prints on yellow-gold paper are 15.25 x 25.5 inches, the prints on white paper are 15.25 x 26.

If you’re in Providence, they’re for sale at Craftland, and/or you can buy them from me via email & paypal! I am working on this web store thing but it is not there yet.

“Industrial Trust Building – Providence” prints (signed & numbered) are $30
Durruti prints on white paper (3 colors, signed, un-numbered) are $25
Durruti prints on yellow-gold paper (4 colors, signed, un-numbered) are $50
…and there are still a bunch of these little neighborhood prints kicking around.

Shipping is $4 for the smaller prints and $6 for the bigger ones… email me for multiple prints or whatever!

I have a bunch of images & thoughts from the process of printing these, especially the Durruti prints, which had me stalled for months in terror of finishing them! However, I’m gonna do something more directly productive right now & get back to writing that stuff up later. Here’s just a hint of my epic process of mixing the transparent color for the shadow in that print:

transparent colors testing…

I began November totally intimidated by the challenge of figuring out transparent color complexities, and began December with the feeling of having a deep and lasting capacity to repeatably get a good result that would surprise me by its well-fitting-ness… though not of having the control to get a repeatable exact result: that is something that I am not sure if I would actually hope to have. !

If you are in New Orleans tonight, you should head over to the Community Printshop at Louisiana Artworks for their fundraiser party and drink one of these for me!

“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…

show opens today. . . .

May 4, 2008 at 9:02 am

and it’s almost ready.

[The back room/drawing room mess pile. I will document the show & put up some better images — for now, if you want to see any of this in focus, well… you gotta come to the gallery!]

I finished the brand new “57-59 Curtis St.” print at around 4 am — printed a third color on a bunch of copies of the “Ruins” print (aka “Pierre Van Passen Interviews Buenaventura Durruti, Aragon, Spain, 1936”) — washed the ink out of that screen — now to take a shower while it dries. Out of the shower — set up the screen again and print the fourth color. Then — done! and, sleep.

There will be other logistics to think about (for example, it’s raining, so I’ll have to find a ride to get my stash of posters over to the gallery), but if I can get that last color printed and looking all right on at least one copy of the print, I will be happy and feel that my somewhat perverse last-minute determination hasn’t failed me, at least not this time.

Today, Sunday, May 4, 4-7 pm, AS220’s project space (on mathewson, off washington, downtown providence). map & street view here. Come by & see the multiple reasons why I am so darn sleepy right now.

[front gallery, friday, before adjusting the lights, obviously. Stephen’s work is to the left. This is the part that looks like an “art show”… as I guess it’s supposed to? no logic here, sorry, too sleepy!]

Oh and yes, it is 9 am, and yes, I’m still awake!

the feline graphic designer strikes again

December 10, 2007 at 1:26 pm

cat-created disorder on the drawing desk

Buio likes to sit where my attention is focused, especially since that puts him right under the warm lights (it’s cold here)…

the original drawing, from 2002

close-up of paper in chaos

I appreciate how the text now echoes the piles of broken timbers at the bottom of the drawing… At first, I was not sure whether I should use his modifications to my initial design (which had the text going straight across the page, horizontally, all normal-like). This text does need to be at least somewhat legible. As I look at it, though, it seems more & more likely that his input will be taken into account in the final product…

We shall see.

If all goes well and I finish these posters as planned, they will be for sale at the
“Millcraft” holiday art & craft sale, this weekend and the next weekend. (The posters will be cheap: $5 for a two color print, $20 for a three color print on nice paper.) The Millcraft folks seem to be slacking off, and haven’t updated any of their information on the internet, so here’s the setup:

at Firehouse 13, on Central St (off of Broad St. behind the McDonalds)
Opening party: Thursday December 13th, 6-9 pm
Gallery open: Dec. 14-16, Dec. 21-23
(fridays 5-9 pm, sat-sun 12-5 pm)

. . . also for sale there will be work by other folks, students and mentors, from
New Urban Arts.

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