By Roberto Bedoya
Let’s begin with an origin story. My Mom told me this story before she passed away at age 95, a little over a year ago.
Mom: I know why you’re so social.
Mom: Well when I was pregnant with you in 1951, I was walking door-to-door registering Mexican-Americans in our barrio to vote. So you’ve been to hundreds of doors organizing folks before you saw the light of day.
Son (smiling broadly): Okay, that explains a lot.
So it begins with a family and a willful mom who messaged that to get over the Great Divide you get organized and…get over yourself and do something for others. It was a message about the pronoun “we” and knocking on doors.
I think about the pronoun “we” a lot, probably too much. When I was asked to share my thoughts on the topic of the Great Divide I said “Sure” and then rolled my eyes and raised my eyebrows (to mom). The Great Divide is a HUGE topic. The worlds of have and have not are troubling society, shaping the day-to-day life of folks, our culture and the expressive life of “we”. The Great Divide is not just about the current rules and effects of capitalism but it also intersects with one’s understanding of the self and the plural. How do individuals understand the pronoun “we”? How can art be not just a story about the “we”, but in the “we”?
So let’s knock on the door of “We”.
“We” as philosophy, as sociology, as art, as narrative; knocking on that door is a bit like Alice in Wonderland traveling through thresholds of wonder and bewilderment. But knock, one does, and in this time of the Great Divide one discovers how it acts as a predator that generates doubt in the “we”, limiting the capacity of the “we” to do, to be.
The Great Divide’s impact in thought and feeling upon the “we” is troubling the becoming of a “we”, primarily through the privatization of this pronoun which often reduces its meaning to a product (I’m a Mac, you’re a PC, I’m a Coke, you’re a Pepsi), or a politic of how your rights are shaped by the crafting of “we” boundaries/criteria by the state, religion, policies, or markets.
My involvements with the “we” are: the “we” associated with civic engagement art practices that I’ve supported as a funder; the “we” of the social imaginary in “We the people” that I insert in my policy arguments; or the spiritual “we” evident in this quote by Emmanuel Levinas, “We is not the plural of ‘I’,” that shadows me. “We” is our plurality that is not sealed inside a “me and my friends” sphere of actions, it is a secular space that includes people you don’t know. I hear the “me and my friends” meaning of “we” often in my cultural advocacy work, from the white gloves to the anarchists whose cultural “we” is confined to an absolute and operates as a selfish “we”.
The potentiality of the cultural “we”, in the face of the Great Divide, is to assert Radical Hope as a means that eradicates the privatization of our culture, the “we”. The scholar Jonathan Lear describes Radical Hope as hope that is “…a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”
There’s some Alice freefall.
The reduction of “we” to the landscape of goods away from the public sphere of good undermines “we”’s sovereignty and how it governs our plurality. What I’ve witnessed bridging the gap between the privatized sphere of goods and the public “we” is poetic will, which I’ve come to know through two endeavors I’ve been associated with: the PLACE Initiative and Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence art project along the US/Mexico border, which both address the aesthetic ordering of “we” as a form of placemaking/placekeeping. They present an aesthetic ordering that counters the neoliberalism agenda of privatization, individualism, and the logic of capitalism, and keeps the “we” as an open space enlivened by imagination and not a space that acts like a gated community fashioned by the rights of property. So here’s some storytelling about knocking on that door and witnessing the aesthetic ordering and poetic will in the “we” via PLACE projects and Postcommodity.
In Tucson, AZ, I instituted the Tucson Pima Arts Council’s P.L.A.C.E. (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative, a civic engagement/placemaking platform that supports artists’ projects that address critical community issues. The 79 projects to date funded by the PLACE Initiative have shaped Tucson’s civic landscape, the civic “we”. Through art practices and activities, they engage with folks’ social concerns, personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven a sense of “belonging” within the participants and audiences they reach. A belonging that animates the “we”…a “we” that is grounded in process rather than product. A “we” that is not siloed into a privatized domain.
To understand the PLACE projects, we must view them as art practices, which weave ethics and aesthetics into engagement projects. They operate in the social spaces of dialogue and deliberation, present visions and manifestations of social cohesion, and activate democracy so as to be in the “we”. They illuminate how an aesthetics of belonging happens—on city blocks, in performance venues, classrooms, in open spaces or neighborhood centers. The PLACE Initiative creates opportunities for experiences, ones that are deliberate and grounded in arts practices designed to engage the expressive life of the civic “we”. A “we” of the undocumented, environmentalists, youth, cultural bearers, scholars, neighborhood activists, artists, elected officials, human right activists, the skeptics and the optimists. The PLACE Initiative is about building the human capital of people as placemakers. It privileges artists and their community partners undertaking projects that create agency and manifest beauty as an articulation of the plural, of the “we”.
How do “we” present ourselves as the plural—through our attendance at conferences, through our participation in making art, through our testimonies? How does art give form to belonging—through engagement practices, aesthetic experiences that shapes the Civic, the Plural and the “We”? What I’ve witnessed in PLACE projects is that the narrative of “we” is tethered to ethics, aesthetics and the social contract between artists, arts organizations and audiences. Key to understanding this contract are the ways of engagement and metaphor – and by metaphor I mean poiesis, the “bringing into being” associated with the civic, the plural, and the “we”—a “we” as radical hope that enlivens our life together.
The PLACE projects’ poiesis humanizes our life as disruptions to the forces prompted by the Great Divide to own the “we”. They further the poiesis of human development and human dignity that engagement art practices empower.
Let us turn now to the work of Postcommodity, and through them knock on the door of property rights, human rights and the “we” that is illuminated by their Repellent Fence.
Last fall I was extremely lucky to participate in Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence, a land art installation and community engagement project on the US/Mexico Border, in the small town of Douglas, Arizona/Agua Prieta, Sonora.
From their website:
“The Repellent Fence is a social collaborative project among individuals, communities, institutional organizations, publics, and sovereigns that culminate with the establishment of a large-scale temporary monument located near Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora. This 2 mile long ephemeral land-art installation is comprised of 26 tethered balloons that are each 10 feet in diameter, and float 50 feet above the desert landscape. The balloons that comprise Repellent Fence are enlarged replicas of an ineffective bird repellent product. The purpose of this monument is to bi-directionally reach across the U.S./Mexico border as a suture that stitches the peoples of the Americas together—symbolically demonstrating the interconnectedness of the western Hemisphere by recognizing the land, indigenous peoples, history, relationships, movement and communication.”
Postcommodity is an interdisciplinary arts collective comprised of Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist, whose indigenous backgrounds foreground a worldview of the “we” that is tied to the land, that they bring to their art practice. For two days, I experienced the beauty of a “we” that they framed, that was in the sky, in the desert plants, alongside the snakes and birds that exist in the Sonoran Desert that generate both thought and feeling about being in the “we” at that border moment and how the Great Divide is played out on the US/Mexico border, through the militarization of physical space, the separation of families via the notion of citizens, and the erasure of a cultural way of living that is a desert aesthetic. I gave the closing remarks on the last day of the event, entitled “The Sovereignty of Context,” which are modified here for this essay:
The “we” in Postcommodity’s work lies in the sovereignty of context, a context that is inside and outside of order…aesthetic ordering, the ordering of the nations, borders, nature.
How does one compose meaning, animate space, trouble the cultural policies of placemaking, trouble white sovereignty as manifest in the laws of property, trouble reason with eyes from the sky, the ground, the past present and future manifest in the Sonoran Desert via some Postcommodity play, noise and “we” making, como un balloon in the sky.
The poiesis of land that present itself in what it prompts, in the sphere of place, in the spatial imaginary of the “we”, that disrupts the proprietary agenda of the Great Divide.
I’ve written about a troubling condition of the creative placemaking sphere of activities and its avoidance of dealing with its vexed relationship to “placemaking”. So, let’s free creative from the grip of placemaking, for a moment, like an eye/I see you balloon.
One needs to reflect upon US history and its troubling legacy of “placemaking” in the name of a “we” manifested in acts of displacement, removal, and containment. This is a horrible history—the forced movement of American Indians from their lands and their confinement to reservations, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the urban redevelopment movement of the 1960s and 1970s that destroyed working poor and ethnic neighborhoods across American cities. How is creative placemaking different or complicit with these actions and their privatization of the “we” ambitions?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about placemaking practices and policies, relationship to property rights and to human rights. This reflection has led me to think about the Body – the body and the city, the body and sociability, the body and livability, the body in the suburbs, the body in the town, on borders, the racialized body, the body and the white spatial imaginary, the body and the “we”.
Our nation’s history of slavery, where the black body was defined as property, coupled with the enslavement of Native Americans by the Spanish Colonizers, haunts how our country understands and experiences the “we”. This legacy of treating the body as property has entered in the “placemaking” development of our locales resulting in segregated neighborhoods in our cities, of our understanding of the civic “we”, to how policing works in our cities and along borders. How is creative placemaking a human rights movement about the democratic ideal of “We the people” (as opposed to a property rights movement that cages the “we”) that can liberate the body from being treated as a property? And to answer my own question, I assert that the narrative of “we” evidenced in engagement art practice is an answer; it is the model to emulate.
I recently read an essay by the late poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton on cities and he describes how buildings occupy a city and people inhabit it. I love this distinction, in part because the placemaking narrative of “we” can be reduced to the story of buildings and the built environment and not the story of inhabitants, the narratives of the plural, the civic “we”. In the cultural and public policies entanglements of human rights and property rights linked to place and “we”, I often use the creative placekeeping term which embraces cultural memories, the stories and lives the inhabitants of a locale, the sounds of birds, of watching…this “keeping” does not align nicely with property because of its phenomenological power.
On the border and in the indigenous worldview in Southern Arizona, land is not just property to be owned but space that demands stewardship as a “we” activity, that acknowledges what is sacred in the land via vistas, ceremony, song and care. This worldview is an obligation embedded in the sovereignty of context, a form of governance that the land asserts, that shapes the “we”, that disorders the Great Divide, promoting an aesthetic ordering that lies in the sublime and/or troubling beauty…of being with image, song, gesture, pronouns, color, lyric…the inhabitants of an aesthetic of belonging.
Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence illuminates an art experience where concern, care, and imagination animate and make more meaningful our lives as “we”, our context, the “we” here on the border, and in the “we” of the Sonoran Desert.
Being in the “we” during the time of this Great Divide, I ask that one embraces Radical Hope and face the privatization of “we” with what’s in our humanistic toolbox – art, ethics and capacity. For me this work was, in a funny way, prenatally instilled in me by Mom. Mom’s “we” work was not just registering folks to vote, it was a life of engagement via the PTA, the church, her union, her presence at community meetings, the knock on our home door from folks we didn’t know seeking the advice of Señora Bea. It was about being in the “we” and assuring that the pronoun was open and inclusive, repellent to effects to close it.
 Each spring A Blade of Grass selects an annual theme by considering the projects of our Fellows, as well as prevailing trends that emerge from annual project proposals and the field at large. The theme for 2015-16 was “The Great Divide”:
“The Great Divide” captures the structural, social, economic and political divisions that our 2015 ABOG Fellows for Socially Engaged Art have identified as particularly pressing challenges for our current moment. In an unexpected look back, these Fellows are proposing that equity and inequity; access to resources, or lack thereof; and the relation between an individual and the law as we experience them today are profoundly shaped by the still dominant mythologies that were the bedrock of our nation over two hundred years ago. The Great Divide examines the legacy of Manifest Destiny, and the colonialist, expansionist ideologies that are still present in political speech but also the everyday aspects of life in the United States and beyond. Whether the issue is the post-colonial legacy, seen in the aftermath of slavery; the oppression of indigenous women in Ecuador; or geographic and economic expansion, the dissonance resulting from the clash of outdated visions with harsh reality is the focus of our Fellows’ investigations. The Great Divide acknowledges this historical legacy, while exploring the tensions it has engendered in the present, with the aim of exploring new possibilities for resolving them in the future. (www.abladeofgrass.org/discuss/themes)