For the month of July, I was an artist-in-residence at AS220, a non-profit art space located in the heart of downtown Providence, RI. The space is remarkable for numerous reasons: it began illegally almost 25 years ago, when some artists began squatting in a building downtown. Now, the project employs approximately 40 people, owning three buildings within a three block radius, integrating a performance space, two art galleries, a restaurant, a bar, a print shop (with offset, lithography, letterpress, etching and other printing technologies), a photo lab, an electronic lab (where one might build a robot, for instance) a youth program (where highschool kids take classes to learn photography, video design, recording technology, painting and creative writing) and artist live/work studios. People who live in the live/work studios pay less of a monthly rent in exchange for a certain number of weekly volunteer hours. They work the door during performances, clean windows and floors in addition to other types of assistance. The result of this infrastructure is that the defining bounds between what is commercial and what is not are porous. Furthermore each employee of the AS220 payroll receives the same salary, from the Founding Director, to Building Management to Assistant Directors, Grant Writers and Program Directors. One of the gems of this organization is its Youth Program located on the second floor of Empire Street. There, high school students come to develop portfolios. Under the guidance of teachers hired by AS220, these students learn to create their own video games, record their own music, take and develop photographs etc–developing a viable skill set while also learning in an environment of positive support. Because the mission of the organization is to create a platform for creative expression, it fiercely denounces its claim to curate and measure the work of its constituents. It is uncensored and unjuried. Anyone can have a show, you just have to sign up and (at the moment) signing up means waiting for four years.
While I have only scratched the surface of this place–I think it’s interesting to think about in response to “If I take care of you others will take care of me // If I take less others have more.” The organization seems based around the first principle: if we build a community in which people are cared for, they will in turn take care of others (with the implication that the “I” benefits from the happiness of others–because there is something held in common by all: i.e. we all live in Providence, how do we make it a more pleasant place to inhabit). Which, in this instance, goes against the second hypothesis, “If I take less other have more.” In this instance, building culture is not a zero-sum game. Instead by investing in this community, by accepting (for instance) grants and soliciting private investment, there is a gain that exceeds the sum of its parts. Downtown Providence, an allegedly seedy dive of a post-industrial town has improved drastically in the last ten years. AS220 provides a cultural center. Or, in another instance: their print shop is membership-run. Members pay dues to use the equipment. Like tenants, they also volunteer their time to monitor the space and get discounts on any classes they take. (Each of these labs also provides a variety of classes). The print shop works because of the many people involved: more members creates more resources that then benefit the whole.
I’m reminded of an anecdote someone told me once about Canada. (I always try to look this up, to see if it’s true, but my research has remained fruitless, though I love the story.) An old friend told me that in the early days of Canada’s western-immigration history, they had the barest infrastructure. It was basic and it might work in the long run, except they didn’t have enough people to ensure it’s ongoing stability. They needed more people to move there. The Canadian government printed pamphlets depicting the Okanogan in the summer time: beautiful rolling hills, ripe fruit trees, smiling apple pickers. They sent those flyers to London, where people embedded in a static class system might see them. Tempted by the fantasy of another future, Londoners abandoned their lives in the UK and ran into the arms of new promise. They arrived in Canada just before winter. They had nothing. The civilization they met was also under-built and there was little to spare these newcomers. Without resources or know-how, many of them dug holes in the ground to wait out winter. When they emerged, (this moment always astonishes my imagination: the dirt-ridden face emerging from the ground, born again and looking like a zombie in the first light of spring) they started building proper homes. While they must have suffered terribly for their ignorance, they managed to survive and contribute in such a way as to help others survive.
When I first got to Providence, they had a Print Shop Ice Cream Social–what apparently takes place on a monthly basis. There, I was given the opportunity to take the letter-press for a spin. The poster I printed (it was already set up and I’m not sure who designed it) read, “When given a chance humans will always build houses next to one another.” Which, I gather, is another way to think about what is gained from a group and how it relates to the currency of a single gesture–particularly when that gesture is made in some kind of infrastructural vacuum.
If you happen to be in Providence on Saturday, August 13th 2011 you should try checking out AS220s annual street festival, Foo Fest.