Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Boston Collectivist Movement

I'm an artist living in Boston, Massachusetts. For the past four years, I've been lucky enough to work with some of this city's most brilliant creators. I've written books, performed poetry, recorded albums of folk and hip-hop, done Vaudeville, drag, and improv, modeled for photographers and painters, organized and/or performed in countless variety shows, and am now starring in a feature film I helped to write.

All of these projects fall under the misleading blanket term, "independent art." The irony is that so-called "independent art" is more dependent on (and integral to) its community than any mainstream media. Mainstream media is funded by independently wealthy institutions such as record labels or publishing houses. Independent art, or as we're calling it, Collectivist art, is sustained by its value within its community.

If you'd asked me fifteen years ago if I thought any of these projects would be possible without some serious mainstream financial backing, I would have answered with a gloomy laugh of resignation. But over the past fifteen years, the internet happened and the stock market crashed, and suddenly we're not so sure we need or want any big institutions telling us how we should and can make art. 

So we started making it any way we could. We connected with other people who were passionate and brilliant and crazy enough to stay up all night memorizing The Ballad of Reading Gaol or gluing glitter onto pig-masks or driving back from a show two states away when they had work the next morning. Everyone had day-jobs or were in grad school or were freelance web-developers or graphic designers or were on unemployment. We were all tired all the time, but we were making the art that we wanted to make, and slowly but surely, we were finding people who wanted to read/listen to/look at that art. 

Somewhere in our mid-twenties, or late-twenties, or early-thirties, we all realized that we needed to redefine what we meant by the word "success." When we thought success meant a million-dollar record deal and an episode of Cribs, we were miserable. When we decided success meant, "I create work I care about with people I love and respect, and it's routinely received by an audience that appreciates it," we realized we were the happiest people in the world. 

So we made. And we realized as we continued to connect with other crazy, brilliant creators that so much more was possible through working with one another than locking ourselves in our rooms watching Cribs and pounding out yet another solipsistic manifesto. I know nothing about photoshop, but Caleb does. Jojo plays the ukulele and draws Mucha-esque portraits. Michael and Sophia can write a theme song to anything, and they have a recording studio in their house. Eric can whip up a Mayan Doomsday mask on a moment's notice out of dental floss and old tires. Karin can play any character. Any. Character. If someone needs a snappy bit of dialogue or a pantoum based on Elton John's Rocketman, they call me.

Most of our work for each other is done for free, or for very little money. If we were making more money off our art, we would pay more, and on the rare, unpredictable occasions when one of our projects does turn out to be financially lucrative, we share the wealth as best we can.

But money is simply a useful cultural metaphor for value, and the value we derive from working with one another is not primarily financial. Again, it's the experience of creating work that moves us with people who share the same vision, and the luxury of being able to put that work into the world and watch it move others. 

Cooperative collaboration between artists is not a new phenomenon, but during the mid-to-late twentieth century, when hyper-consumerist capitalism was slapping its dick over everything in America, artists suddenly got the idea that in order to call themselves Artists, they needed to make a shit-ton of money off their art, like The Beatles or Andy Warhol. Making art without serious (and ultimately spurious) financial backing was considered futile at best and amateurish at worst, and this served to isolate and disempower unfunded artists. But the model of one-to-many wealth came crashing down with the one-to-many model of the media. The type of wealth and fame amassed by The Beatles and Andy Warhol was an anomalous symptom of the way media and money worked at that particular moment in history.

Kickstarter is a concomitant financial manifestation of community-driven Collectivist art. The modern Collectivist artist is not a gallon of homogenized, hormoned milk shipped from some distant factory farm. She is a juicy Heirloom tomato nestled in a CSA box. She takes on the flavor of the soil she grows in, and nourishes the community that planted and sustained her. 

The most interesting thing about the current highlighting of collaborative, community-supported art is it aligns with a shift away from faith in the notion of the individual author in a larger cultural context. With Wikipedia, blog sharing, Tumblr, and Facebook, the old belief that an individual could own their ideas is dissolving. We're seeing how interrelated, and interdependent, and derivative we really are. Unbound by of the shackles of "originality," we're free to simply create. 

I've been invited into this weird, wonderful world of Collectivist art where we don't focus on who wrote which part of what song or whose fishnets those are. We step in where we can contribute, and are happy to step back and watch when it serves the art. Our very identities are fluid and intentionally donned to fulfill certain roles within our artistic community. Sometimes it feels like we've all melted together and are each merely embodied aspects of the work. 

That's okay. Better, even. I started making art at six because I felt lonely and isolated in my skin. I would rather be a part of something bigger than me than be myself alone.


Unknown said...

so honoured to be in this list and as so described lady!

Unknown said...

(twas me! -jojo)