Chelsea Haines: Tell me a little bit about how the Waffle Shop originated.
Jon Rubin: When I first got to Pittsburgh I took on this position at Carnegie Mellon University, in an area which was called “Art and Context” at the time. It was a kind of unique idea—they had it for almost 20 years before I arrived, and the focus was to look at art in the public realm in one way or another, and over the years it had its ebbs and flows. When I arrived it pretty much consisted of just one mandatory class offered for the undergrads and another one for the grads called “Community Affiliation,” which just made me, and the grad students, cringe. My very first semester I recognized that the undergrads didn’t want to take the Art-in-Context class because they just thought of it as forced community service, which seemed to me like such an incredibly narrow definition. So, I proposed that we offer a host of possible classes that they could take, each as different as the next, taught by any faculty member who had an interest. The only requirement was that the classes in some way immersed the students in the study and production of projects that responded to or created specific public contexts and audiences. We also decided to change the name to “Contextual Practice” and, with an expanded curriculum, add it as an area of study within the art school. After my arrival, fresh off the freedom of the ISA, I was really reticent to just house my teaching in the basement of a campus building, so I started looking for alternatives within the city, which is how I started the Storefront Project which led to the Waffle Shop. Continue reading
In the first of a two-part recount, Pittsburgh-based artist Jon Rubin chronicles the development of his practice, starting from his time as a graduate student studying under Suzanne Lacy at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco through to the creation and demise of The Independent School of Art, the quasi-institution he ran from 2005 to 2007 in the Bay area. Through this narrative, Rubin’s thoughts on and engagement with concerns across the field of social practice becomes clear through the descriptions of the odd biographies, institutional models, transparent artist economies, and everyday performances he directs through his projects. — Chelsea Haines
I went to graduate school at the California College of Arts and Crafts (1991-93) while Suzanne Lacy was teaching there and she had a powerful presence on campus. I studied with her and Larry Sultan, who was my mentor and later collaborator as well. At the time, I was really interested in exploring the flexible nature of telling true stories and Larry was really informative about that. He was publishing a book about his parents, called Pictures from Home, and while it seemed like a kind of biographical account of his family it was really a transparent projection of his own fears and desires. The book had several quotes from his parents about how they felt – Larry was manipulating and staging their identities and they didn’t feel at all like the people that were depicted in the photographs. Obviously, including their contradictions to his images created a more complex way to look at portraiture and biography. Larry and I had a lot of talks about the ethics of staging what seemed like true stories, and watching him and Suzanne and seeing how highly orchestrated their projects was actually very liberating and exciting to me at the time.
I also met Harrell Fletcher, who was in the graduate program as well. We started to share similar interests and influences, and so kind of accidentally developed a collaborative practice that extended for about six or seven years beyond school. One of the first projects we did was created a project called Gallery HERE that only showed work we made about people who lived in the neighborhood directly around the gallery space. We were interested in this really tight loop of subject and audience and we created tons of shows, many of them abject failures, but learned more in the year and a half of running this project than in all of our time in grad school. We were cobbling together a practice by playfully interrogating the things that were right in front of us. We had a strong belief that there were no “important” places or people, that wherever we found ourselves was the spot to be, and whoever we met was a perfect subject for an exhibition. Continue reading
Exhibition and Display
By the time of the exhibition’s opening, the portion of the site focusing on the task force report had already been live for some time. But during the weeks leading up to the exhibition, we shifted into more of a post-production stage as opposed to the previous stage of field work. I assembled a team of 10 undergraduate film students to edit the interviews. They were directed towards editing short topical segments rather then a linear edit of the conversation. Thematic connections between the different portions of conversation were then linked together through the site. The curating of the material took place by prioritizing certain thematic points over others. Cat’s interview was central to how the interviews were curated.
From the surface level, all clips immediately available had an explicit relationship to Outreach services, but the more tangential portions of their interview are still available if the user is interested in any one individual or situation. For instance, Larry is a senior citizen and patron of the bookmobile, who is full of interesting stories about being a math teacher and actively organizing the desegregation of his school district. Currently with limited mobility issues, Larry’s relationship to the bookmobile articulated a very important dimension of Outreach services, but this is only a small percentage of his interview. So for the Outreach report, only that small section is available from the initial surface level, but if one wanted to dive into Larry’s stories and philosophy on life and death, one can easy find it. Rather then cutting this material out, we folded it into the background, allowing the immediate presentation to have more thematic focus while still making the tangential narratives available to users. Currently this is hardcoded into the site, meaning the thematic focus is static. However, one could easily imagine a more dynamic system that could re-organize annotated archival material to form narrative presentations for any number of thematic issues. Such a system would require much more involved annotation of archived interviews. Continue reading
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).
At the end of our time together, Bob offered me a glass of water and another chocolate. Between the interview with Bob and the meetings with the current outreach staff, it became clear that Catherine Steele was central to understanding Outreach. Establishing contact and arranging a meeting time with Catherine proved to be much slower then any of the other interviews or meetings – after roughly six weeks of correspondence, we managed to set a time to meet. On my way to her house I suspected it would be an important encounter but I didn’t understand how it would help tease out the many narratives and layers of meaning inherent to outreach and the current situation.
When Catherine was a teenager she had the opportunity to live in Mexico for one year. She spent the year working with an organization (comparable to the Peace Corp) whose main project was to help deal with a rat infestation in a series of villages located along a valley. Over the course of a year, she befriended a group of girls her age and the group of them began a grassroots library project: traveling between village delivering boxes of books and informational pamphlets.
After returning to the U.S., she dropped in and out of university, hitchhiking across the Southwest and Southeast, and eventually completely a degree in Spanish. Within a couple weeks of finishing her studies, Catherine met a librarian and the encounter reminded her of her side project in Mexico. Soon after, Catherine decided to attend UCLA to study library sciences. During her studies, she met a librarian working out of Venice Beach who transferred his desk assignment to his assistant and started walking out into the neighborhoods, noticing all the people working on cars. Statistically, people living in the neighborhood had three to four cars, but in practice most people were piecing together one working car out of a collection of broken cars. So, the librarian started walking out into the neighborhoods with crates of auto manuals, handing them out to the folks working on the cars.
What was really new in that decade [1970s] was going to farm labor camps and low income communities, going to people that were homebound and couldn’t get to a library. It was new, [serving the] …people that were disenfranchised, not part of the system, so that combined with these other things inspired me to go in this direction, to work with outreach and go beyond the walls of the library building. I’ve joked that in another life I may have been a nun or missionary, but in this life I was a librarian. (Steele)
Situated Knowledge and the Conditions for this Collaboration
Initially, we began doing research on land-use politics of the Santa Cruz region. This involved secondary research of local history archives – reading books, newspapers, maps, and photos. During this period, we were very open-ended and didn’t know exactly where things were headed.
The particulars of Santa Cruz’s political history involve a coalition of socialist-feminists, socialist-welfare, and environmentalists who found common ground surrounding issues of neighborhood environmental justice. There has been fighting within this coalition between those that hold a zero-growth position, opposing any and all development, and those that are open to select development projects, protecting revenue and jobs. In the late 1970s, the coalition won two of the seven seats on the city council. Within five years they would have all seven seats, temporarily dismantling the growth coalition that had many plans for developing the region to mirror southern California’s suburban sprawl. It is during this period that members of the coalition are credited for getting more land protected under their grant-writing then any other individuals in the history of the US. California agriculture –a $36-billion-a-year industry  – became a critical political device in helping to establish an anti-development direction for the area that could simultaneously provide jobs and food security for the region. The coalition crafted tax laws to make land affordable for farmers and subsidized the cost of agricultural water.
We targeted neighborhoods that have community gardens and began walking along the streets, interviewing people we encountered. The interviews were recorded as audio files and later transcribed, along with photos. Eventually, we made postcards for a number of interviews and redistributed them into the neighborhoods where the interviews took place. The postcards directed people to a webpage on the Circulation of Knowledge archive website where they could listen or read the interviews that happened in their neighborhood. Additional material from the secondary research was also made available on the website.
Walking around the neighborhoods eventually led us to collaborate with one of the smaller neighborhood branches of the Santa Cruz county library system – the Garfield Park Public Library. The Garfield branch is one of the older libraries in the area; it was built with a $3,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation in 1914 and opened its doors in July 1915. We spent a week in the one-room library, documenting patrons reading and studying. Next, we installed a video projector and screen outside on the front lawn, showing the footage. While some might read the piece as being about surveillance, I was thinking more about bringing the hidden into view –about the dynamic relationship between patrons and textual practices, and about the library as system and civic institution that offers a set of conditions for negotiating knowledge. During the installation, we had conversations with the librarians, library staff, and patrons about the current state of the Santa Cruz county library system and more general conversations about the shifting role and function of public libraries. It was while working at the Garfield Branch that my theoretical focus shifted from questions of land-use politics to questions of cultural and civic infrastructure.
Joint Powers Board, Rhetoric and the Institution
It turns out that, for the past several decades, the Santa Cruz county library system has gone through a five-to-seven-year cycle of political and economic battles. In 2005, a series of plans to cut services and small branches was released. There was enough public outrage at the time that the board actually pushed in the other direction and voted to make it a cornerstone of their policy to never close branches. Like clockwork, almost exactly six years later and in the middle of our collaboration with outreach, another such moment of political, ostensibly budgetary, tension arose. A year and a half earlier, the board commissioned a task force with the job of developing several financially sustainable models for the library. In early February of 2011, the report was released – of the four options, two involved closing smaller neighborhood branches. Very quickly community organizers rallied their neighborhoods and what followed was a series of impassioned public hearings with hundreds of concerned citizens expressing their thoughts and feelings.
Even through the intentionally misleading and evasive rhetoric from both the public and the board, it was clear from the beginning that a line in the sand was being drawn: the board was split in its opinion. What initially surprised me, yet makes sense in hindsight, was that the librarians and library staff were almost unanimously in support of cutting branches. While there was much vague rhetoric surrounding the shifting role of technology to justify the closing of branches, the most pragmatic concern pushing the library staff’s agenda was job security and maintaining a certain standard for what a library should offer. Such a standard includes materials somewhere near the national average of ten percent, capital reserves for investing in new computers, and unexpected personnel costs. Continue reading