September 21, 2010

Bohemia of Finances (pt. 2)

In “I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac,” Kathy Acker somewhat wryly describes the art world as “the bohemia of finances.” Still, questions of money and capital in the art world transpire. Occasionally during my tenure as blogger at OPEN SPACE, I will post discussions with local artists and curators about the economics of their practice. I recently posted a conversation with Jessica Silverman, and I’ll continue today with an email conversation with the trio behind The (New) Reading Series at 21 Grand, a performance series that occurs every third Sunday at 21 Grand gallery in Oakland.

Brandon Brown: I think a nice place to start, actually, is to ask you to describe your practice in the broadest terms for SFMOMA blog readers. That is, how does curatorial work relate to your work as writers, if it does? Also, if you feel comfortable sharing, could you describe in broad strokes the relation, if any, of your practice as writers and curators to the way you sustain yourself financially?

Erika Staiti: We approach curating the series with an attention to the environs and interactions almost as much as the readings themselves. Sometimes we’ll put two poets on the same bill that may seem like an odd pairing. We find that when we do, there are surprising resonances between the works of the two writers. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s pretty magical. I think of curating as a setting up of space in which any number of encounters can occur. This relates to my work in that I often write to create a space for my obsessions to enter. I think for me it’s largely about creating spaces.

Michael Nicoloff: At this point for me, writing and curating feel connected by their social nature. Lately I’ve been more into active collaboration, like with Bruised Dick, the chapbook Alli and I wrote, or in the audio work I’m doing, which works in part with recorded conversations, and so in that work, the content of the writing is dependent on social relationships. An active social scene becomes a vital part of my writing life.

For poets, the health of that social scene is directly dependent on the health of that scene’s various reading series. The job of a curator, then, becomes to put together events that are enriching because of the writers who read in [them] but also because of the interstitial social life [they allow]. I often think that that interstitial activity is the most important part of the series, because as I said, that’s so much of what feeds into my work, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.

Alli Warren: I’m also interested in fostering environments and socialities. Curating for me is not a matter of bringing in the biggest names or top sellers — it’s an extension of my poetics. For eight years, the series has been generously and productively passed from one curator to the next, and the energy is somewhat different with each iteration. My focus as a curator is to help create inspiring artistic and social experiences. What is produced across these environments — the work performers share, the creative connections sparked, and the immediate and ongoing conversations that emerge — necessarily weaves its way back into my writing work. It’s a satisfying loop.What is most certainly not related to my writing or curating practice is financial sustainability. I make no money writing and none curating. And neither does any other poet I know. I’m not sure how it works in the art world, but the utter lack of a poetry market makes things uncomplicated for me in that respect.

Charity Coleman and Ariel Goldberg; photo courtesy Alli Warren

BB: Zachary Royer Scholz has written about the Bay Area visual art community and “changing face of San Francisco’s Independent Art Spaces.” In that text, he suggests a tendency in the Bay Area towards independent venues for exhibiting art, including houses, public spaces, etc. Such activity, then, cultivates community, generates “social capital.” And yet these independent art spaces are also committed to generating literal money, for their own enterprise as well as for the artists whom they show.

In a discussion I had with him as part of this same series, he describes a condition in which curators in the visual art community participate in the primary art market in order to finance a kind of “community service” for the artists and patrons who aren’t strongly and actively engaged in the art market. If they do, how do any of these tropes make sense for the current state of Bay Area writing (and beyond Bay Area writing)?

MN: As Alli said, questions of money are often low on our list of concerns, and we don’t really have much choice in that. Our series can’t exist entirely outside a market economy (how many things can at this point in history?), but our payments to readers and to 21 Grand for providing us with a space are ultimately, beneath the surface of a market exchange, much more of a gift exchange, in which payment functions on a symbolic and social level. The exchange is more about resolidification of a social bond, a generating force of the social capital you speak of. The community service aspect, therefore, becomes the main thing we do, but we don’t really have the opportunity to participate in a larger primary market to finance that community service.

Part of me really likes the sort of freedom that comes with lower financial stakes. But there’s also part of me that wishes that we could step into a larger market to fund less market-established work, because it would signal that there was more cultural cachet surrounding experimental writing (a self-esteem boost), and more to the point, it would also allow us to take on more cash-heavy projects that we can’t do otherwise. We have been lucky enough to be accepted into Intersection for the Arts’s Incubator program, which gives us the opportunity to apply for grants and not be immediately disqualified given our lack of 501(c)(3) status. But even with that greater access to potential funders, we still face a pretty small bag of money that people in this country want to put towards experimental poetry. We’re back to the model you speak of not applying. But in any case, a greater market presence would bring its own significant stresses and constraints, as we’ve said. So it’s a mix of feelings: ultimately, I both love and don’t love the economic-cultural position we occupy.

ES: Ambivalence here, too. On the one hand, I feel relief that we can survive without having to make a profit. But I also feel frustration when I realize we can’t pull off everything we’d like to without an real income. I enjoy working with these conflicting feelings, though. We work really hard to take whatever risks we can with our limited access to funds. The risks require a lot of hard work and imagination. Sometimes we fail, which is OK with me. I think it’s crucial for us to be aware of what is happening in the events that surround ours — from the universities that bring writers to the Bay Area from afar, to the various house reading series that feature local talent, and everything in between. I think about how our series fits into the larger scope, what we can offer that other series can’t, how we can further strengthen the overall atmosphere of the Bay Area writing scene (the one that I/we participate in) — basically understanding that this series is a part of a larger network. I hope that where we fail, another series succeeds, and vice versa. If we had an indispensable amount of money I suppose we could not concern ourselves with these questions, but working as a monolith in a vacuum seems utterly uninteresting to me.

AW: Again and again it becomes clear that the “art market” and poetry communities operate in very different realms. Whether or not one believes in using the primary art market to fund independent spaces/communities, whether that is politically desirable, the stakes of this debate aren’t even an option for poetry. There is no primary poetry market from which one might draw capital — aside from the institutional organizations that Erika and Michael mention, and I’d hardly call that capital. No one’s throwing boatloads at poetry performances because there’s no profit to be made there. Personally, I’m glad to be free from the tyranny of owners, funders, patrons, and customers in my poetry life — I want to concentrate on poetics and community-building.

MN: If anything, we’re mostly just beholden to each other, and that means we end up with all the negative gossip and in-fighting that comes along with the positive aspects of community-building. But the capital that’s argued over is, if anything, social capital rather than monetary capital, whereas the art world — correct me if I’m wrong — is forced to argue over both, and deal with the ways that those two forms of capital in turn interact (or battle) with each other.

AW: Yeah, social capital’s pretty messy, too!

BB: To depart from the theoretical, in August you organized a cabaret show that doubled as a fund-raiser for the series. While the series most often invites writers, or those for whom writing is their primary practice, this event was marked by the participation of many people associated with the worlds of visual art and performance (Margaret Tedesco, Karla Milosevich, Ariel Goldberg). Were any of the conflicts and dissonances you mention above activated and/or challenged by the experience? Would you do it again? What potential do you think of vis-à-vis such collaborations in the future?

Lara Durback and Erin Morrill; photo courtesy Alli Warren

AW: I was happy to invite visual artists and performers to participate in the cabaret, and those performers we invited seem to me to be already very much intertwined in the Bay Area poetry community we traffic in. There’s an ongoing dialogue there, and the cabaret gave us a chance to highlight that fruitful exchange. I didn’t experience any conflict. I think we were all working under the assumption that the series has a budget of almost-zero and that this event, as a fund-raiser, would not involve any proceeds for the artists. I’m not sure what the set of assumptions are for artists when they agree to show their work in a gallery, or give a performance at a museum, but in this case the performers were engaging in poetry-market terms, that is, under the assumption that they would be giving away it away, whatever that “it” may be, for free.

ES: The history of Poets Theater, spanning generations and geographies, has a strong presence in the Bay Area, primarily due to Small Press Traffic’s Poets Theater events that have been taking place every January for a decade. I didn’t consciously consider this when we organized the cabaret, but in retrospect, I think I wanted to avoid an event too similar to Poets Theater. Those events are great fun, but they already happen. I think we all wanted to offer a night of performance that was refreshingly different from what we see every year. Exclusively inviting poets would have veered too close to that territory. I wanted to get new ideas from what artists in other genres had to offer, and I hope these artists got new ideas from being there. Like Alli says, we specifically invited performers that intersect with our world to varying degrees. Hopefully the cabaret made evident the shared aesthetics between different artists at work in the Bay Area. In our regular series, we occasionally invite other performers, like in March we had New York dancer Sally Silvers. I expect that we’ll continue to invite artists of all kinds when we can. We don’t have anyone telling us what to do (besides each other), so if we can push the fold, shift expectations of what a reading series is supposed to do, and interface various forms of expressions with one another, why wouldn’t we do that?

MN: It’s the old punk utopia thing about “scene unity,” I guess — I know that I’d love to invite more folks working in other genres to read, perform, collaborate, etc., and in turn to have them see what poets are doing and hopefully extend invitations to us. But scene unity isn’t really a workable goal at this point (in the Bay Area, at least), which has a lot to do with time constraints — there are so many things going on within one’s own scene here, and there are so many other life responsibilities to attend to, that branching out can become a challenge.

Still, even within the limitations of time and money, there’s plenty that can be done, and like Erika says, pushing against the boundaries of what a reading series can do or who it can host becomes an important part of our curatorial mindset. I suppose if we started inviting nonpoets every month we might get complaints that the series is no longer serving its primary purpose as a venue for experimental writing, but I’d rather be more forward-looking in our curatorial choices and then have to rein ourselves in than be too conservative and insular.

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