I arrived at night and this was the first thing I saw.
The trains come rolling through Fargo headed east or west, blocking cross traffic at least once or twice every hour, around the clock. These are diesel locomotives pulling and pushing forty, fifty, seventy, ninety or more units, many of them US DOT-111 tank cars. Sometimes all of them, a mile long. With the imposing spatial occupation and muscular screech of up close movement by rail, the frequent trains bring into unusually clear view mechanical power activated by frenzied capital, announced in advance by the warning bells of crossing gates being lowered yet again. Being around this for a few days gave me a feeling similar to when I saw firsthand the forest of horizontal cranes lifting up the skyline of Shanghai around 2001, a sight that delivered a comparable mixture of awe and triteness. It is the kind of feeling that exists when a boom is routinized almost overnight.
The eastbound tank cars are presumably full. How frequently they will run in the winter is a question and given the unprecendented circumstances of this expansion I am not sure anyone knows how a Dakota winter may limit the continued growth of this traffic. Maybe there is a lot of Canadian experience in this department, but there is an energy boom up in Alberta, as well. It is likely that limits are being pushed everywhere. Now having seen the city of Fargo what are more worrisome are the inevitable floods. Since the 1997 flood—the first of what are now counted as two “hundred-year floods” from the last seventeen years—the north flowing Red River has flooded Fargo at least five times. Standing on the western banks of the river, seeing the Minnesota side nearly within a stone’s throw (close enough to feel some Minnesota envy—more on that later), it is not difficult to picture the narrow course being overrun by heavy rains and snowmelt. Judging from recent climate history, we are about to find out what happens when markets dictate that the trains run through conditions made dangerous by natural disaster.
Providing an excuse to enlarge our own carbon footprints, the Central Time Centric symposium at the Plains Art Museum assembled visitors from around the Midwest to enjoy several days in Fargo, I among them. I am not sure how many of us there were exactly. The room averged probably forty bodies but many people attended unevenly over the four days. The roster included nearly thirty participants, mostly from out of town. The symposium subtitle was Art + Social Practice in the Midwest, but it could have been called This Is What a Boom Looks Like. Or, more accurately in regards to the Bakken “play,” as the oil men call it, this is what the effects of a boom look like in a town 425 miles away from its epicenter.
Our slice of Fargo was a blissfully upbeat section of downtown, running west from the Radisson (where the museum put us up in business chain comfort) about five blocks to the Plains Art Museum and, a block or two beyond that, the Sons of Norway lodge, where we partied in the Troll Lounge until they kicked us out (in the friendliest way possible). In between is the Broadway dining, drinking, and entertainment district, complete with classic movie house marquee, quality coffeehouses, artisanal snack and sandwich shops, and Empire Tavern, a dive that a group of us closed on our last night in town. Just to keep things from getting too crazy, a federal courthouse sits just across from the museum.
This lively part of town which attracts people morning, noon, and night is bounded on the north and on the south by railroad tracks only six blocks apart. To move out of this compact and walkable part of town—for example to drive from the museum to I-94 or merely to stroll from the hotel to the river front park—one must cross the rail paths with the traffic described above. With a large student population from the three campuses of the Fargo-Moorhead area, downtown draws a party—that is what we witnessed (and contributed to) at 2 AM on Sunday morning. Crowds of drunk people stumbling into the late summer night, taking in food from the closing time vendors, being loud, and, well, drunk. You can see where I am going with this. Accidental rail deaths will happen. Or if they already are happening, then they are bound to become more frequent, what with the growth in both the train traffic and the human traffic—much of North Dakota is gaining in population, especially Fargo, where the mean age of residents is only 31, according to Mike Allmendinger (of the Kilbourne Group, who gave symposium goers an informative booster’s presentation of Fargo urban development).
Catastrophic scenarios are as easily envisioned, helped along by a growing visual record of recent oil train disasters. Put simply, massive explosions and/or spills are inevitable because enormous quantities of a highly volatile (nearly twice as combustible as the oil that comes out of Iraq), highly toxic substance are being transported overland thousands of miles basically around the clock. So-called energy independence is really a form of enslavement to a risk society, and until we move away from a hydrocarbon economy definitively, that risk inches toward a certainty. Beautiful, vibrant Fargo sits literally in disaster’s path.
At times CTC reached the open horizons of socializing and informal debate befitting the freewheeling affair that the symposium was in antiquity. But mostly I and the other participants spent our day time hours in a space ordered by rows of chairs facing a stage with four or three panelists each taking to the lectern, in scheduled “roundtables” that were in fact panels. The flaw was the lack of direction given to the presenters in advance. Instead of channeling the presenters toward developing arguments or offering ideas that are new to themselves, the organizers and roundtable moderators mostly left presenters to their own default modes. For most artists this means doing the easiest thing. So instead of a roundtable in which four different people would offer, say, four different arguments about “enduring engagement” or “the rural-urban continuum” (those being some of the roundtable topics) followed by rapid fire McLaughlin-style discussion, what we got was the procession of artists presenting samples of their work via a slide show. Five minutes was the amount of time we were asked to use. Without disciplined time keeping nearly everyone went substantially over, leaving too little room for the discussion and audience questions that followed.
Here it makes sense to compare the CTC form to what happens at the Creative Time Summit, an event that was raised repeatedly as a point of reference. Probably half the Summit presenters make use of their eight minutes as openings for an original statement, a short essay, or a concise argument; Laurie Jo Reynolds set the standard. Others rely on the tried and done, walking an audience through a portfolio. Even there they can get away with it because Creative Time does not put them into the uber-deadening format of a panel. The difference between the two approaches is obvious, and I can say from my experience as a Summit presenter that CT organizers do work with the speakers to get their thoughts rolling in the direction of delivering a TED experience rather than a portfolio slide lecture. Having individual conferences with each presenter in advance is a ton of work, but I think only the curator can play that role. Else really have the roundtable discussions be that—discussions with strong moderators, quick responses, and putting people on the spot such that differences get aired.
I would love to see CTC become an annual or bi-annual event. Regular regional gatherings could be used not only for the basics of learning what regional neighbors are doing, but to practically cultivate regional coordination on the issues that concern political artists. Facilitating the flow and temporary concentration of political cultural workers would mirror the interstate flows of capital and thus enable artists to inhabit the spatial overlap of their concerns. But regular gatherings would need to be occasions for work to get done rather than for showing one’s work. Let’s get rid of the showcase mentality and instead think or dream about some outcomes. Some handful of the same visitors could be invited from one year to the next, or every few years, so as to continue conversations over time with a changing cast of voices that also has some continuity. Colleen Sheehy and the Plains Art Museum staff demonstrated that they have the wherewithal to make a sizable gathering run without any organizational hiccups; early September is a great time of year to be in that part of the country—in the age of permanently exuberant capital, such affective concerns are not to be minimized. CTC organizers and we who feel some investment in the event as a potentially ongoing concern, should think about how to take it to the next level of seriousness. That begins with breaking down what happened.
As far as the somewhat dramatic closing discussion, Shanai Matteson and Julia Cole have already posted thoughts in which they allude to that and other episodes. I am not in whole agreement with their perspectives, but neither do I feel a need to rehash details. To me the key is how that episode will be interpreted. If people take it all at face value, and reduce the ideas and feelings that were expressed as belonging only to the names in the room, then the larger picture will have been missed. I will say here what I said then: what matters is not who got angry, who got hurt, or who made a mistake. What matters is that the conditions under which we had been brought together made such an episode not only possible, but likely. And in that respect, it had little to do with the personalities involved. CTC, as it was, could have featured an entirely different cast of participants but end up stumbling to the same tensions. Because the structure of the event would have remained the same, and the structural conditions under which we all work would have been the same, the tensions would have been the same. Addressing the structure means having to formulate a political analysis because structures are determined by what is politically possible. Changing a structure means having to act politically.
Effective political action is always a collective endeavor, beginning with the constitution of the collectivity. Therefore one political analysis of CTC starts with unpacking the royal we, a collective pronoun applied too easily when people gather under the presumption of a vaguely defined shared something (in this case, that something being, according to the event title, “social practice”) rather than for a specified issue, topic, or cause. In such circumstances the pronoun we means something a little different for probably everyone. Who belongs to what groups? And how might a new group identification be constructed, and for what purpose?
Apart from the categories of race, gender, class, and age which everybody brings to every situation as a baseline set of identifications, the CTC assemblage as a whole was most readily, but not necessarily simply, broken down by place of residence. True to the event’s subtitle “Social Practice in the Midwest,” I believe that all save for keynote speaker Rick Lowe could be meaningfully described as hailing from around the Midwest (and maybe him, too—he didn’t stay long enough for me to find out). The largest group must have been the Fargo-Moorhead crowd, though I did not bother counting. A close second would be the current and former Twin Cities residents. Of those I counted thirteen current and at least four former. After that there was the Chicago-centric cluster of six or seven, and then three or four from Saint Louis. There was at least one each from Kansas City, Iowa City, Omaha, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. Nearly all were currently based in cities. Though some participants might have been born or raised in rural areas, Jay Salinas from Reedsburg, Wisconsin, might have been the only current rural resident in attendance (and he admitted to having a Chicago past).
Then there was the overlap and exchange between circles, making clear that where one is “from” is a changing and cumulative set of identifications. For example, Scott Stulen, who traveled from Indianapolis to Fargo, had just relocated to Indy from Minneapolis in the last year or so. Colleen Sheehy herself splits time between Fargo and Minneapolis. I can only describe the Chicago-centric grouping as such because these are people who learned of each other through networks centered in Chicago; at least that is how I got to know them all. But most at CTC whom I put into the Chicago-centric category now live in other cities (Nicolas Lampert in Milwaukee, Daniel Tucker in Philadelphia, Sam Gould in Minneapolis, myself in Madison).
The geographical groupings allowed for a productive way to think through the conference dynamics. The contentious moments mostly centered around criticisms of irresponsible or exploitative practices by white artists in relation to communities of color and/or low income people, a criticism wearily launched by some of the people of color in attendance. The problem of privileged artists rewarded for working in or with a community branded as disadvantaged happens in a lot of different places and entails a set of ethical questions that all artists working in conjuction with public participation must consider. But patterns manifest differently depending on local conditions, especially as pertains to funding structures and the economics of public art, which changes the problems facing both artists and the communities they work in.
Location-specific contexts became evident in these conversations, but only indirectly. Reading between the lines of the live-action cataloguing of projects (which is essentially what the panels were), over the course of three days I perceived a divide between those working in the Minneapolis context and everyone else. A contrasting context was provided by the Chicago-centric cluster, mainly because that was the only geographical grouping also large enough to color the conversations from a common experience of place. Notice that I am not speaking of site specificity. What I sensed was something more like localism or membership in “scenes,”—contexts defined by urban centers, and therefore shared by all the people in that place, even for individuals occupying differing positions of status or social location.
One example of this happened during the Rural-Urban Continuum roundtable. The discussants had just finished their introductions. Much of the work had in common the pattern of artists working on “service” or participation projects in neighborhoods or communities in which they themselves do not reside and therefore do not belong. In response Chaun Webster of North Minneapolis argued that communities—particularly black communities—perceived as marginal from the vantage point of those inhabiting the position of a privileged cosmopolitan white artist are in fact often significantly self-sufficient, and in possession of substantive forms of creativity long predating the arrival of those artists. His further criticism was that many of these artists—perhaps including by implication the artists sitting on the all-white, all-male panel—get rewarded for their interaction with these communities while the community members themselves are recognized as nothing but passive dependents, thereby cloaking a contemporary white man’s burden mentality in a new social practice guise.
Then, on a panel the next day Webster himself complained about “million dollar” grants being awarded to arts non-profits that have only recently discovered the North Minneapolis communities that have existed for decades beyond the sightlines of arts funding. I cannot confirm the veracity behind the discontent (and I might be remembering the remark wrong), but the mere mention of a million-dollar grant made it obvious that the Minneapolis/Minnesota context is not the Milwaukee/Wisconsin context, not the Madison context, and certainly not the Chicago context. The meaningful difference has to do with not only the relative wealth of arts funding in Minneapolis but also the values advanced by that funding. Taking Webster’s criticism as a guidepost, some of the arts funding bodies of Minneapolis reward artists who do exactly what he complained about, and, according to some of the Minneapolitans I spoke to, have begun to fund such work through formalized categories using descriptors such as “community engagement,” “public participation,” “place-making,” and “social practice.”
I do not have firsthand knowledge of these trends in Minneapolis and anybody who does is welcome to fill in the details. What I do know is that back when I lived in Minneapolis (it was nearly twenty-five years ago; I counted as one of the former Minneapolitans in attendance) the Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship award was $30k. When I moved to Chicago the better part of a decade later the Driehaus Foundation artist award, the preeminent unrestricted individual artist award in a much larger city, amounted to only $10k. And then the program was ended altogether, by which time the Bush fellowship was up to $60k (and now stands at $100k). Though open to artists from the Dakotas, the vast majority of Bush fellows are Minnesotans. I mentioned Minnesota envy. That is what we experience in Wisconsin, where there is no equivalent foundation support and governor Scott Walker downgraded public support for arts and culture by putting the Wisconsin Arts Board, formerly a stand alone agency, under the administrative control of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. In that reorganization the individual artist fellowship program was suspended indefinitely.
It may be perverse to admit this, but my envy was relieved somewhat by the exchanges I witnessed in Fargo. With some carrots an order of magnitude larger than what are available elsewhere around the Midwest, the allocation of such wealth produces prejudices that necessarily frame the work. Criticisms such as Webster’s may have purchase in Chicago, Milwaukee, or even Madison, which most certainly suffers from a similar tendency toward liberal paternalism in relation to communities of color. But let’s face it, the buying power hardly compares and therefore the calculus of privilege is somewhat different.
As for the contextual foil, Rural-Urban Continuum panelist Nicolas Lampert exemplified the mentality often found in Chicago-centric art workers, including those present. Unlike some of the participants made defensive by Webster’s fault-finding, Lampert answered the criticism by matter-of-factly stating that in Milwaukee all public art strategies, all political activism, and practically all social interactions are defined by factors of race, that the color line is a colonial reality in Milwaukee that nobody can deny. This was a response as a post-facto pre-emption, admitting to the charges with a sort of “Yes. And….?” In this way it was typical of a critical art ethos cultivated under the ruthless conditions of neoliberal Chicago, one that takes imperialism as an extant project and common enemy. Closer to the ground, Jim Duignan, principal organizer of the Stockyard Institute, stood as proof that the white male position in the Chicago context is embedded in a layered history of relative privilege that in his case can only be unpacked and reconfigured by doing the exact opposite of what Webster’s criticism might suggest—ie by intimately attaching Duignan’s own practice and personal relationships to the lives of the youth color who are being raised on the same Chicago streets he ran a generation earlier, rather than distancing his work from those communities. On the whole, it seems to me that compared to the Minneapolis context, socially and politically engaged artists face a kind of desperation and lack of support in Chicago that by necessity force an erosion of expected social barriers, at least in the best examples of creative response. (Elsewhere I’ve noted that conditions for political artists in Chicago are also at a crossroads, largely due to the capitalization of social practice happening there, too, mostly under the auspices of academe.)
I am not arguing for a reduction of public and massive foundation support at all; the civilized treatment of arts and culture in Minnesota is in so many ways laudable and right-minded. But the way the support is doled out and framed tends to circumscribe the focus and nature of discontent—precisely as it is designed to do, if you ask radical artists who work in European social democracies. This makes it all the more important for conferences to shift focus to problems of structure rather than content or individually authored projects. As far as who gets to do the speaking, who gets the featured slots at events like Central Time Centric, who gets the external recognition—this is a larger problem against which gatherings such CTC also ought to be working. Lesser known folks must be included, and that means cultivating them when they cannot be found. It is more labor, surely, and a longer term commitment for the organizers, but in the end for the remaking of structures that support careers more than social movements, this must be the direction. Otherwise, CTC will only be noted as lines on resumes—expressions of individual ambition—as opposed to the collective ambition of making a new social history.
To sum it up: let’s do this again, but next time let’s focus on where people live and work, so as to hammer out theories of shared experience and common conditions—so needed by people working around the Midwest as the conference organizers undoubtedly know. The social then becomes the ground on which the individually authored projects stand. Let’s counter the tendency to foreground the artist’s work, which leads instead to the false idea of an authored sociality rather than the fact of shared conditions.
Two short notes to end this long (but still incomplete) report. First is, no matter all of the above, some projects still stand out. For me on this trip, it was the Plants for Patients project coordinated by artist and fabulous reproductive freedom activist Meg Roberts. Working within the context of abortion provision in ultra-conservative North Dakota, Roberts has designed a simple and sensitive work-around to the problem of dehumanization in the polarized contest around abortion access. Check it out.
And, finally, on our way out of town, anxious to get back to our families after four days away, Sam Gould and I got caught by—what else?—a train of loaded tank cars. Or rather, two of them. Perfect.