Do It Ourselves: A Conversation at NeueHouse
Feb 27, 2018 10:44 am
On February 12, NeueHouse, New York, hosted a panel on “The Practical Precariat,” an article by Sean J Patrick Carney in our February issue discussing artists who respond to a lack of institutional support by building their own networks of mutual aid. Carney expanded on the themes of his article in a frank conversation about navigating the art world’s opaque and fragile economic systems. The panelists were Jaimie Warren, co-founder of the performance group Whoop Dee Doo and one of the artists discussed in Carney’s article; Christopher Udemezue, the artistic leader of House of Ladosha and RAGGA NYC, two collectives that make art and organize nightlife events; and Patton Hindle, director of arts at Kickstarter and co-owner of yours mine & ours gallery. We present an edited transcript of the event below.
SEAN J PATRICK CARNEY Thank you all for coming out. My piece started as an investigation into how artists have to navigate what is increasingly a gig economy as art institutions adopt increasing exploitative labor practices. As I started to interview the people I was interested in, I found that almost none of them attributed their success to individual ingenuity. Rather, they said they had a community who helped foster what they do. So the piece took a different angle. I’m happy with how it turned out because it celebrates artists who build communities and small-scale institutions. It’s not just doom and gloom. I’d like to start tonight’s conversation by asking what pushed you toward community organizing as opposed to going solo.
CHRISTOPHER UDEMEZUE When I saw Paris Is Burning , I realized I could have a gay mama. As an organizer and leader of House of Ladosha, the queer family was a beautiful form to use for my art and social life. I joined when it was very much a band of friends who played together. But I saw a potential to build a framework for us to support ourselves. RAGGA NYC is relatively new. I was seeing a lot of queer people and Caribbean people in New York, and realized that the overlap of those groups was a niche that wasn’t being tapped. It was an opportunity to make art and create celebratory spaces for my community.
JAIMIE WARREN Whoop Dee Doo started about eleven years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, as a way to bring together audiences and participants to create really wacky variety shows. Since I was a kid I’ve been organizing people, starting capture-the-flag games in the forest and making haunted houses. I was obsessed with public access television and terrible host personalities like Elvira, Gilbert Gottfried, and PeeWee Herman. Living in the Midwest, I had a very small but dedicated arts community that was insanely supportive. They wanted to help in every endeavor because they wanted fun things to happen. I really thrived there.
CARNEY Patton, you have a slightly different role, both as a director of arts at Kickstarter and as the co-founder and partner at yours mine & ours, a gallery on the Lower East Side. You have a different way of working with community.
PATTON HINDLE I tried to make art when I was younger and it stressed the fuck out of me. But I love to see other people doing it. My first job out of university was working at a gallery, and the first time I sold a piece of art was the best moment of my life. It directly impacted the artist’s ability to continue to make work. I see what we do at the gallery as our own creative endeavor. We work very collaboratively with the artists and have an open dialogue about what we show. And I was fortunate to come on at Kickstarter because the organization does the same thing: we get to say to an artist, “What’s the craziest idea that you have, and how can we make it happen?”
CARNEY Chris and Jaimie, you play a specific role in the communities you’re part of, as leaders and mentors. How did that come about?
UDEMEZUE I’ve become a leader by default. I get frustrated by a lack of leadership. But for me the best type of leadership is working side by side with everyone. A good leader isn’t necessarily telling people what to do but seeing potential in someone and supporting that part of them. Patton, I’m also inspired by watching the art process. The artists I work with, especially the younger ones, have great ideas but don’t always know how to execute them. I don’t necessarily know how to do it in my own work, but in my day job I work with communication as a designer, so I can help other people figure out how to present their ideas. That’s a type of mentorship. But most of my leadership is working side by side, and promoting #sisterhooding, because we’re all in this together. If anything, I’m the leader only because I sent a long-ass email while everyone else was at the club.
WARREN Similar to Chris, I’m the organizer. I put together all the information and get everyone in the right place at the right time. But what I’m still working on to this day is making projects be true collaborations, so each person involved feels ownership. Whether it’s an eight-year-old who has never picked up a paintbrush or an artist we’re flying in from another city or a senior in a community arts group, I want everyone feel like their voice is important. I’m also just a loud, screamy person who brings the energy. In the show, I’m usually dressed up as junk food, like a soda, while Matt Roche, my co-host, is a sleepy werewolf. It communicates the balance of our personalities. And the kids like it.
CARNEY Patton, I’d like to ask you about working with institutions, whether they are historically important institutions or young peer-network institutions. Ideas of authorship and agency can get a little messy. How do you manage expectations in those situations? How do you maintain transparency, and ensure that the gallery has autonomy without working in an exploitative way?
HINDLE It won’t be a surprise to anyone in this room that most galleries at the emerging to mid-level are broke. So it’s always an open question as to what we can do for artists and what we can contribute. Sometimes we find alternate solutions. One of my artists is launching a Kickstarter tomorrow for a show at my space, because we simply didn’t have the funds to realize it. There’s an expectation on the artist’s side that galleries have money no matter what scale they’re working on. We do have a responsibility to help—but we need to stay in business and stay open.
WARREN We thought about making Whoop Dee Doo a real nonprofit that gets grants, so it could be our salaried job. But it was such a soul-sucking experience for us that we almost stopped doing it completely. So we decided to keep it a labor of love. We put any funds we get for Whoop Dee Doo into the project.
CARNEY It’s easier to manage people’s expectations if you’re not collecting a salary, and you’re not using their labor to keep a job going. Chris, you operate in contexts other than the art world. When you’re organizing nightlife do you feel like you have a different sensitivity to the labor of people who are participating than a promoter, who might say something like, “It’s good exposure!”
UDEMEZUE My friends call it #communitybundle: “It’s good for exposure! It’s good for community! Girl power!” Fuck that, pay me. If you believe in a community, you should pay them. If you can’t pay them, then back out. I’ve pushed for the maximum amount of support from institutions, so I can distribute money fairly to any talent I’m working with. Nightlife is an alternative way of making money while expressing yourself creatively through your gender, music, talent. It’s also not taxed, which matters as an extra source of income in an expensive metropolitan area.
CARNEY Chris, you do commercial design work. Jaimie, you teach and do workshops, and Patton you obviously direct the arts department of Kickstarter. Can we talk about the spectrum of experiences you’ve had? I’ve told myself that having a full-time job is liberating because I can make stuff without worrying about getting paid for it. Other times I think I want to focus on my creative work and just live as cheaply as possible. But both suck. The only way that doesn’t suck is to have a trust fund. So how do you navigate that?
HINDLE I opened the gallery when I had a full time job. I was working at Artspace, and most of the staff got laid off around this time last year. If the gallery could pay for two full-time people, that would be great, but my partner is the primary presence in the gallery and he has to be taken care of. When I heard about the position at Kickstarter, I thought it was the perfect counterpart to what the gallery does: it’s about helping artists make what they want to make. It is a struggle to do two full-time jobs. But they’re both my passion, and I wouldn’t be doing them if I didn’t care about them.
UDEMEZUE I don’t know many visual artists who are just visual artists. It’s part of living in New York. It helps to have a manager—or at least someone who can send an intense email to an institution demanding immediate payment.
CARNEY You’ve all expressed that the people who surround you are integral to what you do. At the end of “The Practical Precariat” I write that it’s not do-it-yourself but do-it-ourselves. What are some alternative models or tactics that can make “the hustle” easier to deal with?
UDEMEZUE One thing I learned working on the House of Ladosha show at Bruce High Quality Foundation University in 2015 is that there are a lot of people who want to help. We put out an open call for volunteers. I was surprised by how many people responded. Like I said, it helps to have a manager, and often you can find that person in your community who is good at writing emails, who has a law degree.
HINDLE People always underestimate their community. When artists come to me to launch a Kickstarter or start a Drip they often say, “I don’t know who would back me.” But they’re surprised by the results. They find they have two hundred friends who are willing to give five to ten bucks to make it happen. It doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of work. Running a Kickstarter can be a full-time job for thirty days. In an ideal world we’d have more government funding, more patronage of the arts in large amounts. But we don’t. Trump’s budget was released earlier today. He proposed decreasing NEA funding from $150 million to $29 million, which effectively shuts it down.
WARREN I’m an atrocious businessperson. Working in the Midwest for so long where living was cheap, it never occurred to me to make art as something to sell. All Whoop Dee Doo shows are free. We don’t sell merchandise. We make things happen because we want to see them happen. I ran a gallery where we gave the artist 100% of the profits. Of course, it quickly shut down. For me it feels like I can’t make a business without losing integrity. But recently I had these photos I took for a shoot that didn’t end up in a magazine and a friend said I should sell them as a cheap little edition. I didn’t think anyone would buy them! But a bunch of people bought them at $100 each. Like you said, trust in your community.