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“the machine comes to life” (science fiction story)

September 11, 2014 at 2:00 am

well, yikes. everything has been really, really busy. some things are done, but there are more to do (always). I just sorted out my to-do lists and “post story to blog” was the last thing on the “story” to-do list… so here goes! one more list can now be crossed off & put in the folder of “done” lists. (yes there is a folder of “done” lists, it’s highly satisfying, leave me alone!)

This was written for a performative story night that Walker Mettling put together as a fundraiser for the AS220 Community Printshop offset press… to finally fix the second-color head so the press can print two colors at one pass. The story night had the theme: “the machine comes to life”. It’s so short (and a little fragmentary, perhaps) because there was a 300-word limit. Okay!


Three steps up: I don’t extract. The fare alert pulses — I lift my glance and blink to debit. I lean across the boundary (handrail’s roughness) just barely, to make sure I don’t sit in residue.

The bus’s rumbling evaporates as I slip back into the translucent layers, brushing each leaf aside after seeing its contents, descending through the ever-renewing sequence. An image lets me grin, words coax a sigh. One comment makes me chuckle — another I answer quickly —

Oh! new picture! Friends, familiar faces. An alert nudges my awareness, along with the smiles. Ah…!

…the disruption continues, tugs on my attention. I blink to dismiss it. The layers twitch and quaver.

I halt and breathe faster, flick the leaves away in reverse — extricating, impatient now: something other is moving against a part of the body.

I startle through the boundary, gasping at the extraction. The bus lurches, paining old bruises under the thighs. It’s never fun, landing back into the body, present at all its edges, tight stale breaths, abraded skin. Also — something else. Another body. Part of it touches the shoulder. Its hand, on the shoulder, my shoulder — !

Around us, each passenger is deep within their own softly leafing world. Nobody has seen the violation — there is no one to come to my rescue. The other turns towards me.

Its face unscreened, no phone. Its eyes’ dark centers leap at me. No. Too difficult, it’s dangerous, the warnings… No. I don’t want it. I swipe for the boundary. I can’t feel the layers. I look back at the other —

— then — entanglement. That depth. Too much. It’s too much. It’s what I’ve always — it’s too perfect, it’s —

The flesh of the body — my body — grips me in its trembling thickness.

The other’s eyes are infinite.

Nobody will report us.


I thought a lot about smart phones when I was visiting the bay area, and riding public transport… where not *everybody* has a smart phone, but a lot of people do. (Also, after my old beloved dumb phone finally snapped in half after being semi-broken for more than a year, I got a smart phone back in February, and it’s definitely changed my life in some good and some terrible ways…) It struck me that the era when people “hold phones in their hands” will someday be looked back on as a weird anomaly, an incomplete proto-form, like we might look back at early cars without roofs… That’s what this story is partly about. And, eye contact.

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Also, I know nobody really looks at self-hosted blogs or websites (like this one) anymore, but I still love them, so if you are like me, and hope for some kind of internet that isn’t all conglomerated onto one or two monopolizing web$ite$$$ who happen to have the money to pay the cable companies for fast transmission, please take a moment to send a message to your lawmakers and the FCC about protecting net neutrality and classifying internet access as a “common carrier” under Title II of the Communications Act. I promise you, it will take you less time than it took me to write the above sentence! YES!

Here, for example, is the great self-hosted website of Cathy G. Johnson, there’s lots to read & see; Cathy is an amazing artist & narrative-maker. She’s also been nominated for the “Promising New Talent” Ignatz award at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD this weekend… if you’ll be there, you can vote!

the epic to-do list

July 9, 2014 at 12:31 am

Hi readers of these updates! Hope your summers are good. It’s now kinda hot here, Scøtt was dog-sitting for a couple weeks so I was hanging out with this little yellow dog Winnie as well as Buio-cat, they were hot too, everybody was/is hot, it’s hot now & it’s midnight.

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So… this is a chance for me to tell you what I HAVEN’T done. There’s a lot of stuff I need to write more about on here, including other projects I did in the spring like complete an assignment for Headmaster Magazine #6, and the final outcome of the print that I shared some process drawings from here.

Also… I never really put together final posts about the Manchester St. Power Station print project (in progress here), or even the Recycle-A-Bike poster from a couple years ago (process moment)! Yikes!

Then there’s a bunch of other stuff from the past year that hasn’t really seen the light of internet-day, or even proper documentation: a dazzle camouflage pattern I made last summer to go on a t-shirt to give myself some body freedom/body obfuscation, which was a personal project that I now want to make some kind of mass-production possible for… a text & slide-projector performance/reading (also about bodies) I did that will become a zine someday… a map-and-memory project I made to be installed in my friend’s apartment in Abu Dhabi, that needs to have a local instance at some point, and get realized fully…

Also I’ve had a blog post in draft form for a while about tools for drawing, which keeps developing & changing in its meaning & context since I got a new wacom tablet recently, and have been learning more computer skills… and since my grandfather (who gave me his engineer’s Rapidograph pens) died this past month…

BUT! There are a couple of print projects on my plate right now which I am struggling desperately to complete. As well as organizing shows & events for the rest of the year… And being a living human who cooks, eats, gets dressed, sleeps, talks to friends, and lives. So I’m not writing those posts now!

Also eventually I will finish some really long-unfinished projects like my epically, drastically incomplete print series about everyday spaces? Aahh! (I kind of don’t want to think about all the other projects that are unfinished / aspirational, that’s just the most egregious one…) Someday I intend to eventually bring all the projects to a close. So basically, as it always has been, this blog is a chance for me to say “sorry everything is not done yet” and “it will be done eventually & then I will make a blog post about it”. It’s good to know nothing has changed since 2007, I guess.

For the moment — I am posting some nice barns, letters, building aspects, etc. to instagram/tumblr; you can keep track of my random nerdy notes in either of those spots — and please enjoy this picture of a drawing setup — on the parlor table due to the length of the horizon line I needed to use to get the vanishing point right. The cat was very happy that I was working on a surface he could sit on (as opposed to my main desk, where there’s really no room for him) while I made the marks.

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More soon. !!!

“what does that say?”

May 12, 2013 at 3:22 am

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It says: dissonance.

Here are the two colorways of the actual print, a green that’s somewhere between forest & olive, & a bright orange. It’s about 27.5″ x 12.5″, a large one. The below images link to the prints newly in the store!

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So… why “dissonance” ?

This print springs directly out of drawing (in mid-summer 2012) all the letters for the “our complexity is the world” print (some process details; buy one!); and feeling just a little fed up with drawing so many lowercase letters in the same form; and my handwriting slipping into sketchiness when writing “dissonance”…

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Then I realized that there was no need to pull those letters back into linear alignment, and that that was a word that I wanted to celebrate further in another print…

Late summer 2012 found me sitting on a rock on Conanicut, above the waves, mostly naked (as friends & I were a lot last summer), drawing it in my sketchbook:

sketchbook balanced on knees of bare legs on a picnic blanket, with the word "dissonance" partly written on the open page

(Here’s past process notes from some color decisions, and some color testing and weird-overlap-printing. More process shots from printing are below; hover over them for details.)

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“Sooooo….. uh. Why dissonance?”

The application of this word to trans stuff or gender issues originates with the awesome writer and scientist Julia Serano, in her book Whipping Girl:

gender dissonance:
A form of cognitive dissonance experienced by trans people due to a misalignment of their subconscious and physical sexes. Gender dissonance differs somewhat from the psychiatric term “gender dysphoria,” which typically conflates this cognitive dissonance regarding one’s sex with the mental stresses that arise from societal pressure to conform to gender norms.

When I was first reading about trans stuff, Whipping Girl (which I highly recommend), was really important to me, not least because of finding Serano’s definition quoted above. Her extended explication of her use of the word “dissonance” gave me a handle on the way I felt about my body, which I had had no words for before. I had felt that way pretty much all the time since my early teenage-hood, and, partly because of having no words for it, had assumed all women felt the same way about their bodies.

In the couple of years since first reading that, the word “dissonance” has continued to be super relevant to my existence. As time has gone on, through conversations and meeting people and the internet and witnessing the multifariousness of the possibilities of gendered existence in the world, I’ve relaxed some of my harsh demands on my own gendered existence… I’ve allowed myself to be a person who has a complicated gender & complicated body, and I’ve complicated that gender & body for myself further… and come to embrace the ambiguity and positivity that come along with the word “dissonance”.

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It’s more useful for wrapping around my gender or body feelings than the commonly used term “dysphoria” — which is all medicalized, seems decisively negative, and makes you feel like there’s something “wrong” with you. Dissonance is originally a word for talking about sound or music, it’s the opposite of “consonance”, which is “things sounding similar” or “things in harmony” — but neither consonance or dissonance are necessarily good or bad, they’re just descriptions of two states of existing or relating.

Sometimes dissonance can be really incomprehensible, confusing, and make you feel unbalanced & weird, when two notes are not in tune or two frequencies are not quite lining up & there are weird noises that you think you might be imagining…

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BUT when you listen carefully it might also sound pretty awesome and interesting, and more complicated than just some Mozart or whatever, and there’s a lot to hear there that you might not have listened for if everything had been all sounding-good to start with…

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BUT even if you’re making this music yourself, on purpose, cause you like it, it might still be hard or painful to listen to… BUT you feel compelled to make it and/or other music is just boring and/or it’s the only thing you’re interested in and/or you don’t know how to make any other kinds of sounds…

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SO you keep making it even though it feels weird sometimes. Or, all the time. Or rather, it feels TOTALLY WEIRD and TOTALLY AWESOME at the same time, or so closely alternating / simultaneous that you can’t actually tell how you feel about it. Even figuring that out is confusing & takes up a lot of your mental energy, but ultimately it’s worth it cause you don’t really know another way to be… you don’t have a choice. OR maybe you do — the “born that way” doctrine is kind of obnoxious & determinist, after all, and you are indeed making a choice — as this guy has said, your choice is to be here with us.

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So yeah, DISSONANCE. All right.

“ink and knife”-native letters

May 10, 2013 at 1:11 pm

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How did I not write anything at all about this project yet on this bloggy? I think it was because I was ***way way way behind schedule*** getting it done, so didn’t have any time to make process posts along the way. Then afterwards I got super wrapped up in organizing a bunch of stuff for a month of non-assimilationist Pride events here in Providence. So it goes!

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I made this print last summer, for a print portfolio project organized by the amazing political artist and potter Meredith Stern. The portfolio is called “This Is An Emergency!” and is focused on reproductive & gender justice. Meredith has been doing presentations about the project (and her work) around the country, as well as doing the logistics/promotion to get institutions and libraries to buy copies of the portfolio, which is super awesome cause a) those institutions have these radical prints, and b) it’s pretty great that some of my work is in the collection of institutions all over the place.

You can buy the purple-gold-orange colorway of this print here, and I also made two new colorways because I was running out of the first one; blue-silver-green (sparkly) and tan-gray-red (not sparkly). They are $20 — cheap! Shipping is $6 or I’ll deliver in Providence or you can pick it up. Get it, put it on your wall, use it to help tell your cis friends about what it means that you’re trans, to help explain to your parents why racial profiling is dehumanizing, or to help remind your students that their values are worth hanging on to even if they don’t coincide with the values of the academic institution… anyways, I made it for you.

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The full text is at the bottom of this post.

I spent a while brainstorming and writing the text for this print (and trying to figure out how to make the text more concise, but avoid “soundbites”/tumblr-esque-ness… also thinking about representation of human beings & once again deciding to avoid it)…

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…and then time hit me & I realized that I needed to make the simplest possible print, alignment- and printing-time-wise… but how to make a “simple” print about “complexity”? Plus I wanted it to look super cool (the classic downfall, I know). I decided to make basically the whole “background” of the print a giant rainbow roll of *ink*, and leave the letters the color of the paper.

First step: draw out the text how I wanted it to read (thinking about “reading” vs “seeing” & how they work together), not getting it perfect but just enough to ink over:

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Then: inking. This was done on wet media mylar (“prepared mylar”), using a nib pen, brushes to fill in the background, and an Olfa razorknife to scratch unwanted ink away. Each of these steps requires some time for ink to dry, and is contingent on working your way across the surface in one direction at a time, so you don’t smear the wet ink you’ve just put down. I also wear thin cotton gloves, with the thumb & first two fingers cut off the dominant hand, to protect the plastic from the grease on my hands. Okay here goes! Watch the lower-case “g”s…

1. outline the letters & begin to fill in their smallest concavities, with the pen:

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2. fill in the spaces between the letters with a small brush:

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3. fill in the ink on one side of the letters with the brush:

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4. …and then fill in the final gap:

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5: now with the back of the point of the Olfa knife, fix any places where you blobbed over the line, clean up the inside part of the “e”, “a”, “o”, etc, square off the corners and ends of the letters (check out those “g”s), and generally sharpen it all up:

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Was this simple? Kind of. Did it take a hell of a long time? YES. I’m terrible at this time thing.

But that aside… I really like working this way because it produces letters that are native to the materials I’m using to create them. The act of my hands using specific tools to make them is what gives the letters their shape — not just aesthetic decisions in a vacuum. It was intriguing to make a couple different sizes of the same letters, and a vertical and slanted set (not sure if “roman” and “italic” apply here), and to see how they all came out differently… Of course, there’s an alternate set of letterforms created by “drawing the same letters” but with ink as the *positive* instead of the negative — just as cutting “the same” letters negatively or positively out of rubylith results in different forms. Someday! actual usable computer fonts will come out of all this work… maybe?

Here’s a cool photo Pam Murray took to show the metallic ink I used to print it, and the resolution of the letters:

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And I wanted to include one quick set of images to answer the question “But how did you do the rainbow roll at an angle?”

A. Shoot the transparency on the screen at an angle!

1. transparency at an angle, and a “linear blob” of different colors of ink on the screen:

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2. a couple of prints into the run, the rainbow roll has smoothed out (you can see how the paper is aligned on the table at an angle as well):

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3. epic squeegee (don’t drop it):

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One last note about this portfolio format for political art work generation and distribution — it rules!

Meredith is part of Just Seeds, a radical artists’ collective, and though this portfolio was not a formal Just Seeds project, they’ve used the same model a number of times: “a group of artists each make a print about an issue, possibly collaborating with organizations or mentors, then those prints are collected into a portfolio which is both distributed to organizations to sell/use/display, and can be shown as a thematic exhibit and be the occasion for discussions and an impetus for activism”. It’s a pretty bad-ass method for disseminating political art outside of the big-money art market, for getting little-known artists (like myself) some wider distribution and possibly recognition, and for providing art to political organizations.

It seems like something that should happen as widely as possible. If you know of an issue in your town or area that could use a bunch of prints made about it, grab this idea & run with it! Contact Meredith through her website to ask her questions about the process… She has worked really hard to make the whole project happen, and to promote it & make it successful, but it now has a momentum of its own: a young woman came up to where I was tabling at the art sale last weekend with Sam Merritt, who also made a print for the portfolio and was displaying it in front of our table, and asked her “Is that print in that, uh, reproductive rights collection? That was exhibited at my college last month — people were lining up to see it, it was a great event, everybody loved it!”


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Full text of the poster:


so you’re not comfortable with our complexity?

you pull us over, lights flashing
you call us back to the counter
you don’t understand why we have to do that to our bodies
you demand picture ID, proof of residence, a letter from our therapist, citizenship documents, tax returns, body mass index, a calm rational voice, coherent gender presentation, formal english grammar, insurance card, deference

and it even sounds friendly when you say, “come on, baby, would it be so hard to give me a smile?”

and we almost do it
so you’ll let us exist safely in the world you offer

but — your systems of control are not safety
they will never be a place to live

so we leave them behind
we run from them headlong, heaving homemade bombs back over our shoulders into the gated compound, waiting for the explosions
we rip them, piece by piece, excruciatingly slowly, from their nesting places within our own hearts and stagger away wounded, barely alive
the door of the bus closes with a soft noise and we pull our knees to our chests

our demands are simple, contradictory, impossible, necessary
you tell us the world has no space for our complexity

yet we live right here, in dissonance & beauty
we’re not comfortable
yeah, we might be dangerous
our long-term effects are definitely unknown

our complexity is the world


In re. the art sale: here I am, sleep deprived & coffee fueled, in a shirt that is my favorite colors, in need of a haircut, gesticulating about something I don’t remember but which seems entertaining, standing outside with Sam and a girl I don’t know, under a nice sign that says “QUEERS!” — that’s good, right?

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“practical tools for shifting reality” – snapshots & statement

February 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

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The show is up! & I am on to the next projects (and of course finishing the things that I didn’t have time to complete for the show itself!). Here is an assortment of snapshot-based documentation, plus the artist statement — written the night before the opening, but based on ideas that have been rumbling around for a couple years now, as usual.

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Practical Tools for Shifting Reality
artist statement

I was a nearsighted, nerdy, artistic, attention-hungry, weird little kid: fascinated by printed objects around me, terrified of losing unique things (and pretty much everything, even trash, fell into this category), captivated by odd dreams of creating my own brand of notebooks, and compelled to learn to draw horses realistically. The horses thing kind of faded away (for the better, probably), and I long ago stopped collecting boogers & dust balls (for the better, definitely), but the rest of it remained — along with all the drawing practice I had done, and the terror of loss — as a great recipe for becoming a meticulous maker of screenprinted posters.

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Additionally, I was a boyish kid who didn’t really understand why she couldn’t be in the Boy Scouts, have short hair like her brothers, or be called “Keith” on a regular basis. In recent years, as I realized that I didn’t actually have to be “a girl”, and became aware of the validity and realness of my gender variance, I worried that much and maybe all of my single-minded, perfectionist, intense-work-ethic art- & poster-making had been born from the combination of the attention-hungry kid with the teenage girl who didn’t identify at all with her perceptible, supposedly “girl” body. This person figured out that if they could draw the most complicated drawings, make them into neat-looking screenprints, and distribute them, that people would pay more attention to the images than to the physicality of the human behind them…

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This tactic worked for almost a decade; it was a good one! But it stopped working when I realized I had the chance to figure out an embodiment and a physical presence that would potentially feel more true to myself. The fact that the posters were no longer the point of my life revealed the fact that they had been: that much of my identity and even my physical presence in the world was wrapped up in the work I had made. For a long while after that, when I was working on art, it felt like I was actively avoiding having a gendered body — a continuation, perhaps, of the avoidance/distraction/dazzle-camouflage scenario that I had been constructing for so many years.

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At the same time, I knew that that was not the only purpose my work had served. As a poster-maker with my art practice founded in my community of friends, I knew that screenprinted posters & prints, distributed as limited multiples, become important objects to other humans, and carry strong associations for everybody whose lives they touch: “that was the gallery opening where my partner and I first kissed”, “that was the last show in our house before we got evicted”, “that was my favorite building before they tore it down”, “that poster was above our kitchen sink for six years, I looked at it every day…”

These printed objects hold power for creating our lives & realities, for piecing our stories together, for sharing them with each other, based on memory, imagination, delight, the irrational, the impossible, the failed & beautiful. Shared self-made graphics allow our lives to be located outside of a dominant or market-logic paradigm, through a visual language that we teach each other & make up together as we go along. I realized that I wanted to turn this power towards furthering validity for trans, queer, and gender-variant existences like mine — towards making complexity visible, and by showing what I saw of it, to create chances for further complexity in the world.

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I wanted to put visual tools in the hands of others like myself, who might occasionally need a reminder that they are real, when from many sides they are told that their existences are impossible. I also wanted to get to do more of the practices that are the most engaging & interesting for me — drawing, first of all, and also printing, but not printing epic, grueling editions (which I do enough of already): “fun printing.”

So, the work brought together in the gallery here is a beginning stab at both those projects. There are lots of hand-drawn words & letterforms, which hopefully reveal my discovery & delight in the drawing of them as well as the self-imposed limits (and also delights!) of following a system, creating a graphic space that is coherent and includes weirdness, and learning deeply from drawing things seen in the world around me.

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The “word prints” (the ones in white frames, two of which are in the photos below) are a group in which there are no mistakes. Each one is different; every print that gets made is part of the continuing whole, and any strange or unexpected color layer simply presents a challenge to figure out what the next layer and color on that print will be, and/or a (parallel) challenge to understand the existing combination as complete and unified.

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All of this work involves interference between patterns, scales & layers, as well as colors and images overlapping by chance and by intention. Language as action, graphics as tools, words as accumulated structures. Printed things as evidence of thought, of having an idea & making it real & sharing it with the people around you, providing them yet another piece of structural existence to build their own selves with. The dissonant territory between “reading” and “looking”, between up close & from across the room, between what we can see & what we can’t see. Creating reality, creating our bodies and existences, and the world around us, through strategic and/or magical language and significant objects — as well as through improvisation, accident, making do with what is there, making it into something else, making it into what we want to see in the world…

February 1, 2013

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[from the wall with the letterform drawings on index cards, this text says: “To wrap something in stories rather than in theory is to let words work at its strangeness rather than at its credibility. — Robin Evans, Translations From Drawing to Building” … I couldn’t resist the (un-posed) reflection of a gallery visitor reading the hanky tags near the opposite wall…]

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[I drew & printed the bandanas — the color is ink, the white lines are negative space, Liz Novak and I hemmed them all on the sewing machine! Somewhat impulsively, in the middle of a late night, I sent some emails asking the people who had requested a specific color how they wear their hanky (or hankies), what color(s), and why… It soon became clear that those statements would be a really crucial part of the project, and that the accumulation of different colors of hankies and of written statements of visible desires, attached to these significant, coded, yet potentially infinitely varying objects, is its own project and will probably go on for a while… If you’d like to contribute thoughts about how & why you wear a hanky, please get in touch!]

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[“…starting the revolution by publicly announcing the object of your desire, and asking in public who desires you…” this Guy Hocquenghem quote was on the wall of hankies/bandanas.]

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[this Robert Venturi quote has been kicking around on the bulletin boards in my room for about four years… I think I’ve finally made some of the work that can properly have this text displayed alongside it, in my general realm of “thinking about bodies like thinking about buildings”, and possibly even “thinking about words like thinking about bodies”…]

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[A friend bought this little print, which is a rectangle cut from a chaotic test print that I have been printing on since 2010 or earlier… the orange curlicue & blue-gray rectangles are elements of a test from when Meg Turner was printing this poster in my studio a couple of years ago!]

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[The “our complexity is the world” print, originally made for this portfolio, serves as the textual & conceptual backbone of all the work in this show, I hope…]

[below, a shot from while I was installing… (if you haven’t, please read Mark Aguhar’s blog.) These are re-prints of the stickers that Meg Powers & other friends & I made this summer; they’ve now been Risographed by Walker Mettling (and look beautiful but the ink is smudgy, so they don’t make great stickers as such — it was experimental anyways!)… BUT look how nice & serious & real things look when they are behind a little sheet of glass!]

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infinity of possible choices about letterforms

January 5, 2013 at 9:35 pm

…or really, about anything, for that matter. !!! No time to write much at the moment but here is some process preview for new work I’m doing for the show (opens February 2nd, 5-7, AS220, 115 Empire St. Providence). Lots to do, not a lot of time. My strategy is to do whatever it is I’m procrastinating on the most — ask myself what is the most scary thing, do that first. Ha!

a pile of postcards on manila paper with various handwriting on them

rsvp notecards from 1959-1961, from a curb in new york city to an attic in providence to my hot little hands (thanks Will, collector extraordinaire!)

process shot of desk

desk scenario — I’m referencing years of collecting ephemera & hundreds of pictures I’ve taken of fonts for letterform generation, and mining writings that I was doing (for performances this past fall) for text generation…

hand-drawn font in progress, reads

learning a lot about script fonts; the variation is so broad, anything is possible!

using an architect's adjustable triangle to create shading

architectural drafting strategies; these letterforms are based on the packaging from some fireworks that Jacob had…

letters in overlapping screenprints

print over test print, experimental zone

jars of ink and test color strips, laid out on a desk

transparent color testing for some seriously procrastinated-on re-prints that will be part of this show, and also for some new prints!

okay byeee time to make another sandwich, drink more coffee, & then back to work!

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…

comics drawing, story telling

January 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Whoa, sorry for a long time of no updating — I’ve been vaguely overwhelmed by holiday times, business stuff, traveling to see people, and working!

Now… the holiday crunch is over, and I got sucked into working on writing and drawing a comic. I know, this is not a “productive” silkscreen-type project like I probably should be working on, but it’s pretty exciting to me. It’s an adventure story based on a comic book character named Scar, made up by a middle school kid. Andrew Oesch and Walker Mettling had the kids in their after-school comics classes (at public library branches) draw and write a bunch of characters, and their attributes and backstories, to then write comics about. Grownups (or should I say, “grownups”) also made up some of the characters, but this one was written & drawn by a kid.

scar character page, drawn by a kid

Here is Andrew & Walker’s project blog with about ten of the many, many characters, and songs by Amil Byleckie to go with them!

The characters were all made into “rogues gallery” type books (as seen in the photo* above), which AO offset-printed at AS220. Using the books as reference, the kids made comics about and around the characters, which I mostly haven’t gotten a chance to read yet… and the character books were also handed out to various artists around town so they could also make comics & drawings based on the characters. (Here’s one: Mickey Z’s comic, and the characters it is based on.)

Upon seeing the full-color drawing that Alec Thibodeau (a dedicated vegan) made of “Tofoon”, a giant block-shaped warrior made of radioactive tofu, I said, “oh my gosh, I have to do this, what do I do, is there still time, I have to make a comic for this project.”

I looked through the books & to Andrew’s amusement, found a character that is maybe one of the more brawny / classic-superhero-y of the collection… at least as the kid drew him: so far I have drawn three pages that are pretty emo, and then there are two pages in progress that are more active… but I have a feeling there’s going to be a good deal of action eventually. Though, as AO said (in response to my worry that I wasn’t gonna get the action scenes done because all I wanted to draw was love scenes), “love scenes are kinda like action scenes.” ehhhhhh…

drawing

Anyways, I was trying to keep this update brief, and just say, “I’m making a comic & it’s really fun!” But now that I got into it, here’s the origin story of why I’m working on this comic that promises to be super epic, based on a little kid’s idea…

Thanks to the diligence and stubbornness of our mother, my brothers & I grew up throughout the 80s and 90s without a television in our house. Although we would go to a movie occasionally or watch TV at other kids’ houses, reading — books, picture books, newspaper comics, and Tintin comic books — was our main source of narrative and visual entertainment. When I went to college in Chicago in the late 90s, I drew a couple of comics & illustrations for the independent school newspaper there, and I was introduced to self-published zines and comics, but I never made anything long-form — I didn’t have any good ideas for what it should be about, and I didn’t want to make something just for the sake of making something.

Arriving in Providence at the end of the 90s, I was extremely inspired by the comics artists here, as published in the newsprint periodical Paper Rodeo and other small, hand-made formats around town.** I would dedicate hours of coffee-shop patience to deciphering what was going on in the tiny, odd-sized panels filled with scribbly lines. Stretches of narrative unfolded and then fell away, characters were introduced and then re-appeared, maybe, fleetingly, with a different name or years later, hardened and world-weary. Little guys got stomped on by giants, scrappy weirdos and machine-men fought against forces of corporate ownership, people tried to build structure and spaces and logic for themselves in a confusing world that was beyond their comprehension.

drawing

I loved how these stories created fantastical, imaginary worlds, filled with the adventure elements that I had loved as a kid & teenager — that at the same time served as metaphors for the world that we lived in in Providence, with its magic, struggles, and difficulties. Going to shows, making our homes in weird industrial spaces, and making art in Providence was the first time that I had felt like I was actually living in an actual place, living my real life — I didn’t have to live in medieval times or in an imaginary fantasy world to live authentically and experience exciting things. Biking manically through the car-clogged, snowy streets, climbing up dark, steep staircases to dance wildly at noise shows, exploring the city and meeting new people, staying up all night to finish making something important and beautiful — these were the real adventures of my real life in the broken, vibrant, difficult, actual world.

My ambitions to make comics continued to grow, but I knew that I still didn’t have a story to tell: I shied away from a personal narrative of my own life, because I felt like it wasn’t coherent or important enough. Translating things metaphorically seemed like the only way I could make a thing that would feel far enough away from me to be able to put it together as a story, as opposed to a shapeless, self-indulgent splurt of what my high school english teacher Mr. Reinke might call “logorrhea”. But what story did I have to tell that even merited translation?

After a friend of mine had a bad hand injury a couple years ago, I spent some time sketchily scripting ideas and scenarios for a comic about people in a world “not unlike our own”, where there’s a fascist military police force made up of people who’ve been augmented with metal/robotic weapon arms (with one thread of influence branching from Mat Brinkman’s Multi-Force comic epic, which is set in an underground labyrinth in which the monster/warrior characters have giant interchangeable battle arms…). The protagonist of my story was a young man who is recruited into the force and equipped with a weapon arm, but then deserts, thereby losing control of the arm. Removing the weapon leaves his own arm totally useless. He must figure out how to to hack the weapon arm and restructure its abilities from scratch, and how to use its weapon nature for good, or if that’s even possible.

So yeah, themes of physical vs. mental strength, the struggle with the body and its control, ability and communication, and a sub-narrative about neighborhoods and fascist urban planning strategies… also a love story between the young man and a nice lady who has a fiance who’s a legitimate member of the force, and the story of how she becomes politically radicalized… anyways! I have a bunch of pages of basically-illegible notes for this story in an old sketchbook… it was decent stuff, but I never made anything happen with it — partly because of time constraints & other projects, partly because I was self-conscious about the science fiction-y, comic-book-trope-y aspects of the story, partly because I was intimidated by having to make *so* *many* *drawings*.

When I read the character description of Scar (see the image at the top of this blog post), the parallels to my old story jumped out at me — all the old themes still tugged at me — plus the powerful idea of the flawed body & the search for completion. I was also psyched to try to write a tough superhero character, and to have the “trite comic-book-story” aspect of the character & the plot excused by its origin in a little kid’s imagination. I started writing a little bit of the backstory script — how he finds the arm, why Scar killed Black Death’s brother, what happened after his hands got cut off… and found myself totally thrilled and sucked into the process.

drawings

I’m way more compelled than I expected I would be by the demands of making drawings that tell the story, by figuring out how to do that. How to pace and time the action or sequence of actions, how to combine text and drawings in a way that leaves a lot to be filled in by the imagination, but sets up a coherent story for readers to grab on to. Still feel like I am totally ignorant of the “right way” of “how to do it” — but the first steps in figuring it out are very exciting. And — I finally feel like I have a story to tell.

So, the past couple of weeks have found me…

doing technical research:

conscripting my friends to be the photo reference for characters / people’s faces:

Ben as Brian/Scar:
pictures of a young man

Andrew as Time Stopper:
a drawing of a person and his superhero identity

combing my past photos for other visual references (in this case, cityscape, wide street):
cityscape view

making an actual balsa-wood model of the robot arm (I know, crazy, but totally awesome — I like having things I can look at to draw them, and the arm is as much a character in the story as Scar is…):
drawings and materials on a table

early version of the arm, now it’s a lot cooler than it is here:
balsa-wood model robot arm

Okay, that’s what I’ve been up to, also new year’s was awesome, and things are generally confounding and beautiful and transformative. I want to write more, and there is more of the backstory of why this story feels like it demands to be told, why it demands that I tell it. But! I also want to draw & write new pages of the story itself! Time time time…

I’ll post complete pages on the website here somewhere, when I have some more done. The first five pages will be published in the anthology that AO and Walker are putting out sometime “soon”, along with a bunch of other work surrounding all these characters, by kids and adults. I’m worried that I will never be able to finish my version/vision of Scar, that the story will spiral out of my control and that I will never be able to tell all the parts of it that are important to me (or that I’ll get distracted by the love scenes and never get around to figuring out how to draw the action scenes…!). But I know I need to just keep working on it, moment by moment, piece by piece, and let it accumulate slowly.

Also, the lesson that I ultimately take from Providence comics-makers, and from my friends alongside whom I am delighted to draw, is to remember to let things be loose, to not worry about connecting up every episode, but to concentrate on drawing the parts I want to draw, the parts that are the most fun to draw, the stories that are the most interesting to tell. Readers will make their own connections between them, and create a narrative out of my stumbly efforts…


okay wait, I can’t write about comics without linking to a couple of friends:
Melissa Mendes who is going really deep & intense with her self-investigative comics work right now;

James McShane whose total dedication to the form inspires & intimidates me daily;

and Brynocki C’s comics review blog, which might be one of the best blogs ever.


* apologies for all the blurry photos, I am reduced at the moment to using my cellphone camera since my old camera’s batteries seem permanently drained to the point of unusability, and I didn’t realized how much I depended on the macro-focus feature on my old camera. Acquiring a functional camera is on the to-do list…

** A small selection of this late 90s / early 2000s work, including Ninja and Maggots by Brian Chippendale, and Teratoid Heights and Multi-Force by Mat Brinkman, has been collected and re-published recently. Also, CF’s Powr Mastrs, though new work, is a product of the same scene/mentality… and Mickey Zacchilli‘s comics and print work are also in the Providence lineage of surreal, energetic scribble narrative…

“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…


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