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26 August 2011

Snapshots from Denniston Hill: Research & Inspirations

Often the places one’s mind travels while in a certain place are more important than the place itself. What follows are some stray hints at the deliberate researches, happenstance investigations & random (mental) walks I’ve been taking while at Denniston Hill. (There have been random physical walks as well. Those are fun, too.) All of it circles around an unexpected intersection where art, capitalism, community and anarchy make contact.

Sometimes these astral journeys are triggered by something one comes across in the increasingly robust domain of digital life — such as this Paul Chan essay “The Unthinkable Community,” perhaps the only thing anyone‘s ever shared with me on Google+ that I’ve bothered to look at. Below, a picture from his production of Waiting for Godot mounted in New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina. An anecdote about Godot opens the essay, though it quickly evolves into a discussion of the weakness of digital bonds & the wonder of real ones, ergo this :

…what ultimately distinguishes community from society is the difference between imagining that reality can be transformed and realizing that it can only be managed… To rise above the ground, and stand with the strength of common purpose, gives the communal figure a definitive shape and enables the collective to remake existing politics so that it may serve a future life where substantive relations are the rule rather than the exception. The compearance of a real community expresses what actual society ought to be. In self-organizing, members strive to create a living model of genuine social difference. This is the utopian aspect of any collective enterprise that is truly collective, rather than merely managerial or commercial.

(FYI, the particular anyone that shared this essay with me, Sarah Hromack, has just published an interview with Chan which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.)

Other times, I find the triggers to my imagination have been less directed, though, more random — such as the effect of the daily paper. Running across a New York Times article on Andrew Moore’s photographs of ruins in contemporary Detroit, for example, I imagined America’s post-industrial, post-manufacturing cities as blank canvases for internet-connected artist communities of tomorrow via a process that proceeds roughly like so: (1) 20th century urbanity > (2) return to the rural > (2) 21st century urban commune. Through the medium of these pictures, the dream of what Chan calls a “living model of genuine social difference” — the “utopian aspect” — begins to flower & bloom & grow…quite literally.

This image comes to mind.

In case you couldn’t figure it out, that link points to a picture of Stage Two in the process I’ve outlined above, though further research into the goings on in Detroit also uncovered the existence of Trumbullplex — “Detroit’s sexiest anarchist collective.” Who needs dreams when reality can match it?

(More on that in a second…)

Maybe it was during this same session of newspaper digestion that I read a brief review of “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” a documentary about the studio German painter Anselm Kiefer started in the French countryside. Until a recent move to Paris, it was housed in a derelict silk factory and extended into the surrounding property which spread over 86 acres of the southern French town of Barjac. Here, my dream about Detroit was realized in a way closer to my true ideal than the case of Trumbullplex — 20th century manufacturing facility transformed into 21st century artist’s compound. No politics. Much fancy. Pure vision.

Lest you think all my idyllic notions are restricted to the world of art & the destruction of the old world order so that a reign of creative communities might arise, another periodical, The New Yorker, sent me into the world of commerce via their recent profile on hedge fund investor Ray Dalio.

How else might I have heard about Principles? A manifesto for living of sorts penned by Dalio, it can be downloaded in PDF form or, more entertainingly, torn apart for yucks. The latter link will only work if you feel like registering with but it’s worth the price of admission for their description of Dalio’s tract as the “most curious management document I have ever come across” and Dalio himself as “deluded, insensitive, emotionally illiterate, simplistic, breathtakingly smug, weird and plain wrong.”

That said, there’s often a great deal of fun to be had by skipping the commentary around a given work and heading straight to the batshit crazy source material. Here is an excerpt.

Weirdly my dreams of art & community were not half as whacked-out as Dalio’s essay. Could it be that capitalists dream bigger than artists do?

This led me deeper into thoughts on economic systems, and down the rabbit hole into the depths of anarcho-capitalism, a philosophy I’ve often said appeals to me, without knowing there was an actual theoretical framework that had been constructed around the phrase. Well, guess what, there’s not only a philosophy behind that hyphenate, if you dig not-so-deep into the internet you can find a flag and even this t-shirt.

I’ve spent a day or two reading up on the topic beyond that image search — from its expressions in Medieval Icelandic society, to the relatively recent coinage of the term by Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard, to its more troubling usage in the development of America’s Tea Party movement.

How does one get from simple anarchy to the libertarian philosophies of Tea Party “godfather” Ron Paul to the racist and homophobic newsletters allegedly written by Rothbard acolyte and Paul staff member Lew Rockwell? I am not sure. But I do know this is why politics always strike me as a slippery slope — why one must always be wary of ideologues who seek to disconnect political thought from daily experience — and why art is often my refuge, even if it’s not half as fantastical as the world of money & politics can sometimes be.

(Before you write-off artists as silly dreamers, compare the work of a hands-on sculptor or a painter or a musician to that of an economist or a politician or a stock broker. I dare you to prove that the work product of the latter professions are more real.)

In the end, I did find a subset of anarcho-capitalism known as voluntaryism to be rather appealing. Any school of thought which claims Gandhi and Thoreau as members couldn’t be too bad, could it? They have a nice logo too, maybe not worthy of a rock band but certainly appropriate for a collegiate football team. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any pictures of Rothbard wearing a voluntaryist t-shirt which would have tied all my researches into a neat little bow.

The last stop on our random walk, however, did just that, proving once and for all that the lines between (1) idealistic art projects, (2) capitalist fantasias, and (3) anarchist communities are thinner than any adherent to any of those three pillars of idealism would likely acknowledge. Can wide-ranging researches ever be tied into a neat little bow? In fact, this last stop on my astral journey did just that.

About a week ago, a friend emailed me an article about Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute from Details magazine of all places. Thiel is a 40something, gay Republican/libertarian entrepreneur & technology investor from San Francisco. (Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Details‘s target demographic.) He made his initial fortune as a founder of PayPal, a company created in part to tap an opportunity within the burgeoning internet economy, in part to pursue his ideological interest in creating a stateless monetary system. Though the capitalist rationales seemingly trumped his ideological urges when PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion, one wonders when reading up about his latest venture, a non-profit corporation intent on creating floating stateless cities.

Was PayPal just a way of financing this greater vision?

The Seasteading Institute’s executive director, by the way, is Patri Friedman, grandson of Milton Friedman, renown Nobel Prize winning economist and unofficial adviser to Ronald Reagan, the man who served as a beacon for supercharging libertarian thought in America. The organization’s goal is to create communities on oil rigs the ocean, far outpacing the communitarian ambitions of any artist community. Though not necessarily outpacing the capitalistic ambitions of individual artists. Ergo Jeff Koons’ fascination with neatly tied bows, a continuing fascination mind you:

And the astral traveler goes round and round. Which is what, finally, brings me to the ideas I’m developing here at Denniston Hill which — though less ambitious than planting a new community in the ocean & less lucrative than creating a multi-million dollar sculptural recreation of a baroque egg — may offer a path out of this circular perplex of art, anarchy & extreme capitalism.

But more on that later…

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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