A dear friend has directed my attention to Matt Price’s “Revenge of the Beaver,” an essay that imagines how organizational environmental activism in Canada might become more effective. The last few months have afforded plenty occasions for such critical reflection, such as Canada’s withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol; fervent debates around the safety and long-term effects of the Keystone XL pipeline; and the very recent hysteria, on behalf of the Canadian government, around the European Union’s fuel-quality directive. Price’s proposal, a bit old-fashioned yet radical still, is face-to-face engagement. Given our preponderance toward social media, especially as an organizational tool, it is easy to overestimate its value. Stories about the potency of social media are common, and really, you probably don’t have to look much further than your friend’s birthday party or a gallery opening to see the effects of what a Facebook event invitation can do. But the reason why people show up for the celebration or the exhibition is probably more the result of intimacy than marketing. The Facebook event is effective because of a relationship that happens elsewhere, out there in the world.
While Price is speaking about the potential to rebuild and re-imagine environmental policy, his suggestions reach beyond concerns about global warming and propose a model for anyone (or any organization) working toward social change more generally. I consider myself part of a school of thought that believes art is an ethical ordering of relationships through optics. It’s about inciting the potential to change the way we live. On these grounds, I believe that art is another mechanism of social change, much like governmental policies. Reading through Price’s essay, I was not surprised to identify with many of the concerns he was raising.
For instance, many environmental NGOs, like many ARCs, are non-profit and rely heavily on grants from funding bodies who have their own mandates. Price rightly picks out a consequence of this type of funding: “Larger grants for our work come from foundations and other donors who are used to discreet [project-based] funding…Or, their drive towards being an effective funder backfires by putting narrow criteria around specific products and issues in the name of accountability, when face-to face organizing is usually more general, slow, and values driven. If funders really want to be effective with their money, they’d invest in longer term power building, in organizations that are physically getting out there and building their supporter base.” In the case of art, the impact of an exhibition is not always immediate, nor necessarily wide-spread, but still has the potential to be profound for the one person, or ten (or a hundred) people, who are either inspired or outraged by it. How can this be quantified? What is this worth? How can isolated experiences of art feed back into the machine of its presentation?
The scourge of bureaucracy, familiar to so many artists and cultural workers, is equally felt in other fields. This is no surprise. This is what it means to be in the world today, but Price reminds us what is lost in the unending shuffle of papers: “Many of us have spent hours and days working on organizational visions, mission statements, and org charts. While helpful for clarity, this can also get in the way of being effective…If what we do is to make change…then why aren’t we more open to changing ourselves too, so that we can achieve our mission?” It’s a provocative question. State funding of arts and culture will not be around forever, and so how else can art production and presentation situate itself, so as to not rely so heavily on grants, so as to plan longer term, so as to operate at arms length from financial support and to maintain a criticality toward social norms?
To take Price’s suggestions seriously, the development of a network of supporters (hard-earned through face-to-face organizing) will do exactly that: support the concerns that connect them. Perhaps patronage is a model of this, familiar to the arts, but I imagine that whatever rises up in the vacuum of state support for the arts will bear only a passing resemblance to this old form. And here’s where, maybe, social media enters back into the conversation, as the opportunity to gather support from these networks. Kickstarter provides just one example (and Portlandia provides a hilarious example of how real-world relationships come back into play). The thing about this kind of support is that it requires a clear articulation of the project’s motivation. People either feel it is relevant or not; those who gather around a project are engaged in its ideas. Which means that make-work projects (you know the ones, you know the centres) probably won’t get funded, which is alright by me.