The Conditions for Sustained Collaboration
For most people, the experience of daily life within urban and suburban space is divided between work and consumption. Within this dichotomy, culture is experienced as something to be consumed, a customer-server relationship. From this emerges a customer-server dynamic, our contemporary notion of leisure and the culture industries that service such an experience. In Geography of Nowhere, Kunster critiques Disney’s Tomorrowland as a vision of the future where the meaning of life is endless leisure, a notion of culture that is bought and sold and very carefully managed through the organizing principles of people’s time and perceived agency.
We have the responsibility to think of our creative ambitions from a structural perspective, perhaps as a kind of choreography of entangled institutions, and to render creative programs that account for normally externalized costs. For instance, from the main library’s perspective, all bodies that enter the doors of the library are equal, and for the bodies that manage to enter those doors, such a perspective is profound in its function but such a belief doesn’t account for the fact that not all bodies are equal. Outside the library exists a long list of circumstances and conditions that render individuals and groups unable to meet even the library’s basic notion of access. Recognizing this as their starting point, Outreach uses its limited resources to address these various needs. But whether we’re talking about notions of access to common resources such as the library, or unseen domestic labor, or even environmental pollution, the vast majority of the systems we employ to meet our current needs systematically externalize their true cost. This notion externalized costs is a critique developed by the human geographer David Harvey. He explains,
There are two kinds of costs that capital doesn’t want to bear: environmental degradation & social reproduction (who raises children, cares for the sick, etc).
The question of externalized costs is at the center of how we account for justice. The struggles we face in re-imagining the defining logic of common and everyday institutions and cultural and civic infrastructure, whether discussed as an art practice or not, represents a sizable vacuum waiting to be filled with programmed spaces where consumption and creation can mingle in the co-production of culture.
Borders, the large chain bookstore has just recently closed. For Santa Cruz (and many other towns), this means a rather large two-story space in the heart of downtown is now sitting completely empty. Just down the block an even larger building has been sitting empty over three years and further down the block numerous smaller store fronts are clearing out due to a lack of business. What is to happen within these spaces?
In certain situations landlords have passed along their empty spaces to arts organizations in hopes of instigating some form of gentrification. The complexities of such an arrangement are ripe for conflict but have produced fascinating results nonetheless.
There are other possibilities beyond the generosity of landlords. Teddy Cruz a San Diego based architect and professor who has been working with the San Diego City board that oversees the funds from the 1% law. The 1% law earmarks 1% of the budget of any development project to be used on public art. Traditionally, these funds have been used to commission large sculptures, but Cruz argues the funds could be used to create art spaces. Creating a space doesn’t necessarily mean building a new structure, rather it could involve programming existing empty spaces.
We need more urban sites where people can gather and create-consume, spending little to no money, where waste can become value, and opportunities can be generative. Such a space would produce multiple layers of measurable value for a city. Currently, many libraries are in a critical moment of re-imagining their public function. The idea of collaboration and collaborative work spaces has become a key concept within the political discussion surrounding the Santa Cruz library system as well as a more general discussion within Information Studies. While the public library system represents one possible space to realize tangible expressions of a collaborative create-consume dynamic, we are ultimately talking about collaborations that would most likely involve neighboring institutions. For instance, in the case of the former Borders store, how could the city help broker a deal with the landlord to open the doors of the space for a partnership between the university and the public library? The library representing a more generalized notion of the commons, and the university connecting research interests with local community issues.
In the dialogues surrounding the restructuring the Santa Cruz county public library, the topic of volunteers versus paid labor was a big point of discussion. One cannot expect to replace paid labor with volunteers and end up with the same results – it is as a matter of professionalism and the exchange value of labor. By resisting market conditions (and therefore profit), the library’s ability to a have a clear discussion about its services, with budget controllers and voters, is clouded by the conflicting incentives of staff, where their own self interest is pitted against providing services.
The overly simplified dichotomy of paid labor and volunteers doesn’t account for the natural spectrum of incentives people work with everyday. How do we create the means for collaboration across institutional boundaries? Consider the seemingly banal example of craigslist.com’s free section, where people living in the same area can post things they want to give away. Entire regional economies of cooperation that didn’t exist are now proliferating through simple coordination. Is it possible to leverage externalized costs to develop collaborative efforts that go beyond institutional delineations? Take your pick of issues and you will find people struggling to do more with less and, in doing so, questioning the foundational logic of their institutional design.
The concern with infrastructure is a pragmatic account of cultural production and the social body. Paulo Freire argues,
…the object of investigation is not men (as if men were anatomical fragments), but rather the thought language with which men refer to reality, the levels at which they perceive that reality, and their view of the world, in which their generative themes are found. (Freire 98)
For Freire, the dialogue of education – the moment of knowledge – is the practice of freedom. And the problem-posing methodology he sets out allows for ‘generative themes’ to emerge out of the pragmatic concerns of people’s present material situation. Freire offers a conceptual framework for understanding the social dimension of sustained collaboration, a collaboration that is actively engaged with the collaborators’ evolving needs. Are we inured to a notion of production that alienates us from the reality we are searching for? How do we negotiate the action-oriented beliefs and meta narratives that are programmed into public space?