Tuesday, January 26, 2010
"House Magic" is up near Independence Hall
I wrote this while training out of Philadelphia last week. The railscape is what you usually see in a decaying U.S. city: scrap yards of twisted rusting metal, empty factories with busted windows and walls broken open, junkyards, trash dumps and spills, vacant houses. Then there are odd, inexplicable spots. The newly roofed geodesic dome in an industrial park. A train caboose standing in a field, with washing hung on a line behind it. A community garden, and beyond it a couple of low-rising row houses with bright murals rising up their three story heights. The long strips of spray-painted names on parked railroad cars, factory walls.
Like so many other U.S. cities, Philadelphia is a place that has forgotten itself. Its rich have moved out, building their corporate monuments somewhere else, and letting the old city – the city of the 20th century and before – sink quietly into the ooze of time. Basekamp hosted the “House Magic” show in their space located only a few blocks from the historic city center. The famous 18th century revolutionary Benjamin Franklin’s house was here, and his visage and silhouette is everywhere. But it seems a quarter of the stores and buildings are empty. Lovely 19th century constructions, some very fancy, are shuttered. Many have been disfigured with “modern” style storefronts, blank, cheap attempts to clean them up at the street level. The impression of dereliction, misuse and abandonment is strong. Coffeeshop proprietors look glum. Their shops are empty at mid-morning. Again and again I am the only customer. Somewhere rich people are hustling and bustling and spending their money, building new prosperity somewhere else, and electing politicians who promise to keep their money out of public hands. But in downtown Philadelphia, there is depression, many ragged poor and beggars.
“House Magic” went up on the wall at Basekamp, where it will remain for some while (not sure how long exactly). It is part of the series “Plausible Artworlds,” a year-long project Scott Rigby has been percolating for some time now. Last week the Library of Radiant Optimism was set up with a little alcove for their “book of the month club” project, and The Public School open self-education franchise was launched in Philadelphia. So “House Magic” is in good company. Last Tuesday was the conversation, an online and in-person discussion of the social center movement that was dense and interesting. I look forward to receiving the audio and email transcript of the HM:BFC installment of this regular series so that I can post it on the “House Magic” website.
Albon Jeavon showed up at the talk from the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore, and spoke a little about the squatting movement in Philadelphia past. One of the leaders, it seems, was elected mayor! Then he sold out the movement. His brother was recently imprisoned for fraud. There are numerous squats in this city, but this was not a research trip so I did not investigate. Albon told us of LAVA, the activist-owned place that runs many programs similar to those in OSCs (occupied social centers). It is described as a “media center,” and its occupants publish the Philadelphia anarchist newspaper The Defenestrator. Hopefully Basekamp and Wooden Shoe will do more projects together. It seems like a good direction as the political landscape in the U.S. begins to darken once again. The hope invested in Obama's presidency is starting to turn sour, and the reactionaries are once again emboldened to lead the people on in their selfish, destructive course.
Things around the “House Magic” project became clearer at Basekamp, the first unpacking of the developed out-of-town suitcase version of the HM:BFC project. (Chicago was a modest trial run.)
The zine catalogue #2, which was ready at the Basekamp show as a proof, includes a good deal of NYC material, trying to draw out some connections between that well-known (if under-published) squatting scene of the 1980s and '90s and the European social center movement. They are really separated in time, the new wave of activism in EU and the long-ago bravado of the nascent U.S. anarchist movement.
Upon arriving and unpacking the “suitcase,” I discovered that I did not have the clipboard materials that go on the boards, that is, the dossiers we had laboriously assembled by downloading and translated material from OSC websites. What to do, what to do? I lost sleep Monday night. On Tuesday, I started out to remake the clipboards. In a few hours I had pretty much succeeded! And I think the material is somehow less opaque and more engaging than the “original” research materials we assembled in the spring of '09. It is certainly more current. And in doing this I realized again the nature of the HM:BFC project – it is a process exhibition, not a finished art object. I was reifying the old clipboards, even though in truth they were only a beginning of an on-going research project that is only real, only living insofar as it is continued, or even, as I had to, begun anew.
The ideal “suitcase” setup, I think, would include a workstation with an online computer and a printer so that visitor/participants could download and print out their own researches and add them to the dossiers or start new ones. Each “suitcase” show should build the whole, accreting the record of the many experiences of doing bottom-up, grassroots, disobedient, radiantly optimistic urban development using creativity and labor rather than capital. These stories are all remarkable and we need them badly.
“House Magic” will live at Basekamp for a while, and hopefully there will be film screenings and discussions around the questions that will continue and generate more material. The next “suitcase” will be in Baltimore -- probably more like March than February, since everything is moving more slowly than I thought, and now I have to go back to work. But with any luck, we will snowball out of Philly to Crab City, Baltimore, and from there build movement towards the Detroit U.S. Social Forum in June. By then I hope we have assembled also numerous U.S. dossiers reporting on the American versions of the European OSCs. They are more numerous than I think we all realize.
The Library of Radiant Optimism for Let's Re-Make the World
The Public School
Wooden Shoe Books
LAVA, the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Zone