Roving Eye: Austerities


I just returned from my honeymoon in Barcelona to the sticky streets of my hometown, Philadelphia. My wife and I skipped the madcap opening of the Venice Biennale, instead looking for peace in the phenomenal Catalonian city-which, of course, is experiencing major political upheaval, and had simultaneously won a premiere league football championship over Manchester United. With 40% of citizens between 18–24 unemployed, Spain has erupted, like Greece, into a full-on brawl as the state considers austerity measures.

The massive funding cuts hitting the European Union replicate structural privatizations unleashed in this country under Reagan and Clinton. These “austerity” measures will end support for some of the most interesting non-commodity driven art forms. Over the course of our week-and-a-half stay, Plaza Catalunya, Barcelona’s central plaza, erupted into a Burning Man-style village, comprising tents for alternative healing, feminist policies, LGBT issues, union solidarity, sustainability and childcare. It was a true phenomenon of social practice with a peculiar, decentralized organization and shanty architecture.

The comedian David Cross once joked that if terrorists really bombed countries because they hated freedom, the first place they would bomb would be Holland. In the Netherlands, the picture of state funding par excellence, cuts threaten the existence of such historically important institutions as the archive and the residency program RijksAkadamie.

In the United States, we have been privatized for so long that many have forgotten the benefits of state and federal funding. With the NEA operating with an annual budget of a measly $150 million a year, organizations across the United States have come to rely on the private sector as either commercial entities or that strange beast of mixed and resourceful funding, non-profits.

If further austerity comes to the United States, we should have hope for the innovation of scrappy grassroots organizations. I was fortunate enough to attend the triannual Warhol Initiative Convening, where the 86 arts organizations and magazines funded by the Foundation’s ten-year grants met to discuss what they’ve been up to.

What impressed me the most was the programming at vibrant, quirky and visionary artist-initiated non-profits. Rick Lowe from Project Row Houses and Edgar Arceneaux of theWatts Towers Project each discussed their community-based housing work. And I was glad to hear in detail about other small non-profits producing social programming: Mark Allen’s Machine Project in Los Angeles, a storefront for performance and education, and Sean Dockray at Telic Arts Exchange, who organizes traveling new media shows. Meanwhile, a trio of idea-driven organizations is moving to Greenpoint, Brooklyn-Public School, Triple Canopy and Light Industries. In Greensborough, North Carolina, there’s the strange OCD home and residency the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative; in York, Alabama (population 1500), the Coleman Center for the Arts‘ Shana Berger and Nathan Purath promulgate social change through local art.

And last Thursday, with my employer Creative Time, I organized a talk with theorist/activist Brian Holmes. He started by describing the Tucuman Art Movement. Founded in 1968 in Argentina, where life under dictatorship inspired avant-garde artist collectives and political graffiti. He then discussed the effects of Post-Fordism (the rise of mass customization in tandem with mass production) on activism and art, using the term “event work” to describe practices whose deep, research-based cultural activism take manifold forms.

It was an inspiring historical assessment, one that seems to describe a growing movement I witnessed in the protests in Spain and among the weird and art-driven, socially engaged non-profits working worldwide, even during an austere era.