Organize Your Own is an exhibit and event series about the politics and poetics of self-determination movements. Featuring dozens of artists and writers, the exhibit will travel to Chicago after a month of events in Philadelphia. Organize Your Own kicks off Thursday, January 14th, 6pm at the Kelly Writers House with performances by Thomas Graves, Jennifer Kidwell, Frank Sherlock, Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, and Salem Collo-Julin. RSVP on Facebook and visit Organize Your Own online for a full list of programs.
Mai Schwartz interviews.
MS: Can you introduce yourself briefly?
DT: In August of 2015 I moved to Philadelphia from Chicago where I had lived for 14 years so that I could direct a new Social & Studio Practices graduate department at Moore College of Art & Design. While I do a lot of stuff like make videos and organize conferences, my writing and curating work in Chicago had been really locally focused on the history of political art in that city through projects like AREA magazine, Never The Same oral history and archive, and the Immersive Life Practices book I recently edited. In coming to Philly, I was excited to expand my references to another place and put my deep knowledge of Chicago with a new context with its own rich history and an exciting range of activities happening at the intersections of art and community today.
MS: How did the idea for Organize Your Own come about?
DT: Several years ago when I was editing AREA Chicago we developed an issue of the publication on the theme "1968/2008" that dealt with the hidden histories of 1968 and looking at what their lasting legacies were for the political imagination of people living and working in the city in our time. I became pretty interested in this idea of how the rhetoric and images of past social movements end up impacting what people think is possible and desirable in the present. The sixties obviously loom large everywhere, and Chicago was no exception with it's high profile history as the site of the police brutality of the Democratic National Convention protests in 1968 and a year later with the assassination of local Black Panther Party leaders and the implosion of SDS at a conference held there. One of the more compelling histories that we presented in that issue was by James Tracey and Amy Sonnie on the work of JOIN Community Union and the Young Patriots Organization - both working in a community of working-class white folks from Appalachia who migrated to the city for work and found themselves on the receiving end of decrepit housing, police brutality and urban renewal schemes. They ended up aligning themselves with the Black Panthers and Young Lords into a short-lived coalition called the Rainbow Coalition. This history blew my mind and as a result of this connection I met Hy Thurman, one of the members of YPO, and he wanted help getting the word out about their history and republishing some of their out-of-print poetry.
I began work planning an exhibit at Columbia College Chicago's Leviton Gallery and once I moved to Philly realized there were some parallel histories here like the October 4th Organization (also written about by Tracey and Sonnie in their book Hillbilly Nationalists). It seemed like a good opportunity to do a multi-city project and I got support from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to develop the local version for the Kelly Writers House. Even though this idea has been stewing with me for a longtime, it became clear in the process of curating it that the world was bubbling up around us and that racial justice was at the forefront of people's minds. It was not uncommon to go to a #BlackLivesMatter rally in the last year and here the suggestion that white people need to organize themselves against racism (this great round-up of BLM activist's advice to white folks suggests as much). This had a resonance with the 1966 declaration by leaders of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that white people should organize themselves. It just felt like a good framework to put the past in dialogue with the present, and also to highlight some of the concepts that might become apparent if we didn’t just focus on politics but also poetry. In order to encourage that, all the poets and artists I invited to participate were given the archive of Young Patriots poetry, but also encouraged to think about what the ideas of organizing your own meant to them today.
MS: I'd like to dig into what you mean when you say you wanted "to highlight some of the concepts that might become apparent if we didn’t just focus on politics but also poetry." There are so many truisms about the role of art in social change and so I'm curious, with this particular project in this particular moment, what are those concepts that become apparent? What are the questions or contradictions that come up?
DT: Great question. To elaborate a bit, but also be very straight forward - there is something different between a protest placard and a poem. And while I personally am a fan of the placards that read a bit more like poetry, I know that there are many practical reasons why they are not the same in order to advance certain projects and demands. For instance, the Young Patriots put out poetry like "Hands" by Peggy Terry (see below). Terry was a leader and elder in this community (and she even ran as Eldridge Cleaver's vice presidential candidate for the The Peace and Freedom Party's 1968 campaign for US President) and while these stanzas would never appear on a placard, they capture a complex concept about the psychic dimensions of racism that say a lot about Terry's understanding of things. So when I talk of the "concepts" that become revealed through a consideration of both politics and poetics, it is about finding ways to look at not just what people say they are about but how they say it and how those forms also convey value and meaning. That the Young Patriots found it important to release poetry books alongside their community organizing says a lot about what they care about, and a consideration of their work's implications for the present moment would have to consider it through these multiple lenses.
As for the larger question about this particular moment, I think the fact that this is a multi-modal cultural project and not a political campaign is important. There are lots of interesting and important political campaigns happening right now around the same issues that were facing self-determination groups fifty years ago, from police brutality to income inequality, but that leaves room for there to be parallel projects like this that put the focus on visual, performed, written poetic practice that runs parallel to those movements for social justice.
MS: Though the genesis of the exhibit has to do with the history of white people organizing, many (most?) of the contributors are people of color. Can you talk about how the exhibit itself took shape and what the process was like? For example: did you have an open call for submissions? Did you reach out to folks personally? Were they excited or reluctant to participate and what kinds of conversations did you have? Feel free to tell specific stories!
DT: I will start out with the process: everyone got an invitation from me to participate along with some links to resources like the full text of poems released by the Young Patriots, some videos and texts. I then began to follow up with everyone. Of the 8 print media, 2 online projects, and 5 performance/public project contributions to the exhibition at Kelly Writers House, I have conducted studio visits (virtual and in person) with every participant at least once throughout the fall of 2015 when the work was being developed. The additional public events at Slought, Brad Duncan’s house archive, and Asian Arts Initiative have all been developed through at least one in-person planning meeting over the same time period. While the work being presented through this project is newly commissioned and therefore at various stages of resolution, I have worked with all participants to distill complex processes and ongoing conversations into meaningful forms that will be compelling in their presentation through this exhibition and offer opportunities to publicly share work that may be picked up or continued in various ways through the participant’s ongoing engagement with this subject matter. A few people are solely writing for the catalog; that process has yet to start and is being led by my collaborator on publications, Anthony Romero.
There is a distinction I should make between my own point of entry to the exhibit (these histories of white people organizing against racism in their own communities and putting out some poetry books on the side) and the larger project of the exhibition. The larger project is concerned with the concept of self-determination, the concept of organizing in a culturally specific way whatever "your own" might be and if that is relevant for the present, and the concept of whiteness in relationship to other concepts of race. I tried to use the history that I was familiar with as a prompt for the participants in the project, but not a prescription. I wanted them to know this is what made me start thinking about the relevance of these concepts for the present, but not to restrict their contributions to the exhibit, events and publications to those specific histories. That relates to your question about the background of the invited participants as well, because while I did not want to ignore whiteness, I did not want this to be an exhibit that was all about whiteness. I wanted other subjects and vantage points to be considered, including those from people who were critical of the premise itself. When I go to an exhibit I want to be surprised and challenged, and that includes hearing from lots of different thoughtful people.
To say a bit more about the background of the participants, there are a few things to say. First, these are some of the most interesting artists I know and I knew that they all specifically had something to say on these topics. I tend to try to work with about half artists I've already worked with and half people I have been curious about. Secondly, whenever I do anything in the world that makes claims around the big questions of our time, I always have to consider how the work is directly engaging in a politics of representation versus a politics of redistribution. That means thinking about who is going to be seen and what it means for them and others and me to all be seen within the same framework. That also means, if I've got some resources through a grant, who am I going to share them with and being thoughtful about that while not making any claims that this is somehow correcting society's disparities.
MS: Did anything surprise you about the process or any of the works/artists you ended up including?
DT: Lots of surprises! I think that is what is exciting and challenging about organizing exhibits of new work that was commissioned especially for this presentation - you really do not know what you are going to get. To further complicate that, I also tried to emphasize to the participants that just because I was personally interested in the Young Patriot's use of poetry and it was my point of entry into initiating this, that it did not need to necessarily serve that same function for them. As a result, only one of the pieces really deals explicitly with the poetry (in fact it is Dave Pabellon's work that is inspired by the Peggy Terry "Hands" poem I mentioned earlier). The majority of the work people really took one thread of my initial prompt and really made it their own. That was so fantastic and fun to be a part of, and is way more challenging than some of my past curatorial and editorial projects that attempt to put a frame around already existing work.
One example of something that surprised me is Dan S. Wang's project "Falling In: American Counterculture for Chinese Nationals" where he made a poster (see below) to promote a fictional course he wanted to offer to Chinese students studying in the US that would focus on Asian American radical history. He then made the course syllabus which we are presenting online and in publications, and then he will lead a workshop on the subject at Asian Arts Initiative on February 13th. Wang really took the idea of "organizing your own" to heart and is considering what responsibility he might have towards this growing population of people living in the US. Some of the other work really problematized the premise of even what "one’s own" is and if that is a useful way to organize politically today.
MS: As you mentioned in your intro, Philly's got a lot going on as far as art and activism and the intersection of the two. Can you describe some of the projects you're excited about? What was it like coming here as a newbie and encountering them?
DT: About 17 months into living in Philadelphia, I would have to acknowledge I've got so much to learn about the city and lots of people to meet. That said, I really hit the ground running when I moved here and met lots of people and between public events I've been organizing at Moore and this project - there have been numerous excuses to go to readings, events and meetings with a wide range of practitioners here. Overall I've been pleasantly surprised by the openness of collaborators and accessibility of organizations. There seems to be a desire for cohesion, community and increased criticality.
In terms of organizing, I am totally fascinated by land politics and that seems to be a point of lots of contention everywhere, so I think that the Philly Land Bank Alliance and the groups that brought the Land Bank into existence, and CDCs like People's Emergency Center who operate in the area that I live near, are all really interesting to me. Beyond that, I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to efforts like Scribe, Media Mobilizing Project, PhillyCAM, Vox Populi, the Village of Arts and Humanities, Southeast by Southeast, Monument Lab, Metropolarity, People's Paper Co-op, Philly Stake, Art Sanctuary. I'm also totally impressed by the kind of infrastructural projects like Leeway, the artist-run spaces, publications like APIARY, Mural Arts Program, and Pew Center for Arts and Heritage and how they underpin the local ecosystem. Of course there are also the local participants like Matt Neff, Amber Art, Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, Frank Sherlock, Valerie Keller, Anthony Romero, Maori Holmes, Asian Arts Initiative, Bettina Escauriza, Salem Collo-Julin, Jennifer Kidwell, Edward Onaci, Jennifer S. Ponce de León, Nato Thompson, Mariam Williams, Rasheedah Phillips, Slought and of course Kelly Writers House - who are all just gifts to the city!*