A digital commons . . .
the hidden public-use USB drive that a man with a beard showed us.
When our group began working towards our goals, I would have bet a paycheck that Michigan Winter was a stronger force than Community. During a disjointed escalation process, sincere enthusiasm was hard to find outside of the limited creative sphere here on campus.
We accepted the difficulties of creating a true commons, one free of corporate or governmental influence, from the very beginning. With so much of the modern world being bought and sold, controlled and patrolled, finding open spaces often means looking for cracks in the pavement.
Here in Ypsilanti, there is a mighty fine roadmap, sketched across the 38 acres at Water Street. But even that oasis is one very expensive handshake away from disappearing. How do we fight one of the most consistently proven clichés, that money equals power? With another one, of course — numbers equal the same thing.
No, our group did not create a new commons, or add any long-term stability to Water Street. But we did manage to make some numbers out of mole hills. Mapping Our Commons was a success.
Our target audience was never our friends — they can already be counted among our allies. Instead, it was the two EMU freshmen, who at first told us Ypsi had “everything we need”. After engaging in the discussion, they were contributing some of our best ideas. One can hope our map installed at the Water Street site had the same transitive effect on thousands of Michigan Avenue commuters daily.
Pass it on for us, won’t you?
Mapping Our Commons began with a conversation, explaining to the assemblage our purpose and some ideas we had for reimagining a commons-rich Ypsilanti.
More than a dozen community members came through the Depot Town Alley, adding their drawn and written thoughts.
To close, have a close up and a group shot.
The way that our project come together, for me, was the greatest part of our journey. It showed me parts of Ypsilanti that I never knew existed and it opened my eyes to the possibility of the spaces I was already familiar with.
The time I took to shape the maps, the time we all took to build the sign and install, the time to photograph everything, and the time to gather in the ally was all worthwhile because it forged a friendship within our own group and a greater awareness of the space that we inhabit.
Walking away from the project, something that Isaac said really stuck with me: “Cross Cross St.” This simple sentence sums up a huge lesson for me from our project. I go to college at EMU, but that also makes me a citizen of Ypsilanti. And as such, I should be fully aware of the tensions between land use and open spaces–on campus and off.
I am grateful to have had such an excellent group of dedicated individuals and to have experinced something that broadened my horizons.
I joined the Water Street group based mostly on David and Chris’ enthusiasm. I knew very little about Water Street and I don’t usually find myself fighting for causes. I figured there are worse fates in life than hanging with a couple of cool dudes who liked poetry. The additions of Isaac and Andrew helped the cause too. As silly as it may sound, hanging with interesting people is my main take away from the project. We all come from different walks of life, we’re different ages, we believe in different things, but somehow at the end, we always managed to get something done.
When I drive by our sign on Michigan Ave I grin. The placement happened out of thin air. It was my favorite part of the project. David asked me if I could get some sand bags during class on a Tuesday. I said sure. At Home Depot I accidentally ripped open a 50 pound bag of sand trying to get it off of the shelf. In my defense, there were several ripped bags and sand was everywhere already. I went from thinking I was dropping of some sand bags then going home to get some sleep before a long day of work, to covertly placing our huge map under cover of darkness. The pile of sand in my trunk was a friendly reminder of our adventure.
I appreciate our cause for its relative simplicity; a commons for the people. That’s such a simple thing that sadly doesn’t always exist. The fact that I got to work with such an interesting group of people made it all the better. If people don’t understand our message, I hope that when people see our maps if nothing else, it makes them stop and wonder who in the hell would go through the trouble.
And what a semester it has been. A meditation on the commons: at it’s core, how are students implicated in the politics and culture of the Ypsilanti Community? Spatially, Eastern is more and more isolating itself from Ypsi. Have you noticed the huge black fences going up on the perimeter of the school grounds? Lowell st., Perrin st., Oakwood, they have been “marked”, territorialized in the grimmest of ways. What the fuck EMU? First you move your STUDENT UNION from Mckenny on Cross St. (pretty downtown all things considered) to Oakwood, and the transportation comes with a name change: the STUDENT CENTER. And then the fences came. I don’t even need to hear the official rhetoric of the chancellor overlord of public relations to know that the EMU YPSI connection is mere artifice, language without meaning or referent to aid in the construction of an image that EMU “wants” build community outside it’s mass produced iron gates.
Clearly, a class such as “Community Projects and Collaboration” promises an essential counterbalance to the institutional phoniness Eastern flaunts so carelessly. The logic of a commons oriented collaborative public art project transcends my own personal investment in activating common spaces like Water Street or the Hidden Pine Commune, but is more a necessity that we, as students, need address and interrogate our relationship to the various communities of Ypsilanti. How might we transgress the fence’s suggestion that we “stay in or stay out” of campus? Or how might we repurpose the Student Mall to be an actual space of resources and assemblage for students and non-students alike? Strategically for Chris, Isaac, Tom, Andrew and myself, the form of the map become the operative vessel for us to explore our relationship to the complex politics of space, community and identity within Ypsilanti.
Why maps? If a map’s basic function is to represent some territory, what are the dominant things being represented? Often we see roads, parks, businesses, but little else. We felt that alternative methods of mapping (interactive, mobile, imaginary) would be ideal for generating and facilitating first, a meditation on the (un)common spaces in Ypsilanti, and second, a mobilization to activate a commons long neglected and ritualized to an ambient feature of our otherwise consumerscapes. Our two approaches to mapping followed the logic of catalysis and mediation. Catalysis refers to the map we installed semi-permanently in Water Street, in which we wheat-pasted the map to a large signpost and sand bagged the post to account for weather. We attached a box with supplies that passersby could use to interact with the map as they saw fit, with instructions to “reimagine this community resource”. By leaving the map, we hoped to create an activation, or a catalyst for activation of the Water Street Commons in a more public way. It is out of our hands at this point and will bear with it not the impress of an EMU creative writing class, but the actions of people that participate in the mapping.
Mediation refers to the gathering we organized in another commons, Depot Town Alley, in which another map was printed and placed on a bench with a bunch of markers. With a group of friends and passersby, we interacted with the map by drawing in things like the “little free library” in Frog Island Park, locations of past free skool classes, bread distribution (due to excess Food Gatherers bread) at 128 College Pl. or the “data dump” USB plastered into the wall of the Depot Town Alley thus creating a “digital commons” for people to share information with anyone in the community. The initial desire was to use the map as a catalyst for an action we agreed on, some activating collective action, however due to the cold, we ended early. The map, once presented and weather proofed, will be installed in Depot Town alley with markers/other supplies to encourage further interaction and participation similar to the Water Street map.
After the fact, I’d say the project went really well. We were able to engage with a surprising amount of people walking through the alley, far more than I would have guessed given how cold it was. Everyone got really excited at the prospect of participating with a “re-imagining” of Ypsilanti. This type of reaction made it obvious that people have a real investment with the city, and organizing further with strangers in a commons might yield long lasting change. However, during the planning stages, it became increasingly obvious that getting all five of us together on any given day to put in work building the sign, flyering for the event, drafting proposals and escalation plans etc. was nearly impossible. This often lead me to feel disorganized and pessimistic with regard to our ability to execute a meaningful and thorough project surrounding an issue I myself am deeply invested in. But all this aside, on the frigid Tuesday night, riding in Chris’ brother’s truck bed, keeping the signpost from flying out of the car, staring up at the streetlights on Michigan Ave. I felt what we were working towards was starting to pay off. And this feeling only extended on the blustery Sunday in Depot Town Alley when a group of students connected with 15 plus non-students in what I would consider a genuinely meaningful way. We weren’t just walking to our cars or the coffee shop, smiling at strangers or avoiding any eye contact, we were asking ourselves, each other, what needs are not being met in the space of our community, and how can we meet those needs outside conventional political/economic means? I.e. grassroots organizing around the spaces that WE control and are empowered within. Good job ya’ll, it was a pleasure working with each one of you.
Community Event– Moon Garden Screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop
11/21/13 Location: Hidden Pine Commune basement AKA the moon garden (128 College Pl.)
Following the weekly Thursday night free skool organizing meeting, since we had some new faces show up, I suggested we do a screening party of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop followed by informal discussion about the film. The usually crew was present, that crew being the communards and free skool organizers with a few new people we met through another documentary that we run through the free skool in Pray-Harold on campus. Lydia has a pocket projector, so we moved down to the moon garden for the screening since sketchy basements generally have positive vibes. Every time I watch this film I get more and more confused with what is actually going on. We have the character Tierry Guetta, a documentarian obsessed with the nightly shenanigans of street artists, wheat pasting, installations, tags, the whole gamut. Tierry comes into contact with Banksy, world reknowned street artist, at some point in his global romp. Banksy spends the entire film in a cheesy shadowed, voice-modified room. However, what makes this film so wiley and hard to nail down is it’s direction by Banksy himself. The artifice of the amateur documentarian turned prodigious (and marketable) street artist is not obviously an artifice at all. A simple google search will provide you with plentiful “evidence” that a Tierry Guetta really exists in the form he assumes in the film. I wouldn’t contend that this is proof enough, but then again I don’t really think it matters. What matters is the “hoax”, the commentary on authenticity, on production and mechanical reproduction. Tierry is overtly represented as a shitty artist who pays his employees, in the Warholian fashion, to make his art for him. His is wildly successful. Is this who “deserves” the (cultural) capital of the contemporary art world? Have we really sunk so low as purveyors of style and taste? Has capitalisms tentacles truly eclipsed our romantic portal to the realm of the “Real”. Who the fuck cares? is probably an answer to all of those questions. I only say this because it seems likely that Banksy could mechanically reproduce the character of Warhol, the body and concept of Warhol and create a Tierry. A Tierry is far more interesting than a piece of Mr. Tierry’s work. Perhaps Banksy constructed a new art object that is now living and breathing (for me) on google image searches and rewatches of Exit Through the Gift Shop. This art object is possibly the distant cousin of Foucault’s art object. Foucault writes, “but couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or house be an object, but not our life?”. Now, I’m not convinced that this is the question Banksy asks of us. I think Banksy’s question sounds more like, “what does it mean to have a life built and continually constructed and reconstructed around an artifice, a shared lie we tell ourselves everyday until we believe in this lie?”. Foucault, I think, is putting his finger on a central question to the emergent art forms of social practice, asking what of the intentionality and meaning inscribed onto an object of art is present in our experience as social creatures? How can we exploit the structures of disciplined/normalized social space/time/capitalist space/time through collective actions or individual transgressions? In both cases (Foucault and Banksy) we have a transformation of our bodies/roles/identities from creator to created/constructed, which in reality is a constant fluctuation between these two (artificial) poles, right? This relation between Exit Through the Gift Shop and the Foucault quote that initiates our foray into our only class text, Living as Form, presents an interesting intersection of purposes that my group project is attempting to articulate. In the case of Water Street and the other (unexplored) commons of Ypsilanti, our fundamental analysis (and, then, action) comes from a diatribe against private land ownership and the commodification of our lives (space,time,body). If we are attempting a mapping and re-examination of our commonly “owned” space within the city, we are also attempting an examination of authority: who has the real or imagined power to say how land should be used? Who has access to this capital and these privileges? How can that access be democratic and functional rather than individualistic and hierarchical? I think these questions are core to Banksy’s film and art as they are intentionally removed from the gallery (institutional spaces that authorize/valuate art) and exist in everyday spaces of the “street”. We’re talking about phoniness here, about meaning and value that is stripped away from us, leaving little perceived agency to dissent from authoritative institutions without risk of punishment or alienation. And, on the other hand, we can search for new creation of meaning, through the ability to self organize and create alternative systems of meaning and expression than the ones deemed right, acceptable, good etc.
ANYhow, the conversation that followed took various queues from questions of hoax and authenticity, systems of meaning in the age of already abstracted digitized reproduction, collapsing of value sets/paradigms etc. This is a great film to watch with politically minded/artistically engaged folks as the film brings forth relevant and complex questions of hyperreality and internet babies.
Community Event– Evening of Poetry with Catherine Wagner, Caplan Harris, Brenna York, Matvei Yankelevich 9/27/13 Location: Rob Halpern’s home
This was honestly one of the weirder “Rob House” readings I’ve attended, I am very upset I missed Dana Ward’s reading there last February but that’s a different topic. It was weird mainly because the readers, from my perspective, didn’t seem to have much continuity with each other. Granted I was only able to see Brenna and Catherine perform since we arrived after Matvei’s reading and Caplan couldn’t read? I’m not sure if that’s the case but regardless, I’d say it was a poorly curated event. It’s not like Brenna clashed with Catherine in an dissatisfying way or even that they weren’t reading interesting things (I absolutely loved Brenna’s chap, so good). Maybe I just wasn’t in the right headspace to enjoy their performances fully, after all, I have found if I am not relaxed and ready to sit still at a poetry reading, it likely will not turn out well for me! Regardless, I had a great time talking with Adam, Matt and Lydia on the front porch, smoking cigarettes, melting into late September air, the equinox on my mind. And I think that these moments of leisure and vitality at Rob’s hosted readings are what make them so important to the community of artists, poets, activists, and anyone else interested in being present. Certainly as a young person in search of connection in a new city, having these readings to go to makes me feel like I am apart of something genuine and crucial. A certain warmth and congeniality is ubiquitous throughout the Prospect Park ranch house. Sipping a beer, listening to small press poets and thinking about what it means to be alive, welcomed into someone’s home, welcomed into a milieu of kind and engaging people. And not matter who is reading, the best part of the experience is always the social aspect, and it’s intersection with poetry/poetics, not just the poetics in itself.
It was a dark and stormy night . .
Fortunately, we were prepared. With ten hands, jackets, sandbags, and a Ford Ranger, the installation at the Water Street site went as smoothly as possible. On the map’s signpost, we included the space, supplies and suggestion for contributing to the discussion in a lasting way.
Flyers are now being spread across the community, to raise awareness of our upcoming assembly and the topic at large.
See y’all on Sunday at 1pm, in the Depot Town Alley.