Art & Development, Art Worlds, Citizenship, Values

Hopes for Chinatown: Ethics, Complicity, & Tactics Rationale

I was invited to an art opportunity that was funded by a tech company that I detest. I weighed the ethics of my participation. Here’s what I decided to do.

Sorry this is so wordy—I’m choosing transparency and thoroughness.

Background

In early May, I was invited by 100 Days Action to contribute art to Art for Essential Workers.

“100 Days Action is installing art on boarded up storefronts by local and national artists with images of optimism and solidarity with our essential workers.”

100 Days Action is “a Bay Area artist collective that produces creative resistance projects to build community at the intersection of art, activism, and social engagement.” It was formed immediately after the 2016 presidential election in response to Trump’s 100-Day Plan.” I know several of the members and respect who they are and what they do.

Art for Essential Workers is a cool model of a program that supports the community, small businesses, and artists. They invite artists to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with sketches to show business owners, who pick from the designs. Then 100 Days Action prints and wheat-pastes the artwork, to be seen by essential workers and neighbors. The project started with the Mission District in San Francisco and is now expanding to Chinatown.

Art, Culture, and Belonging

The chance to display art in SF Chinatown via Art for Essential Workers plugged in beautifully with Art, Culture and Belonging.

Art, Culture, and Belonging is a community-engaged project exploring the impact of art and culture on belonging SF Chinatown. I’m the lead artist and I work in partnership with the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and the Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition.

Since shelter-in-place restrictions, we’ve pivoted programming to online platforms and encouraged people to support local Chinatown businesses, which have been slammed by compounding losses resulting from shelter-in-place, xenophobia, and reduced tourism. For many reasons, I haven’t been able to travel and engage the community as much as I planned.

Because of this, Art for Essential Workers is an especially welcome, timely way for the project to have a physical platform in the neighborhood.

Hopes for Chinatown Project

In Art, Culture, and Belonging, we solicited stories about belonging in SF Chinatown, including a question about hopes for Chinatown. I’ve taken excerpts from these responses to create the artworks for Art for Essential Workers. (Thanks to YY Zhu and Weiying Yu at CCCSF for translation and proofreading.)

Photo of Dragon Seed Bridal and Photography storefront. A big sign above reads, "Dragon Seed" in brown text on white background. Below, the window is boarded up and covered in a wheatpasted poster. The text on the poster is in English and Chinese. It reads: Hopes for Chinatown. To see people living and working in peace and harmony, by Alina. Everyone in Chinatown will be safe and healthy. Anonymous. Less discrimination. More Understanding. YY. Chinatown's Generations of love and care will continue. Sunflower. The text is in red in light pink boxes on a background of red with a scale-like pattern of overlapping concentric circles.

Christine Wong Yap, “Hopes for Chinatown,” 2020, site-specific public art: participation, hand-lettering, digital print, 80 x 148 inches and 96 x 48 inches. Commissioned and installed by 100 Days Action for Art for Essential Workers. Photo by Jeremiah Barber.

100 Days Action worked with the Chinatown Visitor Information Center to secure permission to install art at Dragon Seed Bridal and Photo. They installed my artwork on May 30. Dragon Seed is a longstanding business on Clay Street, facing Portsmouth Square. I’m pretty sure I’ve patronized this business—purchasing traditional clothes and trying on cherng sam for my wedding there.

I’m also excited about the location on Portsmouth Square, as that’s the neighborhood’s ‘living room.’ As a child, I played in the playground, getting splinters from the boat-shaped play structure located in the shade of the skyway. In spite of the physical distance, these memories—the sense of familiarity and continuity—make me feel connected to this location, and very proud to contribute to Chinatown in this way.

Funding

Art for Essential Workers “is funded by the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory and private donors.”

The association with Facebook presented a problem for me.

In 2014, I declined invitations to develop art projects at Facebook (see my blog post). It related to the lack of public accessibility and public good, balanced against public harm and lack of accountability in the Bay Area’s economic inequality and quality of living.

Also, a former Facebook AIR told me they had conflicting feelings about their participation. I also noticed that as soon as another Facebook AIR completed their residency, they deleted their Facebook account. Knowing myself—that acting against my conscience would lead to regret, which would haunt me for years—and values—money comes, and money goes—it was easy for me to decline and feel secure about my decision.

There are many well-known reasons to believe Facebook is evil. Two reasons that are unforgivable to me: Facebook tweaked its algorithms to mess with user’s moods. As a psychology nerd, this a major no-no. And, I don’t think Trump would be be president right now without Facebook’s negligence. [Not to mention Facebook’s complicity and collusion: Facebook board member Peter Thiel has donated at least $1.25M to Trump, and a few days ago, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to protest Zuckerberg’s inaction on Trump’s violence-inciting posts.]

Complicity

I’ll point this out so no one else has to, internetz: I’m already complicit. I’m on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. I quit Facebook years ago, though I may have to re-join for my day job or art partnerships with institutions. As an artist whose “Hopes for Chinatown” project is now a part of Facebook art programming, my work may be used to “art wash” its corporate misdeeds on its platforms and internally. If I felt fine with this, I wouldn’t feel the need to write this post.

Considering agency within partnerships with institutions

In the past I’ve had a self-limiting view of artists’ agency in relationships with institutional partners: I thought the institution gets to set all the terms, and the artist was so relatively powerless and needy that they just have to accept what is offered. But artists have more agency than that.

In my zine on interdependence, I learned about some tactics that have informed my thinking over the years:

“Instead of competing for individual … opportunities, [radical opportunists] utilize project-related apparatuses to foster temporary yet tangible collectives, clusters, and networks based on principles of solidarity and equity.”

—Kuba Szreder, “How to Radicalize a Mouse? Notes on Radical Opportunism,” in Dockx, Nico, and Pascal Gielen, eds. Mobile Autonomy: Exercises in Artists’ Self-Organization. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015.

 

“members and allies of this [alternative, artist-run] ‘field’ must leverage [our power] within … commercial, academic, … and civic spheres… to position ourselves outside, and in resistance to, these hegemonic power structures… using radical forms of participation to forefront self-organized, inclusive, and equitable structures.”

Sarrita Hunn, “Artists for Artists’ Sake.” Temporary Art Review, October 15, 2015.

I think some of these ideas are at play in 100 Days Action’s participation. When I asked them about their thoughts on the funding, they shared some of their deliberations. I can’t speak for them, but I think they are parlaying the resources to benefit artists, small businesses, and essential workers through this project.

Here’s another idea that resonates from the zine:

Seeking “opportunities to support folks … (rather than solely … individual projects)”

—Weston Teruya, as quoted in inter/de-pend-ence, 2015.

I’m not saying that the Hopes for Chinatown project falls neatly within, or is an example of, any of these concepts or calls to action. But these ideas have been helpful for thinking about how I partner with institutions, who benefits from my projects, why, and being able to have more agency and options than to either accepting or rejecting.

Response

I will donate 100% of my $500 artist fee to support Feed & Fuel, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation’s response to COVID.

Feed & Fuel mobilizes legacy restaurants like New Asia and volunteers to prepare and distribute up to 1,600 meals per day to seniors living in SROs and public housing, where residents live in 80-square-foot rooms with communal kitchens where social distancing is impossible. Feed & Fuel reduces transmission rates in dense housing among a particularly vulnerable population of elders, helps local businesses survive, keeps restaurant employees working, and provides a safe way for volunteers to serve the community. Learn more about Feed & Fuel, watch their informative video, and donate  if you can.

Feed & Fuel tackles multiple issues—loss of business from xenophobia and shelter-in-place, serving vulnerable elders, and stabilizing food security. And it’s all organized within and by the local community. I love that it’s an effective, responsive social initiative, as well as an aesthetically elegant network of relationships, mutual empowerment, and service.

Chinatown Community Development Corporation is a non-profit 501(c)3 founded in 1977.

Rationale

Another useful set of questions are:

“Given an opportunity…
Do I believe in what this institution does/stands for? Is it the ideal venue for this project/my work? Does my work feel alive in this context? …
Is this opportunity helping me reach the audience I want to reach?…
Is there enough freedom in this opportunity? Is this the best artworld for my work? Is it the most effective use of my time/money/energy? …

Am I being instrumentalized? Am I okay with that?”

Helena Keefe, “Standard Questions for Artists” from Standard Deviation, via ArtPractical.com, June 13, 2013.

My answers to these questions are “no” followed by all “yes” responses. That’s much different than in 2014.

With Hopes for Chinatown/Art for Essential Workers, I’m compelled by:

  • the public accessibility of a street-level storefront window
  • engagement with a community facing economic and public health uncertainties under Covid and shelter-in-place
  • coordination between community-minded organizations
  • the messages’ emphasis on optimism, health, and discrimination
  • the alignment with this neighborhood (a low-income, immigrant community of color), at this urgent time, with me. (Not to trying to toot my own horn, but I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time for this project: I’m Chinese American, and in a position to submit bilingual artworks that amplifies voices from the community.)

So rather than being stumped by a complicit-or-resistant choice, these questions have helped me think through tactics of circumvention, re-distribution, and public benefits. Ultimately, I participated because I think the impact on the local Chinatown community will be a net positive.

Documenting and sharing my thought process—and registering my hesitations openly for other artists to consider and discuss—are also part of this experience. I’m happy to engage with other artists, curators, and thinkers in respectful dialogue about this. If you have questions, please ask. I always prefer open dialogue over silent recriminations or unspoken criticisms.

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Citizenship, Values

A Statement on Black Lives & A Note to Self

A Statement on Black Lives

I stand in solidarity with everyone fighting for Black lives now, and with Black activists who have been fighting for social justice for generations. I recognize the toll of systemic injustice on all Black people. I call for justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and all those who’ve lost their lives to police brutality. I am grateful to Black people because I have benefitted from advancements in civil rights won through Black struggle. I acknowledge that my model minority status has been used to deny the reality of injustice experienced by Black Americans. I recognize the work I need to do as an Asian American to check my privilege, increase my cross-racial solidarity, and confront anti-blackness within the Asian Pacific American community. I recognize that this statement is just the beginning.

A Note to Self

Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about over the past two weeks. This has helped me feel more grounded, less reactionary, less needy for validation, more authentic, and more helpful.

Less is more.

Choose quality over quantity.

Contradictions exist.

You don’t have to resolve them. You don’t have to weigh in much of the time. Know your values. Feel secure in the actions that you are taking. It’s OK to hold multiple contradictions, and to care for multiple communities, issues, and concerns.

Things are complicated.

It’s normal to feel a lot of feelings right now. Different people will be on different pages. Everyone falls short sometimes. Don’t sweat the small stuff. In five years, what will you want to remember about this time?

It’s noisy out there.

Opinions are just that. Remember who’s been doing the work all along. Listen to people whose insights are grounded in practices that you respect. Turn down the volume on distractions.

One step at a time.

When problems feel overwhelming and abstract, identify small concrete steps. Start there.

It’s healthy to take breaks from social media.

Get off the hamster wheel of reacting, sharing, checking, scrolling (/feeling outraged, judgmental, exhausted, numb). There is plenty of information out there. Balance sharing with synthesizing new information and formulating deliberate action steps.

Know your spheres of agency, your voice, your platforms, and the differences between them.

Social media is just one tool. Turning off the firehose affords the mental focus to re-center and act in other spheres of agency. Within each sphere, find your lane. You don’t have to occupy every lane.

Don’t forget to balance the negative with the positive.

There are many reasons to feel and express rage, despair, grief, outrage, and sorrow. And… there are many reasons to feel connection, gratitude, love, joy, transformation, and hope.

When the negative feels personal, pervasive, and permanent, it is critical to our sense of hope—and to our resilience and sustainability—to affirm the realness of the positive.

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Citizenship

Points of Reference: Alone Together, Part I

Some points of reference from a pandemic-stricken NYC.

News is coming out faster than I can process. Here are some articles, podcasts, and other references on my mind lately.

The Negatives

Rising Sinophobia

Someone close to me was spit at, in a Sinophobic, coronavirus-fear-fueled incident, last weekend in Manhattan. The next day, I read this:

“Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety” by Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr. (NY Times, March 23, 2020).

It is disheartening beyond words. There are so many things to be upset about:

  • As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough bad news, humans turn against each other.
  • The flattening dehumanization of racism—the racist doesn’t care if you’re Chinese or any other Asian nationality, whether your family has been here in the US for generations, whether you are actively serving society as a doctor fighting coronavirus, or whether you work in a community organization around belonging.
  • This is happening even in liberal bastions like San Francisco Bay Area and NYC, with large Asian and Asian American communities.
  • Attackers are weaponizing the very thing we’re all terrified of right now—aerosolized or projected bodily fluids—in a perverse act. Paradoxically, the racists could be asymptomatic carriers spreading coronavirus to those who they claim to be guilty of spreading disease.
  • When the attackers are other POC or immigrants, the rift in racial solidarity can feel especially hurtful.
  • Scared Chinese families resorting to arming themselves—aided by loose gun laws and fear mongering, and possibly under-educated about handgun safety, self-defense legal and moral issues, and systemic analyses.
  • Bystanders did nothing.

The dearth of leadership from the White House

A corresponding disaster compounding all of this. I really feel for the nurses and doctors who have to salvage a mess that could have been managed better.

 

The Positives

What to do about rising Sinophobia

  • Report anti-Asian incidents at standagainsthatred.org and caasf.org.
  • Some of us have racists/xenophobes in our families. We have to pick our battles, but consider that these attackers probably have family members who might have pre-empted these attacks with reason, empathy, and gentle disputation.
  • Asians and Asian Americans need to show up for other immigrants and POCs, not just our own self-interests. We can’t expect racial solidarity when we don’t show it.

Learn from the Center for Anti-Violence Education.

  • Sign up for “Bystander Intervention Training: Responding to COVID-19 Scapegoating and Hate” this coming Monday and Tuesday. Check the Center’s website for more online classes.
  • See their tips, especially the third image on what to do if you see someone being attacked or harassed.

 

 

 

Proactive politicians & arts institutions

Not waiting for leaders to lead

In contrast to the White House, S.F. Bay Area and NY politicians have been more proactive in restricting movement.

Arts institutions have also been more assertive, closing museums and studio programs before reluctant, slow-moving bureaucrats call for such closures.

I’m grateful to be allied with arts institutions who have taken leadership when leadership was lacking.

I’m also glad to see institutions heeding the call from artist-activists to donate gloves and masks to local hospitals, just as MAD Museum did last week.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

A huge THANK YOU to our Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Operations @hendrikgerrits and team for leading the charge to collect all of the Museum’s masks and gloves to donate to the Montefiore Medical Center (@montefiorehealthsystem ), in order to provide our city’s healthcare workers with the #PPE that they need to continue their lifesaving work. #Repost @hendrikgerrits with @make_repost ・・・ Our team at MAD Museum is donating all of our masks and gloves to Montefiore Medical Center to help protect our city’s healthcare workers who are putting everything on the line to take care of us. Thanks for the inspiration/suggestion @tin20000 Thanks for coordinating @shabdshabd #stayathome #madmuseum #strongertogether

A post shared by Museum of Arts and Design (@madmuseum) on

If you have PPE to donate, or need donations of PPE, visit GetUsPPE.org. It’s the combined efforts of several grassroots, DIY acts, such as Mask Crusaders.)

New Podcast: Staying In with Emily & Kumail

Humor, relatability, psychology

A new podcast by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, with proceeds benefitting those affected by COVID. You may know Kumail from Silicon Valley or his woke tweets.

What I love about the first episode is listening to a funny couple that loves to be funny together. I also really related to some of their personal story. (You never know who is immuno-compromised, and how much this impacts the caregiver.) And finally, Emily’s advice is grounded in her background as a therapist.

 

Free Face Mask Patterns

pink/grey/cream hand-made face masks on a black cutting mat

Face masks sewn based on the the Fu Face Mask pattern from FreeSewing.org, using in-house materials.

I’ve been sewing face masks for the past few days, using the “Fu Face Mask” pattern from freesewing.org. [Here’s a printable pattern.]

I’m offering them for free to front liners, essential needs workers, seniors, people with compromised immune systems, people with underlying health conditions, or their caregivers. I’ve been sending them directly by mail.

Next week, I’ll donate 20 to emergency food pantry workers at Make The Road NY, an immigrant-rights organization.

I figure that something is better than nothing, and the less masks consumers use (and the more we can launder and re-use masks), the more masks will be preserved for doctors and nurses.

I’m using materials I already have, rather than order online, in order to preserve supplies. I’ve been using yardage leftover from home sewing projects, as well as past art projects. It’s been satisfying to re-purpose things that I made with positive intentions around happiness or human flourishing into something that might help people in tangible ways now.

If you’re interested in making masks, check out artist Stephanie Syjuco’s findings from prototyping various mask options. She’s using a modified “Deaconess” pattern, as her aim is for volume.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

For those interested in sewing masks: I tested out three designs that are currently circulating and here are my findings. The “Deaconess” design does seem the best for mass production and quick use while other designs could be better for personal fit and customization. I also posted this as publicly viewable on my Facebook page if you want the direct links to the patterns. Please note that these are NOT a medical alternative to proper PPE (personal protection equipment), and these are “last resort” items that can be considered due to lack of supply. I’ll be moving forward with producing “The Deaconess” model in quantity (with minor modifications) at home while under shelter-in-place, because it seems like we have reached the point where they are needed by others… Good luck out there, everyone! 👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽 PS: link in bio to crowd-sourced Google doc of hospitals and medical centers across the country seeking mask and PPE donations. Before seeking to donate home-made masks, please find out first if they will take them! 👈🏽👈🏽👈🏽

A post shared by Stephanie Syjuco (@ssyjuco) on

 

Here’s a nice article about this grassroots movement: “A Sewing Army, Making Masks for America,” by David Enrich, Rachel Abrams and Steven Kurutz (NY Times, March 25, 2020).

 

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Art Worlds, Citizenship

It’s not often that major media covers an artist-in-residence program, or the social impact of the resulting public artworks.

This is an interesting profile of a small community in Georgia, portraits of local residents by artist-in-residence Mary Beth Meehan, and the conversations about belonging and controversies around Islamophobia that they sparked.

Read “How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town” by Audra D. S. Burch, NY Times, January 19, 2020.

 


 

If you’re interested, learn more about the Newnan residency program. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

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belonging, Citizenship

Belonging: Points of Reference on Othering and Justice

 

Some points of references about why belonging is urgent.

I haven’t shared these references in discussing belonging much. I don’t want my own perspectives to overly influence the stories of belonging that participants share with me. But these are some of the references I think about…


Audra D. S. Burch, “He Became a Hate Crime Victim. She Became a Widow.” NY Times, July 8, 2017

This is a true story at a tragic nexus of islamophobia, xenophobia, white fear, gun violence, love, and grief.

In some ways, what one man shouted in anger and one woman uttered in grief capture one of America’s most troubling intersections.

“Get out of my country!” the gunman would yell, before opening fire on the two Indian men he later said he believed were from Iran.

“Do we belong here?” the widow would ask in a Facebook post six days after the shooting.

The assailant approached the friends. Witnesses recall him wearing a white T-shirt with military-style pins, his head wrapped in a white scarf. He was intent on finding out one thing: Did the men at the table belong in the country?

Adam W. Purinton, a white Navy veteran, turned to the two brown-complexioned men, both living in the United States for years, and demanded to know their immigration status.

Mr. Madasani said he and Mr. Kuchibhotla had decided to leave, but were stopped as other patrons apologized and assured them they were welcome. One guy paid their tab; the bar manager gave them another round of beer and fried pickles, a favorite of Mr. Kuchibhotla. “Everybody kept coming up to us saying this is not what we represent, you guys belong here,” he said.

If you can, read the whole article.


Yes, he was mine and now I sing his song. But he was also no different from so many other refugees who have to leave their homes, people with names that some make little effort to pronounce who continue to build America. Nor am I any different from the millions of people who fell in love and made family here….

And in the story of Ficre is the lesson that we are impoverished if we remain strangers to one another and that what makes this country unique is that the world is in it.


Every Right Is a Hard Fought Win

When I came across Fred Barbash’s “Birthright citizenship: A Trump-inspired history lesson on the 14th Amendment” (Washington Post, October 30, 2018, H/T Asian Americans Advancing Justice), it reminded me how the rights we’ve gained weren’t just handed over.

Immigrants have helped America fulfill its professed principles of equality by fighting for our survival and rights through lawsuits, advocacy, activism, wiles,  people power. See: 

Ronald Takaki, Strangers From a Different Shore, Little Brown & Company, 1998.


See all Belonging Project posts.

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Citizenship

WAGENCY: What I Would Wish for Every Artist

Why artists should empower themselves with a low-cost artists’ fee structure.

When a writer asked why I joined WAGENCY—an artist-run fee structure for negotiating fair pay from non-profits—I wrote in depth about why WAGENCY supplies sorely-needed information and professional standards. The article was recently published and it focused primarily on British art activity. Since WAGENCY was only briefly mentioned, I’m posting my writing here. 


 

I signed up for WAGENCY because for years I’ve been waiting for such a well-considered, much-needed advocacy tool. 

I’ve been obsessed with artist’s agency, even creating projects and conducting surveys asking artists about how they feel about the art world, how they exercise their own agency as artists, how they interdependently support and receive support from other artists, and if they use the tactic of non-participation. 

Too often artists see themselves as lone, powerless individuals hoping to gain power, money or influence by way of more powerful, more established entities in the art world—non-profits, galleries, museums, curators, collectors, foundations, etc. Artists are often marginalized when actually our artworks are central—none of these spaces or staff would have anything to show or see without the legions of hardworking artists making art. Many institutions and artists perpetuate a system that exploits artists’ hunger for exposure and justifies offering little to no compensation.

I have exhibited with non-profit organizations for years. The experiences have been good and bad. Some non-profits have a culture of scarcity and offer little to no compensation or support. When that is paired with a small audience reach, it makes you wonder what your efforts amount to. Why am I paying for a studio, a storage space, materials, a website? Why am I using my “free time” leftover from income generation away from friends and family, subsidizing my labor for the very organizations who should be my allies and champions? How long can I sustain a life as an artist? Should longterm sustainability be a privilege? Is an art world that rewards privilege an art world I would want to participate in? 

When either party in a partnership feels the rewards don’t justify the effort, that’s a poor partnership. Why should artists continue to engage on these terms?  

I also think, generally, there is a lack of transparency in the art world. This has been born out especially in my interactions regarding money with non-profit organizations as well as commercial galleries and museums. Many partner organizations avoid contracts like the plague. In any other business or industry, the art world’s lack of contracts, invoices, and timely payments would be completely untenable. A few partner organizations have sent me clear, thorough agreements detailing fees and payment plans, offering stipends and increasing them according to additional talks or writing, and those are—by a huge margin—exceptions. 

This leaves artists in the awkward position of asking, sometimes repeatedly, for information or money, when many artists feel that broaching money is taboo, or they don’t want to seem pushy, or that the amount they are asking for is subjective or speculative. It can feel like the amount given to artists is based more on the programming staff’s whims, the organization’s “budget”, and the clout of artists, perpetuating emerging artists’ emergent status.

Compare this to my experience supplementing my income as a freelance illustrator and designer. From the beginning, I based my illustration fees and hourly design rates on the fee structures outlined in the Graphic Arts Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines handbook. I’ve cited the GAG Handbook countless times over the years to educate clients on industry standards around pricing, payment terms, cancellation fees, rights transferred, deliverables, and more. I also embraced NO SPEC: designers should decline any job on speculation, such as open calls where clients solicit designs and only choose and pay a designer upon finding a design they like. Spec work is unfair and unethical, and it undervalues the work of designers. I have declined working on spec and explained why, linking to NO SPEC’s site. 

When design clients have asked for free or discounted design work, the logic always seemed faulty to me. They will pay printers for printing and paper. They will pay the shippers for shipping. The value of those services and goods are self-evident to them. It should also be self-evident that if they want a designer’s services, skills, and labor, they should pay for it. This is exactly the same principle that artists must embrace. Museums pay their employees, contractors, and suppliers. They should also pay artists—whose work is central to their mission of exhibiting art—a fair, non-exploitative fee that represents all the labor that goes into making or supplying art for an exhibition, giving a talk, or writing. 

Nothing like the GAG Handbook or NOSPEC has existed for US artists until WAGENCY. Only CARFAC came close—for Canadian artists and organizations with Canadian funding. I looked forward to a fee structure like CARFAC for US artists for years, and now WAGE has finally created one. 

I have just signed up to be a WAGENT this week, so it’s too soon to say what any disadvantages are. 

I think it’s fair and ethical that WAGENCY asks WAGENTS to pay assistants a fair hourly rate. I don’t hire assistants, but when I do, I’ll have to think carefully about whether I can ethically afford it or not. As an artist who has also worked as an artist’s assistant, I certainly wouldn’t want an assistant to feel undervalued, nor to perpetuate a culture of scarcity. Fair is fair.

WAGENCY doesn’t require artists to decline all substandard opportunities. Artists can remain WAGENTS  if they accept fees below WAGE standards (though they will lose WAGE certification). This gives artists a degree of autonomy and flexibility that allows artists to consider their current financial status or the intangible benefits and personal rewards of a partnership. It also compels artists to use the tactic of non-participation when they can. It clarifies that artists are agents and have choices. Artists don’t have to feel that they need to accept every “opportunity” that comes their way. They can, and should, decline unfavorable conditions. Doing so reinforces the value of their labor, as well as all artists’.

For me, the benefits of WAGENCY are obvious. Having a clear fee structure helps shape a more objective and fair dialogue, beginning negotiations with a reasonable starting point. It shifts the conversation from, “What scraps are leftover in your budget for me?” to “How will you fairly compensate me for my time and labor?” Being a WAGENT states at the outset that I expect to be treated as a professional. My enthusiasm to be a WAGENT—to advocate for fair compensation and to decline unfavorable terms—is a direct result of my experiences as an exhibiting artist over the past twenty years. 

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Citizenship

Getting Ready to Vote

It’s hard to get voting information. With midterm elections only three weeks away, here’s how I tried to prepare, and what I encountered…


I read “Everything You Need to Know for the Midterm Elections” (NY Times, October 2, 2018). I highly recommend it: informative, brief, straightforward, and nice user experience. I learned that the tightest Congressional races that might flip the House and Senate are in other districts. I could talk with family and friends in NorCal, but pivotal seats are in SoCal.

From this well-edited, well-designed NYT article, it all went downhill.

Next, I visited Vote411.org, and it showed me only four candidates on my ballot in national races. Oddly, it doesn’t show my Congressional Representatives race. (I’m in District 14, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is pretty much the only candidate I’m excited about. Speaking of Democratic Socialists, take a quiz to find out if you’re a Democratic Socialist. I am, 6 for 6.)

Then I visited WhosOntheBallot.org. This showed more information, including local offices and measures. But it’s clunky, with too many expand/collapse options, and hard to read, with pertinent info hidden in rollover windows. A description of a citywide proposal to improve civic engagement was missing. (The irony!)

I printed the page out to use as a voter guide. It came to four pages. Of all the apps that exist in the world, why can’t a simple voter guide, that shows my ballot and my selections based on accurate and brief info, be one of them?

Googling “NYC Voter Guide,” I ended up viewing voting guides for the primaries.

What I actually want—and it took me time to find it—is this: the NYC Campaign Finance Board’s 2018 State General Election Voter Guide. (Yet it’s still incomplete—sitting US Senator Kristin Gillibrand has no photo, no statement!?)

And, this guide shows all the districts. There’s no tool for seeing just the candidates in your district. To find out your district, you have to non-intuitively click on “Poll Site Locator,” which takes you to a design-challenged interface, where you enter your address and get your numbers soup of seven different districts. I had to cross-reference Assembly Member on one page with my Assembly District from another page. After all that, there’s only one person running and no info is posted about her.

Also, according to WhosOntheBallot, I can vote for Supreme Court Justices in Queens, but they’re not listed in NYC CFB’s website. I’ve probably spent about two hours researching, and still don’t have any clue about these Supreme Court Justices. Ballotopedia.com lists biographical info but doesn’t say anything about these justice’s opinions or why I should vote for one rather than another.

You can see why this is frustrating and ineffectual.


A note about voter disenfranchisement

Chart showing dramatically higher voter turnout in presidential years (60% in 2016) versus midterms (37% in 2016) since 1950.

From “Everything You Need to Know for the Midterm Elections,” NY Times, October 2, 2018.

It’s too difficult to get information about voting, and too difficult to vote. And I’m fluent in English, educated, and have the leisure time to do this research.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to vote this year. When I showed up to vote in the primaries, I learned that I wasn’t registered Democrat, and therefore, I could only vote for candidates I wasn’t interested in, so I didn’t vote. (I’ve registered Democrat since then, however with mild distaste.)

This midterms election may be the most important midterm election in my memory. It’s frightening how such a small fraction of the populous can determine so much of the next four years. Despite my griping about how inaccessible information is, please vote!


A note about electoral politics

Your vote matters.

Your vote is your voice.

(But your voice is not only your vote.)

 

 

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Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activisim for the 21st Century
Art & Development, Citizenship

Points of Reference (or Orientation)

Navigating art and activism, and the necessity of both.


Art seasons are a real phenomenon, and I’ve been racing to keep up with this one. I’ve been extra busy since mid-August, working my seasonal, full-time museum job, and preparing for three group shows opening this month—not to mention falling sick for a week. M called me “Pigpen,” the messy Peanuts character, and I couldn’t argue with that. I kept it pretty together in art, by sacrificing in life, like housekeeping.

Messy desk

This pretty much sums it up.

I have a lot of thoughts I haven’t been able to process. Like all the crap on my desk, I’m throwing everything down to sort out, at least into little piles for now.


Adapting Aptitudes

A few things happen over the course of a changeover at my seasonal museum job. I lose fitness and get sore in my knees and back. I become unusually extroverted, even starting conversations with strangers outside of work. I’m sharper and faster working with my hands, but a bit slower intellectually. It’s harder to recall artists’ names or to talk critically about art. It’s weird observing how quickly you adapt to your environments.


A Bit of Orientation

Something I wrote resonated with curator Susannah Magers. She quoted me in her curatorial statement for Political Birthdays (on view now through November 3 at Dream Farm Commons in Oakland, CA):

“My courage as an artist is low right now. The news is so overwhelming part of me just wants to turtle up. I’m not sure what the right track is, but I know when it feels right. … In lieu of a clear direction, I’ll take a bit of orientation.”

The past two weeks have provided countless reasons to want to turtle up and avoid the onslaught of bad news and injustice.

Sometimes a good strategy is just to keep moving. Susannah wrote:

The exhibition is one such offering—an orientation, in response to the aforementioned quote by participating artist Christine Wong Yap—that emphasizes visibility, agency, and collaboration as resources, sites of inquiry, and tools.

There can’t be too many reminders to shift focus from dumpster fires back our own sources of power. What can we do to see and be seen? What can we do with our resources, networks, and skills? In this time that feels so alienating, disempowering, and dispiriting, how do we provide the sense of community and solidarity to ourselves and each other?


Politics and Projects

The projects I’m working on right now relate to inclusion, amplifying voices, and belonging. They’re not expressly about civic engagement or advocacy. Partly that’s because I’m invested in psychological wellbeing, which I see as an expression of freedom, dignity, and agency.

Two of the three shows I’m in directly address activism and the midterm elections. The organizers invited me to supplement my project with ideas for taking action or performative events to encourage activism. At the pace I’ve been moving, I didn’t have the time or brainpower to come up with many ideas. But I have been thinking about how I have—or haven’t—been politically engaged.


Activism Is Not Easy

Given this recent emphasis on activism, I have been thinking about a post I wrote two years ago, “Resources for Becoming an Activist.” I’ve been feeling guilty that I haven’t taken more of my own advice and been more active.

I connected with many local social justice orgs at the Forward Union Fair in 2017. I signed up for tons of mailing lists. Aside from calling representatives, few opportunities to get involved or contribute my art skills presented themselves. I joined an group of artist-allies for an immigrant rights org, but logistics—timing, geography, my schedule—have prevented me from pitching in much. When I did contribute a postcard design, I never heard anything back from the point person.

I’ve had tunnel vision for the past two months thanks to my projects and shows, but I’ll try again in the coming months.

Yesterday, I signed up for a monthlong printshop studio rental. I’m thinking about printing more posters, like the one I printed the day after the election. This is something I can do that activates my skills and resources.


WAGENCY

One thing that artists can do to take action is to join WAGENCY. If you haven’t seen it, read my Instagram post about why I signed up, and why I encourage other artists to become WAGENTS, too.


Belonging on Stolen Land

Yesterday was Indigenous People’s Day. I spent the day letterpress-printing Belonging activity sheets.

In 2016, I developed my Belonging project, using open calls and workshops to ask people about how they feel about belonging, and where they have felt belonging. I asked countless people to participate and invite others. I shaped my approach with inquiry and openness. I protracted the period of research and dialogue, even though it was stressful for me to delay production. I thought I limited my agenda and perspective in the final signs and zine in order to highlight participants’ voices.

An hour before the opening of Belonging in Albuquerque, I received feedback that indigenous people may not appreciate the message that “we all belong here” on colonized land. Anytime anyone thoughtfully offers honest, critical feedback, it’s valuable, though the timing of the message was a challenge for me.

On Monday, curator Adriel Luis posted a reflection about the struggling with the paradox of immigrant and indigenous perspectives:

As an American I recognize that I live on occupied land. Coming from a family of immigrants, it’s a constant struggle to find balance between insisting that we have a right to be here, while at the same time acknowledging that we really don’t. The past couple of years I’ve had the honor of learning what it means to be welcomed here as a guest…I can tell you it feels so much better than barging your way into somewhere! Still, it’s a learning process to understand how I continue to contribute to the legacy of how this land was stolen.

I’m also trying to evolve my understanding of belonging, by considering Brené Brown’s writing: belonging is not merely being embraced by others—true belonging is actually the courage to stand alone in the wilderness. What that means for future iterations of the project is that belonging should not be limited to places; belonging can be something you carry with you.


Jeff Chang on Art and Race

Probably the best thing to help orient me right now in this moment before the midterm elections is this: historian Jeff Chang’s keynote speech at the Art and Race Conference at the Impact Hub in Oakland (H/T the Making Contact podcast episode, “Jeff Chang on Revolutions in Seeing and Being”).

In this moment, privilege shows up as disengagement, the refusal to take a stand, and the refusal to show up.

As in, ‘I refuse to see how anti-black racism gives me privilege.’ As in, ‘I refuse to see the inhumanity that leaves so many homeless and unsheltered.’ As in, ‘I refuse to see the humanity of the refugee or the migrant.’ As in, ‘I refuse to acknowledge the ways that state violence is inflicted on black bodies, on women’s bodies, on queer bodies, on Muslim bodies, on poor bodies…

Privilege is the choice to isolate, to draw the line, to build the wall. To say that all that matters is my solitary sovereignty, and what I can accumulate before death claims me. As artists, as people in community, we have to choose, in this moment. …

 

We believe in art because we believe in life, in all its variations, in all of its beauty. We’re here because we also believe the ugliness—the violence of inhumanity—can be transformed. We’re here today because we believe art and culture change things. That cultural change might even precede—might even make—political change. …

 

Racism is drawn from a specific kind of refusal. It’s a denial of empathy. It’s a mass-willed blindness. … Inequity shows up in three ways: in representation, in access, in power… Here’s where art may become a remedy… In its mimicry of life, great art helps to close the distance between the self and other; it helps us to come together….

…The movement for black lives has reminded us that the way out of this historical cycle of crisis is to begin to see each other in our full humanity. To find and feel that we are all connected. To move beyond empathy to action. Empathy is empty without action.

Jeff goes on to talk about what it means to not make art nor to engage culture, by exploring technocrats’ luxury apocalypse bunkers.

Perhaps the saddest thing is what this way of thinking reveals about them. They find it so hard to imagine generosity, they can’t see it at all in the world. So that’s probably what is meant when folks say, ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’

 

Art … inflames the imagination. And we need the imagination in order to see through and past our blindnesses. Gotta be able to see each other, imagine what we can do together to increase representation, access, and power. This is the real beginning of transformation and community.

…Grace Lee Boggs… argued that revolution is not—as we think of it—something to be won in bloodshed, in which there’s a replacing of one group in power with another group in power. She said that the next revolution might be better thought of as advancing humankind to a new stage of consciousness, creativity, and social and political responsibility. Her revolution will require us to find new ways other than to divide and rule, to consign some to death and instead pivot all of us towards life, to honor and transform our relationships to each other and ourselves. She insists that we rethink how we see each other, how we choose to be, and how to be together. So we have to move beyond empathy towards mutuality. Beyond relationships that are about exploitation and extraction, towards relationships that are about exchange, support, generosity, and trust. That we start from truly seeing each other and move towards acting for each other. Past resistance and into transformation.


Point of Orientation: Grace Lee Boggs

Thanks to Jeff’s orientation, I’ve ordered this book. (From an independent bookstore, obvs.)

Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activisim for the 21st Century


In the same vein as moving from resistance towards transformation, I’d rather be for positive emotion and affirmation, and than to promulgate negative emotion and opposition.

It is the deforming nature of anger to blur the boundary between unjustified and justified; if it weren’t, only the righteous would ever be angry. Instead, rage is most often forsworn by those who seem most entitled to it, and civility is demanded by those who least deserve it.

…Anger is an avaricious emotion; it takes more credit than it deserves. Attempts to make it into a political virtue too often attribute to anger victories that rightfully belong to courage, patience, intelligence, persistence, or love.

Casey Cep, “The Perils and Possibilities of Anger,” New Yorker Magazine, October 15, 2018

 

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