Saturday, March 31, 2007

It's the Season of Conferences

Or, at least, it feels like a season, there are so many in the next couple of months - and i'd like to go to all of 'em. Conferences are where we get to do some important collective thinking, some community building, some celebrating. It is always my hope and ideal that conferences committed to social justice, popular education, resisting oppression and so on will also imagine-embody-enact the very worlds we are trying to bringing into existence - walk the talk, as it were. Alas. Ideal's are, as ever, hard to realize. As Carl Schurz said: "Ideals are like the stars. We never reach them, but we chart our course by them."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My "fifteen minutes" are counting down

I had three calls from family today and a few e-mails from friends all pleased to see the article in today's Toronto Star that quotes me about the storytelling show The Spadina Expressway Affair that i'm doing this Saturday. There's a lovely photo of me in the print edition as well.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I Met the Walrus

I Met the Walrus is a fun thing from the annals of rock 'n roll history. I love the animation and can't wait to see the whole thing. The trailer alone is outstanding.

Joyce Little's designs are a hit

Well, as some of you know, my sweety J'net was in Toronto last week representing the work of her friend, Tseshaht designer Joyce Little. It was a very successful event and some big name buyers have expressed interest in Joyce's work. I know little about the world of fashion, as many of you can guess. And it's probably hard for you to imagine me sitting along a fashion runway watching models strut and pose. But that's what i was doing last week as J'net and Fashion Nation introduced Joyce's stuff to the wide world of fashion during L'Oreal's International Fashion Week. You can see the pieces that were featured on Fashion Nation's website here. And J'net was in the news as well and did a very good interview with Fashion Television and you can watch that video here. The piece on Fashion Nation starts at about one minute twelve seconds into the piece and includes a number of Joyce's pieces as well as the interview with J'net. The image with this blog post is J'net modelling one of Joyce's pieces.

Public Space

Once two neighbours fell to arguing over which owned a particular piece of land. Their argument threatened to grow into a bitter quarrel as each was convinced that he owned the land over which they fought. Another neighbour suggested that they go and ask their rabbi for advice. This they did and each man presented to the rabbi his case and his proof for ownership of the land. The rabbi listened to each man and said, “you both have good cases, good proof and you are both correct. I cannot decide. Let us go to the land you are arguing over.” Once they arrived on the disputed land the rabbi got down on his hands and knees and put his ear to the ground. He stayed in this position for some time and then he stood up. “Gentlemen, I have listened to the land. And the land says that it belongs to neither of you. Rather it says that you belong to the land.”

I’m doing a show this Saturday as part of Fabled City (part of the 29th Annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling) about the Stop the Spadina Expressway struggle of the 1960s. I was an odd beneficiary of this struggle as I lived in wonderful house on Spadina Rd. in the early 90s that would have been destroyed by the grandiose dreams of those techno-besotted urban planners of the 1950s and 60s who seemed to take the Jetsons a little too literally. And this has me thinking about public and private space and some of the contemporary activism in Toronto and around the world that is advocating for the common good and against the corporatization/privatization of the whole bloody world.

Four of the newest institutions in this ancient struggle include:

The current issue of The Eye Weekly poses the question Is The Movement For Sale? featuring Newmindspace’s playgroundification of urban spaces (you may remember something about the pillow fight in Yonge-Dundas Square). While the Eye Weekly piece skirts too quickly over what the "public space movement" is and just what it is that might be "up for sale" (as well as some misrepresenting some things - see their letters column sometime this week), it does foreground the relationship between public space activism and capitalist culture.

I am ambivalent about things like public pillow fights, urban capture the flag, flash mobs, raves and even le parkour (though this last one is pretty bloody cool - ahhh, the adolescent in me still lives a bit). I am simultaneously appreciative and skeptical about the carnivalesque nature of such things. On the plus side they disrupt our unquestioned common sense about how to use both public and private space; and insurgent, performative, playful occupying of the physical and imagined landscapes just might lead to a richer citizen participation in the daily life of a city. However, my skeptical, malcontent self knows that carnivalesque tactics - or call 'em trickster strategies - are, by their nature (or is it design) hard to control. There is no way to guarantee that the spaces (or political moments) that they open up will be used for good and not for evil (okay... sometimes i talk like a comic book - blame it on my mis-spent, if geeky, youth).

The Eye Weekly article sets up some volatile, and ultimately unhelpful, dichotomies: public space activism as principled and pure (i.e. free from the taint of crass commercialism) vs selling out to the ubiquitous marketing machine; and political activism vs having fun. But, while there's always a bit of truth in such simplistic contrasts, the world is way messier than these common equations. Focusing on one institution's choices (and, in this case, it's actually the individuals who co-founded the institution who are being singled out) Whether Newmindspace co-founders Lori Kufner and Kevin Bracken are "selling out"is hardly an indicator of movement trends. With capitalism as the dominant economy, it's inevitable that the experience that individuals accrue in social movement work will eventually be bank-able. And what are individuals to do in an economy that is so unforgiving (i just got word of the demise of another non-profit IMPACS, who are declaring bankruptcy).

Planning Action members Deb Cowen and Sue Bunce name the issues well in a response letter that should be printed in Eye Weekly by now:
But more important than a moral debate about what kind of fun we engage in and how ?diverse? that sense of fun isn?t, public space activists might revisit their own assumptions about what constitutes a ?public space? problem to begin with. Public space has never been about comfort and joy except for the chosen few. Tightly tethered to social norms, public space has historically been a site of exclusion as much as inclusion. If we think city space through the experiences of different social subjects, we might see efforts to fight racialized police violence, to provide sanctuary for undocumented people, or to fund daycare spaces as struggles for public space par excellence. It is not surprising that many of these efforts emerge out of communities of colour, organized by working people. This is not a critique of fun.

The Eye Weekly article ends on a quote from Newmindspace co-founder Lori Kufner who says, "Our events aren't about anything except for having fun and reclaiming public space and meeting new people." And it is this that i have the hardest time with. Not to read too much into Lori's understanding from one quote, but it is this type of sentiment, common enough, that gives me the most grief. For in a world of such vast inequalities (even in our relatively gentler welfare economy country) i don't think that such fun can be had except based on privilege and oftentimes at someone's (with less privilege) expense.

Nor is it the case that i don't believe in fun. But, for the sake of argument, i would contrast fun with pleasure. If , for a moment, we say that "fun" names the adolescent, naive characteristic of life (something we are all entitled to live through for a time), then "pleasure" could name something more, the kind of fun that can be had when one's experience of life, depth/breadth of character and one's increased mindfullness of one's inter-relation with all things has expanded one's capacity for containing joy. I am clumsily referring to what Barbara Ehrenreich calls a "politics of pleasure" in an article she wrote titled Was it Good For You (The Progressive, 1999) and in which she writes:

Oppression is not the sole factor pushing people into activism, and even the most egregiously oppressed people have often expressed their rebellion in a way that looked, to their oppressors, like mindless hedonism. European peasants looted bakeries and manor houses, eating and drinking as they went. Caribbean slaves and French villagers used carnivals, with their masks and public processions, as occasions for revolt. In this country, slaves sometimes warmed up for uprisings with song and "ring shouts." Considering this venerable tradition of combining pleasure and politics, only the most pinched Puritanical soul could insist that political activism be an exercise in deferred gratification.

It's not just "the sixties" raising its impish head here. Yes, that decade was famously fun: Abbie Hoffman wrote (and largely lived) Revolution for the Hell of It. French radicals ran in the streets shouting, "All Power to the Imagination!" American campus activists made love, not war, and probably did as much recruiting at all-night dance parties as at teach-ins--not just opportunistically, but because we truly believed that the id could be a reliable guide to social change. But the sixties weren't all sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll. Most of the time, we were doing the same kinds of hard work activists have always done: Going patiently from door to door, bickering over the wording of leaflets, organizing teach-ins and rallies. In fact, most of the reputed political fun of the sixties was the same kind of "fun" no doubt experienced by activists in the thirties or teens: The thrill of solidarity, of marching and chanting together, of being caught up in a great transcendent cause, "larger than ourselves."

And i agree with her conclusion:

But on the whole, we have barely begun to explore the politics of pleasure. For all the time spent on "principles of unity" and structures of leadership, we know hardly anything about how to make the struggle something that people might, in large numbers, actually want to join.

I do believe in working together and think that there is much to be learned by combining the playfulness that Newmindspace represents with the community organizing and intellectual smarts of groups like TPSC and Planning Action and others. Ahhh, but that is tricky, of course. As it means tolerating if not accepting big differences. As dian marino, a dear friend, used to say, the necessary working in coalition that we must do in social change work is about "keeping difficult company".

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I am worth 4, the other 3 are in bed

Here's an image that Clara just sent me from the struggle for the rights of CFS sufferers in Spain. The sign says "I am worth 4, the other 3 are in bed."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Victory for Popular Struggle

My friend Clara, as some of you know, is both a sufferer of and an activist on chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) which is a pernicious disease that affects many bodily systems, especially the immune system. Diagnosing it and treating it does not fit easily into contemporary medical practice and ideology and thus goes ignored, misunderstood and/or stigmatized rather than treated. Clara is one of the leaders in a Spanish popular movement that has been struggling for the rights of people who live with CFS and the related disease fibromyalgia. As you can see from Clara's letter below, the Catalan parliament has responded to popular pressure and approved a process that will result in legislative change.

Dear friends and colleagues far and near,

Yesterday, the Catalan Parlament accepted the Popular Legislative Initiative on Chronic FAtigue Syndrome/ME and Fibromialgia (FM), presented by representatives from 80% of the people with CFS/ME or FM who are in associations in Catalonia. This acceptance is the first step towards a world-first: a law that would ensure proper servicies for people with CFS/ME and FM and a fair treatment by medical inspectors. Here is the news item in the Catalan Parlament's home page

No one thought that a group of ill people like us, in a not so user-friendly country would be able to pull this off. So we are all very happy and it is a big boost for the CFS/ME and FM community here.

Now that it has been accepted, the signature gathering can begin. We need 50,000 signatures and we have a team of 150 signature-collection coordinators ("fedetarios") ready to roll.

Once the signatures are gathered, the law will be discussed in parlament and voted. This will probably take place in the fall.

Up to now, it has been a lot of work for us sick folks: writing the law and the document to justify each article of the law (thank you to all of you who sent me the necessary bibliography!), working with all the associations to create unity and the much needed empowerment, meeting with all political groups and sub groups (we have the support of all the political parties, except, of course, the party that runs the Health Ministry), campaigning to recruit signature coordinators, meetings with unions, women's groups others.

It has not been easy as we are presenting a proposed law that puts totally into question the goverment's plan to keep CFS/ME and FM solely in Primary Health Care (where most doctors do not believe these illnesses exist or do not want to work with them and are not allowed to do any relevant tests), while our law, amongst other things, demands CFS-FM units. So we have had (and continue) to deal with pressures, intimidations, etc, from goverment and goverment-related organizations. We are also having to deal with the two foundations (one run by the goverment party, the other run by businessmen) who, up to now, had managed to control and manipulate the CFS and FM associations in CAtalonia and create division. Encouraging the associations to be independent and to create unity has been hard but the most rewarding work.

The documents (the law, the justification document and other documents) are avaliable in Catalan and some in Spanish. If anyone is interested in receiving them, let us know.

Clara Valverde
for the Promoting Commission of the
CFS/ME-FM Popular Legislative Initiative
Catalonia, Spain

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Reminding Myself Why i Love to Make Art

Making murals in the popular education class these past couple of weeks i am reminded of my work with dian marino in the early nineties. She had a teacher who was a wonderful fount of wisdom about creativity and art. Here's some words from Corita Kent:

When you are not separate from the creative process, time ceases to exist. You might start to feel tired and suddenly realize that much time has passed. It isn't necessarily a happy time - and may be very difficult to start if it is a job or an obligation. But if' you start with all the concrete needs and proceed in a thorough way - the creative process will take over and you will forget whether it is work or play. Working in the here and now is one of the most uncontaminated ways to work.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Fierce Light - Video Diary 4 (Nairobi, Kenya)

This is one of a number of Velcrow Ripper's video diaries of the World Social Forum held this past January in Nairobi, Kenya. As some of you know i was in Nairobi in December though i could could not stay on to take part in the WSF. Alas. Energetic, wonderful, contradictory, festive, problematic - it sounds like it was the usual "carnival" of high-spirited resistance to the global corporate monoculture. Check out Velcrow's other diaries and more of his work here on YouTube.