Ownership: Omni Commons vis-à-vis The Lab (Part 1)
This is the first of two fishbowl conversations featuring members of The Lab and the Omni Oakland Commons and moderated by Open Space. This conversation, as part of our current issue, is centered around issues of ownership, loosely described. In particular, both organizations were asked to respond to the prompt: “How do your organizations’ working practices engage or reflect an ideology around what it is to own, or hold in common?”
A second conversation, to be held in January at the Omni Oakland Commons, will respond to concerns raised at this event. Please note that this is an edited transcript.
SUZANNE STEIN: Thanks, everyone, for coming to participate in this fishbowl conversation. The topic today is ownership, and perhaps more particularly, how can or does art complicate our notion of what it is to own, collect, or hold in common? We’re going to begin with a closed fishbowl, which means that for the first forty-five minutes, The Lab and the Omni are going to hash this topic out themselves. Gordon [Faylor, of Open Space] will lead with a question that will help them get started, we’ll all listen, and then we will open up the fishbowl and invite the rest of you to come in and participate.
Open Space is SFMOMA’s community-facing digital publication. One of our key aims is to find ways to support and empower artists and artist organizations to talk about issues that are critical to them and to the rest of us here in the Bay Area, and to broadcast these concerns through the Open Space platform.
As part of our newly expanded initiative to support organizations in the Bay Area, we are now focusing on at least two local cultural organizations each publishing season, and featuring them. The conversation today comes out of that initiative, along with our inquiry this fall into questions of ownership, loosely described.
DENA BEARD: Thanks so much, Suzanne and Gordon. It’s great to have the opportunity to come and talk about these issues. When you run organizations, or run a public-facing space, usually you put the content first, and the system kind of recedes to the background. Which is always a complicated position to be in, because so many systems these days recede to the background. And so the idea of forefronting the system itself is precisely, I think, what we’re here for.
My name is Dena Beard. I’m the director of The Lab, which you’re sitting in now. It was founded in 1984, by a group of artists from San Francisco State University, as a workshop, a theater, and an artists’ residency. It was really a space for emerging artists to come and display their work right after school, test those boundaries. It gradually became a mid-career space, where people could do group shows and show their work publicly, in a setting with their peers. It was very peer-to-peer oriented. It recently became a noise and experimental music venue. I took over The Lab about a year ago, after working for seven years at the Berkeley Art Museum.
DAVID KEENAN: My name is David Keenan. I am a member of the Omni. The Omni is a complicated organism: It’s a collective of collectives. So it’s only real representational dimension is through the practices of participating collectives. A lot of those collectives work in areas of cultural production and the arts, politics. And there are a lot of DIY spaces and resources for people to use on their own. The Omni also functions as an events space for those collectives and for members of the community. I’ll just say that, as someone who helped to conceive it, and helped to convince people it could be possible: this has been a project in which the ‘systems’ are deliberately in the forefront — very much so. We had to incant the idea of it, before we could do it. Then we needed to get the money together and to get the consensus and agreement and vision solidified.
It was a eight-month process, before we ever even walked into possession of the space. One aspect of this project is that it was considered from the start as something bigger than we could really handle. We intentionally said, “Hey, let’s try something at an economy of scale that’s biting off more than we can chew, just because we haven’t done that yet and it might be really fun.” [laughter] You know, like why not? Let’s just try it. What do we have to lose? And there’s a lot to say about that, but just a footnote to that: There’s a lot to lose. [laughter] You can end up with far less than what you started with, in many, many ways.
ALEX SIZEMORE-SMALE: I’m a member of Omni Commons, and some of the collectives that form it. The Omni Commons is a really beautiful space that I hold very dear to my heart. I have a bit of a different perspective than David because I became involved with the Omni after we had moved into the building [at 4799 Shattuck Ave. in Oakland]. The only things I would add is that we’re about two years old, and we grew out of the Occupy Oakland movement. One thing David mentioned that I’m sure we’ll explore more is that the Omni grew out of political values that were very conceptual, and which are the foundation of the practical systems we’ve created.
SADIE HARMON: I think the only thing I would add to is that the Omni is also an experiment in systems of social space. So not just systems of political space or physical space; it’s also creating a cultural space. Making all of those systems transparent has been a challenge and is as important to the project as making systems of organization and bureaucracy transparent.
CERE DAVIS: I came to be a part of the Omni in the beginning — but not quite as beginning as David — through Counter Culture Labs, which was one of the first member collectives that bought into the formation. It was interesting to me to see how the founding of The Omni happened, based on a lot of ideals which I agree with, but also a lot of assumptions that I don’t agree with.
GORDON FAYLOR: I’ll lead with a question that should feed in nicely to what several of you have been saying about systems at work: The Bay Area has long been known for radical political as well as aesthetic concerns. It seems apparent that both The Lab and Omni serve as contemporary social conduits and arbiters for the development and exploration of both of these histories. Since we’re talking about ownership, how or do your goals in this context relate to the day-to-day labors required to run your respective organizations? And if you would like, you can elaborate on the similarities and differences between your organizations.
SIZEMORE-SMALE: Last week Sadie and I were meeting at the Omni and we began talking about the building’s aesthetics. The building feels like it’s under continual construction. Sadie was talking about how the visual culture at the Omni is kind of uneasy — or not uneasy, but with a tendency to change rapidly. The physical space at the Omni seems to reflect the social and the political environment, which is something that spoke to me. I think the aesthetic of the physical space has a lot to do with the systems that surround it. Because it is a collectively run space. Probably one of the main differences between the Omni and The Lab is that we’re all volunteer run. We don’t have any employees. Everyone gives what they can when they can. And that creates a particular ebb and flow of work and movement and change. As the social space and the work happening there ebbs and flows, so does the visual culture, along with changes in the workspace.
BEARD: I made the decision to come over to The Lab from the museum environment precisely because I started taking a log of everything I was doing in a day—a five-minute to five-minute perspective. How much email was I going through, and was that email related to actual creative thought, or was it related to the day-to-day banalities? Of course, banalities are obviously a part of any job and they’re a part of maintaining any kind of organizational system of structure, but I began to realize that the institution itself depended on me to maintain its bureaucracy. It didn’t want me to maintain the integrity of the artwork or the idea or the concept; it wanted me to maintain the integrity of the institution.
In the modernist idea of verticality there’s an ideological profundity at the top of any institution. Modernist institutions were created to limit the sovereignty of the ruler, so that no one person could entirely determine our shared system of value. Instead, a bunch of interested people band together and create an institution that helps them ascribe value on the basis of some profound ideal. Everybody works towards that profound ideal, but there are limitations involved… You have to demonstrate a certain kind of expertise in order to get to the point of being able to make decisions about value.
So, our conception is still that institutions are vertical. They are hierarchically led. Yet, what feels falsely horizontal is the invisible system that we all actually work under, which is capitalism. Moreover, now it’s technocracy. Institutions are hiding behind the false democracy of audience data, touting crowd-sourced curating and the sheer volume of their output to pretend a sort of horizontality, to give the illusion that they are democratically run. And I realized that everything that I was doing was related to maintaining the technology of that system. It related to collecting data, creating data, feeding data into other systems. And that is completely antithetical to what I wanted the project of art to be and what I wanted my project in that overall schema to be. I’m saying, I’m going to take my day-to-day work and I’m going to try to make something of it that shows that art can create freedom in some way, that it can dismantle systems of perception, that it can enable something that’s not previously existing — yet, after looking over my day to day work at the museum I had to admit that I was case in point of why that sense of profundity doesn’t exist right now. So taking over a space that was $150,000 in debt seemed like a much better plan for some insane reason. [laughter]
As soon as I was free of it, I realized that that invisible system was managing not only my day-to-day activities while I was at work but also everything I was doing outside of work was also a part of my life as a bureaucrat. It was like I had this little sweatshop in my phone that was telling me what to do constantly. And it was taking over my value system. So that became very clear.
HARMON: The Omni occupies a vast potential space, and it always has to exist in one or more possible futures in order to bring people into it as a paradoxical, impossible project.. Maybe we could trace a lineage or a legacy with other radical spaces, some of which, particularly in the Bay Area, have become institutionalized or historicized to a certain degree. I think there’s always a feeling that the Omni has to do something different in order for it to unequivocally succeed, it has to create a new space that doesn’t yet exist, and we don’t know what it will be or what it looks like or how it’s sustained. That creates a space that’s alluring to enter into, but is also a space of constant potential failure. And it tends to absorb physical, emotional, and intellectual labor into itself and into its own potential; but then there’s always a sense that it’s generating more possibility.
KEENAN: There’s a lot in what everyone’s been saying. It’s really interesting to hear a lot of these issues discussed from the perspective of another organization. You know, the Omni is its own fishbowl. It’s like time stops when you’re in there, there’s so much work to do — whether you define it as work, whether you define it as an obligation, whether you define it as something fun or an aspect of volunteerism, throughout it all. I was thinking about what you were saying Dena about horizontality and verticality. The horizontality of the Omni is, in large part, rooted in a very overt, written down, basically moral politic value system, that only really exists in its truly pure state as an idea. Its embodiment and enactment isn’t completely there yet. For example, verticality, which I think we typically understand as being endemic to capitalist systems, is more intuitive for most of us to interact with than horizontality, in terms of: who gets to speak, who doesn’t; who gets to make decisions, who doesn’t; how you can together actually enact compromise.
In horizontality, sometimes there’s this sort of implicit idea that everyone’s voices have to be basically taken into account in whatever you are doing at Omni. And that process can be very difficult. So the value system—the raison d’être, really, of why Omni should be—is a blessing and a curse. Horizontalist values project everyone into sort of a future forward-facing mentality about where we’re trying to get to, as Sadie was saying. But the actual implementation of it in everyday practice — what are we actually doing when we’re actually there, and how are we doing those things — can be very difficult. And precisely because it’s difficult, you start thinking — I mean, I know I have — ”this is more work than my job”. Like, we want to create an anti-capitalist framework, but this feels more like ‘work’, thankless and so on, than my other work. Now why is that? These contradictions emerge.
You mentioned a technocracy. We have two hacker spaces: Counter Culture Labs and Sudo Room. The heterogeneity of organizations under one roof, insofar as they aspire to a lot of these same goals — especially, I guess, anarchist goals, anti-capitalist goals — they nonetheless exist in a state of tension about what aspects of our shared moral politic are the more valuable. And so we’ve definitely gone through periods of difficulty. Many times, I’ve heard, “What’s up with these technofetishists? They’re the problem. They’re the reason artists can’t live in the Bay Area, but here we are, giving them space?” But then on the flipside, it’s like, “Well, art is just essentially an arena for privilege. Who has time to make art? This is really just a kind of indulgence that really detracts from the political mission.” So in horizontality, those sorts of mutually contradicting critiques can come up every day in different ways. But actual collaboration means working with people that you don’t necessarily always agree with. That’s really what collaboration and commoning is, you know? And that’s sort of the experiment of the Omni. And it might not work.
BEARD: I think it’s interesting that you talk about this kind of collectivism as being a massive group. A massive group of people where everybody has ideas that conflict and create friction. What I’ve done with The Lab is the opposite. I’ve created a weird little autocracy. And I always say, “This is my desire, my decision. I am the one to blame.” The board is there too, of course. The board’s essential to keeping me in check and keeping the organization alive. Yet there’s a wild thing in taking on all that responsibility and taking on the bulk of the work: we have a mailing list of 5,000 people and a donor base of 1,200. And all of those people give their feedback to me. It’s difficult to be that person who’s constantly bouncing back the seventy-five emails per day. But that addressing of my own desires and being able to constantly face people, it’s like living under a democracy or whatever we want democracy to actually be. In all the talk of autocracy and hierarchy and pseudo-horizontalism and actual collectivism, I think democracy is really just that: the constant process of reconciling one’s own desires with other people’s desires. We are all trying to get that right.
And the one thing that it does come down to is accountability. We talked about this a lot with Libbie [Cohn, also a member of the Omni]. But accountability is everything when money is changing hands and when people’s lives are on the line. It’s saying, “I’m not just running an art space here; I’m creating a way for people to earn a living.” And to do that is to say that I want to give artists a living wage. What does that look like? In addition, accountability is also about giving artists time and space and resources and visibility outside of the Bay Area, and these are things that are missing currently. But in order for me to say I’m going to do that for you, that I’m going to spend seven months of my life working to earn that money to make this project happen, I have to believe that you do your work with dignity. You’re excellent. You have to be really excellent at your work. And you also have to renegotiate the institution, to renegotiate what I do and be able to reconcile my labor with your own.
DAVIS: I spent a year at the South Pole, living there with twenty-eight people, to see what a social experiment looked like when it’s completely encased, without any outside interference at all — no planes, no nothing. With the Omni, what attracted me to the idea was also Kumbaya, awesome, I’ll get to know people really well. In both cases, that really didn’t happen. Living with twenty-eight people for a year — it’s more like Lord of the Flies. I was really surprised by that. So what I found with the Omni was that people are really ideologically driven. And there’s just a lot to do. For whatever reason, I didn’t get a sense of relationship with other people, and that was what was ultimately going to motivate me to really put in the work. There was just so much infighting. So I’m curious, [in the case of The Lab], to what extent you feel like those relationships, those synergistic or codependent ones, really are the glue that keep things moving forward, you know?
BEARD: I have, I’d say, a group of really extraordinary people who I can bounce my ideas and my freak-out sessions [off of], who I can go to and I feel like they will give me an honest answer. They say, “Hey, this is probably not going to work. You’ll probably have to rethink this.” Or, “I really like this. This is great.” But when it comes down to it, it’s for me — it’s self-interested.
Maybe there is a distinction between making a political and social space, versus thinking of the project of art as really exhibiting and observing the activity of one’s own mind. The project of art is about saying, I’m going to sit here and look deeply at this strange thing. And in doing so, I’m going to be able to more clearly understand how I perceive things. It’s precisely what design and technology and capitalism don’t do. Design and technology and capitalism say, let’s blur it, let’s take aesthetic experience and make it more facile, more of an illusion that doesn’t call the system into question. Instead, looking at art is about being willing to make oneself uncomfortable, dismantling all the familiar parts of perception and saying, “I’m just going to look at how I actually think and how I see the world.” And in so doing, and in doing so constantly and consistently and thoughtfully, that’s when I’ll actually have access to my sense of agency, I’ll be able to break those systemic rules and be satisfied inside my own skin for small moments of time.
HARMON: We talk a lot about how frustrating the Omni can be, that you go into it with this idea of changing something concretely and seeing this change happen. A lot of people imagine creating a new system that actually functions in the world. I get really excited about being a part of the Omni when I think about it as a conceptual art project. Because of the way the space functions and the people within it, there are all sorts of weird, uncanny things that happen. And to me, that space is interesting, and is what makes me feel like it’s worth it to keep doing it, is just to see. We’re trying to erase all of this existing infrastructure and create something new. And there’s this constant renegotiation. So, we’ll create a system and then we’ll have to take it down. And we’ll get involved in [one kind of] work and then it won’t do what people want it to do. Through that process, the Omni becomes a kind of open vortex. Invisible systems are made visible because they’re constantly being renegotiated. Things are constantly appearing and disappearing within the community and within the space. If I thought about it in terms of what progress are we actually making, what changes can I actually see in the greater society because of the work we’re doing, I wouldn’t be able to do it.
SIZEMORE-SMALE: I also like to think of the Omni as a conceptual art experiment. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this, but I do. We’re redefining relationships and systems, and also redefining what accountability looks like. There’s something really beautiful about that. Especially since, you know, maybe we will make huge social changes in our community. But if it is happening, it’s going to happen really slowly, because that’s how systems change: slowly. Not always, but often.
HARMON: What’s interesting too is thinking about the ways that [the Omni] fails, and thinking about the ways that, when any individual enters into the project, their own ideas about what it should be and what needs to happen because of it end up — they end up witnessing the failure of that within the project, and if you want to continue working on the project, you have to be okay with that [failure]. Like, that has to be a part of your —
BEARD: Eliminate the armchair activists?
WOMAN: Yeah. [laughter]
KEENAN: I always considered a space for cultural production and art as a fundamental piece of the Omni’s really necessary ecosystem. Partly because I feel that art and the experience of art, the creative act, as engaged by the author and the person who goes to see it or hear it, opens up a space of possibility, you know? A project like the Omni can sometimes feel very deterministic in terms of its social and political goals, you know, that can feel constraining in some ways—in spite of all of its resources and things, like the printing presses, the 3-D printers, all of the amazing equipment that Counter Culture Labs has, and so on — precisely because, if you’re going towards a grand ideal and an objective, you’re also always kind of measuring yourself against that ideal. In our case, the ideal of a commons that’s super-fair, that’s anti-capitalist. But, art is something you should not have to think about what you’re ‘supposed’ to do, you know? And art doesn’t ‘have’ to be aligned with anything in particular. If you think about art, at least Art with a capital A, as an honorific term, that’s one of its social responsibilities. But in the context of the Omni, it’s fundamental, in my view, that there be this open space for possibility. Phenomenologically within the Omni, the organic solidarity of a group of people who can invoke the wide-open potentialities of art, is something that opens up a greater sense of possibility in many other endeavors going on there too, you know? That one can feel like it’s okay to speak, to contribute, to freely create, even if you don’t have an excessive literacy in any particular domain, whether that’s art-historical theory, or tech stuff, or operating a printing press.
BEARD: Yeah, and one thing I should clarify is I don’t do it alone. I ask for help seven times daily, you know? And it’s help from professionals — legal professionals, accountants, tax people — and also help from people who come to the events and I’m like, oh my God I haven’t set up all the chairs yet! I have a core group of volunteers that are absolutely essential: they help do lighting and sound, painting the walls or constructing these crazy sound clouds or ripping up the linoleum floor or pulling up the 40,000 staples that were in the linoleum floor. But art, you know, it always comes over those systems and stops them from working right, because that’s what art is supposed to do. It’s dismantling the systems that we adhere to. Anything that becomes familiar or too functional or not a part of our conscious lives is not a part of artistic activity. And so if art is doing its job it’s making that system slow down and stop working and hiccup a little bit and look at itself and be like, aah. So it’s crucial for me to say to everybody who’s working on these projects, yeah, it may fail. But hopefully it will fail as a result of great art rather than crappy systems, you know? If you’re trying to create something that works in some way, shape or form, it’s risky adding art into the mix, but it’s great.
DAVIS: The notion of safe space is interesting to me. That was discussed a lot in the context of Omni, more from a political perspective. There’s the interpersonal safe space, but then there’s the safe space to have your art not messed with by random people coming through and whatnot. And that changes the art considerably. That changes the space of potential ideas that you even dare to think about. So I don’t know, I just wanted to kind of throw that out there, because that’s such a huge, fundamental difference in what’s really driving things.
BEARD: Yeah, it’s hard. [The Lab] is still a pretty raw space, in the sense that there’s still work to be done. In some ways, art requires a neutral environment, because you’re trying to go in there and have this intensely focused experience, you’re trying to eradicate the noise that happens by seeing too many other things, and you really need space to hone in on what’s going on with yourself in front of that thing. But I don’t necessarily mind [the rawness]. I think artists are really good at negotiating the exhibition and distribution structures for their work. And if given the resources and the time they can figure it out. Something I was telling people when I first started going to the Omni is that the Omni’s building used to be owned by the Scavenger’s Protective Association, a group of radical garbage men who upcycled and recycled trash. The Scavengers inspired Bruce Conner to organize his group of artist friends into the Rat Bastards Protective Association. They said: we want to be affiliated with the street. We want all of our art to be seen as trash put up on the wall. Back then it was considered disgusting and aberrant and abject, but now it’s just part of the canon, and it fundamentally changed how we see art. The Scavengers were a huge inspiration for this group of artists in the Bay Area, who already considered themselves outsiders from the gallery scene of New York. So, yes, if we’re going to be a part of the system of the art world proper, there is a way of doing things. There’s a way of exhibiting, there’s a way of distributing your work. But if you’re not necessarily interested in that, if you’re speaking to a different audience or if you’re trying to function divergently by creating art projects within a space like the Omni, you’re going to have to renegotiate those rules of exhibition and distribution.
HARMON: Part of the promise and challenge of the Omni is its permeability. It’s a defined space, but it’s pretty open. The last thought I have in terms of ownership is that that ownership of the Omni is really flexible and really changes, but it’s not something that is owned by everybody. It’s really owned by the people who commit labor to it. And that is defined by the culture that’s created. So it ends up being a hypothetically permeable space, a space that’s hypothetically open to everyone, and then ends up being really defined. Its boundaries are defined by the culture that it’s creating.
This is the first half and “closed fishbowl” portion of the conversation held at The Lab. Next week, we’ll post the “open fishbowl” portion — which includes questions from members of the audience — along with a PDF and MP3 of the entire conversation.