THE DAY WILL COME WHEN WE WILL HAVE TO KNOW THE ANSWERS: May Letter from Literary Arts
I’m penning this letter on a hot day with morning sun, shag carpet, Beverly-Glenn Copeland singing in the background, hibiscus tea cooling on the stove, and peeking out the window at the dye plants on the patio–the Indigo particularly bushy and needing repotting. This letter, and these letters (will), emerge from the contexts in which I am working across various small towns, islands and rented apartments in BC over the next ten months, conducting research for the new position Literary Arts Coordinator at Oxygen Art Centre. This project emerged through a shared desire between myself and Julia to develop a publication that took up the ethos and aesthetic of counter-cultural publications of the late 1960s and 1970s, including the Whole Earth Catalogue, Mother Earth News, Radical Faerie Digest, the New Woman’s Survival Catalogue, and the many independently published broadsheets and newsletters of that era, each offering various survival skills and DIY resources for rural women, queers, homesteaders, and organic farmers. We also bring together our individual bodies of research–Julia’s studies in feminist practices of curation across rural locales, and my desire to excavate a personal history as the child of a back-to-the-lander and wannabe-organic-farmer father.
We conceptualized the project a number of months into the pandemic, a moment in which many communities were organizing towards a shared sense of survival across multiple crises. We wondered what a contemporary revival of counter-cultural publications might look like, what resources most urgently need textual distribution, what issues remain unchanged. Through the coalescence of our research questions, we are attempting to develop a publication that deepens our understanding of the counter-cultural revolution’s failures and takes up its potential points of renewal. SALT VERY IMPORTANT is one such research aspect of this project.
In developing a publishing project that draws on counter-cultural and revolutionary texts, we are asking the following questions, among many: Why did the dream of co-operative land ownership, Buddhist economics, free love, and agricultural freedom fail in the face of neo-liberal capitalism and the personal tech industry? Why was the emergence of a mass cultural turn towards anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anarchist/anti-government, and feminist practice depleted by the end of the 1970s? Because the Whole Earth Catalogue was considered a precursor to the internet, what is the connection between the digital utopianism of 1960s California hippies and the contemporary tech dystopia currently unfolding in Silicon Valley? How can we continue to learn from counter-cultural thinkers while remaining critical of the back-to-the-land movement’s whitewashed and colonial concept of a “return” to nature? How do we acknowledge and honour the back-to-the-land movement’s debts to activists organizing around mutual aid and anarchism? How does the ethos of counter-culture fit into contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter and Land Back? What are some alternative histories that can decentre whiteness from organic farming, communal living, and our relationship to the outdoors?
These aren’t rhetorical questions, as so often questions are when posed in the arts. This project will forge ahead to answer these questions through traditional archival research, alongside more material processes like conducting interviews, visiting gardens, farms, and compost centres, and maintaining the methodology of an eco-feminist practice (whatever that might look like to me these days; I’m thinking about my dye plants on the patio again). Through the coming months, I aim to develop infrastructure and resources for a long-term educational program and publication at Oxygen that picks up the threads of the counter-cultural vision within the context of contemporary anti-racist, decolonial, and feminist practices. This might include reading lists, an interview series, print and publishing workshops, as well as creating a publication by and for rural artists and writers across BC. These letters, too, act as a form of institutional transparency, as I describe the changes and malleability of this project over time. (The letters also borrow the title from Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letter #3, the line, “SALT VERY IMPORTANT,” and this month’s title from Revolutionary Letter #6, “None of us knows the answers, think about / these things. The day will come when we will have to know / the answers.” Published 1968).
Alongside this research aspect of this publishing project, I’m spending some time considering what the tasks of a Literary Arts Coordinator are within an artist-run-centre, and what they could be. To name a few possibilities I’ve noted over the last month: to create financial and community contingency for the current literary projects including the author reading series, and the publication of artist monographs and exhibition catalogues; to develop educational programming on print practices and publishing; to acquire a library of artist books and multiples, as well as texts and publications relevant to the centre’s programming. While it may not be me who develops these resources in their entirety at Oxygen, I’m planting the seeds here.
This month I split my time between researching grants to develop a publication and educational programming for the upcoming year, compiling a reading list that includes texts ranging from conceptual art, to climate change, to the tech industry, and attending workshops on farming and co-operative land ownership. I had a short visit with Garden Don’t Care at Unit 17 in Vancouver. I attended the virtual launch of the Centre for Sustainable Curation at Western University with a panel on Curating and Radical Pedagogy including panelists Christina Battle, Gabby Moser, Ryan Rice, Eugenia Kisin, Tania Willard and Christiana Abraham. I also attended the virtual panel Doing the Work: Art and Activism at McMaster University, which featured short talks by Syrus Marcus Ware, Jenna Reid, and Ravyn Wngz. I read Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval, Mooncalves by Victoria Hetherington, I revisited the Maintenance Art Manifesto by Mierle Ukeles Laderman, and the first issue of MICE Magazine on Invisible Labour.
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