PHILADELPHIA — What’s the best way to engage a person in caring for someone different from him/herself? Is it better to take the wide approach and hope that something sticks, or to find a single, common experience and extrapolate from there? Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements is a two-city (Philly and Chicago), multiformat curatorial platform that takes up these questions, combining historical research, contemporary art, and community organizing. Building on a central inquiry — in the words of curator Daniel Tucker, “what does it mean to organize your own?” — the project explores themes of belonging and accountability within homogenous, rather than diverse, communities, in a way that feels surprisingly essential today. Looking 15 years into the future from 2001, when I was in the 11th grade, I would have predicted a less racially segregated America; instead, in odd and horrific ways, 2016 seems more divided than ever.
At the exhibition’s opening event, Tucker reminded us that we were engaging with “poetry and art,” rather than “an activist conference that may not be able to handle ambiguities.” In writing about this project, I think it’s important to state a few things about me and my own ambiguities. I am a half Black-Caribbean, half white Jewish native New Yorker whose father was involved with the radical left in the 1960s and early ’70s. I am also a human being living in contemporary race-fraught America. As such, I am invested in the issues and history embodied by Organize Your Own on a number of levels. I am also somewhat distanced from them: the movements in Chicago and Philadelphia are not mine to inherit, although Organize Your Own makes a heavy suggestion that we can all learn from them. I think of self-determination as a Black movement and ongoing practice. What does it mean when we address it in the context of whiteness, which is Tucker’s primary one?
I spent two days engaging with the project in Philly, taking in (more or less in this order) an exhibition, an evening of performance, a visit to an archive, and a panel discussion. The most striking work in the exhibition portion is a painting of a T-shirt by Robby Herbst. The shirt’s text reads, “I Used To Be A White American But I Gave It Up In The Interest Of Humanity.” This is a proposition that’s impossible almost to the point of offense. The belief that we can shed privilege simply by choice (or even by choice and action) is naïve and potentially harmful. But then again, what if it could be done? How would that relinquishing of privilege — and privilege based on phenotype — work? What would it look like? While I am not personally following this thought game to any conclusion, logical or illogical (simply put: I am not a white American), I think it might be one that other people are interested to play. I like the slightly crass hint that the only way we can relinquish privilege is as a trendy tagline and, for better or for worse, believe that may well be the case.
The exhibition also hosts more than a few didactic social practicisms, best exemplified by Rosten Woo’s extensive bulletin board that questions who “we” are and what “our own” is by asking audience members to place pushpins in the categories they most identify with. The opening was crowded and the room was small, so I gave up after picking three answers and dropping two additional pins on the floor. I think these kinds of self-organizing artworks can be helpful to some extent, but would like to see the results of such a quick survey work morph into something bigger — perhaps another, even more local take on Hans Haacke’s 2015 Venice Biennale investigation.
The conveyance of meaning through language is predicated on direct understanding. This works when organizing takes place on a micro level, where there are shared linguistic assumptions and cues. But it poses difficulties for broader, more heterogeneous organizing; collective action can actually serve to hide or obscure meaning. A Friday visit to the R.F. Kampfer Revolutionary Literature Archive — housed in the home of Bradley Duncan — was an amazing opportunity to learn about the codes embedded in certain turns of phrase in leftist materials. “On the National question,” according to Duncan, was coded language for discussions of racism and imperialism. Friday night’s panel made clear that, at least in Chicago’s organizing history, “rainbow coalition” was really a way of talking about class struggle. Watching organizing take place on the internet, particularly through Black Lives Matter, I’ve seen the way certain phrases (often hashtags) are either invented or acquire new meaning that’s secret but spreadable. We can use these terms as a way of loosely demonstrating which side we’re on. But I’m left wondering about the value of the smaller subsets of language that can still hold.
Occupy Wall Street is a good example of a contemporary movement that attempted to avoid divisive subsets of both people and language. The rhetorical success — and also the profound, underlying frustration — of OWS was that it allowed people to state their allegiance to a movement that had no specific demands. What are the ways we can come together that seem real yet flexible? How do we meet with “our own” in a way that leaves room for the needs of others, that even puts those needs potentially first? Is there something about art’s collaborative form, or its means of spreading, that we can learn from as we work towards racial equity?
Organize Your Own currently feels like an exercise in “more is more”: the more threads we are given to follow, the more likely it is that one of those threads will inspire each of us to start organizing for racial equity within our own communities, whatever they may be. How all of these things will hold together is a bit unclear to me. As to the puzzling over where the central question — “What does it mean to organize your own?” — ruptures or shifts, I think the production of any meaningful answers will require an extremely dedicated audience that already sees its engagement with the exhibit and programming as a form of organizing, or, perhaps, clap back. The two days I spent with Organize Your Own were a successful meta exercise: they provided a new “own” to organize with temporarily, and as a writer generally grounded in other forms of practice (art and pedagogy, primarily), I found it helpful to engage with a project where written documentation is not asked to provide critical closure, but rather to act as a live part of an ongoing work. In the end, I’m not necessarily the intended audience for this work, but I think that’s good. Perhaps the best way to get people to work towards difference is to throw them more heavily in contrast with themselves.
Organize Your Own continues at the Kelly Writers House (University of Pennsylvania, 3805 Locust Walk, Philadelphia) through February 17. The exhibition then travels to Chicago, where it will be on view at the Averill and Bernard Leviton Gallery (Columbia College Chicago, 619 S Wabash Avenue) from March 3 through April 9. Events continue throughout the year; check the website for details. For those who are remote, some aspects of the project will also take place online.
Editor’s note: The organizers of this event provided the writer with train fare and lodging.